From April 9-12, 2015, you are invited to attend an LGBTQI Meditation Retreat at Garrison Institute in upstate New York: Embodying Presence in Our Lives: A Mindfulness Meditation Weekend for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer Communities.
MyOutSpirit was invited to chat with some of the retreat leaders about how meditation can improve the lives of queer people.
La Sarmiento: The world is a great, fast-moving river and everything on its course is subject to the force of its power. Our conditioning "to do" rather than “be” is relentless; we feel it in the struggle to survive, in the drive to succeed, and in our own destructive or self-limiting thoughts. I believe this often perpetuates the "three poisons" of greed, hatred, and delusion in our world, and that they ultimately lead to suffering on many levels.
The practice of meditation is an opportunity to engage in a radical and revolutionary act: to go against the stream of our conditioning in order to alleviate suffering and cultivate true happiness.
Meditating means to stop and become aware of our internal state of being. We meet whatever arises in our experience with kindness and deep compassion, and this provides the space needed to speak and act skillfully in our personal and work lives and in the world.
Eric Kolvig: We value meditation on our liberating spiritual path, but it is only part of our path. We train to bring awareness and kindness to everything in our lives, to all of our thought, speech, and action. “What is good?”
If you apply awareness and kindness – mindfulness and love – to every aspect of your life, then goodness, and therefore happiness, will gradually manifest in everything.
That's why the Buddha said that mindfulness is all-helpful, “good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.”
What kinds of suffering does meditation help?
Madeline Klyne: So many of us have grown up with a sense of isolation and fear, externalized homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queer phobia and then internalized these phobias. We have wrestled or struggled with feelings of separation, anxiety, fragmentation and fear. And many of us have internalized the messages into an inner critic or inner judge which tells us a story that we are unworthy or inadequate. In our lives, each one of us has been touched by this pain and conflict that is part of our LGBTIQ experience.
However, we can also appreciate the inner strength and love that lie within us, and our capacity to respond with grace and courage in the midst of our lives.
There is a still place within us that is the source of fearlessness, compassion and wisdom.
La Sarmiento: There is a saying, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." In my experience, I have found meditation to support me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Because of my meditation practice, when I'm caught up in thoughts, physical sensations, or emotional states, I am able to pause long enough to investigate what is happening with kindness and compassion. I can make the distinction between the "pain" itself (what the Buddha referred to as the first arrow) and the stories and beliefs that I add to it (the second arrow). The more I practice, that space between the pain and how I choose to respond to the pain provides more ease and courage to confront life's challenges.
In your experience, what do LGBTQI people tend to do when we are NOT mindful, present, or comfortable in our own skins?
Eric Kolvig: When anybody isn't aware and loving, they bring pain to themselves and to others.
If we're uncomfortable in our skins, if we don't know in the deepest way our unconditional worthiness as human beings, we end up with self-destructive thoughts and actions.
People who are targets of oppression, like us LGBTQI folks, can internalize oppressors' false, corrosive judgments of us. Once we take on those judgments as our own, we can easily fall into behavior that harms ourselves. Our mindfulness practice helps us to see through oppression's lies, and to treat ourselves with the awareness and the love we've always deserved.
La Sarmiento: I can't speak for all LGBTIQ people or for anyone for that matter. What I do know is when I am NOT mindful, present, or comfortable in my skin, I have a tendency to: withdraw, act out, become impatient, be irritable, engage in unskillful behavior, be judgmental or overly critical, and unkind.
Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once said (and I paraphrase) that the space between the stimulus and the response is our freedom. Meditation cultivates that space, and in that open space we can witness our conditioning, identify beliefs that no longer serve us, and develop a way of being that does not cause harm to others nor harm to ourselves.
What is your own experience of being uncomfortable in your own body, and how did mindfulness meditation improve your experience?
La Sarmiento: At a young age, I realized that the body that I was born into was not the body that aligned with who I felt myself to be. This was incredibly frightening thing to discover about myself growing up.
I would often be confronted by other children and asked, "Are you a boy or a girl?" I wished that I could have responded, "Both."
I experienced a lot of shame for much of my life especially around something most people take for granted: public restrooms. I have experienced much humiliation when I was accused of being in the wrong restroom. It wasn't until I began practicing meditation and mindfulness that this shame began to dissipate.
Through the practices of lovingkindness, or “metta,” I began to trust that there was nothing wrong with me. I learned that I could trust in my own Buddha-nature, what the Dalai Lama calls my "innate goodness.”
My reliance on what others thought of me was disempowering. I began to investigate the internal and external messages I received; I finally questioned their validity. I eventually began to then truly accept and love that in this incarnation, this was the body I was to learn my greatest lessons from.
Eric Kolvig: Because of severe trauma when I was an infant and a child, I've had to dance all my life with severe PTSD and clinical depression. To say that these illnesses are “uncomfortable” is like saying that volcanoes are warmish.
Because of 40 years of spiritual practice, I haven't gotten rid of these hardwired illnesses, but I've changed my relationship to them radically. Often I can come to deep acceptance of what I can't change. And more and more I experience that part of being which can't be harmed and does not suffer. From that place I can sometimes say with Walt Whitman, “Agony is one of my changes of garments.”
Has all this meditation made you happy? What do you do when you’re not?
