Long ago, when I was traveling alone in France in my twenties, I was taking a morning walk along the beach in the small fishing town of St.-Jean-de-Luz. At one point, up ahead, I could see a row of elderly men, in black berets, sitting on a low stone wall. As I passed by, they each put out a hand in turn and gave a little thwack to my rump, in a wordless and perfectly coordinated movement. (I’m using the word “rump” quite deliberately here, as the men seemed to thwack me in the very same way that I’ve sometimes felt irresistibly drawn to thwack the rump of a large friendly dog or a pony.) It was clear that, for them, the moment was delightfully amusing.
And for me? It was a very mild experience; it only lasted for seconds, and I didn’t feel the least bit endangered. In fact, I also found the experience amusing—but not, I suspect, in the same way they did. With their stooped shoulders and potbellies, they had looked to me like a row of slightly catatonic puffins who suddenly sprang to life as I walked by, seeming to startle themselves as much as they startled me. But I was aware, even in the immediate aftermath, that the experience was more complex for me than it probably was for them. Because what I actually felt was that I had assented, for one brief moment, to play the role they had assigned to me: that of a young woman, without a care in her head, walking along the beach with a rump just asking to be thwacked.
Lately, in the light of #MeToo, I’ve been revisiting this experience and asking myself: If I were a young woman walking along that seawall now, how would I react? Would I feel compelled to express my indignation and march briskly away? And if so, would that be an unmitigated good thing, a sign of progress toward the ultimate and unassailable goal of complete equality and mutual respect between men and women? Given how minor the incident was, these might seem like very trivial questions. But I do believe that they have deeper implications.
Much to my own surprise, it was the memory of these old men in their black berets that came to me when someone asked recently, “What light do you think Buddhism might bring to #MeToo?” At first I couldn’t understand why it was this memory that came bubbling up to the surface—it seemed so inconsequential when compared with the intensely disturbing and degrading incidents that so many women have been bravely speaking up about of late. But after giving it some thought I realized: it’s the gap. As I walked along the seawall, I had experienced a gap between how I was being perceived, how I was being treated, and how I actually perceived myself from the inside out. This kind of gap, between what we are experiencing and our awareness of ourselves as witnesses of our experience is something that tends to arise naturally out of meditation, and that is greatly encouraged in Buddhism. And now, looking back along a spectrum of encounters that I had as a young woman, I’ve come to the conclusion that what made some of them feel more violating than others had precisely to do with how freely, with what degree of ease and sense of choice, I could move around in the gap.
Because it was such a mild and fleeting moment, it didn’t take any particular effort for me to achieve a distance between my own witnessing consciousness and the erotic projections of a row of elderly men. Later on that same trip to France, however, I had a different kind of experience. I was on a train, and because I was a young woman in the heat of summer in an era when short skirts were in style, I was wearing a short skirt. A man sat down in the seat next to me. He was a stocky man, thirtyish, with a craggy face and a big head of blondish-brown hair, and not long after I nodded “Bonjour” and opened the book I was reading, he stretched out his hand and—gazing intently at me with a strange smile—began to stroke my thigh. I felt so startled that I didn’t respond. I’d like to think that if I’d been back in the United States on familiar ground—and thus not further confused and distracted by thinking that possibly such behavior was OK in France—I would have quickly come to my senses, briskly removed his hand, and told the conductor that I needed to change my seat. But instead I just sat there, for the duration of a trip that lasted several hours, feeling extremely uncomfortable but so stupefied and disoriented by his strange smile and transgressive behavior that I let him continue. Looking back at it now, I think that I went into a kind of dissociative state, as if repeating to myself, “This isn’t really happening, and if I pretend it isn’t happening then it will stop happening because it’s just too weird to be real.”
