Working Through the Strong Emotions of Sexual Identity

Working Through the Strong Emotions of Sexual IdentityPhoto by Peter Hershey |

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….



Why Trees Are The Ultimate Meditation Teachers

Why Trees Are The Ultimate Meditation TeachersPhoto by Eric Parks |

In Buddhism, trees have long been recognized as living things worthy of recognition and protection.

By Lauren Krauze

Last April, my morning meditation was interrupted by the sounds of whirring chainsaws and clamoring trucks. When I stepped to the window, I noticed three men from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation standing around a large oak tree on the sidewalk in front of my apartment. At first, I thought they were trimming the branches. As I watched them saw off larger and larger sections, I realized they were cutting down the entire tree.

My heart started racing. How could I stop this? I thought of the environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who climbed a California redwood tree in 1997 and lived there for nearly two years to save it from being cut down. From my third floor window, I quickly scanned the oak’s upper canopy. It was nearly gone.

I hurried down to the sidewalk and approached the hard-hatted men. “Why are you cutting it down?” I yelled over the chainsaws. A bearded man with icy blue eyes cupped his hand around his ear and leaned toward me. I repeated my question.

He raised his arm and gestured toward the tree, yelling: “It’s dead!” His tone suggested that I had missed something obvious. Dead? The day before I had watched house sparrows and black squirrels scamper along the branches and hide among the tree’s full, healthy leaves. We watched as a thick limb tumbled down through the remaining branches and landed on the street with a thud.

As much as I wanted to intervene, there was nothing I could do. I trudged back upstairs. I closed my apartment windows, but I couldn’t escape the screaming chainsaws. Later, after the trucks pulled away, all that remained was a clean stump and a few small piles of sawdust.

For days, I reflected on my urge to protect the tree every time I walked past the stump. I realized I was trying to repay a kind of guardianship offered to me a long time ago. When I was a kid, three tall and sturdy oak trees grew in my family’s backyard. When I reached my hand out of my open bedroom window, I could graze the tips of their leaves with my fingertips. At night, I remember lying in bed and watching their dark branches sway in and out of the window frame. I liked to think they were waving hello, like witnesses or guards watching over me in the night.

In Buddhism, trees have long been recognized as living things worthy of recognition and protection. Shakyamuni Buddha was born in the lush Lumbini grove and later became enlightened under a bodhi tree. At the end of his life, he also physically passed (parinibbana) while nestled in a grove of sal trees. In Thailand, forest monks perform tree ordination ceremonies as a way to declare trees sacred and conserve the forests. Monks wrap robes around ordained trees and hang signs on their vast trunks that remind others that “to harm the forest is to harm life.”

A meditation teacher once advised me to look to the example trees set as steady, observant beings. “They are excellent meditators,” she said. “They sit in one spot for decades, watching all that goes by.” In his book The Island Within, anthropologist Richard Nelson described trees in a similar manner. “The dark boughs reach out above me and encircle me like arms. I feel the assurance of being recognized, as if something powerful and protective is aware of my presence . . .  I am never alone in this forest of elders, this forest of eyes.”

I sometimes wonder if the stories we impose on trees—and the anthropomorphic qualities we assign them—illuminate our efforts to bring forth the parts of ourselves that are most curious and aware. Not too long ago, I was strolling through a museum with a friend. Her husband had passed away several weeks earlier, and she was grieving and in deep shock. After we stopped to rest on one of the couches in the museum, we gazed out the windows at several small trees growing on a patio…



Looking Inward to Live in Harmony

Looking Inward to Live in HarmonyPhoto by Andras Kovacs |

Buddhist teacher and scholar Andrew Olendzki breaks down historical lessons from the Buddha on how to get along with others, confront difficult emotions, and live together peacefully.

By Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

The underlying cause of conflict isn’t an enemy or adverse conditions—it’s a thorn lodged within our own heart and mind.

This radical notion from the historical Buddha’s teachings comes with a 2,600-year-old method for dislodging that thorn: by cultivating healthy mind states and changing our inner attitudes and responses, we can transform strife into peace.

