Finding the Comfort in Discomfort

Angel Kyodo Williams's Profile Photo

There were several times while working on Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation that I had to get up from my chair and walk away from the book. The content was intense and provocative: a fierce call to question and change the systems of oppression permeating our society at large and our spiritual communities in particular. Written by three queer African American Buddhists, the book challenges the notion that we can continue to do “business as usual” and survive, whether the “we” is a country, a planet, an organization, a neighborhood, a sangha, or an individual.

But on a deeper level, the book pushed me because of the very force it became as a tangible being. The book’s content invited me to, as Rumi famously put it, “not go back to sleep,” but the collaboration with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah forced me to stay awake, to question the very norms I perpetuate, consciously or not, in my own life. In other words, working on the book itself became a crucible mirroring the radical inquiry detailed in its pages.

When Reverend angel and I first talked about the project, I proposed a timeline in keeping with publishing-industry standards: a year, maybe a little more. “Um, no, we need to get it out in seven or eight months,” Reverend angel replied firmly. “The world is asking for it now. But what about all the marketing meetings, and the sales-rep discussions, and all the time and labor and road-building it takes within the institutions to get a book out in the world? I thought. There is no way!

But there was. Through sheer hard work, unconventional meet-ups, gritty faith, grassroots word-of-mouth, and late-night phone calls, the book came together in record time and emerged into the world just as the realities of racial profiling, homophobia, deep sorrow, and spiritual emptiness roiled through the country in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre. We could not abide business as usual. As Reverend angel says, “This is the ‘back of the bus’ moment of our time.”

Nor could I abide by my usual approach to editorial collaboration. I dipped my red pen into the manuscript with vigor, using the tools I’d learned to, in my mind, clear the trail for the reader. The authors appreciated many of the edits, but they also raised questions in places where my own learned behaviors as a cis, straight, white male caused my pen to overstep its bounds in the name of “clarity” and rob some sentences of their hard-earned identities as bold, black, queer roars.

This was uncomfortable, but it was what I needed to do. For the book’s sake, yes, but also for my sake, for, as the book shows so clearly, it is only when we engage compassionately in a bold interrogation of our usual practices that we are able to grow and evolve. The “safe space” that so many people of privilege want to maintain is so not safe for the majority of the world’s people. To not get uncomfortable would be to play my part in maintaining a hegemony that I purportedly work against.

Fortunately, for inspiration and hope I only had to look to Reverend angel, Lama Rod, and Jasmine. As they chronicle so beautifully, their own paths toward freedom involved countless moments of deep discomfort, and yet there they stand, leading conversations about race, love, and liberation to packed rooms of multi-hued seekers, united in their willingness to get messy, to get radical, and to get liberated.

Radical Dharma is fiercely demanding, but it is also fiercely compassionate. Yes, the book exposes the ways people are othered and humiliated, and how all of us, unwittingly or wittingly, play a part in that. But the book also extends open arms to our ghosts and invites us to find new ways of intersecting and being. It’s a book for the soul. As Reverend angel puts it, “Every time I tried to stay within the lines, they ran over me, so I chose the borderlands and left divisions behind.” Radical Dharma offers a borderland that must become our new commons.

Touching Radical Dharma is a life-changing experience, not because of what it says, but because of what it invites, galvanizes, and metabolizes in those who are willing to sit with its complex truths. I’m forever grateful for its fire.

Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.

The Wail

The other day my son and I and two of his friends were playing “three flies up” when I made a ruling Rio didn’t like. He expressed his dismay by kicking the ball away angrily, and, after I warned him to take it easy, talking back and then swinging a frustrated arm in my direction. Then Papa Bear laid it down: Rio inside; neighborhood kids home.

“What you decided wasn’t fair!” he kept insisting as I ushered him into his room. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about my ruling on the field or my decision to end the game. I did my best not to talk back and get in a war of words with a seven-year-old. He slammed his door and fumed in his room, and then his shouts of frustration turned to cries of dismay. “Where are my friends?” he screamed. Annie and I went in and calmly told our extroverted son they had gone home. His crying turned into heavy sobs.

