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I had a class that asked me to write my “story”. Below is what I wrote:
How do you talk about surviving a Holocaust? How do you talk about it when there isn’t anyone to blame or point to for the “cause” of your suffering. How do you talk about it in a way that recognizes that you just happen to be lucky? There is no reason you survived while so many of your friends, lovers, family, protectors, mentors and trail-blazers didn’t. Yet, we talk about it. We have to. That’s our job as survivors. To be the story-holders and story-tellers. It is one of the responsibilities I feel to the more than 1,000 friends I personally have lost since 1981 and the millions of others who maybe aren’t so personal. Victor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” talks about the guilt and the responsibility felt by him and other survivors of the Jewish Holocaust. Reading this book was the first and only time I felt like there was something written that came close to my experience.
Once you decide to tell the story, the next question then is, where to start? Do I start with the first one? Antonio. I don’t know Antonio’s last name. In those days we didn’t really share more than we had to, and last names was more than we needed to share. He drove a big yellow Caddy everyday to the park where I first found the “gay community” in my rural 12-year-old world. Antonio was like the flamboyant protective mama who knew everyone, was suspicious of someone who wasn’t known, and taught me how to “watch yourself” as he liked to repeat over and over and over again, often to my teenage rolling eyes. When your gay in a conservative world, you want to hide, you create a secret life and world, and you try to protect it. I went to the park to express something that I couldn’t talk about, and learned how to live with the secrets from the men who I found there. See there were folks who DID know what I was missing, what I didn’t understand, and Antonio was one of them. For more than two years my world and life seemed to “work” in some strange way. There was my real life at the park with my friends and lovers, the men who taught me how to operate in a hostile world, the men who understood me without explanation. There was also the other world of my family, church, school, “friends” who had no idea about the drug use, the drinking, the sex, or the secrets I had no other way to express. Antonio became my biggest guide, protector, and friend. I later learned this was a role he fulfilled with several others as well. He was my gay big brother who helped me navigate and pick up the lessons that were so necessary to survive as a gay man in the late 70’s. Antonio in so many ways represented my salvation, the spot of sanity in what felt like an insane world.
So when Antonio showed up one day about 80 pounds lighter, with brownish/purple spots on his arms and face, we all knew he had “it”. “It” didn’t have a name yet. We only knew that “it” was killing gay men, and that no one cared, and no one talked about it (including us), and everyone wanted to tell us it was our fault just because of who we were. “It” had gotten Antonio. He died a day later. The last time I saw him, we didn’t talk about “it”, we didn’t talk about politics, we didn’t talk about men, or even about the weather. We just sat there on the picnic bench feeling the warmth on our faces, and drinking beer. I left with a hug, and a kiss on the cheek and Antonio holding my face in his hands, looking into my eyes and telling me to “watch yourself.” This time I didn’t roll my eyes. It meant more than it ever had before. It was like some “Movie of the Week” and he was trying to drive home the moral of the story. No one ever talked about Antonio after that. This is actually the first time I have talked about Antonio. There was no funeral, no memorial, no touching remembrances. Antonio was my protector and friend. I loved him for being the big brother I always wish I had. Antonio was also one of the few men in my life at that time that never tried to seduce me. When I asked him about this, he replied in that oh so flamboyant way, “Honey, I think you need me to be your friend more than you need to be in my bed.” It was 1981 now. I was a 14-year-old kid who had just lost his best friend and there was no one to tell that to, no one who could tell me how to deal with this. I did what I was taught by my worlds to do. I shoved the emotions and grief down, hid them away, and pretended that the sudden burst of tears or anger were merely some response to something someone did or said. The drinking and drug use increasing wasn’t really “that bad”. At least I could still convince myself of that.
