This past week I had the absolutely delightful pleasure of spending a portion of one of my evenings talking to the lovely Duras Ruggles. She is insightful, thoughtful, poignant, and, at times, wonderfully fantastical. This interview offered only a sample of the intelligence, whimsy, and fortitude that Duras embodies, but I feel like it’s a rather good sample indeed.
Catherine: Ok, Hi
Duras: Hi Catherine
C: I’m with Duras Ruggles. Duras, could you tell me what you do at Green Gulch?
D: In terms of the work that I do?
D: I am a second-year farmer. When I first came here I worked in the kitchen for a couple of months, and then I fell in love with the farm, left, came back, and was a farm apprentice for a year. I did two Practice Periods this winter, and now I’m back as a staff-ish person.
C: *giggle* And…what brought you to Green Gulch in the first place?
D: I dropped out of college, studying physics, because I was extremely depressed, and I needed to do something different, and I remembered that I used to love meditation. And I was very fortunate that I lived in the area, and I knew about Green Gulch. And I stayed for two weeks, experimentally, and those two weeks were very influential. I knew it was a place of of change.
C: And did you have any sort of farming or gardening experience or anything prior to working here?
D: I am a tree-person in general
D: I am a dirty…tree…person
D: And I took an organic farming class with Wendy Johnson at College of Marin, and I worked at a nursery in Marin for a while, and was being trained to be the buyer for the edibles section, so I had experience with edible plants in that area.
C: Did you take the class with Wendy before you moved here?
D: In between the kitchen and the farm.
D: Less than a year, but not by much.
C: Hmm. And you grew up in the area?
D: I grew up in Portland and in Austin and kind of here.
C: What does that mean? Kind of here?
D: Well I’m not sure…in a sense I grew up here, but I was already teenaged when I moved here.
C: Oh. Do you have a favorite? Between Portland, Austin, and here?
D: My experience is different of each one, because I was a teeny-tiny child in Portland, a medium-sized child in Austin *giggle*, and a large child in California. I had the most diverse experience in California, so I’m going to say that’s my favorite, but I feel like I haven’t gathered enough data to reach a conclusion.
C: *giggles* Do you have any plans for your life after…just…right now!
D: I want to remain flexible with whatever may appear. It will probably appear before me beyond what I can conceive of at the moment, but I have so many dreams and aspirations! I might go back to college and instead of studying physics, study soil science, because it is incredibly important for us and our planet to take care of the soil. More than important. Vital. I also might not go back to college and become more of an educator and advisor in terms of sustainability, soil health, perhaps herbal medicine. And, more immediately, I want to work for Outward Bound, which is a backpacking organization for teenagers. I’m also interested in combining therapy with community gardens, I think that’s a perfect pair…and there are tons of other ideas, like being an emergency medic or a circus performer.
D: We’ll see what happens.
C: Do you have any favorite parts of Zen? Or, why Zen in particular? Why Zazen? Zen.
D: And then I just sit here silently.
D: It’s very grounding, it makes a lot of sense. It’s open to all of the philosophies and spiritualities and religions that I know of…you can incorporate them into Zen. I’m a very airy person, and very colorful and creative, so it’s good for me to be reigned into just simple, here, eyes open. It’s the perfect practice for me, personally. And I’ve found it’s given me grounding to live my life in a healthy way. And I have a lot of faith in the sitting, especially after doing two Practice Periods and seeing what happens to my psychology after sitting silently for seven days, and more. I think that there’s a lot of transformative power in that. So, that’s why Zen, in this moment.
C: Hmm. Would you describe yourself as a Buddhist?
D: Well, I practice Buddhism. I’m taking the precepts (to become lay-ordained). I would describe myself as a Buddhist in the sense of Buddhism as a philosophy and a lifestyle. I’m not a religious person, although I am spiritual. So, in conclusion, yes *giggles* I would describe myself as a Buddhist.
D: Ok. Feel free to ask very challenging…personal…I’ll answer all of your questions.
C: Ok! So, when you describe yourself as a spiritual person, what does that mean to you?
D: That’s a good question. The question “What does it mean to be a spiritual person?”…the sense I get of that question is…water *moves hands in a flow-y manner, like water* It is very…relative…and I don’t think it really has a fixed definition. For me, it just means I speak to a feeling I have about life and my existence that is a sort of direction and purpose in a sense. Purpose is another thing we could talk about for a long time….but just my own purpose, and how I interact with myself and others. And this could all be viewed as not spiritual at all, it’s just trying to be a good person and improve. But there’s just this very nature-based devotion to the miracle of life that I think would be my spirituality.
