Turning Towards What’s Difficult

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Llama Tsultrim Allione. Lama Tsultrim is an author, an internationally known Buddhist teacher, and the founder of Tara Mandala, a retreat center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Lama Tsultrim was the first American woman to be ordained as a Tibetan nun by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa. At the age of 26, after four years as a nun, she returned her monastic vows, married, and raised three children. With Sounds True, Lama Tsultrim has created several programs, including The Mandala of the Enlightened Feminine and Cutting Through Fear, where she shares a process that can help meet and release what the ancient Tibetans call “demons, fears, and other unhelpful emotions and obsessions.” In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Lama Tsultrim and I spoke about the Sacred Feminine within Buddhism and how to understand the Sacred Feminine without creating duality. We talked about the 11th century Tibetan yogini and originator of the practice of Chöd, Machig Labdrön, and about Lama Tsultrim’s sudden loss of her husband David just a couple of years ago, and her journey through grief and what she’s learned through the process. Here’s my conversation with Lama Tsultrim Allione.

Lama Tsultrim, to begin with, I want to help orient our listeners a bit to who you are as a Lama and the strand of teaching that you’re bringing into the world. I know from your history that early in your life, in your 20s, you had a passionate interest in discovering the women teachers within Tibetan Buddhism, and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, that time in your life and this interest and real devotion, actually, in your life to find who are the women and how can I study from them?

Lama Tsultrim Allione: Yes. That search really came out of the death of my daughter. I had a daughter who was a twin who died of sudden infant death. And I had been a Buddhist nun, I was ordained in 1970 by the 16th Karmapa. And then [I’d] been a nun for about four years and then disrobed and had four children, the first two and then these twins. So the girl of the boy/girl twin dyad, Chiara, died of sudden infant death in 1980. I had been, obviously, a serious practitioner because I was a nun and then had transitioned into being a mother. And really, I couldn’t find any stories about women who were mothers who were serious Buddhists. It was either nuns or it was the milarepa songs about how unfortunate it was to have a female body and how bad women were and how they were always gossiping and lazy and so on.

When Chiara died, I really felt I really had to find some stories that could help me transition through that situation, and so that set me off on a search that became my first book, Women of Wisdom. In the process of finding the stories and then doing the research for the introduction, I became aware that this need for women’s stories and for the Sacred Feminine was not unique to Buddhism but was really a worldwide need and a worldwide search, that there were many other women doing this at that time—finding things and also looking historically at earlier periods like the neolithic time when there was a goddess culture and so on.

So, writing the introduction for Women of Wisdom, I met some of the women and then I became aware of their research. So what grew out of that for me was not only finding the stories that I needed and of course the research itself was healing for me, but also recognizing the lack of the feminine in the world—the Sacred Feminine. And of course, the feminist movement was already happening and very important, and there was this spiritual piece of that that was happening as well. So I’m still passionately involved with that. It has not been easy within the Buddhist patriarchy, if you will, and of course it is one [thing] to do this, and at the same time maintain my relationships within the Tibetan Buddhist world because I’ve never wanted to leave it. I love it. I’m dedicated and actual quite a traditional teacher. So I’ve had to blend this interest and passion and belief in the absolute necessity for the world right now, that we get the feminine wisdom back, with my traditional practices and so on.

Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting story, what I’ve been through in that world and in that process, and sort of what has been happening lately to do with that.

TS: Yes, tell me. I’d be curious.

LT: Well, so this began, I wrote that book in the early 80’s. It came out in 1984, Women of Wisdom. Then I started teaching. Then in the late 9’s I had already been teaching for quite awhile and often taught about the Sacred Feminine and about the dakini principle in Buddhism and so on. As I said, [I] was aware of this larger scope of that work that was beyond Buddhism and was really a worldwide movement. So in the late 90s, I got a letter from my teacher, my lama, saying “You’re too feminist. Feminism is dualistic.” And also, he objected to my—I guess, the use of psychology with Buddhism, or the overlays of psychology and Buddhism and emotional work because I felt that was a big missing piece in Buddhism and so I had included that in my teaching and in my work.

So I received this letter and he said, “I think you should not come to this next training for teachers.” I had been the first and the only teacher that he had authorized at that point. So obviously this was very shocking.

TS: Yes. Quite a blow up!