Compared with the experiences of so many women, this too was a relatively harmless encounter. No doubt aware that there were many other passengers in the train within earshot, the man never escalated his behavior, and I never felt physically endangered by him. Still, it was much harder for me to maintain the gap that I’d experienced in the fleeting moment of being thwacked by the old men. Whereas in that moment I felt as though I’d consented to fulfill a momentary role for them, this time I felt as though I’d been complicit in a stranger’s use of me for his own erotic needs. I felt ashamed and somehow sullied because through my passivity I had been complicit in his transgression; I had engaged in my own objectification. Now, looking back, I actually feel somewhat grateful to have had this experience, because it’s helped me refrain from asking, or even thinking of asking, the question “Why didn’t you do something? Why did you just submit to the behavior?” I understand, with my whole body and mind, how easy it is—if you haven’t had some sort of prior effective preparation and training—to freeze in such a situation. It’s as though you come under a spell, as though you’re the target of one of those animals that first stun their prey through a fixed, magnetizing gaze or a quick flick of a venomous tongue. And when I imagine what it would it be like to have such an experience at the hands of someone who also had significant power over me in my professional life, I shudder.
It’s as though you come under a spell, as though you’re the target of one of those animals that first stun their prey through a fixed, magnetizing gaze or a quick flick of a venomous tongue.
Years ago, when I was 14 and living for a year in France with my family, I had yet another kind of experience. It was in a park just at the edge of Paris where I had come with a classmate of mine, Ingrid, who was the only other American student at our French lycée. She and I were both California girls, used to being outdoors in wild, natural places. We’d been feeling constrained by the press of city life and the rigid discipline of our French school, and so we were delighted to find that, once beyond the park’s elaborate stone fountain, steps, and statuary, it led upward into densely wooded hills. Relieved to find ourselves released from noisy traffic and crowded streets, we kept climbing farther and farther through the trees. At last we came out into a wide grassy clearing, and—just as we were about to bound forward like two happy deer—we saw two men, dressed in their one-piece blue work uniforms, sitting on the ground beneath a tree and staring at us intently. In the moment we met their eyes, they exchanged some words we couldn’t hear, then leaped to their feet and came toward us. One of them grabbed Ingrid forcefully by the wrist and yanked her toward him, and the other was coming for me. I wanted to open my mouth and release a forceful blast of sound, but I was frozen in terror. I knew no words would come out: not in English, and certainly not in French. It was Ingrid who opened her mouth and shouted, in perfect French: Laissez-moi! Vous savez, je peux crier bien fort! (“Let me go! You know, I can shout really loud!”) Startled, the man let go of her wrist. “Run!” she told me, and the two of us ran back through the dark woods, leaping over rocks and through brambles, panting so hard it seemed our lungs would burst, on legs that felt like jelly.
I’ve never for a moment doubted that it was my friend’s brave presence of mind that saved us from a truly traumatic and possibly even life-threatening encounter. As we know from the firsthand accounts of people—of any gender— who’ve survived serious physical assault, life is never the same afterward. The experience of feeling helpless, overpowered, at the hands of an aggressive other is shattering to any previous trust one might have had in oneself as a relatively autonomous agent living in a relatively safe world.
