Catherine Ingram, wearing a brown jersey and a red watch, ended her opening meditation with a soft, deep, deluxe smile that in a way seemed wasted on her few students in their hard-backed chairs. It was the kind of smile I used to go to India in search of. Not something you expect to find in an upper room between Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Ingram has put behind her the trappings of Buddhism, Advaita Hinduism, all spiritual isms. Not a remedy for attracting multitudes. Most spiritual students want a teacher who is part of a movement, not a refugee from at least two.
I was drawn to her dignified aloneness and vulnerability, to the fact that she was herself once a journalist, to the mystery of how a woman of sixty manages to look like a young forty.
“The emphasis of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition I was trained in was suffering.” Ingram was one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts. “Now the pendulum of spiritual teaching has swung towards happiness. Even in the universities there are courses in happiness. It’s all the rage. You get the feeling you are failing if you are not happy. I never thought I failed at suffering,” she laughed.
Ingram prefers the term wellbeing to happiness, which seems to her a bit too flimsy. Actually, she would rather her students not chase after any particular state.
She calls her encounters Dharma Dialogues. Students, sometimes non-students, will dialogue with her about their cancer, their unhappy old bones, or if they are young, about tripping over their wild energy.
“I recommend slowness,” she’ll say to them. “Slowness is wonderful.”
Not slowness as a bridge to heightened spirituality, but slowness for the sake of experiencing its inherent sanity.
That evening, I was surprised when a young man, in an oddly perturbed voice, recounted his prolonged experience with spiritual joy. (“Students never come to me with problems about joy,” I once heard the lapsed Zen teacher Toni Packer say.)
“I did nothing to bring it on. I did nothing to make it stay. It was there all the time, this sense of being beyond time, unburdened, connected to the world without being part of the world.”
I was skeptical, knowing how we edit our experiences, especially spiritual ones. But Ingram was encouraging.
“That’s excellent. My teacher (Papaji of Lucknow) emphasized the end of searching. ‘There is nothing to search for because nothing is missing.’ What is it like for you now? Is the joy still there?”
It was, he said, but less often. Shadows now obscure the light sometimes. But he was all right with that, he said. His eyes were not so sure.
Ingram beamed like a proud mother. That’s what’s best about her. She stands with her students, not above them.
Walking home through Manhattan’s noisy Midtown streets, I thought of one of the things she said that night: “I want to dive into the mystery of life in my time here.” It slowed my steps. The challenge of turning to mystery in the big city.
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Robert Hirschfield is a freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in Ode Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, Outlook (the Indian newsweekly), and the London Jewish Chronicle, among other publications. He has travelled most recently to north and South India, and to Israel and the West Bank.
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