Empower each other – Taking a Leap with Stephanie Mikolaj

She did not intend to do religious studies. Yet, once it crossed her path, she found she really enjoyed it and modified her major to study different contemplative traditions to look broadly at tradition, without focusing on one particularly. 

Being very competitive in her younger years made her look at religions to think a way out of them. “I would kind of investigate, look at the philosophy and ask: can I really buy this? No!” With Buddhism, one of the last introductory classes she took, she found she could not do that. “It was not asking you to buy something, it was asking me to ask questions and investigate myself, my own experience and this whole reality that I just take for granted as real.” 

Born in Pennsylvania, but raised in Illinois, Stephanie Basford grew up within a small family. She was an only child until the age of 12, eventually getting three younger brothers. Predominantly raised by her mother and maternal grandparents, Stephanie developed interests in psychology and eventually turned towards religion, Buddhism and specifically the metacognitive properties of the Buddhadharma – professionally and personally. 

At the time of our conversation, Stephanie was the Managing Director of Nalanda West in Seattle (Washington, USA). This contemplative center can be considered the Headquarters of Nalandabodhi International. These days she lives together with her partner Ben and their dog Kraken in Colorado, and works both as a nurse and for Nitartha Institute. She is dedicated to helping build a more caring and sane community – locally and globally. She sometimes wonders whether she should maybe go more into politics. When asked what she would do if the American public would vote for her to become president? “The undoing of a system in which rich corporations are treated like people and in which holding power and greed is glorified at the cost of people’s pursuit of happiness and wealth.”

Why (and when) did you take the leap into a buddhist path?
(Taking a deep breath). “There are so many answers to this question for me.” There have been multiple points in which I think I have taken leaps more and more into the buddhist path. I guess I’ll just say the very first one. 

So, I was in India in January before I graduated. I was sitting in the living room of this really kind family named the Pandeys who live in Haridwar with my professor named Jim. I said to him: “I think I am just going into religious studies for my masters, and I am going to do Buddhist Studies.” He responded, surprised, “You have been doing Islamic studies for about a year and a half. Why Buddhism?” I said: “I don’t know. I just think I have a more personal connection to it, and I should follow that and not some other kind of desire to work with philosophy in a way that really is not of any benefit to anybody and especially not myself.” Completely changing my education trajectory was the first leap that I took.

You stress this element of feeling connected. Which seems to have an intellectual and more personal part to it. What was this connection for you? 
For me, the kind of more ‘heady’ side of it, Buddhist philosophy was not quite so simple to me. There is this play of duality, there is play with reality, and the thing is that you can not just get it intellectually. That became really obvious to me. When I was in this introductory class of Buddhism, and we learned the concept of ‘emptiness,’ I was furious! (Laughing). (The term, sūnyatā in Sanskrit and སྟོང་པ་ཉིད། stong-pa nyid in Tibetan, refers to the lack of true existence of a self of person or outer phenomena on the absolute level, while not refuting appearances in a relative sense). I could not just grasp it intellectually, and I knew it. 

Same professor, sitting in his office, “What is emptiness!?”, and he says it just means nothing has inherent reality. But I go: “What does that mean?” (Laughing even louder). The connection, intellectually, was really wanting to figure it out. This big puzzle is sitting in front of me and will take more than just intellectual power. 

I also realised I had a desire, in a different way, to figure something out. I know for me it was about making meaning of my life on that kind of path and being of benefit to people. So, the personal connection I felt with Buddhism was that its philosophy was not just this wonderful mindgame, it was also incredibly powerful to help people see their best forms. To help them recognize that, so that they can then do that with others. To focus on positivity, instead of coming from a place maybe where there is a lot of guilt or shame. I was on a big religious journey from very early in my life and had not found something that quite worked the way dharma (in this context meant to refer to the buddhist teachings & practice) did. It really opens the heart, I think. That is what I saw at least. The capacity to do that. 

Offering timeless wisdom and boundless compassion

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Offering timeless wisdom and boundless compassion

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Offering timeless wisdom and boundless compassion

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Is Buddhism, then, more a philosophy than a religion?
I think that depends on whom I am talking to. I do think that you can argue this. Particularly in my personal cultural context in the United States. There is a certain view on religion and how religion functions. If we look at religious theologians or philosophers you can turn anything into a religion, really. But I think it is safer and more helpful to approach Buddhism as a philosophy. I do think that Buddhism, especially Tibetan-Buddhism, is very much a religious tradition. To just say it is a philosophy does not give the respect it commands. 

