In this episode we speak with Tami Simon–founder of the spiritual media company Sounds True and senior student of Vajrayana teacher Reggie Ray. Tami shares us with us the intimate details of her initial meeting with Reggie, and the amazing results that followed. She also describes what she has learned from beginning to teach the dharma to others, while also making a vow to only teach that which she truly knows.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Insights at the Edge.
- Dharma Ocean
- Reggie Ray on Buddhist Geeks
- Meditating with the Body
- Insights at the Edge Podcast
- Sounds True
Ryan: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Ryan Oelke and we have a special guest in the studio, one who we’ve been dying to interview for quite a while. And Vince Horn is here with me.
Vince: Yeah, we’re here today speaking with my boss. [laughter]
Ryan: This better be a good interview, buddy! [laughter]
Vince: Yeah, thank you, Tami, for joining us.
Tami: Yeah if I come out injured or anything then I’ll sue you.
Vince: No worker’s comp here.
Ryan: There’s no BG worker’s comp.
Tami: I believe that.
Vince: Tami is the founder of the company Sounds True, it’s a spiritual media company, or at least that’s how we’ve been talking about it lately. And she’s also a long-time Vajrayana practitioner and teacher–is that right? You’ve been teaching some retreats lately, yeah?
Tami: Yeah, I would say a senior teacher within Dharma Ocean.
Vince: Within Dharma Ocean, which is the spiritual community of Reggie Ray’s?
Vince: Cool. And we’ve interviewed Reggie Ray.
Ryan: Yeah, that was a wonderful interview.
Vince: That was fun.
Ryan: And actually one time when Vince and I got to hang out with you, you were telling us this story about how you met Reggie and became a student. We would love to hear that and go a little bit more into it.
Tami: Sure. So Reggie came to Sounds True to record a series, an audio learning series about 7 years ago on Buddhist tantra. And he came into the studio–it was actually pretty amazing what happened in that he sat down to speak the first session and nothing really happened.
At the time, a friend of mine who was also working at Sounds True named Matt Lacotta was with me. And Reggie was like, “It’s too conceptual a field. Can you get Matt some beers?” This was at ten in the morning.
So we go out and we get a six pack for Matt and he’s like, “You guys need to suspend judgment, if I’m going to be able to do this.” And I’m like, “Well I’m a producer, I’m supposed to have my critical faculties at work but I’m also willing to just kind of wait here patiently.” So it went on and on.
After about two and a half hours, Reggie had actually not yet said a reasonable sentence. And I looked at Matt and Matt had studied with Reggie at the University of Colorado. I’m writing him these notes, like, “Is this going to work? Is Reggie OK? Are you OK?” Because now he’s had four or five beers.
I’m thinking who knows, maybe the program will be canceled. Reggie said, “Hey, can I just take a nap and be alone for a while? Just turn off all the lights, leave me on the couch and give me an hour.”
This is kind of a personal story but it’s amazing and it’s true. Which is I came back down there after about an hour–and he sat there and we didn’t even know each other. Reggie was actually crying and he said, “I realize the obstacle here, which is I need to give all the royalties away for this program.”
I was like, “I don’t care who you give the royalties to. Can we record now?” [laughter] He was having a big emotional moment. For me it’s like, “OK, just sign right here, we’ll give the royalties away to XYZ organization. Can we start recording?” He’s like, “Yeah, I think we can start now.”
And we sat down and he then recorded three complete, seamless sessions 80 minutes long without Matt or I getting up or leaving the room. And it was amazing and it was the beginning of this audio series. That’s the way the program began and we worked together over the course of about a week.
At one point he said to me, “So tell me about your meditation practice.” I and was like, “Well, I’ve been a vipassana meditator and I started out with Goenka in India when I was 21, these ten day intensive retreats. Since then I’ve worked with Thich Nhat Hanh for a while and different things. Basically I’m not very regular, Reggie, to be honest.”
And he’s like, “OK, what’s the practice that you do?” I’m like, “Well basically I follow my breath and I work with physical sensations.” He’s like, “How long have you been doing that Tami?” And I said, “I’ve been doing it off and on not regularly for about you know maybe, it’s close to 20 years.” And he said, “OK, are you ready for an additional instruction?” I was like, “Yeah.”
He said, “Here’s the problem. Your mind is actually bigger than your practice.” And it was when he said that, it was a moment for me. He was like, “What you’re doing is you’re bringing your mind back to an object again and again and again. But the natural openness of your mind is actually bigger than your practice so you don’t want to practice. Because why would you put yourself into a smaller space than you are naturally.”