Below, Buddhist scholar and teacher Andrew Olendzki, who is hosting Tricycle’s Living in Harmony online course beginning June 26, expands on the Buddha’s timeless lessons on dealing with inner fear, pain, and violence, and how looking inward can help us live in peace with others.

Can you define the various types of conflict—such as war or a dispute with a loved one—in the Buddhist teachings? Are there different antidotes to relieving these different types of suffering or a more all-encompassing solution? 
Buddhism tends to look inward rather than outward, so it organizes the different kinds of conflict not in terms of their outer manifestations but by means of their inner sources. So we have conflicts rooted in anger and others in resentment, hatred, attachment to views, and so forth. The antidotes all have to do with neutralizing or transforming these inner causes of conflict and replacing them with more positive or healthy mind states. Each specific harmful state has a corresponding helpful state that can be cultivated, but the most general solution involves replacing delusion in its many forms with wisdom or understanding.

You teach that the Buddha has some profound insights into why we don’t get along with one another. Why haven’t we been able to master these insights over the last 2,600 years? 
This metaphor of a thorn lodged deep in the heart can be used to broadly understand the Buddhist explanation for conflict. We are wounded and in pain, and this drives us mad and makes us lash out at others. The solution is inner healing, but the toxic emotions are powerful and not easily overcome. (Anger can be an effective tool, for example, but we seldom recognize the internal damage it causes.) Anyone can benefit from applying these insights into their lives, though mastery is another matter.

What can early Buddhist literature teach us about the importance of listening and communicating well with others?
One text in particular from the literature focuses on seven practical things that contribute to the wellbeing of groups or organizations. Just to take the first of these, it is healthy for people to open and close their meetings in harmony. There may be a lot of disagreement over priorities or courses of action, and people need to get together to hash things out. But placing such disagreements in the larger context of goodwill toward one another and a shared commitment to a vision, for example, makes a big difference to how effective the communication will be.

What is the Buddha’s advice for living in harmony with people we fundamentally disagree with? Do we have to agree to live peacefully alongside each other? What if we find another’s behavior morally intolerable? What does “living in harmony” look like then?
One key guideline is to not take things personally. People can disagree with one another without feelings of animosity or subtle forms of hatred. Views and opinions can differ, and these can and should be debated vigorously. But to have bad feelings toward the people who hold these views is not necessary and is almost always counterproductive. This is more challenging when morally harmful behavior is involved, but it is still more helpful to criticize the deed rather than the person. We can hold people accountable for their actions, by putting them in jail, for example, while still feeling compassion for the person who was so thoughtless and misguided to have committed the crime…




What the Tibetan Book of the Dead Can Teach Us About Dying Today

What the <i>Tibetan Book of the Dead</i> Can Teach Us About Dying Today

Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

A series of talks at the Rubin Museum of Art this summer explores the connections between the ancient Tibetan text and modern end-of-life experiences.

By Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

The Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once wrote that the Tibetan Book of the Dead could very well be called the “Tibetan Book of Birth.” The 8th-century text, which details the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the in-between states after death and before rebirth [bardos], was written as a guide for practitioners for navigating those states, in hopes of attaining liberation.

For seven evenings this summer at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, the Tibetan Book of the Dead Book Club will invite attendees to consider what lessons the ancient Buddhist text continue to offer us today.

The series is hosted by Dr. Ramon Prats, a Tibetan Studies scholar and the first person to translate The Tibetan Book of the Dead into Spanish. Experts on suicide, trauma, hallucinogens, and addiction will discuss their field in relation to specific passages from the text.

“Any matter directly or indirectly related to death is present in our daily life, even if we do not acknowledge it or pretend that it does not concerns us yet. Death is by definition the very last moment of life, but there is a lot more to it than that,” Prats said. “There are forms of psychological or physical deterioration that are little deaths to the fullness of life.”