C: Do you believe in karma and reincarnation, and those kinda elements of Buddhism, would you say?
D: It depends on what you mean by “believe”. I don’t think I really believe in anything…but also somewhere in the back of my head, I do believe in those things *laughs* It might not be my choice what I believe. So, in that sense I do believe in karma and reincarnation. Not exactly as some people think of it. It’s not like I might get reborn as a fox, or if I do this, then this will happen. It’s more encompassing of the inconceivability of how things actually work. I think it’s a lot more complex than the kind of linear way that we tend to think of things.
C: So why do you not think you have a choice…or what did you say? Not have a choice in what you believe? Is that what you said?
D: Well, I was thinking of it as…I have a belief system that comes from my sub-conscious and it’s from how I was raised, and my environment–and my belief system I think is an automatic response from all of that. So, over time I think that I can change what I believe, but I think that would be a long process. I can have ideas, and thoughts, and feelings, but my definition of belief in this moment is…not a conditioned response.
C: Do you think you’re having studied physics has any sort of impact on your spirituality?
D: Hmmm, well I’ve always been a very scientific and spiritual person. I never wanted to combine them somehow…I think they co-arose and impact each other.
C: How did you choose to study physics in the first place?
D: I love outer space!
D: Physics was the first thing you study before moving on to something more specific…which is…astrophysics, or something like that. I was going to decide where to branch off after studying just physics, because it’s a long process of getting to those places. But it turns out I like being outside. I need to be outside for my well-being.
C: Hmmm, what does that mean?
C: What do you like about outer space?
D: I just…there’s a part of me that just wants to explore the universe, and expand people’s minds. I think that the universe is so much more complex than what anybody thinks, or what anybody is aware of right now. When I think about the universe in terms of astral bodies and dimensions and all of those manners of things, I just get this golden bubbly feeling…and I don’t know why!
C: *giggles* Do you think there is potential for extra-terrestrial life forms?
D: I think it would be insane to think that there is not.
C: Why is that?
D: Because statistically speaking, or just thinking for a second about how the universe is infinitely huge, beyond space and time, it’s pretty obvious that there are lifeforms everywhere. And, also, that they don’t have to be carbon-based life forms as we know it. They could be ammonia based. They could be in a spectrum that we can’t see. Did you hear that our closest neighboring star has a planet in the habitable zone, that they’re considering could maybe be our next home if we mess everything up?
D: *laughs* I hope we don’t
C: Yeah. Well, that’s fun…I kind of know this about you already…which is why I thought to segue to this question next, but what kind of books do you like to read?
D: I used to have a debilitating addiction to fantasy. So, I’m trying to avoid that right now, because if I start reading good fiction, or fantasy, or sci-fi novels, I won’t do anything. But right now I’m loving reading about herbology, natural plant medicine, permaculture, biomimicry, wilderness survival. There’s a book I’m reading about horses and spirituality
D: And, a little bit of poetry, and…I’m not looking at my bookshelf, so I can pull it out of my mind. I could just read the names of the books off my bookshelf
D: I’m reading some Zen books too. Let’s see, what else…oooh, oooh, I’ve been reading Women Who Run with the Wolves lately, and that’s just really great.
D: It’s a collection of stories about powerful feminine archetypes that are in touch with their wild power.
C: Hmmm, cool. Archetypes, like throughout legends and myths? Or how they exist today?
D: Well, mostly I’ve been reading about so far is the author’s rantings, I suppose, on these things. She has this beautiful poetry, poetic energy, that makes you feel like you have some sort of female wolf-beast coming out of you…
D: …and I think that’s really helpful for women to get in touch with their true self, and what is their femininity
C: What does “feminine” mean to you?
D: It means…I have a vagina, and….that’t it
C: Cool, cool
D: I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, and I’m not really sure how to really go into that
C: Hmm, yeah, because there could be feminine men, too
D: Yeah. I have been thinking that there’s no such thing as feminine and masculine energy at all, it’s just that there’s biologically male and female bodies–except for people who don’t quite fit into that–and then there’s energy “A” and energy “B”, which over hundreds and hundreds of generations has co-evolved with us so that we think that energy “A” is predominantly “woman” and energy “B” is predominantly in men, because of cultural conditioning over thousands of years. But actually, it’s just energies that are independent of the biological body
C: You think just two energies?