By the time I found out I was HIV positive in 1990, we had learned what “it” was. But it was still not okay. There were no treatments or AIDS yet. They could respond to some of the opportunistic infections, but it was still a death sentence. The only real question was “how long”. Back then, the gay community ostracized you because they were afraid of one more death to deal with. They didn’t want you to give it to them, and we didn’t want to be reminded of our grief. The losses and devastation were just too much to handle for some of us. Outside the community it was even worse. Mainstream society judged us, labeled us and tried to pretend we weren’t really human beings who were dying. Friends had lost their homes, families, jobs as they lie on their deathbeds All because a virus had infected their body and that scared too many people. Then there was the fear you felt as someone infected, you were a threat, and so often were abandoned to deal with it in whatever ways you could. I admit there were a lot of us running from hospital to homes to medical appointments in order to care for and help our lives. We jumped in and did what we could, but I don’t think any of us think it was enough.
I remember sitting in a little room inside the “testing facility” attached to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. There were two doors. One was the one that was attached to the waiting room that you went into. The other was where the staff came through. It was well known that if you were being told you were positive, two people came through that door, if you were negative, one. I think those people needed the support to tell someone they were lucky that now “it” won’t kill you for a year or so. I knew my results before the two men walked in the room. I had been an activist, and caretaker, and voracious reader of any and all news and studies from as far back as they were available. I knew what the signs and symptoms were, and by now, all signs pointed to death. I had been through this before. I had sat in this exact chair supporting friends as their own pairs of men walked through the door. Many of them were dead by this point, all of them are dead now. I still had to hear them say it. I needed to put it into the air. I still had to sit there, glued to this spot as my mind panicked, and my heart simultaneously wanted to stop beating and couldn’t stop racing. I don’t remember all that they said; I only remember the absolute collapse of any sense of safety or security I had cobbled together in my 24 years of life. I kept wondering why they were still talking when I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Why wouldn’t they speak English? Oh maybe they were, I just couldn’t recall how to hear in English. About a year before my diagnosis I had stopped counting the dead at 650 men. I didn’t want to count anymore. The number was no longer soothing in the ways it had been. Now I was going to be one of the numbers for someone else. Was anyone counting for me? I think I was hoping that by not counting it wouldn’t go higher. It did. And now, I was on that same journey as those men. No longer a caretaking observer to the suffering, I was one of “them”. I thought I knew what it would be like, after all I had been a witness so many times before. But there is something totally different when it’s you in that chair. When your blood betrays you, and you hear them tell you to “wrap up what you can, you don’t know what you can do when or how long until things get worse.” Things only got worse. Everyone knew there was no better from here. When was it gonna be? What would get me? Would it be painful? The questions that are only allowed to creep in late at night when your defenses are low began to be my problem, and not just something I heard about. Each time I was helping another friend care for himself or his lover or his other friend; each time I saw that ragged face on the street and saw how my face was becoming that face; each time I woke up in a cold sweat; I knew the only choice was to wait.
I did therapy, I did grief groups, support groups, healing groups, and group hugs. All of the things that we are “suppose” to do to help us “get over” our grief. The problem was that my friends were still dying. I was still dying. We still had to Act-up. We still had to get someone to pay attention to these disposable gay men. We needed treatments, and research and money. There were sick friends to tend to and then bury. I still spent more time in funerals, memorials and celebrations of life than anywhere else. The grief and loss and fear became a rock tied around my neck that I dragged everywhere. It all happened so fast there wasn’t really time to deal with the rock or try to find a way to make it easier to carry.
Then, in 1994, the love of my life, the man I loved more than breath, died in my arms. We had agreed that I would wait for the count of 20 before I would go get anyone. I sat in bed silently crying, wanting to run screaming from that hospital room for anyone to help me. But I lay there, counting. I lay there thinking of how this isn’t how it was supposed to happen. I counted to 20 and then I walked out the door. In the hallway I collapsed, two nurses came, one to tend to Rudi and one to tend to me. I have glimpses of the next few weeks, but no real memories. It’s like a dream but underwater. Lying on the floor of my living room, wrapped in a blanket that still smelled like him. Friends came and cooked, and threw away the untouched meals. They would sit in the chair and on the couch and talk amongst themselves, or try to talk to me. I couldn’t form a thought. After a week or two, only one friend was still coming. Everyone had to move on, or take care of someone else. My friend would come every evening, bring food, and lay on the floor with me. Not saying anything, just holding me tightly as I cried or screamed or rocked. This man didn’t offer me comfort or try to fix anything; he was just a simple presence. He wasn’t afraid of the depth of my grief, and he joined me there. This allowed me to fully express and experience what still feels like the surgical removal of a part of me that happened without anesthesia. There is still a piece missing. I can’t point to which one, but it’s gone, and I have stopped wondering if it will grow back.
