Sangha Spotlight: Noona O'Riley


Noona O'Riley



April 2018



April 2018

Clear Light Sangha: “Tell us about the set-up, Noonah; where and when you were born, how you were raised, your early life.”

Noona O’Riley: “I was born in 1947 in Houston. My dad was a math teacher and my mother was an English teacher. I had two older sisters. I am the youngest and when were young we fought a lot. But when we got older, you know, we didn’t fight. We were kind of on different tracks but there was a sisterly affection and caring for each other.”

“When I was about three we moved to Albuquerque for a short time and then we moved to Columbia, Missouri. We grew up in Columbia except for a few years when I was about 15 and 16, when we moved to Riverside, California near Los Angeles for my father’s career. Then we moved back.”

“My father was a devout Christian and my mother, though she wouldn’t have expressed it as such, was a pagan. She felt her spiritual connection through gardening and the land. And through her writing and her teaching. She loved to teach. They both loved to teach. My mother instilled the love of literature in all of us. I was pretty outgoing as a child. I loved horseback riding and swimming. I started writing poetry when I was a teenager.”

CLS: “What kind of poetry were you reading as a teenager?”

NO: “The beat poets influenced me. I loved Philip Whalen, Ginsberg, Kerouac… I wish I could remember the names… My mom wrote a book which she started after we kids had moved out of the house. And then we finished it off after she died, my sisters did, mainly. My father played piano and we would gather around together and sing. I listened to classical music and we did a lot of camping as I was growing up, that kind of thing. So that was lovely, those things.”

CLS: “When you entered into college, were you intending on going for a literature or English degree?”

NO, “I don’t think I really knew but I quit college because it wasn’t working out for me. I just couldn’t handle it. Maybe I was just too wild. That didn’t go over too well with the status quo but, nevertheless, I traveled around a little bit. This boy I had known in high school asked me to marry him and I married him.”

CLS: “I guess you were dating for a while?”

NO: “A little bit. I didn’t have much consciousness about it. I was 21 and I just did what I felt like I needed to do.  But it didn’t really work out very well. We moved to San Francisco. He was a very kind man but when I found out about meditation and I started meditating in 1969, he wasn’t there. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And it had become my life.”

“We lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood right around the corner from the Hell’s Angels. It was a trip, man! There would be blood out there on the sidewalk in the morning, you know! Ha ha! And so this man, John Whitehead, came to our apartment and he said, ‘Heidi!’ (because that was my name back then) ‘You got to go over to the Zen Center. There’s this great, little Japanese guy. And you should start sitting.’ He was talking about Suzuki Roshi. I read the book, The Three Pillars of Zen. At that time, I was so terribly depressed. And I thought, ‘Oh, that enlightenment! I want that! I’ll go sit for year and see if I can’t get enlightened.’ So, I would go and sit out in the hallway outside of the main zendo because I knew I couldn’t sit for 45 minutes. I started with about five minutes. I would sit there and then go home. That went on for quite a while till I worked it up to 15 minutes. Ha ha!”

CLS: “Well that’s awesome! You were very reasonable with yourself.”

NO: “Well, I was, yeah. And then I left my husband to go Live in the Zen Center because that was my life. There was 35 or 40 people living there. It was in a big building on the edge of the Tenderloin, right? Right there near the worst part of town. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful building with an interior garden. There were a lot of little Zennies, my age, and we just had a ball! Meditating in the morning, walking around town and doing odd jobs. I tried waitressing, but I wasn’t any good at that. I wasn’t fast enough! Ha ha! So, I did housecleaning. What else did I do… Before I left my husband, I was a mail deliverer and I made good money; at that time good money was $3.86 an hour. Ha ha! But I dropped that job when I started sitting at Zen Center. I dropped everything to go live there.”

“When Suzuki Roshi died I didn’t want to keep living there. Baker Roshi was not a good fit for me. I had met Trungpa already because he and Suzuki we’re friends. They loved each other profoundly. There was a small group of people that left and moved to Boulder to study with Trungpa. I was one of those.”

