Get a Life! A spiritual one

Tags: 

You had it when you were younger, and then you outgrew it.

Or you never had it, and you never wanted it, but you're starting to think maybe now you do. Something terrible happened and you're trying to deal with it.

Or nothing terrible happened but nothing great is happening, either.

You feel a kind of restlessness or emptiness or dissatisfaction with your usual pleasures and treasures -- the sex, the drugs, the music, the dancing, the travel, the boyfriend, the shopping, the house, Facebook. You have a sense that there's something more to life than this. You're right. Congratulations! You're probably ready to delve into spirituality.

Sure, it's fun to be young and gay and fabulous, but sooner or later -- and that could be age 12 or 25 or 50 -- you start to realize the advantages of having an inner life.

With the demands of everyday life and work and family and advertising constantly pulling at you, it's easy to forget who you are. Spirituality provides a navigational system through the mysteries of existence -- what is my purpose here? What was I born to do? What is my connection to other people, to nature, to the universe? What is the meaning of suffering? How can I live all of who I am? It's about living deeper. It's about happiness that can't be found in things. It's about knowing yourself.

But where to begin?

Part of me is highly resistant to being told what to do, and therefore I resist telling others what to do, especially in the realm of spirituality, which is so personal and where there is a long history of shepherds leading the flock astray. But then I think it's about simple sharing of knowledge. If you don't have the first clue how to make a vegetable frittata, and I make it all the time, is it better for me to let you fumble around in the kitchen by yourself or should I just give you the fucking recipe? You'll adapt it to your own purposes and pantry anyway. So here's how it works for me.

I think I was always a spiritual kid. I was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy, but not because I believed any of the dogma -- I was in it for the theater, mostly. I wanted to be part of the show, not sit in the audience. Still, I was curious about spirituality and precociously read William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Bhagavad-Gita when I was 12 or 13. I was probably influenced by the Beatles and other rock groups who went to India and studied meditation (when they weren't blowing their minds on pot and acid). I used to burn incense and sit cross-legged and adopt a pose of meditation, which allowed me to think of myself as a hippie fellow traveler instead of a nerdy crew-cutted military dependent living on an Air Force base in San Antonio.

All that fell away as adolescence set in. College had its own absorptions, including coming out as a gay man. And then my twenties were all about working and getting ahead and building a career and making a name for myself. They say that most people don't really start developing a serious inner life, whether that means therapy or spiritual practice or philosophical inquiry, until around age 35, by which time life has knocked some of the youthful cockiness and sense of immortality out of you.

For me, it happened like clockwork. Four days after I turned 35, my best friend died of AIDS. I'd been the primary organizer of his health care, especially in the last couple of months when he developed a brain tumor and lost the ability to walk, talk, or feed himself. His parents were freaked out and complete basket cases, so it was left to me to attend to him and them and the home care nurses and hospitals and funeral arrangements. It was a heart-wrenching experience, and yet I discovered something about myself in the process: that I had some reservoir of inner strength and love that the rest of my life wasn't using, and it came in handy taking care of my sick friend. After he was gone, I was left to ponder what all that was about.

That led me to do some of the things I'd recommend to you: have a daily practice (such as meditation), read, take a class.

Learning to meditate is all about getting quiet and going inside to see who's home. It really helps to start your day with a structured way of slowing down and remembering who you are, before the world starts making its daily demands. Meditation is an essential spiritual practice. Having a daily practice is so important. It can look any number of ways -- it might mean burning incense and sitting cross-legged and emptying your mind and looking beatific, but it doesn't have to look like that. Whatever it is, it helps to do it every day. It's not an easy habit to form, but it's like playing a sport or a musical instrument -- it's about practice, not about instant mastery.

Some people can learn to meditate from reading books or listening to audiotapes, and there are some good ones. My favorite teacher is Jack Kornfield, who is one of the foremost teachers of the Buddhist practice known as vipassana, or mindfulness meditation. He has a great book called A Path with Heart that I would recommend to anyone starting out on a spiritual journey. He is associated with the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, and he has a bunch of audio courses on meditation that you can order from Amazon.

