How often do you meet someone who hears you? Who listens and focuses on you long enough to grasp what it is that you are going through or trying to say? And isn’t it a shock when you actually meet someone who stops and listens to what you have to say. Who makes an effort to understand you, even if it is hard to do, and who tells you, silently, “you matter”?
If you find a person who listens to you, who really takes the time to pause and pay attention to what you are saying, who makes you feel as though you matter in the world, treasure that person as a gift from the heavens. He or she is not a gift from the heavens, of course, but rather simply another human being in one place at one time. Mortal. Fragile. Fallible. But infinitely valuable and good.
And if you know someone who is mortal, fragile, and fallible, but infinitely valuable and good, then by all means tell them how much you appreciate them by listening to them. Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t advise. Don’t tell stories about yourself that their experience brings to mind. Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to your mouth, but hold it, and pause, and say to yourself, “O, I am thinking x and wanting to say it.” And then go back to listening to the person you are listening to.
You must go at it with your whole heart, with a genuine yearning to understand, to hear, to learn about the other person. You must be patient with your impatience, and resist the urge to speak. You must let go of your needs for the time being, and become present, awake, and attentive, to the person you love. Because you love them you want to hear them.
You want to hear them. But you haven’t yet had the patience to hear them, not really. They have even complained, “you don’t listen to me! You never listen to me!” Stinging words. But it is okay. You are allowed to be imperfect. Forgive yourself, maybe by putting a hand on your heart and murmuring silently, “forgiven, forgiven.” Recognize what you are feeling, accept what is and treat yourself with kindness. Only by accepting and loving ourselves can we accept and love others.
Sometimes we are unable to listen, to hear others because we ourselves are so nervous, so relentlessly anxious that we can’t stop the chattering egotism of our own minds. We can become so guarded, so continually on the watch for attack that we lose the ability to pause and listen curiously and patiently and compassionately to someone who needs us to hear them, and to whom we want to listen. To listen is to love, to love ourselves and the person to whom we are listening.
Nervousness is just a habit. If we can never completely unlearn it we can at least try to become aware of it as an habitual, emotional response to a thought, or an habitual, cognitive response to an emotion. Emotions are okay. They are real. Sometimes they are responses to thoughts that may seem to be true but are not really quite right. We don’t even need to figure out where the train of thoughts and emotions took off from or seems to be going. We can simply acknowledge that we are “thinking” and, again and again, return to our breath and our hearts and the loving activity of listening.
When I was six or seven, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with the German ironing lady and her husband, neither of whom spoke English. We lived in Augsburg then, on an army base, and employed a local woman to wash, fold, and iron our clothes. She also served as a babysitter from time to time.
The ironing lady and her husband were elderly and unaccustomed to rambunctious children. They lived in a small apartment stuffed with large, dark, polished wooden furniture. One day I was sitting at the dining table with the ironing lady’s husband, who was writing something with a fountain pen. I am not sure how it happened, but my brother was probably napping and I had decided to be both very quiet and very alert. I became utterly absorbed in the experience of listening to the sound of the pen scratching on the parchment, gazing at the old man’s mild face, and sensing my slight weight on the chair in the atmosphere of that cozy, small space. I tasted the flavor of the air, smelled the ink and the old man and the wood and the carpet, and felt a thrilling, exquisite pleasure of curiosity about everything that I was sensing from moment to moment, second to second.
I did not want it ever to end, and sat utterly still, rapt in what I knew to be both profound and ordinary. It was the first time in my life that I realized that simply sitting and paying attention could be enjoyable. It was so easy to be patient, so wonderful and beautiful to experience watching and listening. I felt as though there was a powerful, fragile tension between myself and the old man, and that my very stillness and quietness was part of his writing and thinking and breathing there, across the table from me, the table that I could barely see over, as though in that room at that moment a fantastic energy sprang alive and palpable and real and exciting.
This was a moment of what is called Abhyasa, in the Sütras of Pantanjali. Abhyasa might be described as a measured, calm, yet determined intention to pay attention to what is, as opposed to a wild, rushing and blasting and pushing energy, or the reckless passion with which, for example, a warrior flies into battle, or an athlete dedicates all her energy and power to winning a match or scaling a steep hill. Abhyasa is experience without reaction, awareness without judgment, perception without response.
