I texted Hannah, student organizer extraordainaire, at 8AM on the morning of our Sewanee Inner Beauty events:
Soggy. Some possibles: 1. Daytime indoors today 2. Postpone daytime till tomorrow 3. Get wet and sing. With a list like that, who wouldn't choose to get wet and sing? So we set up under a couple of big trees, which kept us surprisingly sheltered for a long time. I gave students from the Health and Wellness House some simple Inner Beauty instructions, and they were off, brilliantly, leading other brave souls in Free/Not-Free, Passports, and other Treatments.
Around 1PM, the rain got way harder than anything the trees could shelter us from, and everyone scattered. I dove into one of the Safety Tents the students had providentially set up, and zipped in. There I was: former Professor Lady, barefoot in a puddly tent outside the library of the college where I'd once taught. Tell me again about the choices that led here? Much more interestingly: there I was, safe and dry in the heart of a storm, listening to rain bounce off a tent provided by the kindness of a newly-met community of young people. I chose to be with abundance, rather than lack.
Once the heaviest phase of the rain subsided, Hannah & I emerged from our tents, and abandoned our now-drenched labors in favor of lunch, coffee, and conversation. It was good to have spent the morning making a space for wild daring in the rain, and good also to get in out of the rain.
Do you know the Leonard Cohen song If it be Your Will? Do you know the Antony Hegarty version? More and more, I see this whole Inner Beauty Pilgrimage to the Sacred-Ordinary Everywhere as the heart's burning, the soul's at-long-last marriage to the body to the world to the companions of each day's rising and falling again into night. Moment by moment, vows converge on feeling what I feel & knowing what I know. I converge on kindness.
If it be your will
Right now, these burning hearts in hell lands with a sense of kinship. Oh, yes: our burning hearts. Everyone's burning heart, burning for this and for that (it seems), but really, just burning. The blue shoes, the bacon ice-cream, our longed-for bodies, that gaze, that other, better place, that respite among the flames. Our burning hearts, unresolved and unresolvable, doing what they do.
We are broken in the most beautiful ways: a broken foot, another broken foot, a gimpy knee, kidney stones, cancer, divorce, addiction, recovery, depression, a sick child. And full of grace. A friend reaches out to tell me her relationship has ended, just at the same time that exhaustion has forced her temporarily out of school, her mother's knee is busted, her family is moving across the country, her grandmother's dying, and her uncle is drinking again. All burning. I've chanted it again and again, in the Fire Sermon, but somehow never heard it so sweetly.
I wake at 3AM and lay in bed for hours, burning with story upon story, longing upon longing. In the third watch of the night, I come to rest in this great heart beating here, doing its work of waking up and burning in the world. Anything that isn't grounded in that refuge, anything that believes the forms of longing while not at the same time looking through them to the great heart itself, is just samsara. Let's try something else, this time around.
Body feels different this morning: center of gravity has shifted down, and feels lush. I am pregnant with being. It occurs to me that weathering last night's heart-storm is not so dissimilar to weathering psychedelic experience. Being-with. Staying-with. Not buying into rainbows or monsters. I know now that whatever strategies I might use to distract me from the intensity of the heart's burning will wind up being far more painful than the burning itself. In the past, I've tried this:
May all beings find confidence and compassion to be with their burnings, to hold them close, and to work responsibly to give them form in the world. Knowing how we ourselves burn, may we hold all beings' burning with kindness.
It's raining hard as I pull into Roanoke from Blacksburg. Under the guise of chasing down the now-defunct Eclectic Bookstore, GPS as following-my-nose has brought me right into downtown. On my second pass through the bustling farmers market district, a red car pulls out of a parking space, exactly where I need one. I pull in, thinking I am bound for the coffee shop, but as soon as I get out of the car, I know the bead store is where I'm going. Interesting. I wonder what this will be about.
