Intentional Communities and Why We Need Them

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Howard University, the historically black college he attended, as “The Mecca.” This sacred place, Coates tells us, was the “crossroads of the black diaspora.”

I first witnessed [its] power out on the Yard, he writes, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set… It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.

What interests me about Coates’ description of the Mecca is not so much what it says about Howard University, in particular, but rather, what it says about the continued need for intentional communities, built around shared identities that are, and have been for centuries, under siege.

I say under siege because I don’t want anyone to confuse my argument with a general apology for narrow-mindedness, at best, and xenophobia, at worst. White Lives Matter and Men’s Rights Activists have nothing to do with what I’m saying, and everything to do with what I’m trying to say. There is nothing simple about the intentional communities of which I speak, but there is something sacred about them, and it is to this sacredness that I wish to speak.

I went to a women’s college. The usual response when I shared this news with my fellow high school students was “I’m soooo sorry!” or “But how will you meet boys?” or “Are you religious?” or just plain “Why?” At the time, my answers to their questions were evasive. Living under the false impression that I was straight, I took their concern about meeting boys as well-intentioned, answered that there were men at the other colleges in the area, told them that I was not, in fact, religious, and explained that I had chosen the school for its academic merits.

I was not lying, not exactly, but what I said to them was untrue.

I went to a women’s college because women had been at the center of my existence for as long as I could remember, because the company of women was the only place I felt like I could truly be myself, because the night I visited Mount Holyoke College for the first time, I sat around a table with women from all walks of life, with long curly hair and shaved heads, a knack for chemistry and a love of Latin, crosses around their necks and hijabs on their heads, talking about their girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, and everything in between, about their latest lacrosse game, or an interview with a corporate bank, or a new DNA pattern they had just discovered, or the way it felt to look at the stars in wintertime. I went to a women’s college because I needed women plural to understand how I, a woman singular, was actually just myself, and could choose the words to name this self with no regard for other’s projects or prejudices. I went to a women’s college to find out that there was no one way to be a woman, that it was alright not to be a “woman” at all, that this word was both the most important and most contested word I would ever use to describe myself, and that this contestation was perfectly alright—that it was, in fact, encouraged.

I am reticent to draw the connection between Coates’ description of Howard University and my own experiences at Mount Holyoke College, knowing full well that white feminists have too long appropriated the work of black activists and thinkers for their own ends, without giving credit where credit is due. I am also weary of establishing false equivalency—the need for historically black colleges is different in tenor and volume than the need for women’s colleges. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor is one a more important endeavor than the other. Rather, I believe that both spaces offer a lens for understanding the limits of mere inclusion as a catch-all solution for past (and present) oppressions.

We don’t join communities like Howard University and Mount Holyoke College to be with people who are just like us. We join these communities because under the umbrella of a shared identity, we are free to explore our differences. When I entered the gates of Mount Holyoke College, I was free to be more than just “the smart girl.” We were all “the smart girl.” Instead, I could be the eccentric translator. The friend who never forgets your birthday. The figure you see walking around the lake every evening at sunset. The girl who wears her grandmother’s ring and her grandfather’s sport coat. The lover. The joker. The dreamer. Myself.

In the past few weeks, I have been privileged enough to witness the birth of an intentional community here at my place of work. As co-facilitator of an LGBTQ meditation group, I have been deeply moved by the willingness of my peers to explore spirituality in a queer-centered space. For so many of us who identify as queer, religion and spirituality have been sites of oppression and injustice, especially in our childhoods. Though there are numerous spiritual leaders at the front lines of this battle, fighting for the inclusion and full acceptance of queer folks into spiritual communities across the country, there is something particularly sacred about a space where we can explore our spirituality and our sexuality in tandem, without being the only lesbian, or trans woman, or gender non-conforming person in the room. To be able to speak about the pains of missing my ex-girlfriend without secretly worrying that someone is thinking “but she doesn’t look like a lesbian” is more powerful than you might think. To be able to share our stories of tragedy, discovery, and triumph is not only affirming to each of us as individuals, but essential to our continued survival as a community.

