by Jill Kelly: Catherine Ingram says she started asking the big questions of life “as far back as I can remember…
I had a miserable childhood and by age 12, I was a seeker, looking for answers and a better way.” In 1974, poised to head alone to India on a spiritual quest, she heard about the newly formed Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO, and changed her plans.
Over the next 17 years, Ingram was a student of Buddhism, studying with various teachers and colleagues, many of whom are now big names on the American Buddhist scene. Some of that time she lived in Asia, often eking out a living as a journalist writing about consciousness and activism.
Then Ingram encountered her own version of the mid-life crisis. “I went through a time of intense suffering. While I still loved the Buddhist community and the individuals in it, the spiritual techniques and the belief structure didn’t work for me anymore. I was tired of seeking. My life felt meaningless and I fell into despair. But I also couldn’t imagine returning to a more material existence. I’d lived the lean and simple meditative life too long.”
At age 39, Ingram came upon the non-dual spiritual tradition through the teachings of H.W.L. Poonjaji. “With Poonjaji, I discovered that I was already free–all I had to do was recognize it within my true self. I learned that by relaxing into the truth of the present, I had all that I had ever wanted.”
Ingram’s acceptance of this revelation changed both her spiritual life and her life path. She began assisting long-time friend Ram Dass in his retreats, and he suggested she begin her own teaching. As a child, Ingram had wanted to be a school-teacher, so, in some ways, it’s not surprising that she has ended up as the leader of Living Dharma, a spiritual community she founded.
Although Living Dharma has been headquartered here since Ingram moved to Portland a few years ago, she travels widely, giving retreats and meditation “discussions,” called Dharma Dialogues, to her followers across North America and Europe, as far afield as Los Angeles and Dublin, Ireland. These communities seem to form quite naturally around this very charismatic person.
The Dharma Dialogue I went to this spring at the Yoga College of India was well attended, both by new seekers and Living Dharma com-munity members. During the 2-hour session, Ingram told stories and parables and encouraged questions, often answering with examples from her own experience. The atmosphere was gentle and welcoming, the questions and answers humorous and sincere at the same time.
The same warmth and humor were equally evident one-on-one when I talked with Ingram some weeks later. She lives in a house in SW Portland, her refuge from the road: she travels 5-6 months a year. Like most of us, she isn’t always happy that work has taken over nearly every minute of her life; she talks about finding better balance, including more time to spend with her brother, who has AIDS.
Her life is less simple as teacher than it was as student, for the burdens of maintaining the organization of Living Dharma are mostly hers; even though it is spiritually based, there are still business aspects to consider. And living on donations in the Buddhist tradition can be a bit precarious.
Old friends from the Naropa days help keep her humble, she says, and her decades of spiritual practice, of staying real in her life, of recognizing ego and pretense, come in handy. She has no aspirations to become a guru. But she is genuinely intent on sharing what she learned from Poonjaji. “Many people are ready for a new perspective. And it’s gratifying to me to watch the community form as people share in a love affair with this truth that has been waiting to be noticed. I love watching the stress drop away and the faces lighten up as they relax into that truth.”