Many people have reported that in the midst of such a shattering experience, it was as though their mind flew out of the body and was looking down on the scene, as if from a distance. This reaction is generally understood as a defense mechanism, akin to the physiological state of shock, that helps the conscious mind from being engulfed by horror. And it really is quite remarkable: at the very moment when one feels most objectified by another person, least seen as a subject in one’s own right, the mind experiences the most extreme gap between who I am, as a conscious witnessing self, and what is happening to me. Certainly it’s possible to see a kind of deep, instinctual wisdom at work here. Yet in this context the gap is anything but freely chosen—and the sad truth is that in the aftermath of such trauma, the gap can become pathological. It’s not uncommon for some degree of disassociation or disembodiment to persist: people describe going through the motions of their lives but in a numbed, detached, zombie-like way. At least in part, to recover from trauma is to close this gap, to more fully reinhabit one’s body, one’s life, and to retrieve a degree of continuity between one’s present and one’s past. It is much harder to do this if, for whatever reasons, one has felt the need to keep the shattering experience to oneself.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many women are discovering and celebrating the power of #MeToo? Perhaps for years—whether out of intense shame or fear of reprisal—one has tried to keep an excruciating and degrading experience buried inside, but now there are others who understand firsthand the impact of such experiences and who are willing to share the burden. This is what is so brilliant about the hashtag #MeToo. In the fewest words possible, it conveys magnitude: the magnitude of past grievances that are being wrenched from the shadows and brought to light by an ever-multiplying crowd of voices, uniting in solidarity. And at last, given the sheer number of women coming forward, given the ever more intense reverberation of their collective suffering, powerful people and powerful institutions are beginning to acknowledge the seriousness of the grievances and to make changes, real changes: firing people, forcing them to resign, demanding public apology, changing policies, pursuing justice in courts of law. Clearly there is great strength and healing in people coming together and supporting one another. And often this support does include an explicit recognition: “Though this bad thing happened to us, it does not define us. Despite what others did to us, we are determined to make full and fruitful lives for ourselves.” Still, it seems likely that as a movement gains in numbers and power, the pull to identify with the experience that qualifies one as a member of the movement will also grow ever stronger.
And here it seems important to acknowledge that there can be certain dangers in solidarity: the first of which is that, indeed, we may further solidify a traumatic experience. One of the ways that people recover from trauma is to get out from under the crushing weight of the experience, to retrieve a more fluid sense of self, a self that can’t be fixed to any particular time or place, that can’t be nailed to any particular set of circumstances. At the deepest level, the level beyond any personal lifestory, this fluidity is related to the ancient Sanskrit formula neti, neti. As mystics through the ages have told us, those who seek to find the ultimate ground of their own being must proceed by negation: not this, not this. It’s via this path that generations of Zen students have worked with the koan “Mu” or with the inquiry “Who am I?” And if there were a hashtag for this mode of seeking it would be #NotMe!
If we are looking for the light that Buddhism brings to this context, it is here: in the great mystery of form and emptiness, in the reminder that what is deepest and most real about each of us cannot be limited by any transitory state, shape, or event. And though there is always the danger that we can try to hide out in emptiness in order to avoid facing the intensity of suffering—whether others’ or our own—we can never know true freedom if we adhere too tenaciously to any particular form.
But #MeToo and #NotMe! need not be mutually exclusive. Buddhism is the Middle Way, and the wise response is usually in the direction of both/and rather than either/or. It’s never easy to walk the path of continuous reconciliation of apparent opposites, but that, I believe is what we’re being asked to do here: to add our voices in support of #MeToo while simultaneously remembering that the ultimate release from suffering lies in the direction of #NotMe! Here, we encounter the true meaning of sangha, or community, which offers a very rare and precious form of solidarity: one that takes the paradoxical form of supporting us in the quest to discover our own essential fluidity!
And this brings me back to the old men by the sea. For me that was a moment of freely inhabiting the gap: I didn’t mind giving a bit of pleasure to a group of elderly men by stepping, for a few seconds, into the role they assigned me. Another woman, with a different life history, might feel compelled to protest their behavior, and I would fully support her in doing so. But I don’t want to go back and reframe my own experience as something more noxious than what I experienced at the time. I think this is what some of the French women were trying to tell us in their recent letter, protesting our “puritanical” American tendencies to see what is actually a very wide range of possible interactions between men and women through a single, punishing gaze. I understand why many women found the letter so objectionable, but I do resonate with the reminder that sometimes we can afford to be playful, moving in and out of various roles as if trying on costumes, taking our place in the fleeting parade of forms. In my own life, I’ve been a daughter and a mother, and now I’m a grandmother. I’ve had moments when I’ve looked in a Zen master’s eyes and we’ve both felt the absurdity of who is who: the one seated on the brocade cushion or the one in front bowing. I’ve been the young woman getting thwacked by a row of old men who looked like drowsy puffins in the sun. And now? If I could go back and startle them awake again for their moment of mirth, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t. Because now I’m as old as they were then, and I’m quite sure they are dead.
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