This particular Tonglen practice was inspired by the work of Joan Halifax. You can listen to this practice as a guided meditation or scroll down for a text version.
Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice of giving and receiving. It’s a practice that intimately connects our own suffering with the suffering of others, in service of keeping our hearts open. We cannot fully participate in the healing of others’ suffering while running from our own. We need to hold both.
2020 pretty much sucked for all of us. Any other year, I might have more openly talked about two really significant milestones for me—July 2020 was the 25th anniversary of my HIV diagnosis, and January 2, 2021, was the 30th anniversary of my sobriety date—but everything has felt so raw and overwhelming.
As I’ve been reflecting on my 30th anniversary of sobriety, I am soul-deep aware that neither of these anniversaries would have been possible without the loving care that I’ve received from the communities that hold me. My relationships have saved me—my relationship with myself and my relationships with chosen family.
One of the things that has gotten me through, particularly during the pandemic, has been being able to make things for people I love and care for as a form of prayer and a form of connection at a time when connection is extra hard to maintain. My shop has offered me a refuge and has also allowed me to offer refuge in the form of free shop space to a few other artisans who lost access to a shop due to the pandemic.
I want to start by telling you a story. This story comes from one of my spiritual mentors, the fabulous Kate Bornstein, and it is her version—a queer and transgender version—of the story of Adam and Eve. Here’s how it goes:
Once upon a time, God was bored. God needed a project. So God created a world! And God created Lilith, but she was a little too much to handle so God sent her on her way and created Adam and Eve. And God made them a garden and told them, “Everything you need is here. Go anywhere you please, do anything you want, be happy and fulfilled.”
“Oh—there’s just one little thing,” God said. “All I ask is that you not eat the pretty looking apples on that gnarly looking tree over there. Okay?”
Well before you know it a serpent showed up and seduced Eve into eating an apple. And Eve in turn convinced Adam to take a bite. And as the story goes, they were instantly aware of their nakedness and were ashamed.
God realized what had happened and came to see them. But God wasn’t mad. God was profoundly sad. And I’ll tell you why. The reason God had wanted Eve and Adam to not eat from that tree was because it was the tree of good and evil. As soon as they ate from it, they were aware of the binary of good and evil, and they were seduced by it. Continue reading “Transgender Faith”→
That relationship involves monumental loss, and deep love. It is the space where heartbreak and resilience live. The very space that makes me me in so many ways.
Twenty years ago today I was a 28-year-old who was far too young and far too old at the same time. On July 15, 1995, I was sitting in the health department in St. John’s, Newfoundland, listening to a doctor I had never met coldly tell me that I was HIV+. This was a time just before effective medication. HIV was still a death sentence. I knew that, deep in my bones, because I had buried friends and acquaintances and would bury many more over the years to come. We were all too young and too old at the same time. Continue reading “My Complicated Relationship with Survival: Twenty Years with HIV”→
You can listen to an audio recording here (in my opinion, the audio recording is much better than the written word—I swear! We’re more charming in person).
We aren’t taught in this culture to be openhearted. There’s no lesson. And I came to openheartedness as central to my spiritual practice the hard way. Whether it was the violence I was growing up with, the shame and the struggle around being queer and being gender nonconforming, whether it was being 28 years old and being diagnosed with AIDS at a time before medication was available.
Every turn I came to in life there was a reason for me to armor up. There was a reason for me to not let anyone near me. Because the outside world was telling me that if I wanted to stay protected I needed to curl in a ball. The last thing I ever needed to do was leave myself vulnerable. But at the same time that the world was telling me that, there was always this soft, loving voice of the beloved telling me that that was not for me. That I was meant to be openhearted regardless of the information I was getting from the outside world. Continue reading “The Spiritual Practice of an Open Heart”→
On Thursday January 2nd I passed the milestone of being in recovery for half my life: 23 of my 46 years. I have now been sober three times longer than I drank. Along the way I have learned a great many things (often the hard way). Here is what is coming forward at the moment, but is by no means a complete list.
Nothing is linear: not healing, not harm, nothing. Shedding damage from trauma, including addiction, has not been a process of going from point A to point B. It has been an ever-meandering route that seems to invariably circle back upon itself (often accompanied by my sentiments of “Fuck, I thought I dealt with this already!”). In early recovery everything was new and often magical; hard, but it still felt like I was getting somewhere… Then it seemed like growth came more slowly or not at all. Over the years I have found that to be the way healing unfolds. I honestly don’t know if there is a destination. What I know is that I am at home in my skin more than I thought would ever be possible. I’m wary of seeing myself as a “work in progress.” I distrust the self-help gurus who push “self-improvement.” Healing for me has come from being curious about who is actually here rather than focusing on “what I could become.” Continue reading “What Being Sober for Exactly Half My Life has Taught Me”→
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”→
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.
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.