You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.
Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.
—Toni Cade Bambara, “The Salt Eaters”
When people ask me how I’m doing, I feel a little confused and pause for a moment. In my mind I want to talk about this deep sense of heaviness and despair that feels like mourning with and for the world. I want to say that a part of me doesn’t feel good enough, that this was a feeling I was born into, trained in, and encouraged to accept–that I do not remember experience before this.
Growing up, no one had ever talked about sexuality or sexual orientation. The boy knew he was gay by his mid-teens but did not have a language to express it. Even if he did, there was danger in saying the words.
After fifth grade, the boy had transferred to a mostly white school. He made white friends for the first time and began to notice that the white kids dressed better, always had money, had two parents at home and drove nice cars, took vacations, went to summer camps, could afford special study programs and tutors, were not in the free and reduced-price lunch program, and lived in multistory homes and nice neighborhoods. At that time, he lived in the projects with his mom, did not wear all name brand clothes, had gapped teeth; for the first time, he felt both poor and Black.
The boy hated riding the school bus home. Often he had to stand in the aisle, as the bus was always too crowded. As one of the younger students on the bus, he was bullied and harassed by older kids. Once someone jammed a pencil between his buttocks as if trying to penetrate him anally. Once, after an older student tripped passing him in the aisle, the student rammed his elbow across the boy’s lower jaw. Though not in much pain, the boy wanted to cry. The only physical violence he had ever known was from other Black boys. He did not understand how anyone could feel safe around them.
One other afternoon the teen stopped at a convenience store to buy a snack. By the time he was walking out, the cops were waiting on him. The cashier had reported him as matching the description of someone who had been shoplifting there. The cops asked for ID and were respectful. The young man kept thinking how he didn’t do anything to deserve this. Afterward the boy raced home, paranoid, and locked himself in his room. He had no idea what was wrong with him. He was sobbing, terrified, and ashamed for being both.
The young man had been larger bodied most of his life. He was labeled “fat” in the gay male community. Because of this, he felt judged, marginalized, and devalued. He felt unattractive and undesirable. He felt that he was not thin or handsome enough to be loved. Those he was attracted to were not attracted to him. Once, after chatting with another man online using a profile picture portraying him as thinner than he was, he met him in person. The man took one look at him and explained bluntly to the young man, “You need to be honest with yourself,” and walked away. It took the young man years to love and trust his body after that.
He was new to Buddhism and was sitting his first ten-day intensive retreat. During the question-and-answer period after a dharma talk, he explained to the white male teacher that he felt lonely and marginalized in the sangha as the only person of color. The teacher suggested that this was something the young man struggled with outside of the sangha. The young man agreed. The teacher advised him to just sit with what he was feeling. The young man wanted more and did sit with the feelings and knew that the sangha and that teacher were not safe for him.
I want to say how much I am feeling my personal trauma compounded from lifetimes of psychological and emotional violence endured and held not only by myself, but by many generations before me and passed on to me without my consent. I want to say that it breaks my heart that we have to tell little Black boys they will have to survive being Black and male in a time and place that chooses not to hold them warmly or kindly.
And then there was that afternoon when Velma had done her best. As a brown-bodied woman engaged in the work of social change, she could not continue any longer. Activism, racism, misogyny, marriage, and work had taken its toll. The struggle for mental, physical, and spiritual liberation had left her body worn, spirit weak, and her mind sick and trembling. As a reward for her efforts to take her own life, she found herself barely wrapped in a hospital gown, waiting for hands to be laid on her.
Minnie came as healer. Velma resisted. She couldn’t decide if she was ready to be healed. Finally, Minnie checked in:
Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.
On Thursday, June 18, 2015, I woke to the mourning of nine slaughtered Black bodies in Charleston, South Carolina. The brutality of the massacre was an act of terrorism in my own heart, breaking it into a million little pieces of aching. I felt that Toni Cade Bambara’s classic novel, The Salt Eaters, was reading me. I was feeling a little like Velma in the novel, lost, frustrated, and resisting. Broken. I held onto Minnie’s appeal to Velma as if she were speaking to me. I wanted and needed healing. I craved for Minnie’s hands to be laid on me. I needed to be liberated. This morning I wanted to be whole. I wanted the privilege of the weight of what it meant to be well. I wanted to know what it meant to be healed.
