Meet the Sangha: A Conversation with Beth Lee-Herbert on Practice, Retreat, Life and Distraction

January 30, 2015


Nina—Beth, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview for our magazine.  I know through the grapevine that you completed a three-year retreat at Tara Mandala a couple of years ago.  I’ve been eager to find out from you how that came about and anything you’d like to share about the experience.  I’ve also been curious how your life has been evolving since then.

Beth—Actually, I stumbled into doing the three-year retreat.  I didn’t mean to do it.  When Rinpoche was here last I told him that I wanted to do a year-long retreat and he gave me big encouragement to do that.  I began what I had intended to be a year-long retreat in February 2009. Jampa Dorje (formerly Richard Denner) had begun a three-year retreat under Rinpoche about a month before I began. Rinpoche had given him instruction for his first year of retreat and said that when he returned the following year he would give him further guidance. Of course, that was the last year Rinpoche was able to come. At the same time Tulku Sangngak Rinpoche began teaching the Dzinpa Rangdrol cycle at Tara Mandala, so we both just jumped into that. The Dzinpa Rangdrol is a terma cycle of Do Khyentse closely linked to the Longchen Nyingthig. Tulku Sangngak Rinpoche was willing to teach us the whole cycle, and it gave me the purpose I needed to stay in retreat. It was kind of by mistake.  I hadn’t intended to spend three years in retreat! Actually, though, the tsa lung and Dzogchen practices of the Longchen Nyingthig and the Dzinpa Rangdrol are quite similar. Do Khyentse was the direct reincarnation of Jigme Lingpa, and there’s that whole Tibetan tradition of plagiarism being the highest compliment.

Nina—Beth, it strikes me as funny and incomprehensible that you say that you fell into your three years of retreat by mistake!

Beth—Yes it was completely a mistake.  I remember in the summer of 2005 when Rinpoche came to Tara Mandala, we did a sang to bless the land where the cabins for three-year retreat would be built.  I remember people being all excited about it and wanting to do three-year. I remember thinking that this had absolutely nothing to do with me, as there was no way that I would do long retreat.  There was zero possibility of that happening. Three and a half years later I was starting my retreat on that very spot.  My retreat hut was a five minute walk from the place Rinpoche had blessed.

Nina—(laughter) Wow.

Beth—It really made me believe in past lives.  I could see that it must have been karma from then, because doing that retreat wasn’t anything that I had intended in this life.  It was as though it had a momentum of its own.

Nina—That’s amazing.  Somehow I can’t imagine just falling into doing a three year retreat. But as you describe how it unfolded I do get a sense of what you mean. Since three year retreat is such an intensive structure, I’ve always wondered how it is for people when they get out and find themselves back in the world, how they are able to integrate the two experiences.

Beth—I’m still figuring it out, especially around work and practice.  I find it challenging dealing with my patterns around work, how I can get super-focused and diligent and not stay relaxed about my work.  Some days are better than others.  Retreat can be very challenging because you’re on your own and facing all the stuff that comes up with no way to distract yourself from it.  On the other hand, being out of retreat has its own kind of challenges.  For me the test is working on the computer and not getting lost in distraction, in that numb void of the internet.  It’s like a perpetual state of distraction.  They are like opposite worlds, one that brings you closer to yourself, and the other that tries to suck you further away.

In three-year retreat your whole life becomes retreat, your normal everyday life is only practice.  It’s a completely different paradigm than practicing in the world.  Integrating has been a long, slow process.  It’s harder to be in retreat because there is no escape, but it’s so frustrating to be back in the world and seeing the mind get so caught up and distracted.  Sometimes it seems endless.  Our culture is anti-Dharmic, creating things that are purposefully addictive to try to suck us into wasting our time, to base our happiness on what is external to ourselves.

Actually all spiritual practice is very challenging.  If you truly are changing, it’s really hard.

Nina—What ways have you found to integrate these two different kinds of worlds?

Beth—I’ve been trying to go back and forth between Dharma retreat and life.  Also, I like to keep my practice fresh and progressing, so getting new teachings, different perspectives on the same thing. And also just going with what comes up – working with whatever happens as the practice.

In the world, creative expression brings me close to Dharma—both creating and being exposed to other people’s creations.  Artistic and creative expression feel really close to Dharma somehow.

Nina—What in the arts does that for you?

Beth—I was a dancer before getting involved with the Dharma.  There are moments when you are so in your body, in the music, the movement.  You’re completely there.  It feels very much like Dharma practice.  Or a beautiful painting—it takes you to a transcendent place, similar to the Dharma.  It takes you out of your ordinary mind.  The blah, blah, blah can’t stick.

Nina—Actually, the idea for putting together this magazine came to me during a retreat. I imagined how rich and unifying it would be for us to share our journeys and our creative work with each other.  It occurred to me while Rinpoche was still coming back here every year.

Beth—I’m so grateful that you’ve put together this magazine.  It was wonderful to see it! In the past, Rinpoche came regularly and the mandala kept being pulled together every year. It’s so crucial for us now that we do not have that opportunity to find new ways to stick together as a Sangha.  It takes a lot of creative means and requires that we are the ones who manifest it.