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 vacuum. 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.”
Whenever I experienced difficulty—physical pain, mental obsession, grief—Ruth would invite me into her room, hold my hand, bring me tea, feed me cookies, and we would chat about sex and romance, love and betrayal.
“Ach, now ven I hear zose cars honking zeir horns on Saturday morningks because someone is marryingk, I breaze to myself and say, ‘Dukkha, dukkha’ (suffering). You vouldn’t believe ze phone calls I get in ze middle of ze night. ‘My boyfriend is sleeping vitz anozer woman. I’m goingk to kill myself.’ Ach, ze dukkha of zis love.”
In 1988, on my way home from India where I had spent thirty days on a Buddhist pilgrimage with Thich Nhat Hanh, I visited friends in Hawaii. They poured me a glass of ayahuasca, a dark, visionary brew from the Amazon. I had taken precepts with Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), which I was adhering to with the rigor of a new convert, and assumed that psychedelics were forbidden fruit; but I also considered the occasional ingestion of sacred plants to be an integral part of my path. If that meant I was a renegade, I accepted my fate outside of the fold. “Try to stay sitting,” my friends had advised as I said my prayers and swallowed the thick, bittersweet concoction in their jungle garden. But I fell back, unable to move, overpowered by the assault of visions as an after-death Disney-style bardo of animated beings revealed themselves in a crescendo of image-encoded information. Like a tantric mandala, a circle of incarnation presented itself—a swarm of writhing beings entrapped by the prison of embodiment—and I witnessed myself step off the Ferris wheel of rebirth. The brew sped through my bowels as if it were an intelligent being, pulling toxic substances out of my cells that I vomited in a stream of brackish goo. I was terrified, but my month of meditating with Thay had prepared me: I focused on my inbreath and out-breath, bringing enough calm into my mind and body to endure the onslaught of visions that were teaching me about my own death.
As the visions calmed, my stepmother emerged in my mind. I saw that she was very ill and would die soon. I sat by her deathbed and, for the first time in our twenty-year relationship, which had been characterized by jealousy and mistrust, I saw into her heart. I understood that she hadn’t been mean-spirited, only clumsy. From the clarity of seeing so deeply into henature, her suchness, forgiveness arose like a wind, without effort. I realized this was the practice of metta (loving-kindness): not an exercise, as I had been practicing it, or a formula, but a lucidity. Over and over again, Thay had instructed us that true love arises only from understanding, and that understanding arises from looking deeply. Finally I realized what he had meant.
When I returned home, my relationship with my stepmother had transformed, even though I never confided in her about what I had experienced on ayahuasca; there was a kindness that had never existed before. As the visions had revealed to me, she became quite ill. This time, in “real life, ” knowing she would die in a few days, she called me to sit by her bedside in the hospital.
“I was very young when I married your father,” she said, “and I didn’t know how to relate to a teenage girl. I did my best.” She took a sapphire and diamond ring from her finger and handed it to me.
“I understand,” I said, slipping the ring onto my finger; it fit perfectly.
Now when I practice metta, I understand that forgiveness cannot be forced; forgiveness emerges of its own accord from seeing clearly. And when I become still enough to look into my relationships, I see that blame arises from delusion; that all human beings are essentially kind but also misguided and inept; that hatred arises from misunderstanding; and that as we cultivate the ability to see clearly, to understand one another, all beings benefit in ways we comprehend and ways that are still beyond our grasp.
In 1991, despite my aversion to gurus and their bevies of sycophantic devotees, I found myself at the feet of a barefoot eighty-three-year-old enlightened master in India. H. L. Poonjaji, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, conducted satsang (a gathering of people to discuss the dharma) in the living his modest home in a busy and polluted suburb of Lucknow. Following the trail blazed by my dharma friends, I made my way to his doorstep and sat with what was then an already bustling crowd of one hundred seekers to hear him converse one brave enough to ask him a question.
“Turn the mind to the source of thoughts. Who is thinking? This that is never born and never dies, pure consciousness itself, is who you truly are,” he said, one way or another, over and over again, bobbing his bald head as he flashed a perfect smile of pearly. Those simple words were what I had been aching to hear since my first LSD trip ten years earlier. And in the of Poonjaji’s illuminated mind, I fell into an open space of being, which he describes as immaculate, untouched by thought, sorrow, conditions.
“Be quiet,” he said with a chuckle, “that is all. Then you will you know who you truly are.” And everyone burst into a round of belly laughs, because it is so easy.
But it took me a few days of sitting in satsang with Poonjaji to understand what I was experiencing. I expected an awakening to be like an acid trip. I expected a lightening bolt of energy to cascade my physical being, to be unable to move my limbs, for all thought to be blasted out of my mind and words to appear like clumsy and misshapen fragments of reductionism. I expected technicolor rainbows, rushes of energy that defied sleep for days, firestorms of the heart. Instead, everywhere I looked, the world appeared the same: no lint crawling across red carpets; no scaled beasts morphing into starry universes; no bardic journeys into the afterlife as symphonic music goes dissonant and molecular; no body desolving into timeless mind. The awakening I was experiencing was so mundane, I almost didn’t recognize it. My psychedelic experiences, which had brought me to this place, were now interfering with my vision. Because what was really happening, I realized when I looked carefully, with a gaze free of expectation, was that the world, while appearing as it had always appeared, was in fact revealing its mystery moment by moment. The chant of the peanut boy sitting on his cart was so perfect a melody that I wept. A water buffalo with horns arcing skyward, his long, brown face ending in a soft spot of black nose, gave me a look as intimate as any lover’s gaze. I began to live in the silence that exists beneath form, and finally, as the need for a revelation that shattered the mind was replaced by a simple appreciation of the present miracle, I fell in love. I came home. I surrendered. And I understood what all of my teachers—plants, chemicals, Zen masters, Vipassana teachers, nature—had been telling me all along.
Although Poonjaji discourages his devotees from practicing formal meditation, I sit regularly on my zafu. I follow my breath, note the sensations, feeling states, thoughts as they arise and pass away. Or sometimes, I simply lie in bed and do nothing. Or I practice a Tibetan visualization I learned from a book about dying. Or agatha (a brief recitation) Thich Nhat Hanh taught me. I no longer sit because I long for awakening. I sit because I have fallen in love with the silence.
“Be quiet, be still,” Poonjaji advises. “And discover who you truly are.”
We are not merely interconnected, we are that which is connected. Inseparable from luminosity, we are luminous. For years I had searched for a way to reside in radiance. Now I realize, we have no other choice, but we forget. I sit on my zafu to remember. I sit: not to understand anything I don’t already know, not to get something I don’t already have, not to be someone other than who I already am, but in devotion to what has been so exquisitely made apparent to me, the truth of who we all are—with or without psychedelics, with or without Buddhism: already radiant, already immortal, already free.
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