Saturday, October 12, 2013

National Coming Out Day 2013

I came out to my parents in my early 30s, although I had known I was different when I was very young. As early as age 4 or 5 I knew I liked looking at boys more than at most girls. And I knew when I was 6 years old that I was different for other reasons: because my father was a doctor with the Lutheran mission in India, I grew up in tropical country with a very foreign culture where most of the people did not look like me or my family. I grew up as a minority on multiple levels. When we came back to the US from India, I was thrown into elementary school, where I had literally nothing in common with any of my age-mates. Not one thing. Not even popular music, as I had never listened to American radio before, and had never even seen a television set.

I was bullied continuously from that time until 10th grade, when suddenly some of the popular kids in high school took a liking to me, and the bullying stopped. Maybe the word got around that some of the football jocks were now my friends. But I have no real idea why. I was bullied throughout school for being soft and quiet, yes, because I was painfully shy. So of course I was a sissy, though I was not effeminate. But I was equally bullied for being obviously smarter than most of the other kids, and thus for being a teacher's pet. It took me a lot longer to get over being bullied than most folks ever realize. I can still be crippled by shyness. It took me a lot longer to come out as smart than it did to come out as gay.

I knew by the time I was 14 that I preferred to look at naked boys over naked girls. Actually, it was more like 11, but I was 10 years old when the Stonewall riots happened, not they were made the news in Michigan, and I basically grew up in a cultural suburb of Lake Wobegon, so there was no context or support available as there is to young gay kids have now. I've had a couple of good relationships with women, although I am 95 percent gay.

What can I say about coming out to my parents? I did it in a very clumsy way, at a time when I was angry at them, and angry at the world, so I sort of threw it in their faces during a conversation in the kitchen that was already difficult. My mother didn't know what to say to me for six weeks, after which she made it clear that she still loved me, and always would, and nothing would ever change that, although she had hoped for grandchildren. But she didn't really want to talk about it, and avoided the topic in later years. My father, who before I came out had been sitting down with me to watch news programs on AIDS and other things, was always a very liberal thinker, which is why he became a doctor, to be of service. In India, as a boy I had no idea that missionary work was ever about anything other than what my father did: run a hospital, do surgery, teach medicine, teach doctors and nurses, teach and practice surgery and pathology and public health, and so on. We were liberal educated Lutherans, very rational, the polar opposite of religious fundamentalists. So when I came out I thought my Dad had already figured out I was gay, but he told me years later that he actually hadn’t known in advance. Nonetheless, he was always incredibly supportive and caring, wondered how I was doing, and even though we fought about some other things in life, my being gay wasn't one of them. Dad gave money to charities every year, but he quit supporting charities such as the Salvation Army, because he refused to support homophobic institutions. He did that for my sake. It was from my father that I learned that actions speak louder than words.

Still, after I came out, I never felt like it was okay to bring home a "friend" for dinner, or to meet the parents, even though it wasn't really talked about either way. I never talked to my parents about my love life, pathetic as it was, except to occasionally mention that I'd made a new friend. My parents only ever met one of my occasional lovers, and we were still so discrete that he was just a "friend" who was visiting to help me with a project.

Frankly, all this furtiveness messed me up for awhile. When something is never spoken about, it’s hard to defuse feelings of guilt and shame. My parents had been very good at using silent disappointment to discipline their toddlers, so I always wondered if they were disapoointed and unhappy with me as an adult, but I rarely knew for sure. Yes, I didn't come out to them in a very good way, but then it wasn't really ever talked about much again. Dad was more overtly accepting than Mom, but again Mom’s disappointment was partly about the lack of grandkids. I was supposed to pass on me genes, I guessed, like somme eugenics experiment. I never felt totally accepted, and not only for this, so there were years when it messed up my self-esteem and ruined my self-confidence for dating, among other aspects of life.

That's never been fully resolved. I still have basically zero self-confidence about dating. My self-esteem is very healthy in almost every area of my life, thank you very much, except for this one. It got better while I lived in San Francisco, and I even had a regular boyfriend who i fell in love with, but then my father got colon cancer and my mother had Alzheimer's, so I had to move back in with my parents to be their full-time live-in caregiver till they died. I was basically forced into a particularly frustrating celibacy, after the freedom of San Francisco. Then I was myself diagnosed with a chronic illness, and the end result of that is that I have been rejected so many times since then that I've basically given up even trying to date. Gay men can be so fucking shallow.

