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How to Heal Despair with Venerable Robina Courtin

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Our very first podcast guest, Venerable Robina Courtin, is back in today’s timely episode on how to deal with the despair and hopelessness many people feel today about war, injustice, inequity, and the environment. Venerable Robina was ordained as a Buddhist nun in the late 1970s. She’s worked closely with her teachers Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, to help spread Buddhist wisdom as an Editorial Director of Wisdom Publications, Editor of Mandala Magazine, Executive Director of Liberation Prison Project, and a lively, charismatic touring teacher of Buddhism.

[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: Venerable Robina, it’s a pleasure having you back on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. You are our very first guest that inaugurated our interview sequence and now we’re on episode 162!

[00:01:36] Ven. Robina Courtin: Amazing, I’m so delighted to be back.

Grounding Meditation

[00:01:40] Scott Snibbe: I’m very happy to have you back. I wanted to ask something a little different, because today we’re going to talk about despair, which is a tough topic. Just to ground this conversation, if you would consider priming us with a short meditation?

[00:01:58] Ven. Robina Courtin: Why don’t we just attempt to steady this crazy mind of ours just for a couple of minutes. This classic approach of using your breath, which is this thing that happens naturally, we don’t have to conjure it, and we just simply pay attention to our breath for a couple of minutes.

Just have your body upright, muscles relaxed, eyes lightly closed, but have your eyes looking down as if you’re looking along your nose. Now what we’ll do is, we’ll first locate what we’re going to focus on, the sensation at your nostrils of the breath going in and out. First, locate that.

Take a couple of breaths and locate that sensation. It’s slightly different when you go in and when you go out, but just locate that general sensation.

What we’re going to do for two minutes—two quality minutes—is we’re going to think, with determination, I’m going to pay attention to that sensation, to that breath. That means no matter what happens, the sounds outside, the busy thoughts—we’re going with this determination.

Just watch the breath go out and watch the breath come in. That’s the job to be done. That’s it. Naturally, after three breaths, perhaps the mind will wander, so you catch it and bring it back to the breath. That’s it, that’s the job. Just pay attention to the breath and breathe very nicely, very naturally, not forced. Just bring the mind back to the breath. Alright, that’s it, for a couple of minutes.

[00:05:53] Scott Snibbe: Thank you. I often do that when I’m teaching or giving a lecture.

[00:06:03] Ven. Robina Courtin: Exactly, just to steady the mind.

What is the Buddhist perspective on hopelessness, attachment, and aversion?

hopelessness, attachment, and aversion

[00:06:07] Scott Snibbe: You’re seeing a lot of people right now as you travel, and I’m wondering if there’s anything unique you’re hearing about people’s despair at this particular moment for our culture, civilization, country?

[00:06:23] Ven. Robina Courtin: The first thing we need to do, and we’re all familiar with that word, everybody has their own take on it, their own experience of it—what’s despair saying? Despair is saying, I’m a disaster. Life is a disaster. My husband has left me. My baby died. The house fell down. I haven’t got a job. I’m homeless. Whatever the external condition might be that has triggered this feeling of despair.

Despair is saying, I’m a disaster. Life is a disaster.

But then we can hear it’s a hopeless voice. Things are a disaster. The world looks terrible. Everything looks disaster. Then of course, there’s the main feeling of despair, that you can’t do anything about it. It’s completely impossible. We know that theoretically, then what do we do with it?

We need to learn to use these practical techniques, to go beneath the feeling and not wait for the feeling to happen. This is the thing. We do a practice every day, then we’re going to catch it and then grab it before it becomes such a strong feeling. But it’s to hear what it’s saying. Would you think that’s true? That despair is really, if you put it down, if you write the words out, it’s hopeless, nothing’s worthwhile, everything’s a disaster.

[00:07:33] Scott Snibbe: It would be perceiving harmful events in the world and feeling like there’s nothing I can do about it. Hopelessness.

[00:07:42] Ven. Robina Courtin: Let’s look at the Buddhist analysis of this. The way we feel is driven by these thoughts in our mind, which initially is surprising to us, because we think it. Feelings of these powerful things we have at the level of the body, and we almost can’t articulate them, so I think that this is the problem, because we don’t in our culture, have techniques that enable us to pay attention to the mind at the beginning of the day, do a five-minute technique. Then throughout the day you’re able to catch your thoughts before they get to the mouth, before they become physical feelings. That’s the real skill we have to learn.

