Express your heart: Taking a Leap with Katiana Rangel

“New York reflects a lot of my beliefs. What I feel I am happy with. People from all over the world come here to express their heart. There is a space for that here. They can produce artwork that is transforming the world.” After a visit to dear friends of hers, Katiana Rangel was about to fly back to Brazil. But, that very day, an interview led not just to one, but two jobs in experimental theatre. She changed the status of her visa and stayed.

Katiana grew up in a small town in Brazil, called Potirendaba in the state of São Paulo. About six hours drive inland from the ocean, she lived with her parents and one sister till she was sixteen. Her father remarried and had a son, her brother, but by then she already was no longer living at home. 

She tells how her parents did not have much money, yet privileged education and did everything in order for Katiana to stay in private school. “If you want to get into good public colleges, that is almost necessary. It is very unlikely to make it into a public university by going to one of the public schools.” 

Katiana always loved studying and found her way into the college Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP) in São Paulo City for an Arts program, including theater, music and teaching. In her home country she was translating theatre-work from English to Portuguese. It is there that she met the friends who are working in the field of theatre and would eventually visit in New York. 

Though she had the strong aspiration to, one day, maybe live in that city she could not imagine finding herself working there directly after visiting her friends in New York. Put aside, finding a job in the area she was already working in and loves – experimental theatre – with an international company! 

“In Brazil artists are not as free to express themselves as in New York.” Katiana stresses that this is unique to the city. “New York is not the United States. It is very different.” Though there are other places in the United States, like Seattle, that have more creative freedom, she feels a large part of the country is more like Brazil. 

It is also for the freedom to express their heart that many people, from the States and other parts of the entire world, come to this city. Seeing this diversity on the streets is part of what makes her feel very happy living there. 

Katiana shared during our interview how she could not go out as much as she would like due to the covid-19 pandemic. Yet, she continued to feel this unique character of New York. And it was also in this city that Buddhism would, once more, cross her path. After putting it aside the first time Buddhism had her interest, this time she decided to leap into it. 

Why (and when) did you take the leap onto a buddhist path?
There was kind of a moment in my life, when I was 17 years old, that I started meditating and was very interested in Buddhism. Until I read in a book, which I got from a library or at a bookstore, about devotion. When that happened, I quit it all. Meditation. The book. Buddhism.  

Then, fast forward to my late 20’s or early 30’s – already being in New York – I was suffering a lot. My suffering was, basically, because of difficult emotions. Being a sensitive person who is touched strongly by things happening in the world, I got to the point that I felt: ‘Maybe this world is nothing for me. It is too much. Too difficult.’ 

I was thinking about not being here anymore. It was extremely painful. Even though I did not do any attempt against my own life, I had serious questions: ‘Why are we here? What is this? What is happening in the world? Look at how much cruelty and difficult things we can have. I don’t understand and I don’t want to be part of this.’ 

Then there was Bob Feldman, a saxophone player from the Bronx that was born Jewish and became a Buddhist. He was a student of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and a practitioner, a meditator. He became my best friend. I worked in his neighborhood and we had several coffees at a little pie company in-between our buildings. 

We talked about life and art. He was also an actor at the company I translated for, before I came to New York City. We were all working together. We were always talking in my breaks. He was a very devoted practitioner in music and did the same thing with meditation. ‘I know about the importance of practice, so I just do it. Regardless of the result.’ 

We talked and talked. He could really understand me – he could understand my heart deeply. After expressing my feelings about this world, he gave me a book for my birthday: When things fall apart. I told him I could not go out anymore and pretend all those horrible things are not happening. He said: ‘Yeah.’ Most of his friends were dead. Many of them were murdered, most of them black and from the Bronx. 

I found someone I connected with and I trusted him. He invited me to go to a weekend retreat and just learn to meditate. This was at Shambhala. I did. I could only go to the talk on Friday night. I meditated for the first time. 

I laughed a lot without moving. I realised there were so many funny things in my mind, whereas I thought I was a dark somber person. I was actually really funny. There was a lot of humor and positivity in everything, including myself. 

That little session of meditation, that night. Something happened and all my work that weekend got cancelled. So, I ended up doing the whole retreat and never stopped. This was May 1st, 2015. That was the leap. 