One of Rio’s assets, and challenges, is his intensity. On the soccer field, when he’s dribbling toward the goal, it’s a gift. When he’s staring at the world map beside his bed determined to figure out which way is faster from the U.S. to the Philippines, east or west, it’s an asset. But when he runs up against an obstacle that another kid might shrug off — “unfair” rule, say — his fire is an albatross.

Living a stone’s throw from a river, Rio and I do a lot of swimming and tubing, and Annie and I have used the Haw as a metaphor to help him when he’s only seeing red. “Don’t get caught on the rocks,” we sometimes tell him. “Flow like the river.” But words do little when he’s overcome with emotion. He can’t float when he’s flying down the rapids.

“Your ruling just wasn’t fair,” Rio kept repeating through tears and shoulder heaves. “And it’s not right that my friends went home!”

“Maybe, but it’s never OK for you to respond to something you don’t like by being a bad sport or by using your body in an aggressive way,” I responded. “We could have talked about it. But you just lost your mind.”

As Rio shed more tears, I saw that he was crying not because he was mad at me, but because he understood that his intensity had cost him time with friends. He was colliding with his own self and its jagged merging with the world. It hurts to be in these bodies and bang up against reality! I’ve always thought of Walt Whitman’s concept of the “barbaric yawp” as an empowered shout to the universe  — This is me, World! — but on this evening, as I watched my son sob, I understood that our yawp may also be a wail.

“Sometimes I don’t like how I am,” Rio managed to tell us. I understood. When I was young, I had plenty of moments when I felt in opposition to the world; in my case, it was often a feeling of being underappreciated and unseen. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when my sister walked me to my first-grade classroom and then moved on to her fourth-grade one (what more could she have done?); I remember too the time my mom left me with a babysitter and I cried for three hours straight because she didn’t say goodbye to me right. I was a shy kid most comfortable hiding behind my mother’s skirt. The world asked me to be bolder and I demurred. As an adult, I feel this less, and in fact relate more to Rio: there are times I’ve spoken up only to feel myself ostracized; times when I’ve stood up only to be told to sit back down. There are occasions when I can tell from the expression of the person I’m talking to that I’ve gone too far, that I’ve broken open a conventional unspeakable, and I’m left feeling exposed and alone. And so I’ve sat on both sides of this spectrum — sometimes too little for the world; other times too much.

It’s hard to know what parts of us are immutable and which can change. There is an inherent tension between stretching toward what we could be and accepting who we are. If we reach too far we might disregard our true nature and tear a proverbial muscle, or risk living in masquerade. If, on the other hand, we simply resign ourselves to our usual tendencies, then we stymie any chances of transformation. A friend recently told me that she was disappointed that she was struggling with so much jealousy in a relationship. “I want to be the person who can overcome it,” she said, “but if I’m really honest I have to admit I can only bend so far.” Meanwhile, her partner was frustrated by what he saw as her possessiveness, and he said he truly needed more freedom. Could she stretch to accommodate him? Could he stretch to accommodate her? In this case, no: she honored her cautionary voice and he honored his quest for a wider horizon. Perhaps their truest selves could not fully tango.

And so I ask: when is the voice of “this is me” limiting, and when is it a truth we need to hold? I suppose my own journey from timid (and all of its pros and cons) to bold (and all of its pros and cons) suggests that it is possible to change, that in fact there are layers to who we are that are ripe for the unpeeling. What a choreography, though, to navigate self-acceptance and self-growth, finding compassion both for the times we play it too safe and the times we stretch too far.

In Rio’s case, he clearly was feeling deep pain that he was a kid who reacted so strongly to his perceptions of fair play and things going his way that he lost the very thing he cherished: communion with friends. As he cried his hard wet tears, Annie whispered, “Rio, I know it’s hard, but look how much the world loves you. Can you feel it?” As she said this, I looked down to see that our dog Stella had jumped up onto the bed during the meltdown and that Rio literally had two hands and one paw touching him at the same time.