But our tragedy is we wait until it’s too late. We wait until the feeling comes. The most common question I get from people, when we’re discussing the emotions, When I’m angry with my boyfriend, what can I do? That’s like saying, When I see the war and I’m despairing, what can I do? Well, it’s a bit late. It’s a bit late then, we have to catch it first. Really, the Buddhist approach is all about learning to hear the thoughts and then—big surprise—change them.

This always sounds so shocking because if you’re feeling this overwhelming emotion of despair, what are you fixing? We can’t imagine we can fix anything inside, we can’t fix the outside world and it feels set in stone on the inside. But that’s what we have to learn to realize is we can change our thoughts, emotions are not set in stone.

I think we don’t know we can, by changing our thoughts, become a happy person or a less suffering person. That’s all Buddha’s saying. It’s all the same process. It’s a cognitive process. It’s changing your thoughts.

Then what we have to look at the two main problems, as far as Buddha’s concerned, attachment and aversion. But when we look at attachment, which for the Buddha is this underlying, constant voice that’s continuously there—and it’s multifaceted, but it’s key energy and this is what drives every single being in the universe, this constant need for everything to be nice. Attachment is quite desperate. It can’t stand things that aren’t nice. What “not nice” means is what I don’t want. My attachment does not want to see war, does not want to see ugly things happening, does not want to see terrible suffering.

The reason we suffer isn’t because of the war. We can see there’s this attachment, wanting things to be nice. The millisecond, the unnice thing happens, such as the war, then anger, aversion arises. Now this is the thing, I think with some people it would become volatile anger, but for other people it’s quiet. For that person, it builds up and becomes despair, so it’s aversion basically. The interesting point is, both of these are driven by fear. Attachment only wants the nice things, and aversion is freaking out when the unnice thing happens.

Of course, we all want the war to end, and that’s totally appropriate. But attachment is when that want is mixed with this needy—it’s difficult to hear it because we mix the reasonable wanting for the war to end, which is totally appropriate, with the attachment for the war to end. That’s the part that is very hard to see.

I always think of an example of you’ve got an alcoholic brother. On the one hand, you’ve got the virtue, the so-called “positive quality.” You love your brother which is, May my brother be happy. You have compassion for your brother, May he not suffer. They’re our saving grace, those qualities. But what we don’t notice is it’s polluted by our attachment to the brother being not an alcoholic. In other words, my attachment is upset how dare my wretched alcoholic brother upset my life? That’s what causes the distress. Love and compassion can’t cause distress.

What I do is I stick my nose into my brother’s life, trying to make him stop being an alcoholic, but it messes up my compassion. Maybe he doesn’t want my advice. We have to learn to distinguish between is this unhappy, distressing attachment, neediness, and valid love and compassion. You have compassion for the people in the war, but the stress and the anxiety is coming from attachment.

That’s hard to see, Scott, and this is not religion, this is just Buddhist psychology. It’s quite subtle to learn to distinguish in our own mind between a neurotic need for something to be the way I want it and a valid, appropriate love and compassion-based need to make the world a better place. It’s very hard to see the difference. This is the key to success.

It’s quite subtle to learn to distinguish in our own mind between a neurotic need for something to be the way I want it and a valid, appropriate love and compassion-based need to make the world a better place.

Is it okay to be happy while others are suffering?

[00:12:17] Scott Snibbe: It’s recognizing that that kind of attachment, even if it’s an attachment to the war ending, is an agitated state of mind. I see it in many of my friends around me. They’re totally agitated all day long because they can’t stand this reality, which is a huge component of reasonableness. Also, it seems like there’s sometimes people don’t think they deserve to be happy if people are being bombed and killed all the way around the world.

What would you say to that kind of person? Is it really okay to be happy while other people are suffering so much?

[00:12:57] Ven. Robina Courtin: That’s a huge point, Scott. When we become a political activist, we really try to make the world a better place. We can’t imagine doing that without being distressed and despairing. The whole Buddhist approach is working on your mind, lessening attachment, lessening anger, lessening jealousy, lessening those conceptual stories. The consequence of that is just naturally, you’ll be more happy. You can’t possibly avoid it.

Because Buddha’s saying the suffering is coming from the attachment and anxiety and agitation, so you get less attached and less angry and less despairing. You can’t help but become more happy, but also more compassionate and loving. You need that. If you want to be effective on the planet, you’ve got to be optimistic—not even optimistic. You’ve got to be grounded and you’ve got to have empathy for others. Those very qualities are what make you happy, you can’t avoid happiness.

