I had hoped to find some order in the desert and that was my first mistake. I should say human order—the land, with its rocks like giant sand and sand like miniature rocks, its roadrunners seeking meat among the creosote bushes, followed its own agenda. In retrospect I see my desert fantasy—a vision of a landscape that has burned away everything that is not essential, a vision of a teacher visiting this plane from a realm of eternal truths. The teacher reaches into her robe and withdraws from its depths the key that will open the locked box of my ignorance.
I should say that I am not dedicated to being a Buddhist. I do meditate and have done so with varying degrees of regularity for many years, but something in me always resists complete immersion. Something in me always wants to remain outside, to retain the perspective of an outsider.
The retreat at the Dhamma Dena Center near Palm Springs was neither my first nor my longest. In 2006 I spent two weeks in the Santa Cruz Mountains in a little cabin on a hill of cabins reserved for people on silent retreat. The cabin was stocked with breakfast things, and lunch and dinner were left at the door in an insulated bag. They didn’t care what you did on that hill, as long as you didn’t talk or make other kinds of noise. For talking, you had to go down to the main house, something I did three times in two weeks.
I took the retreat in order to write, but I did meditate regularly. The two acts seemed to make a fine pair of opposites—the one a gathering and the other a letting go. I had no problem imposing on myself the kind of order I had experienced on yoga and meditation retreats. If I had read Dancing in the Dharma, an engaging biography of Ruth Denison, the founder of Dhamma Dena, before I had gone to the desert, I would not have expected that Ruth’s retreat would be like the others.
Ruth Denison, like all of us, was shaped by the lives of her parents, the household she grew up in, and the ways in which larger political circumstances intersected with her personal experience. Born in Germany (in what was then East Prussia) in 1922, Ruth survived the Second World War and its brutal aftermath in her country with a combination of wisdom, grit, and luck. She came to her calling after being raped and brutalized while she was imprisoned in a Russian labor camp. Seeing those around her lose their minds with rage and grief, Ruth made a vow to spend her life in the service of peace. Although she did not yet know of the concept of karma, she felt that her suffering was the debt that she must pay for being on the wrong side of history.
I was drawn to meet Ruth in part because of her connection to the war that, two generations later, formed the narrative wallpaper of the house I grew up in. My mother lost her father, grandfather, and an uncle to the conflict in the Pacific. The story of her father’s death on a Japanese ship abandoned by the Japanese and then bombed by the Americans was probably my first experience with irony. For forty-four years my father taught college history courses focused on the war in Europe. Born in 1937, he traces his interest in history to finding a newspaper that his father had preserved, its enormous headline announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the sixth grade, after reading The 900 Days, I gave a presentation to my class about the siege of Leningrad. In my house World War II was a living thing, and other social and political events seemed counterfeit in comparison.
My mother’s family could take comfort in the belief that their sacrifices had been made for a righteous cause. I had never met a German person of Ruth’s generation, someone who had been young when Hitler came to power. I wondered how it would be to endure so much hardship without the cover of the myth of being on the side of righteousness. To have the evidence reveal that the country you grew up in was the perpetrator of a vast evil, and to come to the understanding that your own suffering was a kind of kickback from the firing of deeply malevolent mechanism.
I heard about Ruth from Cator Shachoy, a yoga and meditation teacher and cranio-sacral body worker who has been a touchstone for my health and sanity for more than ten years. I have been on several weekend retreats with Cator. I liked best the ones that took place at the same Tibetan Buddhist center in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I went to work on fiction. Our retreats there kept to a strict schedule. We woke, we sat in meditation, we ate breakfast in silence, we went to yoga classes and to guided meditations. Talking was allowed during lunch and dinner, but after dinner silence was required until the next day. After an extended silence, when the bell rang to end a meditation or the gong rang to announce a meal, I felt the vibration through my whole body. I went to the desert seeking a similar experience—to feel the pleasure of not speaking, to avoid small talk and fuss, and to be overtaken by the sound of the gong. Perhaps if I had read Dancing in the Dharma, I would have known to abandon that hope. I like to believe that I would have gone on the retreat anyway.
* * *
He wears jeans and flannel and a t-shirt sporting the name of a tattoo parlor. I’ll call him Stanley. He picks me out of the crowd near the baggage claim immediately. Dressed as we are in our thinning t-shirts, we might have been members of the same sloppy foreign tribe passing through the golf glam nation of the Palm Springs airport.
