Embracing Even the Hatred: A Personal Dharma Journey
On a recent 40-day meditation retreat, I experienced a wave of self-hatred so shocking, so intense, that it changed the way I relate to sexuality, guilt, homophobia, and healing. I want to tell you the story.
The whole thing began innocently enough: during a dharma talk one evening, a teacher said that all of our habits, preferences, and opinions are conditions in and of the mind, and all of them can be changed. Though we may derive an identity from some of these dispositions and beliefs, it is incorrect to do so.
I recoiled. Having spent over ten years trying to change my sexuality, having despaired of it to the point of suicide, and having finally come out the other side healthy, sane, and sexually whole, I felt as though I knew from experience both that sexuality cannot be changed and that to say it can be is enormously harmful. Even if sexuality is a phenomenon of the mind and not the body -- i.e., even if it is a result of conditioning, childhood, and behavioral patterns, and not of genetics or biology -- sexual orientation is effectively hardwired in. Trying to change it is as healthy as trying not to breathe.
I spent the next half-hour in walking meditation -- this was a vipassana meditation retreat, silent, Buddhist, and oriented toward gaining experiential insights into the nature of mind and reality -- furious at the ignorance of this teacher. I paced back and forth, noting a whole lot of anger. But then, literally mid-step, I realized how attached I was to my own belief that sexuality cannot be changed. It wasn't just an intellectual difference I had with the teacher -- I was really attached to my "story" of how sexuality develops in the mind.
And immediately, I realized that I was so attached to my story that "sexuality is unchangeable" because I would change my sexuality if I could.
Now, as a director of a national queer religious organization, and as someone whose work is deeply gay-positive and celebrates the erotic and spiritual possibilities of being queer, this may come as a bit of a shock. Certainly, it did to me. Most of the time, I celebrate my sexuality, and recognize it as a unique gift. But here I was, realizing that a part of me was still self-hating, still telling myself that the way God made me was wrong. Here is what I wrote in my journal that night: I couldn't believe that, after all the work I've done on myself and with others, after all that -- I would still change it if I could?
I wonder what percentage of gay men, if all it took were flipping a switch on the wall, would change to being straight.
Over the next few hours, sitting with all this pain and self-hatred, I came to another insight: that I hated the self-hatred much more than the sexuality. There were multiple layers, but the strongest hatred was not of being gay -- but of still, after all this time, being immersed in homophobia. I broke down in tears, crying out to God. Later, I wrote:
I'm tired of hating myself
I'm tired of wanting myself to be straight, even a little
I'm tired of "Awell, all things being equal, I'd prefer"
I'm tired of anything other
than full acceptance.
God, make me free of this desire to be other than what I am.
Today I lack the confidence to say "what you made me."
Maybe what made me this way was a fuck-up,
an overbearing mother and a distant dad.
Maybe you never intended this at all,
except in the most far-fetched interpretation of "intent."
...That is what I'm tired of - even the barest preference,
even the slightest self-hatred and denial,
let alone this suicidal despair
over something seemingly so unimportant,
or let me die.
That night was a dark one. I spent a lot of time that night struggling to believe that I still had so much self-hatred. How could this be? Why was it so stuck in me? And what could I do about it?
As I lay restless that night, and into the next morning, I saw that the gay-hatred (it felt like hatred, not fear, so I'm using that term instead of homophobia) was made of many, many different component parts. Although it wasn't good vipassana practice to go into the "story" -- we're supposed to explore the feeling itself, not its reasons; this is the difference between insight meditation and therapy -- I did it anyway.
First, I saw how strongly my sexuality makes me feel rejected -- by my parents, by my "internal parent," by authority figures, and by others. Being gay immediately links up for me with the many other ways in which I have disappointed my mother's expectations, and other choices I made which were equally disappointing to her: leaving a budding career in the law to be a writer and teacher, choosing a career of heart over one of conventional success and achievement, etc. Being gay was just one more piece of how I am a failure.
Second, I saw that gay just feels bad, in a stupid, non-rational way, because people have told me so for decades. I knew that faggots were the worst thing in the world before I even knew who or what they were. And of course this is "against nature." Intellectually, of course, I know not to believe the bigots of today or yesterday, and that homosexuality is found everywhere, and so on. But I want to be loved -- I crave it. I hate feeling unloved, unsuccessful, unappreciated. And so, regardless of the obvious falsity of what these people say, part of me believes them.
And sexuality cuts me off from conventional family, conventional religious community, and from the easy, full acceptance that most people take for granted. Of course, gay people raise children, wonderfully and beautifully. But I wanted the whole package: the wedding without any ambivalence, the endorsement of my culture, my sacred scriptures (I have my interpretations, but I want to authoritative interpretations to agree). I want God to approve -- unambiguously.
