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Lions Roar : November 2017
HOT OFF THE PRESS from the ordination. But I was sobbing because what was being shorn away was a deep attachment to my own suffering—an attach- ment I had to looking a certain way and wanting to look like someone I was not. I was realizing that I no longer needed the unconscious and unrelent- ing thoughts that being a person of color in a white world was somehow ugly, unattractive, or inferior. Each moment that my heart broke open, more was revealed—and I saw the truth that I am a beautiful, worthy person wherever I am in the world. THE PATH OF SPIRITUAL practice is often called purification of the heart. We don’t have a choice about what we purify—rather, what needs purifying shows up in our lives. The question is whether we can be mindful enough to be present to it. Sometimes the suffering and pain we internalize goes deep into the core of who we think we are—whether it is a thirteen-year-old boy’s feeling of hating how he looks, other judgments we make about ourselves, or the multitude of judgments the world can make about us. The practice of mindfulness invites us to see that we are so much more than who we think we are and our full and beautiful lives are so much more than just our suffering. Can we be present for all of that too? When we simply meet an experience for what it is, with gentle and tender mindfulness—not needing to change it or force it to be different—and move through it, we gain the healing that comes from passing to the other side of the suffering. When we have kind- ness and awareness, we are able to move through our suffering instead of around it, which is how the unconscious mind would like to direct us. Taungpulu Sayadaw, a twentieth-century Burmese meditation master, said: “If you know suffering, it will break. If you do not know, it will go around and around.” If we see our suffering clearly, it will change and transform. When we do not see suffering clearly, it continues to feed itself. This was what I experienced with my own negative self-image and inter- nalized criticism—it changed. And now, when those thoughts arise together (as they still do), my experience of them is not the same. I don’t believe such thoughts and feelings as much anymore. They don’t carry as much weight as they used to. I don’t have to take them so seri- ously, and can move on to what is more important in my life more easily. This is letting go: we move through suffering and get to the other side with- out getting dragged down or stuck in the story or the personalization of the story. We usually try to repress, dismiss, or otherwise throw away our unpleasant experiences. When we do that, we actually throw a piece of ourselves away. But when we meet our expe- riences, even if they are experi- ences of pain and suffering, with gentleness and the simple kindness of awareness, they don’t stick. So my hair was cut after thirty- seven years. I had to smile when I heard my mom lament that I had cut off all of that beautiful hair. After decades of trying to convince me to wear my hair short, it was now she who did not want me to seen the light of day for more than thirty-seven years, memo- ries of the vanity that I had in my hair cascaded into my con- sciousness. I remembered the different hairstyles I had tried and the many arguments I’d had with my parents when they wanted my hair to be short. The stories of this head of hair flooded my mind, along with the emotions each story brought. I came to a memory from when I was a thirteen- year-old deciding to grow his hair long. I stood in front of the upstairs bathroom mir- ror and absolutely hated how I looked. I hated that I didn’t look like the other kids at school. I hated the almond shape of my eyes, the color of my skin, and the round shape of my face. I always thought I had a rotund, overweight face. In that moment in Thailand, at the more jaded age of fifty, I felt it all again: the hatred of my adolescence, hating myself and who I was at the tender age of thirteen. Even back then I was enough of an aesthetician, possibly presaging my experience as an “out” gay man, to realize that if I grew my hair long I could maybe lengthen the look of my face, and also take attention away from the features of my face that I was so critical of. And so the decision was made, forgotten, and buried over the long years, deep in the shame, internalized racism, self-judgment, and self-deprecation that followed me over the succeeding decades. As I sat with the memory as it unfolded, I was able to be fully present with it in a way that I never had before. It had been such a repressed experience I hadn’t even known I had the memory of it. As the razorblade uncovered more and more of my naked scalp, it also brought about a profound healing. And I began to sob. Everyone probably thought I was sobbing from joy emerging AWAKENING TOGETHER The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community Larry Yang Wisdom Publications; 244 pp.; $17.95 (paper) PHOTOBYSTEPHENPICKARD LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2017 72