La Sarmiento: I do believe I am happy, but not in the "feeling good, smiling all the time" kind of way. Several years ago, I was in a session and said to my therapist:
Me: "All this work I've done with myself over these many years by coming to see you, practicing meditation, going on retreats, taking self-help workshops, etc... I'm beginning to get that ultimately this life is not about being happy is it?"
Therapist: "So what do you think it's about, La?"
Me: "I think it's about being fully alive."
Therapist: "La, being fully alive is way better than being happy."
That has truly stuck with me as one of my greatest insights.
For so long, I thought that if I wasn't in control, or if life wasn't going my way, that there was something wrong with me.
I would shut down any negative emotion – sadness, anger, disappointment, or frustration – because it wasn't happy-making.
Through the practice of meditation, I have cultivated courage and perseverance to, as Pema Chodron often says, "learn to stay" with the discomfort of uncertainty, pain, or loss. To trust in the impermanence of all things – to savor when it's feeling good, and to hang in there when it ain't so good.
A recent mantra that I've been using is "Trust life. It will show you what you need to know." This creates so much spaciousness, ease, and acceptance with being fully alive.
What is the impact of mindfulness on a community?
Eric Kolvig: I prefer to bundle mindfulness with kindness; they reinforce each other in a wonderful way. What if all seven-plus billion of us humans committed ourselves to mastering mindfulness and kindness, and we taught ourselves to act from these qualities? Society would be transformed. We'd have to chuck an economy based on greed for one based on generosity. We'd begin respecting each other; homophobia, racism, patriarchy, and all of the other oppressions would go the way slavery went in this country 150 years ago. We'd respect our mother the Earth, stop driving fellow species to extinction, and begin to nurture again a healthy atmosphere and climate. We'd end war. We could turn the Pentagon into a skating rink or affordable housing. Utopian, you say? Maybe, but it's possible because anyone can cultivate mindfulness and kindness as easily, or easier, as their opposites, unconsciousness and cruelty. I'm 70. I'll have to leave this little project to you younger ones.
La Sarmiento: The impact of mindfulness on a community is limitless. Imagine if each person within a community took responsibility for their thoughts, words, and actions and understood that in doing so with others could create a world filled with compassion, kindness, and love. We would be working together instead of against each other. We could acknowledge harm done and dismantle institutions and constructs that perpetuate separation and oppression while honoring and respecting our differences.
This retreat is specifically for the LGBTQI community. What is your vision for the how mindfulness meditation could change us?
Eric Kolvig: We don't proselytize. We recognize that each person must make her/his/their own choices, including ethical choices. The Buddha advised us not to believe anything he said, but rather to look for ourselves and to find the truth for ourselves. He was a spiritual anarchist.
No one can liberate another. The only thing I can do as a spiritual teacher is to offer counsel and support, but only when I'm asked.
The best way to influence others is to model awareness, love, and freedom as well as we can in our own being and behavior.
And we have to forgive ourselves when we're lousy models – that is, when we're predictably human.
La Sarmiento: My vision is to create a refuge for the LGBTIQ community to practice together in a safe, compassion, and nurturing environment through retreats like we're having at the Garrison Institute in April.
I want to inspire the Sangha (community) towards individual practice as well as creating practice groups where they live. Once their practice has grown strong and resilient, then we can branch out beyond our community and embody the teachings and practices in our families, workplaces, communities, and the world.
We're all in this together.
Eric Kolvig: Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Indeed history has bent that way for our community, at least in the West. I was born in 1945 and have seen in my lifetime unimaginable change for us LGBTQI folks. Mindfulness is suddenly the big fad throughout much of our society; Oprah practices mindfulness, and our military teaches it to the troops.
Mindfulness/kindness is easy enough to practice. Let's support each other to practice it, and support non-LGBTQI people too. And let's not get so comfortable with deepening acceptance for us in the West that we forget the plight, sometimes horrific, of our sisters and brothers in other parts of the planet.
What should I expect if I’ve never been on a retreat before? How is a silent retreat special?
La Sarmiento: A silent retreat offers a rare opportunity to take a break from our often crazy, busy world, to slow down enough to see what you would otherwise have not seen, to listen to the stories we tell ourselves and see if we want to continue them, to be cared for and supported to take this inward journey, to share this experience with others by being guardians to each others' solitude.
I’ve never been good at sitting still or being quiet! Is it really 4 days of silence? What if I can’t handle it after I get there?
Eric Kolvig: These retreats aren't boot camp or prison. If they're not for you, you're free to leave at any time. I've left more than one retreat during many years of practice. We encourage you to find your own pace, which may be quite different from someone else's pace. We give extra support to folks who are new or fairly new to retreat practice. For your sake and for the sake of others, we do ask you to keep the silence, which is necessary in order for this practice to deepen. If you can't stand the quiet, you can always walk down to the Hudson and have a chat with the river.
La Sarmiento: It's not called a practice for nothing. It's simply an invitation to come see for yourself, to gently challenge yourself to notice ways that we remain attached to our stories about ourselves versus taking risks to see what else there is to discover about who we are.
If you find it's not for you, you may leave.
Or you can learn to stay.
Learn more about the teachers or register for the retreat at www.garrisoninstitute.org/lgbtiq.