2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission from The Symposium.

Meditation is sitting. Breathing. When you meditate, you detach from your thoughts. You don't try to stop them, you don't focus on them. You let them pass. You focus on your breath.

Sometimes, depending upon which specific meditation practice you do, you focus on cultivating gentleness or non-judgment as you breathe. You breathe in the cool, damp, heavy air of judgment and suffering. You breathe out the warm, light air of compassion, kindness, and patience.

Your spiritual life is divided into spiritual practice and post-practice--meditation, and post-meditation. Meditation, and the rest of your life. And gradually you dissolve the barrier between practice and post-practice, so that the qualities defining your spiritual practice--patience, gentleness, non-judgment, egoless-ness--become the qualities defining your day-to-day life. Slowly you move away from "me, me, me!" habits. You learn to put others before yourself. You learn to reserve judgment and offer compassion instead.

At least that is how it is supposed to work.

Sometimes I offer no compassion. Sometimes I am angry; I judge, as I have been unjustly judged, and I hate, as I have been unjustly hated. I fight against this urge. I repeat, "Compassion! Forgiveness! Patience!" in my head like it's a mantra, but it sounds more like a battle-cry.

* * *
My girlfriend and I can't go anywhere without the stares, the heckling, the laughter, the comments just-under-your-breath but just-loud-enough-to-hear, the hate. We got the usual round last weekend, coming out of the movie theater hand-in-hand. I didn't hear all of it, even though I think I was intended to hear. What I caught, beneath the giggles, was "the lesbians in front of us" and "now that I'd like to see." I turned so they could see me. I glared, and the giggling stopped, but I couldn't locate the source of the comment. Rarely can I locate one of the commentators. It's always a giggle, a hushed whisper, a nudge, and a pointed finger, sometimes an unkind word whose author is lost in the crowd, lost in cowardice.

Imagine that. Imagine not being able to walk down the street with your significant other without people stopping to stare and point. We've been followed and honked at in our car, we've been not served at restaurants, we've been publicly harassed and pointedly ignored.

By myself, I am a visibly gay woman, and I pay its day-to-day toll. I don't need my girlfriend to kiss me in public for people to give me the angry looks that I know all too well. My hair is short, and my body is athletic and efficient from five years of karate. I've had little girls at my karate dojo come up to me in the locker room and tell me bluntly that I need to be in the boys' locker room. I am so frequently mistaken for a man at first glance that it hardly gives me pause when people address me as "hey buddy," "yo man," or "excuse me, sir." My girlfriend's mother had only one comment about me: "If you insist upon dating women, why do you have to date women who look like men?"

They say it was a straw that broke the camel's back. I fight a day-to-day battle of straws. I keep breathing.

* * *
When you meditate, it doesn't matter so much how many times you lose the thread of your breath. What matters is that you keep coming back to it. You cannot "fail" at meditation unless you simply give up. You cannot "fail" at living a positive, spiritual life unless you simply give up.

* * *
I have heard that there are two kinds of students of spirituality. The first asks "why" questions: "Why the spiritual path instead of some other?" "Why bother with the spiritual practice?" Whereas the second kind has moved past the "why" and only asks "how:" "How do I practice spirituality?" "How do I live a spiritual life?" Once I was told I am a "how" student, but it's not true; I ask both questions. I ask, why do they snicker all the time? Why is the percentage of hate crimes against gays that are physical and violent, rather than simply verbal, on the rise? Why is the rate of attempted and successful suicides for gay teens so much higher than that of straight teens? Why is it still legal in most states for me to be discriminated against on the basis of my sexual orientation?

I have not learned to move past the "why" questions. But I ask "how" questions too:

How do I forgive?
How do I offer my compassion?
How do I cultivate gentleness, patience?

When I am directly confronted with intolerance and bigotry, what is my duty? What is my duty as a spiritual human being? What is my duty as a member of this society? How should I act in order to be a patriot?

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi were all patriots. They were spiritual men, but they were not focused only on the esoteric; they had political agendas. Jesus had a political agenda. In an almost Marxist move, Jesus brought prostitutes and intellectuals to the same table to share meals. And Buddha, before and after he found enlightenment, was a prince. In fact, he found enlightenment only after he had walked through his own oppressed, poverty-stricken kingdom.

* * *
If you cannot find enlightenment here, now, in this moment, in this oppressed culture stricken with poverty-of-the-spirit, then do not expect to find it in a monastery, on top of a mountain, or deep within meditation. Meditation, after all is just sitting, breathing.