He takes me to his car—a silverish blue 1980s Mercedes sedan with the inner bars taken out of the hood ornament, leaving a circle. As Stanley tells me about his past living at an ashram in New Mexico, and about his efforts to figure life out through drugs and books, I begin to think of this ornament as an instrument of inquiry. Maybe he thinks of it that way too, and believes it leads him from one clue to the next as he searches the road for meaning. As we drive away from the palms and services of Palm Springs and into an increasingly lunar landscape, I try to concentrate on that circle. I want to see if I can blur away everything else and examine one patch of road clearly. Once I had a dream about a magnifying glass hovering over an infinite text, revealing the precise lines of an alien script. The meaning of the words escaped me, but their form was absolutely clear. Stanley might not see his hood ornament as such an instrument, but he seems pleased when I compliment him on it. Perhaps he knows that I might be sympathetic to the story he then tells me.
“Last week I found a surprise three dollars in change, and I decided I would walk to the convenience store to get some beef jerky and sugarless gum. I’d forgotten how far away the store was though, like ten miles. So I spent the whole day walking there and back, but I got my jerky!”
To keep myself from laughing too hard I say that the jerky must have been delicious. I feel a spark of kinship with Stanley. Sometimes I too try to resist the flow of time by choosing to do things the hard way.
Stanley begins to talk about the UFOs. Maybe you’ve heard the word: all those nasty CEOs and creepy politicians are actually space reptiles, and the drawings on the Nazca plain could not have been made so big and perfect by a people who did not have the technological ability to fly. If you rule out the possibility that the artists were shamans who could project onto the astral plane in order to get an aerial view, then you’ll understand that the drawings must have been made by space travelers leaving a signal for their fellows. What do I know, maybe the next round of alien colonizers is, at this very moment, searching the surface of planets across the cosmos with a giant magnifying glass, trying to identify the clear lines of a sign. If there are aliens smart enough for space travel, even they might have the itch that brought me to the desert. Driven from their cradle by cruel circumstance or an undeniable hunger to see the universe, they might still want to know the particulars of their belonging.
The land levels out when we reach the Copper Mountain mesa. We drive onto a big groove in the sand that Stanley calls a road. He picks up speed, explaining that you have to drive fast in order to avoid sinking. We pass sagebrush and creosote bushes and the occasional small bungalow with a satellite dish on top and a big truck parked nearby. Stanley points out his house, which was as like the others we passed as one creosote bush is to another, and then we are at the Dhamma Dena Center.
Stanley drops me off at the bungalow that shelters the kitchen, the dining room, and the Center’s office. I notice a young woman sitting on a bench just outside the front door. She is dressed in a pair of yoga pants with a pattern like one of Hokusai’s waves on one leg, and she clutches a mug of tea as if it were a buoy in a storm. I can see the tendons throbbing in her clenched jaw. I read the expression on her face as one of barely contained rage. I have two thoughts—that she is not up to the difficult work of self-excavation, and that not long from now, my face will mirror hers.
One of the retreat participants, a friendly and brisk middle aged woman named Darlene, shows me around the grounds, which consist of a group of bungalows and trailers and out houses decorated with instructional signs and paintings with Buddhist themes. Darlene tells me that one of the out houses has been taken over by rats, and suggests that I use the other one or the one of the inside bathrooms. There are messages everywhere: Don’t throw TP into the outhouse woodchip pits! Use dirty dish water to water plants! REMOVE YOUR SHOES!!
Ruth Denison’s bungalow is the nearest building to the office-dining room. It has fenced in areas around the front and back and is decorated with wind chimes, arrangements of ceramic dachshunds perched on rocks, and a needlepoint sign on the door that says J’aime ma maison. Outside, rabbits hop among creosote bushes and desperately dry succulents cling to the sand in vestigial-looking gardens.
Scattered throughout the assortment of bungalows and trailers that look as if they haven’t been driven since the sixties are various assemblages that strike me as Buddhist jokes. A man made of straw soaks up the sun in an aluminum recliner, an exercise bike’s back wheel is buried in the sand, a statue of the Buddha has a rock for a head. My favorites are the signs along the road: several spell Vipassana, but look as if they should say Last Gas for 100 Miles. Best of all, there is a yellow diamond-shaped sign decorated with small dog silhouettes that says DACHSHUND CROSSING. Darlene tells me that dachshunds are Ruth’s familiars, but that she is no longer strong enough to keep them living with her.
