91-Year-Old Meditation Master Ruth Denison

In the California desert, a vipassana pioneer prepares for the next stage of her remarkable life.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Ruth Denison has spent 91 years learning how to move gracefully through life. A Buddhist elder and one of the first teachers to bring vipassana meditation to the West, she has spent long hours mastering breath and sensory awareness and literally dancing her way through life’s changes. But some changes are more daunting than others.“I am 90 years old, and ahead of me is my death,” Denison says matter-of-factly. “I have no balance, sometimes not even in the mind, even though I am the master of that.”The murky, mysterious conditions of one’s own twilight are frightening, even to a warrior woman who has bravely stared life’s horrors—war, imprisonment, the death of a spouse—in the eye.“But now I have had enough of the stress, the stress that arises out of the conditions of my age,” Denison says with a sigh, visibly frustrated. Then we go outside to feed her favorite roadrunner, and she beams as she looks for him—the stress, it seems, has faded for now.Denison lives at her meditation center, Dhamma Dena, in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree, California. The compound, which she founded in 1977, is named afte …

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