D: Well, it could be a spectrum
D: It could be one energy that expresses itself dramatically
C: Mmhmmm. So you, I think, are a very creative person. What are your favorite outlets, would you say? This could be throughout your life, or right now, or both, or neither, and answer completely differently…
D: I’ve always really liked visual art and music and many other things, but those are the two things I do the most right now. I’m trying to learn bass right now. Oh! and poetry too, and writing in general. And, I’ve recently gotten into body movement. Contact improv is sooo good.
C: Could you talk more about contact improv?
D: Hmmm…it’s another way to get out of your thinking mind, and into your body, which is especially good for people like me who are very much in the cloud-space, to get out of the cloud-space and into the physical form. And also interact with another person, because you maintain a point of physical contact with another person the entire time, essentially. There aren’t really any rules, it’s very improvisational…and there’s a space you get into when you’re doing it. It’s very hard to lie. Have you ever done any improvisational anything?
C: Ummm I’ve done a little improv comedy, but not very recently.
D: Hmmm, I’m trying to find a way to describe the feeling of doing improvisational physical movements, with no music or talking or anything. You start just by rolling around on the floor *giggles* and then rolling around on the walls, and then rolling around on other people. It really breaks down all of the walls that you have, and I’ve found it to be the most therapeutic thing that I’ve done yet.
C: How long have you been doing it?
D: Not very frequently, but a few months.
C: Ok, and when you go, is it the same group of people there usually or is it usually kind of different?
D: Usually it’s people I don’t know.
C: Uh-huh. Why is it so therapeutic for you?
D: *long pause* You really find your weaknesses when you’re doing it, and you’re really pushed to move beyond them, on a dime. It’s really good intimacy training as well–being with another person, and interacting with them beyond the thought realm, and for me, I like it to not be sexual. And…hmmm…yeah, this one’s really hard to describe. Maybe one day I’ll write something about it. It might be abstract too, because this is something that is kind of beyond verbal.
D: But if this sounds intriguing, I know there are many people who have written about this, about contact improv. There are some books.
C: Hmmm, ok. What kind of visual art do you do?
D: Mmmm, I made that thing *points to drawing on her wall*
C: Oh, that’s nice! Is that drawing? And…I can’t tell what medium that is.
D: It started as pencil and then pen, and then watercolors, and then I glued some real butterfly wings on it.
C: Yeah, I really like that. Maybe I’ll come back and take a photo of that so people know what we’re talking about when they read this.
D: Oh, and there’s also the mushroom fairy over there.
C: Oh yeah! It’s mostly…drawing, that you do?
D: Mmmhmmm. I made my intention board, over there, the other day. It’s not…an art display.
C: Do you do that every month?
D: I have been doing it the past few months, and I am very different now, since I’ve begun.
C: It’s okay, I edit it out….most of the people use the word “like”, and I edit it out.
D: Ummm, for example, the food that I put into my body, before the intentions I put pretty much anything into my body. And now, I’m a vegan who also doesn’t eat gluten or sugar or caffeine…and I’ve been on caffeine since the seventh or eighth grade, and I am caffeine-free now, as of the past few months, and it has been…mmmmm, yeah, just the way your experience changes when you are able to control what you put into your body. You don’t have so many waves. You can actually just be a natural, energetic, human being. I think that food is responsible for most of the mental health problems in the modern world.
C: Really? How so?
D: With processed food in particular. I’ve noticed it personally through my experience, as well as observing it through other people’s experiences, and just thinking about how we evolved as a society with food, and looking at what the average person puts into their body, and looking at the ways that it really does affect your brain chemistry, your gut flora. 80%, approximately, of your serotonin lives in your gut. It used to be that when I ate gluten my gut serotonin would get all messed up, and it would be that every time I would get so angry, and exhausted, and depressed, whenever I ate gluten.
D: And sugar does crazy things to your energy and your moods. And processed food does who-knows-what.
D: And so if you’re putting this stuff into your body year after year after year, it just kind of makes sense that, yeah, you are going to have a hard time.
C: Yeah your body and your brain are all connected, because your brain is your body!
D: They say that your gut is your first brain. And this brain *points to skull* is just a collection of neurons that we’re all fascinated by, but is not a big deal.
C: Mmmmm. Hmmm, that’s an interesting perspective. With your intentions…have you noticed any other changes with the intentions you’ve set this past month, besides the food intentions? *awkward pause* That was a very inarticulate question
C: Ummm….I guess I’m just curious what some of your other intentions have been, beside your food ones.