“But before I did that, I had heard about this Maitri program in upstate New York. Maitri means ‘loving kindness to the self.’ It was to try to help people who were screwed up. And I was so severely screwed up I thought, ‘You know, this is going to help me.’ I had an interview with Trungpa and I asked him if I could be one of the staff at the Maitri program and he told me I could. I think he let me because I was the only Zenny who wanted to do it. And he and Suzuki had cooked up the idea. Suzuki had passed on by then.”

“So, yeah, I went to upstate New York and there were like 10 of us. The Trungpa students from Boulder were already there. We lived in a big, old Victorian farmhouse. And had a garden. And we were crazy as loons, man. Ha ha! But, you know, we meditated and tried to keep to the task, do the Maitri postures that he had taught us. He and Suzuki had created five different postures for the five energies as they’re known in the Tibetan tradition. Each posture was a posture for that energy designed to bring up both the enlightened aspects and the neurotic aspects. So, you would do that for about 45 minutes then you’d take a break. Then maybe do another one. That program was gorgeous, and it went on for many years. In fact, it’s still going on as part of the MA Psych Program at Naropa.”

“But we were too crazy to be able to house anyone who was really having trouble. We tried that twice and it didn’t work. Then I left and came to Boulder. Trungpa was setting up his scene there. The community had taken over a big fraternity house which was on the hill and we called it Marpa House. A lot of people lived there in these tiny, cell-like rooms."

“We lived there and we meditated and we had jobs and that’s where I met my second husband. I was working at the University Library. He was woodworker making furniture. Trungpa had developed this line of furniture to be sold at a very low price but elegantly done. And so, David, his name was David, he was part of a guild, the Woodworkers Guild. There was two or three of them and that went on for a while. Then, David and I had a child we named Gwendolyn.”

CLS: “A great name!”

NO: “A beautiful person! So, we had her and we lived together but then when I got pregnant again with Jonathan, David decided he’d had enough of being a father. He left right after Jonathan was born. So, that was a really hard time of my life. I was a single mom working at Naropa some, cleaning houses some, trying to take care of my two kids. It was hard but they’re both beautiful, wonderful kids. He agreed to take the kids once a week for a couple of hours. But I don’t want you to write anything bad about him.”

CLS: “No, no. You know what, I feel that we all kind of get it that we’ve lived our lives doing the best we can and there’s been so much cultural influence in our lives.  We’ve all been swept along in the flow of the culture. In this culture, the truth is there have been so many women that have been raised with romantic love and such and they end up as single moms raising the kids and doing the heavy lifting with the finances, as well. I just like to tell the truth about whatever that cultural influence is and how we are all part of that. It’s not about demonizing anybody. So, I appreciate the honesty.”

NO: “You know, Starry, you are right. You are absolutely right about that. So, I raised my kids and I did artwork for Naropa, mainly for flyers for events. When I was a kid I liked to do artwork but it never felt like it turned out right, it was never beautiful. Ha ha. It was always kind of strange. But that’s OK.”

“I went to work at a silkscreening shop doing T-shirts and I also did silkscreening on skis for a while. Then my back went out and so I was laid up for three months. My father decided to help me financially. Which was great.”

CLS: “How old were you at that point?”

NO: “I think I was in my late 30s. I realized I didn’t want to go back to silk screening. I wanted to get my master’s in psychology at Naropa. So, we worked it out. I went back to school as soon as I could get up and move around. At that point, Jonathan was about eight or nine, so Gwen was 11 or 12. I did the Naropa Contemplative Psych program. It was an excellent program. That’s where I met my third husband, Julian. He was a teacher in that program. In the meantime, Trungpa died. It was hard.”

CLS: “That had a big effect on you?”

NO: “Yeah, I mean I loved him dearly and I still do. He was an incredible man. Then I started working as a psychotherapist. It was interesting; I was part of a group called the Wind Horse program. We took clients that were severely disturbed, schizophrenic, you know, really out there… and built a community around them of people who would attend to them for four or five hours at a time. So, they were always held. But the clients had to be really well off to be able to pay for it.”

“I did that for number of years and it was good work. Truth be told, I started picking up on things from people that they weren’t saying. I began to become aware that one of the clients, she was possessed, man. And I would talk about it with the team members but nobody wanted to go there with me. They would say, ‘Well, what are we going to do with that.’ And I’d think, ‘I don’t want any part of it if we can’t see that that’s what’s happening. That’s what I feel. I’ve got to leave.’”

