I was nineteen when I first dropped acid. A sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, I was living with my best friend, Kat, in a ramshackle beach cottage. We gave each other a long gaze, wished each other luck, and each swallowed a tiny piece of paper, blotted with a dot of LSD. Then we lay down in the tiny living room on the plush, blood-red carpet and waited for the acid to hit our systems. No one had advised us to vacuurn. As the LSD came on, Kat and I, immobilized, were captive to an onslaught of animated lint and cat fur. We closed our eyes in an effort to escape the writhing, multicolored environment, and the universe cracked open. I became complete peace, pure luminosity—no self, no form, no time. Free from identification with my body, I realized that death only exists in the imagination of humans. It was inconceivable that this vast consciousness that was me, that was all beings—plants, animals, rocks, clouds—could reduce itself into the tiny capsule of my body that felt remote and painful like a pimple on the far edge of the universe. And why return to the constant ache of corporeality: the physical pain and emotional longing that coalesce in a reality we call the human form?
A few days later, both Kat and I fell into a deep depression that entrenched itself for months. We longed for the freedom we had tasted. Unfamiliar with the sacred text that describe the nature of what we had experienced and give guidance about how to understand and live in the light of that awakening, we were lost. Further LSD trips, although always of profound significance, failed to stabilize my being in the state of consciousness that I knew was the essential truth of existence. I yearned to be that luminescent consciousness, not just visit it.
Ten years later, a flyer arrived in my mailbox. Not a slick, full-color brochure, but a simple 8 x 10 xerox with a washed-out photo of an older woman wearing a scarf around her head: Ruth Denison was leading a Buddhist retreat for women in the desert. I signed up, packed my sleeping bag, and arranged a ride to Ruth’s center, Dhammadena, miles off the main highway on a dusty road in the high desert of southern California. The spread of rickety bunk rooms, humble dining hall, and concrete zendo sits amidst Joshua trees, cacti, desert grasses, trailers and the squat homesteaders’ cabins that are the predominant architecture for hundreds of flat, sandy miles. Thirty of us woke up at dawn and spent our days in silence, walking and sitting as we followed our breath and swept our minds through the sensations of our bodies. But we also sang pop songs, danced to Bach, and went on moonlit strolls to cultivate mindfulness. And mid-retreat, after a morning of intensive instructions on how maintain clear awareness while driving and bathing, Ruth took us on a field trip to the nearby hot springs, complete with rest stops for chocolate and soda.
I adored Ruth. She was my first Buddhist teacher, and hearing the dharma emerge from her lips—the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Heavenly abodes—with the odd twist of her German accent and scrambled English, was a healing salve to me.
“Look at ze mountains,” Ruth would say, the only woman in a flock of thirty who wasn’t shivering in the biting cold of high desert dawn. “Now look at zis zat is looking.” Then she pounded her drum and we walked to the brisk beat across the sand. “Be avare of each step, and then be avare of zis vich is avare.”
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