We are who we choose to be. I wouldn’t have made it anywhere if I didn’t believe this to be true. And though, too often, choices are made for us in which we have no say, there is ultimately a deeper place where we have the right, and the freedom, to curate our hearts. Whether others recognize or cultivate this freedom is another story. Whether our bodies are safe enough to worry about our hearts is something else entirely. But the hope is that by carving out spaces for fellowship with those who share our identities, we can remember what it feels like to just be ourselves. 

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Radical healing, or a room with no doors

Reposted from the Global Spiritual Life tumblr.

The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.

I remember the first time I ever read these words in my tattered library copy of Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde. It was the summer of 2015, and I had just graduated from college. I was back home in Colorado, going through a break-up, counting the days until I boarded a plane and moved to New York City. On my bedside table were two stacks of books. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, their fat and thin bindings creating a tapestry of colors, embroidered with words.

I feel, therefore I can be free, I said aloud to myself, over and over again. I feel, therefore I can be free.

I carried these words around like a mantra, thinking that maybe if I said them enough, I could make them come true. I certainly had no shortage of feelings. I woke up crying, went to bed crying, walked around my neighborhood crying, sat in my room crying. Later, sadness would be joined by anger, resentment, shame, and fear.

“Acceptance,” writes author Cheryl Strayed, “is a small, quiet room.”

But after a few months, I began to see that mine was not the only room. Peeking out of the door that I had closed on myself, I began to see a whole world of doors, a whole world of rooms where people wept, and prayed, and screamed, and wrote secret notes on the corners of the wall. Rooms that I could not enter, rooms that had long been empty, rooms with their doors left ajar, rooms full of light.

I came to discover these rooms because of meditation. That summer, books weren’t the only thing that kept me afloat. It was also the summer that I came to the practice of meditation. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew that my cushion was one of the only places where I felt truly safe. In the months that followed, as I began sitting in the community and reading work by teachers near and far, I felt the same way about the practice of meditation that I had felt reading the words of Audre Lorde. I knew that I had discovered something true, but I also knew that there was still so much more to learn.

This past Wednesday, as I sat down for an LGBTQ meditation sit at my school, I felt nervous and excited about the opportunity to practice in community. Though I meditate on a daily basis, I have struggled to find a steady sangha, and I hoped that I had finally found a place I could come home to. When our teacher, Danielle Saint-Louis, pulled out her own copy of Sister Outsider, I knew I had found what I was looking for. When she opened the book to the very same passage that had touched me one year before, I knew that I could finally hear these words as more than just an affirmation of my own particular sorrow. I could hear them as a call for radical love, the kind of healing that can never be contained in a single room. The kind of healing that opens doors.

It was the dharma that taught me how to sit with my feelings, with my fears, with my suffering, and with my pain. But it was also the dharma that taught me how to rise, how to seek, how to listen, and how to love.

Friends, this is no small lesson. In a world that teaches me my whiteness needs protection at the cost of other lives, it is a radical act to practice healing in community. It is a radical act to practice metta – or loving-kindness – not only on the cushion, but in our everyday lives. Not just to say that we value the lived stories of those who experience oppression, including our own, but to listen deeply to these stories, to investigate honestly the content of our own biases and fears, and to love against the forces that tell us we should hate. Love not as sympathy, or courtesy, or empty words of encouragement. Love as the messy business of accepting that our liberation is tied up in the liberation of others–that liberation cannot exist in a room with no doors.

Audre Lorde was a feminist, a lesbian, a woman of color, a writer, a poet, and an activist. To read her work without recognizing each of these intersecting identities is to undervalue the complexities of her lived story, and to hide away from the complexities of my own. Buddhist meditation is a practice developed and cultivated by people of color. To practice meditation without recognizing this history is to take possession of something that is not mine to take.

Healing is a practice. It is a practice of recognizing and tending to pain, of giving and receiving care, of offering and building strength.

To heal without feeling is to stumble in the dark.

In metta meditation, we offer loving-kindness first to ourselves, then to our loved ones, and then to the world.

May all beings be happy, we say. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be free from harm and suffering. May all beings be at peace.

Healing may start in a small, quiet room. But it does not end there.

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.