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I Worked the Steps and “They” Changed


Click here for the Retreat Photos.

I’m writing this on December 4th, 2006 after returning from retreat this weekend. It’s my 9 year sobriety birthday today. In the 12-Step community we often hear people talk about how when they came in they thought everybody was an asshole. They say, “then after I worked the steps, you all changed!”. It’s kind of funny that way. When we look at ourselves, take responsibility for our position in life, the blaming subsides. As long as the ‘locus of control’ is external, I’m a helpless victim of circumstances. When I bring it in to my own mind, it is only then that I can do something about it. If you read the last blog entry on Dharma Neurosis, it will be easier to put this one into perspective.

I’m not sure why, but this saying is what comes to mind regarding the experience I had this weekend in Seattle at the Dharma Friendship Foundation. The teacher was Venerable Robina Courtin. We were invited to stay at a woman’s home, where the teacher was also staying. It was in the lovely suburban neighborhood of Magnolia in Central Seattle. The center was about a mile from the house. A couple of hundred feet from the door of the center was a Tully’s and a Starbuck’s, and several restaurants. Everything we needed was right there. It was a self-contained retreat experience, but without being confined to a retreat center.

The lady who hosted us lives in the downstairs of her house and reserves the upstairs for visiting teachers and students. She’s an ecologist, cat and dog lover who took refuge 31 years ago. The home has several altars, tangkas on every wall, pictures or symbols above every door way, and is lined with books on many subjects, particularly – you guessed it, Buddhism!

She offered us food, conversation and warmth, as well as fresh towels and lots of pillows. When we were ready to go out, she came out with a house key on a red string. There was a little grey cat, and three dogs, one of which was a very skiddish rescue who had been returned to the shelter after snapping at her new owner. That didn’t sway Ruth from taking “Uma” in, however.

At the teachings down the street, the vibe was just as nice. The small center is basically one room that holds about 25 people. A lot of people made eye contact with us, and said hellow. Several went out of their way to come up and greet both myself and Tysa. I did my usual, “Hi, I’m Darren, what’s your name?” thing that I do at retreats, and had no problem connecting with everyone with whom I made an effort. This was really new, and really cool, and I can’t figure it out. Have I come to some new realization, or are the people at this center just nicer? It was really, really interesting.

Venerable Robina taught on the topic of the Root Delusions from the lamrim text by Yangsi Rinpoche, Practicing the Path: A Commentary on the Lamrim Chenmo. She laid it out, broke it down, cleared it up, and made it sink in – in her usual direct, precise and hard hitting style. We all soaked it up like dry sponges in a dharma desert. If you listen to Robina and still don’t get it – well, you better look at yourself. Because she is definitely the no B.S, super knowledgeable, super heavy duty, real deal teacher of the Dharma. No question. Check up! (as Venerable is fond of saying).

We had lunch and a discussion group with Robina on the first day and worked with her on a project deadline later, back at the house. That was really fun to have that one-on-one interaction with the teacher that really effectively brought (and continues to bring) the Dharma to my understanding. I remember the first time I heard her talk a couple of years ago. I mentioned to her after that I wasn’t sure I remembered everything she said. She just smiled and said, “that’s ok, the seeds are sewn”. Indeed they were. They say to see the teacher as Buddha. With Venerable, it’s no stretch of the imagination. The closer contact made our trip really special, on top of everything else. I consider it quite a blessing.

We went to a meetiing on Saturday night at a cafe in Downtown seattle. I wound up chairing the meeting. The topic was, “our very lives as ex-problem drinkers depend upon our constant thought of others”. In Buddhism, this is called Bodhicitta. I connected with a guy after the meeting who was having a little trouble. As we talked, I recommended that he try some breathing meditation to calm down a bit. He pulled out a book on Tibetan Buddhism and said, “yeah, I’m working on that!”. A coincidence? Uh…I don’t THINK so.

All of the people were nice, the setting was fantastic and the teachings were rock solid. There is not a single person with whom I had trouble. Why did I have such a positive experience? Because I take refuge in the essence of the teachings, because I’m working a program, because ‘they’ are nicer than ‘they’ are in other places? Maybe it was because Tysa was with me and I felt less alienated and defensive. All of the above are the causes, in my opinion, to make these conditions possible. According to the Dharma, we make our own beds.

Tysa got into the Dharma, I made new friends and the teachings were deepened for both of us. We made malas to give to Venerable Robina as offerings, but the one I gave her broke all over the floor within a minute of giving it to her. Tysa’s worked out much better and I think Robina liked it a lot, which made me really happy. Tysa and I talked buddhism all the 3 hours drive home on Sunday night, and for the first time, I wasn’t just telling her all about it. We were processing together, explaining what we had learned, integrating it with our spiritual lives in recovery. It was really beautiful. Tysa says, “Robina TAUGHT ME. She taught me”. Pretty cool, now we’re more on the same page. Tysa’s always been supportive of my spiritual pursuits, but hasn’t followed the same path. I remember the first time she saw me meditating, about 9 years ago. I don’t think she knew what to make of it. She said something like, “so, do you think you’re spiritual now?”. I enjoy growing spiritually with her, and this was a great step to take together.

So I rejoice in the comfort of this retreat experience. I’m very grateful and appreciative of the Buddha, the Dharma AND the Sangha, and the deep meaning that it’s all taking in my life. Tysa asked me if there was one thing that I could say was the most relevant teaching of the weekend. I’ll leave you with the answer to her question.

Robina taught us a view of meditation, and the two basic types. Namely analysis and concentration. After hearing teachings, then thinking through the topic, the Tibetan Buddhist way is to watch your mind, keeping the awareness on the single point of your meditation. Develop the realization, then try to stay with it. She kept repeating, ‘stay …stay …stay.. like you’d tell a dog!’. Her next words were an epiphany for me. She said that when your concentration drifts, to ‘Just Keep Coming Back…’.

It works. It really does.


As always, comments are welcome.



2 comments to I Worked the Steps and “They” Changed

  • LoriR

    Loved your article on this…is there anywhere online where I can access any of Venerable Robina’s lectures? From your description of her no-nonsense style, I’m really interested in checking her teachings out!

  • Yes there are more mp3s than you would have time to listen to. They’re organized by year. VRC goes to Boston annually. Check it out here:

    There are also a ton of other recordings by lamas who teach there.