As I sat with the old man writing, I was stirred, but not stirred into any response other than observing his movements as something to observe. I liked the activity of observation, and became, later, attached to the pleasure I remembered having during this moment. This attachment, of course, became a source of suffering because it was something that I could not will into being, and had to wait for.
The first verses of the Dhammapada remind us to guide our thinking, because our thoughts inform our experience. Everything that we go through, every event, we interpret with our minds. But experience also has a way of shaping the way we interpret our experiences. The families into which we were born, the people and cultures that shaped us, inform our minds, the ways we see the world. So, for example, a child who is mistreated from the moment she is born,who is told that she is worthless and stupid and incompetent, nothing more than a thing to be used by others, is likely to grow up with a false understanding of herself. She will not know her true nature as a being of light and beauty, deserving of all love. She will have a corrupted mind, and suffering will follow her.
The wonderful knowledge that the Buddha offers to us here is this: no matter what has happened to us, no matter how corrupted our ways of understanding the world have been, each one of us has the freedom and the power to learn, through practice, to step aside, as it were, from the false, corrupt thoughts that have been imbued in us, and to have a “peaceful mind.” This is the only path to lasting happiness.
This blog post explores some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of sexual assault on male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Although the percentage of female survivors of MST is greater than the percentage of male survivors, the number of men who have sustained this trauma far exceeds the number of female survivors, since the veteran population remains overwhelmingly male. Men who have been sexually assaulted are as likely if not more likely to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome as veterans who have experienced combat-related trauma. There is virtually no research on male survivors, who face some different problems than female survivors of MST and who generally have greater difficulty discussing or seeking treatment for their trauma. It is vital for social workers to educate themselves about men’s issues with MST and to develop novel ways to make it easier for male survivors to discuss their experiences.
We have heard a great deal about the plight of female military service personnel who experience sexual assault at the hands of their fellow soldiers lately, but very little about male survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). A small but growing number of articles about the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of MST demonstrate that this corrosive, criminal activity leads more certainly to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat experience in women (Calhoun, 1994; Campbell, Dworkin, & Cabral, 2009; Donna L. Washington et al., 2010; M. M. Kelly et al., 2008; U. A. Kelly, Skelton, Patel, & Bradley, 2011; Kimerling, Gima, Smith, Street, & Frayne, 2007; Mary Ann Boyd; Sharon Valente & Callie Wight, 2007; Turchik & Wilson, 2010). There are as yet no studies showing that MST is as likely or more likely to lead to PTSD in male survivors, but there are in fact very few studies on male survivors of this trauma. Furthermore, while feminist social workers and theorists have rightly pointed to the devastating physical, psychological, social and spiritual affects that the hyper-masculinist military culture has had on women, we have only just begun to pay attention to how this culture has affected men. In this paper, I examine some of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual causes and effects of sexual assaults by men against their male military personnel.
The Veterans Administration (VA) defines MST as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty of active duty for training.” The VA further defines sexual harassment as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in nature” (Affairs, 2010). Male survivors of MST are only now beginning to speak about their experiences. Although women constitute by far the greater percentage of survivors of MST in the military, the number of men who have experienced this trauma is much larger than the number of women, since the military remains overwhelmingly male (Affairs, 2010). Indeed, the number of living veterans who experienced MST over the course of last seventy years is probably far greater than we could possibly estimate. Cultural attitudes towards gender and sexuality changed dramatically during that period, but mainstream culture has remained cramped by rigid gender norms. Although the entrance of women and very recent toleration for homosexuality in the armed forces has dramatically altered military culture, it remains hierarchical and masculinist (Burgess, Slattery, & Herlihy, 2013). Masculinism is the arbitrary elevation of all things masculine over all things feminine. Within military and civilian life, men’s experiences of MST are bound to differ from women’s.