But I sampled a lot of different things before I ended up with Jack Kornfield and vipassana. I read a lot of books, because I'm a reader. Spiritual memoirs were especially intriguing to me. Some that really spoke to me were: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda (a classic in this genre, though it takes about 50 pages to get used to the long Sanskrit names -- just ignore them and keep plowing), Christopher Isherwood's My Guru and His Disciple (excellent tale of a gay Quaker's initiation into the Vedanta branch of Hinduism), and Andrew Harvey's A Journey in Ladakh (mystic travels to Tibet).

When it came time to get serious about having a practice, I started by taking a correspondence course with the Self-Realization Fellowship, an organization in California set up to continue the teachings of Yogananda. But after a while, all this reading was just too heady for me. I needed presence, direct transmission of teaching. So I took an introductory meditation class at the Integral Yoga center in New York. It was a really simple class, and the instructions were really simple, and they serve me to this day:

Create an altar for yourself as a focus for reverence (it can be a tiny tabletop somewhere in your house), light a candle, put something beautiful next to it or a picture of somebody you love, and start small by sitting for five minutes. Use a kitchen timer, and sit no more than five minutes. When the timer goes ding, get up and go about your day. Do the same thing every day for a week. After that, add one minute to your routine, and sit for six minutes a day. Do that for a week. Add a minute each week until you get to the length of time that feels right for you. Mine is about 20 minutes. Some people have time and leisure enough to sit for 45 minutes every day. You may only have 12 minutes. Do it every day. It'll change your life.

Okay, that's some preliminary information. I sense some questions and objections being raised. Let's deal with a few of those:


Why do I have to be a spiritual person?

You don't have to. It's not something to beat yourself up about or turn into another occasion for run-with-the-pack conformity. You'll come to it when you need to. I love the Mary Oliver poem that begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

I can't help equating spirituality with churches, many of which preach against homosexuality. Why would I want to have anything to do with religions that revile gay people?

It's definitely true that almost no one gay grows up without being scarred somehow by homophobic religious teachings, which most of us encountered when we were too young to shield ourselves from their onslaught. For gay people especially, an important part of developing a rich and healthy inner life is learning to separate religion from spirituality. Churches are institutions organized around religious doctrines, many of which offer beautiful instructions for living a good life. But churches and organizations are run by human beings, which means they're flawed. The biggest flaw among religious people is a narrow-minded attitude toward those who don't think and act exactly like them.

There are gay churches, most notably the Metropolitan Community Church, which has branches in most North American cities. And virtually every denomination of Christian religions has churches or groups that are gay or gay-friendly. It takes a lot of courage and determination for gay people to stay in the church -- organizations like Dignity and Integrity exist for gay Christians to support one another. There are gay synagogues in a lot of big cities as well.

Staying in the church means you have to do some serious work on yourself healing homophobia, and healing doesn't happen on its own. (People who call themselves "recovering Catholics" aren't kidding!) You need a support system, though reading always helps. A book I recommend is an anthology called Wrestling With the Angel: Faith and Religion in the Lives of Gay Men, edited by Brian Bouldrey. Another good one is Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey by Fenton Johnson.

Churches like Unity and the Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to be much more gay-friendly than traditional Christian denominations. Same goes for Buddhist communities, since Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a dogmatic religion. That hasn't stopped the Dalai Lama, of all people, from making remarkably ignorant comments about gay people. But there are plenty of Buddhist groups that are welcoming. Winston Leyland's anthology Queer Dharma is a good introduction to gay Buddhist thought.

But church is only one door into the world of spirituality. You can also go the route of exploring inner life from a mythological point of view. Mark Thompson's ground-breaking 1987 anthology Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning turned a lot of people on to the spiritual impulses that run through Walt Whitman's ecstatic poetry, the Native American two-spirit tradition, the quest for transcendence underlying leather sexuality, and the gender-consciousness-raising of the pagan Radical Faeries.

