For the month of August, a group of senior Sukhasiddhi students in the lineage program are doing intensive White Tara practice in silent retreat. In this interview, Sandy Shelton, one of the organizers of this retreat, about the choice of White Tara practice and the power of doing a long spell of concentrated practice.
Tell us a little about what led you to put together this retreat.
Last August, a small group of us did a month-long Chöd retreat at the center — some for two weeks, some for four. In my two weeks, I received so much benefit. For that period, I disengaged from my usual way of life. I still had my phone but didn’t use it much. It really allowed me to peel off the layers of everyday life — the news, old habits, my family. Two weeks to a month gave us the time and space to get past these layers and go deeper.
Last year’s retreat was so powerful that we decided to do it every year, not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of Sukhasiddhi and the whole world. Any time we spend time with our issues, our layers, it helps everybody — not only our process, but the prayers we offer. As we go deeper and get more clear, the intention of the prayers gets more powerful.
There are four main people putting on the retreat: Robin Winn, Karla Downing, Rick Halsted, and me, Sandy Shelton. We are responsible for everything, so it’s an opportunity for us to learn all the pieces of the ritual in a different way than we have before. So we are learning and growing as we hold the space, as well as having the opportunity for our own practice.
What benefits have you experienced from longer retreat?
I did a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock a number of years ago. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. When I did the Chöd last year, it was the first time I’d done a long retreat in the Tibetan tradition, and for me, it was a lot easier. In contrast with what we did at Spirit Rock, the use of mantras create a vibration in the body, and when I concentrate on a visualization, I can see immediately when my mind drifts. So I get immediate teachings in an experiental way.
After the last two-week retreat, when I went back into my ordinary life I could catch myself more immediately when I slipped out of awareness because that’s what I’d been doing and seeing in those two weeks. This heightened awareness dissipated over time, but I know I’ve gained great benefits from that two weeks.
I love these longer retreats. I couldn’t do a three-year retreat, but to retreat for longer periods really nourishes me. It’s not always peaceful. Sometimes I’m dealing with so much stuff, but it allows me the space to deal with that stuff. It can be painful or it can be ecstatic. I love getting into the space where all of these states can flow through — anger one day, ecstasy another day — and the focused time helps me see it all as just the play of awakened mind.
This retreat focuses on White Tara. Tell me about your experience of White Tara and the benefits you’ve received from doing her practice.
I’ve had a mystery illness for 4.5 years. I am so much better now than I was, but for 2-2.5 years, I could barely walk to the bathroom. White Tara has to do with health, vitality and deathlessness in the ultimate form. For me, as I come out of this health issue, doing this retreat that brings vitality and embodies the mother of all is poignant to me.
One of the qualities I experience through White Tara practice is incredible love. When I embody her, I recognize a love from my own body that I didn’t have while I was sick. I think it’s common when you’re sick that you find yourself saying, I don’t like this; I don’t want this; what can I do to fix this? There’s something about White Tara that has held me in a way that I can feel vitality and health and love for this body no matter where it is. Sometimes when I’m walking and feel tired, stuff comes up. But when it happens, it’s like a bell telling me to walk as Tara. Sometimes I feel like I’m totally White Tara, and sometimes I’m Sandy pretending I’m White Tara. But really it’s about loving all of myself—not just the physical body.
Many of us don’t grow up loving ourselves in a deep, nurturing way. White Tara is teaching me to do that for myself. It’s so much easier for me to do it for other people. All these edges I come to, they’re really these lines going deeper, and as I start to see them, they get less and less solid. The edge starts to be gray between them. The process is so alive and requires my presence. That’s what I like about these longer retreats — the clarity and calmness that comes, though I’ve had some retreats where that didn’t happen. I did a lovingkindness retreat a few years ago and learned that before you really open to lovingkindness you have to see where you don’t have it in your own heart.
White Tara is wonderful because it is a practice that anyone can walk into and do. Going forward, I’d love to keep opening these retreats to new people, focusing on practices that everyone can do so that others can join us.