When did I decide I wanted to carry this weight?
If I am to speak of healing, then I must first speak of trauma. When I speak of trauma, I speak of experiences that impact how we relate to ourselves and to others around us. These experiences, mostly related to our emotional capacities and also called woundedness, hurting, aching, or pain, refer to both the subtle and gross experiences that make it very difficult to feel confident, safe, or to experience happiness, well-being, and balance. In this understanding of trauma, trauma can be healed. Through the cultivation of awareness practice, we can learn to identify our traumas, accept them, investigate them, and learn to let them go in concert with sustaining heart practices such as lovingkindness (metta), taking and sending (tonglen), and compassion practices.
In my experience, trauma is the creation of a context that does not privilege my deepest desire to return home and inhabit my own agency and body, but instead triggers disembodiment and a loss of awareness of the body and its experiences. Thus, trauma becomes a cyclical experience of continuous unfolding, of continuous movement through places without consent as it perpetuates terror, despair, hopelessness, and dis connection. It is a voyage that never docks at any port, but is suspended, unexamined. When I am feeling my own trauma, I find that I am also seeking some way to find ground, an anchor.
Healing is difficult for me to talk about, to neatly conceptualize in a language that communicates my relationship to what I consider a process of slow but intentional liberation. I am nervous and anxious to speak of healing in spaces and places that are suspicious of what it means to heal. I know that sometimes we distrust healing because it means that we have to imagine a different way of being in the world beyond our anger, woundedness, or despair. Moreover, we believe that to move beyond these hurts means that we can no longer be attuned to the suffering of communities and people struggling for justice, equality, or basic visibility. Or maybe because we feel that healing means forgetting that we have been hurt, oppressed, and that there is an oppressor who should and must be held accountable for their violence.
Perhaps we think healing means weakness, that we are no longer strong when we are healed or that healing zaps our super-human ability of being pissed off and agitated, which we think keeps us conscious and present. We have learned that anger is a part of the work of social liberation, that being angry is what motivates and drives us. To a certain extent this is true. However, I believe that the true blessing of anger is how it can indicate an imbalance in our experience and in the world around us. But we have to be very clear: Anger is not about creating or building up. That is the work of loving.
Or maybe we believe that the right to healing is only for those who have been hurt and oppressed, and we are upset to consider that the one who hurts and oppresses is in just as much need of healing. It is hard for us to consider that if the oppressor is healed, then maybe he or she would not reproduce so much violence.
When I hear folks’ distrust of healing, especially in marginalized and traumatized communities, I hear the subtle and nuanced workings of internalized oppression that distract us from imagining liberation that is not about struggling against systems and regimes but about transcending the trauma of struggling and residing in the nature of who we are as people who can be psychically free though physically bound. For when I define healing as freedom, I mean to interrogate how I am slave to my own self-depreciation fueled by internalized oppression.
I want to say that these days when I see dead Black men on TV, I see myself; watching bombs being dropped on communities of brown people anywhere feels like bombs falling on my head. I want to say that sometimes the experience of my skin color is one akin to a desperate need to rip off a burning outfit. I speak about healing because I need you to know that if it were not for healing, I would not be alive. I would not have survived my own intersectionality in a time and place that struggle to hold difference warmly or kindly. Identity is wounding only because we survive in places where difference remains invisible instead of being seen and celebrated. Not only that, many of us do not know how to celebrate our difference because we have been taught to repress difference in an effort to gain social privileges or, to put it another way, access to the master’s house. Because I survived my intersectionality, I am showing up a survivor of conditions that were not set by me but that I still must endure. Yet, for this to be understood, we must be shown what is required to make the possible possible.
Whatever we think love is, love often isn’t. It took me years of practice to understand what love was. I had always heard about it and had often been told of its importance. I knew that I was still alive because of the love of my mother and others. But love was often something I associated with fear. Once, a friend confided that self-love was something their mother had taught them wasn’t possible and that my friend should just learn to live with that truth. When I heard this, something inside of me rebelled and I felt sad. I felt upset hearing my friend believed this from their mother. I felt upset as well because, though I believed in self-love, I knew that there was more self-hate than love for me at that time. In that moment, I vowed to learn to love myself through what seemed like thick folds of self-hate.