What are the bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects of this trauma in general? Consider some of these stories: Less than two weeks after Greg Jeloudov joined the army at the age of 35, fellow-soldiers gang-raped him in the shower at Fort Benning, Georgia. They didn’t like his Russian-Irish accent. They didn’t like his previous history as an actor. They called him a “commie faggot” and said, “We don’t like actors here.…We especially don’t like Russian and Irish actors.” (Duell, 2011). They beat and sodomized him in 2009, and now Mr. Jeloudov takes 13 different medicines as he struggles with PTSD, depression, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide. “Being a male victim is horrible,” Theodore James Skovranek told a reporter. In 2003 soldiers grabbed and held him down while another shoved his genitals in his face. He shrugged it off at the time, but said, “I walked around for a long time thinking: I don’t feel like a man. But I don’t feel like a woman either. So there’s just this void.”
In 1974, three Whitman Air Force Base servicemen jumped, beat, and sodomized Michael Matthews, who had just graduated from high school. Afraid to report the incident, Matthews became depressed and suicidal. His first two marriages foundered while he suffered in silence. “I lived with this beast in my head for nearly 30 years, before telling my wife and going for counseling” (Evans, 2012).
Higher-ranking enlisted soldiers in Norfolk raped Thomas F. Drapac on three separate occasions in 1963. He, too, kept the assaults to the himself for decades, worried about his sexuality and drowned his recurring nightmares in alcohol and sex (Dao, 2013).
Sexual trauma, like combat trauma, injures the brain and the body in both men and women. During the moment of attack, the sympathetic nervous system engages and stimulates a flood of cortisol throughout the system, elevating blood pressure, heart rate, inducing sweating and a hyper-aroused sensory state. This is the “fight-or-flight” response that humans and other animals experience when we sense danger. Because the victim of sexual trauma is temporarily rendered helpless to fight or flee, he is overwhelmed; his ordinary adaptations to life break down (Herman, 1992, 1997). The most fundamental psychological element of trauma is a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation” (Herman, 1992, 1997). The neural system is injured: people who have been traumatized often feel as though their nervous systems have become unplugged from reality. (Herman, 1992, 1997).
It is difficult to separate the biological from the psychological effects of trauma, since the brain is corporeal, an organ within the biological organism. Like all traumatized persons, MST survivors frequently re-live the initial moment of trauma in a sensory fashion, because the memory of the event is so terrible that it has not yet been incorporated, as it were, into the set of stories that a person recalls and retells about him- or herself in the past.
This happens because traumatic memories do not encode the same way that ordinary memories do. They tend to be experienced as “fixed images” or vivid sensations felt in the body but incapable of being expressed in words. These non-integrated, traumatic memories frequently intrude upon the traumatic survivor (Herman, 1992, 1997). Involuntarily pulled back into the moment through nightmares or flashbacks, the traumatized person experiences the flood of cortisol again and again, enduring an overload of stress that impairs the immune system and weakens the heart.
Because of the association of sodomy with homosexuality, and the military’s long-standing, profoundly heterosexist bias, many male survivors of MST have been afraid to speak about their experiences. Living with unprocessed traumatic memories and untreated PTSD over decades, as many survivors have done, can lead to dementia (Chao et al., 2010). Dementia can be understood as a biological degeneration of the brain and psychological and spiritual disintegration, a kind of wasting away of the mind and soul that has profound social consequences. Trauma effects people in similar ways.
Traumatized people typically experience what Herman calls “constriction,” the trance that the person transfixed by helplessness and terror experiences at the moment of the assault, as well as the disorientation and psychic numbing, even to the point of paralysis, that the survivor experiences in the aftermath of trauma. Constriction interferes with purposeful action and initiative as well as with anticipation and planning for the future.
Men who experience this common side-affect of trauma, but who are unable to speak about it or unwilling to seek treatment, may regard themselves as weak failures, men who are not “men” insofar as they are unable to meet cultural expectations that they pursue productive and lucrative action in the world. Indeed, many if not most men who experienced MST report that their masculinity was impaired or damaged.