At the same time as all of these tapes were playing in my mind -- it's not natural, it's not acceptable -- another dialogue was happening: noting how insane it all was, and how at odds it was with everything I thought I believed. Here's what I wrote in my journal:
Look at how much bullshit I still believe. I don't know why I'm surprised. If we look at the last presidential election, it's obvious that people make decisions based not on facts but on feelings and emotional preferences. So why should I be any different? Part of me -- not the part I experience most of the time, not the part I turn to for advice or action -- has these feelings, and judging them is not going to make them go away.
But I hate the hatred.
It makes me feel unlovable.
It makes me feel like I don't deserve to be loved in any case.
It makes me feel like a fraud.
It makes me feel like someone distant from God, Spirit, goodness, and ethics. A "sinner," if you will, but translated into whatever language of Spirit you like.
It makes me incredibly envious of undeserving straight people who have it so easy.
It makes me feel like I can never be enlightened, and definitely have no business being a spiritual teacher.
It contradicts deeply-felt beliefs and feelings I have about God and spirituality, which makes me feel sad, because I love those beliefs and feelings.
I took a rest, and let the thoughts settle. Clearly, there would be no "magic bullet" to undo such a complicated, and longstanding, phenomenon of my self-hatred. I made lists about what I love about my sexuality; affirmed the freedom, joy, love, and intimacy that it brings me; and recited lines from Gay Soul by heart. But the core was still there, and no amount of affirmation would change that. So, what do I do about it? How do I work with it? Deny? Deprogram? See a shrink? Have sex? What?
In fact, I did three things. First, vipassana, clear seeing into what is, with as little aversion of clinging as possible, combined with intellectual reflection drawing on the wisdom of my core traditions. Second, visualization, reaching outside my own consciousness to energies sometimes identified as angels. And finally, celebration.
Vipassana practice, like other Buddhist practice, is fundamentally about seeing clearly. We don't push away what's going on for us; we try to open to it, experience it as much as possible. When what's going on is joy, eros, or a sublime sense of the sacred, this is a beautiful, life-changing practice. When what's going on is fierce self-hatred and self-judgment, it can be hell. Like a shaman wandering into a shadow realm, we are asked to invite the demon into our cave (the images are from a story of Milarepa, the great Tibetan master) and come to accept it as part of reality.
So the first aspect of my dharma work was to make space even for the self-hatred. In theistic language (I'm a Jew as well as a Buddhist), accepting it as part of reality means accepting that this is part of God. This is It; this moment is God. So the question is: can I be with it? Can I accept -- not in the sense of saying the demon's okay, but in the sense of acknowledging its presence, and letting it in without pushing it away -- even the demons that cause you pain? Doing so allows the mind to stop pushing, and also teaches the mind to know the demon when it sees it. "Hmm," we might say months or years later, "I know this. This is that energy of self-hatred -- I'm not going to believe this story."
A second aspect of the practice, though, was even more important, and that was seeing the self-hatred for what it really is, not what it is conventionally thought of as being. At first, I interpreted the feelings I was having according to the conventional geology of the self. This is what I felt "deep down." This is was what I "really" believed, despite all the rationale I'd proffered to myself and to others. But that entire geology is a fiction -- deep down inside what? All that was actually present in my experience were different beliefs. One belief (gay is bad) had the character -- the "feeling tone" in Buddhist language -- of being long-held. Another belief (gay is good) didn't, even though I knew it made more sense, and had led me to more happiness and more spiritual capacity. But the former belief wasn't really "deeper" or truer. It was merely its character -- its feeling -- that was being interpreted as "deep."
This was such a critical turning point for me. Of course the guilt felt "deeper" -- it's had thirty years of constant reinforcement, as compared with just a few years of acceptance and understanding. But the "self" in which it felt "deeper" within is itself just a label for a million conditioned phenomena, woven together by consciousness. The self is like a bundle of sticks taken from elsewhere -- "we" are neither any individual stick, nor the string that ties them together. And what you discover in meditation is: there is never any time at which the bundle as a whole does anything. It's always one stick or another. A desire. A fear. A thought. Some will feel deep, some will feel shallow -- but those are just sensations, nothing more. There's no truth to them. Here's another journal entry:
If we are raised from a young age with a belief that red is better than blue, and so when we are 33 years old and on meditation retreat and seeing our feelings clearly, we see that, wow, I really prefer red to blue, what are we seeing? It may be a strong, deep-feeling emotion because of its age, but it isn't deep in the sense of foundational. Because there is nothing to be a foundation of.
There remains, and probably will for a while, a strong desire to be other than what I am. I accept my homosexuality, I celebrate it, but there is also a feeling of "I don't prefer it." That is very painful to contemplate. But the main insight is this: strong desire, feeling it in your guts, does not make it "what I really feel" or "more true."
