This reflection was originally delivered at The Sanctuary Boston worship service on April 18, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings.
Take a moment and just feel whatever is holding you, whether that’s the ground, the chair…
The aim of spiritual practice is not to protect us from heartbreak—our own or another’s. It’s to provide the grounding and the renewal so that we can deliberately put ourselves in the place of heartbreak. One of the most sacred things that we are called to do as human beings is to bear witness to another’s suffering. When they cannot hold hope it’s for us to quietly hold it for them. When we can live at the edges of heartbreak and still hold on to hope then that means that our spiritual practice has purpose and passion. Continue reading “Walking Faith”
This post is the second of a two-part response to the assertion among some yogis that yoga is not a religion. Read Honoring Yoga’s Sacred Religious Roots for part one.
The second part of my struggle with the declaration that yoga is not a religion is the underlying concession of the domain of religion to the Religious Right. I am simply not willing to concede that territory.
As a philosophy professor one of the hardest things to explain to the folks I was teaching was that for us to have an actual philosophical argument, we have to agree to the terms. We have to both agree to common definitions or at least acknowledge that we don’t have a common definition. We have to have that discussion first before we can have an argument, because if we are not using common definitions, if we don’t have an understanding that by you saying this you mean this but when I say this I don’t mean that, if we don’t have that understanding, then we can’t have an argument, or a debate, or whatever language you want to use. We can have a fight, we can have a shouting match, we can have a confrontation, but we cannot have an argument. We cannot have a debate. We certainly cannot have a reasoned debate.
And in this regard I will not concede the use of the word religion to the Religious Right. I will not allow them to have sole ownership of that word. I will not release and walk away. This is not a game of tug of war where I’m willing to let go of the rope. I’m not interested in taking the rope from them. I’m not interested in claiming sole ownership of the word religion but I’m also not willing to concede sole ownership of the word religion to the Religious Right. Continue reading “Religion is Not a Dirty Word”
In January, there was a flurry of posts on Facebook regarding some anti-yoga backlash coming from the Religious Right. At its core is the accusation that teaching yoga is an attempt to convert participants to Hinduism, and in January this accusation simultaneously came up around teaching yoga to kids and also in the context of using yoga as a treatment for PTSD in returning soldiers. On the one hand, the fear was that children were being brainwashed, and on the other, that veterans were being kept out of “right” relationship with God. The reaction to this anti-yoga backlash from many I know who teach and practice yoga was to emphatically state that yoga is NOT a religion.
I’m struggling with that declaration on two grounds. I’ll tackle the second later. Here is the first: yoga is part of a religious tradition. It is deeply rooted in Hinduism. To protest that yoga is not a religion is to do what white Americans have done for centuries. Take what we like from other cultures and other people’s lived experience (especially people of color) without being accountable to those cultures and people. Yoga is part of a religion. We may not teach it from that place in the west, but to deny it feels wrong to me. In his Washington Post article “The Theft of Yoga,” Aseem Skulka says that yoga is Hinduism’s gift to the world. He is not advocating that yoga not be available in the West. He is asking that we not deny its origins or its religious roots. As with any precious gift we are given, isn’t it our responsibility to handle it with care? To honor and nurture it? To acknowledge from whom it was given to us?
I don’t understand why we cannot simply acknowledge openly that yoga is rooted in a religion. It is a sacred practice that is not inherently incompatible with another religion. When we practice yoga and especially when we teach yoga, we are called to mindful stewardship of that sacred practice as it is integrated into a Western—and particularly, into an American—context. Yoga doesn’t require conversion to Hinduism, but to deny its foundation because we are afraid to battle the Religious Right over their assumed ownership of the definition of religion violates the very foundation of the yogic principle of Ahimsa (do no harm). I’ll leave that for part two.
Read part two: Religion is Not a Dirty Word.
Please read Preface to Square Talisman to provide context for this post.
There are times that I don’t even know how to articulate the pressurized environment that I live in. That it—all of it—is soul crushingly invisible. I often feel like I don’t even know how to begin the conversation. It shows up starkly in hospital/medical settings because I feel like everyone around me is having this experience of an ordinary day and it’s not an ordinary day for me and I’m not an ordinary person and I’m not having an ordinary internal conversation and there’s no room to bring me forward, so I go from being big to small—to big—to small—to invisible, and finally, to not there.
What does it mean to survive the unsurvivable?
