It had been a cool, early December day in Barre, Massachusetts, about ten years ago. I had spent the daylight hours, what was left of them, sitting in hour-long meditation sessions and walking outside in the white, grey, and tan colors of a Massachusetts winter. It had been a peaceful day, as I recall, about two-thirds of the way through a forty-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS).
Forty days in silence. External silence, anyway, the better to hear the incessant noise of thought. The retreat had been profound, difficult, inspiring—par for the course. Four weeks in, I thought I had basically learned what I was going to learn. And then everything fell apart.
It began innocently enough: During a 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. Dharma 101.
But I recoiled. Having spent over ten years trying to change my sexuality, having despaired of it to the point of suicide, and having finally given up trying to change and come out the other side healthy, sane, and whole, I felt as though I knew from experience both that some things 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, sexual orientation is effectively hardwired in—for me, anyway, and for many other queer people. Trying to change it is as healthy as trying not to breathe.
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So I was triggered. And so when the dharma talk was done, I spent the next half-hour in walking meditation, furious at the ignorance of this teacher. I paced back and forth, noting a whole lot of anger, and getting lost in it more often than not. But then, literally mid-step, I realized how attached I was to the belief that sexuality cannot be changed. It wasn’t just some intellectual difference I had with the teacher—I was really attached to my view. I had something at stake.
Then, in the next thought, I realized that I was so attached to my story that sexuality is unchangeable because I would change my sexuality if I could.
Which was shocking. At the time, I was the director of a national queer organization, and I’ve long been someone whose work and life is deeply gay-positive and celebrates the erotic and spiritual possibilities of being queer. 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 I’d rather be different. Here is what I wrote in my journal that night:
I’m tired of hating myself
I’m tired of wanting myself to be straight, even a little.
I’m tired of “all things being equal, I’d prefer.”
That night was a dark one. It’s not that I even believed the self-hatred—I just could not believe that it was present at all. How could this be?
As I lay restless that night, I watched—and was often caught in—a caravan of thoughts and judgments: How I felt rejection, how I felt I’d disappointed my parents, how I’d failed. And I saw that “being gay” just felt bad, in a stupid, nonrational way, because people have told me so for decades. Intellectually, of course, I know not to believe them, but on a gut level, I felt unloved, unsuccessful, unappreciated. More from the journal:
Look at how much bullshit I still believe . . . I hate the hatred. It makes me feel unlovable. It makes me feel like a fraud. It makes me feel like I can never be enlightened and have no business being a spiritual teacher.
This, though, was progress. At least there was a recognition of the feelings. At least I wasn’t believing them. Even then, I could tell that I was already not as swallowed by the feelings, or averse to them, as I had been in the previous entry.
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So, I tried working with this cluster of negative emotions.. I wanted to see, even if only out of curiosity, if I could make space even for the self-hatred. I asked myself: Can I be with it? Can I accept it—not in the sense of saying the demon’s OK—but just acknowledging its presence and letting it in without pushing it away? Could I just name it—self-hatred—without wanting to push it away?
As I sat with these feelings, felt them in the body, accepted them, “loved them to death,” something remarkable happened. I saw right through them. I saw that this sense that the self-hatred was “deep down” was bullshit. The geology of the self is a fiction. Deep down inside what? All that was actually going on were various beliefs and feelings. One belief (gay is bad) had the character of being long-held, another (gay is good) didn’t. But the former belief wasn’t really deeper or truer; on the contrary, I knew it to be the product of societal fear and delusion. It just happened to be older. There was no “deep down”—only the sense of it from time to time.
Here’s a desire, here’s a fear, there’s a thought. Some thoughts feel deep, some shallow—but those are just sensations, nothing more. The feeling-tones are not reliable judges of value. For me, this was a radical rejection of a view of the self that seemed, to me at least, to be everywhere. “Trust your heart,” people say. As if the feeling accompanied by a certain feeling-tone (“deep down”) is somehow more reliable than a feeling without it. You can be certain and be wrong, as [former Secretary of State] John Kerry once said. Something can seem like a divine voice, but really it’s just how you were taught when you were three.
A feeling-tone is a feeling-tone, and that’s all. Just like anything else, the invitation is to be with it, not to listen to it, not to ignore it, not to push it away, not to repress it, not to act on it.
I lay in bed. The world seemed to be slipping away into a kind of moral anarchy. If I can’t “trust my gut,” what can I trust?
Actually, I knew what to trust. With calm and equanimity, it was easy to see which views led to more love and more compassion and which led to more greed, hatred, and delusion. I didn’t have to rely on the mystical movements of the soul; just reason and discernment. Of course I wouldn’t always get it right, but the process was clear. Quiet, contemplation, reflection, being-with, allowing. Even now, there is a peace that awakens when I consider it.
That evening, I sat outside to watch the sun set. IMS faces west across a large valley, so often the sunsets were beautiful, and although it wasn’t quite Buddhist equanimity to lust after beautiful sunsets, I did it anyway. Unfortunately, where I was sitting, a line of telephone wires was blocking the view, so I thought I might move to a different spot. But then, the wires blocked the view there too.
And then I got it. The wires weren’t blocking the view, the wires were part of the view. I might prefer a different view, of course, one that conforms to images from postcards or fairy tales, but this is the one that is. And likewise, the guilt, the self-hatred: These, not just the states of ecstasy and joy, are sometimes the view. The practice is to build a steadiness of heart to invite them in, rather than deny them or push them away. Just as when you’re looking at a sunset, you don’t have to resent or avoid or ignore the wires “in the way,” but can instead accept them, and not worry about them so much. The wires are part of the view.
Then I went back to meditating.
From Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path by Jay Michaelson, 2015. Reprinted by arrangement with Ben Yehuda Press.
[This story was first published in 2017]
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