At some point I realized that Rudi was the end of my second set of first circle friends. Two weeks before, my best friend Jim died on the same day my husband told me he couldn’t fight anymore and that it was time to stop “fighting”. As I sat in bed with this man who I had spent so long building a life with, and hearing him say, he couldn’t fight anymore all I could think was how much I couldn’t fight anymore. In my mind flashed the images of all those men I had cried for and with; all the men I had watched take their last breath. I couldn’t remember how to breathe myself anymore. Luckily the body knows how to breathe. It’s why we use breath in meditation; it doesn’t require our consent. The body breathes of its own accord. Even when we think we don’t want it to, or that we can’t.
A few months after Rudi and Jim died, I did the only thing I could do. I ran away to San Francisco. I had to get away from the ghosts, and the car that drove to the hospital each night after work, instead of directly home. I came to San Francisco to hide out, to heal to find someway to get over this mountain of grief and loss. I had to figure out how to live again. By this point we had the miraculous cocktail. AIDS had finally become manageable, and it only cost me everything to get there. About six months into my being here, a friend and I were talking over coffee and somehow came to the idea that the answer to both of our current states of mind was spiritual, not mental, and not physical. I had been involved in 12-step programs for about 8 years at this point, and had heard this over and over again, but for some reason this felt like a new revelation to me. We decided that this was San Francisco after all. There is a church, ashram, meditation group, society of spiritual this or that and/or temple on every corner. We would just go to all of them until we found one that had our solution. We called it the Mall of Religion Tour, and were pretty serious about it despite our irreverent humor. One of the places we went was a Buddhist Sitting Group that met on Tuesday nights on Dolores and 19th. A basement that wasn’t actually tall enough for people, functioned as a meditation room and this guy would give talks after 20 minutes of silent sitting. I don’t recall anything else he actually said, but I do know he stated pretty matter-of-factly “Nothing was broken”. The cussing and anger that welled up in me at that statement was surprising even to me. I decided I needed to come back till I understood this guys argument and then I could really tell him off.
About 6 months later, my friend George took me to San Francisco Zen Center to introduce me to Zen. I had enjoyed Vipassana meditation, as it felt safe, and in the version presented to me was stripped of a lot of the “baggage” I had left over from the religious training of my youth. There weren’t a lot of bells and whistles in the Buddhism I was introduced to and had begun to practice on Dolores Street. There was no bowing, no incense and nothing that pushed that childhood religious training button. So when I got to Zen Center, and an older man in funny robes came in after we meditated to offer incense, I was a bit taken aback. After meditation, there was a chanting, bowing and bell ringing service that pushed me over the edge. George and I had planned to have dinner at Zen Center when we were done, but I told him I couldn’t do it, and that I wouldn’t ever be coming back to Zen Center. “I don’t want any of this extra crap with my dharma.” Fast Forward to 6 years later, when I am ordained as a Zen Priest, and I remember my now dead friend George and can only imagine the giggle he is having wherever he is about this.