Prats said that The Tibetan Book of the Dead “resounds with modernity” and can give us fresh takes on our inevitable demise, despite the text’s age. The talks are geared toward Buddhist practitioners as well as those who work in fields relating to death and dying.

The first talk of the series, on June 14, confronts teen suicide, the second-leading cause of death for 15–24 year-olds in the U.S., according to 2015 numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Buddhism, suicide is viewed as a negative act that can lead to a lower rebirth. Dr. Terry Williams, a sociologist and professor at the New School for Social Research, will be the guest speaker that night.

In his latest book, Teenage Suicide Notes: An Ethnography of Self-Harm, Williams follows 10 teenagers from different socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, using their journal entries to explore why these young people are considering taking their own lives.

Williams writes that emotional states such as happiness aren’t an indicator of suicide rates.

“These are kids who are conflicted in one way or another in their lives, but they have some overwhelming obsession or conflict that they need to resolve. These are universal problems, but [the teenagers are] so overwhelmed that they can’t think of any solution other than to die, so they choose these weapons to express, I think, these feelings, whether it’s a razor, or a gun, or a rope.”


Real Love

Real Love

Robert Indiana, Love © 2017. Morgan Art Foundation, Artists Rights Society, New York

Switching from a passive recipient of love to a living embodiment of it, we find real love.

By Sharon Salzberg

We do not need to go out and find love; rather,
we need to be still and let love discover us.

–John O’Donohue

Since we were children, we have been told a patchwork of stories about love. We expect love to give us exaltation, bliss, affection, fire, sweetness, tenderness, comfort, security, and so very much more—all at once.

Our minds are too often clouded by pop-culture images that equate love with sex and romance, delivered in thunderbolts and moonbeams. This idea of love makes us say things and do things we do not mean. It makes us cling frantically to relationships that are bound to change, challenge us, or slip away. Major bookstores often have a love section that’s actually just a romantic relationship section—volumes on how to get a relationship, how to keep a relationship, and how to cure a relationship. As one publisher said to me, “The love market is saturated.”

Perhaps we think we’re getting the portion of love we deserve, which is not very much at all: “I’m just not lucky in love,” or “I’ve been too damaged to love.” We may feel so cynical (sometimes as a mask to hide heartbreak or loneliness) that we dismiss love as a sorry illusion. Some of us decide we are through with love because it takes much more from us than it ever gives back. At those wounded moments when we most need love, a hardened heart can seem like the best defense.

Many of us have been told that if we loved others enough and sacrificed, it wouldn’t matter that we didn’t love ourselves, and that we could keep that up forever. Or if we loved a friend or a child enough, that love itself could cure all ills, meaning no more painful setbacks or defeats. If there is such pain, it implies we were bad at love. Or maybe it was suggested to us that all we needed in this world was love and that we didn’t have to fight what is wrong or call out what is cruel or unjust.

But apart from all these stories, as human beings we naturally live our lives wanting belonging, connection, a home in this world. We yearn for warmth, for possibility, for the more abundant life that love seems to promise. We sense there is a quality of real love that is possible beyond the narrow straits we have been told to navigate, a possibility that is not idealized or merely abstract. We have an intuition that we can connect so much more deeply to ourselves and to one another.

One of my own turning points came in 1985 when I did a meditation retreat in Burma. I was practicing intensive lovingkindness meditation, offering phrases of wishing well to myself and others all day long, like, “May I be happy; may you be happy.” As I practiced, at one point it felt as though I came to a threshold. On the nearest side was the conventional idea of who I had thought myself to be—that is, someone completely dependent on another person to feel any love in my life. It was as though I considered love to be like a package, in the hands of the all-powerful delivery person, and if that person changed their mind at my doorstep and walked away, I would be bereft—irredeemably incomplete, lacking the love I so longed for. On the further side of the threshold was the reflection of who I suspected I actually was—someone with an inner capacity for love, no matter who was present or what was happening, someone who could access love that another person might enhance or challenge, but there was no one who could either bestow that capacity on me or take it away. I stepped over.