From there it went very fast, because I saw the actual result of it in my life. Also, I learned from Pema Chödron, that I was making other people suffer. It was not just me suffering, my suffering also made others suffer. When I realised that, I decided I wanted to support and help people. I did not want to make them suffer. I knew how it was to suffer. It never occured to me that my suffering causes the suffering of others. Until the point that I read about it and reflected on it. I started to call people and apologize, especially those closest to me. 

You mentioned the difficult emotions that you encountered in these events with Bob Feldman and everything between then and now. Somehow you must have discovered that meditation helped you to deal with those emotions. How did it help you with that?
It helped with little things. First, while I was meditating. Because I could watch my mind as if I was watching TV and see all the things going on there. How fast it moved from one thing to the other. So fast, I could not keep track of it. I had a lot of anxiety. So, I was like: ‘Oh, that is where anxiety is coming from.’ There was no break. No space. 

It also helped with other little things. For example, when someone bumps into me. Before meditating I became very upset with that: ‘Why are people not seeing others, how can they walk in the world like this?’ Not realising that I probably bumped into others as well.

So, I started to watch myself more, noticed it was not a big deal and could wish the other person something good. Not be like ‘me, and my arm’. I could let that go. Or even: ‘Does this person need something? Can I give this person my seat?’ I always did that, but not with this awareness. I saw my mind when I was meditating and when I went into the world I saw my mind reacting. I was like: ‘This is a reaction, I don’t need to engage in this.’ 

Soon after I started meditating, months or even weeks, I started noticing the result in the little things. I could not go into the deep difficult pain, crises and emotions – yet. I knew that. ‘I can’t go there.’ But I could totally deal with the little things – let things go and be way more happy & flexible in my daily life. 

Because you somehow recognized that you could observe those difficult emotions and don’t need to be swept away by them? 
Yes. It is also opening your view to others around you. I think I felt so much pain, so much anxiety, that I did not realise what was happening around me. I was very selfish in that sense. Not that I wanted to, but I just blocked things. Now I could see things were okay with myself. In fact, I started to wonder and ask whether the other was okay. ‘Are you okay, do you need anything?’ It was a way more gentle approach, myself included. 

Offering timeless wisdom and boundless compassion

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Apparently meditation also means that you see similar processes in others and therefore wish them to be free from the suffering you know yourself? 
Yeah. Many times realising that people might be suffering even more, or that we can not measure suffering. And I could not imagine what was going on in the minds of other people. I already hardly knew what was going on in my mind! For example, when I was sitting in the subway with what I was feeling and thinking. Then I started to imagine what people could possibly be feeling and wished them to be happy. To be free from fear. 

Also, I think in the same book of Pema Chödron, I read about Tonglen. Which is a practice of sending and taking. A very weird thing to hear the first time, because you always try to get rid of ‘bad things’ and get ‘good things’ for yourself. But then, all of a sudden, you experience something on the spot in taking things that are ‘negative’ or ‘difficult’ from people and offering them ‘positive’ and ‘good’ in return.

I had a lot of opportunities to do this practice with Bob because he got cancer. I did tonglen a lot. Everyday, at night. I imagined him breathing well. Playing the saxophone. I imagined him to be free from this cancer and take all his pain. He was my best friend, he gave me so many beautiful gifts. 

I remember having the thought: ‘Am I actually taking his cancer? Well, if he is free from it, I am okay with that.’ I had that thought, at least a second. Though I did not know whether I would really be okay with that because I did not have that experience. Nonetheless, I remember that thought was really strong for me. That was how much I wanted to free him from suffering. All this came from this first book he gave me and many talks with him. 

Why (and when) did you take the leap into a buddhist path?
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How is this practice of tonglen transformative? 
For me, in my experience, it is about seeing how much I want to help. I always felt this, already as a child. I was very sensitive. For example, not wanting dogs that were crying to suffer. And I did not want any kid to go through difficulties, something I witnessed a lot in Brazil. ‘I am fine, why can’t they be fine?’ I was not rich at all, more the opposite during my early years, but I always felt that. 

Tonglen brought this back, or brought awareness to what was always there: I want to help. I want things to be better. ‘What is the problem? How can I help if I don’t know what the problem is?’ That awareness. 

It made me also work with fear of getting difficult things. Tonglen has two ways, from my experience and what I understood from it. There is a way that you do it on the spot. For example, when I see a video of a dog suffering, I wish that dog to be free from suffering. Or when I see street cats in the streets of Brooklyn – I do the same. I also give the cats food, but ultimately want them to be free from suffering. I know I can not take them all home. I take their fear and hunger on the spot, and wish them to be able to do all the things cats like to do and be happy. 