I think I do understand what that original dharma teacher was saying about nothing being broken; but not in a logical, deconstruct his argument kind of way. It is more understanding beyond knowing, a visceral, ease in my heart way of looking at things. There actually is nothing broken here. My reactions and life are completely normal responses to the causes and conditions that have come before. Grief comes from loss, and extreme grief comes from extreme loss. The feelings that I felt, and the pain and suffering are a part of this life I have. It may not be the life I wanted, or thought I would have, but it is what it is. Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center said, “Our practice is to accept things as it is, and help it to be its best.” So I accept that this life is a transformative life. Instead of trying to fix this or get over that, I simply needed to stop and turn around and meet them. There is an old Buddhist story about a monk who goes up to a cave to meditate. As soon as he sits down, demons begin to attack him from all sides. He does everything he can to dispel and eliminate the demons. After two or three days of struggle he goes down the mountain to his teacher and tells the teacher about it. The teacher instructs the monk to go back to the cave, and when the demons come to feed them cake. The monk despite certainty that his teacher is crazy goes to the cave and does as he is instructed. The demons sit down to the cake, and vanish. This is how it is with strong emotions. The more I struggled to subdue them, the more they would overpower me. As I began to find out through practice, turning towards them, and allowing them full attention, they would stay right sized, I would stay right sized, and they would pass away into some other experience. This is the Buddha way. The great Zen master Joshu said, “This very mind is Buddha”. Finding a way to let the grieving mind, the sad mind, the despondent mind, the lonely mind to be Buddha has been and continues to be my practice; to not wait to find some settled or peaceful mind and then seeing Buddha there. Instead, amidst the demons and devils, amidst the trauma and upheaval, there in the middle of the holocaust and grief to see that nothing is broken, and that this is Buddha.
Like a cloud in an endless sky, Like a Lotus in Muddy Water….
Academia: Early Indian Buddhist Ideas of Self, and Spiritual Care in Traditionally Marginalized Communities.
Below is a paper I wrote for school. I have several edits going on. More academic than practice, hence the Academic tag. I invite you to bring up questions, concerns, ideas, etc in the comments. Would be interesting to see what kind of discussion can be generated here.
Early Indian Buddhist Ideas of Self, and Spiritual Care in Traditionally Marginalized Communities.
When I was 16, I was encouraged to go to “reparative therapy” for being gay. I resisted. My thinking at the time, and continues to be, that being gay is my natural state, and that there is nothing to repair. Despite all of the teachings that had been thrown at me already about the “wrongness” of being queer, I somehow had the emotional fortitude to embrace the beauty of my natural state. I believed that being gay was as much a part of who I am as having red hair, hazel eyes, and white skin. As I began to explore Buddhism, I found relief in some of the teachings, but had a struggle with what was being presented to me in the way of the no-self doctrine (anatta). How is it that I can feel empowered as a gay man, and also believe in an empty and unchanging self? When something as important as queerness seems intrinsic, how do we reconcile that with no self? For that matter, what is it to be heterosexual in regards to no-self. Is there an assumptive normalization that makes no-self easier to understand without the moniker of “queerness” to buffer one’s response. In other words, without the label “queer” is it easier for us to let go of our questions regarding the “no-self”.
Personal identity within marginalized communities plays a much bigger role than in what I will refer to as mainstream culture and society. It is with this in mind that this paper will explore both how personal identity operates and functions in traditionally marginalized people, and also how to understand the practices and teachings of shunyata and annata in this context. I will offer practical ways to practice with a personal identity and still hold to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha in regards to Self. It is my intent that this will allow for a widening of understanding of the teachings as well as how to understand and work with difference in our sanghas, and in our spiritual care. This paper will first briefly examine the Western psychological perspectives of personal identity and how that might relate to the Buddhist idea of a self. From there I will examine the teachings on self from an Abhidharma perspective and then from a Yogacara perspective. I will summarize with some considerations and possibilities toward incorporating these ideas into our understanding of and relationship to our personal practice and life in the sangha.
