Ruth Denison is a vipassana meditation teacher. She was born in eastern Europe and lived there during the hardships of the Second World War. She later studied meditation under the guidance of the Burmese master U Bha Khin, and several Japanese masters. For the past nine years she has taught at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, throughout the U.S. and Europe, and at the Dhamma Dena Desert Meditation Center, of which she is the founder. We have allowed Ruth’s European accent and expressive syntax to speak directly to you.
Inquiring Mind: I’ve heard that one of your students has named you the Lioness of the Desert. When you teach your courses in the high desert, what feline qualities do you express? Are you ferocious?
Ruth Denison: I am uncompromising in developing your awareness. I can be so permitting, so loving and so kind of playful but I will never forget that my function is to activate the forces within you which are suitable for developing mindfulness, which will bring you to detachment, which will bring you to see the aspect of impermanence, of suffering, of anatta. And I can be ruthless.
IM: Ruthless Ruth. Another namesake.
RD: My teacher, U Bha Khin, called me Root. In Burmese they don’t have the th, so as in Germany, my name is pronounced Root, not Ruth. He would say, “Root, become ROOTLESS,” that is to become boundless in your love and in your nonattachment. Then, “Ruth, become RUTHLESS.” And I have. I can be all rosy-posy, attend to that which needs cradling, but I never forget to respond to that which needs a knife to cut, that which needs sharp teeth. Sometimes I am the clown, sometimes a lion, sometimes a shoulder-patting mama, sometimes the sister, sometimes the brother, whatever is appropriate for the situation.
IM: How were you introduced to the dharma?
RD: By my husband. He was an ordained monk in the Vedanta tradition. After that he built himself a temple-like home in the Hollywood hills. I visited for breakfast and never left. Actually some of the beginnings of the opening of consciousness in America happened at our place.
Alan Watts, our close friend, had classes in our home. Charlotte Selver gave sensory awareness seminars there. Fritz Perls was there. Tim Leary was there. Ram Dass was there. Suzuki-roshi gave his evening sittings there. In our home I provided colorful parties, benefit dinners for the Zen Center in L.A. I considered this hosting as my karma yoga.
IM: I’ve heard you say that you never forget that you are a teacher. How was it that you began teaching?
RD: I am always teaching. Before I had the official commission to teach courses I taught in my way. Henry, my husband, was working as a psychologist in the clinic in L.A. He would send me some of his women patients—often unwed mothers. I would teach them how to iron mindfully; how to fold laundry mindfully or how to wash dishes. In that way I always taught. In the mid ’60s when I went to live in Milbrook with Tim Leary’s experimental situation, I was appointed to lead the meditations and to baby sit when they took their LSD. When I realized there was too much LSD replacing meditation, one night I took the Buddha out of the meditation hall. This was my teaching.
IM: When you began teaching vipassana courses, you developed your own approach which involved attention to the movement of the body. How did this approach evolve?
RD: I was working with Charlotte Selver in sensory awareness at the end of the ’50s, before I came to vipassana. Charlotte never mentioned spirituality. She just showed you that the body was alive. When I first came to my teacher he taught me to observe my sensations. I said, “That’s not what I came for. I do that since a long time.” But then suddenly what I knew became deeper. I gave up my innate suspicion of the new and I understood the connection to all things.
IM: How did you depart from the tradition that you studied?
RD: I still haven’t departed. I still teach what my teacher taught. My approach is more from the wholeness of the being. I consider all aspects, and that, in turn, is very much in alignment with what the Buddha says. He gives us four foundations of mindfulness to practice. The first foundation is mindfulness of the body, sensations, the breath, movement and posture. My teacher said, “When you sit, when you take a shower, when you are eating, you are to be mindful,” but his formal training focused only on observing the bodily sensations in sitting position. In my approach I use the bodily movement; sometimes it’s just standing; sometimes it’s lifting the cooking pot. This is the first foundation of mindfulness, darling.
IM: Could you give an example of how you work?
