Interviews with Karuna Students: Penelope Sands

Penelope Sands is a Karuna Graduate Student who has, in her words, ‘had a very unusual life.’ Living with chronic illness for her entire adult life, Penelope spent 25 years making her way through her undergraduate degree. She had hoped to continue her education with the Contemplative Psychology MA at Naropa University, but worried that her health would interrupt her studies.

Studying Ancient but Cutting Edge Teachings

Penelope had been studying and practicing in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche since 1996, first with Pema Chodron, then at Naropa University. “These teachings on contemplative or Buddhist psychology are unique.” She explains “Both rooted in a tradition that goes back thousands of years to the time of the historical Buddha and also incredibly cutting edge at the same time.”

Then Penelope heard about Karuna Training. “It seemed like the perfect way for me to engage with the same material as the MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy (MACP) without worrying about my health interrupting or spending $66k on something I may never be able to complete or pay off.”

“Mindfulness is such a buzzword nowadays in psychology and so many therapists are using mindfulness in such a superficial way.” she goes on to explain. “For me to have these teachings available, teachings on basic goodness, intrinsic sanity and how to work with extreme mind states in ourselves and with others, along with meditation instruction that goes way beyond “mindfulness”, have become invaluable to me. Aside from going to Naropa University to do the master’s degree, there is really no other way to study and practice these teachings in depth, with myself and with others.”

Practicing Compassion with Self and Others

Penelope says that Karuna has really helped her with some of her personal goals. “About five years ago I took on a personal challenge, assisted by my therapist, to become, in my own words “my bestest and most compassionate friend.”” she recounts. “Karuna has turned out to be an excellent arena in which to deepen this challenge.”

This came out particularly in working with social interactions. “Working with groups has often been challenging for me.” Penelope explains “I’m an introvert and I’m outspoken. People often misunderstand me and sometimes this causes conflict. I can rub people up the wrong way. Being Australian in the US and not typically Australian in Australia, can compound this effect. I have often felt like an outsider wherever I go and misunderstood was a feeling that traveled with me. Not so much at Karuna.”

During Karuna Training, Penelope says that “It feels as though there is a lot of spaciousness around me and at the same time that space has a feeling of openness and kindness. Karuna means compassion in Sanskrit and time and time again I would see compassion as the foundation for the training: compassion in the group, from the teachers, towards each other and towards myself.”

Providing a Container in Karuna Training and Beyond

Penelope says Karuna has also helped in other trainings she participates in. “This year and last year I have participated in two circling trainings. I have discovered over and over how much Karuna Training (building upon my previous study and practice in this lineage) has supported me at these other trainings. Karuna has provided a foundational view and lineage that has supported me when the other trainings seemed New Age or without foundation… without lineage… or with gaps and holes and missing parts.”

“For me container and context are incredibly important and so the lineage, the material and the teachers, as well as members of the group as we progressed, provided a very clear and nurturing container to explore.” Penelope explains “There was a feeling that I could go a very very long way into these practices and learning experience and always feel held. I was held in a container that respected compassion and wisdom, loving kindness and open mindedness. As in other Dharma study, I had the sense that there was not an agenda being pushed. I was encouraged to open and see what I see, experience what I experience and learn from that. Through this, I developed more and more confidence. Not in my “small” self but just in being. I gained basic confidence in myself and others.”

Support in Challenging Times

Penelope also says that Karuna has helped her get through difficult times. “These past 6 months have been very very challenging for me.” she explains. “Two people have died, one of them very suddenly and someone I rely on day to day, week to week. My best friend in Australia was diagnosed with cancer and I returned for a couple of months to help her recover from brutal treatment. During this time I had three experiences of being verbally attacked by men, very aggressive energy and language. One man called me the c-word 5 times. Even though this last one did shake me up, what I did notice was how calm I was in the face of this abuse. I believe this to be a direct result of Karuna Training.”

“In the first instance, a man yelled “fuck you!” to me in my face, while I was trying to support another participant in a conflict with him and I just sat there unfazed. “Ok fuck me!” I replied. After this experience, my body was full of energy that I thought at first was anger, but I realized that it was just intense energy and I was able to work with it, not suppress it or act it out towards anyone. I just allowed it to move me and then move through. This was an extraordinary experience and I am certain that Karuna the week before had prepared me for it.”

Penelope says that the ground of Karuna is “having this shared reality of basic goodness, intrinsic health and basic confidence in ourselves to work with whatever energies come our way.”

“I still don’t know whether I will be able to work before I reach retirement age, whether I will be single or coupled or when I will get sick again.” she says “However, Karuna has met me in so many ways and deepened my own relationship with myself and others, that these concerns are less concerning. I am more relaxed. I am more able to deal with whatever comes my way. My friends and family have noticed. I can see that Karuna has been cultivating something in me. It’s hard to describe, but I hope that it comes through. My aspiration doing Karuna was to cultivate basic confidence (in place of my old family habit of nervous assertion) and I feel as though I am well on my way to this coming to fruition. I feel a much stronger trust in the basic goodness of humans generally and individuals, including myself, in particular.”