We go to Dukkha House, where I will be staying. In Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism, dukkha means suffering. This fact will help me to keep my sense of humor throughout the week. Feeling overwhelmed with impatience, I will bring the word dukkha to mind. I will ask myself if this is really all that it takes to make me suffer—is just being a person among people enough of a problem? Does it really matter that so and so tells me to soak the beans now, and then says I didn’t understand her instruction? Does it really matter that so and so interrupts the tiny bit of silence I am enjoying at lunch to ask, in an accusatory tone, how many times we are chewing? That every simple act seems to require a fussy conversation?
I find a branch of dried rosemary on a bench near the door. Underneath it is a huge pile of dark droppings. I imagine a posse of rats gobbling fragrant leaves and shitting with joy. As we go inside Dukkha House, Darlene reminds me to keep the doors shut at night to prevent snakes and other creatures from seeking the warmth inside.
In one of the back bedrooms, the woman with the wave tattoo pattern on her pant leg is packing her bags. She tells Darlene that I can take her room, which is more private than the others. Apparently, she had initially planned to stay longer. Darlene asks her to keep to her original plan. The woman answers a little too vehemently, saying that she received a call and has to go. Her words suggest that there is an emergency, a death or an illness that she needs to attend to immediately. But I think she has to go because she can no longer stand to be here. The look on her face is that of a horse trapped in a burning barn. Once again, I am struck by the thought that I am watching a near-future version of myself.
In the kitchen there is an old woodstove surrounded with piles of dusty wood, and bookshelves filled with the kind of books you might find in the common room of a hostel—an atlas with a faded cover, a collection of French recipes, a guide to local birds, a Tom Robbins novel, a pamphlet explaining basic Buddhist principles (Metta: The Way of Lovingkindness). On the top shelf I see a black and white photo of Ruth, taken when she was probably in her mid-forties. Beneath a wool cap, her thick bangs rest on her forehead. She is holding a pair of chopsticks over a bowl of noodles, and she is smiling an infectious smile—open and warm, like an invitation to join her in smelling something delicious.
After I settle into Dukkha House, where I am apparently staying alone, I walk up to the zendo. Low electric lanterns light the way to this structure, which is a bungalow like the rest, but sits one step up from the ground on a concrete apron. Inside, a group of about ten women and two men kneel on cushions or sit in chairs. I am a little surprised to see the men, since Cator and the Center’s website described this as a women’s retreat. I’m not bothered, but I imagine though that it might bother someone who had come here expecting to find only the company of women. I set up some cushions, kneel down, and close my eyes.
Just then I hear the sound of a cane on the gravel path and a voice that is familiar to me. When I called to confirm that I would attend the retreat, it was this voice that I heard on the phone—this brusque-friendly German-accented voice. Is this Ruth I asked, unable to hide my surprise that the great teacher was answering her own phone. The voice that said yes, this is Ruth, said so in a tone that implied a saucy retort like what do you expect me to do, float on a lotus blossom all day?
Ruth makes her way to her seat beneath a round mosaic trimmed with Christmas lights. Later I learn that Ruth made this mosaic herself, as well as several of the tabletops in the dining hall. She is wearing fuchsia pants, a green scarf, a long white sweater and an orange hat trimmed with fake fur. I like her choice of colors and the determination in her walk. Ruth is clearly old, but she does not for a moment seem feeble.
One of the participants kneels and adjusts what appear to be ace bandages that cover the two smaller toes on both of Ruth’s feet, and tries to help her to place her feet on an ottoman. Ruth rejects the effort with an impatient gesture.
She instructs us to bring our attention to where the breath rests in the throat. I recall that she is known for being one of the first teachers in the West to connect Buddhist practice with an awareness of the body, to use the body as a tool to be in the present moment, rather than as something that needs to be subjugated to stillness. I take the body-centered approach for granted, but I remember that it was not common when Ruth began her Buddhist studies in the late 1950s. At one point we get up from our cushions and dance a dance that everyone seems to know. We move in a circle, and then we spin around, chanting syllables that have no particular meaning to me.