My father read a lot — usually World War II history or biographies — and he used to retreat to the leather couch in the living room after dinner with his tome in hand. I would pretend to disappear upstairs only to sneak back down the stairs silently. I learned early on how to inhabit the geometry of invisibility. Papa was gone so often at work or traveling that reading books on the couch, preferably in front of a fire, was clearly something that made him feel at home. I only wished the activity had involved me.

Not to say my father ignored me. He faithfully coached every Little League baseball team I was on when we lived together, and even the first one I joined after my parents got divorced and my mom, sister, and I moved across town. He led almost every one of those teams to the championship. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter to me as I wondered where he would put me. Years later Papa told me that his corporate boss never liked the hours my father spent away from the office coaching.

My father also loved cards and taught my sister and me the best strategies in blackjack and a slew of poker games I can still remember, ranging from “Night Baseball” to “Stud.” We’d stay up past bedtime anteing up pennies and fighting for the kitty. When I think of those moments on the den carpet, I recall the rough stubble on my father’s face and how potent the veins in his hands looked as he shuffled the deck for the twentieth time.

Still, my father was often remote to me. I remember once I looked at his face and asked him about the fleck of amber that appeared in one of his hazel eyes; he backed away and told me to leave him alone. I see now how desperately I wanted intimacy with him, reaching for it as he literally took steps away.

So it was a delight for me to sneak undetected into the living room to watch my father read. I felt so close to him then, in a strange and sad way. He was like a deity I could near but never touch.

I got so good at spying that I tried it all over the house; it was the best way to discover what was really going on. Eavesdropping on my mother’s phone calls to her friends, I learned how badly her relationship with my father was going. Once I found hundreds of dollars wadded up and squirreled away in my mother’s leather boot.

My sneakiness continued until one day when I stumbled upon something I didn’t want to see. It was a Saturday morning, and my mom and sister were out of the house. I snuck into my father’s den to see what he was doing. I thought maybe I’d find him reading, or writing on the yellow legal pads he used for work. Instead, in the dappled light coming in through the window, I found him bent over on the floor, sobbing with a might I had never seen.

I still don’t know what made my father cry like that, but whatever it was was the very thing that kept him from me.

River Repartee

A few days ago my seven-year-old son Rio and I walked down to the river for our daily summer swimming ritual. We passed a few guys chatting by their cars in the parking lot and made our way to our favorite swimming hole. There, Rio spied a fishing tackle box and asked me whose it was.

“It probably belongs to those guys we just walked by,” I said as I took off my shirt.

Just then Rio spied two men upriver and called out, “Hey guys! Is this your tackle box?”

“Yeah,” one of them yelled back. “Thank you!”

Rio turned his attention toward me. “You said it belonged to those guys in the parking lot. You were wrong.”

“You’re right, bud. I don’t know everything. I’m a human being just like anyone else.”

He eyed me and nodded. “Yeah, you don’t know everything. I mean, you don’t know, for example, very much about . . . bunnies.”

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be Big

Annie’s older sister Mary just died a few weeks ago. She was 55 and a key part of the family. She was the one who remembered birthdays, dawned on holiday earrings, raised an amazing son, and who had a unique relationship with all of her nieces and nephews. Rio really loved his Aunt Mary. Accepting her death, even though Annie’s family provided a beautiful container for so doing, has been a gradual and teary experience.

Annie was gone for a month caring for her sister in the hospital, and it was a trying but beautiful few weeks for me and Rio at home. Our friend Dre was staying with us, and she stepped up admirably as I wrangled work, preschool, and child care. A local friend stepped up at a critical moment and facilitated me taking a solo weekend retreat in a NC mountain cabin. Sy my boss was cool as I flexed my schedule out, but there was no doubt we were all worse off without our Annie. But she was care-giving elsewhere.

My life feels thin right now; I can count up the various positive realms and do exercises in gratitude, which I do most days. But there’s no doubt this is one of those crucible moments where hope seems thinly linked to a strand that is fraying.

But then Rio says, “When I grow up, I want to be big but also have a kid inside like you.”