LT: Yes. I actually went into physical shock when I got this letter. So the upshot was that I went into a year-long solitary retreat, which was, I think, shortly after I last saw you. So I went into that retreat in 2001 [through] 2002. Part of what I wanted to do in that retreat was sit with this question by myself without any interference from the outside, and really see, is this important or is this dualistic? Is the return of the sacred feminism, or the Sacred Feminine—and I guess you could say sacred feminism, really—is that important or is it dualistic? So I wanted to sit with that question, and of course I was doing other practices and so on—I wasn’t just sitting for a year, thinking about that.

What happened in the retreat was 9/11 occurred during that retreat. So of course I didn’t see the footage, but I heard about it because my husband brought me my food and he told me. My reaction to it was, where’s the feminine here, in the lives of these men who did this, and then also, in the reaction from the United States? I just found a complete lack of it in both those situations. So that influenced me to recommit to yes, this is important, and yes, this is relevant! And no, it’s no more dualistic than the 2,500 years of patriarchy in Buddhism! And really, that what I was looking for—it was not dualistic, it was integration; it was the divine union of masculine and feminine and a balance of those energies which we all have within us, whether we’re genetically male or female or transgender. Whatever we are, we are working with those energies within ourselves. We need to honor those, and the imbalance was also destructive, is also destructive to men.

So I made the decision to recommit to that and to sit with the results of whatever that would be, that I knew that I would probably sacrifice the relationship with my teacher who had been my teacher for 18 years. And I got the conviction and the courage to do that. It retrospect it’s very easy to see, “Oh yes, of course you should do that,” you know? But in the time and that moment, it was absolutely a grueling decision. I had so much self-doubt about myself—was I seeing things accurately or was there some distortion? So anyway, I did make that step.

Then, once I had taken that decision and I began to teach from having made that decision and to lead Tara Mandala—which is my center, as you know, in southern Colorado—from taking my seat with an authentic sense of what I believed and not, for really the first time in my life, looking always to my lamas for the answers. You know—“How should I do this?” And “What should I do?” Rinpoche this, and Rinpoche that. And you have to realize that I got involved with this when I was 19 years old. I was ordained at 22. So I was very steeped in that culture and that was so difficult to begin to make my own decisions. But the result, the upshot of it, was that Tara Mandala began to really flourish in an amazing way, and within the last 10 years has been completely built out. We’ve raised something like 6 million, 500 thousand dollars for Tara Mandala. There’s a three-story mandala temple dedicated to the Sacred Feminine in Buddhism now, with life size statues of the 21 taras and so on.

What happened was, like the floodgates just opened and the support just poured in, and so many people had been waiting for me to do this, to take my seat, something authentic. The interesting thing that has happened very recently in the last year, is that this teacher that I was involved with—and his name is Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu—in the past year, he has invited me to come and teach at his centers and teach this work that he had been so resistant to before, and now this year, he’s coming to Tara Mandala to teach.

TS: Wonderful! What your story really underscores, I think—[there are] many things, but the one that is impressed upon at this moment that I’m really feeling is, how when we’re really to individuate, if you will, or stand up to what we see as authority figures or power, how our own life can really blossom when we’re willing to take that stand. But how, how courageous it is to do that, and [how] scary it is for all of us.

LT: Yes. Very difficult. And you have to be sure you’re ready. But by then, by that time—let’s see, I was 54 at that time—so it was time to grow up. It was time to leave the father’s house, even though the father was so wonderful and I had such deep, abiding respect for him. Even the decision that I had to kind of go on my own was, there was never any lack of respect or cherishing of that being and that relationship. So it was incredibly hard to do. In retrospect again, it seems sort of obvious that of course you have to do that but at that same time, I just want to kind of speak out to anyone who’s listening to us and our conversation and say, you really need to trust yourself. In order to trust yourself, you have to understand what your real values are, and then be authentic with those. It’s not necessarily going to be easy, and you’re not going to get applause and you may get a lot of criticism, but if you don’t do that, you won’t be living authentically.

TS: Now, I’m curious, Lama Tsultrim, you talked about the temple devoted to the Sacred Feminine at Tara Mandala. How is it that you understand the Sacred Feminine in a way that doesn’t create a sense of polarization or duality?

