On queerness & mindfulness

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Pride Parade, San Francisco, 2010 (film) © Gabriela De Golia

This piece was originally posted on the Awaken Everyday Blog of Copper Beech Institute in celebration of Pride Month 2019.

I identify as queer. I am also a mindfulness practitioner. While these two things may seem unrelated to one another, they are inherently connected for me. Without mindfulness, I likely wouldn’t have been able to awaken to my queerness; without queerness, my mindfulness practice would not be as rich as it is.

While I sensed I was attracted to other women at a young age, I spent many years denying this deeper knowing and couldn’t bring myself to embrace it or make it known to the world until relatively recently. It was only when I became a resident at Blue Cliff Monastery, a mindfulness center in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, that I began to recognize my attraction to women as more than just fleeting thoughts or feelings. When I was invited to find stillness and come into greater connection with myself through my meditation practice, I could no longer deny the part of me that had been whispering for years, “I am queer.” I realized I yearn for meaningful, romantic, and sexual connections with women (in addition to men and people of other genders). My practice has helped me dismantle and shed the negative programming I’d adopted surrounding my attraction to multiple genders and granted me the spaciousness to fall in love with myself anew as I leaned into my queer nature. My practice gracefully then guided me into my first and current, wondrous partnership with another woman. In very real ways, I am openly and happily queer thanks to my practice of mindfulness.

In a complementary way, my awakening into queerness has led to a more profound practice of mindfulness. To practice mindfulness as a queer woman who experiences social marginalization with respect to gender and sexuality reminds me that contemplative practices are ultimately centered on achieving liberation from suffering. This includes liberation from the suffering imposed on marginalized beings by oppressive social structures such as homophobia, sexism, and patriarchy.

Lest we forget: mindfulness practices were not developed by spiritual masters thousands of years ago to feel less stressed or become more productive, even though it certainly helps with that. At their core, contemplative practices were established to awaken from false notions and touch the deeper, sacred reality of radical interconnectedness. Recognizing that oppressive social structures try to keep us from accessing this truth, we are invited to practice in such a way that our mindfulness can be a vehicle for furthering love and justice in the world by dismantling systems that deny the inherent dignity of all beings, including those in the LGBTQIA+ communities.

My practice of mindfulness is centered on learning to love myself, others, and the world in a way that is counter to the oppressive norms that currently structure our societies. Similarly, to be queer is to love and exist in a way that is counter to current social norms. In these respects, my practice of mindfulness and my queerness are cut from similar cloth; each helps me to love and to exist from a place of greater liberation.

 

Related reading:

On boredom

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Waiting area, Bradley International Airport, 2010 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

 

I recently had a discussion with friends about boredom, which I must admit (with a hint of humor) was wonderfully interesting. It started with one of the women, who is a Montessori teacher, explaining how a young student at her school kept approaching her to simply say, “I’m bored.” A series of suggestions sprung forth from others involved in the conversation, some of which included: pointing the student to new study topics, giving her a craft project to do, and telling her to observe the light on the wall, among other things.

I waited until others had given their suggestions before sharing mine because I knew it was a bit different from the rest. My suggestion was, “why don’t you just ask her, ‘What’s boredom like for you right now?’ instead of trying to help her get rid of it?”

Everyone seemed intrigued by this suggestion in an enthusiastic way. I imagine this was because it was countercultural guidance that differed from the other recommendations, which all sought to change the student’s state of being.

I went on to explain that I didn’t think boredom was a bad thing, and that teaching kids to sit with the initial discomfort of “having nothing to do” can, in the long run, be very beneficial for their emotional and mental wellbeing. This is obviously a bizarre take on boredom by modern standards. In a society where we’re expected to be human doings instead of human beings, we’re constantly told (either explicitly or implicitly) to make ourselves useful by filling our time with “activities”, whatever that term actually means. Our sense of self-worth is directly related to how much we do nowadays. It’s gotten to the point where whenever we don’t have anything to do, we automatically take our phones out to mindlessly go through our series of apps (emails, texts, Facebook, etc.) instead of resting within the present moment. I admit to doing this very regularly.