The other way of practicing tonglen is doing it step-by-step. First for yourself. You take the difficult things and give yourself beautiful things. Then you expand to someone you dearly love, followed by a neutral person, a neighbour or someone you don’t really talk to. In the beginning they say to do just this, take their suffering and give them happiness. Before you move on to people that you experience as difficult. 

In doing this, I saw that people difficult to me were difficult for me because they had similar emotions. I saw their reaction and mine, and realised we are not that different. And working with fear. For example, when I practice removing jealousy from someone. I realise that I am getting the jealousy. We are not keeping it in this practice, but I could feel how this person might be feeling like. 

What did this mean when relating to Bob his situation?
I definitely wanted Bob not to feel pain. I also had a very selfish agenda, because he was my best friend. I wanted him longer on earth, close to me. I even told him that, at certain times, it was difficult for me to see him losing his abilities and losing my best friend. That I did not know how to go on without him. I learned to be okay in this world because of him. 

Sometimes, when somebody is that sick, someone who is on the path of leaving this world, the only thing you can do is offer good things. You offer whatever you can. Wishing that person to be free from this suffering. 

Was there more than meditation that helped to deal with both the little and big difficult things in life? 
The retreat and the teachings at Shambhala – though I never became a member – helped me. We would often talk about our habitual patterns in a funny way. Everyone would laugh about themselves. Talking about living a peaceful life and at the same time wanting to throw your computer to the floor when it was not working. Things like that. It was kind of interesting to hear those things. 

However, in the beginning I learned practices and teachings from books. Very soon, after that, I went to a talk with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche about compassion. That was a whole other level of a leap.

The practice that really helped me was actually shamatha meditation. This is what I learned at Shambhala and did everyday at home. I made a commitment at the time to do that, every day, for the rest of my life. The teachings are very simple: it is like brushing your teeth. If you don’t brush your teeth for three days it is kind of yakky. In the same way, meditation will not do much if you only do it once. When I understood that, I thought: ‘Okay, I am going to do this.’ 

What in those books spoke to you that was transformative?
A turning point, for sure, was where the book When things fall apart talks about, when we are in pain, we are causing pain to others. That was the main thing to me. That made a huge difference. That day, I thought, ‘I am not only sick of feeling like this, I cause people to feel like this or worse.’ I never wanted to do that again and decided: ‘I am going to do everything I can in my life to change the patterns that I have that cause people to feel like this.’ Because I love them and never want to hurt them. I never had the intention to hurt them, but I did and I do hurt them. Because I can’t work with my own emotions. Because I can’t control my own reactions. So, realising that those difficult emotions are causing me so much trouble. 

So, what happened in the meeting with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and his talk about compassion – which possibly sparked moving into Nalandabodhi as well?
At the time, I did not know what it meant to have a teacher. In fact, I did not like that idea at all. I also did not want to be a buddhist. I did not want to be involved with any ‘religion.’ I still kind of prefer to call Buddhism an inner science of mind. Just because of all the weight on the word ‘religion.’ That is a very loaded word. Science also, but if we use ‘inner’ – I made peace with that. 

I went to this talk. Again, because Bob invited me. He was doing the sound for it and was a member of Nalandabodhi for years. It was here in New York. I came late because I was working and found the last seat that Bob got for me. They were not expecting that many people. This was a great problem to have, but I was in the last seat and I was not here for that long. My English was not that good to understand people with different accents and Rinpoche has his own accent. 

I missed a lot of the talk, but I also got a lot from it. I thought everything he said about compassion was great. I always connected with the word ‘compassion’ and was happy to hear about it. But I also had suffered several situations of abuse in my personal life and work life in Brazil. So, I was just thinking about that. 

Then Bob came to me at the end of the talk and checked whether I wanted to ask a question. He introduced me to Rinpoche, who was just talking with other people. I did not know the meaning of ‘Rinpoche’ at the time. I just thought he was a guy, a professor or something, from another country, giving a talk. I said: ‘Thank you for your talk, that was great. I really connected with what you said about compassion. But, how do you differentiate between being compassionate and being taken advantage of?’ 