I saw I couldn’t flourish as a human being as long as I saw myself as the passive recipient of love. (There’s an awful lot of waiting in that position, and then damage control when it doesn’t work out, and also numbness.) But I could certainly flourish as love’s embodiment…



What Tibetan Medicine Can Offer Cancer Patients

What Tibetan Medicine Can Offer Cancer Patients

Dr. Dorjee Rapten Neshar, a world-renowned Tibetan medicine practitioner, explains the benefits of this millennia-old holistic practice for those who have lost hope in Western interventions.

By Elika Ansari

Dr. Dorjee Rapten Neshar is the chief medical officer and senior consulting physician at the Bangalore branch of the Tibetan Medical and Astro-science Institute, which operates more than 50 medical clinics throughout India. Born in Central Tibet in 1964, he fled to India five years later to escape the Chinese occupation.

Though he comes from a long line of traditional medicine practitioners, Dorjee was initially more interested in studying Western medicine than traditional Tibetan methods, which include balancing the body and mind using herbal pills and spiritual practice. Ultimately, he ended up enrolling in college for Tibetan medicine, and since then has risen to become one of the world’s most renowned practitioners.

In the following interview, the doctor and subject of the 2016 documentary, The Legacy of Menla, talks to the film’s screenwriter about treating cancer patients, the intersection of Buddhism and medicine, and the future of holistic interventions.

How did you start practicing traditional Tibetan medicine?
Tibetan medicine came to me as a blessing in disguise. I come from a long line of Tibetan physicians, so there was always pressure from my family for me to follow in their path. But, growing up, I was not too interested in traditional healing systems. I was gearing up to study modern Western medicine, but due to some technical issues at my college, scholarships became unavailable. I was left with little choice, and decided to enroll at the Tibetan Medical College in Dharamsala, India. It was not long before I became fully immersed in the multidimensional intricacy of Tibetan medicine—and I have not looked back ever since.

Could you elaborate on your experiences as a Tibetan physician, particularly when it comes to treating patients with severe diseases and the terminally ill?
Tibetan medicine is well-known for treating major and chronic diseases, such as diabetes, metabolic diseases, and cancer. In recent years, we have started receiving patients diagnosed with all stages of cancer because of our various success stories from former patients.

Many patients come to us after receiving other forms of treatment, such as surgery and chemotherapy. They tend to either take our treatments in conjunction with Western medicine or decide to make the switch completely. Either way, I always advise patients according to their specific case and condition. For instance, if I see they have a cancerous tumor that is fairly advanced, I advise them to go for surgery. If I see the cancer aggression is very strong, I suggest that they take a few cycles of chemotherapy. The patient can then decide to take our medication instead of continuing with chemotherapy. In the end, it’s their choice.

There is no magic bullet to cure cancer, and I don’t claim that we can cure it. But I have strong faith in the efficacy of our herbs as well as in our multidimensional and holistic approach. We have had patients who have been cured, and many other patients whose life expectancies have been prolonged. Again, this does not mean that every patient will react the same way. The patients themselves play a vital role in treatment. Their faith and confidence in taking our medicines, as well as their participation in the healing process, is key.

What is the connection between Tibetan medicine and Buddhist values and teachings?
The most unique feature of Tibetan medicine is its connection with Buddhism. This connection is how we draw the distinction between Tibetan medicine and other alternative healing systems, such as Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine. As practitioners of both Buddhism and medicine, we are taught to understand the patient’s suffering. We develop a deep sense of compassion within ourselves, and this becomes something we can then transmit to other sentient beings…




by Paul Harrison, Contributor  Waking Times

For more than 3000 years mantras (sacred sounds) have been chanted for the purpose of spiritual healing.

During the early period of Hinduism, spiritual gurus became fascinated by poetry and began to write sounds in sacred texts like the Rigveda. Those same sounds have echoed throughout the East all the way to today, and are now chanted by billions of Hindus, Buddhists and spiritualists the world over.

