Finding the Comfort in Discomfort

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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.

Deep in the Batch

With Annie and Rio in California for two weeks, I’ve been submerged in what a friend of mine once referred to as “Deep Batch.” It’s what happens to a man when his partner and kids are gone.

Deep Batch usually begins with a sweet honeymoon period where I am absolutely delighted to have no one to answer to. I get to do exactly what I want to do! What a change from the compromise inherent to cohabitation and parenting, blessed beings that they are. For days I lounged around, proudly not checking items off my overly long to-do list (I’ll have so much time on my hands, I’d thought during a pious moment days prior,  I’ll be able to accomplish so much! Ha.) I was messier than usual, resorting to my childhood ways of not really cleaning up after myself in the moment and instead leaving it for a furious cleaning session later on. I…sunk…into…shit.

There’s something to be said for this. I am dutiful, functional, and organized normally, so there’s a profound release in lying back deep into the sofa and doing absolutely nothing constructive. I started contemplating sloths.

Just then I heard a loud knock and opened the door to find two friends who visit sometimes: Stimulation and Anesthesia. You may have met them. I knew they’d come.

“What the hell are you doing on the couch?” they sneered. “You look terrible. Get something decent on and join us: we’re going to a fantastic party.”

Off we went.

It was truly fun for a while. But then the rush of the ride started to wear off. As much as indulgence can sound like “Me! Me! Me!” ultimately it’s not self-serving. And so I returned to where I was when I first touched down solo in Raleigh days before: the black hole of me. I’m not comfortable there! Never have been. It’s easier to check out or run away.

The next night I watched the film Another Year, which has a scene where a family is burying a mother. Only a handful of people are there, and a stranger presides over the short ceremony. The mother’s only son comes late and misses the service. Suddenly I started thinking of my own father, how alone he is, and I began to worry that his end might be like this. I felt my breath catch and I immediately recoiled, as though touching the fear that was coming up in my solitude would injure me. That night (and the subsequent two) I dreamed that I was tripping over monstrous snakes that appeared out of nowhere. In one, I jumped back in terror as a monstrous copperhead slithered in front of me, only to watch Annie and our good friend Kate swoop in calmly, put the snake in a bag, and take it away. What am I so scared of?

Pema Chödrön has referred to the art of finding “cool loneliness”: those sublime moments when we grab a flashlight and crawl into the hole of ourselves and accept what we find scrawled on the walls. I believe the term was first coined by D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in Women in Love, “What did people matter altogether? There was this perfect cool loneliness, so lovely and fresh and unexplored….Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.”

Why was this kind of loneliness so elusive and fleeting? I’ve had moments of deep union with myself when I have stuck with my fear and traveled alone into my own abyss. Why could I not choose that again more readily?

I do not know. I do know that if I am patient I usually find my way there. If I overact to the times I fail, or run, then I get stuck on recrimination and am therefore closed to the moments when I do stand my ground, dig in, and come out holding the slippery light. And so I decided to surrender to my own vagaries and imperfections — if you are on a roller coaster, enjoy the damn ride. It was then that those slivers of light began to come in through the cracks: watching live music and feeling joy swell inside me from the sheer talent of the performers on stage, that warmth finally released in slow tears I didn’t bother to wipe away. Later that same night, an impromptu dance with a stranger: lively, daring, sensual. And the day I helped a friend; the gazpacho I made for my own delight; the many dips in the river to wipe off all the grime from the fight.

And then the sweetest ones came. Alone in the living room, listening to a song Annie and I sing together, and feeling an ache so deep for her I can barely believe it’s real. And then the next day, finding a card Rio made for me, the scrawled letters and the way they spelled “I will owas love you Timuthe.” It is then I truly miss them: not in that needy way of requiring their anchors, but in knowing they are allies and partners on this jagged path we each ultimately face alone.

Healing Wounds

Not long ago I saw a therapist who guided me through a hypnosis session that profoundly changed me.