RD: You are lifting the arm. (Slowly she lifts her arm.) I invite you to notice the sensations flowing.The sensations, through movement, become more exhilarated and the mind goes naturally where there’s lots happening. The mind has a connection to the sensation level, is now there, is a little finer, has a little confidence, knows there is sensation—doesn’t need to grasp for it. You are then more sure of the object, which is sensation. Now you sit still. You take the arm down and continue noticing the sensations. Now you can become aware of the subtler form of life or awareness. This can lead to yet finer perception of your own awareness. You are experiencing delight. Through delight (one of the factors of enlightenment) you will also strengthen your attention.
This way you come more easily into the second foundation of mindfulness. You will notice the pleasantness or the unpleasantness of sensations. Then you will see also the third foundation is arising. You are aware of the knowing. Finally you will get a sudden right connection of the mind’s right observation. You will at that moment have noticed the object and noticed your attention. This is the real vipassana mind that has the power of a total unloosening of knots, a release of tensions throughout the entire body. You have a high appreciation of the body, high delight without attachment. But you know you are not the body. That moment sets the mind into freedom.
IM: You don’t believe that with the sitting practice alone this freedom can be reached?
RD: Darling, I believe that if you have the power of awareness, of accurate awareness and secure concentration and an inner openness and delight you don’t need any of that help—no movement, nothing. But too prematurely our students imagine they don’t need it. The vipassana mind gets injured before it can develop through overconcentration, through too much eagerness.
IM: What a conundrum! How might overconcentration injure the vipassana mind?
RD: You are so eager-beaver in it, so special in it (“I am concentrating”), you have a goal, you want to break through, you want the high, you want the quiet. You WANT darling. That’s not the observing vipassana mind. And because overconcentration is not open, you forget that at this moment you are sitting, that you are hearing. You could get so absorbed in the concentration object that you screen out everything else. And when you leave the retreat you have yourself isolated and you can’t make the connections to your daily activities.
IM: Through your training can you help students develop new habits which really translate into their lives when they leave retreats?
RD: You remember, yes, we were lifting, we were bending. When you sweep, when you drive, when you cook, you are more skillful at practicing awareness. So you train the mind to the good habit of being present and then it is your property. Also, you discover your feet. You discover how your pelvis carries you. You train the mind in such a way it sees the bad habits and sees the good ones. Then when the occasion arises, and it arises from moment to moment, life presents itself from moment to moment, you will always see to it that you have a good posture, that your body serves you right.
But that is just one aspect. The higher implication of the experience is that your mind gains a purity. You take it away from its own willful moving into irrelevant subjects and objects. It stops its compulsion to create its own world, to create its own emotion unnecessarily. You are developing through your mindfulness to the body a very pure mind . . . You are developing the ability of the mind which is able, when an emotion comes, when a thought comes, to meet it and witness it in the pure state. The body is a beautiful base. It is a foundation; that means a big thing, a foundation, you see?
IM: Particularly here in California, where the “cult of the body” is flourishing, isn’t there a danger that a student will experience your course as a “Body Workshop”?
RD: The “cult of the body” has its danger, but also its tremendous advantage. Jump into the hot tub. Jump into the swimming pool. Jump into . . . you develop kinesthetic sense with deep participation in it for feeling good and for relaxation, which has its value. Many people are so locked up and so sunk in their depressions and negative emotions that they need first to feel and to identify. You cannot take the identification away. You have to establish a healthy ego first. Then you can come and start vipassana. You cannot start vipassana, putting the mind in the position where it is just observing and knowing—it’s too much—with a morbid mind.
IM: How do you avoid an overidentification with the body, seeing the body as me?
RD: There has to be a recognition and appreciation of the body first before we can begin to develop the witnessing mind. When this is established I can begin to point out ways the mind is a witness. I often say, “Be the spectator of the game.” I say, “Can you permit the sensation to be there?” Permit: that means that you observe. (I have to watch like an eagle over you and to talk constantly, to call your attention, because you fall into the habit of participating without witnessing, of becoming the football player.) I will never forget the higher goal, but I don’t care how low I will have to go into the samsaric domain in order to establish a healthy being, which will provide a healthy background for developing the right mindfulness, the equanimity, the detachment, the objectivity.
