Not Two, Not One

It is a sunny day in early March, and I take a moment to sit in my body.

The first thing I notice is a tightness in my throat.  I’ve been speaking the name of someone I loved, and I can feel the way the sound of it lingers, lodged neatly between my lips and my lungs.  I let it stay just as it is, heavy in the path of my breath.  I acknowledge all the joy and pain that made it so, and I travel down.

My shoulders are a paradox of strong and weak, resistant to the gravity of my arms, steadfast in support of my head, but weak: always ready to cave in, towards the heart.

And then there’s that one spot of pain I’ve always had, at the bottom of my left shoulder blade.  The same place where I imagine a wing might attach to the bone.  I don’t have wings, but sometimes it hurts as if I had lost them.

Lowering my attention, I circle around the ribcage.  It’s a place I’ve always trusted, a place I always wished I could be closer to.  I spent years fighting with my very skin, thinking that if I could make my body smaller, bring it closer to the outline of my bones, I might find a life more solid, a self more sure.  Today the battle calms, and I try to soothe the scars.

I move gently down, into the dip beneath my lowest rib.

This is the place where I like most to linger.  A place I have only recently come to love.  The place where I am most myself.  My waist, which exists somewhere in the space between breast and hip, is a pliable place where bones meet but never stay, where I bend close to the ones I love, and hold myself when they go away.

The folds of my hips and knees and ankles are the strength at the base of all this longing.  I make angles with my body to meet the weight and lightness of each day, to stand and sit and move through the world.  My feet, folded to meet the ground, know the world as a continually solid thing.

I breathe.  I breathe from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.  I breathe from the follicles of my skin to the marrow of my bones.  

My body is a map.  My body is a destination.

*

I remember the first time I ever meditated.  I was visiting my Aunt, and she invited me to join her in her morning meditation.  “If your thoughts start getting the better of you,” she told me, “just focus on the sounds around you.  Softly name them as they come and go.”  I followed her instructions, viciously shutting down any thoughts that came to mind, so focused on the sounds in the room that I forgot to breathe.  By the time the twenty minutes were over, I felt dizzy.

Almost a year would pass before I meditated again.  So much would happen in those ten months.  I would fall in love for the first time, have my first relationship, graduate college.  And I would do all of this while coming out.

I say “coming out” because it didn’t just happen once.  In fact, it’s still happening.  It’s a decision I make on a daily basis.  It’s a decision I make when I get dressed in the morning, when I get a new haircut, when I shake hands with a stranger.  It’s a decision I made when I decided to write this post.

But in order for any of those decisions to be made, I had to come out to myself.  And to do this, I had to sit with my body, and listen.

For twenty years, I had been telling my body a story.  “Listen,” I said to it, night after night, “this is who you are meant to love, and this is how you are meant to love him.  This is how you are meant to look, and this is what you are meant to wear, and this is how you are meant to walk.  This is how you are meant to be.”  

Until one day, my body revolted.  

I remember the day.  I was standing at the bottom of a spiral staircase in the south of France, embracing a woman I couldn’t seem to let go of.  I remember the feeling of a million tiny magnets sewn into my skin, pulling me to her.  I remember the feeling of her arms around my waist, the way they fit into the pliable space between breast and hip.  And I remember the feeling of my shoulders caving in, towards the heart.

It was only when I listened to my body that I learned to call this love.

*

But what does it mean, to listen to the body?  What does it really mean, to sit?

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki offers the following wisdom:

“Now I would like to talk about our zazen posture.  When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh.  When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one.  The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one.  This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one.  Our body and mind are not two and not one.  If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong.  Our body and mind are both two and one.  We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural.  But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular.  Each one of us is both dependent and independent.”

I have returned to this teaching again and again.  I have sat with it, walked with it, listened for its echoes in my body.  And part of the reason why it has meant so much to me, this idea of not two and not one, is because it has deepened not only my understanding of meditation, but also my understanding of what it means to be queer.

Just as everyone who practices meditation defines their “practice” in different ways, “queer” means something different to every person who uses it.  I identify as “queer” for this very reason: it is a word that allows for endless definitions, redefinitions, expansions and transformations, a word that is both personal and universal, both singular and plural.  

For me, being queer is not just an identity I hold in my body (as in: I am biologically attracted to women), and it is also not purely an intellectual choice (as in: I choose to be in romantic relationships exclusively with women).  When I say that I listened to my body at the foot of that spiral staircase, the first time I ever had feelings for a woman, I don’t mean that I did so at the expense of my mind.  In that moment, my body and my mind were not two, and not one.  I was not who I thought I was, and exactly who I hoped I would be.  I was new, and I was old. I was confused, and absolutely certain.  

As my meditation practice has deepened and I have sat, day after day, in the “oneness of duality,” a space has opened for my body to be not only object, but also subject, not merely possessed, but also possessing.  Coming out has also meant coming in: facing myself in the stillness, and letting myself simply be.

One of my favorite queer poets, Mary Oliver, says it best:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

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