It’s not a self-centered happiness. That’s the big difference, your mind will be more relaxed. Then you’ve got more space for compassion and you’ll be the best political activist then. You’ll be able to be of use to the world. I always remember Martin Luther King when I was a radical activist in the 60s and 70s. Remember Martin Luther King used to say, It’s good to find fault. It’s good to be angry in the sense that there is injustice and there is racism.

martin luther king

Instead of just raving on about it, which is what anger wants to do, he said, Then you say, what can I do to help? That compassion is what makes you feel fulfilled. Of course, we have to learn to be happy, but not self-centered happiness. It’s a very different kind of happiness. It’s a mental stability, which enables us to be empathetic. We’ve got to see the difference. What do you think?

[00:14:41] Scott Snibbe: A happy activist is a compassionate and effective activist. Many people though would still be arguing with you right now and say, Oh, look, that didn’t work. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Black rights have not been perfected in this way.

A happy activist is a compassionate and effective activist.

[00:14:56] Ven. Robina Courtin: Yeah, attachment is the one that says, Well, if I do this, then all the suffering will go away, no. I remember the Dalai Lama was told by a journalist, Anger looks very good, it looks effective. The Dalai Lama said, I know what you mean, but if mainly what you’re doing with your political activity is driven by anger, it won’t last because it blows up and then collapses and then you don’t care.

All the people I’ve worked with in the 60s they’re just fat and old and don’t care anymore. But he said, If you’re driven by compassion, then you don’t give up because you don’t have fantasy expectations. You don’t give up. You just keep going because you don’t have a choice and you are fulfilled. You can’t help but be happy if you’re working on your mind like this. Of course, we deserve happiness. It is ridiculous to think we don’t deserve it.

Of course, we deserve happiness. It is ridiculous to think we don’t deserve it.

Is a love more powerful than anger?

[00:15:39] Scott Snibbe: I’ve heard His Holiness say the same thing many times where people said, Isn’t anger motivating? If I’m not angry, How am I going to be effective? He said, Yeah, it is motivating, but it’s like a drug. It has very negative side effects from like your talk about burnout, but also it tends to bleed out.

A lot of the very angry activists you see, their organization and even their relationship with their family is chaos because that anger kind of bleeds out all around them and sometimes you see them fall into an awful downward spiral.

[00:16:11] Ven. Robina Courtin: Yeah, that’s it. But I suppose then, Scott, the real thing we have to do, when we say attachment in the world, we mix it with what we think of as love. Then we think we have to give up attachment. We’ve got to give up love as well. We throw the baby out with the bathwater. When we hear that, Anger’s no good, it’ll only cause you suffering, you’ve got to give it up. We think you’ve got to give up critical analysis.

But that’s the massive distinction. That’s the part that’s difficult. We’ve got to look inside that.

[00:16:36] Scott Snibbe: I was just with Yangsi Rinpoche and he said, There’s eight billion people in the world, so you do your best, you create the causes, but then for those causes to ripen in the world, it depends on many more people and events than yourself.

[00:16:53] Ven. Robina Courtin: Yeah, there you go. That’s exactly right. I think the thing is in the end, if I look at history, we can all see there has been suffering, wars, dramas, suffering. We just take that reality and then look at your choices. But we first have to recognize, well, Do I want to feel a bit better? Do I want to feel a bit more content and fulfilled? We have to recognize we do want that. We’ve got to recognize it for ourself first.

That’s one that you said that we feel ashamed to have. We think, Oh, that sounds selfish but you’ve got to have that first. Then create the causes by working on your own mind, less attachment, less neurosis, more fulfillment, more contentment. Then you can say, Oh my God, we’re all in the same boat.

Look at everybody else. Now you know how to do it. Now you know how to help others. But we’ve got to be able to recognize that it’s appropriate to to want to be happy. It’s totally appropriate. But this is for some reason we’re so ashamed of that in our culture. For some reason, it’s just, it’s kind of fascinating, isn’t it?

You’re supposed to suffer. A friend of mine who’s a political activist said, I can never be happy until everybody else is. If everybody else is suffering, I will not be happy, she said.

[00:18:03] Scott Snibbe: What did you say to her when she told you that?

[00:18:06] Ven. Robina Courtin: It’s family, I couldn’t say much.

[00:18:09] Scott Snibbe: What would you say if you could?

[00:18:11] Ven. Robina Courtin: Try to say what I’m saying now that when you’re more happy, you can be more effective. If you want to be happy, you work on your mind first, so you get less attached, more kind, naturally, so you’ll be more content. Then you can be more effective. You want to be effective, then there’s no benefit in having a panic attack and being angry. You can’t do anything. Sort of like if you panic while you’re all drowning, you might as well be optimistic, then you can maybe find an opportunity to help to escape. It’s practical.

