Delving into ‘Dharma Dialogues’

Nancy Haught

Oregonian, January 30, 1999

As befits someone with 20 years of Buddhism behind her, Catherine Ingram has few illusions about her job: She teaches people something they already know.

What Ingram teaches cannot be learned, practiced, achieved or attained, she says, only realized. What Ingram teaches is that human beings already possess all that they need to be happy – nothing.

Ingram, a teacher and journalist who offers her “Dharma Dialogues” throughout the United States and Great Britain, is in the midst of a quarterly series here in Portland, her home for the past four years and home to a satsang (Sanskrit for “truth community”) of about 200 people who share her understanding of being and freedom.

That understanding is based on the nondual teachings of two Indian masters, Ramana Maharshi and his disciple, H.W.I Poonjaji. The latter became Ingram’s teacher in 1991, when her longtime Buddhist practice began, in her words, “to fall away.”

“Intensive Buddhist meditation practice has been my life for a long time,” she says. “I needed to earn a living, so I became a dharma journalist and I helped found a meditation center in Massachusetts. I had developed this proficiency in watching my mind, but my life was relatively joyless. I didn’t feel the love that I knew was available somewhere.”

She found herself in a dark night of the soul: “Buddhism had fallen away. The idea of practice had fallen away.”

Her search for something to take its place led her from San Francisco to India and to Poonjaji, “a remarkable teacher.”

“In meeting him all I really saw was that there was nothing to do, nothing to seek for. That only imagination impedes happiness. We imagine that we’re separate. We imagine that we have these problems.”

Imagination gives rise to what Ingram calls the “story.” Each of us spins his or her own story, allowing it to dominate our thoughts and actions as each day, each chapter unfolds. The story is about each of us, what we have done, what others have done to us, what we have lost and what we have acquired. We get caught up in our own stories, their emotional ups and downs, their tensions and triumphs. We fiddle with them, rewinding and replaying the past and fast forwarding to the future.

This story-driven way of life is unnatural, Ingram says, and takes a toll on all who live it. Ultimately, such stories create suffering, she says. What is natural is an immaculate, shining presence that exists in each of us, before the story starts, underneath it. In her classes and retreats, Ingram tries to help her students recognize this presence, to swap the suffering of story for genuine happiness, the freedom of just being.

“It’s an immediate recognition of what is already the case, right now, a present awareness,” she says. “You don’t attain it, you just relax into it, a stream of now.”

Poonjaji led Ingram to this awareness, one that she says has brought her the joy and love that had been missing in her life. With it came an overwhelming compassion an a call to activism. Her book, In the Footsteps of Gandhi, is a collection of interviews with a dozen contemporary social activists including the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Cesar Chavez.

“This love I am speaking about more and more wants to give itself away, to be of sevice to others,” says Ingram, who co-founded the Unrepresented Nations and People Organization In The Hague, Netherlands.

By her own estimate, Ingram has given more than a thousand “Dharma Dialogues.” In the two-hour sessions she calls “interactive meditations” she welcomes questions and comments as she describes her experience, encouraging what she calls “a switch in perception.”

“Assume the mind is mad,” she says. “Freedom is in the impersonal welcoming of whatever madness arises and in the calm knowing that it all inevitably passes.”

It is a matter of releasing beliefs, pictures or stories that obscure the shining presence and resisting the temptation to replace them with new beliefs, pictures or stories. “It’s more about subtraction than addition,” she says.