D: Mmmhmmm. Well, I’ve had an OCD behavior since the seventh grade called dermatillomania that I’m really trying to not do anymore. It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of patience, but that’s one of the intentions. I mess with my skin, pretty much, is what that is.
D: And…ummm….another one is more on an emotional level, trying to feel more deeply. I have many walls put up against intimacy and allowing myself to feel emotions fully…and I’m putting a real effort into feeling all of the emotions all the way through, and enjoying that journey. Or, maybe not enjoying that journey, but really experiencing that journey fully. And engaging with strangers, with more active curiosity.
D: *polite giggle* and…writing every day, and time awareness. Increasing time awareness. There are a few different ways of doing that. And….
D: And I feel like the core of most of these intentions is not wasting any of the time in my life, and not procrastinating any of my life away. Some people kind of waste–not waste, but don’t fully utilize–every moment in their life, and I think that’s very tragic, and I would like to not do that, because I see it in myself all of the time.
C: What do you think happens when you die? When we die?
D: In terms of this physical body, or the like….I know what question you’re asking. Ok, ok.
C: We could talk about that, sure, whatever you want to talk about!
D: The body goes into the soil and is eaten by microorganisms and inflates and smells bad!
D: Well, again, I don’t want to have firm beliefs about anything. But somewhere down there I do have this kind of semi-belief that we have the energetic bodies—oooh, this is going to sound really hippy…
D: Ummm *pause* well, first of all, maybe we just enter the infinite eternity of nothingness, and we’re all this mass consciousness expressing itself in a big multi-dimensional program, or experience…
C: Mmmhmm *giggle*
D: Mmmm, yeah!
C: *chuckles* That’s a good answer! Do you think that….ah, I don’t know, I feel like these are leading questions, because I’m thinking about my own beliefs when you’re talking about this stuff. So, I guess I’m just curious to see if your thoughts align at all (with mine), or if there’s difference.
D: We could just talk.
C: But *laughs* part of the reason I wanted to do these interviews for my blog is that I talk so much about myself through my blog, that I just get tired of it. So I just want to talk about other people
C: *laughs* That’s why I’m not sharing very much right now. I just want to get to know you.
D: Oh gosh.
C: *laughs* Ummm, what was I going to say? Oh! Do you think that thoughts on death have brought you to any sort of desire or awareness within your own life to–I guess I can share this–I’ve been thinking a lot about death. I think that just comes with maybe being alive, and maturing, and living at a Buddhist Zen center and meditating many hours a day. But I’ve just been feeling this very–since moving here–I’ve always thought about death, but since moving here I’ve had this really urgent sense of: life is going to end, and I’m going to end, and that’s real. And so, when you were describing how you no longer want to procrastinate…I’ve been feeling that way more urgently lately, just because of the juxtaposition of death, just right there. Anyways, I was just wondering if you have any sort of feelings or thoughts around such things, like that.
D: I have always thought about death. Even when I was a little kid. Maybe it was my spiritual upbringing, or maybe I was an interesting kid, I don’t know. But, I’ve always thought a lot about death. When I was little, I really felt that I wasn’t afraid of death. I was actually very excited about this prospect of old-age and death…and if I was old, and about to die, I would make it into this fun scientific experiment of what would happen to me. And I began just picturing death like “Yes! Here it comes, here it comes! I get to see what it’s like on the other side now, woo!” *giggles* And I imagine perhaps when that’s actually happening, I might be clinging, who knows. But I continue to think about death, and I still don’t think I’m afraid of death. I am afraid of suffering, of course, and of pain–but death itself, I am not afraid of. When other people die, that is something very sad, but again, death itself, I don’t’ see anything wrong with that. It’s just when you lose somebody you love, it’s very challenging.
When I said I came to Green Gulch because I was very depressed, I was also very suicidal. So, I was very much in that. And, I did eventually come out of it, and ever since coming out of it I’ve been just like, “Holy shit, wow! I survived!” I feel like it’s so amazing to be alive right now, because I’ve been through the experience of not really wanting to be alive. And I have a lot of compassion for people who struggle with this, and I really want to support them, which is what inspired me to someday make a therapeutic garden–because the way that our society handles death is not good. We put people on drugs in white rooms and that’s it. I think that death can be really beautiful, and in a lot of cultures it is really beautiful. And you can meditate on things like your sibling or your parents eventually dying, and one day…I think I’m going to live a long life, and that many of the people I know will die, before I do. And, that’s something you can meditate on, to prepare yourself, but death itself is not bad. It’s kind of exciting. It’s kind of beautiful, if you want to think about things in that way—or empty, just like everything else. I also don’t want to become too fixated on the idea of that, and obsess about it and think about it all of the time. I’ve been there, and I want to appreciate the current moment, which right now is life—which is especially vibrant, because right now I just feel so grateful to not be depressed *laughs*
D: It’s like, “Oh my god! I’m functioning! Woah!”