There are also non-denominational, non-church movements devoted to gay spirituality, such as the Q-Spirit movement launched by Christian de la Huerta, author of the influential book Coming Out Spiritually. David Nimmons wrote a wonderful book called The Soul Beneath the Skin to launch his own movement called Manifest Love, devoted to developing a culture of affirmation among gay men and promoting loving challenges to mainstream stereotypes of gay behavior.

White Crane Journal is a magazine about gay spirituality whose website has an exhaustive list of links to resources on the subject.

I have a practice but it's feeling stale -- how do I take it deeper?

Most people who have a spiritual practice find it helpful every year or two to go on retreat. Carve time out of your life to go away for a week or ten days or two weeks or a month or three months to practice meditation or yoga or whatever it is you do. Arduous as it may seem in advance to find the time and resources to do it, the rewards are immeasurable. Away from the distractions and daily demands of your life at home, in some beautiful natural environment under the leadership of skilled facilitators, you can really deepen your practice and come home refreshed and reinvigorated.

Especially when you're new to a spiritual journey, you find yourself getting on the workshop circuit and diving into a lot of week-long adventures. It's a great way to explore different forms of spiritual practice. One of my first big retreats was a vision quest in Wyoming, a Native American ritual that involves a three-day solo fast in the desert -- intense and life-changing! Another good one was a week-long workshop that combined Buddhist meditation led by Jack Kornfield with holotropic breathwork led by Stanislav Grof (a pioneer in studying "non-ordinary states of being" whose original work was in LSD and, after it was outlawed, switched to breathwork and found similar results). Little by little, I built up to what is now my preferred retreat mode, which is a ten-day silent vipassana retreat, which I do every couple of years at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

I'm not good at joining groups. How can I pursue a spiritual path on my own?

For many people, being in community is a key part of developing spiritually. As a young gay rabbi recently told me, "In the Jewish tradition, belonging comes before believing." That's challenging to gay people who've been made to feel like outsiders in their families, their churches, their communities. You get to a point of not knowing how to belong, even where you're welcome. It's worth it to make an effort to find kindred spirits, but don't expect to get all your needs met in a spiritual community.

While some of the spiritual journey is communal, a big piece of it is learning to validate your own experience, to be the master of your own domain, so to speak. Here are some spiritual practices you can try on your own: Sing. Dance. Commune with nature. Turn off your TV. Give things away. Forgive yourself. Make a pilgrimage. Go to a funeral. Start over. Let go of your judgments of other people and yourself. Let go. Let go.

I've tried to meditate, but I can't sit still, and I can't do yoga -- I'm not supple enough, and I can't stand the thought of being a clod in a roomful of preening perfect yogis. I resist organized religion, and new age woo-woo stuff just seems silly. Plus, I don't have time.

If you're interested in developing an inner life but you find fault with every possibility, you end up isolated or alienated from something you say you want. Consider that you may be suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You might seek professional help (therapy) to reduce stress and heal trauma.

It's not just that religions are anti-gay -- they also tend to be anti-sex or anti-body. How can I be a spiritual person and not deny physical pleasure and the life of the body?

Good question! A very important part of any spiritual journey is uncovering the sacred in your sexuality. A good place to explore that is to sign up for Celebrating the Body Erotic, a workshop created by the Body Electric School, which is based in California and teaches workshops all over the country. It's a two-day class in combining touch, breath, and erotic energy that goes a long way toward healing the split between sexuality and spirituality. A good book on this subject is David Guy's The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex. And a good daily practice is to spend some time every day (even if it's only five or ten minutes) massaging yourself from head to toe, including your genitals, to honor and bless every part of your physical being.

I'm obsessed with sex to the point of compulsiveness, incessantly surfing for porn and Grindr hookups. Where does spirituality fit into all this?