It’s just a practical thing for me. But it takes a while. I know in Buddhism, how we talk about purification, and part of the process of acknowledging your own negativity. We hear that as anger, we hear that as guilt. Oh, I’m a bad person. But this is just one of our worst crimes against ourselves. We’ve got to realise that we cause our own suffering, but we can also cause our own happiness. Then we can help others how to do it.

[00:19:04] Scott Snibbe: Without feeling guilty about it?

[00:19:06] Ven. Robina Courtin: Totally, guilt is ridiculous. Guilt is just anger against yourself, isn’t it? You’re saying, I did this, and I did that, and I’m a bad person. That’s exactly what anger is. You did this, and you did that, and you’re a bad person. It’s just not effective. It’s tunnel vision.

What do you say to someone who suffers from guilt?

[00:19:23] Scott Snibbe: I agree, it’s ridiculous. It sounds ridiculous. Yet, I’ve suffered from it. Just about everyone I know does. What do you say to someone practically who’s suffering from the sense of guilt?

[00:19:34] Ven. Robina Courtin: The very first step in this, so-called purification practice is acknowledging, Well, I did do that. I did kick the dog and bad mouth my boyfriend and whatever you might have done, so the first approach is you regret it. When someone asked, What’s the difference between regret and guilt? The Dalai Lama said, Guilt, you look in the past and you go, I did this and I did that, and I kicked the dog and I lied, and then you say, I’m a bad person. Then we just stay stuck in that. That’s useless. But he said, Regret is the first part’s the same. I did kick the dog. I did badmouth my boyfriend. But then you say, What can I do to fix it?

That’s a completely different attitude. But you’ve got to own the fact that your angry thoughts harm you. Just like we know sugar will harm us and cigarettes will harm you and we don’t feel guilty about it. It’s practical, realize my anger, my depression, my anxiety, my guilt harm me, then the first step is to acknowledge that I did do this as a result, but what can I do to shift it and change it?

But you’ve got to own the fact that your angry thoughts harm you.

It’s optimistic, because guilt is so instinctive. The way the Buddhist analysis of ego grasping. We love to hate ourselves. We see ourselves, as my mother used to say, You are your own worst enemy. That’s really what Buddha’s saying. It takes time though.

We love to hate ourselves.

[00:21:05] Scott Snibbe: What are some of the things we learn from Buddhism—from analytical meditation—that can help us process those very disturbing emotions of anger, the negative ones, the attached ones?

[00:21:18] Ven. Robina Courtin: The bird needs two wings, doesn’t it? Compassion and wisdom. As the Dalai Lama says, Compassion is sort of the point, but compassion is not enough. You’ve got to have wisdom.

dalai lama

We look at the way that Buddhist practice is laid out incrementally. The first step is the wisdom wing, which is putting yourself together, seeing why you are suffering and learning to change your own suffering and program your mind in a new way.

Then you’re qualified to help others. Forget the war, just stubbing your toe, think of the tiniest thing that’ll happen. One event is my boyfriend slurps his coffee. Don’t wait until the war comes, but start with the baby events. One thing is the external event and then second, there is my interpretation of it. All Buddha’s saying is, It’s practical. If I can stop stubbing my toe, if I can stop the boyfriend slurping his coffee, okay, that’s fine.

But what if I can’t? Then honeychild, change your interpretation, we’ve got to realize that there are these two things. We just assume stubbing your toe means of course, I’m angry. I stubbed my toe. Of course, I’m despairing. There’s a war. No, that’s the point. If we can get to see one is the event and then second is your interpretation and our job is to become familiar with the interpretation and learn to change it and that’s the source of our sanity and clarity.

That’s really the essence of the whole thing, but that’s a very hard job because the anger arises so spontaneously because attachment is so primordial and attachment only wants nice feelings.

We all know it in our lives. We know one day you can wake up, and feel fairly relaxed. The hubby slurping his coffee doesn’t worry you today, but tomorrow you want to kill him. The event is the same, but your attitude is different. It’s the mind that we have to see. The same with war, you realize your interpretation of it, the fear, the panic.

Then of course, you’re a bit more delving deep into the Buddhist analysis. One of the things is to have the wisdom to know how to interpret, What is a war and why is there a war? Let’s just say you’re a really brilliant nurse and you decide to do Doctors Without Borders. We turn up at the war zone, we walk into the tent where they’re doing the operations.

Now I don’t even know how to put a band-aid on, but you’ve got skill. This is what the wisdom wing is. Wisdom is knowing what’s going on and how to interpret. You’re going to see the same suffering that I will, but because you know how to help. You won’t have a panic attack. You’ll walk in and you’ll use whatever skills you’ve got, one person at a time, and you will try to help them.