I had talked with the therapist several times and had told him about a sense I had of a wound within me. It was a physical feeling I would sometimes get of something large, heavy, and overwhelming weighing down on me, a deathly kind of chill that would crop up unexpectedly. I didn’t know what was inside this wound, but I had the sense that something had happened to me that I’d repressed so deeply that I couldn’t name it. I have no memories of any deep trauma, so I was unable to talk or think my way toward resolution. I wanted to get into this dark hole and excavate what was there. I asked the therapist if he could help me.

He told me he might be able to help me heal the wound, but that it was likely I would never be able to understand it. “You may never discover why it is there,” he said. “But we can still try to treat it.”

To get inside the would, I’d have to get into a deeply relaxed, or hypnotic state; to get there, I’d have to open myself up and shut down my rational mind. In a few of our previous sessions, the therapist had noticed that I’d catch my emotions and compose myself right when I was beginning to cry, thereby shutting down the valve that was about to open.

“I can get you down to that spot,” the therapist told me, “but you are going to have to let yourself fall into it.”

I believed this therapist, whom a friend had once referred to as a “shaman in the woods.” I’m suspicious of hocus-pocus, but I also believe there is much to life we cannot see. I realized that I harbored a bias against hypnosis, cartoons from childhood the principal source of my crude understanding of it as a manipulative practice induced by a swaying pocket watch. The therapist was seasoned, smart, and kind. The foundation he provided was firm enough for me to trust leaping off the cliff with him.

To prepare me for the session, the therapist asked me to make a list of spiritual guides I wanted to accompany me on my trip inside. I listed specific family members and friends:  my deceased grandfather Joe and father-in-law Bill would be there. My Mom and Dad, and Annie and Rio would come. I even invited Rumi.

The day of the hypnosis, I was excited but not nervous. I had felt this wound for decades and was inspired by the idea of healing it. My therapist had me lie down, and he used soothing words and silence to bring me into a quiet, floating world where I seemed suspended outside of rational thought. He, as a person, and the room I was in, began to float away. His voice asked me to picture a place I wanted to be, and I ended up choosing the sandy beach right beside the Haw River near our house in Bynum. He invited all of my guides there, and before long I was standing foot-deep in the river surrounded by my friends and family. (That I was literally on my therapist’s couch had become an irrelevant fact.) Rio stepped forward from the circle and stood eye-to-eye with me. I was now a small boy, and not Rio’s father.

Rio said, “Come play with me.”

I shook my head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m scared,” I replied.

“Of what?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said. “You are OK.”

Suddenly the scene was replaced by a blank screen with a strange small black circle slowly moving and circling in front of it. I told the therapist about it, and he encouraged me to look inside the circle. I did, and I only found more darkness. I had the sense that I would find what ailed me if I kept going.

Almost like an abrupt cut in a movie, suddenly I was in my grandfather’s garden on a bright summer day. I was a child. I was kneeling, and my grandfather was on his knees too, carefully showing me how to pick a green bean off the vine. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my arms. This was a scene, but it was also something I had really experienced; my grandfather had always had a huge vegetable garden in his backyard in Connecticut, and my sister and I had spent hours in it helping him and my grandmother pick green beans. In my twenties, I had lived an entire summer in a nearby lake cottage and had visited my aging grandfather weekly. Every visit, we went out to tour his garden, and we picked fresh vegetables for me to take back to the cottage.

But in this moment I was a boy, the same age I’d been with Rio by the river, and I suddenly felt a surge of positive emotion so strong it is hard to describe. It felt like the warm sun was gushing through me, like photosynthesis, like my whole insides were being flooded with the brightest white light. I was awash with love. Tears came gushing down my face in a sudden torrent. “My grandfather loved me so much,” I said out loud with utter clarity.

Just as soon as I felt the sensation, it was gone, and the therapist slowly guided me back to the river, and he soon closed the loop on the ceremony and brought me back to waking life.