As I chant and spin, I recall my dream of the infinite text. The words that were clear within the hovering lens were written in an alien script. I chant the syllables, but I don’t know their meaning. I am struck by the feeling that I will never know the meaning, that I will always live among words like a modern person lives among ancient ruins.
Ruth makes a tai-chi like gesture, pressing her hands toward the center of the circle and drawing them back toward herself. She seems to me to be moving through something thick and sentient—as if the air around her were a creature whose cells pressed against hers, who breathed out when she breathed in. The air around her and the others dancing seems alive and worthy of touching.
We sit again and Ruth begins talking about a trip she made to Thailand. This is not like the dharma talks that I have heard before, which generally limn a limited territory in which the hero struggles with reactivity and wins through being present. Rather than extracting an experience from her trip that can make this neat circle, Ruth accumulates details as if she were giving us an inventory of the objects stored in a vast attic. I want her to sort through all this stuff herself, not to invite me into this cluttered space.
She has a lot to say about a princess she met in Thailand. She describes the way the princess played the jahke, a traditional stringed instrument, with great skill. She speaks as though this skill were a divine gift rather than something the princess had to gain through practice. As Ruth talks on and on, I wonder why I am here. One of the long time members of the Dhamma Dena community, a woman who traveled to Thailand with Ruth, voices the thought I am having. As she points out that the princess had to practice just like anyone else, she rolls her eyes a little bit in exasperation. I understand that I’m not the only one getting annoyed as Ruth talks like a precocious child intent on transmitting everything that has ever happened to her.
I wonder why Ruth would be so enamored of a princess—someone who is admired by thousands simply for the sheer accident of her birth. Someone who is a figurehead for a patently undemocratic system of power. I want to believe in Ruth, and to admire her beliefs, but I don’t admire royalty. As Ruth describes the careful way that the princess behaves, how every act is a conscious, trained gesture, I realize that what she admires is the grace that is a product of a life of discipline. That kind of discipline, to choose in every moment to act according to a set of principles, is not unlike the discipline required to pursue a spiritual calling. Still, I don’t want to hear any more about the princess.
As the hours wear on, my face, I imagine, is beginning to mirror that of the woman who fled. My eyes are rolling in irritation, and my nostrils are flaring around a frustrated exhalation. The evening program began at 7:30. It is now 10:30 and there is no end in sight. I realize that no one is forcing me to stay. I get up and go outside.
The sky is clear and full of stars. This is the perfection I want to find in the desert, just me contemplating the bowl of night. I try to see the sky the way I used to when I was a child, as a sphere that arcs away from us, rather than a dome that encloses us. This effort used to make me feel as if I were engaging in something subversive. I imagined that no one else contemplated the stars in this way. Everyone else, I reckoned, felt small inside the dome, but inside it nonetheless.
My reverie is interrupted when I make out a pattern of lights blinking too rhythmically to be natural. I remember that Dhamma Dena is very near to a military base, and that when I learned that it made me want to come here even more. If there is a force of attraction between opposites, perhaps it is particularly powerful to practice peace near a place that tests bombs. That is the power of the sit in, to resist the machinations of war by being still. But in this moment I am just irritated to see evidence of other human beings, a radio tower or a helicopter. I tell myself there is a lesson in all this irritation. But I wonder if it is worth getting a splinter just to have the pleasure of removing it. I walk back across the road in search of sleep.
The electrical wires are buzzing loudly, as if they are about to launch off of their poles and spurt killer volts in all directions. An apocalyptic feeling overtakes me. I feel very far away from the people who love me. I imagine that I am on the moon, watching the earth explode.
Rather than being a respite from petty daily interactions, the retreat becomes for me a kind of human obstacle course. Neither the schedule nor the mandate to maintain noble silence is adhered to. After lunch on my second day I volunteer to take over cooking that meal for my remaining time on the retreat. The website had said that simple vegetarian meals would be provided, and I read that as meaning that there is a cook on staff. In fact, though Ruth has local friends who drop by and run occasional errands, Stanley is her only live-in help. The making of meals is but one of the sources of confusion at the Center.