In any case, there seems to be more to Buddhism than having ideas & views. It also provides us with a praxis – the embodiment of these in daily life, which to many ancient philosophers was the very purpose of philosophy to begin with? 
I would say when we talk about Buddhism as a philosophy, it is a soteriological philosophy (presenting ideas & views for ‘salvation’ in any religion, in Buddhist traditions mainly the liberation from suffering through breaking free from samsara, the state of existence experience by sentient beings due to their ignorance, in which suffering is the predominant characteristic). It is a philosophy that talks about the attainment of liberation. These philosophical mind games, like the fun Madhyamaka-reasonings, all these things are really methods to help you attain liberation, or a sense of freedom at least. Whatever that looks like. Philosophy has not always been ‘purely up here’ (pointing to her head) as it often is nowadays. 

So, when would you say someone, you in this case, is actually walking a Buddhist path – with the first leap or a different moment?
(Laughing loudly). Oh, yeah, it is a different moment. I would say that there was a series of events that took place while I was at Naropa University (a private, nonprofit, liberal arts university that is buddhist-inspired, non-sectarian and rooted in contemplative education). A year and half after I started there in 2015 my life kind of imploded. My long-term relationship ended; I had gotten into a severe car accident; I left my housing situation to a really uncertain situation as a fulltime student and part time worker in Boulder, Colorado, where life is very expensive. All this happened in kind of four weeks and was traumatising. During this time, I also took refuge for the first time. 

The situation kicked something off. I needed to break free of a certain habit. There was a lot of stuff that I needed to clear away. This coincided with me taking refuge and really committing as a practitioner. Till this point, it was me figuring out whether I really felt to take on Buddhism as a practice, a spiritual thing. Was it me doing it because practice was needed for me to understand, or am I really going to pursue this and challenge myself in a different way? This is where it started. 

Why and with whom did you decide to take this refuge vow?
I had been curious about it. A professor of mine at Naropa, Judith Simmer-Brown, who I also worked for as a TA (Teachers Assistant) and was also an Acharya (this term technically means ‘someone who teaches good conduct to one’s student,’ practically it is used as a title for senior teachers) within Shambhala in Boulder. It got around that she would be doing a refuge ceremony. If there is anyone that was like my first dharma-teacher, it was her. 

Less than a year earlier, I met Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and connected very much. I felt that he might be a stable teacher in my life with his community. I was not totally sure yet. I also felt at that point that if there is anybody that I really want to take refuge with, who is really close to me, it was Judith. She was, and still is, a stable teacher for me and was offering to do refuge vows. So, I signed up to do them, though I was not a member of Shambhala, never was. But for me this was not about Shambhala, but about Judith being the preceptor. 

Though your path thus started with this teacher-student relationship, eventually you decided to ‘leap into’ Nalandabodhi as a member. What made you go in that direction?
I would say that the main thing was Nitartha Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies (an educational institute founded by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in 1996 to establish a living western Buddhism by offering intensive study courses modeled on the Tibetan monastic college system, so-called shedra, in English). That was the bridge for me. 

My exposure to Ponlop Rinpoche and people affiliated with Nalandabodhi was going to Nitartha. I started to do the Mahamudra Program as a student of Naropa. I kept going back as a staff member. That is how I ended up getting connected to Nalandabodhi. 

Was becoming a member of Nalandabodhi for you mainly for this other teacher-student relationship, or was there more to it?
A lot of it was Ponlop Rinpoche. Initially. For this reason I was going to Nalandabodhi in Boulder, where I also met other teachers of Nalandabodhi. But there was this element of wanting a community and really appreciating the people from Nalandabodhi. They made me feel at home the most. They seem to have this quality of being a sangha (in a limited sense a term that refers to the monks & nuns in Buddhist tradition, but more broadly used to refer to a community of Buddhist practitioners). 

Nalandabodhi has this wonderful slogan ‘Be wise, go kind, live fully.’ Since you are [at the time of the interview] also a managing-director at Nalanda West and need to get a certain meaning across. Most of us might have an intuition about wisdom and kindness. But how would you explain ‘live fully’? 
That is a big question. (Thinking deeply for a moment). I actually think about this a little bit in terms of the Three Paths. When I first heard ‘Be wise, go kind, live fully’ I thought about Study, Meditation, Mindful Activity respectively. 