Being a live-in caregiver forced me to go partway back into the closet for awhile; then I became disabled, and have been rejected continuously ever since. It's frustrating. No one wants to date the guy who almost died from a long-term chronic illness, and who is now disabled.

I own that I don't always make that easy. I have always had some rough edges. I’m fiercely passionate about what I care deeply about, and easy-going about most everything else. I can be intense. And almost dying from a chronic illness sorted out some priorities for me, and left me with an increased lust for life, but also with an impatient intolerance of personal drama, even my own. I can't always help myself, I can't always just flip a switch and turn my own anxieties off, but I don't like it, and I know exactly what's going on when I'm trapped in it, and I stop it just as soon as I can. Life is too short to waste it on unimportant things. Who you love is important. Wearing the perfect clothes is not. So, I own that I can be a rough ride, if you're the sort of person who doesn't want to meet the other halfway and inhabit the common ground. I own that I have little patience, after almost dying, for people who CHOOSE to be self-destructive. I have friends with genuinely scary medical and PTSD drama, who have every right to bitch about it; but that's REAL, not "drama queen" drama.

Coming out spiritually was even harder than coming out as gay. Coming out AS spiritual. Not as religious, because in no way am I even remotely conventionally religious, nor do I belong to any church or denomination, and for the most part I find religious rhetoric to be at best ignorant and at worst hateful. But I have always been an intensely spiritual person, with a very powerful inner life, even though it's nothing like anything everyone assumes it to be.

You see, there are a LOT of gay men who have been vilified, persecuted, rejected, bullied, harassed, and condemned by friends, family, school authorities, religious authorities, and loud-mouthed asshole right wing politicians. We have been subjected all of our lives to the hateful rhetoric of the religious right. As a gay man, therefore, you are almost EXPECTED to be anti-religion, anti-religious, and even atheistic. They rejected you, you're supposed to reject them back. Your community damned you, and you're supposed to return the favor.

I've always found that to be simplistic. Hating back takes the low road. It increases the entropy of the universe by creating a sucking black hole vortex of negativity. People never seem to understand that hatred is not the proper response to hatred. Hating back is the low road. And even though I frequently fail at it, all of my life I've always known that we are supposed to take the high road.

Nonetheless, being openly spiritual is somehow suspect in many LGBT communities. It’s almost a given that we’ve all suffered some form of religious abuse, so naturally we all must be anti-religious, or atheists, or bitter and wounded no matter our calendar age.

How do you come out as a spiritual gay person when none of that applies to you?

Resisting the gravitational tide of black hole negativity can be hard work, yes, but it’s necessary if you want to have a fulfilling life that you enjoy. Bitterness is a waste of energy, although many do rehearse their wounds again and again in some form of lifelong performance of suffering. What good does it do to never allow your wounds to heal? You cannot be free otherwise.

I remember having a conversation with my father late in his life. He came to my bedroom one afternoon to ask me about my faith. He was very concerned that I didn't have one, or the support of a faith community. I told him not to worry about it, that even though I belonged to no faith community anymore, and likely never would again, I had (and have) an active inner spiritual life, and a daily practice. My father did not judge me for no longer thinking myself to be in any way Christian, and no longer following any dogma, he just wanted reassurance that I was okay. So I reassured him. And I meant it. I felt so much in that moment like the adult reassuring the child, that it was seared into my memory.

Like many other young gay men, I had left the church I grew up in because I didn't feel welcomed as a gay man. Even though my particular church didn't hate or vilify homosexuals, they also didn't openly speak out in support of LGBT persons. (Not till much later. Then they did.) Like many other gay men raised in a Christian church, I did feel rejected. But it wasn't very fierce or dramatic. It was more of a feeling that my path lay elsewhere.