I offer to cook lunch because I want to do something that is needed here, but also because I discover that cooking prevents me from having to sit for all of the prescribed time. If the retreat actually did follow the posted schedule, we would be sitting for nearly eight hours a day. Have you ever tried that? If you can stand it, I recommend it. It is marvelous exercise for the brain. You might begin to feel like yours is made out of whipped butter. You might have a laughing fit or two. You will definitely find an ache in your back or your knees or your neck or all three.
The small amount of exercise that occasionally happens, usually led by Ruth’s long-time disciple Jain, is not enough for me. I begin to rise early in order to do yoga before the sitting begins. Every morning I wake alone in Dukkha House. It seems the other retreatants are all staying elsewhere. I stretch, I stand on my head. Walking to the zendo, I watch my shadow on the sandy road. It looks crisp and calligraphic, the vehicle of a very particular meaning. But each day, as the hours pass, I feel weaker and more diffuse as I lose the struggle with irritation.
Ruth keeps surprising us; we never know when she will show up at one of our sittings. When she does, she often keeps us listening to her long after the meal gong has rung. Sometimes she teases us by using repetition.
“I have said that there are four things, four satipatthanas, foundations of mindfulness, kaya, which means body, and vedana, which means feeling more or less, or emotions, yes, four things.” She repeats this part, with slight variations and meanderings into her past—how she was dismayed to discover that her adopted country had also perpetuated genocide and slavery, or how her husband Henry Denison nearly married Sarada, who was a nun at the Vedanta Center in Hollywood, where he was a monk before he met Ruth. At first I enjoy some of the tangents. I imagine the beautiful Sarada, riding on a horse to meet Henry, but just when she is near to giving herself to him, she is called back to the Vedanta Center, and does not come back out again. Ruth describes Sarada’s beautiful long hair, and points to a painting in the zendo that was made by Sarada. A monk kneels in amber light. To me his face looks tense, as if rather than feeling the light course through him he is slamming himself up against it, like a moth in the dark hitting a bright windowpane over and over. Perhaps I am a moth like that, and I will forever forget the impediment, forget the need to find a new way to the sun, and just keep slamming into my ignorance. If my shadow is an ink stroke on the ground, my body may be the brush, but what kind of tool is conscious of its purpose?
As Ruth meanders along yet another narrative path, I return to the first two of the four foundations of mindfulness. What, I am silently begging to know, are the third and fourth? I am certain that everyone around me knows these things already. But because I have not studied, because I have used the breath and learned the basic outline of the Buddha’s story, but know little more than that, I am itching to know what three and four are.
“I have said there are four things, kaya and vedana, hmm?” says Ruth. I see a pearl forming in an oyster’s flesh irritated by sand. She must be doing this on purpose, chafing away at our minds, breaking down the old flesh so that something bright and new can arise. Finally Ruth says the last two—citta, which means mind, and dhamma, which means mental phenomena and causality. Once again, the bell rings for the evening meal, but Ruth talks on. My stomach growls and I begin to think that there is something sadistic in this teacher. I want her to stick to the schedule, to ease off, to let us find our own minds. Just as I am thinking stop pounding me, Ruth calls herself a hammer.
To cook the lunch I work in the sunny kitchen, taking time out to feed the roadrunners with the meatballs that Ruth keeps for that purpose. When I see one of them in the bushes I go out on the doorstep and hold the meat between my fingers until the bird takes it. Sometimes while something is simmering, I sit outside in the warm sun and watch the quail run. I long to be alone with these creatures, to not have to participate in making decisions by committee. But once it is known that I’m the lunch cook I am inundated by suggestions, requests, and mixed messages. When I am serving the lunch, people assume that I am in charge of the kitchen, and begin to suggest that I do things like rearrange the contents of the refrigerator to find a place for the tofu they brought. I point them to the refrigerator, struck by how much we all wish someone were truly in charge, would on the one hand lead us, and on the other hand cater to our needs.
After the first two nights, I stop going to the evening program. Instead I take a cup of tea back to Dukkha House and write. I tell my journal that people with special dietary needs flashed me angry looks when I made lasagna at Ruth’s request. I beg my journal to take my side, declaring that someone had told me the special needs people would fend for themselves. I write that as Ruth approached the lunch table where the lasagna waited, she said, sounding just like a child, “I want cheese on mine!”