This was my experience, not dogma. But I want to emphasize how radical it is. So much of religious practice, ethics, even basic human decency is based on the conventional model of conscience, in which you "trust your heart" or in some other way access that "deep" part of the self. Undoing the priority of that voice leads to a kind of moral anarchy, and is really only the first step on the journey. The next is deciding which voice to trust.
Of course, it's easy to say that we should all trust the accepting, nurturing sides. But the point of going on retreat is not to reaffirm one's core beliefs -- it is gently to question them, to loosen any attachments that may be hiding persistent fears or desires or aversions. I had to admit the possibility that maybe I could change my sexuality, and maybe that would be the right thing to do. Otherwise I was just hiding in dogma again -- a healthy dogma, perhaps, but still just belief.
I did go through a whole process of discernment, weighing the consequences of each side, reflecting on the reality of love, and so on. But ultimately, this is where vipassana ended and visualization began. I needed to call on something beyond my reflective mind.
I had to do this because rationality was as unsatisfying as conscience. Conscience had failed because it was unreliable -- "gay is wrong" felt just like "prayer is good," simply because both ideas were drummed into me from a young age. But rationality failed because it didn't resonate fully: it felt too philosophical, not emotional enough. Sure, repressing my sexuality would lead to alienation, misery, ill health, and distortion of my soul. It was clear, moreover, that I would be repressing one desire merely to serve another one -- namely, that of fitting in, being accepted, and so on. And I knew that from wisdom comes compassion, and from God comes love. Thus those views which bring us closer to love and compassion bring us closer to God. I saw that clearly.
But seeing clearly wasn't feeling. I yearned for more -- not for the fiction of "deeper" within the self, but for faculties unavailable to the ordinary mind. So, drawing on practices I had cultivated in the past, I sought the advice of that which may be conceptualized as angels or spirit-guides -- or, if you prefer, as archetypes or psychological projections. (The conceptualization doesn't matter a whole lot to me, really; what matters are the fruits, not the source.)
I chose as my starting point the visualization described by Ed Sternbrecher in Gay Soul (a wonderful book) in which one visualizes oneself emerging from a cave and consulting a Guide, who then is asked to lead us to archetypes such as the sun and the moon so that we may interact with them. I began in the cave, which was very cloudy and hard to see, and then emerged into lots of green leaves on trees. Intellectually I realized this image was derived from a place I had visited: the Sam's Point ice caves in Ellenville, New York. As I looked at the leaves, the image became clearer, and so I turned to my right to look for my guide. My ego tried to project something, but its image didn't stick. Instead, I started flying through and then over the leaves. I thought: Okay, this isn't in the book, but I'll allow whatever is going to unfold. I felt myself being guided, so I asked my guide if I could see him, and got a negative response. Okay. Soon we came to the end of the forest of leafy trees and the landscape became barren like Mars -- just like Mars, as in movies -- in particular the movie Total Recall. (I was a little disappointed that my great visualization was lifted from a movie, but I went with it anyway.) We came upon a domed city, also like in the movie, and went in. People were moving around -- commerce, billboards, all the rest -- and I had the definite sense that I didn't want to be there. I tried to continue the Sternbrecher visualization, and began looking for the sun. But I could barely make out the sun at all through the translucent glass of the dome. There was just a hazy whitish blur, barely visible on its surface.
So we got out of there, my guide and me. Flew out, back across the barren plain, and to a mountain, which we flew up, high into the clouds. We came upon the typical yogi with a long beard sitting at a cave on the mountain. I asked "Are you my guide?" He replied, "I'm you, buddy." I felt a great love arise, knowing that the busy city was not my place, and that this was. I turned to face the sun here, and in contrast to its appearance in the city, it was huge and clear and vivid. It perfectly filled my area of vision -- not extending beyond, but taking up the whole space. I felt a great release. Then a figure emerged from the sun, very androgynous, ageless but young and beautiful, with a face that reminded me of portraits by Leonardo and Michelangelo. The figure seemed enlightened, gentle and loving, and surrounded by the light of the sun. Generally the sun represents the male archetype, but the figure was an androgyne -- so I asked the figure if I could see whether s/he was male or female, and the figure gave permission. I laughed when I actually heard a little unzipping sound (ha! the angel wears jeans!) but I really couldn't see the body clearly. My mind kept projecting images -- a penis, a smooth chest -- but it wasn't there, it was clearly coming from me. So I let go of the need to know, and asked if we could embrace, and s/he said yes. So we did, and it was loving and wonderful. I then had an image of the figure turning into a kind of sharp-toothed snake biting me in the back. I understood that the figure was mirroring my feelings. If I approached with love, it was loving; if with fear, it was fearsome and deadly. It was all in what I brought to it. I felt a deep sense of peace. As we continued to embrace, I again tried to feel whether the body felt male or female, but couldn't; my ego was getting in the way. We separated and the figure said, "Remember, I am from the sun."