But I had also grown up in India, in a region that was dominantly Hindu and Buddhist. So I can honestly say that I began studying comparative religion before I even knew what that term meant. I was socialized mostly with adults, as there were no other children my age to play with for most of my childhood. My father was a scientist. I learned critical thinking at a very young age. I learned to be skeptical of received wisdom very young, and this was only reinforced when we came back to the States and I entered public school. Being bullied for years, while the school authorities did nothing to stop it, or seemed helpless to, taught me at an early age to be skeptical, even suspicious, of figures of authority and what they might tell you about life. I learned to do my own research, and make up my own mind. Being a voracious and fast reader fed that process. Having a very good memory helped. At an early age I learned to trust my own experience, and research, about what was true over anything that anyone ever said to me was true, especially figures in authority. And this was reinforced by being bullied, because bullying is ALL about trying to get others to shut up, be silent, and above all stop thinking for themselves and do what YOU tell them to do. To this day I despise coercion, I mistrust authority figures who haven't earned my trust, and I talk back. I will always talk back. I will always speak out. I will never be silenced by anyone, even any of my friends who might feel embarassed, if I feel the need to speak out about a perceived injustice. Although I am capable of being discrete and tactful, I use discretion and tact by conscious choice rather than because of tribal cultural indoctrination. So much for Lake Wobegon.

When I was 11, I discovered in the school library some books on Navajo culture and cosmology, and I was fascinated. It instantly made sense to me, what I could understand of it. What I was reading seemed to be naturally very similar to what I had already been feeling in myself about spirituality, but had not yet put into words.

I must at this point come out as a natural researcher: I'm very good at it, and finding out things comes as a natural discipline to me. I went out and found several adult books on the Dineh, and had no problem reading even the more academic tomes. I was already reading at college level by age 10 or so. Things I didn't understand I asked about. It was a family tradition at our house to look up things we didn't know about, even bringing the dictionary and encyclopedia volumes to the dinner table. We were a family of readers. By age 13 I had already been reading extensively in comparative religion, and related fields. By age 16 I was reading depth psychology and theories of the archetypes (Carl Jung), mythology (Joseph Campbell and others), anthropology and folklore (various), and so on. By age 21 I had read my way through The Collected Works of Carl Jung for the first time. I had also read all of James Joyce by then, including "Finnegan's Wake." That's just the highlights. As I said, I read fast, and permanently retain most of what I read.

This is a story I have told many of my friends, although I rarely get any sense that they believe me. As I said, coming out as smart was a lot harder than coming out as gay; and it remains an unfinished process. When I was in high school, the Armed Forces badly wanted to recruit me, and I had no problem getting into the college of my choice, because I consistently tested in the top 1 percent of my class, with a genius level IQ. That didn't change my life though, or give me huge self-confidence. Why not? Remember that I said I had become suspicious of figures in authority, after being bullied for many years. So when adults in authority told me things about myself like this, I never fully believed it. I also did not WANT to be singled out as special or different, because that was WHY I got beat up all the time: for being different.

Yet by age 13 I had privately formulated for myself that what I was looking for was what I called the Original Religion: the oldest human forms of religion, spiritual practice, ritual, belief. I wanted something more authentic, more core, more central, than the rational dogma received from the liberal Lutherans. Nothing of what I had found in organized religion was satisfying to me. You can say the words, and even believe them, and they remain just words.

How were you supposed to connect and activate the power in the words? What caused the words to come into being? What was the original impulse that led to the founding and creation of what eventually became established religions? Where does it start? How old is it? What is left when you strip away all the accrued layers of received interpretations? What was the source and core of all this?

In later years I found books written by people who were asking these same questions, and also looking into the human experience of what we call the sacred, to discover its origins. I continue to discover new answers to these perennial questions. Divergent theories have been proposed, some of them much more convincing than others. The questions have been asked by many different seekers in many difference disciplines. They continue to be, and probably always will be. The asking sometimes is the more important thing.

For the record, many explanatory theories proposed by modern neuroscience, that all experiences that we can call religious in quality or paranormal in nature are caused by pathological imbalances in brain chemistry, are among the LEAST convincing theories offered. This is not because they offer no good ideas, but because many of them are based on a priori assumptions that in turn must not be questioned, which is not how science operates; and also because some theories are built on incomplete data sets that offer no definitive support for the suppositions made, even statistically. For all we know, there may be a lot of truth in these research studies, but what we don't know about the human brain remains staggeringly greater than what we do know. So they remain theories. Anyone who claims that science has managed to explain everything in final detail that there is to know about the universe, or ourselves, has failed to take in or comprehend relativity, theoretical physics, or the implications of string theory. Experiment is what science is about, not certainty. But I digress.

Meanwhile, at the age when I began looking for what I framed to myself as the Original Religion, I began to read everything I could find on the topic, and anything I thought might give a clue. I self-educated myself in cultural anthropology (we can if we wish think of my childhood in a very foreign culture as my earliest fieldwork), in comparative religious studies, in transpersonal psychology, folklore, myth studies, and much more. I eventually arrived at something I still view as probably the only candidate for what we could think of as the Original Religion.

