Interview | Insight Journal | Fall 1995
Narayan Helen Liebenson finds it a joy and a privilege to share the Buddha’s teachings with all who are interested. She serves as an IMS guiding teacher, and has been a guiding teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center since its inception in 1985. Her training over the past forty years includes study in the United States and in Asia with meditation masters in the Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan traditions. She was a student of the late Chan master Sheng Yen for over ten years. Asked by Master Sheng Yen to teach, Narayan decided to integrate her understanding of Zen into her already existing Vipassana lineage. Narayan is the author and illustrator of a small book titled Life as Meditation, and for many years wrote a meditator’s advice column in Buddhadharma magazine. Her latest book, The Magnanimous Heart, was published by Wisdom Publications in January, 2019.
How did you first encounter Buddhism?
To talk about that I need to go into how I first began to meditate in general. I had a kind of intense inner life when I was a child….maybe because of a difficult home life I was drawn to stay inside, to stay quite inward.
There was a kind of orientation to concentrate on different objects or be present with things in a certain way. I spent a lot of time alone and there was a sense of trying to use what was around me. In other words, I was brought up Catholic and I worked with a particular practice of trying to see Christ in everybody that I met.
Not that it was easy! But it was very powerful…it was a very clear way inside to something.
So it was very rich internally and difficult externally. I was really alone in it. I was really quite isolated, and I wanted somebody to talk to about these things, but clearly in suburban East Haven, Connecticut, there was no one to talk about it with. But I think that kind of isolation, or alienation, helped me. Although it was difficult, I think it helped to create a certain kind of self-reliance and independence, and I would say also the recognition that suffering is how things are….that what I was experiencing wasn’t different than what is experienced in having a human body or having a human life. There was some sense of dukkha (suffering) as being natural, that natural state of things. Of course, it was a big problem to speak about it — I got into a lot of trouble. Everyone around me was saying, “No, you can’t talk about these things; everything’s fine….we’re a happy family, it’s a happy country, everybody’s happy. Why are you dwelling on these negative things?” Talking about suffering was a serious taboo. Maybe that’s why I talk about it so much now!
It’s rewarding to see people’s experience change — seeing transformation is a privilege.
This is when you encountered vipassana?
I did have a practice where I got up at 5:00 every morning, practiced yoga, and chanted with this group of people. It was very helpful. I eventually reached a point of limitation with that path, however. The community had broken up to some extent, so that was one aspect of having to find something else…but I would also say I wanted something a little simpler. The Kundalini involved a lot of clothing and other forms—I wanted something simpler and more contemplative.
Yes. When I came to vipassana —which was in my early twenties — I was incredibly delighted to find out that people were going away and living in silence for three months at a time at IMS, without having to be a monk or nun. To be able to live seeing that kind of a life for three months was incredibly inspiring to me. I really thought, “Ah, this is what I want!” There was this deep yearning for silence—and, I would say, sanity. So I began with weekends and sitting in a daily way, and then, shortly after, sat my first three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.
I feel like my starting to practice was very natural; it began a long, long time ago and when I came to vipassana it was just like home. I had a sense of finally finding something that truly resonated on all levels. It seemed there was nothing extra added; the whole idea was simply to be with things as they are. Instead of adding on, the idea was to just let go and see that there was something inside that was really it. So it didn’t feel like a process of discovering anything, it felt like the process of practicing some things when I was a child, only now I was practicing something else when I was a little bit older. The Kundalini practice, the Catholicism—all of it felt really rich. And then vipassana was like all of it, but in a very stripped-down version. So I grew into it in a way, like I was encountering the same thing as I encountered when I was eight years old.
Here were other people acknowledging dukkha?
Exactly. It had that eight-year-old’s recognition of the sense of “Finally, somebody’s telling the truth,” in that “Life is dukkha” and “It’s not all that there is…there is a way out.” So when I encountered vipassana, and that was its initial premise, it was an enormous relief to feel like I was being joined by others who were seeing what I was seeing.
You are a steady presence at CIMC [Cambridge Insight Meditation Center] and one of the principal teachers there. How would you describe your role?
Well I’ve been at CIMC since its beginning in 1985, so it’s 10 years now, and my role and responsibilities have changed as the Center has changed and as I have changed. For one thing, when I began, fewer people were coming to the Center.
An aspect of my role at CIMC is to connect the classical teachings of the Buddha with the questions and challenges of everyday life. I offer a variety of practice groups, talks, and retreats that explore specific Buddhist themes and teachings, such as metta, wise speech, the refuges, and the five hindrances.
There has been a growing need to respond to older yogis in a more specific way. In the past year, I offered a parami group for older yogis only. In this group, we took up each of the ten paramis over a 25-week period.
How does that investigation work?
I’m big on homework! For example, in the “wise speech” group, we explored one aspect of wise speech each week. In between meetings, yogis were invited to pay particular attention to that one aspect. One week it was truthfulness of speech, the next week it was gossip, and so forth.