Live fully, to me, is an invitation to take these really profound teachings into our daily life. That has been the biggest thing for me since I became part of Nalandabodhi and working in Nalandabodhi. There is this thing that happens when we can sit down, read a book, study, practice on the cushion, do all these programs, but there has to be a lot of practice to bring all of that into our daily life. To live fully is like doing that part. It is about manifesting that compassionate presence in front of someone who is not a dharma-practitioner but someone in the street you are walking by, or someone in the grocery store. To meet the world that we know and think we have known our whole lives, but to meet it in a different, fresh and full way.

Apart from being NBI’s headquarters, Nalanda West is envisioned to be a contemplative center that is not necessarily Buddhist. What does this mean?
Great question. It might make more sense if I explain it in a little bit more of a scholarly way. Nalanda West, in its programming, is based on the Five Sciences (Inner Science of Mind, Knowing and Reasoning, Communication, Health + Well-being, Creativity + Arts). There is what is called the Kangyur, which are the texts containing the words of the historical Buddha, and the Tengyur which are the commentaries. Specifically these last set of texts are not just commentaries, they are about all kinds of things: Health, creativity and so on. It is huge. If you take Tengyur they encompass the five sciences, which are also part of the monastic scholastic education like Nalanda University in India in the distant past. 

In Buddhism, there is an attitude of openness and desire to gain experience and knowledge together. Nalanda West is this wonderful opportunity for us to do programming that is connected to things like mindfulness, meditation, contemplation and reflection in a way that is not just a curriculum. It gives an opportunity to reach out and connect with our local community. We are not in a vacuum. We are not just Buddhists, isolated, not talking to anybody. We are a community. A multiplicity of all kinds of ideas. 

I truly and genuinely, as part of my role (as managing-director), do think we can see dharmic teaching in the most mundane things. Ikebana (ancient Japanese art of flower arranging) to me is a wonderful example. Or a tea ceremony. Doing dance. Performance. Musical. These things (can) have a connection to our dharmic practice. To me, with Nalanda West, we are essentially creating a space for people to be able to connect with whatever they want to connect to, and be able to create connections among each other. 

With those Five Sciences, which are definitely part of the narrative of Buddhism, but as it came west, this has been a really wonderful opportunity to connect. To show that Buddhism and the Dharma does not have to be the connection to some kind of understanding of reality.  

What you say reminds me of an article that was titled ‘Buddha was not a buddhist.’ This is obvious in a way, because Buddhism evolved later. But it also seems to point to something deeper: the historical Buddha approached reality, investigated that, and dealt with it in a wise manner. That is not necessarily Buddhist. This approach can be informed by Buddhist tradition and we can use Buddhist tools, but we can use so many other tools to do so. Is this what you are pointing to as well?
Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you for articulating that much more succinctly than I did. 

Is Nalanda West specifically ‘American’ or ‘Western’? 
I do not want to be culturally deaf. We are obviously situated in the United States, in a wealthy and urban part of it, but we really try to do as many inclusive activities as possible. Ikebana, again, is a wonderful example. It is a contemplative exercise they find helpful for managing stress and practicing mindfulness. We have traditional musicians come in play, a cellist, harpist, guitarist. There are a range of things. 

We are situated in a particular time and cultural location, but we try to break that a bit. We want to have more of an eclectic approach to activities. If we just stick to being a Buddhist organization in which we do meditation, study the Buddhist texts, and we do mindful activities that are dharmic in their qualities, it is like you kind of exclude things. You can not get the full experiential quality of reality and the multiplicity of reality then.

Nalanda West is American, yes. We definitely try to work with that, especially because of our location. But we are open too. We do not just do one thing. 

Are these also reasons why you wanted to be a managing-director of Nalanda West?
In a roundabout way, maybe. Earlier we talked about how we can find dharma in anything. What matters is here and here (pointing to her mind and heart). When you are doing any activity you can connect with that. So, my motivation was to connect with that and in other ways. Not with the label of ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Dharma,’ but to really engage in my daily life in a sane and contemplative way. That is what it was. 