During my silent retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I frequently found myself in an odd frame of mind. Sometimes, just watching the creatures—the western jays, a long-legged black beetle, the peacocks and the cats that lived at the main house, and one afternoon a mountain lion—I was overcome by delight. The animal behaviors seemed as odd and particular as the behaviors of the characters in the novel I was writing. The precise angles of the beetle’s head, the mountain lion’s velvet-roped shoulders, the sound of the jay’s claws landing like lead weights onto the picnic table—all this struck me as miraculous and absurd. What series of circumstances led to the birth of these particular creatures? The specificity of creation struck me as cosmic caprice.
I had fits of convulsive laughter. The longest lasting one overtook me when I was staring at a ridge across from my cabin that was covered in thick greenery. The thought that precipitated the fit was: Mother Nature has abandoned her children. I received this message as if it were spoken by an absolutely irrefutable exterior voice. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew that it was true. Perhaps this is the way Ruth receives her spiritual instructions—a voice speaks straight to her gut. Doubt falls away.
“My feet were bound in rags,” she tells us one day, “I was in that cellar, where the Russian soldiers put me after they raped me. I put my hands on the wall, and I said to God, because I was a Christian at that time, I said, if I survive this I will devote my life to the work of peace.”
Ruth does not say that she heard back from God. Just that she made that choice, to serve the cause of peace, and that she has always kept that promise. Sometimes she seems almost to be bragging as she describes leading retreats of one hundred people. But when I am alone again, sitting outside Dukkha House, listening to the electrical wires humming, considering the ecstasy of rats nibbling rosemary leaves, it strikes me that I agree with what Cator said—Ruth is absolutely authentic. She may need validation, may need to remind herself that she has done good work, but she does not hide her thoughts or requirements. Perhaps editing herself would, in her estimation, require stepping out of the moment. What would it be like, I wonder, to never mortgage one moment for another? I am not completely overtaken by piss and vinegar. I do enjoy some conversations that I have in the sunny kitchen. Margarita, a mother of six from New York City, is one of my favorite helpers. During a discussion about the goddess of compassion Kwan Yin, lead by one of the Dhamma Dena community’s long time members, Margarita responds to the dismissal of the Virgin Mary as an insufficiently potent female spiritual entity by invoking the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. She is the Empress of the Americas, very powerful, Margarita reminds us. I think of the message that I received, that we have been abandoned by Mother Nature. As I chop squash with Margarita, I think we are not done yet, receiving the gifts of the earth. We human beings may try to build a world to suit our ideas, free of motherly interference, but so far we have not succeeded.
On my final night at Dhamma Dena, I am told that its Ruth’s 89th birthday, and we will have a celebration in the zendo. It doesn’t seem possible to duck out. Jain has written a song for Ruth, and another woman teaches us to sing happy birthday in Thai. As I learn the songs with the others, my eyes well up. Our voices seem to me to be the voices of orphans in a storm, we are vulnerable and we long for a home where our soft hearts won’t be bruised. We are making this small gift to honor a woman who has seen the worst of human behavior and who has survived with her heart intact. If Ruth is attempting to shove her thoughts into our heads, at least they are the thoughts of someone who has studied deeply and practiced with great dedication.
Once again, Ruth talks for hours and hours. I have the feeling that she wants to impart to us the whole of her life experience. She shares reminiscences of Europe during the war, of coming to California, of the early days of the Insight Meditation Society, and of the women’s retreat where she had the participants sew the meditation cushions that then were not common. My back twinges in sympathy as she tells us that people used to sit on their shoes. She also tells about a woman I will call Daphne. Later I will learn that Daphne is one among many mentally unstable people that Ruth has cared for over the years.
“Daphne would try to save the flies,” says Ruth. “Once she fished a fly out of the outhouse. It was missing a leg. She wanted to take it to the park, where she was sure its leg would grow back. Now that’s taking it too far!”
We all laugh. Ruth cuts a chocolate cake with much fuss as people try to help her and she refuses, and plates and cups are passed around. Then Ruth gives us each a handkerchief and reminds us not to sneeze into trees. I appreciate that sentiment, and I enjoy some of her stories, but as the hours pass I begin once more to have a panicked feeling. We are standing around the table, and Jain suggests that the party should end. I feel the relief of the others at this suggestion, and their disappointment when it doesn’t happen.