A big reason to cultivate an inner life is to get support and experience in the spiritual practice of discernment -- telling one thing apart from the other. A lot of us live with intense shame about our desires. But is it a healthy form of shame -- feeling bad about having sex in a way that's harmful to ourselves or others (being abusive or coercive, infecting others with diseases, focusing on sexual pickups to the point of neglecting our own health and responsibilities)? Or is it a toxic form of shame based on religious teachings that have implanted prohibitions about any kind of sexual passion, especially same-sex? It is your spiritual challenge as a human being to learn to decide that for yourself. Spiritual practice and guidance can help you work through murky questions like: am I having a lot of sex because I want to, or am I having sex that I don't really enjoy? Sometimes we feel something lacking inside ourselves and we want a sexual encounter to fill up the hole. Does that really work? Unless you dismantle the voice inside that constantly screams "You're no good," no amount of validation from outside will ever be enough.

Desire is a major realm for spiritual investigation. I love something that the great gay poet Allen Ginsberg once said: "Desires are the natural product of the heart, just as thoughts are the natural product of the mind." Acceptance of your desires in a kind and loving way --– rather than judging them or suppressing them -- is a first step toward discernment, then you can have the clarity to decide which desires to act on and which to leave as desires.

West African teacher Malidoma Some once said, "Desire is a horse that wants to take you on a journey to spirit" -- a saying I liked so much that I painted it on the mantle of my fireplace. Where is the vehicle of desire taking you? Toward pleasure? That's fine -- often a short trip. Toward connection with others? Toward connection with source of life? Toward communion with the divine? Again, it's your call.

Sometimes our obsession with sex represents a powerful longing for the mythological Beloved or a wish to dwell in an oceanic state of being one with God. If you're obsessed with cock to the point of religious fervor, why not make a conscious ritual out of it? Hindus pray to and pour libations over phallic-shaped stones representing the Shiva lingam -- literally, the dick of God. One more quote from a poet on this subject and then I'll stop: James Broughton said, "The body is a temple, and the only proper activity in a temple is worship."

There seem to be too many choices. How do I know where to go or who to trust?

The main thing to know is that there are many spiritual traditions (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, pagan, Afro-Caribbean, Native American, etc.) and there are many spiritual practices (meditation, chanting, going to church, observing religious holidays, breathing, hatha yoga, dancing, walking, selfless service). Give yourself permission to explore. If there's something that really draws you in, commit to spending a year exploring that practice or studying that tradition. If nothing really grabs you, spend a month doing some research and inquiring about three or four different spiritual practices. And then commit to one for six months or a year. Evaluate at the end of that time, and then switch or go deeper. Be open to what happens along the way.

The 12th century ecstatic Sufi poet Rumi has some words on that subject (as translated by Coleman Barks) that I'll end with:

These spiritual windowshoppers,
who idly ask, How much is that? Oh, I'm just looking.
They handle a hundred items and put them down,
shadows with no capital.

What is spent is love and two eyes wet with weeping.
But these walk into a shop,
and their whole lives pass suddenly in that moment,
in that shop.

Where did you go? "Nowhere."
What did you have to eat? "Nothing much."

Even if you don't know what you want, buy something,
to be part of the general exchange.

Start a huge, foolish, project,
like Noah.

It makes absolutely no difference
what people think of you.

 

 

[stag_divider style="plain"]
don_shewey_nightcharmDon Shewey is a writer, therapist, and pleasure activist in New York City.

He has published three books about theater and writes articles and reviews about theater for The New York Times, American Theater, The Advocate, and other publications.

He has written extensively about men, sex, and spirituality for the Village Voice, Genre, The Sun, Nightcharm and the late Scott O'Hara's sex journal Steam, and RFD.

Don also contributed the chapter on spirituality and community to Men Like Us: The GMHC Guide to Gay Men's Health.

An archive of his writing is available online at donshewey.com.

©2014 Don Shewey and Nightcharm