I have a lot with community-building, and connect with the locals especially. It is easy as a religious or spiritual community to become a little insulated. That was one thing I was really focused on by taking this job, wanting to work on feeling that connection throughout my whole day and life and connect others in whatever way they want to come together. 

Is such an approach, of cutting through norms, an expression of the Vajrayana-tradition Nalandabodhi is rooted in?
I think it is all about getting out of your comfort zone. I have heard that a million times, I believe it, but I did not really know it yet. Maybe I still don’t know it. But particularly living at Nalanda West, and having this role, means a constant check with my comfort level. ‘You are comfortable? Let me just throw you off whatever comfort you are sitting on right now.’ It is a wonderful training for meeting reality in a more sane and wholesome kind of way. Taking things in, and not just feeling the need to respond or react to it right away. That has been the biggest thing of this. It forces you out of that comfortable space a lot. 

You have mentioned several times this idea of living in a ‘sane’ way. This suggests there is also an ‘insane’ way of living and perhaps an insane world. Do we need to get our sanity back? If so, how?
This comes, I think, because of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who used to say this a lot: Basic sanity. I like to use that word ‘sane’. There is a quote, addressed to Einstein though it is not really an Einstein-quote, that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.’ 

Genuinely, in my last couple of years, my experience of samsara in such really, really challenging times, is literally me doing the same thing over and over again thinking it is going to change. That is the most painful thing that I have had to recognize in my behaviour and thought-patterns: ‘You are still doing the same thing over and over again, you are still participating in the cycle.’ There is wisdom in recognizing that cyclic quality of our habitual tendencies and seeing the world through neurotic eyes. 

The sane part is recognizing that I do this and the willingness to up-end the comfort in that. I really do think people have this sense of basic goodness, but they often get caught up in the circle they keep going through, the rollercoaster they keep riding on. Practice will really help slow that down enough to see how to get off the ride. 

Can you give an example to illustrate this? 
For me, I love anger. I have to admit it. It is my favorite afflictive emotion (known in Sanskrit as kleshas, in Tibetan ཉོན་མོངས། nyon mongs in Tibetan-buddhism) because it is just so darn fun. What I have noticed is that I get really agitated by things. I feel so righteous in my agitation, especially when I feel someone is unkind to someone else. I just get angry and it goes nowhere. Something happens again, and I do the same process. I do it again and again, in that big circle. 

Recently, I have really started to catch it a lot more. It is a process of working through it. When I feel myself starting to get angry, the agitation even, I choose to look at it. Instead of letting it go again. I don’t catch it everytime. I still get irritated by things. But it is really great that I feel like I am learning to, at least, gap the moment. Create some space for it. And be able to see what is really happening in that moment and apply some remedies that really do help. I swear, so many things, I say ‘I have done that.’ You have to keep it fresh. We keep peeling back these layers and there are still more layers. 

So Buddhist teachings help us to create this gap and approach things in a fresh way to live in a more ‘sane’ way?
Yes. I think that there is a sense of habituating to it. You know, the word for meditation in Tibetan (སྒོམ། sgom) literally means ‘familiarize.’ It is really helpful if we can create some spaciousness around regular but especially difficult things. 

For me personally, it is easy to have a sense of spaciousness on a beautiful day when I am walking wherever. It is a lot harder for me to have this sense of spaciousness when I feel someone has been unkind to someone else. I struggle to feel that spaciousness in that moment because I feel I want to (making ‘cutting through’ signs with her hands), that is where we have not to give up yet. There are ways to keep going at it, otherwise it does not really stick. 

Is this also showing the relevance of Buddhist teachings for our world today?
Yeah (laughing). It is incredibly relevant. I sat through a first turning course at Naropa three times. I was in the class and I was a TA for the class. I sat through this tal – three times: ‘Is the suffering at the time of the Buddha different or the same as the suffering we experience now?’ 

Times have changed. The culture has changed. So many things are different. People’s suffering is different. But is the mechanism of the way our mind works much different? Probably not. It is very natural, the way that the mind grasps for things, or is averse to things, or is completely unaware. It is not anything we have just learned on our own. So, when we talk about the relevance of Buddhist teachings, it is important for people to try it first and see if it is relevant to you. I think the teachings are really timeless in that way. 