As I walk in, the word dark arises. OK, I accept that dark is what's drawing me here. Dark as in fertile, grounded, known through the heart, and not the thinking mind or the eyes. Dark as in Reggie Ray's dark retreat practice. I say hello to a striking blonde woman with kohled eyes, who is helping a customer build herself a bracelet, and wander slowly among hundreds of little glass bowls, looking at dark tourmaline chips, a black crystal heart, and some grey pearls. Nope, nope, and nope. I recognize that am in Psyche's granary, with the seed-sorting task already complete. I keep moving back in the high, long, narrow space, and then, furthest back, I see what has been calling me:
Actually, I see two very beautiful Japanese woodblock prints hanging side by side:
Shabby piles of paper, dark wood, half-closed office door. He seems surprised to see me. I introduce myself and ask what he might know about the print: where did it come from & who made it? It's clear he doesn't have many answers for me, but I notice his love of beautiful things, and the sensitive, tactile way he reads the image. We talk a little bit, and I offer him $60 instead of the $85 he's asking. He says no way, but $65 would be OK.
Something shifts. Hey, he says suddenly. You actually seem pretty smart. I tell you what. If you can solve this riddle, I'll give you the print for free. He leads me to a door at the back of the space, and the hairs go up on the back of my neck. Really? I'm going back into this wormhole with a man I've never met? Yes. I am.
The space opens deep, in front and below us. He tells me, as we walk down flower-embossed stairs, that this was a Piggly Wiggly warehouse. At the foot of the stairs are a set of maple chairs that I tell him remind me of the set I inherited from my Swedish grandmother's family. He sort of smiles mysteriously, and we keep moving back. OK, here it is, he says. Look up. Where did that wood come from? I start slowly. The bricks tell me the spaces I'm looking at were built at different times. In the older space, handmade lumpy bricks, and long boards for the ceiling. In the newer space, machine-made boring bricks, and old stained wood in strange, regular, short lengths for the ceiling. That wood's recycled from somewhere, I say. What's that size? I think of the rail yards I passed on my way into town. Crates. I ask if they were for something light, like cotton, but no.
Eventually, I give up, and he tells me he crates came from Sweden with Volvo freight engines and parts in them. It's scary how close you got, he says, and I see that while the world was telling me what I needed to know, it is still right that I should pay for the Dark Lady, her ferryman, the boat, and the night world we are all moving through.
Now they're in the back seat of my car, behind the portfolio where I keep the drawing paper, and we are keeping one another company through the miles. We are traveling together by feel, where only the heart can see.
Ryley sits down like, Finally! Let’s do this thing, I’ve only been waiting millions of years.
Because it's what’s happening anyway, I focus on allowing sexual energy to arise fully & be felt in the body, without needing to lead to anything. There is just this gazing, this being gazed at, this drawing. There are clear boundaries, and no one is looking for anything. Here we are, sitting opposite one another at this borrowed table, in this weird underground mall in Roanoke, participating in the Flatline the Pipeline Festival.
Feeling, this is young man energy. Seeing the strength and newness of neck-muscle, shoulder, Adam’s apple.
Feeling, this is experienced woman energy. Being seen in this form, steady, grounded & tender. No one’s mother, and everyone’s.
Feeling, this is what sexual energy is like – a compass needle pointing north, a deep well opening down, a ground, a grace.
Resting in goodwill towards everything that is arising, delicious, open & non-compulsive.
There is permission for me to see what I see, and to be seen. There is permission for Ryley to see what he sees, and to be seen. For work-study, Ryley tells me he grows bromeliads and catnip in a greenhouse. He is 20 years old. As he speaks, all the young men from Virginia who went to die in the battlefields around us become present to me, and then dissipate. I am glad Ryley is not one of them.
I ask, are you totally stoned right now? Because it seems so. No, but I’ve had a few beers. Do I seem totally stoned?
Yes and no. Noticing what drinking does to consciousness: it opens sexual energy, and also it takes the edge off of that opening. But edge is important, and awkward is important. I am holding center, while part of me feels stoned, gazing at this kid & being in his gaze. We are having the time of our lives, abiding in this wild calm gaze, while a truly good band plays Me and Bobby McGee. I think of Ryley’s mother.
Ryley says, after that, I need to give you a hug. He’s tall, taller than me, and gentle. We wrap our arms around one another, and there is nothing at all to get tangled in. We are immaculately untangled.
He chooses an Inner Beauty Passport with the terracotta warriors of Xian on it, and tells me, None of them are the same. He’s right: no one is the same, and there no regrets to be had, anywhere, at last, Amen.
