Not finding a spiritual community within which to root myself, for many years I practiced meditation on my own, and I read books and tried to learn meditation from recorded talks. I periodically attended meditation and Dharma sessions at different places, but always bounced out of them because I never fully felt that I belonged in those settings. Nevertheless, I kept trying again and again—manifesting what I have come to appreciate as a kind of deep determination to engage with the Buddha’s teachings even when they were expressed in ways to which I could not relate.
Eventually I encountered an LGBTIQ Insight Meditation retreat in Northern California. It was a modest-size retreat held at a small Catholic center, north of San Francisco, led by the only “out” Insight Meditation Dharma teachers at the time: Arinna Weisman and Eric Kolvig. They were pioneers in creating safe spaces for queer communities, and I am so grateful to them.
In that retreat, for the first time I heard how Buddhist teachings were relevant to the sufferings of one of my tribes, the community of queer folks. Though not every aspect of my identity (such as my person-of-color identity) felt supported in this LGBTIQ retreat, I felt safe enough that I could stay in the room and absorb what was being shared. That retreat was a doorway, the proverbial Dharma gate, into how the teachings of the Buddha could be experienced within my own life using the intimate and vulnerable method of silent retreat practice, amid people who were like me in important ways.
I fell in love. Repeatedly.
I had numerous fantasies about the gay men in the meditation hall and how I would live the rest of my life with one of them. This was the first time I was able to allow myself to feel the presence of gay men in a spiritual practice space, and allow myself to be attracted to them. Who knew there were other gay spiritual men to be attracted to? Who knew a safe-enough space could be created even to explore that portion of my identity and experience? It was revelatory.
I didn’t know that it was possible to relate to guys on both levels of sexual attraction and spiritual exploration; those parts of me had each been placed into some kind of different categorical box in my life, without any contact between them. I might have conceptually known, but I had not had the chance to experience that sexual attraction and relationship were intimate portions of the spiritual path.
There was safety and a sense of belonging even in this visceral movement of bodily sensations within me, and in this space. In all the other meditation spaces I had been to, I felt I had to avoid, deny, or push away any of those vibrations in the body, palpitations of the heart, and romantic fancies of the mind. Without those defenses, I felt more freedom and spaciousness to be who I was in that moment.
I felt the emergence of a spiritual practice called “being a gay man.”
But much more than the people and personalities around me, what I really fell in love with was the Dharma. The safety of a community creating a stillness and sense of peace together was thrilling to me. On a personal level, the rampant thoughts of feeling judged, or excluded, or not understood were, surprisingly, absent. I began to see the power of those thoughts and how the absence of them not only allowed the mind to relax, but permitted the body to release itself into the sitting posture. I was able to physically sit in the sitting posture on the cushion without agitation or discomfort vastly longer than I did usually.
And even more important, my heart began to relax.
In that relaxation I softened and opened to my own experience and life—and I could feel the benefits of not judging my experience. I could see that this nonjudgment was an act of kindness, one both enacted by and experienced by me.
The conditions in that retreat were not perfect—the community of practitioners was still not very culturally diverse—but it was good enough, safe enough. And it let me realize that insight and realization do not need perfect conditions.
The sense of safety and connection was enough for me to stay in the seat of my practice and strengthen my concentration. Living a human life inherently entails uncertainty, discomfort, and risk—no moment or place is ever utterly and unfailingly safe.
So what does it mean to feel safe enough to stay present? What constitutes enough safety that I could strengthen the capacity of my practice to be with difficult experiences in a different way? Having some sense of connection and spiritual homecoming with regard to one major aspect of my identity seemed to be enough for me in that moment—enough to prompt my interest in deepening my engagement in the Buddha’s teachings.
In the Dharma talks during the LGBTIQ retreat I heard the direct connection between ending suffering by changing our relationship to experiences of pain and difficulty and how that process was relevant to our experiences of the social and cultural pain and difficulty of oppression and homophobia. More than hearing it, I viscerally felt the safety of being in a community that shared similar life stories and experiences.