Love is the wish for myself and others to be happy. Love transcends our need to control the recipient of love. I love not because I need something in return. I love not because I want to be loved back, but because I see and understand love as being an expression of the spaciousness I experience when I am challenging my egoic fixation by thinking about the welfare of others. I go where I am loved. I go where I am allowed to express love. In loving, I have no expectations.
Healing is being situated in love. Healing is not just the courage to love, but to be loved. It is the courage to want to be happy not just for others, but for ourselves as well. It is interrogating our bodies as an artifact of accumulated traumas and doing the work of processing the trauma by developing the capacity to notice and be with our pain. If we are to heal, then we must allow our awareness to settle into and integrate with the pain and discomfort that have been habitually avoided. We cannot medicate the pain away. We embrace it, and in so doing establish a new relationship with experience. We must see that there is something that must be befriended. This is the true nature of our experience, and in finally approaching this experience we contact basic sanity.
Too often love has meant violence in the form of our manipulation and control. Many of us have learned at an early age that we are only lovable if we meet certain conditions and expectations, The message from our environments has been something like, “You can only be loved if you do _______ or if you are ______.”
Because love is conditional, we develop the art of performing in order to get the love that we need without understanding that we, by nature of having been born, have a natural right to love and receive love. We are controlled by others when we are dependent on their love and thus struggle to meet the demands that they place on us to receive that love.
If we are to heal, then we must allow our awareness to settle into and integrate with the pain and discomfort that have been habitually avoided. We embrace it and in so doing establish a new relationship with experience.
When we attempt to love out of our woundedness, then our loving is only violence. Love needs spaciousness in our minds in order to manifest and endure. If there is no space, it is very difficult to experience a sense of confidence and trust in our own bodies and experience. When none of this is present, our movement and interactions in the world are limited and selfish. Our hurt is our deep identification with a self that can and is experiencing pain. When we are identifying like this, then our actions are more about protecting ourselves than generating authentic concern for others. We see the world around us as antagonistic. Everything becomes a threat. Because of this perceived threat, we often find ourselves in a heightened state of responsiveness, always reacting and attacking. In this way, we are protecting ourselves against others and further acting out of a frustration of never feeling comfortable. Our acting perpetuates suffering for others and thus violence is reproduced.
Many of us have come out multiple times, in many ways. There are always risks with coming out. Often that risk is losing the love from others. When I think of coming out, I am always reminded of coming out as a gay person. When I came out to my mother, I was twenty-four. She was the first family member I came out to. I had been living in Boston, in therapy, and nowhere near being interested in practicing Dharma. With my therapist, I had decided to formally start coming out to family. I had started coming out to friends at the end of high school and was completely out in college, but I had not made it a priority to officially come out to family. I figured if they found out, they found out. If not, oh well. In any case, I had decided with my therapist that I would tell my mom the truth during my visit home.
The time chose me strategically. We were on our way back from church one afternoon. We stopped at a red light and something said, “It’s time.” So, I stepped over the ledge and hoped the net would catch me. I told her that I wanted to tell her that I was gay because I wanted her to know. There was a pause and then a question from her as to how I knew. My response was about my natural attraction to and loving of other men. Upon arriving home, we observed the great Black folk tradition of sitting on the front porch as she simply said that nothing had changed between us and that she still loved me and that she just wanted me to be safe. I think the greatest fear we have coming out about anything is the possibility that we will not be loved by those we need love from. There would have been significant woundedness if my mother said that she could not accept me or love me because of my sexuality. I was very fortunate to receive love from a mother who, in that one instant, chose not to commit violence by restricting her love but chose to love more intensely, thereby becoming an agent of my further healing.
When I suffered severe depression, the easiest thing to do was hide it. You become quite skilled in distracting others from focusing on you and your suffering. This is possible because most people are not interested really in how others are suffering and certainly not interested in their own suffering. There’s no judgement here. Suffering is difficult and tough.