* * *
People say, "Well if it bothers you, you could do things differently. You don't have to hold your girlfriend's hand in public. You could dress differently. You could grow your hair out.

Before I came out of the closet, I used to check myself in the mirror every morning before I went out to make sure I didn't look too masculine. I wouldn't wear tank tops because they revealed my broad, muscular shoulders. And if I wore baggy pants that covered the curves of my hips, I would wear a tighter shirt to make the curves of my chest visible. I thought I was painting for the world the picture I wanted to see, but really, I was always in a state of hiding, a state of self-protection. I couldn't meet the eyes of strangers. I feared their judgment.

But what it took me years to realize was that my hiding was a version of dishonesty, and the fear of judgment was just another way to feed my ego, my false belief that the universe revolves around me. In "Training the Mind," an examination of Tibetan Buddhist teachings, author Chögyam Trungpa makes this statement: "We are not particularly seeking enlightenment or the simple experience of tranquility--we are trying to get over our deception."

Talk to gay people about coming out of the closet, and you will hear them use words like "freed," "liberated," and "true self." In coming out, you reclaim and rebuild the dignity lost through years of a lack of courage, a lack of integrity--years of self-deception. The coming out process is a profound, cleansing spiritual journey. It is ironic and unfortunate that many gay people have no choice but to abandon the religious tradition in which they were raised in order to embark upon this journey.

* * *
Sure. I could grow my hair out. And women who are date-raped could just not look pretty. And black people could paint their skin Crayola Skin Tone Peach to avoid racism.

And that Matthew Shepard kid. If he wasn't such a flaming faggot. If he had been just a little less obviously gay. (Did you know the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers came to his funeral carrying signs that said--among other things--"God hates fags"?)

Imagine that. Imagine realizing that at any given moment you could be the target of a violent--even life-threatening--attack because people are rigid, ignorant, and intolerant. I live with that fear every day.

It was a straw that broke the camel's back, and I am traveling a spiritual path strewn with straws.

Breathe.

I want to feel compassion, understanding, empathy. I want to understand that people suffer, as I suffer, that people are malicious only because they are miserable. I want to always offer gentleness and non-judgment.

But sometimes I am angry. Other times, I am afraid.

* * *
The comment at the movie theater was the straw that broke the camel's back. I returned home morose and bitter. As my girlfriend and I talked about what had happened, I struggled to hold the tears back. First I refused to meet her eyes. Then I pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes. But finally I let her pull my hands away and I erupted into wailing, heaving sobs. They were sobs that no amount of karate can protect me against, sobs that cannot be meditated away, sobs that seem to come not from me, but from some lost, hurt, four-year-old child. All I could think about was how angry I was, how frustrated, how tired.

My girlfriend was silent for a long time, then she said something I'll never forget: "Just please don't stop loving the world."

"I won't," I said. "I can't."

I struggle to learn how to be a politically and socially responsible person without betraying my personal integrity, my dignity, my spiritual principles. I struggle to fight behaviors and attitudes while still loving the human underneath them. It's hard to know how to act, what to say. It's hard to talk about gay issues to straight friends because I am afraid that they will think that it's all I am, or the only thing I think about. It's hard to write this article without worrying that I will not be taken seriously, that I will be written off as another angry dyke with a chip on her shoulder.

But there is something more at stake than my pride. If I say nothing, if I remain silent and allow the homophobia to continue without raising my voice in protest, then who will I have to blame except myself when another gay college student is brutally beaten to death? I have seen "Boys Don't Cry." I watched the MTV special on Matthew Shepard. I have read enough magazine and newspaper articles about harassed teenagers; victims of witch-hunts (the U.S. Army claims no responsibility for the recent beating death of a gay soldier); gay, lesbian, and transsexual people being run out of their towns; people being beaten outside of nightclubs. If I don't speak for them now, who will speak for me when I am the one being beaten?

* * *
Your spiritual path is your day-to-day life. Your spiritual koans will not come from a wizened old Zen monk, they will come from people and situations all around you. If you cannot solve the koans that come directly out of your own life, how do you expect to solve the koans of great spiritual teachers?

Meditation is sitting. Breathing. When I meditate, I try to detach from my thoughts. I don't try to stop them, but I don't focus on them. I let them pass. I focus on my breath.

I have pledged to live a spiritual life--to move away from ego-centered habits, to move towards the alleviation of suffering for all sentient beings. I approach humans as humans--as suffering, imperfect beings as hurt and as in need of compassion as myself.

But sometimes I am angry, and do not forgive, and sometimes I just weep.

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