Then he did something like this (looking up to the sky with a finger touching her chin) and answered – something completely unexpected and which blew my mind. He told me I was not the same person and did not need to worry about that anymore. 

I thought at a very superficial level that was a very interesting answer. Because: how did he know, first of all, what I was before and what I am now. Then, I thought: we are never the same person, every moment is different. Thought about that for a while and concluded: ‘I get it’. 

Later on, Bob asked me: ‘How was it?’ And I said: ‘He nailed it.’ He said: ‘That is what he does. He nails it.’ Later I was like: ‘That guy that gave the talk, he really got me.’ I realised that all my problems were coming from me reproducing the fear of living now in situations like those of the past. All the situations where I live in now are very safe. I am very grateful for them, and the people in my life are amazing. But I am always afraid they might do to me what happened in the past. I guess I can let go of that. I realized that things are different now. I am different now. The situation is different now. 

So, having someone talking to me in such a beautiful, simple and personal way, changed things for me. I thought: ‘Well, I don’t know what this business of having a teacher is, but if I ever want one, I guess I already have.’ 

I asked Bob, after reading about having a teacher, how he found out Rinpoche was his teacher. He said: ‘I was playing saxophone one day. He came and watched me. Then, when I was done, he said: Dharma-music. I was just playing jazz. So, if he called that Dharma-music I guess this guy is my teacher.’ 

I think I felt the same way, he pointed out something that was very important to me. That connected to my personal and professional life in theater without me even mentioning them. I thought that was something like magic. 

At which point came the Nalandabodhi-sangha into play in this story?
I did go to Nalandabodhi New York a few times with Bob and a few times by myself. I did not know there was something like membership. I did not know what that was. I saw a teaching of Acharya Lhakpa in New York that I really loved. I did have a feeling of love for people in the monastery upstate New York, that includes Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s mother. 

I went to that monastery. Again, because Bob told me. I went to visit and asked for meditation instruction. I said I was having a hard time, and a monk gave me an instruction way more open than I had experienced before. I was like: ‘Oh, because of the breath,…’ To which he said: ‘You don’t necessarily need the breath.’ To which I responded: ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, you don’t need to look at anything.’ It was very open. I liked that. I had a feeling of sangha with them, a feeling of support, at that place. 

The first time it was Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s 92nd birthday. I just came there while there was a big party. People were giving me cakes and stuff. I was like: ‘I don’t have money. They are going to ask me to pay.’ It was all free. I was very surprised that people nowadays could give something to you like that. That warmed my heart. 

The Nalandabodhi Sangha came into play, I think, when I went to Chicago to ask Rinpoche to be a student. I rode with someone close and dear to me. I went there with the goal to ask Rinpoche to be my teacher, and I was really scared of him saying no. While at the same time. knowing that if he did that, it would be the best thing for me. But luckily he said yes, and I met Damayonti. A month later I emailed her and she told me: ‘Mail me your skills.’ I emailed a few things about myself. A month later I had an interview for the position of manager at Nalanda West, moving my life to Seattle and changing my whole life – which was never the same since. Better, and challenging in many ways. 

What happened with your resistance to devotion? 
(Laughing). I guess it is not a problem anymore. I guess I could not hear about devotion. Devotion is something you experience. You can not just say: ‘Do this and you are going to have devotion.’ That does not happen. At least, it did not happen for me. 

My experience when I read about it, when I was 17, going to college, I only wanted to know about things you could study. Things that I can master. I was interested in philosophical things, reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I was just interested in more philosophical aspects, not into anything beyond that. I did not think there was anything beyond that, maybe. 

At some point, I think, I just started to feel things. Something really strongly in my heart. This is the right thing to do for me now. I can not necessarily explain it. I allowed that to happen. It felt good, though not always. There was a lot of fear, but I definitely felt it to be my path and I just needed to continue walking. I definitely felt very close with Rinpoche, I felt his kindness very strongly. 

Maybe it is hard to put devotion into words. Nonetheless, can you say a little bit more about what ‘devotion’ is and, especially, the role of devotion on a buddhist path? 
I can only answer from my own experience, it is not the right answer. For me, devotion made me connect with something that is way beyond my intellectual mind can comprehend. It is very beautiful. It is just like love. That is how it is for me. There is no way to explain. There is just something really important – from the heart. You connect with something that is beyond the intellectual mind. I think that is my answer. 