You won’t lose the plot. I will just have a panic attack and think, Oh my God, this is unbearable. I don’t know what to do because I don’t know how to interpret it. That’s what wisdom is. If you take the Buddhist view of karma, everybody creates their own experiences. You have this analysis and you see the suffering between the two groups of people and then you immediately can go, Oh my God, look at the result of negative actions.

Then you can learn about it yourself and then you can afford to have the compassion and that will keep you stable. Having wisdom, which is an analysis of what a problem is and why it’s happening, which is the wisdom you’ve got as a good nurse, that keeps you sane. Then you’re able to do something. You can’t cure everybody in that tent. But you can do something to help one person.

That’s my feeling. If the world is a disaster, and it is, you can’t go tomorrow to Ukraine to fix it, you can’t go to Israel or Gaza. What do you do? You do what you can right now and help that one aunt, that one dog, and that one next door neighbor. Helping will give you courage as well and keep you grounded. You do what you can to help where you can. Despair is no benefit to me or anybody else.

How do I deal with my negative feelings in everyday life?

[00:25:10] Annie Nguyen: When you’re imagining the story playing out with what this looks like, somebody is slurping their tea and it’s really annoying. What does that look like in the process? If you were seeing it like a movie, what would it look like if somebody were to go through unpacking?

[00:25:28] Ven. Robina Courtin: I come down from breakfast and there’s my boyfriend slurping his coffee. This is where practice comes in because normally we’re not noticing our thoughts. The second the coffee comes, the slurping happens, and because anger, attachment is in there—automatically wanting only nice things—and so aversion will instantly arise.

Then before you know it, the words are out the mouth and the damage is done. Whereas if you learn to practice, you catch your thoughts before it gets to the mouth. That’s when you do this cognitive process. Well, Robina, it’s only slurping coffee. He’s allowed to slurp his coffee. It’s just your interpretation. Before, within one minute, if you’re really practiced, you’ll say, Good morning, sweetheart, and won’t mention it. Then the problem is solved.

[00:26:11] Annie Nguyen: In this example with your partner, when somebody’s slurping coffee, you’re like, Oh, I’m not going to say something horrible, but I’ll just say that’s an interpretation. I’m just irritated. But I’ve seen over time people get resentful.

[00:26:28] Ven. Robina Courtin: I hear your point. When we hear, Don’t speak the angry words. We assume the only option is to suppress it, to keep it inside. That’s a disaster. We’re not talking that here. This is the real skill. One is, learn not to say the words because that’s going to harm somebody and harm myself.

But then not just suppress it, but literally be my own therapist. That’s why we have to become familiar with our thoughts. That anger is a thought. How dare he slurp his coffee? He knows I don’t want slurping. It’s anger and it’s because my attachment isn’t getting what it wants. That’s what it is. You argue with that. It’s a cognitive process.

You practice changing your thoughts. You practice reinterpreting the slurping sound. I have my friends in prison—it’s a dramatic example—that’s where they don’t have the luxury. There’s one woman I always talk about, Sunny in Florida in the 70s. She wrote her memoir. She’s not a Buddhist or anything.

She was accused with her husband, they were hitching in Florida and picked up by two guys. The guys got stopped by the police. They killed the police and blamed the hippies. So they’re on death row. Eventually, even the husband got executed. This is a nightmare. She was there for 17 years. In a cell on her own with a Bible. That was it. She was totally innocent. Enough to make people go completely insane.

This woman I so admire, especially she’s such a good example because she didn’t have any spiritual path. She said, I realized I couldn’t change anything. But they couldn’t take my mind from me. She said she actually did, she worked out a regime of how to work with her anger and her despair and her rage. She realized that her anger and rage and despair, which in the worldly terms are totally valid. Because look at the suffering, she was totally innocent.

She realized that they made her crazy and she knew she could change her thoughts. She learned yoga and she learned her own methods of how to work on her mind and literally reinterpret her situation. This is literally what she did. This is the most dramatic example. She said, Eventually, I decided, I’m not a prisoner, I’m a monk. I am not in a cell, I’m in a cave. She dramatically did a reinterpretation of the reality, which was still prison. The reality was it was unfair. They’re facts. They never changed. But she radically changed her thought process. The result of that is she came out a sane, kind, easygoing person with zero stress.

What do you call it when he talks about stress? Traumatic stress business, because she dealt with it. She was able to change her interpretation of this external event. Because she was funny actually, she said, I’d give myself permission to be angry for five minutes. She’d scream and rage for five minutes and then she would stop and go back to her internal work. She’s an incredible example for me, all the more because she didn’t have any spiritual particular path. She just had her own intelligence. It was astonishing for me. She blows my mind.