WESTERN PSYCHOLOGICAL VIEWS
When speaking about a Western psychological view of self, the closest correlate is probably in line with what is called a “healthy ego”. It is that part of the mental construction that is aware of its place in the world around it, has an idea of itself being itself over time, and also has a healthy sense of individuation from others. On the surface each of these can prove difficult for a Buddhist, as they appear to conflict with common teachings on self from the Buddha. This Western view of self particularly seems in contradiction to the teachings about dependent origination. This contradiction, however, is merely superficial and has been dealt with a number of times by a variety of authors. It is outside the scope of this paper to elaborate on this topic much more and will claim this as merely my personal bias at this point.
Within traditionally marginalized communities, as members try to overcome the internal as well as external oppression, this healthy ego becomes highly important. Its role in establishing one’s place in the world, as an empowered and substantial person is without argument. It is that place that a degree of self-esteem and worthiness can arise, giving rise to boundaries which encourage individuation, and the ability to live beyond the limitations of an oppressive mainstream. The White Male Heteronormative (WMHN) goes a long way in supplanting in the mind that anything outside of the WMHN is abnormal and therefore subject to disregard at the very least. Disentangling this idea both internally and externally is often a life long process of learning more and more subtle ways in which it operates within ourselves and in the world we inhabit. For example, the unlearning of the internalized homophobia only begins with the process of coming out. The internalized assumptions about masculine, feminine, gender, etc. that are part and parcel of homophobia still operate in sometimes subtle, sometimes gross forms. Should one move into a sense of power as an oppressed person; one has an ongoing opportunity to reconstruct these beliefs in others as well as within oneself. For Example, in Oakland’s “Occupy Oakland movement”, there has been extensive discussion in regards to the name “Occupy” and its history with First Nation peoples. The dialogues have been initiated by those with healthy egos which allow them to point out and try to educate others about this instance of the normalization of privilege. In a sense, it is an experience of a group of people seeing a subtle form of WMHN behavior and making efforts to address it. In order for this experience to be possible, one must have already addressed and resolved the same WMHN message internally.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung states in Marriage as a Psychological Relationship “So far as we know, consciousness is always ego-consciousness. In order to be conscious of myself, I must be able to distinguish myself from others. Relationship can only take place where this distinction exists. “ Buddhist teachings do not assert that this distinction is without existence. The distinction between self and other, rather than the nihilistic approach of not existing, is viewed in the same way that everything else is viewed. That is without an ultimate or absolute existence. In Mahayana terms this would be empty of “inherent” existence.
When examining early Indian Buddhist Texts it is often considered impossible to find positive portrayals of identity . This is particularly true in regards to identity as oppressed or marginalized communities. This could be attributed to the fact that most of the actual writing down of the teachings was done by monks who had enough privilege to access education in reading and writing. It is possible they did not have an awareness of, or experience of marginalization or oppression. Given that societal norms have changed over the centuries and so the socially constructed idea of oppression and marginalization also must have undergone change, so whatever writing is there is obscured by the reader’s own view against the view of the author at the time of the writing. Although misogyny existed at the time of the Buddha, and certainly at the time of the actual writing of the scriptures, it is viewed and responded to differently at that time, then it is in modern society. Is it possible however to extrapolate a positive view from what is available? Will a close reading of the teachings reveal some information about what we as modern Buddhists can do to address what we know as marginalization and oppression?
Before we delve too deeply into the text, it is important to first understand what we mean by a modern view of “identity” as it relates to traditionally marginalized people. The view I have developed comes from my own experience as a gay man and contains to a large part the qualia (the quality of “what it’s like”) of a gay man in an oppressive society. In this view this queerness feels intrinsic or a natural disposition. Although I understand it (queerness) as a social construct in the same way ethnicity, gender and religious beliefs are socially constructed. This construction even when deconstructed doesn’t fully remove the qualia of queerness from the person. I may not behave or follow the societal construction of maleness, but that doesn’t remove from me the identity of being male. In this way, part of our definition has to go beyond social construction ideas, and into something more basic and/or inexpressible. This definition must also contain some sense of irretractability. I didn’t go to “reparative therapy” because I didn’t believe that being gay is something that is in need of curing, but I also felt it wasn’t possible to remove it. I see this as intrinsic to whatever it means to occupy this experience of a life, or to live inside this skin-bag. Another way to understand this would be to say that being queer may indeed be changeable, in the same sense that arms being above legs is interchangeable, only through extreme violence to and alteration of what it means to be a human person.