Because I feel that’s what I’ve done—every step of the way I’ve survived the unsurvivable. To be born completely without a road map to my own body, to my own mind, to my own soul. To hold in my palm as a little kid a square solid object, but to have everyone else tell me it was round. Adult after adult told me “no, round is your shape.” And I knew—knew what was in my hand, as solid as anything else in my hand could be—THIS thing is square. But I pocketed that square because to show it… they might take it away. Fuck, they might take me away. So I put the square piece in my pocket. And over the years it got worn. From the grasping and the fist-tightening and the finger-rubbing. This talisman I carry in my pocket, my square, in a world that keeps trying to push round on me. If I were to pull that square out into the light of day it would shine. It would shine from the ritual rubbing and rocking—the need to remember that what I feel is real, that what I see is real, that what they tell me is not real. That I can survive the unsurvivable.
I brought it forward at the moment that I and the square might not survive anyway. And time and darkness had made it a tiny thing, but still a solid thing. A loved, solid talisman that I exist. That I survived the unsurvivable.
And I’ve survived the unsurvivable more times than I can tell you. I’m still here. But my still here seems like such a tenuous thing sometimes. A thing that I don’t have a lot of control over. A thing that far too many people seem to have a vote on in addition to myself. I crave the dissolution of a voting block that I don’t understand or support or want.
I sat in the doctor’s office today having that rational conversation that feels so irrational to me. About what my body needs versus what the institution says I need and about how the choices always feel like the lesser of two evils of which both are life threatening. And it’s on these days that I feel like I might rub that square into nothingness, as I rock back and forth, desperate yet again to find a way to survive the unsurvivable.
This piece is a preface to the piece Square Talisman.
I was at a conference recently where the staggering number of trans folk who have attempted or died by suicide was being discussed. Among these numbers are trans folk who seemingly had a number of “protective factors” in their favor. They were well connected and well known. Did not appear to be isolated. Likely had people to reach out to, but despite all of that, they died.
Amidst these workshops and private conversations, a good friend of mine and I shared our own struggles and how we have been impacted. As is often the case for me, I am having parallel conversations in many other parts of my life. I think the message getting through to me is loud and clear.
There is a profound isolation that I experience but can often feel like it is particular to me. Some of it is definitely personal to my struggle and trauma. I am more painfully introverted than I might appear by my social nature, for example. But I am realizing, through my own personal reflection and in deep conversation, that many people on similar journeys are having the similar experiences of judging their insides by other people’s outsides. My friend at the conference said he often feels uncool, awkward, disconnected, unworthy amidst the crowds of pretty, well-connected LGBTQ activists at this (and other) conferences. It is a painful internal conversation I am familiar with. Continue reading “Preface to Square Talisman”
So many of us bristle at the language from someone else’s religious, spiritual or humanist tradition. Perhaps we bristle because we believe that our path is the True Path. Perhaps we bristle because we have been hurt in religious spaces—those words a trigger of past trauma.
I had the blessing and the challenge of participating in a multi-faith service this morning. I was asked to bring some of my tradition forward, as were others. I knew that some of what I was to hear would not be language I have always experienced as friendly just as I knew that what I would say would feel the same for someone else.
As I meditated and breathed into the experience, an image came to me. A playground filled with children. Not the playground of my childhood where some belonged and others were alone or worse bullied. This was a playground where I could see and imagine the sounds of childlike joy. The giggling. The singing. The squeals of glee. Some children were in large groups. Some in pairs. Some on their own. All with the same joy.
What if this was a religious/ spiritual/ humanist/ atheist playground? What if another’s joy was infectious? Continue reading “Invitation to a Multi-faith Playground”
I’ve been pondering since you read to me from Woodruff’s book on Reverence today. Not much else to do during a hurricane, I suppose.
The difference between Plato’s belief that reverence was not a stand alone virtue (rather, it came about through practicing other virtues, primarily justice) and Thucydides (who in contrast prizes reverence as a cardinal virtue to guard against human arrogance) felt important the minute I heard you read those words.
Cultivating reverence as a means of counteracting human arrogance resonated with me. How do I/we work for social justice without sliding into self-righteousness, arrogance, bitterness, rage and/or hopelessness? After all, there is so much to be done, so many people marginalized in very real and harmful ways. I have been challenged as naive for believing and teaching that the most sustainable way to create change is by cultivating a practice of self-care that grounds us in compassion and interconnectedness, in purpose and in the larger perspective. My first introduction to activism and leadership through this lens was with Off the Mat into the World. I began to understand that I kept getting called to a spiritual practice as the foundation from which I could seek social justice, but articulating exactly what was happening has eluded me more often than not. It struck me today—cultivating reverence—that’s the thread that weaves through my spiritual practice. Reverence as a “profound adoring awed respect.”