[00:29:41] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and the extraordinary thing here is to draw this connection again that you’re making, and I’ve heard His Holiness make between wars, unjust imprisonment, and being annoyed at your partner slurping tea. There is a connection. I’ve heard people ask His Holiness over and over again, How do we end war?

He’s always said, what you’ve said, Make up with the people in your life that you’re angry at. In one case, it can be more gently, the partner who’s tea slurping annoys you, or more seriously, it can be the legal system that has unjustly imprisoned me and executed my partner. Those things are all connected.

[00:30:23] Ven. Robina Courtin: The thing with her was what’s interesting. This is the practical point about it. I’ve met many people in prison. It’s a common thing to be, because it’s so dehumanizing, and you’ve got no space, you can’t move an inch, you’re treated worse than infantile, you’re stuck in this system, you either go crazy or you kill yourself or others. Then everybody comes out with post traumatic stress syndrome, naturally, because they haven’t dealt with it.

Whereas Sunny, when you meet this woman now, she’s old, she’s 80 something, she’s in a wheelchair. She’s just this happy little old lady. You would never know she had this 17 years of intense suffering because she dealt with it. The other point is, because she was able to deal with it, she kept her sanity. She didn’t just sit back and go, Oh, well, I’ll be a happy person. She never stopped working on her freedom and she got her freedom eventually.

Because she kept her sanity, so it’s practical for your own sake that she worked on her mind and she was able still to see the injustice had never changed, was still unjust, and she kept her sanity enough to work on her freedom, whereas if you lose the plot completely you can’t lift an inch to do anything for yourself or others.

This other fellow, who was also wrongly accused, he was what we called normal, who went literally out of his brain, screaming daily, as long as he had a voice, I did not rape and kill that woman. He was beyond despair. There’s the difference. Sunny was able to see that she had the ability to literally to change her interpretation of his nightmare, but this other fellow, like most of us, didn’t. That’s the point.

To say to a person who is despairing because the war is so terrible and their baby just died or whatever, to say that you can change your mind, to us it almost sounds cruel. What do you mean change my mind? Because we don’t believe that the suffering is coming from our mind. That’s our tragedy. We believe the suffering is coming from the war, the dead baby. This is so shocking for us. It really needs incredible intelligence. While I think about Sunny, she had this incredible emotional intelligence that from her own self she was able to see this.

We don’t believe that the suffering is coming from our mind. That’s our tragedy.

Activism without attachment

climate crisis

[00:32:29] Scott Snibbe: Venerable Robina, I think it’ll be so helpful for listeners talking about, other specific examples. Let’s talk about the environment. That’s for many people, that’s the number one, especially younger people, the number one source of despair. Talk about how we work with those feelings and how to productively turn them around without being in denial and without rage.

[00:32:51] Ven. Robina Courtin: When I was an old radical lefty, and in those days it wasn’t the environment, but it was other things, what you do is your attachment then shifts and goes, Now I’m going to work on changing the world. Then you start building up a fantasy that all this political activity you’re doing, everything is going to change, and you visualize the miracle in five years time, everything will be perfect.

Because attachment has to keep having a fantasy. When we realize sometimes it is just too late. It’s not being depressing and giving up, but maybe with the environment, certain things have got to a stage, look at the Australian Barrier Reef. It’s all because of warming water, it’s now all, becoming bleached out. Attachment wants the Great Barrier Reef to be all colorful and beautiful again. But you look at it, it is white and bleached out. That’s the reality. You can’t change it.

Sometimes you’ve got to accept that you just can’t change something. Then what do you do? Sunny realized she could not change that prison. So she changed her mind. What else can you do? The barrier reef is like that, it doesn’t mean you give up. It means you do what you can every tiny bit, even if it is a disaster.

You don’t expect a war to come, but suddenly the people in Ukraine who are going to lunch every day and suddenly now they come home to a war zone, you don’t give up. You then deal with your new reality. You get courageous, and you adjust your mind. This is the reality. This is what it is now. You still keep doing what you can, without any fantasy expectation, because attachment has to have a fantasy. It can’t be realistic.

[00:34:33] Scott Snibbe: Attachment is this delusional thinking that only good things should happen to me. One of the antidotes we as Buddhists do is to constantly think that it’s very natural for problems to occur. You even go into great detail thinking about them in the morning, this could happen, this could happen, this could happen, which which makes you more prepared when they actually do.

[00:34:54] Ven. Robina Courtin: When you’re more realistic and you see how disastrous it is—the environment is a disaster. It is terrible what’s happening. It is happening. Then you think, Well, what can I do? You don’t give. You do what you can.