First- a dream:
I am rushing to finish getting everything together to leave on a long journey. I buy my ticket, but then I have to run off and give something away, and buy something else. By the time I get back to the bus station, everything is already moving, and so I flag down the driver at the last possible moment before he exits for the open road. Totally out of breath, as we pick up speed, I settle into my seat, and ask if this is the bus to New York City. New York City? the driver says, We're going to Berne. I burst out laughing. Such a relief! Nothing is what I thought, and here we all are, going to burn/Berne.
Second - a terrible painting at the Baltimore Farmers Market:
The painting looks, honestly, like a hemorrhoidal anus in outer space. I think it is supposed to be a rose, but it's weirdly fleshy. I find its bold ineptitude riveting. Later, during my second JHMI psilocybin session, this image comes to visit again, and this time I see it as the raw nub of embodiment - the core of me that has longed over lifetimes to incarnate & surrender fully, and is also horrified at the idea of being completely tender and open in this world.
Third - a fleeting sense at the end of the same psilocybin session:
I am sitting in meditation, completely grounded in the body, breathing deeply through the whole body. Gently, I become aware of soft, undulating, meringue-like waves extending all around me.
Fourth - while I have not consciously been looking for it, I've been taking in some pretty insistent reading/listening on the subject of full embodiment:
John Tarrant's The Light Inside the Dark
Judith Blacktone's Belonging Here
Sera Beak's Red Hot and Holy
Fifth - music
Leaving Roanoke, I set my iPod to play a novel, but it knows better. Instead, the whole road is Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Natalie Merchant's Motherland, Boubacar Traore, Bulgarian women, Bhagavan Das singing his love songs to Kali, Gillian Welch, Robyn Hitchcock, Gangstagrass, Tabla Beat Science, Otis Redding, Tuvan shamans, Swiss yodelers, and Maria Tanase. It is duende & blues, deep bass, drums, and animal calls. It is, random song by random song, exactly what this heart and body need. I weave my way to Knoxville through increasingly maddened traffic, from cold rain to 82 sunny degrees, 250 miles in the embrace of a sung tradition of deliciousness in the body.
So it's unavoidable & official: after years and lifetimes of austerity, hardship, and avoidance, I am being urgently invited to live more deliciously.
Overnight, Shenandoah turned into a rainforest. The flapping & soughing high in the apples & pines all night were the arrival of shifting mists: now here, ribboning the grass by my crossed legs; now there, eating and disgorging cities in the guessed distance. Mountain as cloud-catcher. I get a glimpse of the Blue Ridge as fortress and screen, as it was during the Civil War. Momentarily, descent seems foolish, impossible. Then the clouds shift again, the road shows just enough of itself, and the slow miles wind away down to the valley. I return to hours on the same-same four-lane interstate with some sadness, but GPS has one more surprise for me: a winding mountain road linking 81 with the heart of Blacksburg, where I will spend the night with some couch surfing friends tonight.
There's an obvious thing that could be said here, about clarity and doubt, perspective and its loss. But what I actually feel is: like this. Like this. Sunny ridge, glorious sunset, foggy morning, winding road, super-highway, Denny's veggie-burger, public library's generous shelter, this gray afternoon. Just like this.
I came out to Shenandoah National Park with a kind of existential homework: pay attention to being fully incarnate. And there it all was, open to be seen & read & felt & appreciated. All of the beautiful colors of peak and decay, all of the ways one thing becomes another becomes another, all of the gentleness of having a clear, embodied path to surrender to. Look at the leaf: trod-on, bored-through, and fallen, absolutely lambent in the shadows. Look at the acorn's own sun, and the velvety tree-lump. Look at this face, lined and clear, and feel this creaky knee, just as much a part of nature as the fern and the thistle.
Having laid my fire for later, I found a west-facing rock on which to read John Tarrant's The Light Inside the Dark (which Nico lent me), and then stayed to watch the whole of the sunset, rolling out, magnificent, to the applause of all campers: the hammocked ones, and the ones in giant RV's, and the ones in tents, gathered along our ledge in shared appreciation.
Another long, dark night, dreaming, thinking, understanding:
It doesn't make any sense to me to talk about the environment like it's some external thing we enlightened ones can choose to take care of, out of an excess of goodwill. I want to talk about our being, inter being, our life-or-death challenge to actually be here now, cutting through all the wants & self-lacking & banking-for-another-day that make us into locusts on the land.