I make a move as if to leave and Ruth tells me to stay. She takes a hold of my right wrist, which is scarred from a childhood burn. I don’t know if she does this on purpose, if she has noticed my scars and wants in some way to acknowledge this evidence of my suffering, but I stand still. Her fingers wrap around my wrist. She continues telling her story, saying nothing to me, but I must admit I feel as if something I have frequently hidden has been seen, and I find some comfort in that feeling.
Nevertheless, because I know I am leaving the next day, my impatience becomes intense. Finally the evening program ends. I rush back to Dukkha House and pack my things in anticipation. I want to cry with joy. Stanley has agreed to take me to a hotel in Palm Springs after “tea” the following night. I have one more lunch to cook.
My helper in the kitchen for my last lunch is a woman who seems very lonely, very lost. I will call her Susan. She asks for my input on every aspect of chopping food and she gushes over what she perceives to be our new-found friendship. I predict that she will say she feels a very strong connection with me. Two minutes later she says exactly that, and hugs me, and her body feels almost unbearably soft.
I remember Rumi’s poem that begins There is some kiss we want/ with our whole lives,/ the touch of Spirit on the body. I want to tell her that everyone here is looking for that kiss, that we are all in longing. I want to tell her that our deep connection is her delusion, but I resist that urge toward sharpness.
At my final meditation at Dhamma Dena, Ruth begins to question us about the mind. What does the mind do? What is its nature? Margarita says it thinks. Jain says it knows. Ruth tells them they are wrong. More people answer and more are wrong. The tea bell rings. Ruth talks on. The door opens and I am sure that Cam, who has made the tea, is coming in to tell us that we must come down to the dining room. Sensible Cam, surely she is here to tell us this. But no, even Cam sits down. I get up and walk out of the zendo.
Outside I notice a pair of extraordinary trees. I am amazed that I have never seen them before. One has white bark and dark green, heart-shaped leaves. The other is taller and odder to my eyes, with silky green bark and leaves that are more like spikes. It is like a giant primitive grass plant. I have never seen anything quite like either of these trees. How could I have missed them? These beautiful creatures, these ambassadors from the realm of their origin, standing next to each other in the soil, making secret leaf signs. I’d like to lie down and learn to speak their language. But I see Stanley and I know I have to go.
We swing by Dukkha House and pick up my things. I feel like I am eloping or running away to join the circus.
Stanley asks me how it was and I tell him that I have a sudden deep urge to listen to the Butthole Surfers. He tells me he’s been listening to Slayer all day in his house while we were saying the refuges and trying to decipher the koan. He tells me that one person on the retreat handed him a note asking him to stop talking so loudly when he comes into the kitchen. With a rush of teenage-like righteousness I declare such behavior passive aggressive bullshit.
At the Desert Springs Hotel we share dinner, and he tells me more about himself. About his parents, who, like Ruth, were young people in Germany when Hitler came to power. About his drugged-out days when demons talked in his ear and tried to force their way into his apartment. He tells me that crazy Daphne, who is in her seventies, is still an avowed nudist, and that there is a guy living in one of the trailers near Dukkha House who has threatened to chop Ruth’s head off. We talk about Eckhardt Tolle and Toltec wisdom and Hinduism, and the many ways that people try to be happy. Before he leaves, he asks me if I am glad I came. I say yes, but I’m not yet sure why.
Stanley leaves and I go out to the pool. This hotel had its heyday in the days of Bob Hope. It feels run down now—palm fronds litter the chipped pools and the little cabanas advertising massage look long closed. There are several pools of different sizes and temperatures. No one is in the long rectangular lap pool. I get in and begin to swim lap after lap.
What is the action of the mind? It catalogs. It selects and sorts. It makes narrative. It chooses.
I swim back and forth, forth and back. Above me the stars in the night sky bend away on the arcs of their orbits. The palm trees whisper to other palm trees and drop their fronds into the water. All across the world human beings try to arrange to their liking Mother Nature’s indiscriminate bounty. The mind chooses what belongs within its lens and discards the rest. But what if the rim of the lens could dissolve, and the intensity of the focal center could be applied ubiquitously? What marvelous words would be revealed, and what great readers might we be—as compelled by understanding as we are moved by mystery.