“Julian and I had had a son, Max, while we were still living together. That was 1990 and I was 43 years old. My other kids were about 12 and 15 then. But when Max was two, Julian left and that was terrible. That was very hard. But he was a devoted father. I continued to live in Boulder working as a psychotherapist. Max was a very sensitive, beautiful young man and when he was about to go into grade school, I didn’t think he was going to do very well. He had been in the Buddhist schools before that and there was less pressure. I couldn’t afford to take him to Montessori or Shining Mountain Waldorf School so I talked to Julian about coming down here to Crestone, CO. I had friends who were already down here and I had visited Crestone a number of times. Julian and I worked it out because he thought it was a good place for Max to grow up, too. So, when Max was six I moved down here. I would take Max up to Boulder and Julian would come down here and there was just a lot of going back-and-forth. But I feel like it was a good place for Max to grow up.”

CLS: “Your friends that were down here, where they connected with the Zen Center?”

NO: “Trungpa. There were a lot of old Trungpa students down here. We put together this little shrine room, a place outside of Mark Elliott’s house that they’re still using. We would gather to do sadhanas and meditations and all of that. And Max went to the Charter School.”

CLS: “How did your teenage kids like it down here?”

NO: “Well, by that time, Jonathan was 18 so he had decided to go live at Marpa House in Boulder. He was a very independent person. He could really make a go of it like that. And my daughter had her child not even two months after I had Max. She got pregnant as a teenager. We would walk around the grocery store and we were both as big as whales Ha ha! She stayed up there in Boulder. She had her partner and they were making a go of it up there. Everybody stayed up there in Boulder but would come down to visit. So, yeah, all that was happening.”

“While still up in Boulder, I had started getting information, it would just come. I would feel like I was lit up by an electric cord. And I would just start getting information. I made little notebooks with all the information that I got.”

CLS: “What kind of information would you get? Was it about people or more of a universal download or what?”

NO: “How it happened was before I came down here with Max, two good friends of mine said they would could connect me with my spirit guides. And so, I went to their place and they did do that. But not only did they do that, suddenly everything opened up. I just started getting information.”

CLS: “Would you hear it? Or would be a knowing?”

NO: “It would be inner vision and a knowing. I could just see part of the scene and I wonder, ‘What is this about?’ And then there would be knowledge that would come through about it. So that was going on for quite a while. We would just have a ball with all of that! Oh, yeah! There was a man a woman and myself. The man would get a little something and then he would verify if it was right with what I got. And the other woman was there as a kind of grounding. She would get something, sometimes but mainly grounding.”

“When we lived up in Boulder, me and Max and those two would come down here to Crestone and we would go to places and we would open up to see what was going on. And there were some pretty amazing things going on. For one example, we went to the other side of the range over there by Westcliff, I don’t really remember exactly how it happened that we went there, but we went down into this field and we would open to the energy that was there and at that particular time there was a Great Being who was there. I could see it in one of the filters I have to see. Such an enormous amount of energy! All three of us were like, ‘What is this!’ Anyway, those kinds of things.”

“I had done a training on plant spirit medicine with Elliott Cohen. I started working with a woman who practiced Jin Shin, a therapeutic acupressure technique that moves energy in the body. She was really skilled at it. She and I got together up in Boulder and she would do the Jin Shin and I would do the ‘see who shows up.’ We did that for many years. And we did charge, and I did make a fair amount of money.”

CLS: “You weren’t doing psychotherapy down here?”

NO: “No, I quit doing psychotherapy after that whole thing around the possessed woman. I was never very good as a psychotherapist on my own. I was fine with the team, but I’d let people run all over me. So, this woman and I started doing our thing up in Boulder. Even when I was living down here I would go up and take Max to see his dad and would give five or six sessions while I was there. It was wonderful. We loved it. That went on until she died. But we did it for lots of years.”

