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On a 40-day meditation retreat, dharma teacher and LGBTQ activist Jay Michaelson came to the shocking realization that, deep down, he would change his orientation if he could.By Dr. Jay Michaelson
It had been a cool, early December day in Barre, Massachusetts, about ten years ago. I had spent the daylight hours, what was left of them, sitting in hour-long meditation sessions and walking outside in the white, grey, and tan colors of a Massachusetts winter. It had been a peaceful day, as I recall, about two-thirds of the way through a forty-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS).
Forty days in silence. External silence, anyway, the better to hear the incessant noise of thought. The retreat had been profound, difficult, inspiring—par for the course. Four weeks in, I thought I had basically learned what I was going to learn. And then everything fell apart.
It began innocently enough: During a talk one evening, a teacher said that all of our habits, preferences, and opinions are conditions in and of the mind, and all of them can be changed. Dharma 101.
But I recoiled. Having spent over ten years trying to change my sexuality, having despaired of it to the point of suicide, and having finally given up trying to change and come out the other side healthy, sane, and whole, I felt as though I knew from experience both that some things cannot be changed and that to say it can be is enormously harmful. Even if sexuality is a phenomenon of the mind and not the body, sexual orientation is effectively hardwired in—for me, anyway, and for many other queer people. Trying to change it is as healthy as trying not to breathe.
So I was triggered. And so when the dharma talk was done, I spent the next half-hour in walking meditation, furious at the ignorance of this teacher. I paced back and forth, noting a whole lot of anger, and getting lost in it more often than not. But then, literally mid-step, I realized how attached I was to the belief that sexuality cannot be changed. It wasn’t just some intellectual difference I had with the teacher—I was really attached to my view. I had something at stake.
Then, in the next thought, I realized that I was so attached to my story that sexuality is unchangeable because I would change my sexuality if I could.
Which was shocking. At the time, I was the director of a national queer organization, and I’ve long been someone whose work and life is deeply gay-positive and celebrates the erotic and spiritual possibilities of being queer. I celebrate my sexuality and recognize it as a unique gift. But here I was, realizing that a part of me was still self-hating, still telling myself that I’d rather be different. Here is what I wrote in my journal that night:
I’m tired of hating myself
I’m tired if wanting myself to be straight, even a little.
I’m tired if “all things being equal, I’d prefer.”
That night was a dark one. It’s not that I even believed the self-hatred—I just could not believe that it was present at all. How could this be?
As I lay restless that night, I watched—and was often caught in—a caravan of thoughts and judgments: How I felt rejection, how I felt I’d disappointed my parents, how I’d failed. And I saw that “being gay” just felt bad, in a stupid, nonrational way, because people have told me so for decades. Intellectually, of course, I know not to believe them, but on a gut level, I felt unloved, unsuccessful, unappreciated. More from the journal:
Look at how much bullshit I still believe . . . I hate the hatred. It makes me feel unlovable. It makes me feel like a fraud. It makes me feel like I can never be enlightened and have no business being a spiritual teacher….