LT: Well, I think of divine union like the yab-yum model that is really sort of the classic image of Tantra—the union of masculine and feminine. So that is actually the primary metaphor of Tantra, is that union. It became sort of commercialized as like, “This is sort of sacred sex,” and “This is how we can have sex and somehow be spiritual,” but really that symbolism, it is that.

And Tantra does involve physicality and sacred sexuality, but in that dyad, the feminine is the primordial matrix of awakened space. So, she is pure potential, and yet, no thing in herself. So one of the ways that she is described is “the pregnant zero.” So this is samantabhadri or prajnaparamita, it’s the dharmakaya level of the Sacred Feminine. So what I mean by dharmkaya is the level beyond or preceding form. So if this, this is also called the Great Mother. So this space, this sort of pregnant potential, then, is recognized by the consciousness—and that turning of consciousness to recognize its true condition, which is the ground of being, the Great Mother of pure potential, emptiness—that is the masculine, samantabhadra. Samantabhadra is within each of us, the awareness that turns to look at itself, and the itself that it looks at, is the feminine.

So when that consciousness and reunifies with its true condition, that is the moment of yab-yum. That’s the union of masculine and feminine at that level, at dharmakaya. At the level of sambhogakaya, which is the luminous expression of that pure potential, into light, into radiance, and it’s manifest[ed] in the form of the mandalas and also deities within the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. All those deities are sambhogakaya. So the feminine at that level is, for example, Green Tara or White Tara or the five dakinis. That’s all sambhogakaya. And in sambhogakaya there’s masculine and feminine deities. So what the feminine is there, represents prajna, or cherub in Tibetan wisdom, and the masculine is skillful means, or skillful means and compassion. So once again, you have this dyad of energy which is the union of skillful means and wisdom.

When I see for example, in a very practical sense for example at Tara Mandala, we have men and women. And women have certain capacities and certain tendencies and certain energies, and men have certain capacities and tendencies and energies. And women, also within themselves have masculine aspects and feminine aspects, and the same for the men. And what we have at the level of sambhogakaya is this union of wisdom and skillful means. So when you work with the deities as a tantric practitioner, you might be a male who is given the yidam of Tara. So you develop, as a man, you develop those qualities of Tara, of compassion and active compassion and so on.

As a woman, you might get a male deity like say, [unintelligible] or Avalokiteshvara, and then you would develop those qualities within yourself through the practice, through identification, which is the main way that the deities are used. You identify with these luminous beings and then your being gradually begins to become luminous, almost in a literal sense that your cells become light through really deep practice with sambhogakaya energies.

So when we have something like the temple at Tara Mandala, we have the 21 Taras in the temple—life size statues. Then we have on the shrine, the great mother Prajnaparamita. Then we have Machig Labdrön as the main statue, and she’s nirmanakaya. So nirmanakaya is this dimension that you and I are in. We have bodies. We’re ordinary beings and we have limits in what we can perceive and maybe we can visualize sabhogakaya but we can’t actually see it. Maybe we can touch on dharmakaya and learn to rest in it, but it’s not our normal condition. So for example, Machig Labdrön is a woman and she was an 11th century yogini. She’s another aspect of the feminine.

So in a way, it’s almost like, if we’re talking about these three levels of feminine, it’s almost like water, where you have the liquid water, you have steam, and then you have ice. It’s all water; it’s all H2O, but it’s in different levels of density and so all of those are working within the feminine.

So your question really was about OK, we’ll if you’re this involved with the feminine, how do you avoid going off balance or polarization or a degrading of the masculine as you’re elevating the feminine? The way that I see that is that we have such a lack of the feminine, and even any knowledge of what that is, inside ourselves, inside our culture, because it’s been de-valued for so long that part of what we’re doing here is really exploring what that is within ourselves and within our practice and in the men and women who are here. And there are actually quite a lot of men at Tara Mandala, or involved with Tara Mandala and I also teach the sacred, the yab-yum practice, sacred sexuality, and also the union that I just spoke of. I think it’s a sense of more of like turning the lens and focusing on the Sacred Feminine, just to see, OK, what is this? Who is She? Where has She been? What is this?

So bringing that forth, discovering it and at the same time, then, not feeling that this should dominate or this should take over, but rather that we need to find out who She is and then bring that into the room, into the board room, into the discussion or into the lives of all of us—of our families, of our companies, our organizations—and bring that voice of the feminine.

