Point and Click: Icons in the Window to the Ancestral Manse
Anne Waldman [b. 1945] poet, performer, editor, teacher, translator, co‑founder
with Allen Ginsberg of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics
at The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado; author of Fast Speaking Woman,
Kill or Cure, and Iovis, Books I & II; editor of The Beat Book and Out Of This World:
The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church In‑the‑Bowery; co‑editor with Andrew Schelling of Disembodied Poetics: Annals of The Jack Kerouac School, among over thirty published books.
Resides in Boulder, Colorado, and Greenwich Village, New York City; raised in Greenwich Village, New York City
My first experience of lysergic acid, in the summer of 1965,
conjured an archetypal vision that illuminated both my past history and my future development.
I was twenty, a student at Bennington College in Vermont, and had decided to travel out West to the now-celebrated Berkeley Poetry Conference. A great number of poets I refer to as "the outrider tradition" –– major visionaries and mavericks, including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg ‑- were gathering to hold panels, present their work in public readings, and interact with students and passionate readers of poetry. The atmosphere surrounding the event was highly charged and magical. The Conference was a major congregation for disparate avant garde literary artists –– including the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and Black Mountain –– to come together and feed off of each other’s energy. The aggregate voltage of their nexus sent shock waves through the literary establishment.
Those who convened at Berkeley were poets and writers in the prophetic tradition, many of whom were experimenting with psychedelics. There
was a legend about the night when Charles Olson, who’d been head
of the Black Mountain College, gave a very shamanic poetry reading during which he literally came apart on stage. The story was that he’d taken some psychedelic the week before and it had had this effect on him. His wife had just died. On acid, as I would soon learn myself, things come apart and then reforge.
I had friends at Harvard who were involved in some of Leary and Alpert's early acid experiments and turning towards the Dharma. Poetry
and Buddhism both stretched one's sense of relative and absolute reality and challenged the status quo, as well as one's own habitual patterns. Things were never what they "seemed." How could they be?
I drove out West with my brother and a Bennington friend. The journey itself was mind expanding, as it was my first American sojourn beyond the confines of the restrictive intellectual mentality of the East Coast, the sort of elitism that harks back to Europe as a reference point for everything of consequence. Now I was headed towards the Orient! It was the proverbial "other" for me: the wild, unknown, and uncharted, where anything was possible. The landscapes and the continent’s span were formidable, breathtaking, majestic. I had no idea how liberating – both metaphysically and symbolically –– this venture was to be.
A high-school buddy of mine, Jonathan Cott, now a well‑known writer, provided some hospitality on our arrival and hooked us up with other like‑minded friends of his. He was attending Berkeley and involved in the Free Speech Movement and other on-the-edge endeavors. The people we met were friendly, excited, talkative and expansively open -- and just getting "into" LSD, which did not yet have the cloud of legal proscription hanging over it. We were lighthearted, not just soulful and pious, but we carried along a copy of Leary's book based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a safety measure.
A few of us stayed on Nob Hill in the apartment of a well‑heeled friend, which was spare and elegant and surrounded by an attractive landscaped yard. The irony of the night we dropped the potion was that we couldn't get across the bridge back to Berkeley for Allen Ginsberg's poetry reading, which promised to be one of the high points of the conference. Yet the sense of simultaneity and concentric worlds was strong. I instantly gravitated toward and bonded with a new friend, poet Lewis Warsh.
At the core of the trip was a very elaborate panoramic vision which inhabits and informs my genetic makeup still, a vision I return to in Buddhist practice and in dreams, which provides a kind of mental fortitude against the icy, sterile void. I visualized, witnessed, and encountered every person I'd ever known, even some with whom I’d had only remote contact, in a sort of rainbow gathering or holy convocation that brought the various strands of my own personal world together. I was the thread through which these folk gathered, which, in turn, conjured great responsibility for me, of care, attendance and witness. I felt a duty to these sentient beings I'd been touched by or touched. The vision was not just a tableau, but interactive. When I looked at all these creatures, they returned the gaze and communicated in a new way to me.