“Thanks,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you like to tell stories and play around and go out for adventures. A lot of times you’re a big kid.”

And I recall then in a flash to the heart my own goodness — I am less “teaching” Rio than being an example for him — but again I fall so quickly off that pedestal. I seem drawn to the edges, where I equate small gashes with bold living. Other times I am fatter with the moment, content to stay on the saddle no matter where the bucking horse leads me.

Holding a high standard is important, but it can get me into trouble. I forgive myself easily in some realms — I apologize quickly when I hurt someone usually; I do a stellar, essential job at work — but in other arenas I drop down the ladder quickly when things go awry. With parenthood, especially, I can focus too much on not “traumatizing” Rio, in part for valid reasons, for I can readily recall those wounding moments in my own life.

But really won’t he remember that afternoon not long ago when we lolled about the river as the cicadas hummed and humid North Carolina hot air threatened but did not strike as we ducked into the water? Even today, I swam with him in the lake, but only until he found a friend who he wordlessly played with in aquatic circles. The kid’s father and I just smiled, aware suddenly that we were no longer needed.

I experience joy through Rio’s experience; as his father I see readily through his eyes. He buoys me with his “is-ness,” barely inconvenienced and at this age sometimes pissed off at adult pseudo-business. The kid forces me back to reality with a command or question that demands a present reply. He goes into his mind, sure, but more for fantastic reverie of the imagination than for cyclical analysis, that place where I get caught in and hide.

A friend of mine talks about the spiral, how we never escape our primary wounds, but that, if we work, we continue to hit it at higher evolutionary points. At first, when I strike against it, I’m like, “Damn, I thought I got rid of you,” and there can be a period of disbelief and powerlessness. ‘I’m here again?!” But she says that if we continue to confront that wound and try to heal it every cycle, even if it’s with a myriad of different medicines and treatments, that when we return to that painful spot it will be with more awareness. We may find that the spot itself has shifted. I believe in that idea, because I can only believe pain is evolutionary.

Throwing Faith

The morning started off as I like it: alarm firm but not rattling; opening my eye to slumbering sweetie and son; sliding my feet off the side of the bed and taking a moment to sit; then up for fifteen minutes with my homespun latte and the paper fetched from the dewy grass before Annie and Rio get up to join me.

I cherish my routines, partially because I feel lost without them. When left to walking without tracks I often land upside down in the air. I need ritual’s ruler to set my hash marks for the day.

Then: busy, rushed-before-school madness, Annie and Rio leave, and I again enter a few moments of silent, untethered bliss. The long shower, almost too hot, then another moment on the couch before I leave, just a few seconds really where I notice my breath and feel a tiny splash of nothing before the thoughts rush in.

But then my faithful Honda Accord, two decades old — the one of 200,000 miles and minimal repairs, the one that still looks good after all these years — decides to throw her automatic transmission. I know it the instant I hear the grating sound when I put her in reverse. I manage to get to work without backing up, but I know this problem isn’t going away.

When I get to the office, the day starts as usual, but then my colleague Holly comes back from an errand toting a little black puppy she’s saved from the middle of a busy street. Everyone is oohing and aahing, and I think, This damn thing looks so familiar. I keep noticing how serene and self-possessed she seems for a five-month-old canine, those intelligent eyes and that curious scamper. And I recall how just three weeks before, Annie had asked me, as we discussed our extroverted and only child, “Should we get a dog?” This came on the heels of Rio telling us, as we took care of our friend’s dogs for a weekend, that he wished they were his.

But I push this all to the back of my mind, certain that I don’t really want the kind of change that having a dog would demand; besides, this dog is so damn cute and well taken care of that someone will surely answer the many “found dog” messages Holly has put out around town. Just for kicks, though, when Holly sends out an email later to the whole staff with some pictures of the little lab/border collie pooch, I forward them to Annie. In minutes she writes back and says she’s “ready for a dog.” Oh my.