“My mother had died in the meantime and my father had set up a small trust fund for me. It wasn’t very much to live on, it was just skimming by but that’s what I did. I did a lot of painting and started making poems. I began to spend huge amounts of time in the natural world when Max was at school and really opening up to communing with nature and the nature spirits. That became more and more of my spiritual practice, more than my Tibetan Buddhist practice. I’ve always been a meditator and I probably always will until the day I die but as far as doing the sadhanas and all of that, I set them aside. I became more and more involved with what I was perceiving and experiencing with the natural world. It’s very, deeply fulfilling. So, that’s continued.”

CLS: “When did you start the very particular kind of poetry creating that you do now? And would you describe the process?”

NO: “I’ve always done it that way. I just say things over and over and over again. I come up with a line and I think, ‘That sounds good.’ Then the next day I’ll say it again and again until I got it right and maybe come up with a few more lines. You know that’s just how it happens.”

CLS: “It’s so embodied, that’s what strikes me. You don’t work it out on paper. It’s like painting or an art you do with your hands that you just do over and over until it forms and just becomes part of your body. I’m so impressed by that! So fantastic!”

NO: “Well, I like sound. So, it’s the sound of everything and the cadence. It’s the rhythm. I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll be saying it and then a totally different word will pop out and I’ll think, ‘Oh, there it is! You know out of nowhere.”

CLS: “The memory, the retrieval part of it just blows me away! For me, I have no memory. Like, I can’t remember dance steps. And I love to dance. I just have to do them enough times that it just becomes part of what happens.”

NO: “That’s it! I can’t think about it! No, it’s not a thought process. It’s exactly like that; like playing the piano or dancing or whatever. It has nothing to do with thinking. It’s just repetition until, then, finally, it’s in there.”

CLS: “But then there is the retrieval of it! You remember so many poems and after years and years! It’s astounding.”

NO: “It seems to be that once they’re in there, they’re in there, man! It’s wild! And then what I found, too, is that sometimes I’ll remember a poem that I didn’t know I remembered. And then it comes out. But there’s ones in there that I haven’t remembered that I know that they’re in there but any one that I find, then I can do it. Yeah, it’s a funny thing. Ha ha! It’s a lot of fun. I mean I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll just recite poems So it’s just fun. I just love to do it.”

“About a year ago, I came across this book on Celtic tradition and in it, it had this description of how they trained poets way back when in Ireland. They would have them be in darkness. When it was starting to be day, they would have them go into their little cells into darkness. And they could come out again when it was night time. They were all given a certain theme on which to make a poem without writing or anything and they would do it. In the darkness using just the repetition.”

CLS: “Like your poems!”

NO: “Yeah, just like I’ve been talking about! It’s an ancient way of doing it. And it was just showing up for me because I really do have very strong Celtic appreciations and leanings.”

CLS: “And, well, you are Irish!”

NO: “Well, Irish and English and German. It was cool to see that that was actually the way it was done then. So, where were we… I started painting a lot.”

CLS: “You started liking your own artwork?”

NO: “Yeah, I just kept at it until I got it where I liked it. Ha ha! Finally. It’s not an easy thing for me but it is something I love! So, I just keep at it.”

CLS: “How did Max like being here?”

NO: “I think he loved it. It was a small school you know, kids going through first and second and third and fourth all together. He went through high school here. Then he just started living in different places in the southern Colorado region with his friends. He lived in Buena Vista, Salida. Sometimes he would come back here and live with me for a while then he would go back out and either work at one of these places. He’s 27 now and he’s up in Boulder. He’s learning how to be able to run a recording studio. He’s a musician. He taught himself the guitar and drums and he’s OK on bass. And he just went for it at a certain age.”

CLS: “How did you come across Sharon?”

NO: “Sharon would come and give satsang in that building next to where the Crestone Mercantile. I liked her right away. I mean, I didn’t feel a good match right away, but I liked her. And then, maybe, she stopped for a while. And then she started giving satsang at Barbara Howell’s house and it became a juicier scene. Generally, 10 or 12 or 13 people would show up and I would go most of the time. I don’t know what drew me to Sharon. I wasn’t reading Adya’s books or anything. I liked the people that were coming to the groups and I liked what happened in Sharon’s groups.”

“But I was just going through my own stuff all the time, I was just going through my own stuff. Things breaking down and things coming through and Sharon seem to know about that, so I was drawn to her more than I was drawn to any sense of dual or non-dual, you know. It was just that things are going on here and Sharon’s got a beat on it. It was kind of like that.”