It’s complicated and very uncomfortable. Most of us master the game of distracting ourselves and avoiding vulnerability. I kept my disease to myself and found myself
quietly slipping away, disappearing. Not many people noticed.
Healing is movement and work toward wholeness. Healing is never a definite location but something in process. It is the basic ordinary work of staying engaged with our own hurt and limitations. Healing does not mean forgiveness either, though it is a result of it. Healing is knowing our woundedness; it is developing an intimacy with the ways in which we suffer. Healing is learning to love the wound because love draws us into relationship with it instead of avoiding feeling the discomfort.
Healing means we are holding the space for our woundedness and allowing it to open our hearts to the reality that we are not the only people who are hurt, lonely, angry, or frustrated. We must also release the habitual aggression that characterizes our avoidance of trauma or any discomfort. My goal is to befriend my pain, to relate to it intimately as a means to end the suffering of desperately trying to avoid it. Opening our hearts to woundedness helps us to understand that everyone else around us carries around the same woundedness.
And while I continue to heal myself, I continue to hurt my self. Using racism as an example, though I struggle to use my practice to bring awareness of internalized oppression manifesting as racial trauma, I am also struggling to see how I am also an agent of white supremacy as I unconsciously value white bodies as aesthetically pleasing and cleaner, while simultaneously seeing my body and other brown and Black bodies as less attractive. How my internalizing of white supremacy urges me to be on guard when passing another Black male on the sidewalk, to be embarrassed when other Black or brown bodies are acting out in public spaces, or to hide my rage and despair in order to keep white people cozy.
In my healing I am also mourning. Sometimes I am in despair. Mourning and despair are very private matters. It is my acknowledgment that there is suffering. It is my honoring of my discomfort as well as the discomfort of everyone else in the world. One of the blessings of lovingkindness practice is that the heart remains raw, sensitive, and open to pain. As I am mourning, I am remembering my commitment engendered in my bodhisattva vow, not just to achieve enlightenment to free all beings, but to hold the space for the pain of beings in my practice as I hold my own.
When we begin to confront our trauma, we give permission for others to do the same. This is the work of the contemporary bodhisattva. Ultimately, holding the space for the pain to be present in our experience and our capacity to do this eventually inform the effectiveness of our healing and will make us the healer.
The most profound practice I have ever been taught by my teachers is simply letting my shit fall apart, developing the courage to sit with all of my rough edges, the ugliness, the destructive and suffocating story lines I have perpetuated about myself, and letting go of the same suffocating storylines others maintain about me. It is this practice that sometimes involves sitting in my room alone and letting the tears and pain have their way. But it is also the practice of learning to smile and lean into the hard stuff, allowing it to wake me up to make better decisions.
There is healing through lineage. Sometimes I cannot describe what I mean by lineage. Yet my experience of lineage is about being received and held within a field of continuous loving-warmth, kindness, and compassion. It is about the trans-historical gifting of unconditional acceptance. It is the inheritance of permission to transcend the silliness of living out of the confinement of the ego-bound self. It is the permission to sprout wings and take to the sky as others have before me. Their example becomes the heart of the legacy you will leave behind. My lineage is also intersectionality. It is evoking and honoring all the little pieces of who I am, that which inform the way I show up. I summon my identities like I summon the ancestors and demand that they speak truth to me because if they do not, I am a living lie. To be a lie is to go against my purpose as a body who holds and shares dharma.
Before I give a dharma talk I am usually in silence for some period of time, feeling into the community, leaning into what those present are projecting, trying to hold the space for my fears and anxieties. It is a tender period for me. I need to know that I am being held by lineage. I need to know that before I open my mouth, I am speaking lineage. I take the time to call upon my dharma lineage, evoking the names of the great masters such as Tilopa, Naropa, Milarepa as well as the living-flesh teachers I am devoted to in this life.
I also evoke the blessing of Tara, the female Buddha of compassion, to support me as I lean into my own discomfort so that I can lean into the suffering I sense around me. Often I imagine the essence of my lineage in the form of Tara descending into me like I am possessed.