As time has passed, I have understood some of what occurred. My sense is that my wound was partially healed through physically experiencing the embodiment of my grandfather’s love. This is not at all what I expected. His love had been so constant and pure in my life that I had largely taken it for granted — I certainly never considered him when I thought about pain. I’d had tumultuous relationships with other men in my life, particularly my father, but my grandfather’s love and presence had never been in question. Perhaps that is why his love, and a scene that epitomized it, was at the center of that swirling black mass, which I believe was a visual symbol of my wound. The session took me not to an answer of what my trauma was, but rather to a source that could heal it.

Today I sat on that same beach in Bynum, looking out over the water as Rio built a sandcastle. At one point he came over to me, nudged my legs open, sat down, and leaned his back against my chest. I put my arms around him and felt the sweetness passing between us. Sometimes I wonder what all of these loving moments between him and me will add up to. Which minutes will become memories? I suspect that love given and received doesn’t just evaporate; I believe it lodges deep inside of us, light we may harvest when later darkness falls.

Was Gone for Days

I just didn’t have it in me. The living of life with the eyes open to the details, the sublime in the ordinary. Nope, for the last week I’ve only wanted to run away. Since writing is a lens through which I develop my own consciousness, then I wanted to be nowhere near the act. Anything I started to tap out felt fake, anyway, because my heart wasn’t in it; I had, as Ginsberg has put it, no shoulder behind the wheel.

My heart in fact was into not being present. I was trying to embrace my own nihilism, to accept my unwillingness to see the bridges. My friend Dre says that “balance is available to you at any moment,” and I believe this, but yesterday I did not want to lift the heavy veil between me and the good spot. It’s not that I’ve been teetering on imbalance’s beam; it’s more a feeling of numbness, nullness, a mute cloud.

But then my boy, who was home sick kinda from school, told his Mama that he wanted to stop by my office so that he could give me a hug and a kiss, which he did on a gravel parking lot and I swear those lips on my cheeks bathed me in hued light; “love works” I told him later, because he unlatched his chest and walked through its swinging doors until he reached mine — which were locked — but his words and touch were the key, and now here I am feeling this diamond inside, cracking open as I feel that kiss again.

Nicknames

Of the nicknames that Annie and I have given each other over the years, two that have stuck are “Big Shit” and “Little Shit.”

Annie and I are both passionate people. We like to be right, and we’re scrappy in a fight. We don’t argue often, but when we do, it can be a serious bout; judges may score Round 2 to Annie and Round 3 to me, but ultimately, we almost always both end up on the mat. It’s not that we knock each other down but rather that we wear each other down; by the twelfth bell we’re exhausted shadows of our selves.

It’s almost as if I float out of the real Tim, who is generally easygoing and helpful, and come back as rigid Tim, who is uptight and ungenerous. And it’s as if Annie, who is generally sweet and flexible, becomes Annie the drama queen, who is demanding and obstinate. We seem to do our most damage when we slip into these roles.

At this point, we usually resort to opposite strategies. I want to finish the fight with some sort of reconciliation, even if it’s nowhere near forgiveness or redemption and closer to “you’re not that bad.” Annie may have the same goal, but she generally gets so worked up that she needs some distance; she’s not very good at pretending to “make nice,” and she’s told me several times she’s trying to save my ass from further damage when she slips through the ropes and heads to her office upstairs.

But however long our fights last, Annie and I share an understanding that the ugly sides we sometimes show each other are just one face of our multi-sided diamonds. We’re both shits, but it’s aberrant, not normative. We both know that our partnership engenders growth, despite these flashes of regression.

“Big Shit” and “Little Shit,” then, are actually olive branches. They diffuse the imperative we both feel to win the fight. They say “You are wrong” and “I am wrong,” or, just as plausibly, “You are right” and “I am right.”  They concede that we are both imperfect, fallible creatures in love.

When Annie finally comes downstairs and utters my nickname (I’m Big Shit), I know we’re on the way back up.