I think that it is very important on a path because we are not trying to get smarter, more learned, for its own sake. That is something Rinpoche told me too during the interview in which I asked to become his student. I came for the interview with several books to show him all I was reading. He was very kind, saying how great that was and made some comments about the books. 

Then, he said, in a very kind way: ‘We should get knowledge not just to get knowledge, but to be liberated from suffering and to liberate others from suffering.’ I think the path of devotion connects with the direction of the heart of really wanting to change the world. I always felt that. I always felt I could not even explain how strong it is for me. If I actually say what I want with this, it feels very arrogant. 

But then, I thought, as an aspiration: only when everyone is free from suffering. When I saw that this was the bodhisattva path, I thought: ‘I have no idea what that is or how that feels, but I get it. This sounds good. Not just me. Everyone.’ So, I keep helping. And I need so much help, and there are people helping me. What else to do, then help? 

Seeing someone doing that for me, they are clearly wise or realised or whatever word you want to say. You can see that they respond in a very kind way, to deal with whatever comes. Always with a frame of mind of helping, not getting something for themselves. When I saw that, I felt the aspiration: I want to do that, I want to be like that, I want to feel that. As I always wanted, but in a completely lost way. To the point of, ‘this is too much.’ 

This feeling of the world being ‘too much’ came up earlier as part of deep feelings you could not touch yet. To what extent has being on a buddhist path helped you to approach this nowadays? 
That is where I am right now, I guess. Precisely working with those way more difficult things. It is very scary sometimes, but also great when you make a tiny opening. It feels so great, when a difficult situation presents itself in front of me and I have a completely different reaction to it than I used to have. A reaction that is way more beneficial to myself and others. 

Far from being good and perfect, you know. But, I know how far it is from where I started. I have no idea how far I have to go, but I have an idea from how far I came. Right now, I work with that.

To say it in a few words, basically, I am working with attachment. Working with how I want things to be. That is why the world was so difficult. I figured it out. I wanted it to be in a certain way. And I did not want it to be any other way. I wanted people to be in a certain way. I did not want them to be any other way. Regardless of making them happier or sad, it made my agenda okay. So that is how it had to be. This included good things as well. But I just did not consider all the causes and conditions.

Now I just look at how things are and let them touch my heart. I just look at what is happening in the world right now. Some things I can’t take, but I still look. I still want to free everyone, even more nowadays. Starting with myself, my shortcomings, which make other people suffer. That is what I am working on. 

Of course, for sure, with the closest people in your life. Like your mother. You can see: ‘This is not it. Okay, there is a better way to talk to her.’ I love her so deeply and I know her love for me is endless, but I still have to find a better way. A kinder way. 

Starting with things like that. The closer things get to you, the more attached I feel I get, the more it is oriented towards my agenda, that is where I have to drop it. Any concept of what the world expects from me, any expectation from others. ‘Is this good for them?’ That is my question usually now. I am asking myself: ‘Is this good for you, is this good for other people in your life?’ The things I need to change are in here (pointing to her own heart). 

When can I really let go of myself? If it was a wall, there are some holes now and I have taken some of the plaster off. Being able to put a finger or hand through. But when is that wall going to fall apart? When can I actually say, and that is very scary, ‘okay, if it is good for other people will it always be painful to me? Or will there be no ‘me,’ to be painful? What is my mindstream and what is my habitual pattern? How can I have a mind and not have it all attached to difficult things, bring it to difficult emotions, and suffer? What is my question right now? That is actually a good question to reflect on, because I don’t have it all formulated yet. 

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It is so great that it got to this point. That things are not working. Because, otherwise, we would be fooling ourselves that it is working. While we actually see that it is not working. So, that is great news. For me it was great news. And you don’t have to have it all figured it all out. Also, my path is my own path. And your path is going to be your own. For me, that beginning, that moment of taking a leap, is not necessarily the moment of saying: ‘I will have a teacher or not have a teacher, I go to this tradition or that tradition.’ Just start looking at your mind. Start sitting everyday, and look at your mind. Five minutes. That’s it. 

Of course, you can do more things: practice yoga, practice Tai Chi, go running, look at your emotions and read the book Emotional Rescue which helped me a lot. All those things are great things, and many things I don’t know about, that I could benefit from if I got to know them. There are endless possibilities. Don’t be too worried about how other’s paths are, and not be too worried about how your path is going to be. Just start walking, you know, and the landscape will present itself. 

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