All the lineages I could conjure were present: all the grandparents, siblings, offspring, extended family members, lovers, friends, teachers, and parents and relatives of friends. Every contact in my life was there, glowing, yearning, and empty, looking with curiosity toward the vast unknown void. Everyone I'd known since birth appeared, even the scoundrels and the family skeletons. I felt older than my years during this vision, and younger too, as if I'd lived countless lifetimes before and after relative "birth." There were some unfamiliar faces that manifested, but they were presences I trusted and somehow, intrinsically, knew. I underwent a series of brief encounters with other living, breathing "hairy bags of water" that locked me into a net of interconnectedness. All these beings were related through their touching my life, forming a shimmering Indra's Net, an endless web of relationship between karmas, between people and animals and everything else that moves and breathes in our pulsing, expansive universe. The Buddhist term for it is pratitya-samutpada.
My visions arrived with closed eyes. I knew enough to just sit still throughout the entire chimera. I needed to be alone for this part of the trip, though some passages were too powerful, those with a “low ego threshold,” which were capable of sucking my entire being through their own void. There was some panic when I thought of pain I’d caused to others. I had overwhelming feelings of guilt towards those with whom I’d had unfinished business, conversations and tendernesses never actualized. I was weeping during some of the encounters.
I saw my grandfather, a taciturn, soft-spoken man, a glassblower by trade, who’d died when I was five years old. There he was alive, luminous, sitting in a wooden lawn-chair with peeling paint, beside Union Lake in south Jersey, asking me to sit in his lap. Years later, I worked with letters he wrote to my grandmother in the early decades of the century, incorporating them into my long epic poem Iovis, which takes on male energy in its various guises.
It was like a computer screen on which you can click on an image or word and it expands endlessly with infinite associations. I saw each person as an infant and in all his or her aspects. I felt very tender and open hearted toward them. Each face prompted a feeling of great love – and also accountability, as though I might wake up and want to call or write to those I’d fallen out of touch with, to reconnect, even beyond the grave. All the beings I conjured wanted to be happy. They all wanted to be liberated from Samsara. In every one of these instances, especially when there was a high level of power in the relationship, it led to something, a deeper understanding of our vulnerability. This pulsating, palpable vision had a sort of archetypal or mythic quality, like the peaceable kingdom or Noah’s Ark. It was a paradigm for a vow that was uncannily recapitulated when I first took Tibetan Buddhist "refuge vows".
In early Buddhist practice you become a refugee. You've given up all hope of salvation. Nothing out there but your own mind (which can be anywhere) is going to save you. You take a vow to perform a certain number of practices, that you will give your body, speech and mind to the endeavor. You’re also taking a vow toward egolessness, so it’s not just “you” up against the whole world. You take the bodhisattva vow that you will work tirelessly for the benefit of all sentient beings who were once your very own parents. This is beyond "idiot compassion,” where anything goes. In fact, you must often be fierce with people, with friends, with family. It's a deep commitment to unsentimental honesty and work.
A Tree of Life is central to this vow. You begin with a visualization of this Tree to which you make your first prostration, which is really to your own luminous mind -- not to some external godhead, Buddha or other figure. You, in effect, are a tree, a part of that which holds every branch of life. You even visualize your own worst enemy. By necessity, that too must be included in the sacred vow to liberate all sentient beings.
It was as though my acid vision of the Tree was a sort of preliminary training for this commitment. So many moments of this first trip were like runes or seed syllables that would come to fruition later. Worlds were dissolving and reconstituting, moment to moment. The Dharmic axiom was in full sensory flower: Nothing is solid. You are impermanent. Life is precious. You can't hold on. You will die. You are connected up with everything that breathes ‑- the trees and the birds and the fish and so on, not to mention the inanimate beauties. Thought forms evolve upon thought forms, endless concentric wheels of aspiration. I was shivering as the terms of the refugee vow were inscribed in my psyche, because they resonated so closely to the acid vision, which itself felt revelatory at the time. The Buddhist vow was a confirmation and gave direction to the molecular thrust of that initial vision.