Namely, those universal human experiences, found in every culture on the planet, in every era of recorded history, all the way back to the Paleolithic, and still available to anyone via the practice of spiritual technology. Something found everywhere, in every time. Techniques and tools of consciousness that date back 40,000 years, and are still practiced today. What anthropologist Mircea Eliade, in a huge cross-cultural analysis and history of this topic, called "archaic techniques of ecstasy." In a word: Shamanism. Practices of altered states of consciousness that are both Paleolithic in origin, and very contemporary. We see it in the ancient cave art found in southern Europe. We see it in Navajo healing ceremonies today.

Which is how I return to my process of coming out spiritually.

Thus, after having turned my back on all organized religions for many years, especially Christianity, I made my way back to an appreciation of what there is to be found there that is good. Notably, the thread of "green" Christianity that is life-affirming, earth-positive, and joyous. I found my way back to an appreciation of mysticism in Christianity, after rediscovering the later writings of modern mystic Thomas Merton. The writings of Matthew Fox added to that, in part by introducing me to the lineage of mysticism rooted in the teachings of Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen.

So I can no longer be a gay man embittered by rejection, rejecting in turn, for the simple reason that I am a mystic. I am a shaman. I follow no path of organized religious practice, or dogma, or articles of faith. I believe nothing but what I have experienced, and I have had mystical experiences for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid memory from age 5 of feeling exalted by the power of the sun. A dark page in my life, in my 20s, was turned around in an instant, when I was sitting on my bed, and I suddenly and for no reason fely my soul being lifted up into the Light. (I read St. Teresa of Avila years later, and recognize what I am reading.) My experience of sex has often felt like a sacrament, and has often been gifted with experiences of merging and unity felt by all involved. I may be shy about dating at times, but that's also because sex is a sacrament. It's difficult to impossible for me to be casual about it.

I have had visionary, mystical experiences my entire life. I have had déjà vu experiences that have been genuinely and verfiably prescient. I know now that my quest to find the Original Religion, begun at age 13, was a quest to understand what I had been experiencing, and continue to experience.

This requires no theology to explain, but it does support a cosmology that has been described again and again by many mystics, from every place and time in human history. If there is an origin to the institutions of organized religions, I believe that it lies in some person in a place who has a direct experience of the divine, a transpersonal peak experience, a vision, a mystical moment, then returns to his or her village to sing about it. What is our universal human birthright is this kind of direct experience. The organized religions grow out of the revelation, interpreted locally in the local language, through the worldview of that time and place. But at the core of every religion, no matter how far off course they have gone as they grew and changed, there was a vision. I know this to be true on a level that requires no faith. I believe in nothing that you, I see you sitting in the dark and doubting, would call “God.” None of that is necessary. And many of those other research sources I encountered in my years of reading back this up. The archetypes of the collective unconscious are manifest everywhere. People keep having the same kinds of visions everywhere, in every era. It keeps happening. If you have ears to hear, if you have eyes to see.

This doesn't require a divine explanation, it appears to just be a simple human birthright, accessible to all. Perhaps a bit more accessible to some than others. Nor can it be adequately explained away as neurological pathology, because its fruits are always, in the original tales of the original visions, life-affirming rather than denying. Light brings light into the world.

Of course, as Jung once said, the brighter the light the greater the shadow that is cast; and it is in the shadows that religious hatreds grow and fester. But it's easy to prove simply through textual study that those who preach hate are in doing so contradicting the teachings in their own holy books. What thrives in the shadows is fear, and the thrust for power.

But a great mystic once said: will you choose the love of power, or the power of love? If as a gay man who is a mystic I have any doctrine that I follow, that is it: the love of power, or the power of love?

Coming out as a gay man was tied up in all of this, as I am personally unable to separate the sacred from the sexual. But this inability to separate them is also found throughout the mystical literature of all times and places. It's in there, even if many would prefer to ignore it. Love and the sacrament of sex are so deeply intertwined at the roots of my being that coming out as gay required me to also come out spiritually as a practitioner of sacred technology. By whatever name we give it—magic, Eros, shamanism, mysticism, and many more that could be listed—it is a pragmatic philosophy, based on experience, but with many implications for every part of life that involves the transpersonal, the emotional, the relational, and the spiritual.

I choose the power of love.

My spirituality is of the Light, and of Love.