I fell in love yet again as I heard in the Dharma talks and meetings with teachers’ life experiences that addressed specific issues in my life as a queer person—the joys and the sorrows of our politics, the issues of a desire for intimate relationships, the losses from the AIDS epidemic at the time, and how to counter the feelings of self-hatred and judgment.
I fell in love with my faith.
I fell in love with my faith in spirituality and humanity.
And I fell in love with my own humanity—without needing any piece of myself to be any different than I was. I fell in love with learning to pay attention to, to care about, and to love myself. This was a deeper sense of ease than I had had in any other practice space—and this in turn allowed me to do my work in relating to my feelings, my thoughts, and all of my experience differently. It allowed me to more easily let go of the thoughts of difference or questions about whether or not I belonged in this group. From that state of ease, my practice blossomed and transformed.
When I was first beginning to consciously walk on a spiritual path, I visited many retreat centers, tried many practices, and experienced many teachers from multiple traditions and lineages. My own search included different traditions from Sufi to Zen, from Native American sweat lodges to Hindu ashrams, from different lineages of the Buddhist teachings to different traditions of yoga. And I went from Episcopalian churches to Unitarian ones. Somehow I was searching for a home that was always outside of me. Only when I tasted the possibility of an external sense of resting could I explore what an inner sense of peace and stillness could look and feel like.
This was my journey: to come home to a home within myself and carry that with me. It might not seem like such a big deal that I could actually be more aware, once I could stop thinking so much about surviving, fitting in, and belonging—but it was. It wasn’t the cognitive, understanding aspect of the process that was transformative; it was the direct experience of being able to let go and relax my heart, which began to recalibrate the suspicions, worries, and fears that were conditioned into me. This is how the heart can heal.
Accessing a true experience of belonging, I could begin to allow life to unfold however it might—even and perhaps especially in spaces where I didn’t feel an external kind of belonging. Sometimes this meant I might find a sense of relief, sometimes a joy, and sometimes it meant I discovered injury left unexplored because it hadn’t felt safe enough in the past to turn my attention to it. I could allow all of that to cascade into my consciousness without feeling the need to defend myself. I felt a sense of relaxing into a life that was being lived however it arose. Underneath all of the defensive protection that worry, fear, and anger brought was the beginning of a stillness, a calming of anxiety, a more stable, peaceful state of mind.
In that calm, my mind could begin to be aware of itself.
Until the conditions of the sacred space crossed a certain threshold in terms of safety, just to survive external suffering was a struggle; it was all I could manage.
Yet mindfulness practice is not simply about living a life of mere survival.
Mindfulness invites us into the opportunity to live to our fullest potential; it invites us to explore the true nature of who we really are.
And so, who am I? What is my “true nature”?—to use another common form of this question. And what does it mean to realize it?
Insight into our “true nature” emerges from the gentle yet persistent exploration of the questions “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” within the specificities of our particular life. The path toward freedom does not go around the experience of identity or transcend it but goes through the experience of identity—however identity manifests for us.
At some point in their lives everyone asks some version of these great spiritual questions, sometimes even as young children. Of all the identity descriptors I had for myself as a queer gay man, as a person of color, as an Asian American, as a social worker, as an activist, as a therapist, as a meditator, as a son, as a brother, none seemed to completely describe me fully, none alone or together seemed to capture all of who I am.
So if no descriptor is adequate or complete, what then? What lies beyond the question and experience of identity? What happens when the question subtly transforms to become “Who am I really?” As my practice of awareness became more and more refined, the question became more and more nuanced.
These early LGBTIQ retreats taught me what to pay attention to in practice.
I learned to pay attention to identity—not to ignore, bypass, overlook, dismiss, repress, or transcend it. And in going through the door of identity, the world of our lives opened up to my awareness in much more expansive ways.
This has influenced my own Dharma practice: how I live the Dharma, how I create organizations and communities around the Dharma, and how I teach and lead from the Dharma.
This is an excerpt from Awakening Together by Larry Yang