And that’s what I felt was lacking in 2001. If you think of those men, who did that to the Twin Towers and who were their mothers? Who were their sisters? What was their relationship to their wives? Where’s the feminine there? So what if they had had a wife, or a mother, whose voice was that an equal voice in that family to the father? How different would their decisions have been? Does that answer your question? It’s kind of a long…

TS: It answers it beautifully. It sounds to me that the inspiration that you have—you mentioned “taking your seat”—and in that it’s to bring balance, or to bring forward a balance to sit in that.

LT: Exactly.

TS: Now you mentioned Machig Labdrön, and one of the things that I learned in preparing for this conversation today is that you were named as an emanation of this 11th century Tibetan yogini. I’d love to know more what that means, to be an emanation of a person who lived and taught historically in a different century. What does that mean, to be an emanation?

LT: Well, I think if we take out sort of the limitations that we normally think about what a person is— for example, you’re Tami Simon. So, you have a mind stream which has been evolving over countless lifetimes. That mind stream, now, is in your body, and you identify your body and you have that name and so on. But that mind stream is going to go on when your current body is no longer functioning. So what is that mind stream, and how is that purified and how does that become beneficial and unencumbered and so on? And that’s really what your path is. It’s a process of unencumbering your innate, awake condition. So this is what Machig Labdrön was. She unencumbered her mind stream through her practice, and also she was considered to be an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal, so it wasn’t like she started from nowhere, when she started—she was already Yeshe Tsogyal.

So in terms of what this means for me here [and] now in the 21st century, what does that mean really, you know? When it happened, I [asked,] “What does that mean?” And what I realized was that to me, the way I see it is that if I look back over the arc of my life, I have been dedicated to the teachings of Machig Labdrön pretty much all of my adult life and taught the Chöd practices, and I did the recording for Sounds True about that and so on. And that was a long time before I was recognized. But what does that mean? To me, I think of it like I’m working for her, I’m working for that mind stream of Machig that evolved in the 11th century that continues to manifest in the universe in various different ways.

The importance of it now to me is that I find her teachings so amazingly modern and relevant to our situation today in the world. So I have been bringing that forth through my book Feeding Your Demons and audio programs and so on. I’ve been bringing forth that to the best of my ability that stream of her luminous truth, her luminous vision and her wisdom. So to be an emanation, I don’t feel like I am Machig Labdrön. I couldn’t possibly think that about myself. I really see myself as I’m working for her. It’s like that’s my job in this life. I’ve had that job and I’ve basically been doing it my whole life, and in 2007, it was sort of like, “OK, this is your job description [laughs]—even though you’ve been doing it your whole life, this is what you’re supposed to be doing.” Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing!

So when it happened in Tibet—and it was a group of about 35 people that I was on pilgrimage with, and the name of the pilgrimage was “In the Footsteps of Machig Labdrön,” and I had been guided to do this in a vision that I’d had in retreat the year before [in] October of 2006. Machig had come to me in my retreat cabin, and through a whole series of visions one night, had told me I had to collect her lineage and stabilize it at Tara Mandala. And it was urgent. She was so insistent on the urgency that I almost left retreat, and then I realized, no, once you set your retreat boundaries, you never leave.

So I didn’t leave then, but then that next year we went to Tibet and one of the places that we went was to her seat, and that’s where this happened. And so afterwards, somebody said, “What does that mean to you?” Like what you just asked me. Of course, I was sort of still in shock from this whole thing happening. And then, what I said—and I think this is true—was, “It allows me to know what I know.” So, I had always “known” a lot of things, but I wouldn’t really trust myself completely. And so when I say it allows me to know what I know, I think there’s a lot of us that know things but we don’t allow ourselves to know them. So that was the effect for me of the recognition.

TS: Now, when you say that you’re working for Machig Labdrön, I’d be curious to know—and I think this will also help our listeners become a bit familiar perhaps, with who this great yogini was and what the qualities and imperatives of what her “mind stream” are in our world today. What are you working for in working for Machig Labdrön?