Masculinity is a social construction, a sense of self formed in opposition to what is construed as femininity (Bourdieu, 2001). The U.S. military sustains an aggressively hierarchical, patriarchal, and homophobic culture. By homophobic I mean not “fear of men,” as the name implies, but rather, and ironically, “fear of femininity,” especially in men. As Pierre Bourdieu observes, masculinity is continually demonstrated in dynamic display:
Like honor–or shame, its reverse side, which we know, in contrast to guilt, is felt before others–manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence, and certified by recognition of membership of the group of ‘real men’. A number of rites of institution, especially in education or military milieu, include veritable tests of manliness oriented toward the reinforcement of male solidarity. Practices such as some gang rapes…are designed to challenge those under test to prove before others their virility in its violent reality, in other words stripped of all the devirilizing tenderness and gentleness of love, and they dramatically demonstrate the heteronomy of all affirmations of virility, their dependence on the judgment of the male group.
The soldiers who raped Greg Jeloudev confirmed their brotherhood and shored up masculinity by brutalizing a man who did not fit in, a man whose alternative manifestation of manliness challenged and threatened their own, precarious sense of themselves as men. They could not tolerate his very difference. The drill process by which soldiers are allegedly “broken down” often employs a similar dynamic. The sergeant seeks to humiliate and shame the recruit by demeaning and “feminizing” him, insisting that he is not a “man” until he can himself turn off his emotions, eradicate his softness, and become a killing machine.
The actor in the following clip from Full Metal Jacket (Kubrik, 1987) is notorious because was a former marine and gunnery sergeant originally hired only as an advisor. Unsatisfied with the performance of the actor designated to play the part, he stepped in to demonstrate how the military turns what he here calls a “maggot” and a “lady” into a “weapon, a minister of death”:
Manliness in the military is constructed as the conquest of womanliness, of tenderness, of weakness, of that which is to be despised, demeaned, and dominated.The particularly pernicious effect that this obscene social dynamic has upon the male soldiers who have been raped by their fellows (a method of social cruelty that humans alone among all the animals perpetrate) is that they must become their worst enemies in order to survive. They must adopt the mentality and sadistic behavior demanded in order to demonstrate that they are, indeed, men, or forever be spat upon as reviled, womanly outcasts who deserve nothing more than to be dominated again and again.
As with women who suffer MST, male survivors who are deployed or in the field often become captive to the culture, forced to endure the indignity of working alongside their abusers without recourse to any justice or understanding. To report the attack, even to acknowledge its occurrence to one’s self, is to risk being subjected to further, unbearable humiliation and disgrace. Before the Pentagon reversed its total ban on homosexuality in the service, anyone who reported having been assaulted was generally assumed to be unfit for duty. “If you made a complaint, then you are gay and you’re out that that’s it,” Drapac explains. Even though this would theoretically not take place in today’s military, for a man to admit that he has been “unmanned” in a culture that insists that manliness is superior to all other states of being requires immense courage, because the trauma cancels out his trust in others as well as himself (Herman, 1992).
Moreover, because it radically destabilizes his understanding of himself as a male being in relation to other men and women, it unmoors his sexual identity and leaves him feeling lost, sexless, neither male nor female. “Men don’t acknowledge being victims of sexual assault,” reports Dr. Carol O’Brien, who heads the PTSD program at Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Florida. “Men tend to feel a great deal of shame, embarrassment and fear that others will respond negatively” (Dao, 2013). If, as happens in a small number of cases, the rapist is a woman, the male survivor of MST feels even further demeaned and unmoored.
Male survivors may surely also experience spiritual isolation and confusion, through the inevitable question, “why me?” and the despair and self-loathing that fundamentally misconstrues his true nature. He descends into a spiritual malaise, a separation from a sense of purpose and meaning in the world. In fact the military culture that overtly promotes or covertly tolerates hyper-masculine concepts of honor is spiritually corrupt. When men and women embrace an ideal based on the arbitrary elevation of masculinity over femininity they exist not in harmony with one another, but rather in a permanent state of war against themselves.
