Interviews with Karuna Students: Miriam Hall

Miriam is a Miksang photographer, writer and teacher from Madison Wisconsin. Her teaching work, primarily within the Shambhala Buddhist community, focuses on helping students with writing, and teaching Miksang photography. Miriam has a warm, calming way of communicating that is both friendly and sharp with perception. With a confident tone and a clarity of speech that only comes from years of teaching, every moment of our conversation feels like an opportunity to learn. Miram says it was her teaching work that first introduced her to Karuna Training. While teaching for Shambala in Europe (where Karuna Training has been operating for 20 years) she began to notice certain teachers who seemed like exceptionally good communicators.

They were exceptional in the way that they were with other people, in their sense of humor, in the way that they manage relationships, and something about … their energy was really good.” Miriam explained. After a few years of noticing this pattern, she asked one of these exceptional communicators why there were so many teachers like this in Europe. “Well I don’t know about the rest of the people” the teacher responded “but I did Karuna Training and I think that’s had this effect on me.” Miriam then started naming others that she had noticed these communication skills from and quickly found that they were all Karuna Training graduates.

Noticing Karuna Communication Skills
Miriam was intrigued, because these weren’t all people she would normally get along with, in terms of personality, but she was always able to make things work. This was a big contrast to her other working relationships, where sometimes personality conflicts led to the relationships falling apart. “I didn’t have the training and they didn’t have the training to try to … face the conflict and go through it.” she explains. “And one of the things that people said to me early on was that they felt like they were really dedicated to Shambhala and they got in a lot of the teachings, but that what Karuna Training gave them was skillful means for how to deal with stuff, how to deal with situations, in particular how to deal with conflict.”

Miriam was also very interested in Maitri Space Awareness, before beginning Karuna Training. When she asked another teacher about how she could go about learning to teach Maitri Space Awareness, he said there were two main options – the $40,000 a year program at Naropa University, and Karuna Training – which was only in Europe at that time. Miriam was excited to learn that Karuna Training included Maitri Space Awareness, but knew that both Naropa, and traveling to Europe for the Karuna Training program were out of her price range. Then Karuna Training came to the US, so she decided to make the trip to from Wisconsin to Berkeley, CA to check out an introductory weekend.

Interestingly, the teacher of the weekend, Sandra Ladley, was someone that Miriam had worked with in other programs and had had tension with in the past.  But Miriam stayed open minded, almost excited to see whether the Karuna communication magic she had noticed in Europe would help with these tensions. Sure enough, she ended up talking to Sandra who kindly but directly pointed towards their past conflicts. “You know I’m not sure exactly what it is” Miriam recounts Sandra saying “but I wanted to name it, because if you do this we’re going to be spending a lot of time together in a really intimate situation. And I like you and I think you like me and we’ve got something kind of going on between the two of us.”

“And we both cried” Miriam goes on to say “and then we were both able to just be really tender and open about it even though we didn’t fully understand what it was. We knew that there was something there.”

Trust in the Power of Softening
When asked what she got out of the training, Miriam said there were two main areas where she saw big improvement. First, she says that Karuna Training saved her marriage. “I have had real struggles with control, with a sense of forcing, with a sense of being trying to be uber-independent and not ask for help.” Miriam explains “…which made for the rough start of a marriage, and a rough continuation of marriage, as you can imagine. Karuna Training started at just the right time, when I needed to start to soften.”

Miriam says that Karuna Training really softened her as a human being. “It taught me, in an experiential way, that softening is strength….Which is a nice concept. It’s a concept that I tell people and they’re like ‘Oh! Yeah, totally!’ But then I see them or myself turn around and get hard-ass and think that that’s strength. Thinking it is one thing, or hearing it is one thing, but actually feeling it is something else. All the exercises we do, all the interactions we have, all of that really, finally developed a very deep trust in the power of softening.”

The other area where Miriam saw change was in her professional life. “There’s a lot of the work that I do especially, with people with writing, that takes the form of something like coaching.” says Miriam.  “Especially becoming a meditation instructor, and furthering that path, I started to get more people who were basically saying to me ‘Would you be my coach?’ And I said ‘Sure… except for I have almost no training in work with other people’s minds, except for meditation instruction!’ That didn’t feel sufficient.”

Miriam explains that, while being totally upfront with her clients about what her certifications and trainings were and were not, she started working on supporting them. As she puts it “Art is not separate from life. It doesn’t happen in some vacuum from life. My writing students are working on personal writing, quite a few of them working on a memoir. And so stuff’s going to come up.”

With Karuna Training, Miriam says “I can go deeper with my students now and support them. I wasn’t interested in getting an MFA or going to a coaching program and learning how to teach people ‘good motivations’ or how to ‘get your shit going!’. This was what I wanted… It’s how to let people do something, in their own way, like what I was doing, which is actually to get softer.” Now she says she gets “to help them find their way through more intuitively.”

Miriam believes this softness and vulnerability is crucial for art, as well as for everyday life. “We need to feel deeply connected in order to write stories that are true, in the big sense.” She explains, saying that the Four Step Process (a tool taught in Karuna Training) has helped her drop below her own storyline, both in writing and her life.

Facing Discomfort with Compassion
Miriam also found power in another Karuna Training method, Speaking From The Heart Group, which she is using in her practicum for the Karuna graduate training. “We did a speaking from the heart group about race, with a group of eight white people.” she explains. In the group, participants were encouraged to bring up anything they were thinking about or feeling that had to do with race. Miriam says “I watched one of the most awkward ‘Get me out of here’ conversations. People were literally saying ‘I just want to be very clear that right now that I’d like to stand up from the couch and run out of the room.’” But this shifted as the group went on. “People were able to just speak exactly what was going on for them, and speak to their discomfort, and watch that slip and completely go into this place of total openness.” she recalls. “One person just started weeping and was like ‘This is one of the first times in my life I’ve been in a high conflict situation, where I realized I don’t have to do a single thing. I don’t have to fix anything. I can just be here… And what a relief that is.’” Miriam went on to say that of course, you eventually want to do something, but Karuna Training has taught her that it’s more helpful to first “be able to actually be there and see what’s useful, what’s possible.”

Miriam’s advice to those considering joining Karuna Training? “This is really great training in a way that you would never get otherwise.” She says a lot of people interested in the program during her introductory weekend introduced themselves by saying “I just wanted to be a better father or a better dad or a better human being. And I want to know how to do that.”

“Of course, who doesn’t want to be a better person.” She says laughing “But how do you do that? What I have been saying to people is ‘If you’ve been hungering for tools and for actual situations where you can practice better being a better human being and finding the strength and ability Here’s a great place to do it.’”