After my vision played itself out, we all went rambling about in the mythical city of seven hills until we came to water, a stream in a nearby park. We folded and crumbled into the earth and into each other’s bodies and minds. We were speechless and then defending our very existence out on a battlefield of life and death proportions. Words hung in the air. Time stood still. Infinities passed. And then a word or thought could take us into a next universe.
We believed, in spite of the Holocaust, the war raging in Vietnam, the suffering of people everywhere, that life was basically good. That belief was unconditional. It didn't depend on semblances of “good” and “bad.” The darkness was someone else's evil version of reality, not reality itself. Nothing was that solid or insurmountable. The destruction was, in nature, organic; in humans, psychotic -- the underpinning of the lords of materialism, of ego, of greed. We were changed forever, because we were experiencing these inspiring truths. And we could laugh at ourselves as well, as we saw through our various ego-trips and guises. Lewis said I looked like Christ, then saw me mutate through all stages of human and animal existence, from infancy to old age, howling as an embryo, then as a babe, and finally wretching as an old crone.
We attempted to cross the Bay Bridge to get to the conference, but our bodies were on another vector, dissolving into currents where the physical barriers were cumbersome. Why walk when you could fly without a body? On the other hand, one could be a lowly worm and sink into the ground to get to where one needed to be. Humble like the dust, exalted through the possession of indomitable powers -- we flashed through these psychical phases – and all the stations in between -- at speeds of light.
My vision of a great gathering or pow‑wow within my own being had implanted a root of the divine universal Tree. The most immediate branch I extended was to the comrades with whom I’d traveled that night. I saw that we were part of an enormous sinewy archetype, a monstrous rooted and branching phenomenon, the primordial life force. I could see the buds opening constantly to new existences and whole colorful worlds. We were in it for the long run, the whole ride.
A few weeks later, Lewis and I did some Owsley acid in Mexico. Neither of us were twenty-one yet, so we had to borrow IDs from people older than us to get over the border. We had limited resources, staying in a run-down hotel in a red light district, living off of saltines and peanut butter. The place had cockroaches, a bare lightbulb and bright, ultramarine walls, which were pulsated wildly. Suddenly, the place was shaking, I thought, a function of our own minds and this fabulous drug. We felt we were experiencing the subterranean Aztec, ur-civilization energy, the volcanic aspirations and violence of primordial Mexico. It was hilarious to read in the paper the next day that there’d been an earthquake and people were evacuating town.
Lewis and I were later to marry, in 1967, and although the marriage didn't survive, we’ve remained close friends and artistic collaborators on many projects. Our offspring ‑- his three and my one -- are warmly acquainted. I would posit that this intensified connection through LSD at the advent of our relationship resulted in a permanent bond that has transcended certain all‑too‑familiar pitfalls of dissolution, neurotic anger, and despair.
I almost always did psychedelics as a sacred ritual. Once, when Bill Burroughs Jr. was lying in a coma, a group of us went out and ingested peyote in the mountains as a kind of healing rite. He did come out of the coma. Not that we had anything to do with it, but the fact that everyone was working with this intent helped us all.
My perspective now is that my first LSD experience was a partial blueprint or paradigm for the actions and karma of my life so far. Not that I've been saintly or holier than anybody else. The inspiration from that first vision – and its fantastic and historic milieu -- did much to forge my commitment to sangha, community, both Buddhist and poetic.
This has been borne out in my web of folk increasing a thousandfold through the activities of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, the Kerouac School at Naropa, through travels to Indonesia, India, Italy, Austria, and other "tours of duty," and through poetry and political events and convocations all over the world. That commitment also brought my life intimate with the activities and life of Allen Ginsberg, dear mentor and friend, also an "activity demon,” whose historic reading I missed that same fateful night I was summoned to sacred primordial vision, so seminal to my life and work.