I interpreted that to mean that this was my sun-figure: the two-spirited one, uniting the feminine and the masculine.
Still following, in a way, the path of the visualization, I asked to see the moon, and saw a beautiful moon I'd seen in a tree earlier on retreat. As I looked closer, I saw my mother, smiling, in an image reminiscent of images of the Virgin Mary, a mother cradling a son. I felt myself cradled in motherly love -- and wondered if I'd ever really received this as a child. Or if I could allow myself to feel it now.
Then my guide took me back a bit from the mountain and I saw something very clearly: that the sun and the moon were equal, that both sides of the mountain were equal. The guide said, "It doesn't matter." The male side, the female side, the gay side, the straight side, the light and the shadow -- it doesn't matter which side of the mountain you're on, it's the mountain that matters. Then I saw two gurus, one on the moon side looking up at the moon in wonder, and the other on the sun side doing the same thing. I saw the mountain as a perfect triangle, divided right at the middle between the sun side and the moon side. Both sides were beautiful.
Finally, I slowly fell back down, back through the trees to the cave where I'd begun. I realized that I'd taken that long journey over to the covered city, but all I really wanted had been right here -- the cave where I began was right at the foot of the mountain. I came to rest gently on the ground.
What Gurdjieff calls "the quality of knowing" was, as I emerged from the visualization, almost palpable. I offered a prayer in gratitude for being able to receive it. In a way, the messages themselves were simple -- nothing you couldn't read in other chapters of Gay Soul, for example. But that they had come from this place, and bore this quality, was richer than any reduction to words. I felt refreshed, reborn. Of course, the guilt would remain, and would come to feel as "deep" as it had before. But a new wellspring had been tapped, with a voice far more vast than conditioning.
There was only one piece left: celebration. I had spent days in the shadow, wrestling with demons. Since I am a bad Buddhist, I felt it was time to walk in the woods, to rest, reflect, and rejoice. The day was clear, and crisp -- a late November morning, in a New England forest. There arose, as I walked in the cool air, a sweet, gentle voice: that I am so lucky to be an erotic being, growing and learning and playing and occasionally performing magic. I sang, I danced, I took off my shoes. The movement of energy in my body was like a tonic. That's right, I remembered, I'm alive.
Suddenly, I heard a sound that sounded like rain. I stopped dancing, and listened in puzzlement -- there was not a cloud in the sky. What was going on? As I looked and listened closely, I saw that, in fact, there were literally millions of tiny insects -- termites, I thought -- on the leaves on the ground, and on my bare feet as well. The sight, and sound, was amazing (as I brushed the bug off my feet) -- myriads of beings, decomposing the freshly-fallen leaves, providing food for the sparrows so they can fatten themselves up and survive the winter. The flow of life, the natural cycle, and my deep awe at it all -- this was life, in its vividness.
There was a time when I had a whole dark mythology of insects. They symbolized decay, and decadence. On my very first meditation retreat, I was sitting one time and a mosquito landed on my hand. All those thoughts arose, along with the intense desire to brush it away. I felt myself being corrupted, felt the strong lines of my inherited morality being crossed by the pantheism of organic experience. But then, the mosquito was beautiful. As I let it bite me, I experienced a delightful surrender, a yes not unlike that of Molly Bloom when she welcomes in her wandering husband and allows him, too, to enter her. Let the bugs happen, I thought. God created the bugs, is the bugs. The idea that they are dirty, or foul, or symbolic of this or that -- that's human invention. Same with all the parts of ourselves we label as shadow, or symbolic of decay.
Religion is supposed to help us be more alive and more compassionate; it lessens suffering and increases wonder. If it's doing the opposite, something has gone wrong. True religion is not a matter of opinion and dogma; it's a matter of love, and of the movements of the holy which make us dance, or gape in ecstasy.
That evening, I sat outside to watch the sun set. Where I was sitting, a line of telephone wires was blocking the view, so I thought I might move to a different spot. And then I saw it, what I'd been working with all along: that the wires weren't blocking the view, the wires were part of it. I might prefer a different view, of course, one that conforms to images from postcards or fairytales, but this is the one that is. The guilt, the self-hatred, the thousand demons I have yet to encounter -- I seek the courage to invite them in, rather than deny them or push them away. Only then, maybe, after I've stopped trying to make them go away, might they eventually begin to disappear. As when you're looking at a sunset, and you know the telephone wires are still there, but you've learned to accept them, and not be trapped by them so much.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in White Crane: Gay Wisdom and Culture magazine (http://www.whitecranejournal.com)
Photo by buggs, courtesy of Creative Commons license.