“I did go see Adya in Arvada outside of Denver one time. It was amazing, of course. That was the only time I saw him. But I don’t read stuff, hardly ever. It really has to jump out at me for me to want to read it. If it jumps out at me I gobble it up. But not too many things jump out at me to gobble them up. I’m just wired differently, I guess. Whatever."

“But going to Sharon’s retreats at Zen Center or at her house, those are always extremely powerful for me. I really value that enormously. So, I’ll continue to do that. And I must say over the years that I have been going to the Zen Center retreats and satsangs, I feel like she has hit her mark, man! And she is in her nine’s. I mean, she was good before, really good. But now it’s majestic! I think there’s just a lot of transmission that comes through with her. I noticed the main thing with Trungpa, it was transmission, man. I probably didn’t understand a thing he said. But it was an amazing transmission!"

CLS: “Yeah, it’s really magnificent. It propels people.”

NO: “Yeah. Exactly. So now Anna Louise Stewart and I are doing this thing with her doing the energy work and me doing the ‘beam me in’ and we’ve done it for a few people and it’s been really good.”

CLS: “What are you calling this thing that you do?”

NO: “You’re going to get a kick out of it! Ha ha! This is how it came about: we had asked people to be guinea pigs for us and one woman came and did it and it was very good. After it was complete, Anna Louise gave us all tea and this woman said, ‘Oh! This is a cosmic tea party!’ So that’s what we’re calling it; a Cosmic Tea Party Healing Session with Anna Louise and Noonah. Anna Louise does the energetic movement parts with the body and Noona opens for capacity to second sight to see what wants to come in during the session. And the client is openly receptive so, those three things going on make for a pretty dynamic opportunity.”

“For me, it’s always shocking what shows up. Like, you got to be kidding! Ha ha! that’s what makes it so much fun! First there will be a sense of something. You know, something indiscriminate. And then, within the indiscriminate something, oh, just for an example, say, John of the Cross shows up. And, now what does John of the Cross have to say? ‘Oh. This is what you want to say? OK, I’ll see if I can put that into English.’ And, so, what I have to go through is I have to release any kind of self-criticism. And just say, ‘Look, take it or not. If this works for you, fine. If this doesn’t work for you, it’s still what I’m getting. So, I’m going to give you what I’m getting.’ That’s how it works. I mean, people’s mothers show up. All kinds of stuff shows up. I think this stuff is happening more and more all over the planet. You can do this, I can do this. I want to be helping people to become aware. This isn’t woo-woo. This is life. It’s a part of life.”

CLS: “Yes, we’re experiencing what’s happening in different dimensions all the time."

NO: “Yeah! And for people to become more OK with that. I mean, it really needs to happen, I think, for the benefit of everything.  Another thing, I’ve been doing a lot of shamanic stuff with R.J. Stewart.  He’s a Celtic shaman to the Nth degree. I read a lot of that stuff. That is something that grabs me. I’ve done a lot of training with David Spangler with opening up to the subtle worlds. I started studying shamanism back in Boulder. So, every week I do a shamanic journey at a certain place here in Crestone. My best friend, Joanne Reeves died in October, but we used to do a lot of that stuff together. That’s been a very big influence.”

CLS: “So when you say you do a shamanic journey, do you do it from home or do you go out on the location?”

NO: “I can do both. I can do it at the location from my couch or I can go out to the location depending on the weather or whatever. I sometimes use the ancient Celtic techniques like the Well of Light and you go down and that sort of thing.  It just kind of depends on the day. But I love that. It’s a huge love of mine and I would hope that more and more people would become aware of that. It’s commonplace, it’s not something weird.”

CLS: “Anything else you’d like to say?”

NO: “I love my kids! I love the earth. In the mornings I do the seven directions with ultimate love for everything and that feels really good. And I offer chocolate to the fairies at night and offer tea to the spirit of the house. Ha ha! Those kinds of things. That’s who I am.”




something in you
looks out
sees itself in everything

something in everything
looks back
sees itself in you

it is the Eye of Love
that looking out
sees itself in all that is

go ahead child
breathe easy

cause something in you
knows it's true. 


Starry Summers