When we talk about afflictive emotional states, people have had those forever: Jealousy, rage, desire – all those things that come up in the mind. We just call them different things. To be able to find a sense of equanimity and space in those moments takes some training. Whether you call that Buddhism, mindfulness, whatever you call it, it is helpful. That’s it. Helpful. 

This makes Buddhism very relevant on an individual level. What about problems that we are facing as a (global) society? 
When we talk about things like interdependence, if you think about just those teachings, the basic physics of our world right now. If I drop this (she is holding a pen), it falls. If the sun does not shine, we do not have crops. If we do not have a temperate climate for our species to survive, we don’t survive. I think that is one of the most important things, as a community, globally, we are just trying to be happy and sustain happiness. You can not negate that we are interconnected. 

If I go to the store there is at least one person I have to work with to make that happen, the cashier. But if you think about what I buy, every person, every thing that went into producing. To feed my partner and my dog I have to work, there have to be people who want to do… blah blah blah. Of course, yeah, I think we make our world around us. We really do. How one individually works with those tools can impact those around them and start to help. Kind of like learning by example. Interpersonally. People can start to take pages out of each other’s books to support each other. Yeah. Of course. 

We might perhaps know intellectually that we are interconnected, but what can we do as an individual and society to make it more felt, and act upon it to change problems we are facing? 
You are really tempting the social justice warrior in me to come out right now. The biggest thing is that we have to collectively reject the narrative that we are independent. Relatively yes, you have a sense of having a body, you are over there and I am over here. There is nothing wrong with things appearing that way. It is when we act as if this (pointing to herself) is somehow not linked to that over there. When we act in that way and believe that, in a kind of materialistic way, it does not work. Obviously. 

Right now we are seeing the effects of completely unadulterated capitalism going wrong. It makes me so sad for my own country, because I really love this rebellious spirit of America and freedom, liberty, and pursuing the things you want to pursue. This sense, that this is the place for that. To me, if we are the place for that, it means there is a sense of supporting people to do that. To find their happiness. To be able to do what makes them happy. 

Unfortunately, it has become a lust for capitalism and money. It has not been a lust for ‘do what is going to fulfill your life.’ It has become a really, really toxic narrative. Part of that toxic narrative is ‘I am independent and do not need your help.’ If that were the case, you could literally be in a vacuum of a field out somewhere with nothing and be able to survive. For probably eighty percent of the population that is not true. We have to reject this narrative, and I am speaking as an American right now. 

It is clearly not true. If you think about how things function and how things happen, it is an interconnected web. Of cooperation. Of people being willing to work together. To take care of each other. That is what is actually happening, but we act like that is not happening. We got to start to try to move away from thinking that dependence is weakness. That is part of the narrative. That is maybe part of a bigger narrative about the self. To be dependent is to be weak. 

We have to start to turn that around. Being dependent just means that you are realistic about the situation that is before you. How grateful can you be that you got to help that person who is a little bit dependent on you in that moment?

I often ask myself, especially when I feel aversion: Am I meeting this situation with wisdom and compassion? 

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That’s great! (Laughing). Feel the fear. I was so uncertain and still, occasionally, I am uncertain about (my) spiritual path. Anybody who is uncertain about what is going with their spiritual path, I think that is okay. That is healthy. To listen to what you are fearful of, what are your concerns – are they founded or unfounded. Just investigate it. Don’t be afraid of the fact that you are afraid. It is okay to be afraid. It is one thing people take for granted, that fear is a bad thing. Fear in a biological way is a great thing. 

With the Buddhist tradition specifically, generally fear is somehow tied to you trying to preserve the self. Some kind of preservation that is not there. It is a response that you are having. Try to cultivate some selflessness. Investigate it. Why are you afraid? What is it? Don’t be afraid to be afraid when you meet challenges. That is natural. Normal. It does not mean it is a bad thing. It does not mean it should or should not be there or you have to get rid of it. Or abandon what you are doing. Just look at it with openness and insight as to what that is telling you. The dharma, or the ultimate, or anything that you seek on a spiritual path, is not just in the vacuum of your spiritual path. It is around it, outside it, inside you, it is everywhere. You just have to know where to look and at what point to look. That’s it. Like I don’t think it has to be quite so complicated by discipline, religion, or spirituality. It is there. It just takes your commitment and your openness. I think that is the most important thing to me.

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