The Population Concerned
The VA has been using an assessment tool to screen for MST since 2000 (Rowe, Gradus, Pineles, Batten, & Davison, 2009). A 2012 study of a subset of veterans of 213,803 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD from April 1, 2002, to October 1, 2008, found that 31 % of the women and 1% of the mean screened positively for MST (Maguen et al., 2012). Because the overwhelming number of veterans is male, the number of men is roughly equivalent to the number of women who have experienced MST. Within this population, 12% of the men and 7% of the women have substance abuse problems, while 56% of the men and 70% of the women suffer from depression. Male survivors of MST with PTSD displayed less frequency of comorbid depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than the female counterparts. Both women and men with a history of MST were more likely to have three or more comorbid mental health diagnoses than those with PTSD who had not experienced MST (Maguen et al., 2012). The most recent Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assaults estimates that roughly 26,000 service members experienced sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of 6% from the previous year.
According to the Department of Defense, sexual assault refers to “a range of crimes, including rape, sexual assault, nonconsensual sodomy, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, and attempts to commit these offenses” (Defense, 2013). Incidents of sexual assault took place equally, in proportion to the number of troops in each division, throughout the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The vast majority of the persons investigated for sexual assault were male, under the age of 35, and enlisted. Of the reports made, only 12% of the victims were male, but the Department of Defense estimates that 53% of all the assaults actually committed were committed by men against men. The Department of Military Affairs does not break down their statistics by race or ethnic identity. Nor does is estimate the total number of living veterans who may have experienced MST.
Social Work Interventions
Social workers have not adequately addressed the problem of men’s experiences of MST. There is little published research on male survivors of MST, and so far no scientific or theoretical discussions designed to guide social workers engaged in practice with the male veterans who have endured this terrible trauma. The 2012 “Handbook of Military Social Work” only discusses MST in a chapter on women in the Military, utterly ignoring the phenomenon. A different guide for social work with veterans published the same year includes a chapter on MST but only briefly touches upon male survivors. What is especially needed is a body of literature from social workers, psychologists, and other behavioral health professionals who have worked directly with male veterans suffering from combat- and military sexual trauma.
One very helpful, recent resource is the forthcoming documentary film that social worker Geri Lynn Weinstein-Matthews and her husband, Michael Matthews, have produced.
“Justice Denied” examines sexual assault and rape against men in the U.S. armed forces. Michael’s experience of rape as a 19 year-old airman is mentioned above (Evans, 2012). An NASW blog, “Social Workers Speak” has included a few references to male soldiers suffering from MST, but the NASW needs to bring much more attention to this topic (NASW, 2013).
Conclusions and Recommendations
Military sexual trauma is a serious affliction affecting thousands of male veterans and military service personnel, whose problems social workers have only recently begin to understand. Like many people, I originally understood the problem solely as a women’s issue, since the increasing numbers of women soldiers and increasingly expanded roles for women in the service has brought this topic to the foreground of public discussion. Recently changed policies and slowly changing attitudes towards homosexual soldiers has made it easier for men to speak out. Sexually traumatized men are not homosexual by virtue of having been attacked, of course, and, in fact, most of the men who rape or sexually assault other men in the military are heterosexual. As I explain above, sexual assault is a means of domination, of demonstrating masculinity. It has very little to do with sexual desire. Yet until recently men who reported that they had been assaulted were, tragically and unjustly, regarded as homosexual and therefore dismissed dishonorably from service.
Male-on-male sexual assault illuminates the fragility and complexity of masculine sexuality in general and illuminates the highly constructed nature of gender identity. Mild assault as well as violent rape can damage a man’s psychological and spiritual understanding of himself as a “man,” especially in a culture with particularly rigid and narrow notions of masculinity and femininity. The fault lies not in the man, but rather in the culture at large.
I’d like to see many more seminars for clinicians as well as survivors on the spiritual damage that MST inflicts on men as well as on our culture, seminars that would focus on the spiritual poverty of masculinism and patriarchy in general. But therapists also need much more training and guidance in working with men who have survived this biologically and psychologically damaging trauma.
Social workers need to build new understandings of how to address and approach men who traditionally do not seek therapeutic healing, and we also need to advocate for a broader discussion of the issue in general. I’d like to see government funding for scientific studies as well as for training social workers to engage this particularly vulnerable and forgotten population.