Today, mantras are chanted for myriad reasons. There are mantras to cure depression and anxiety, mantras said to create wealth, mantras used to attract wealth… for near every purpose there is a corresponding mantra. Yet despite the billions of people who use mantras, and the sheer range of their uses, the Western world has stubbornly turned a blind eye to this oldest of spiritual practices.

It is shocking to think that after 3000 years there is still virtually zero scientific research to substantiate mantras, but no funding has been given to scientifically investigate this most important spiritual practice. And, so, it has fallen to the spiritual community itself to substantiate the mantras.

So what, precisely, do we truly know about mantras?

Yoga masters claim that mantras have the power to create chemical changes in the body. The argument is that the specific vibrational qualities of mantras create reverberations in the body that lead to changes on the molecular level.

We can understand how this works when we consider man’s relation to sound.

Our auditory faculty has evolved through millions of years to include specific constants that form the very foundations of our auditory composition. Many of the sounds we make today, like grunts and some syllables, have been used for millions of years, long before we became homo-sapiens.

Similar to the way birds use song to communicate information about the weather, we have used grunts and syllables to form our understanding of the world.

The reason why many of today’s words are onomatopoetic is because human vocals were created as an echo of nature. Early man used syllables as a way of echoing the sound of the thing they were trying to describe.  Hence why “bob” (as in “bobbing up and down”) sounds like an object bobbing up and down in the water.  “Crash”, “Bang”, “Honk”, and “Chime” are other examples.

As mankind has evolved we have moved away from onomatopoetic language. So it is that English is not nearly as onomatopoetic as Sanskrit, the latter being a much earlier language.

When we speak in Sanskrit we create sounds that are very closely related to the sounds of nature.

The sacred Sanskrit word “Om”, for instance, means “Universe” and we can hear an echo of the universe in the sound of the mantra. We get a sense of the open and infinite nature of the universe when we listen to this sound. “Om” is a vey open sound. It seems to conjure thoughts of an open space, reconnecting us with the vastness of the universe.

To say that “Om” sounds like an open space, of course, means that it has auditory composition similar to the way sound vibrates in an actual open space. The quality of the sound is a recreation of the sound of the real thing.

What does it mean to sound like the real thing? It means that the sound of the mantra and the sound of an actual open space are very similar. In other words, when we recite “Om” we recreate the vibrational qualities of an actual open space, and we do so inside the body.

READ: Aum Mani Padme Hum: The Integration of Duality and Polarity

It is as though we are bringing that part of nature, that vast open space of “Om”, into our own being. Not only do we recreate that open space in an auditory and physical sense, we also recreate it in the mind.

When we recite mantras, we don’t simply make sounds. We meditate on them. To meditate means to focus consciousness on a certain space. When we meditate on “Om” we focus consciousness on the mantra itself. In other words, we place our consciousness inside the sound, inside “OM”, and, in turn, inside the open space that “Om” represents.

This is the science of mantras. And it is one of humankind’s oldest healing techniques. For millions of years we have recreated the vibrational qualities of nature using the voice. Mantras simply take it further. When we meditate on those primordial sounds, we place consciousness inside the sound, healing the mind by reconnecting it with those auditory representations of the natural world.

By changing the vibrational qualities of those sounds, we change the effect the sound has on the mind. The root chakra mantra “Lam”, for instance, grounds us and creates feelings of belonging, where “Ah” creates release, helping us to let go.

This is the power of Sanskrit mantras. They are a way of recreating the vibrational qualities of real-world events, objects, or spaces in the body, and then placing consciousness inside those sounds by meditating.  Simply chanting a Sanskrit mantra puts us in-tune with positive vibrational energies that heal body, mind and spirit.

About the Author

Paul Harrison is a meditation teacher and the author of His passion and purpose is to bring spirituality to a million people and to help make the world a more loving, more compassionate, kinder place. Read Paul’s complete guide to the mantras and discover the healing power of sacred sounds.

This article (The Science Of Mantras: How Sacred Sounds Heal Body, Mind And Spirit) was originally created and published by Waking Times and is published here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Paul Harrison.

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