As well, quite a bit of my effort is focused on nurturing the organization of CIMC on a daily basis as it changes and evolves. It always surprises me that although CIMC is relatively small, it requires lots of attention and care to keep it simple and to nurture its contemplative environment. Organizations seem to naturally tend towards proliferation and expansion and to think that more (of anything!) is better. The vision of CIMC is to offer an environment of simplicity and a refuge in which inner freedom can grow.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Something I find enormously rewarding is working with people over the long term. I really love that; I love not popping in and out. I choose this kind of teaching over the model of moving from place to place. Although I love longer retreats, and I love teaching at IMS, for a long-term, steady, day-to-day kind of existence I feel much more grounded in this setting. It’s good for me: being in a relationship, living close to CIMC, friends around, community around. It’s very good for me; it’s a very grounded way to be. And it feels completely integrated. There are not any parts that want to be off and running somewhere else.
It’s been rewarding to see a community grow over the last 10 years—it was very different 10 years ago than it is now. But more than community, because communities come together and dissipate, it’s rewarding to see people’s experience change. Seeing transformation is a privilege. It’s just extraordinary to see how powerful the teaching is. I feel so grateful to be able to offer something that I know works. To see people use it to change and grow is just an unbelievable gift. So I’d say that’s the extraordinary aspect of this teaching.
How about with respect to the women members at the Center? I have a sense that you have a special role there.
I think that for some women it’s important that there is a woman teaching, because so many of the models in the past have been male. I know it’s been helpful for me. I also think it’s important for women practitioners to have women teachers and colleagues interpreting the teaching, because women have such a full presence at CIMC as well as in most vipassana centers I know about.
Since CIMC is not a rural retreat setting would you like to say any thing about the special challenges or opportunities associated with teaching vipassana in an urban environment?
Well, it’s really, really different, clearly, than the conditions in a retreat setting such as Barre. We hear fire engines going down the street. We hear rap music. Sound is a huge dimension that’s very different. I like to think that if you can practice in this environment—and keep the mind calm and steady and inquire into your experience—then when you’re in a setting where silence is more natural and you’re hearing more natural sounds you have less trouble.
I also think it offers us an opportunity—right from the beginning of our practice—to see everything as practice. This can be a problem if your beginning model is retreats. Then you’re either on retreat or you’re off retreat…. And “off retreat” means trying to get back “on retreat,” because being on retreat is very different than being off retreat. I think this perspective of practice is minimized when you begin your practice in an urban setting.
There, right from the beginning, you have to see everything, every single moment, as practice or you’re not going to survive. Now, I’m not saying that it’s so great, because, obviously, it’s wonderful to be in nature. Having a natural silence helps enormously. But I think having a perspective of inclusiveness and lack of fragmentation right from the beginning of practice—of everything being practice (livelihood, relationships, pressures of everyday life, etc.)—helps things as one goes along.
On the other hand, intensive silent retreats have been and continue to be an essential aspect of my own practice. The silence and simplicity of retreat life, as well as the letting go of the pressures and responsibilities of everyday life, can be invaluable as a way to deepen one’s understanding of how things are. Many yogis in Cambridge balance their practice in the city with retreats at IMS.
One of the challenges of practicing in an urban environment is to develop and value calmness of mind. In the culture of a city, there are very few external supports for calm and tranquillity. An important aspect of teaching in the city is a focus on encouraging yogis to develop concentration, equanimity, and tranquility. In Cambridge, people tend to have strong investigative minds and need the depth and strength of heart that develops out of a daily practice. You would think, being in an academic community, that we would get a lot of theoretical or simply intellectual questions. And even from the beginning it’s been that way. We get questions like, “I’m suffering. What can I do about it?” This is something I love about CIMC.
You were married not too long ago, and your husband, Michael, is also a serious practitioner of meditation. Does this shared interest contribute in some unique ways to the nature of your mutual relationship? Does the fact that you bothpractice make “the relationship thing” any easier to do?
There is no doubt that practice makes it easier to be in relationship…no doubt about that at all. Being in a relationship with someone who practices (or not, for that matter—I don’t want to confine it in that way) gives one this wider perspective, where you are not counting on being saved by the other person. You are also not depending on the other person to make you happy. Which is really a huge thing, I think. You’re supported and loved by the other person, and self-reliant as well. So practice gives one a bigger picture where there is a shared perspective on what relationship can and cannot do in terms of liberation or inner peace, rather than culturally-based expectations that the other person is responsible for your happiness.
I also think that being in relationship can help practice because you can teach one another different things. You can add your perspective of practice to the other person’s. There is an intimacy in sharing practice that can expand one’s own vision or one’s own way of working in practice.
So being in a relationship is the right form for me—I have no doubt about that. But I don’t see it as the only way to get free. It’s just a form. And if it’s the right form for you, it can be used in an extraordinarily helpful way to wake up. But only if it’s the right form for you.
There is such an emphasis placed on intimate relationships in this culture that sometimes people feel that if they’re not in a relationship it’s a personal failure. But it’s really just a form—it depends on how it is used. If you use it in a right way it can help enormously, because you have that mirror right there for you. I also think a shared dharma orientation helps when conflicts come up, because there is less of a tendency to blame the other for the conflict.
If both people are committed to finding freedom within themselves, then when you get into something it’s not just, “I want my own way,” or “I want you to stop doing this to me.” The fundamental approach is, “What can I learn from this?” If both people (it’s really hard if it’s only one person) have the perspective of “What can I learn from this?” it makes for a happy relationship. It also pushes one to experience the strong emotions—not suppressing them and not being destructive, but making room for them, in trust and love, with the other person. It allows for a real change of heart to occur, where you don’t have to be so afraid, so intimidated or lost in emotions.
Source:Insight Journal | Fall, 1995