Some of my favorite commentaries on boredom come from the novel Wise Child by Monica Furlong, an incredible children’s book that’s now out of print. It’s about a young girl who becomes the apprentice of a wise woman/healer named Juniper. One of their interactions goes as follows:

“I don’t like cleaning or dusting or cooking or doing dishes, or any of those things,” I explained to her. “And I don’t usually do it. I find it boring, you see.”

“Everyone has to do those things,” she said.

“Rich people don’t,” I pointed out.

Juniper laughed, as she often did at things I said in those early days, but at once became quite serious.

“They miss a lot of fun,” she said. “But quite apart from that — keeping yourself clean, preparing the food you are going to eat, clearing it away afterward — that’s what life’s about, Wise Child. When people forget that, or lose touch with it, then they lose touch with other important things as well.”

A little later on in the book, another brief but poignant conversation about boredom ensues between Juniper and Wise Child:

“I thought if you were educated you didn’t have to do boring things,” I had said to Juniper the day before.

“There are people who think like that,” Juniper had said. “Such a pity. Boredom is so valuable.”

And lastly:

“Why is everything so dull?” I grumbled.

I think the dull bits are often the best,” Juniper said. “Too much excitement is very distracting. You just need it now and then to give you something to feed off.”

These passages speak so beautifully to the deep necessity of boredom and the importance of “boring tasks”. In the same way that color contrast makes it possible to see and differentiate things, we need those spaces between the excitement of our lives to come to greater clarity about everything we do and experience.

I won’t pretend to be an expert at sitting comfortably with boredom, but for me, that state of being is often the tight, uncomfortable portal that leads to new and deeper layers of meaning about a particular situation. Being bored is a process of squeeeeeezing through the constricting belief that I need to constantly be doing something in order for my time to be “well spent”; boredom is like a tight tunnel that ultimately leads to a more spacious realm if I just stick with it for a bit. Instead of giving in to my ego’s desire to “be productive”, I sometimes choose instead to rest in the initial weirdness of doing little. In that process, give the slower, sleepier parts of my being an opportunity to awaken and rise to the surface of my consciousness.

This exact process happened the day after my conversation about boredom, ironically. I had already scheduled that day to be a personal Day of Mindfulness, which I practice every few months. During that time, I don’t speak and I move slowly, read spiritual texts, rest lots, and abstain from checking email (and my phone, for the most part). It’s essentially a psychological detox: I’m getting rid of the mental/emotional gunk that accumulated over months of “doing” through a flush of nothingness, if you will.

At many points, I was bored. I kept wanting to surf the Internet, check my email, and read books to fill the void. And yes, I did give in a couple of times. But what happened during the evening after an almost-full day of this nothingness was incredible. As if a stop-plug had been removed, a gush of writing topics sprung forth into my consciousness. It was like my mind was consumed in a creative fire that ultimately led to the creation of this very blog. Instead of going to sleep that night, I stayed up until the wee hours writing reflective essay after essay after essay. It felt so. Dang. Good.

Yes, I ended up being incredibly productive at the literal and figurative end of the day. But that was only possible thanks to the intentional pausing — the intentional boredom — that I let myself sit in prior to that. If this can happen after a mere day of (arguably boring) stillness, imagine what multiple days, weeks, or months of it could yield from a creative/spiritual/introspective standpoint. No wonder it’s the monastics of various spiritual traditions who repeatedly gleam the deepest, longest-lasting, and most unshakeable truths of our nature.

(I’m catching my words veering ever so slightly into the “productive mindset” here, which is ironic, so I’ll clarify that I don’t believe it’s helpful to use boredom and stillness for the purposes of achieving an end product. It’s entirely about the journey. By the same token, something tangible to show for your adventures into the abyss of boredom is a potential — though not guaranteed — by-product of one’s engagement with nothingness. This is why so many artists take time away to simply “be”. As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, argues, you have to “fill [your creative] well” by regularly distancing yourself from your usual happenings/doings to let your muses speak to you. That said, it’s obvious that not every episode of boredom yields intense creativity; many disengaged high school students can attest to this.)