I was like, good point. He was like, “You need to start working with space. So you need to start lifting your attention from the object and letting everything that is happening, all sensations, all inputs be there as well as an object.” He explained it very simply: “You can use the dimmer switch image if you want” which is what I heard as he was talking. So you can have 10 percent of your attention on whatever the object of the meditation is and 90 percent of your attention can be just open and in space.
“And if you’re really calm and not discursive, then just be with everything that’s occurring. You don’t need an object; drop the object.” I was like, oh my God. I’ve recorded 300 programs with meditation teachers and been to how many retreats and nobody had given me this very simple instruction. And it was so simple and so meaningful and so important in terms of changing the way that I worked, just with every single breath.
So I said, “Reggie, can I talk to you a little bit more at the end of this recording session?” And we sat down and my friend Matt said to me, “Tami, look. Reggie teaches Tibetan Buddhism. You’re Miss Universal Everything. He’s not going to work with you as a student. He’s not going to. You need to follow a certain path, blah, blah, blah. And I know you. You’re Miss Mystic of the Trees universalist.”
I said, “Look, I’m allowed to talk to him. He’s been in the studio for a week; I can say whatever I want and see what happens.” So I said, “Here’s the deal, Reggie. Here’s the deal. I don’t want to do a ngöndro. I don’t want to become a Tibetan Buddhist. But, I need some help. Let’s just get down to it; I need some help. So I’m wondering could I meet with you every once in a while and just report on how the practice is going and get your input?”
And he looked at me and he just said very simply, “Tami, you will get the Dharma you need.” Just that very sentence; a very simple sentence. But at that moment I actually saw the image that I was turning a corner. There was a way that I hadn’t been around that corner before and by turning that corner–I know this sounds dramatic but this is what I felt–I would be OK.
It’s like the thing that my life had always been about and the reason I started Sounds True. And what meant the most to me would actually some day be fulfilled. Until that moment he said that “You’ll get the Dharma you need” and I saw the turning of the corner, I think it was a question for me. That was the beginning of my relationship with Reggie.
Ryan: Beautiful, thank you for sharing that.
Vince: Yeah, it’ll be interested in hearing–because my attention is very wrapped on how things progressed after that. What was it like? Did you start working with him more often and start going on retreats with him or how did that progress your relationship?
Tami: So I went to programs. I went to the Dathün, which is a month-long program that he’s taught every year for the past decade or so. At one of the dathüns I actually saw this vision that he actually could teach the kind of meditation techniques that he teaches outside of the traditional Buddhist framework.
It’s kind of a long story, but the gist of it was my partner in love, Julie, and I proposed to Reggie that he create a curriculum called “Meditating with the Body”, which would take these somatically-based awareness exercises that he teaches and introduce them to people who may or may not be interested in formal training in Tibetan Buddhism.
So we proposed that we create a six-month home study course that has a retreat at the beginning and the end. And so we worked on that together and we became quite close during that process because we went through the thinking of: how do we design a six month training program in the essence of these Tibetan yogic practices for a general audience?
The Meditating with the Body program still continues; it’s going on its sixth year. So meanwhile he and I are working together, becoming closer. He is teaching in various Dathüns about taking refuge.
I said to Reggie, “I’m not sure I can take refuge because that would mean that I was committing to a specific tradition.” And he said, “Don’t do it unless it’s right for you. Please don’t do it; you’re not called to it, don’t do it.”
Then the moment he said, “Don’t do it” I felt like God, I really want to do it. I really, really want to do it. Everybody, all my friends, took refuge and there I was, left out and blah, blah, blah. And then I went and I talked him later. I said, “God, I’m just such a mess. I want to take refuge in the practice but I can’t” because this was so important to me. Maybe the reason this was so important to me is that I was born Jewish and in my family the idea that I would even play when I was six with young boys who were not Jewish, my mom would say, “Why don’t you play with Jewish boys?”
I’m like, “Mom, I don’t ask the guys on the playground whether or not they’re Jewish when I tackle them and I throw the football. It’s not one of the questions. It’s doesn’t even come up.” And so there was just a way that I didn’t want to be ever sort of hemmed in thinking that–and this is the whole part of the whole idea with Sounds True too, the company that I found–was that there is this universal flow of fresh water that we can access. And it can’t be owned or controlled by anybody.
OK. I’m telling this to Reggie that I want to take refuge obviously in this path and in this practice and that I want to take refuge in him as my teacher, because of our relationship and the love and the sense of devotion that I felt to him.
And he said, “Well, Tami, when you take refuge in the teacher you’re automatically taking refuge in all three jewels. Any time you take refuge in any of the jewels you’re taking refuge in all three. And we can do a ceremony right here between you and me where you take refuge in the teacher.”
