Profile of Practice Leader: Nelle Oosterom

What led you to studying and practising Buddhism and Vipassana meditation?  

Lots of mental suffering. I'd always been a spiritual searcher and was curious about Zen, which I didn't really understand but felt drawn to.

What actually got me beyond reading and actually practising was that I started taking yoga classes at the urging of a friend and this led to me taking a yoga meditation workshop in March of 1995 co-led by Keith Millan and Val Paape at the Yoga Centre of Winnipeg.

It was the first time I can recall consciously sitting and watching my thoughts instead of following them -- or, as I wrote in my journal at the time, "watching a speeding train of thought and busily labelled and derailed each car." I think it was kind of a breakthrough experience. Nothing terribly special happened, yet it was a huge change from the way I normally experienced life. It felt freeing. I knew then that I had to continue to explore this way of being and learn more.

How long have you been practicing this form of meditation?

 Since March of 1995.

Who has been your main mentor while on this path? Other mentors?

Most years since 1997 I have gone on a week long retreat in Saskatchewan led by visiting teacher Sharda Rogell of Spirit Rock in California. I have found her approach to the dharma both accessible and profound. I believe she possesses strong intuition and seems to know how to reach people like me. So I would say Sharda has been the biggest single influence.

That said, I received a lot of help along the way from Keith Millan, especially in the early years, and had the good fortune to sit on retreat with awesome teachers such as Ajahn Viradhammo, Ajahn Passano, Shirley Jayanta Johannsen, Steve and Rosemary Weissman,  Christopher Titmuss,  and Bante Gunaratana. 

Where have you gone on retreats as well as for studying the Dharma?

Mostly in Saskatchewan on retreats led by Sharda Rogell and a few other teachers. There have been several retreats in Winnipeg, some of which I helped organize. In the early years I did more travelling abroad. In 1997 I did a month long course at Kopan Tibetan monastery in Nepal, followed by a ten day Vipassana retreat in Bodh Gaya, India. Those early experiences were profound and  life changing. In 2002 I attended a ten day retreat in Thailand led by Steve and Rosemary Weissman, which gave me additional tools for my practice. 

How has this practice changed your life and life path? Relationships?

It's been a lot like the title of Jack Kornfield's book, After The Ecstasy, The Laundry.

Immediately before, during and after what I call my spiritual pilgrimage in 1997-98,  I experienced a tremendous surge of awakening, accompanied by great peace, clarity, and a strong desire to make a difference by helping to spread the dharma so that others could have the same experience I did.

So, ready or not, (mostly not), I became more involved with the local dharma group here in Winnipeg led by Keith. That led me to leading the meditation sits, giving talks, organizing retreats and workshops, teaching beginner classes and so on.

All of that had the effect of deepening my understanding and my practice. I recently read that there is no better way to learn than to try to teach.

Of  course, the group has changed quite a bit over the years, as has my role in it. I’ve had to step back a bit, due in part to health limitations.

In other areas of my life, I would say that the biggest benefit is that the Buddha dharma has given me tools I would otherwise not have had to respond to difficulty, such as the deaths of loved ones, interpersonal conflicts, periods of career instability, chronic health conditions and other kinds of disappointments. 

As for my relationships, I hope the practice has made me a little more discerning, patient, compassionate, and present than I otherwise would have been, but really that’s hard for me to judge.

What other forms of practice or meditation have helped you get to where you are today?

Prayer. Tonglen is sometimes helpful. I used to do a lot of metta and liked to memorize verses. And in the beginning I used to like to chant and even do prostrations. These had a calming effect. But these days my practice is pretty simple. I'm drawn to equanimity phrases, such as "All beings must follow their own path, I cannot walk their path for them" and reminders such as "No matter how much I want things to be different, things are as they are." I mostly try to maintain a steady mind, stay open to life and whatever it brings, and not get swept away by waves of what the Buddha identified as the three poisons — greed, hatred, and delusion (or ignorance).

You were one of WIMG’s earliest members and teachers. How and when did WIMG begin? How did you get involved?

The group began in the early 1990s at the Yoga Centre of Winnipeg when it was located on Portage Avenue. My understanding is that Keith Millan was asked to teach classes in meditation. And since people who took the classes wanted to continue the practice, he established a regular sitting group. Keith had by then been studying and practising meditation for many years with teachers mainly from the Theravada Thai forest tradition, so his understanding of the practice was very solid. I joined after taking yoga there and then taking the meditation-yoga workshop mentioned earlier. 

Can you describe the transitions that WIMG has gone through? How many locations has it had? How has the membership changed? 

At the beginning it was established as a once-a-week sitting group usually led by Keith. A few years after I joined, I began occasionally leading the sits and giving talks. Then a few more people started leading but with Keith remaining as the primary teacher. Some years ago Keith opted to step down, since he’d been leading for many years and had outside commitments to attend to.  

Since this is a volunteer commitment for all of us who lead the group, we have kept its structure as simple as possible to keep it sustainable. Since yoga studios are fairly well set up for meditation practice, in the late 1990s we moved to a new studio called Northern Lotus on Ellice Avenue for a few years. We followed Northern Lotus when it moved to the Wolseley area and then to Augustine United Church on River, where the studio was renamed Yoga North, (and where we first gave ourselves the name Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group). We stayed with Yoga North when it went to Sherbrook, and then to its current location on Westminster. 

And because Sunday mornings are not a good time for everyone to attend, we established another sitting location for Wednesday evenings at St. Peter’s Anglican Church on Grant.

For the past few years, we’ve usually had four people, including myself, taking turns leading the Sunday morning sessions. And we have several other people who volunteer to guide the Wednesday night sits. 

As for membership, I guess there are only a handful of us left from the early years. Other than putting names on our email list, we don’t have a formal membership process. Generally, our attendance has been pretty steady at both locations in recent years, with an average of perhaps 20 to 25 people showing up each session. And there is quite a bit of demand for our one-day or weekend meditation retreats.

I should mention that this is a big change from only a few years ago, when the group was in danger of folding altogether due to declining attendance. 

That it didn’t is, I believe, largely because Marc Forest stepped forward with fresh energy and enthusiasm to keep the group going. Marc used the opportunity of his early retirement to take on most of the work of co-ordinating our activities, as well as teaching and deepening his own practice. So we are very blessed to have him doing this. And others, such as Bruce Johnson and Amy Teakle, have helped immensely with things like meditation room setup and retreat organization.

What are your visions and dreams for the future of WIMG? 

We have a steering group now and our discussions often turn to the future. So far, our goals have been modest. My wish is that there always be a place for people locally who are interested in practising meditation and studying the dharma to have a place nearby to go and do that. It's one thing to fly off to a distant retreat somewhere but it’s another to return home and have a community around to keep the dharma fires going. It would be great to have a seven-day-a-week space dedicated entirely to being a centre for this kind of community. It would also be great to have a residential retreat space, in a quiet place in the country, tailored to the needs of a meditation group. And it would be great to have a roster of visiting teachers coming in to lead retreats. All of these things are possible.