LT: Well, her primary approach was moving toward what we normally avoid. And feeding, not fighting, those elements within ourselves and within our world. It’s really an amazing paradigm shift, to move from the idea that I must protect myself from anything that threatens me and I must think of any strategies I can to protect myself, so I can be safe. That is the main job description for the ego, for the self-clinging ego. So that’s what we do. We try to make sure that we’re safe. What Machig said was, shift that. Instead of trying to protect yourself, offer yourself to that which you perceive as the enemy. Offer yourself as food. So, the actual practice that she’s famous for is of course the Chöd practice, in which you physically, or you mentally imagine that you physically offer your body.

So what that means, then, is if we turn that and looked at it more say, in a family or in an organization or even within ourselves, we would look at OK, what are the threatening elements here, or the perceived problematic elements within me, within my family, within my business? And what if instead of trying to get rid of those things, or starve them or ignore them or attack them, what if I invited them to dinner? And I offered to feed them to complete satisfaction with myself, with my own body? So what that does is sort of twofold. One is, it undercuts that ego of the self, because what the self wants to do is preserve itself, and the body is the most central focus of the ego. So by offering it, you immediately—you loosen it, you release it. And then it takes that, say if it’s, say, your own demons— and a demon in that case would be a fear, or an addiction, or some sort of neurosis—something that drains your energy, that’s a good way to think about what your demons are.

So let’s say you take that element of yourself and you feed that. You personify it and then you feed it to your complete satisfaction. Then you’re reversing the pattern of alienating and rejecting that part of yourself and fighting against it. And you’re including it. What happens, say, within yourself, is that the psyche begins to become more integrated and less at unease with itself or battling against itself. If we look at that in a family—you know, often in the family, there’s the problematic person, and so everyone’s focused on that person that’s a problem. And say, then, you might invite that person to speak and to have their needs met. So then that element of the family begins to become integrated and then the family isn’t split.

So this is the teaching of Machig Labdrön. Just to put it very succinctly, she said, “One ‘take me, eat me’ is worth a hundred thousand ‘protect me, save me’s’.” So it’s this very different gestalt in terms of the energy to move toward the shadow, I guess you could say, more in a psychological sense, and to feed the shadow element, whether it’s inside ourselves or in a group or in a collective situation. So what that does is create wholeness. So that’s a very different model. And if we go back to 2011, for example, that situation, and we think about, what if we had tried to find out what were those elements that were attacking us? In what ways were we offending them? And was there a way to bring them to the table and integrate that element, rather than having it be so…[set] to do what it did?

I think we’ve seen in a lot of diplomacy recently the situations where, for example, in Nepal, there was a whole Maoist element in Nepal that caused so many problems and then the Maoists were invited to the table and they’re now in the government. In fact, they’re in charge. And so they’re working with their agenda rather than blowing things up. So that would be, when I say working for Machig Labdrön is working for that shift on all different levels, personally and socially.

TS: So Lama Tsultrim, just to make this very grounded for someone, let’s say, someone has something in their life that they have been pushing away—take something that so many of us have, a fear of death of some kind. A fear of being diagnosed with something, and then having to face one’s death. I push that away, I don’t really want to think about it. How could I feed that instead of pushing that away? What would I do?

LT: The first step would be to find where you hold that in your body, most strongly. So you’d think about that fear of death, or that fear that you had of the moment of the diagnosis or the fear that you have of having the diagnosis. Feel where you feel that in your body most strongly. Then take your awareness there and then you notice, what’s the color of it? What’s the temperature? What’s the shape? What’s this energy like in your body? Then you allow that to move out of your body and be personified as a being in front of you. So you’ve taken that fear and you’re seeing it in front of you as a being.

That’s already an important step, because usually with these fears, they’re very sort of unseen and hidden, and we can’t articulate them. So we bring it out by giving it form and seeing it in front of us, that’s already bringing it into consciousness from the unconscious. Then we ask it the question, “What do you want? What do you need? How would you feel if you get what you need?” So then, the process of feeding your demon is to then become the demon and to sit in that seat, in that body and answer those questions. The need is under the want.

Let’s say that fear wants to immobilize you. It wants to make you unable to make any decision and just gets you really depressed. That’s what it wants. But what’s the need that it has? The need is maybe to feel safe. So there’s always a need under that want. And so you identify the need and then you go back into your own body and you imagine that your body becomes the nectar of the feeling that this demon would have if it got what it needed. And then it’s fed. The nectar is fed to the demon to complete satisfaction.