I was like, wow, I love this! I’m getting my like my own private refuge ceremony. [laughter] That appealed to the VIP in me, whatever. So we have the ceremony and this was actually a funny moment because I looked him straight in the eye right before we did it and I said, “You know Reggie, it’s possible that if I kept looking I would find a better teacher.” Like someone who is even better, more realized, whatever.
For whatever reason, I mean what a sort of weird, snarky kind of thing to say but I felt like I needed to say it. That it’s possible, if I kept looking. He just looked at me and said, “Tami, you can do that. But you might also die first.”
I was like, “OK, let’s keep going.” That’s a good response. We’ve cleared the deck here; we’ve both communicated with our hearts, forward we go. You know I could go on and on because actually each step of the way in my relationship with him, there has been a funny story and me as kind of the–what would I call it? Skeptical and scared and not exactly trusting student. To say that I grilled him is an understatement of all time.
Honestly, from the very beginning it was like, “Oh, you’re being nice to me because you want something from me and you’re giving me extra attention just so I can promote you. I don’t trust that; I don’t trust having a teacher. I went on and on and on.
Reggie was like, “You know Tami, everything is an exchange. There’s always an exchange of energy. Yes I’m giving you attention in a certain kind of way because of what is being exchanged between us.” Even that kind of my paranoia–I guess that would be the right word–I was super paranoid from the beginning. It took a long time for our relationship to grow.
Vince: I’d be interested in hearing where you feel now in your relationship; both to Reggie and also kind of your edge in your practice right now.
Tami: Well in my relationship with Reggie, I think I came to a place where I see how he is both my teacher–and I feel I have a lot to learn from him about the practice. And he is my co-journier in that we’re both serving the same lineage.
And what I mean by co-journier is there are all kinds of ways that we can dialogue about things on a totally mutual, eye-to-eye level. Whether that’s relationships or business or money or challenges in the world or challenges with people. I don’t necessarily, when I’m having this kind of conversation with him, think: Oh he’s my teacher so I can only say certain kinds of things or I can only take his wisdom, I can’t offer mine.
No, it’s mutual exchange. I know a lot about relationships and about business and all kinds of things and I want to bring that into my dynamic with him. I think that’s something he values.
So it’s an interesting relationship in that there is definitely a hierarchical dimension to it but there’s also a total eye-level dimension to it, both. And then, in terms of my practice, I have been doing my ngöndro, the thing of course I said seven years ago that I never wanted to do.
And interestingly what I have found is that I’m often naturally more drawn to more of a Mahamudra style approach to practice. And that means that I am more comfortable doing intensive body work and earth-breathing and central channel work and working with looking directly at the nature of awareness than I am at doing the form-based practice, which is repeating the mantra, etc., etc.
And so what I found is that if I alternate and I follow my own inspiration about that, the practice can stay fresh and interesting and engaged. And if I say “No” I have to do a certain number of malas, etc. in order so that I can you know, Geta Abi Shaka and blah, blah, blah. Then the whole thing just seems stupid to me; it’s flat, it’s ridiculous, it’s dead.
So I have to really trust my own feeling about it. At one point I said to Reggie, “I don’t like working with the text that you wrote.” Because he translated and created a new ngöndro text for his students.
It’s a beautiful text and I said the tradition of the siddhas, which our living is a continuity practice lineage of the siddas of India; they didn’t go around with pages and repeat words from their teacher that were written on a sheet of paper. They practiced from inside out, organically. And I go “I just can’t do it.” And he just looked at me and said “don’t work with the text.” And I was like “what?” And he said “you don’t have to.” Once again, the moment he said “you don’t have to,” I was like “oh, I kind of like that text; I may bring it out sometimes.” The moment that I was free to relate to it the way I wanted to relate to it, and so now when I sit down to practice the text is there, and I may or may not look at it. That may not be what happens. I may not even do my ngöndro practice. I may just sit. Or I may lay down for a while and really focus on just relaxing and undoing my body, because I have been so wound up that I actually can’t even begin practicing in a genuine way. Cause I need an hour just to undo. So I think for me the edge is that it has to be real. It has to not be coming from the outside in. It has to be coming from the inside out. Or else for me it doesn’t feel like I’m practicing with the devoted heart; it feels like I am being some kind of good student or something. And I’m not really interested in that.
Vince: So it sound like there’s some sort of intuitive element inside you that’s guiding the thing.
Tami: Completely. I mean intuitive is a good word, but it’s even more like making love. Which I don’t know if you want to call that intuitive — it’s instinctual, it’s totally felt, it’s that you go a little bit and you get feedback. And you go a little bit more, and you breathe. And you wait for the waves to come through and tell you what to do next. I mean it’s like that.