There was Sunny in a cell for years, many of those years, she was in a cell on her own and that was it. She outrageously adjusted herself to deal with it in the best way she can. This is all we can do, because the world is a suffering place, there’s no question. There is racism, there is this, there is that, there is poverty, they’re facts.

As to whether we have an explanation, that’s often the problem, it’s like if I walk into that tent with you who’ve got wisdom of nursing and I have no wisdom, then I will panic. Why is this happening to these poor people? Oh my God, there is no reason. Then you try to find someone to blame, but with the karmic view, if you take it on in a sensible way, you can own responsibility and then you realize everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody’s experiencing the fruits of our own crazy past, including all of our good things and then we can learn to take responsibility and own it and change it. We’re in charge.

Creating your own reality

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[00:36:01] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and whether or not you believe in Buddhist karma, just to be clear that there are causes that brought those people into those hospital beds, that brought those countries to the brink of war, into actual war. The mechanism doesn’t necessarily matter but to actually recall, there are causes behind all of these events occurring right now. They didn’t just spring out of nothing.

[00:36:24] Ven. Robina Courtin: That’s right, and that’s why it’s interesting to remember the Buddha’s not a creator. He didn’t make up these things. The Buddha’s a person who has observed these natural, as far as he’s concerned, this is a natural law, that each sentient being is experiencing their own, and that’s a natural law.

It’s not religion, not a belief, not dogma. It’s a tough one to see, but I think we can see it in our own daily lives. We don’t think this way, but if you learn to be a musician, what do you think you’re doing? You’re programming your mind into a really sophisticated mind of musical knowledge. You turn yourself into a musician. You create the musician.

All Buddha’s saying is we create the happy person and the suffering person. Forget past lives. If you spend every single day being anxious and angry and jealous and depressed, what the hell person do you think you’re creating? Except we say, Well, I’m allowed to be angry and jealous because look at the mean boyfriend. We want to point the fingers.

If you spend every single day being anxious and angry and jealous and depressed, what the hell person do you think you’re creating?

All he’s saying is have a look at your mind and realize that you’re producing the person you become. That’s really the point. Forget past lives and future lives. If you are kind and loving and compassionate and wise every day, you are literally producing a happy person. We know we turn ourselves into a musician or a cook. We are happy to take responsibility, but we do not think we can turn ourselves into a happy or suffering person. We think it’s everybody else. We’re kind of demented. That’s really the essence of karma, it’s practical, it’s logical.

But our problem is it’s sort of like you’re not a good musician and you blame the piano and blame the piano teacher and it’s all their fault. Whereas if you don’t play piano properly, you’re the one who made yourself a bad pianist and you’re the one who makes yourself a good pianist. We get that when it comes to external things, but not when it comes to virtue and nonvirtue, not when it comes to being a happy person and a suffering person. All Buddha’s saying is, We are the one who can turn ourselves into a happy person or suffering person. We’re the boss.

We are the one who can turn ourselves into a happy person or suffering person.

Working with despair

[00:38:06] Scott Snibbe: Robina, a personal question, are there any ways in which you still struggle with despair today?

[00:38:17] Ven. Robina Courtin: I think until we’re really advanced, we’re going to have these moments. We go and we swing, don’t we, between everything’s wonderful to, Oh my God, everything’s a disaster. We can all have mini moments of being high, everything’s wonderful, which is attachment getting carried away. Then when things go wrong and the thing doesn’t work and the coffee’s cold or the printer didn’t do what you wanted or the airplane didn’t go on time, then you fall into Oh my God, this is a disaster.

I think these are the two truths. We have these mini moments of over exaggerating everything when it’s lovely and under exaggerating everything when it’s bad. They’re just moments of despair and moments of happiness and it’s always going to be tinged with attachment and aversion.

I think it’s there until we’re highly realized. But you just learn to navigate it more quickly and you know it’ll pass. Oh, everything didn’t work out. You missed your plane. There you are midnight at the airport and your credit card doesn’t work or something, so you’re going to get upset, I’m talking about a baby example, but then as you keep practicing on this path, you get more able to manage the dramas.

You have less despair, less aversion, and then tomorrow it will change. It’ll be all okay. When you wake up in the morning, your mind’s more flexible.

[00:39:29] Scott Snibbe: Are you saying for yourself, these things are occurring, your flights late, the coffee’s cold, life happens? You don’t get what you want all the time. But in your own life, you’re saying that you’ll feel that frustration, but then you can quickly apply the antidotes?