So there we have the idea of “self” we are looking for within the Buddhist teachings. Is it possible within the teachings of Annata (no-self) to find the experience of this “identity” or do the teachings negate this to such an extent that we have to abandon those things which play such an important part in our social/psychological experience of the world? How do we practice with these teachings as traditionally marginalized peoples and still maintain a sense of integration, integrity and wholeness?
The Sarvastivadan School (or the Everything Exists School) laid a lot of the groundwork for the current Mahayana Schools. This school has unclear historical origins, but we can place its start somewhere in the 2nd Century B.C.E. It no longer is an existing school, but its texts are still influential in the Mahayana School and to a lesser degree the Theravada school. The Sarvastivada school is characterized by it systemic approach to sutra study and incorporating through argumentation, philosophical understandings in a Buddhist context. They are called the “Everything Exists School” because they hold that the dharmas of past present and future all truly exist.
The Sarvastivadan understanding of “self” is understood in the context of causation. They hold that there is no self, but merely an ever-changing series of five skandhas. Their response to the Doctrine of Momentariness says that the self is like a movie, the skandhas reappearing each moment after the next. This allows for continuity, because it’s not that there is one thing called the self that exists over time, but the arising of the five skandhas for a moment, then they arise again in the next moment and so on like the frames in a motion picture.
The Sarvastivadan idea doesn’t meet our criteria of a self because there isn’t anything “intrinsic” or irretraceable in their system. There is no room for there to be an identity or pride. In fact, the issue of pride as a state of mind is not looked on favorably in any circumstance. To be proud is seen as holding onto or grasping an idea of self and reifying it into something permanent.
Consider however the possibility that what we call “gay pride” is actually corrective of the “pride” that is expressed as inferiority. “Gay pride” doesn’t have within it the hierarchical quality that I think Sarvastivada is pointing to as defilement. It could be seen that “gay pride” is in fact corrective in the sense that it actually begins to move one into the view of fully human and equal to everyone else.
Yogacara is called the consciousness-only or mind-only school. It basically says that the only access we have to anything are our constructed thoughts about that thing. This includes ourselves. This school expands on the ideas of emptiness to the point where not only is everything empty of any permanent or abiding self, but that we don’t even have the ability to get in contact with the thing itself, but only our ideas about that thing. For example: A chair exists, and is seen as empty, but it is also recognized only by the story I associate with it. A chair is a chair because I think it’s a chair.
This brings us closer to our criteria of some kind of intrinsic self. The emptiness theory doesn’t preclude there being a self, it’s just a self that is empty, and without anything permanent or abiding. It is also a constructed self, meaning there isn’t any part of it that exists on it’s own, it’s constructed of parts.
The interesting offering from Yogacara is that because our access to our “self” is only through our story about it, this makes practicing with this self, an investigation into the relationship of our mind and this self. So an “intrinsic” or queer self would be related to differently at different times, but the queerness itself, as part of this constructed empty self, doesn’t necessarily have to change.
Yogacara and Madhyamaka teachings on emptiness do not create a privileged reality of dharmas. Ultimately emptiness only affirms conventional reality, which is where identity construction (including iretracticble identities) occurs. The Dharma theory of the Sarvastivada give no way to work with oppression or identity construction since there is this multiple reality system with Ultimate Reality being privileged over Conventional Reality.
Because Yogacara is about the relationship to the self, we then can begin to truly examine and appreciate the cultural constructions, and work with them in a way to integrate and empower ourselves beyond the oppression of the normative. I move through my ideas about maleness, and begin to allow what it means to be a man change and alter as my relationship to it changes. Since my access to maleness is only through my mental ideas about it, then there is a freedom in examining it more closely.