Vince: What would you say the fruit of this past several years of working with Reggie and finally turning that corner in some way? What have you felt the fruit of that has been?
Tami: Sure. well recently I was teaching a retreat on Salt Spring Island which is north of Vancouver. and somebody asked me this question – “don’t tell me about the aspiration of your practice” – often when people I talk about what their aspirations are. “Tell me what it’s actually done.” I thought “Why would I tell you about the aspiration? Of course I want to tell you about how I am actually experiencing it. Well, to make it a slightly long answer to say, first of all there are two thing: one I talked a little bit about my relationship with Reggie, and the love and the sense of him extending an arm to me and me taking it, and that human connection that has been so inspiring to me.
But then the second thing that has been the key element for me at this particular path over the last seven years has been that’s it’s been totally body based, somatically based. So the way I just described practice as a kind of making love with space, making love with reality. For me I think that was what I needed for my meditation practice to explode with fire. Because, before that, and the image I had was just like a haystack going up in fire as I try to describe this to you, I think before that it was more like I was just inching along, or something like that, but there was never a sense an organic, unfolding, supercharged process happening. Which is what I felt. And I think the reason for me is that both of these elements – the love element and the relational element, and the body approach have been what I needed.
And part of it is I spent a lot of time at Sounds True, being a publisher and business person, thinking and solving problems. And yet the greatest intelligence that I have, for me at least, is somatically received. That’s really where I first of all connect to something that has no boundaries between me and it. So if I am not connected to the feeling of being totally supported by the earth and the chair below me – if there’s some sense that I’m separate from that, then I can’t really practice meditation. And I think I didn’t really know that before. So I was practicing as a person perched on the Earth and through these Tibetan yogic exercises, I started practicing as an extension of the vibration of space and earth. That’s sort of the beginning point of the practice, then it started unfolding, unfolding, unfolding.
So I feel like what the practice has given me, to finally answer your, is more of myself. And what I mean by that is there is a way to access an infinite field of potentiality that then can come through this particular being and express itself in the world in a way that’s natural, confident and loving. And it’s more myself but I don’t even know what that is and I don’t care. It’s not like anything. It’s just an expression of beingness that does have a uniqueness to it.
I’m so much more available to it and it’s zooming through me, moving through me, kicking my ass.
Ryan: I don’t know 100 percent but just from talking to Vince is that you very much obviously, including your practice, dig the Vajrayana and find it extremely helpful for you. Maybe for you to talk about how you see the Vajrayana–I guess it’s stepping a little bit away from your…
Tami: I’m going to answer your question obliquely.
Tami: Because when Reggie said to me–this was a couple years ago. What happened was I said, “OK Reggie, how can I help you?” Which is a question I’ve asked him repeatedly over the years. What can I do to be of service, whatever.
And he said at a certain point, “The only thing you can do at this point Tami is to teach.” He’s like, “I can help you more and you can grow more and you can help me more if you’ll start teaching.”
I said, “You know Reggie, I haven’t read that many books on Buddhism and I don’t even know if I understand the Vagriana.” And I said, “You want to recommend some books for me to read so when people ask me hard questions, blah, blah, blah.” This was a few years ago.
He said, “First of all, you’ll learn more from teaching then you will from reading. You can read a whole book and you can get one good idea but when you teach, you’ll learn so much.”
And I saw this recently in Salt Spring. It was kind of like I was teaching myself about meditation. It was weird, meaning, first of all, I couldn’t prepare which was very awkward and strange. I’ve worked with all these different authors who have come to record programs at Sounds True. I’m like, “Can I see your outline? Let’s go over it. Is this a really logically put together curriculum? Oh my God this person doesn’t have a full left brain–you know my business card should say, “Left brain for hire”.
Here I am going to teach my first residential retreat and I don’t even have a note written and I can’t. Like something in me just couldn’t, so I had to go, I had to sit on the cushion not knowing what the heck we were going to do or what I was going to say. Sit in the energy field of the lineage that I had lit up and invoked and trust that something would happen that would be beneficial.
And all kinds of things happened and I listened to what I said and I learned stuff as I was talking. So anyway, in answer to your question, part of what Reggie said to me was, “Tami, teach from your own experience. What makes a good teacher is somebody who talks from their own experience.”
I made a vow that I would only teach what I knew from my own experience. I would never say anything, I would never answer a question if I didn’t know the answer to that question. I would just speak from what I knew from my own seeing.
Ryan: That’s awesome. When I read the stories from of the siddhas everything you said: the intuition, the lovemaking, the speaking what you know–that’s what the Vajrayana seems like to me. So that’s beautiful.