When pulpy orange juice is left untouched for a period of time, the clear liquid rises to the top and the chunky pieces float to the bottom, allowing us the see the true nature of the beverage more clearly. Our beings and minds work the same way. When left to sit in stillness, which can include letting ourselves feel bored, our mind is able to separate its various thought patterns from one another. As a result, we can act on our own impulses and thoughts more clearly.

For me, a day of stillness (which included a very healthy dose of boredom) allowed me to clearly see that my being wanted to create something. In my experience, though, when I don’t let myself sit in stillness long enough, this creative energy regularly gets confused with its complimentary cousin, consuming energy. More often than not, boredom is my being’s way of stating that it wants to create something and that something is simply struggling to be brought forth. Unfortunately, because I don’t often give myself the time to visualize what is being called forth, I simply consume something to quell the weird feeling I’m experiencing through the high of acquiring something new. While consuming is a great relief in the short term, it’s not very gratifying in the long term.

Letting oneself rest in the discomfort of boredom actually helps us determine what’s seeking to become manifest in our lives. It lets the gunk get separated from the clear waters of our beings so we can see a path forward. While remaining still in this way may result in some kind of “end product”, boredom’s ultimate goal is not to accomplish that thing; you can’t skip over boredom to get to a potential end product, so the journey through it definitely has a purpose. As my friend Sandra likes to say, “the only way out is through.” To experience the fruits of boredom, you must feel it fully; only once you’ve let it slowly show you what you’re meant to create will it release you into forward motion.

Boredom is thus similar to gestation, to pregnancy: if you try to birth a child too soon, you hurt it and potentially ruin all hope of it manifesting in the world. We must let the parts of ourselves that require longer gestation periods to take the time they need in order to fully grow. To do that, we must rest in boredom every so often. I think we could all benefit from letting ourselves explore what boredom feels like in our physical and emotional bodies when it hits instead of trying to “do/consume something” to make it go away.

If we let ourselves feel the initial, figurative birth pains surrounding our lack of “doing”, we’re more likely to encounter a whole new experience that’s been waiting patiently for us.

 

For further reading on a related topic, see my post On rest.

On rest

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Walking meditation, Blue Cliff Monastery, 2016 © Rob Walsh

Sabbath, or rest more broadly, has been on my mind these days. This is partly due to personal circumstances and largely because my friend and pastor, Julia, is planning a well-deserved sabbatical for herself in the year 2019. The topic also feels pertinent on a much deeper, philosophical level.

The Sabbath’s roots are religious — Jewish, specifically, yet most other spiritual traditions have a practice of pausing one’s “normal” life and recommitting to the God(s) of their understanding. Yet a Sabbath (which is at the root of the word sabbatical) needn’t be centered on the divine per se, in my view. Buddhists sometimes call it a “Day of Mindfulness”, for example, where the intention is to clear one’s mind of the mental and emotional debris left in the wake of our speedy lifestyles. It also has taken on professional connotations, such as in the field of academia.

The idea of dedicated time to take Sabbath — that is, time to rest, renew, restore, and re-center — is completely countercultural these days. It’s even revolutionary, in my opinion, and I mean this in the best of ways. In a world where we get calls through our watches, have access to email 24/7, can shop whenever we want, and are sucked into the virtual infinity of the Internet, to temporarily lay our daily tasks and habits to the side with the intention of making contact with our deeper foundations is viewed as either a luxury one can’t afford or a nuisance one doesn’t care to practice.

Buddhist sutras sometimes refer to our way of existing as a kind of sleep-walking, an unconscious forward movement devoid of any real awareness of our actions or their consequences. To me, this is powerful imagery. It’s a bit like The Matrix: the idea that we live in a dream world in which have little to no control over our circumstances simply because we are not “awake”. By awake, I do not simply mean the opposite of sleep; I mean the act of intentionally bringing one’s attention to the here and now and to each facet of our existence (good, bad, and ugly), thus giving us the opportunity to choose how we respond to the events of our lives.