Yogacara also has in its system, this part of the mind called the alaya-vijnana. The alaya-vijnana is also often called the storehouse consciousness. This consciousness flawlessly captures and stores all of our experiences in totality. Even those parts we aren’t aware of. These experiences are stored as “seeds”. The alaya-vijnana flows from the distant past up to the present and can be considered the psychological base of our life. It is also said that this alaya-vijnana contains the karma we were born into this life with. If we hold that rebirth happens, and that it is a continuation of some other life that ended before we were born, then how does that karma come into being? Alaya-vijnana would explain that. The “seeds” of karma that we come into existence with that are intrinsically part of us, would also be part of this consciousness. So if in fact we are “born this way”, as Lady Gaga says, then it would be through the alaya-vijnana.
So we needed a sense of something intrinsic in our nature that allowed us to be empowered and integrated. We needed to develop a teaching in Buddhism that allowed for an irretractability, yet changing and impermanent, way of being. It seems we get closest with Yogacara. The opening provided by a consciousness based teaching, with a storehouse that contains all of our experiences and karma, including that which we are born into this world with gives us the opportunity to utilize Buddhist practice as a way to empower and integrate the experiences of traditionally marginalized people.
Studying the relationship between myself and those parts of myself that I use in the construction of an identity, and then to study the relationship of that identity in the world, allows for a changing and empty self, but one that has as part of its construction, intrinsic and ongoing characteristics. In a philosophical sense we could label this a consistency through time. Practicing with this consistency through time means to study those constructed parts, and seeing how they are connected, not connected, and otherwise related to the constructed parts that exist in those humans around us we would call other. Because we only see our stories about those around us, we can change those stories as we study them. My stories about women, people of color, or other white people can all be changed; which then changes how I relate to those people. If I have some story about “straight” men, I can examine that story, as a story without having to make it true. I can see how it perhaps served me in the past, but when I find it not useful, or only aiding in my separation, then I can discard it.
As a chaplain, I believe that it is important to notice first how I build stories, and separations. Do my own work first. Then I can begin to bring that awareness further out to those I am serving. I can study or invite investigation into how a story of someone’s relation to another is constructed. This could serve to loosen up some old ideas that may help healing and finding some relief. By doing my own work as well, I find that I can be more able to meet people with an openhearted nature and allow more space for those who aren’t “like me”.
JD (not his real name) was a straight man who I served while caregiving at hospice. He was typical in most ways one would expect from a straight guy. Tough, stoic, and a guy who liked drinking beer, girls, and fishing; not necessarily in that order; JD taught me a lot about my construction of stories about “straight guys” and through our couple of months of weekly interaction, I was able to see past my own ideas, and could see how I had held myself back to avoid being abused, bullied, or otherwise harmed. JD never really gave me any indication he would do such things. I simply had these stories based on guys I knew like him. I recall the day I “let slip” that I was gay. We were sitting in the library of the hospice looking for places he and his brother could go fishing that would be “doable” given his current condition. Somehow it came out, and when it did I noticed my heart rate increase, and my breath becoming tight as I waited for his response. JD simply went on with the conversation we were having, almost like he missed my accidental confession. As we were walking back, I asked him if he had heard me. He said simple, “Yeah, but I already knew that. You aren’t exactly subtle.” Then he gave a great laugh and we continued to his room. He totally disarmed any ability I had to construct my usual story about “straight men”. I was left with just two people interacting, and being close. It was my first experience of feeling close and intimate with a straight guy without fear. JD died a few weeks after his fishing trip, and we had a few other conversations. His teaching to me was invaluable.
There is a way for one to be proud, and be a Buddhist. We don’t have to throw away or discard our identities in order to practice. The practice is just the opposite. To integrate and continue to study what it is to be a traditionally marginalized people, to continue to study our stories, our ideas about that, and our ideas about those we see as different or separate. It is through recognition of our difference that we can reach an equanimity and connectedness and see into true emptiness and interdependence. Or at least that’s my idea about it.