This will not be easy. Men, especially military men who have served their country as soldiers, don’t want to be treated as victims. Therefore we need to find novel and sensitive ways to discuss their experiences in ways that uphold their sense of themselves as strong, independent, and honorable human beings, respected members of the community, and beloved fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, and grandfathers.
Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans. (2010). Military Sexual Trauma.
Burgess, Ann W., Slattery, Donna M., & Herlihy, Patricia A. (2013). Military Sexual Trauma: A Silent Syndrome. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 51(2), 20-26. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20130109-03
Calhoun, Rachel Kimerling and Karen S. (1994). Somatic Symptoms, Social Support, and Treatment Seeking Among Sexual Assault Victims. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(2), 333-340.
Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An ecological model of the impact of sexual assault on women’s mental health. Trauma Violence Abuse, 10(3), 225-246. doi: 10.1177/1524838009334456
Chao, Linda L., Yaffe, Kristine, Neylan, Thomas C., Rothlind, Johannes C., Meyerhoff, Dieter J., & Weiner, Michael W. (2010). Hippocampal atrophy in young veterans with PTSD and cognitive impairment: A potential link between PTSD and dementia. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 6(4, Supplement), S286. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2010.05.943
Defense, Department of. (2013). Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military
Donna L. Washington, MD, MPH, Elizabeth M. Yano, PhD, MSPH, James McGuire, PhD, MSW , Vivian Hines, MSW, ACSW , Martin Lee, PhD, & Lillian Gelberg, MD, MSPH. (2010). Risk factors for Homelessness among Women Veterans. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 21.
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Kelly, U. A., Skelton, K., Patel, M., & Bradley, B. (2011). More than military sexual trauma: interpersonal violence, PTSD, and mental health in women veterans. Res Nurs Health, 34(6), 457-467. doi: 10.1002/nur.20453
Kimerling, R., Gima, K., Smith, M. W., Street, A., & Frayne, S. (2007). The Veterans Health Administration and military sexual trauma. Am J Public Health, 97(12), 2160-2166. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.092999
Kubrik, Stanely (Writer). (1987). Full Metal Jacket.
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Sharon Valente, PhD FAAN, & Callie Wight, RN C MA. (2007). Military Sexual Trauma: Violence and Sexual Abuse. MILITARY MEDICINE, 172.
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The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe. In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says. This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.
The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning. In other words, the “I” is the sum of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be. One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken. Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”
To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya. But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization. Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go. It leads into more suffering, not away from it.
In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while. A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body. Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.
Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being. Some days I am strong. Some days I am weak. Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing. When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable. Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.
The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.” Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings. My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.
You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not. If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it. If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy? The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.
Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him, Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable. Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean? Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.
The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about. We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma. We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow. If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.
We don’t have to do this. Why do we do it? Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity. If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.
The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.
I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence. My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).
No. For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.
As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,
The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Buddha did not found a religion. He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.
This is how I understand yoga. Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.
My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.
In our masculinist culture men and women, boys and girls, learn three fundamental untruths:
that masculine beings are superior to feminine beings;
that the mind is separate from the body; and
that feminine beings are more like things than beings and that they can in fact be reduced to their bodies because their minds do not really count.
A masculinist culture is one in which the first falsehood–that male beings are superior to feminine beings–is a dominant and central principle of religious, educational, political and family life.
When girls develop in such a culture, they learn to regard their bodies as things that are either
a) polluted, b) dangerous, c) tools with which to manipulate men; or d) all of the above.
This makes most women insane and depressed. From an early age we learn to regard our bodies as filthy yet seductive things that we can use to our advantage in relations with men. This is insane, as in the following definition from Webster’s Dictionary:
insane, adj. in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction.
Men also learn from an early age that it is okay to use women’s bodies as things and then to throw them away when they are finished using them. This makes men insane and sometimes also slightly ashamed of themselves. Sometimes men feel soiled after using a woman’s body as a tool for their own gratification. Some religions teach men that they touch of a woman who is menstruating pollutes them spiritually as well as biologically. This is, of course, insane, a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, and social interaction.