I am possessed by Tara. It is moving and poignant. Through the blessing of Tara and my lineage, I am there, with people, in my body, being with and loving all the parts of my identity because these parts have taught me how to be kind, passionate, fierce, and tender at the same time. Tara holds this Black queer body in such compassion that I do not feel the need to apologize for anything. She is the woman holding my hand so that I may hold the hand of those who have come to me to be held. At some point I become the woman, the mother. This is when lineage is moving in me.
When I practice lovingkindness, I need to remember that I am cared for. I need to remember that my feelings of being lonely, isolated, and unlovable are essentially the illusions perpetuated by my ego fixation. When I am practicing, I wish to experience the deepest well-being and happiness, and gradually I begin wishing that others experience the same thing. In this way I begin the courageous and great work of loving myself and extending that same love to as many people as I can.
But I was very lucky because as I slipped away I began waking up more to what was happening and refused to disappear. My journey led me into meditation, Buddhism, nutrition, physical fitness, and the world of alternative healing. I’m lucky to have cured myself with the help of healers and my teachers, and I’m lucky to be alive. I only write this because many of you are suffering and feel helpless and stigmatized. Many of you will not articulate your suffering and will not seek help. I especially write to Black folks who historically suffer from many forms of mental illness that remain undiagnosed. We have to start talking about our struggle, especially in light of managing and/or transcending this suffering. I also write to remember everyone who didn’t make it and are not making it. But yes, I have survived depression I’m not ashamed to say that. If you need help, I’m here.
In the end, what I have survived is not myself but people, systems, and institutions that have used physical, emotional, spiritual, and other forms of psychic violence to insist that I should be something other than myself. It is not my particular intersectionality that has been my suffering, but rather the suffering that comes from my intersectionality not being honored, accepted, or even celebrated. I am a survivor of perpetual invisibility, which has often resulted in me doubting my self worth, integrity, and general health. Thus, part of my trauma has been believing that I do not matter and that the world doesn’t care. In my experience, invisibility becomes a kind of murder. For communities I identify with that are struggling to be seen, it is genocide.
I want to say that I will continue smiling at police folks. And understand that when you blame me for your unexamined issues, I will still want you to be happy. When you call me a name meant to hurt me, I will try not to take it personally as you are also trying to express your own despair. I want to say that I am tired of struggling and am practicing being where I want to be. In my mind, I am saying all this, but I haven’t figured out how to get this across. I apologize for my confusion. In the end, my healing has been learning to see myself and to celebrate myself. It is interrogating the stories about how I do not matter and choosing to let go of those narratives and engage in the necessary and revolutionary work, self-love, and liberation. Through self-loving, I can know my aching and choose not to show up in reaction to the aching, but to show up being informed by my aching in a way that wakes me up to the reality that everyone else around me is aching as well. I am not alone in needing to be seen.
But I also want to say that despite my uneasiness in the world, I’m OK and that I’m fine with feeling angry and sad because that’s a part of my humanity and I am learning to have more space to be human. I want to say that I try not to blame others so much and that I am trying to lean into the heaviness and despair, that I’m trying to stay open and not shut down. I want to say that my speechlessness in reaction to the ugliness around me is slowly giving way to a choice to honor life with silent contemplation.
In the end, I am no longer the little boy having to hold the potential violence of those in stress around him, or the little boy who is afraid to claim his love for other men, or the preteen who is challenged to make meaning out of race and class, or the young teen terrified of riding the bus, or the young man othered because of his body type, or the man who is told that his feelings of marginalization are his issue not the issue of a sangha steeped in white-supremacist cultural norms. I am no longer these people, but I remember their stories. They made me who I am. Because of them, I have earned my dharma. I have been blessed with a testimony.
Again, I remember Velma. I used to be Velma. Minnie came to me not once, but many times over. Her words were always the same: Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.
Perhaps what I have come to understand, finally, is that somehow I have become the one I have always wanted. This is why I do the things that I do. There is a fierce love that wakes me up every morning, that makes me tell my stories, refuses to let me apologize for my being here, blesses me with the capacity to be silent, alone, and grieving when I most need to be. You have to understand that this is what I mean when I say healing.
May all beings be seen, held kindly, and loved. May we all one day surrender to the weight of being healed.
Lama Rod Owens is an activist/organizer, poet, and graduate of the traditional three-year retreat program at Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery.
From Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, Copyright © 2016 by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.