When we are existentially “asleep at the wheel”, we are under the control of powerful beings that do not have our best interest (nor the collective’s best interest) at heart. These beings are what, in Christianity, we might call “false idols.” Some think of these as Pagan gods, but such an interpretation is short-sighted. More accurate false idols would be perfection, wealth, fame, busy-ness, others’ opinions of us, and our own expectations of ourselves.

To practice intentional rest that is meant to shed these false idols and re-center us on true icons (that is, those ideas which speak to the interconnectedness of all things, such as “God” or love) is to practice acting in defiance of inhuman and unjust practices such as exploitative labor, consumerism, and greed. To take time each day, each week, each month — however often feels appropriate yet transformative for you — is to be a revolutionary in the cause of awakening. It is a practice of shattering the chains which keep us beholden to idols that do not serve us. It is a practice of remembering our humanity.

To practice re-centering rest — which is very different from merely “catching up on sleep” — is to reprioritize our time and our actions in such a way that love is the guiding light. It is an acknowledgment that, while there isn’t enough time in the day to do it all, whatever one can accomplish in the day is enough. It is a statement that one’s worth is not linked to our productivity, as capitalism and the Protestant work ethic suggest. Instead, it is a declaration that our worth is linked to our inherent, irrevocable essence. This is a chief teaching of healthy spirituality and/or psychology, yet it is terrifying for the ego. For, if our worth is not linked to our productivity, what purpose does our ego serve? The ego hates undeserved worthiness because such grace renders it nearly pointless. To survive, the ego needs external validation for its efforts, but Sabbath flys in the face of that. By claiming we are valid in spite of our inability to “do it all”, in spite of “doing nothing” (which is what some suggest Sabbath amounts to, though I find that to be an interesting use of the word “nothing”), we begin the work of dismantling the ego and, in that process, opening ourselves up to deeper truths.

It is on us to trust that even if we take time away from our worldly commitments, the world won’t fall apart. Unfortunately for the ego, yet fortunately for our beings, we are not that indispensable. Existence can — and will — move on even if nothing on our to-do list gets checked off. Life crises teach us this: we get hit with a serious case of the flu and suddenly all our work plans have to be delayed; a loved one passes and we have to cancel all other commitments to be at their funeral; a child is born and suddenly all the things we thought were so important are not worth our precious time compared to this new life. This isn’t to say that such events are not challenging (for they certainly are). Rather, what such circumstances prove to us is that, if we are forced to put aside our usual plans, a reorientation of priorities is possible. Unfortunately, we usually require massive (and sometimes tragic) events to be shown this truth.

Perhaps there’s a healthier way to learn how to awaken from our existential sleepwalking. Given that practice makes better, to regularly engage in intentional re-centering and reprioritization — in other words, Sabbath — is to better equip ourselves for those times in life when unforeseen circumstances require such a reorientation on our part, whether we like it or not.

Sabbath does not require money, for it is not the same as expensive, capitalist-oriented “self-care” practices (think: pricey retreats at yoga centers that are disconnected from the spiritual roots of yoga). All we need is our intentionality, our trust in the process, and a willingness to sit with the initial discomfort caused by our lack of “doing” (remember, the ego hates Sabbath). And rather than thinking of Sabbath as a full-day, weekly practice, we can think of it in broader terms: as a friend once said, “I practice Sabbath-moments, rather than Sabbath-days. It just works better for me.”

In short: we rest in order to awaken. We stop in order to move forward. Sabbath is an act of loving resilience and resistance, an act of rooting ourselves deeper in order to rise taller. Just as the depths of a lake become visible when the surface is still, the depths of our own being become visible when we practice stillness within and without. So let us pause, then, and return to the deeper truths we yearn to reconnect with.

Resources for practicing intentional rest