C: *laughs* Yeah, I totally get that *giggles*
D: Just not being sad is awesome *laughs*
C: Mmmhmm, mmmhmmm *chuckles* yeah
D: Are you having anything come up, on this subject of death? Now that I’ve gone on a rant, and I’ve lost where I’m going?
C: Yeah, so, this is another thing that has been interesting me. Have you ever read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury?
C; Well, I think you should read it. It’s not science fiction so much. It is fiction, but it’s only borderline fantastical. It has fantastical elements to it, but it’s very real at the same time
C: Anyways, the protagonist of the story is a twelve-year-old boy, and at the beginning of the story it describes him realizing the first time that he’s alive…like, “Oh my god! I’m alive!” Something that’s been interesting to me is if people can remember that themselves. Can you remember the first moment you realized you were alive? And I guess for me, it happened right around the same time I realized I was actually going to die. But, I can’t remember which one came first. I don’t know, anyway, do you have any sorts of insights or recollections or memories or anything of that sort?
D: Hmmm *pause* I think I caught onto a lot of things when I was young, so I don’t really have a lot of those memories. I’m not sure why that is. But *giggle* hmmm….I think that as soon as my brain was capable of philosophizing things, I concluded, “Hmmm, yes, death. Life.” *laughs* “Fairies! Let’s go play!”
C: Yeah, that’s okay.
D: I do feel strongly about de-stigmatizing words like “death”, “depression”, and “suicide”, and having people talk about it. Because, when people think that they can’t talk about it, their problems get worse. There’s more suffering.
C: Mmhmmm. What are…this might not be possible…but I’m curious if you could maybe describe, to you, what it feels like to have moments where you realize that you’re really alive? Could you describe any sensations or thoughts that happen?
D: There is…I’m trying to think of a specific moment, and there is one that was actually pretty recent. It was at the end of the second Practice Period, and I had just been sitting, and sitting, and sitting. And then we sat Sesshin, and Sesshin had just ended—for the readers, Sesshin is seven days of meditating while not talking to anybody–and I was riding my bike down to the farm, and I just looked around. I felt like I was on psychedelics, and I just thought, “Where am I? I am here. What is this? What’s happening?”
D: I just had this really visceral, bird’s eye view of an organism on a bike, on a farm, and it was blowing my mind as it was happening.
D: And I don’t know how I can describe that. Maybe you can identify with the psychedelic feeling of just like, your bubble’s popped, and you’re just like *makes dramatic face and body movements*
C: *laughs* Yeah!
D: What is this flesh? Time! And you’re just very in the moment, and you almost can’t remember how you got there or what you’re going to do, you’re just here. Like a hamster.
*Both giggle hard*
C: *laughs* Sure!
D: *giggles* But I feel like that’s really being alive, when you’re so in the moment that it becomes like a psychedelic experience and you’re wondering what the hell’s happening. I think that’s really being alive—you’re kind of making sense of things. I think that’s you making sense of your environment and being more in the matrix of your mind…and when you get out of the matrix of your mind, into weird states, that can’t possibly be put into words, that’s life.
C: Ineffable! *Laughs* It’s one of my favorite words.
D: Me too!
C: Yeah! Yay! *giggles* Umm, we have a minute and a half left. I’m going to bring it back to more light-hearted stuff. Do you have a favorite vegetable you like to grow on the farm?
D: Hakurei turnips.
C: That’s funny, that’s what Isabelle said. Why is that?
D: Because they’re like apple-pear-radishes. And if you get them when they’re just right, you bite into them and they’re soft and juicy and sweet.
C: Wow! I think we’ve had them in salads and stuff. Was that at the sustainability dinner?
D: Yeah, but they’re best if you eat them like apples.
C: Hmmm, well maybe I’ll have to try that sometimes. Ok, we have 37 seconds.
C: Do you have 30 seconds worth of anything that you want to say?
D: I just want to say that the most important practice for us all–and it can get deeper, infinitely, no matter how good you get at it, you can always get better—and it’s self-love.
C: That. Is. Wise. Yes. I think that is something everybody needs to work on. It is very clear here, how much we all need to work on it, for sure.
D: The deeper you love yourself, the deeper you can love others.