I come back to my mat, my connection with the divine, to mindfulness, to spiritual conversations—all as ways of opening my heart. Being a target, fighting for survival, bearing witness to others fighting much harder battles all serve to tighten my body and armor my heart. Engaging in activism from that tightened, hardened place led me down a path of anger and resentment. It brought me to the conclusion that I knew THE way forward and anyone in my way was the enemy; seeing social justice as a battle in general where I could easily tell those on the side of good or evil.
I need an actual practice where I can cultivate reverence. A practice that calls me back to my higher self over and over again. A practice that cracks my heart open wide. A practice that allows my heart to break because of what I have experienced and what I witness in the world. A practice that opens my heart time and time again to joy, to feeling loved and cared for without question. A practice that lets me find my strength through softness and flexibility and that lets me know I can be wrong without shattering.
Cultivating reverence need not be tied to any religious or spiritual belief. It’s an intentional practice that we put in place as a touchstone serving as a reminder of our higher selves and our connection to all beings everywhere. A practice where we make time to heal, to breathe. Where our bodies and our minds find comfort.
I bear the physical and psychic scars of a life spent on the razor sharp edge of survival. I still have to play hide and seek with whole pieces of who I am long tucked away safely out of reach from whoever might be swinging at them. My brain and my body not always knowing today isn’t those yesterdays.
Say I am naive. Tell me I don’t know how it really is. What the world is really like. As if I haven’t felt their fear my body might bleed, toxic puddle between us, my soul bleeding instead—an acceptable penance. I still hear the priest who held the life preserver I might have exchanged for the razor meant for my wrists. “No, child, there is no place in heaven for your kind, I’m sorry.” In my dreams with my eyes wide open I still see the fists and the belt. Watch the parade of their agents. Hear my own whimpers. Like I don’t know what the sweat on my skin feels like as I wrestle love apart from it’s weld with violence. Go ahead, tell me how it is while out of the corner of my consciousness I hear a debate about the cost of government funded health care. You think I don’t know Paul Ryan wouldn’t spend the forty grand a year it costs to keep a queer trans man with AIDS alive? Go ahead, tell me I am naive because my anger isn’t the first thing you meet.
Then let me tell you: my faith is my rebellion. Standing ankle deep in compassion anchoring my open heart while I bear witness to my pain and yours. My radical act—choosing love and hope over my cultivated fists or sharpened tongue as agents of change. Believing I am wanted and loved by the divine is my heresy. Speak your truth, it’s ok with me. I can hear the divine over the thunder of my heartbeat simply by touching my forehead to the floor.
You’re the one who gave the lie to the idea “if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention” and showed me that love and compassion are the real signs of attentive awareness and connection to the suffering and injustice in the world. You gave me permission to be my open-hearted self, to shed the ill-fitting armor of self-righteousness. You taught me that inside every angry person—no matter how vicious and hateful—lives a scared and hurting small self.
Right before I met you I was reading about Howard Thurman and his role in bringing the practice of nonviolence to the U.S. civil rights movement. I realized that I had never understood what nonviolence was. It is so often painted as passive resistance—a lack of violence—when in reality it is anything but passive; it’s actively choosing love and compassion and practicing lovingkindness toward those who are complicit with the forces of hatred and intolerance. Practicing nonviolence doesn’t just mean refraining from acts of aggression and force, it means finding love and compassion for those who would destroy you with hate.
The universe laid out pebbles for me to follow that led me back to staking a claim for myself as a person of faith—a faith grounded in love and interconnectedness. And then I met you, and one of the first things you told me was that you believed that the energy you bring into a room is the first and foremost way to make a difference in the world. My armor cracked and I found my feet solidly on the path of love, the path leading me back to my authentic self, back to wonder and hope.
Being hopeful and loving isn’t a sign of a sheltered, charmed life. It doesn’t mean a person isn’t paying attention. Choosing a path of love, compassion, and hope in the face of struggle and injustice is far harder than taking the easy road of bitterness and anger. That’s why it takes faith. I’m so grateful to be on this path with you.