What happens once the demon is satisfied is it transforms, and it often transforms into the ally, which is the same energy that is locked up in the demon but it’s released from the fear, from the constriction. So that’s one of the powerful things about the demon work is that the demon actually becomes the ally. It’s not like you defeat the demon with your ally or you call in this really strong ally and they kill your demon. Throw it out! In a lot of the early cancer treatments, there’s this method for example, there was that whole idea that you create this army and then you get rid of the cancer by fighting it. But with the demon work for example, you would meet the cancer, find out what it needs and then feed it to complete satisfaction. And in that way, it doesn’t need to eat you because it’s fed.

So often these diseases or neuroses, there’s something that’s needing attention, and so feeding it, you’re actually quite literally paying with your attention. You’re paying attention to something that you usually would try to ignore or fight against. Does that make sense?

TS: It does make sense. It’s very helpful. We’ve been talking, Lama Tsultrim, as it turns out, about some different key turning points in your life and events that happened—this crossroads that you met with your teacher, and then also being named as an emanation, and I also know that about 2 ½ years ago, your husband, whom you were very much in love with, died suddenly at the age of 54. And I’m curious to know, and I’m sure this is quite a hard story, but how this event has changed you?

LT: Yes. It’s something which is still in process. It’s hard to answer that question because I feel like I’m still understanding or still undergoing the—I guess you could almost say the initiation that that was, that that is, to the initiation into death, into loss, and into grief. I think one of the most helpful things that helped me in this—you know, there’s the classic thing of “Everything is impermanent, and isn’t this a good lesson,” and all of that—that was really unhelpful to me. You know, when people would say things like that?

What helped me was a song that we sing. In this song, it’s about being a practitioner and how no matter what happens you’re always happy. For example, in one of the lines it says, “If I’m sick, I’m happy, because I know that I’m clearing old karma. May I take the sickness of all beings upon myself.” And then there’s a line that says, “If I’m sad, I’m happy. May I take the sadness of all onto myself. So the actual sadness, then, becomes a vehicle for the practice of taking the suffering of others onto yourself. It might seem really almost masochistic to do that—why would you want to take more suffering when you’re already, like, over the top with your own suffering? Why would you possibly want to do that?

It’s one of those paradoxes of the dharma, that by doing that, by realizing, “Oh yes I’m suffering, but think about those mothers whose children are not coming back from the war. Think about those parents who have lost their children, think about people who didn’t have 22 years with their beloved but were on their way to the wedding and there was an accident and they lost that person.” So I began to do that. I began to, when the grief would arise, I would feel it and then I would invite myself to take the grief of all the other beings that I could think of, all the other situations that I could think of and take that onto myself and then to offer them out love and compassion, offer that back to them.

Ironically, that helped my grief. And I think because when we experience something like grief, there’s a tremendous contraction of the heart. You just feel like your heart is in a pressure cooker and you’re not going to survive. And you can’t take any more of this pain. So what happens when you offer love and compassion to others and the identification with the suffering of others is that the contraction in the self, on me, that contraction has to relax to feel the suffering of others. So it moves from that self-clinging, grasping, contracted feeling, to something vast, open, warm, and loving.

So that was something that helped me. And is helping me. Honestly, it’s what’s helped me the most. There’s other things that I could mention and other ways that I worked with the grief and one of them was all the ritual that we did around his death—and the Tibetan tradition is incredibly rich with that and we really did the really full on Tibetan 49-day practice: every week doing feasts, and every day doing practice and washing his bones quite literally with saffron water during ceremonies. And so the ritual, the level of ritual and the richness of it also helped me. I was so grateful to the richness of my tradition. And I know many, many traditions do have richness around death and I think it’s because by going through these rituals, your unconscious begins to process and be able to hold and have a structure for what’s happened. So you’re held by that structure of the ceremony, and that allows your psyche to go through it.

TS: It definitely sounds in keeping with this idea of feeding not fighting—that in terms of working with your grief that you really have turned directly to it—even inviting in the grief and pain of other people, that that was a big theme, if you will, in how you work with it.

LT: I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I think that’s true. I kind of felt like I was failing Grief 101, you know? [Laughs.] I’m a teacher and llama and so on, and I really felt like, “I’m really not doing very well.” I just, I was just so devastated. I felt like, “You should be able to handle this better and really be able to apply the teachings in this moment.”