[00:39:45] Ven. Robina Courtin: Everything is less severe than it used to be, because you’ve been working on your mind, you’re getting better at it. In other words, when you start playing tennis, it’s a complete disaster the first day, because Federer destroyed you. But 25 years later, you did not too badly. You just get better and better at dealing with the dramas and being more flexible in your mind, and not taking it all so seriously. It’s what ego takes it seriously. Do you understand? For sure I can see progress.

[00:40:13] Scott Snibbe: What techniques does your mind jump to when you feel that despair, frustration in your own life? What really works for you?

[00:40:20] Ven. Robina Courtin: Always the analysis of karma, the impermanence in that case, especially impermanence, you see your mind kind of get that moment of this is hopeless, this is no good, this is a disaster, this is ridiculous, it didn’t work the way I needed. Then you can interpret it. You realize you’re grasping at it. You realize your attachment didn’t get what it wanted. You welcome it. Then just by doing that, it dissipates it. You apply all these tools. It’s the analysis for me every time. It’s the analysis of karma, impermanence, emptiness, kindness. It’s the analysis, just more and more easily applying it, and therefore more and more effective every time.

[00:40:59] Scott Snibbe: Do you feel a sense of hope and optimism for humanity?

[00:41:02] Ven. Robina Courtin: I can’t even talk that way. I can’t think like that, because that’s implying somehow humanity’s doing something to get better. I don’t think if you think of it that way, not being rude about humanity, this group called humanity. I was trying to rejoice when I see anybody doing anything good and delight.

One time, years ago, when I was running this Liberation Prison Project, dealing full on with the disaster of the prison system in this country, I remember I went to a little conference in DC, just a half a day, and it was all these different religious groups doing what they can.

They got fed up with all the fundamentalist white Christian fanatics running the show of Christianity and religion in this country. A little group over here doing this to help poor people, another little group of Muslims here doing this one, a small little group here doing that. I thought anything you can do, where you can do that.

That, for me, is staying hopeful, staying optimistic, because even if you’re drowning, if you panic, then you can do nothing. There’s no benefit in not being optimistic, meaning a fantasy. Everything is perfect in five years, not having a projection like that. Just doing what you can moment by moment.

To help this person here, that aunt there, that dog there, doing what you can and seeing what one person can do. I know at that time I read about this amazing Indian woman, I can’t think of her name, but she was given the job of running this insane nightmare of a prison in Delhi of 10,000 inmates.

She transformed it in like two years, a miracle. One person can do so much, having that optimism too. As for humanity, having been hopeful, until we all change, that’s the point, isn’t it? Until each individual person works on their own mind, the world can’t be different, it can’t be.

[00:43:00] Scott Snibbe: I like that. Your hope is more about action.

[00:43:03] Ven. Robina Courtin: Exactly, and do what you can and that brings satisfaction to you. I remember hearing when I first met the Dharma, hearing all these insane levels of compassion that Buddhism says we can all accomplish. These people are crazy. How can you talk like bodhisattvas having compassion for every living being and all that?

It just seemed impossible, seemed unattainable. I remember the Dalai Lama said, If you want to help others, practice compassion. If you want to help yourself, practice compassion. Now that gave me an opportunity, that helped me understand it. I will be also a beneficiary. Don’t be ashamed of that. How amazing, that was helpful to my mind.

If you want to help others, practice compassion. If you want to help yourself, practice compassion.

[00:43:45] Scott Snibbe: Thank you. You’ve agreed to lead a meditation that will air in the episode following this one. Could you describe a little bit what that is?

[00:43:54] Ven. Robina Courtin: In the Tibetan Buddha system, we have all these different kind of archetypes, the images, like the one behind me, if you look at it a bit closer, you’ll see he’s got a peaceful face and he’s looking very friendly and peaceful. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are these different images of Buddhas, male, female, all kinds, loving, compassionate, wise, the sum of fierce compassion. They’re really nice archetypes of different psychological qualities that are really positive.

The meditation, we’ll be using this female Buddha. She represents courage, action, and optimism. She knows the way she’s sitting. She’s not sitting in meditation pose. She’s got one leg out, ready to kind of hop up to help others. She’s action energy, positive action, optimism. Just a simple meditation imagining this, we can be very broad about how we visualize it, and then imagining light coming and purifying, and it’s just very uplifting.

[00:44:59] Scott Snibbe: Well, thank you, Venerable Robina. It’s a pleasure having you back on the podcast and I really appreciate you offering all these ways of processing and working with despair.

[00:45:09] Ven. Robina Courtin: Thank you so much, Scott. I rejoice in what you’re doing, it’s wonderful.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe

Produced by Annie Ngyen

Marketing by Isabela Acebal


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