I tell Holly of our (mild) interest and head home, making sure to avoid any situations where I’ll have to back up. I stop by my mechanic and ask him to take a listen. He winces. He checks the transmission fluid and declares, “You’re pretty screwed.” Seems a fix here is going to run me the cost of the car. For a moment I entertain a daydream: I have driven secondhand family cars for so long that when I sit as a passenger in anyone’s new car I feel like I’m beholding the dashboard of some kind of spaceship. Isn’t it about time I bumped it up and got a little fancy? I deserve it! But then I remember annoying facts like cost and I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get to work this week. But then my mechanic says, “Well, as luck would have it, one of my customers whose ’94 Civic she just spent a good chunk of change on wants me to sell her car. She suddenly decided to walk onto a new car lot and drive away in one. So this car has got to move.”

I take a look: nice black colt, small and solid. Price she’s asking is below blue book.

So let me get this straight: a few weeks after my son and wife explicitly state their wishes for a dog, one appears near the tire of my colleague who just happens to be driving down that certain street on that certain Thursday morning. Said dog woos the entire office but no one is able to possibly take her except us. On the same day my car decides to die but another car that looks in a strange way like said dog appears beside my mechanic’s waving hand.

Is this what Rob Brezny had in mind in last week’s horoscope when he told us Aries to “be alert for a new most beautiful thing”?

I wish my acceptance of the unexpected came more easily, but my brain is adept at boiling questions down to tidy lists of pros and cons. With the car, I couldn’t find a good rational argument to say no. But the reasons to not take the dog were legion: 1) Who wants another being to tend to when we already have a six-year-old? 2) Who would take care of the dog when we went out of town? 3) Did we really want to be weighed down with another, possibly 15-year-long, responsibility? 4) All those damn books and videos and training classes!

The reasons to take the dog? There was really only one: love. My mind’s list chortled at my heart’s measly offering.

But then a funny thing happened. First, we found a way to experiment with the warring sides of brain and heart: we agreed to take the dog just for the weekend, no obligation. A test drive. We told Rio we were merely looking after Holly’s new puppy, which, um, didn’t yet have a name. (Poor guy didn’t have a clue.)

At first, Rio was intrigued but dispassionate. He probably figured it wasn’t worth it getting attached to an animal we’d only have for two days. And what I found for myself was a wild weekend of swinging moods. When I played and cuddled with the tender fur ball I swooned with the idea of her being “ours.” But when her little razor teeth pierced my skin and Annie and I started looking at our backyard and talking about fences and leashes and doggie doors and our neighbor’s ten outdoor cats, my neck muscles began to stiffen and I felt my blood run hot beneath my skin. I’m already a below-average multitasker with my hands full raising Rio, loving Annie, tending to my creative and spiritual life, working, and helping take care of the house. Who had room for a dog?

Annie seemed to fair no better, so by the end of the weekend we opted to let Rio in on our quandary. We explained what we were facing, and we truthfully weren’t sure what he’d say about this puppy whose boundless energy had intimidated him and whom he’d had no part in choosing. But his face lit up as the possible reality dawned on him: “Oh my gosh! If we could keep this dog I’d be the happiest kid in the world!” When we asked him why, he confided almost in a whisper, “She might make me feel better when I’m feeling sad or lonely.”

That was it. For all the logic of my rational mind’s lists, it paled when standing next to what my heart was increasingly certain was a more durable truth: that this animal would be a benefit to our family, another live body in our already rich experiment in love.

What is the anatomy of a decision? Sometimes it is merely determining quantifiable variables, almost like a mathematical equation, and seeing what they equal. But on other occasions, there is an incalculable x factor whose value appears almost like a dancing figure in the mist. When I choose to surrender to this mysterious invitation — when I throw my faith toward the vague notion that there is a method to the universe’s madness — then I often get to hold its juiciest parts.

As the weekend drew to a close, I remembered that in one of my journals from a year ago, I had drawn with Rio a series of domestic scenes: him and me, Annie and him, the three of us together. And in one, I had sketched a caricature of me in a field with the word “Rio” playfully scrawled in the sky above. Looking up at me from a spot next to my boot was a dog that looked just like Stella.