I think those moments when you’re confronted with something completely unexpected, outside even the realm of, you know, sort of your worst nightmare, there’s a sense of like shock and then, “How am I going to work with this?” I don’t feel like I was great at it, or that I am, like, really, just sailing through this and applying the teachings. I have said something that helped me, and I think that I just wanted to be clear that although that has helped me, it’s not like I haven’t suffered. It’s not like I feel like I was always able to do that, and never overwhelmed by it or just caught in it—but it hasn’t been like that. Maybe there are some people, some really great, realized people who can do that, but I really honestly haven’t been able to sail through this. It’s been difficult. It’s less now, it’s less intense, but it hasn’t been easy.

TS: I appreciate your humility in sharing that part of it. I think that’s very helpful to people.

LT: It’s the truth. I think it’s important that what was helpful to me also in grieving was the people who just allowed me to be where I was, you know? And not feeling like I had to be in a different state than I was, but more that—you know in the myth of Inanna and Ereshkigal? I remember when she’s way down—Inanna goes into a descent into the underworld. The way that Inanna is eventually rescued is by those who go down to rescue her and she says, “Oh, oh, my insides,” and they say “Oh, oh, your inside,” and [then she says,] “Oh, oh, my outsides,” and they just mirror, “Oh, oh, your outsides.” I think that’s something so powerful if you’re with somebody who’s grieving, is just to be that kind of witness of “Oh, oh, my inside; oh, oh, your insides.” You know, that simple presence and a witnessing is very helpful.

TS: Llama Tsultrim, I want to end, in a way, by making a full circle—which is, even though you haven’t stated this explicitly more than once in this conversation, I’ve heard it a couple times, which is this idea of trusting ourselves and how you had to do that in taking your seat, and I even hear you doing that in the process of your life of finding your way through the grief journey. I wonder what you could say that might be helpful to people in terms of helping them trust themselves more as they journey on their path.

LT: Well, I think in order to trust yourself, you have to know yourself. So that means being aware of what you actually think, what you actually feel, in various situations—not what you should think or should feel or what you’ve been taught to, or what your teacher tells you should—but what you do. That might sound easy, but I don’t think it is. I think we come with so many “shoulds” and so many influences in our lives, that to know yourself is actually quite difficult.

So I think one of the ways that I would advise people to know themselves is through meditation, through stopping, because when you meditate, you stop. And then you begin to see your mind—what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, what’s happening. And then also watching others react to you and your reaction to others. You begin to see yourself. It can be very unpleasant sometimes. Like you might think, “Oh know yourself. Oh, I’m just going to discover this amazing being,” you know, but that’s not it. You know? That might be part of it, but you’re also going to discover your shadow and the things that you don’t want to know about yourself. So within all of that, there’s gems of truth and development, because once we begin to know our shadow or know or demons, admit our demons, then we begin to become more integrated as people.

So if you just look at my life, for example, with the process that I went through of having to own my own values, and then the process of feeding our demons or the process of the grief, and coming into an honest relationship with that—all of those has really to do with trying to be honest with myself. So there’s lots of different methods to do that—meditation, therapy, dream work, the mandala of the five dakinis that I teach [is] very powerful in that. So there’s many, many methods, but all of them are pointing to honesty and authenticness as human beings, and our foibles, our weakness, is part of the beauty of us as human beings. So I would just encourage people to allow yourself to be human and then capture the gems and develop them within your own humanity.

TS: I’ve been speaking with Lama Tsultrim Allione. With Sounds True, Llama Tsultrim has created a five-session audio course on The Mandala of the Enlightened Feminine. It’s a course on tapping into the five Buddhist female archetypes, or dakinis, for transformation. She’s also created at two-session audio learning program called Cutting Through Fear. It is a version of the Chöd practice that we’ve been discussing in this conversation that helps you work on transforming and releasing difficult emotions.

Lama Tsultrim, it’s great to be with you and really commune. I feel really grateful for this conversation.

LT: It was my pleasure, and before we dissolve this I’d just like to send out a generation of spreading the merit of our conversation to all beings and gratitude to all the listeners and everyone who’s listening to this because they’re on their path, and they’re seeking, and I’m grateful to all of them.

TS: Wonderful. Sounds True. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.

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