IM: You are well known in the sangha not only for the work you do with awareness through movement, but also for the work you do with women. In recent years, along with the emancipation of women in the social and political realms, more and more women are teaching the dharma, and a number of teachers are offering courses particularly for women. Why do you teach women’s courses?
RD: I like our work together. I feel a great pioneering spirit in the women’s hearts; they are tremendously dedicated to transforming traditional forms.
IM: Have you found that the pressures in our society on women to conform to a “feminine image” lead to certain repeating ways of suffering?
RD: There is a subtle, not-spoken demand about how a woman should be: She should be gentle; she should be loving; she should be kind. We have that as conditioning in our minds. Then we find out that we are just the opposite too—robust, we are tough; we are also hating.
Then we find ourselves in conflict. We begin to hate ourselves or to hate someone else. Mostly we hate ourselves, you see.
Michele McDonald joins the conversation briefly. She is about to teach a course called Women and Spirituality at I.M.S. in Barre.
Michele McDonald: In the women’s courses, how do you work with the non-separating mind, the deeper mind, the absolute, where there is no man and no woman? And how do you work with the anger of women against men?
RD: On several levels. I make it very much known from the beginning that we are a women’s course in order to find out about our womanhood, but not in the sense that we are women versus men, only for the investigation of our deeper selves, as we happen to be women.
I bring their attention back again and again to the body according to the first foundation of mindfulness. As the attention stabilizes and deepens, the mind becomes quiet. This allows for sharper awareness of things as they really are, namely sensations—hard, soft, pleasant, unpleasant—which are always changing. The cognition of this lets the concept of woman dissolve; the mind is in harmony and can eventually let go of the identification with me or being a woman separated. This awareness then opens the door so we can become the human beings we really want to be.
MM: How do you handle the sense of victim or powerlessness that women tend to bring to . . .
RD: . . . the dominating. You begin to see more because the mind through this practice, using the body as mindfulness, becomes more perceptive to what we think we are, to what society asks of us, to our hidden conditioned ideas and to our own mental motives, to our mental creations and projections and accusations.
In a very habitual way, we need objects to hang it on when we are suffering. I will gradually lead them through the first foundation of mindfulness, through the second, the feelings, pleasant and unpleasant, in the mind and in the body. We wake up to all the impulses, to desire, craving, to the need to have an object to blame it on, to inferiority complexes, or superiority, to the instinct to fight, to put others down, to be righteous. The mind becomes very flexible, very open and allows us to experience the goddess within us. Not as something special or superior, but just as our natural state. Everyone is the goddess. We express this in a beautiful song: “Blessed are we. Freedom are we. We are the Infinite, Without beginning, Without any end. All this we are. Blessed are we. Freedom are we. We are the Infinite. Within ourselves. All this we are.” We chant this. This is practicing directly.
iM: I have one last topic. You seem to love to play the heretic. Remember on Easter, in your movement session you instructed us to put our arms out and be Christ on the cross. It provoked us to take a look . . .
RD: That’s right. It is coming, however, not just to provoke. Being nailed on the cross is a tremendous, deep event for us. Christ got nailed on the cross because he was misunderstood. At the end he said, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” That means there was a lack of mindfulness. He had tremendous compassion. He was to his little self dying. So when I say, “Be on a cross and die,” I am saying grow and die to your little self; be gracious like Christ.
iM: Yes, but at the same time, we all laughed. You were making a serious point (which most of us unfortunately missed), and you also were making light.
RD: It was evoking a bit of joy for you. By that too, it was a statement of the cross. It expressed samsara and also the higher, awakened mind. So when we played the cross it was a joke—to experience the profound and the profane together. They meet at the edge. There was a kind of laugh in it because we saw the absurdity; a meeting of worlds, really. At that moment, everyone laughed and was happy.
At that moment there was much more openness for what we were doing. And at that moment I immediately said, “Celebrate.” You got it at the same time, a little thought about our culture, about Easter. We were there. It was a relearning. I just don’t say these statements, what you call provoking, out of whims. They come to invite you.
iM: You call attention to the cosmic joke.
RD: It’s more calling your attention to your own little devil. It is for freeing the mind.