Things you don’t talk about at the dinner table

“My experience…  is that almost everyone I’ve met who has turned to the Buddha did so because they have suffered the end of a love affair.  They have lost someone they loved.  Perhaps they have lost a country, as well, or parents or siblings or some function of their bodies.  But very often, people turn to the Buddha because they have been carried so deeply into their suffering by the loss of a loved one that without major help they fear they will never recover.  (I actually love this about Buddhists: that though their reputation is all about suffering and meditating and being a bit low-key sexually and spiritually languid, they are in fact a band of hopeful lovers who risk their hearts in places a Methodist would rarely dare to tread.) This is what happened to me… This involved, during meditation, learning to breathe in the pain I was feeling, not to attempt to avoid or flee it.  It involved making my heart bigger and bigger just to be able to hold it all.”

Alice Walker

As a queer woman, I am used to talking about things that aren’t fit for the dinner table.  I’m the girl who, while eating lunch, makes jokes with my (very straight) grad school colleagues about how there are only a few things I would rather put in my mouth than an avocado.  We all know which things I mean.

Don’t get me wrong, I can be tactful when duty calls.  I’m a Pisces after all, a social chameleon who can change my colors to fit (almost) any situation.  I like to think I have a knack for judging the temperature of the room — getting a gauge on how many Adrienne Rich references is too many, if you know what I mean.

But the most surprising thing for me about the past two months living in New York City is that talking about my queer identity, my radical feminist convictions, or my heavy periods has been the least of my concerns.  The most uncomfortable conversations I have had so far have also happened to be the “cleanest.”  Namely, the ones where I have opened up about my spirituality.

*

Like Alice Walker, I came to the teachings of Buddhism with a broken heart.  After losing love, I had no idea how to rebuild myself.

I had listened to Landslide about a thousand times…

 

I had cried to Adele…

 

I had read Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich and Violette Leduc….

I had played L Word drinking games… alone… in the afternoon…

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I had started “losing sleep and gaining weight“…

I had cried for hours on the phone will all my best femme friends, asking why why why why why did she leave me…

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But I was still at the bottom of the well.

*

People like to talk about self-care.  In the rocky months after coming out, I had a lot of people tell me to “practice self-care.”  Over a year later, in the wake of the break-up, these voices became even louder.

But the truth is that I didn’t have the first idea of what this so-called “self-care” actually looked like, besides a vague notion that it probably included bubble baths and nail polish.

I remember, at one particularly low point during my summer of tears (we can all thank Marnie for that phrase), I ended up on the floor in my living room at home, watching The L Word, painting my toe nails and eating ice cream.  I thought this was what I was supposed to do to “take care” of myself.

In reality, it just made me feel like shit.  I got purple nail polish all over the carpet, sat through a triggering episode about Alice and Dana’s break-up, and groaned as I felt a solid brick of processed heavy cream settle in my stomach.

Almost four months later, after an equally triggering episode of Master of None, I found myself, once again, on the floor.  Except this time there was no TV, no nail polish, no ice cream.  Just me, cross-legged on a cushion, eyes closed — meditating.

So what changed?

This is where the conversations usually become uncomfortable.

Because here’s the thing: spirituality is just not something you bring up at the dinner table.  Not unless you’re about to rail against right-wing conservative Evangelical homophobes, in which case pass the bread.

Alice Walker offers us one possible reason why the spiritual (but not, might I add, the religious) is so often relegated to the private sphere:

“The male effort to separate Wisdom from the realm of the Feminine is not only brutal and unattractive but it will always fail, though this may take, as with Buddhism, thousands of years.  This is simply because the Feminine is Wisdom; it is also the Soul.  Since each and every person is born with an eternal Masculine, this is not a problem except for those who insist on forcing humans into gender roles, which makes it easier for them to be controlled.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better starting point for understanding what it means to embrace the search for spiritual Wisdom as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a femme.

 

*

For me, self-care wasn’t a reality until I had a spiritual framework in which to understand it.  When I say “spiritual framework,” I mean that in the broadest sense of the word: not a religion, or a set of dogmas, or an institution, but a deeper connection with the spirit.  With my spirit.  With myself. 

For me, this path began with the practice of meditation.  I was lucky enough to begin this practice with the guidance and support of my aunt, who has been a meditation teacher and yoga instructor for over thirty years.

When I began this practice, I did so with one goal in mind: to focus on the breath.  In the practice of meditation, this is what we are asked to return to each and every time we sit.  As my practice has deepened, and I have spoken with various teachers, it has become clear to me that this is not merely an elementary step in learning how to meditate: it is a foundation that even experienced practitioners return to again and again.

A few months after I began meditating, I was lucky enough to take part in a three-day silent retreat.  It was during this retreat that I began to learn the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy that underly and support the practice of meditation.  It was by learning about this philosophy that I began to understand how I could use my practice not merely as a means of healing my broken heart, but also as a means of building empathy, compassion and loving-kindness for others.

In other words, I began learning how to use my meditation practice to deepen my engagement with social justice.

This is a topic that Alice Walker explores in her talk “Suffering Too Insignificant for the Majority to See,” from which the above quotations are taken.  She says it better than I could ever say it myself, and with many more years of experience behind her.

This is a topic I can’t possibly cover in one blog post.  It is a topic I hope to revisit again and again, because I find that intersections of spiritual and queer identities are too often hushed in both communities.

I also understand that this topic is difficult to discuss for more reasons that just dinner-table politeness.  Buddhism is an ancient religion, with a diverse and complicated history.  To say that I am a “Buddhist” at this stage in my practice feels disingenuous.  I hope that I can continue to write about my encounters with Buddhism while remaining respectful of the diversity of beliefs within this faith tradition, and of the people around the world who practice it.

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