Right now, can you feel the wanting-places inside you? The someday-places? The I-don't-want-to-go-there places? Can you feel the lush groves, and the charnel grounds? Can you feel what is so tender that even to imagine showing it here, in this world, makes you shudder? That is the environment. The sleepy places and the burning places, the places of rest and nourishment, and the places of ceaseless numb torment. The alchemists' proposal, which is also Jesus' proposition in the gospel according to Thomas, is this: As is your inner environment, so shall be the world. As is the world, so shall be your inner environment.
Become fully incarnate, agree to know what you know and feel what you feel, and then
"Your teachers will be hidden no more, with your eyes you will see them. And whether you turn to the right or to the left, you will hear a voice behind you saying, 'This is the way, walk in it.'" Isaiah 30:20
Your transparent participation in the world, your particular bridge between earth and sky , time and timelessness, will become a blessing on the world. You are a gate through which truth may flow. Open it by inhabiting your body and being completely, so that you can hear the cries and the joys of the world, healing it and yourself, indissoluble.
You know how sometimes a name will reach out and grab you? I had fallen into a trance of driving along the very beautiful Skyline Parkway, when the sign for Dark Hollow Falls came up on my left, and I knew I had to stop. Dark as in matter, shadow, incarnation. Hollow as in emptiness, openness, yin. Falls as in jumping off the 100-foot pole. Pretty much the landscape I knew I had come here for. So I pulled over and joined all the blinking people emerging from our cars into the bright sunlight, to see what we could see.
Down & down & more down, into the forest, feet on the ground, and then:
I could feel how glad I was to have taken the risk to come out here to the big forest, alone, and also how glad I was to be here with so many others. Lady hiking in an orange strapless dress, hello! Older couple with nobly creaky knees, hello! Young lovers with selfie-sticks, hello! I could feel the relief of stopping, and the gentleness of this place.
No real plan, but then: why not keep stopping? I pulled into the campground entrance, a bit further along, and found myself looking for a home for the night. So clear. Yes! This one. The grassy one that's pretending to be two spaces, but is really one blessed haven for the night, with apples & crabapples in fruit, and deer munching. A one-eyed lady sold me some firewood & gave me some cardboard & newspaper. Then I found some thorny branches caught dead in the thicket, for kindling, and I was all set.
Once the fire was built & the tent pitched & the food all stashed away in the clanging bear-box, I took off with a light heart, along the little path winding back out into the big forest from my camp. There were huge oaks & browsing does & a big buck wearing a research collar. There were wild grapes twining from the low branches of hickory trees, and sweet smells of ripening and earth. I felt a sense of embrace, of having arrived, of being exactly where I needed to be. Then the path came back to the Skyline, and I realized where I was: circled back around to Dark Hollow Falls trailhead.
I settled in to sit, gone golden in the light of day's end and the ripeness of the world. The three-quarters moon rose over the moon-ripe apple-trees, and I settled down to sleep long and deep inside my tent inside my silky bag, right here on the earth.
Hail, adorable denizens of the psychedelic session room! Little golden bullshit-slicer, many-hands compassion person, eagle-headed buffalo, truly, you are beautiful.
Today was: 2 rounds of dosing - 1st round placebo, 2nd one definitely not. 2 rounds of fMRI. 2 car trips through destroyed sections of Baltimore. Scattered, distracted mind, centered mind. Some crucifixion and dismemberment between friends, some sci-fi activity inside the big magnet, some realization of the ways I flinch from incarnating fully, and then, blessedly, a return to ground. It'll take me a little while to find narrative for all that, so in the meantime, I'll say thank you, to all those who've had a hand in teaching me to work with the nature of mind. Thank you, to my brother, for ferrying me back and forth to the session room, and putting up with the social oddities the situation. Thank you to my sister-in-law, for preparing tomato soup & grilled cheese to ease my hunger. Thank you to Theresa, for giving me her Avalokiteshvara, and to the whole JHMI crew, for doing such important work so beautifully.
Today I was back in the land of Psychedelics Reasearch, for a meeting with the JHMI Long-Term Meditators Study crew. What a lovely, humble, curious bunch of humans! Here is Dr. Roland Griffiths, pictured in the session room with his very own Inner Beauty Passport. Ever the conscientious scientist, he asked me about best practices: Is it best to fill the whole thing out in one wild fit of inspiration? Is it best to go bit by bit?
Every way the heart of compassion sees fit to proceed, will be fine.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now