We women learn to hold our bodies in certain ways, to suck in our stomachs, to teeter on high heels, to elevate our necks, to sway when we walk, to slide our legs deliciously together and apart. We are praised for being “feminine” when we do these things, and condemned and insulted if we can’t manage them.
Unfortunately, even those of us who are pretty good going along with the feminization project also get condemned and insulted. Generally this happens after we have been treated as things by men who are only too happy to blame us for having asked for it. To be embodied as a woman is considered a curse, a disability. Aristotle, who has exerted an enormous influence over western philosophy for the last thousand years, said that women were deformed beings, freaks of nature. Orthodox Jews thank Yahweh in their morning prayers for not having made them female.
Whether we position and drape our bodies in ways that our culture tells us are “feminine” and “attractive” or not, we are still told that our bodies are dirty. We are still called whores, bitches, sluts by people who refuse to believe that we are more than simply body-things.
But the truth is that we are not simply bodies, not simply things to be used, but rather whole, conscious beings whose minds are intricately connected to our bodies in ways that we still don’t fully understand. Emotions register as bodily sensations and bodily sensations–hormonal fluctuations, for example–register as emotions. Emotions trigger thoughts and thoughts trigger emotions. Bodily sensations trigger thoughts and thoughts trigger bodily sensations–adrenaline, the flight or fight response of our sympathetic nervous system. It is impossible to decide where the body begins and the mind ends.
Of course, this is what the masculinists have been telling us for thousands of years–that we as women don’t have transcendent minds, as they do, that we are governed by our emotions, that we either do not have any brains at all or that our brains are vastly inferior to those of men. This, of course, is nonsense, the sort of thing that we should recognize as the product of insanity, not wisdom. Men are no less affected by their hormones, their emotions, their impulses.
We women are embodied and our bodies are utterly mixed up with our minds. Therefore it is very important for us as women to keep track of what we are thinking and feeling about ourselves, and to understand how certain thoughts that we accept as real might only be responses to certain bodily sensations. At the same time, it is important to remember that certain bodily sensations and emotions might only be habitual response to certain thoughts that we have accepted as truths.
How do you feel when you tell yourself that you love your body? How do you feel about your body, and about yourself, when you accept the mass media representation of an ideal woman’s body?
Learn to re-wire your thoughts and emotional responses. Practice telling yourself that you love your body and remember how you feel when you say this. Practice recognizing how often you dismiss your body, or deride your body, or feel disgusted by your body. When do these thoughts arise? What brings them into your mind? When they come, catch yourself and say, “Nonsense! I love my body because I love myself! I am my body and my body is me, and I am a good woman.”
Take care of your body. Don’t eat so much that you feel sick; don’t drink so much that you can’t walk. Get exercise. Drink moderately. Stretch. Stay clean. Put lotion on your body and move your hands sensuously up and down and around your curves. Get enough sleep. Move languidly in your bed and feel how lovely it is to be embodied. Breathe consciously and notice how alive you are in your body; how wonderful it is to be alive, to be embodied, to feel, to see, to hear, to move, to touch, to taste, to speak–if you are lucky enough to be able to do all of these things. If you are not so lucky, then acknowledge what you do have, for you are still embodied, and your body is the not just the temple, but also the very structure, of your consciousness and spirit. You are your body and your body is you, and you are beautiful. You are a good woman.
It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.
You say to yourself:
No way is she better than me. I mean, his taste has really declined.
And then you admit:
…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.
Which leads to the happy thought:
And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.
I have been looking for him for such a long time. This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.
I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse. Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution. These are my problems. Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace. I chose grace. Why chose anything else?
Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable. I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it. I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through. I’m trying to keep my eyes open.
I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States. Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different. My body and mind have changed. I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe. I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull. If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.
I like being in my house by myself. I love it here. The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched. The Echinacea is blooming into the heat. The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.
Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room. I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.
For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon. “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world. Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another. Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.
Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action. A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.
I have been crying.
Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say. For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping. But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards. You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted. It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying. Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack. Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.
Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:
Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.
I’m in my house. Today is my father’s birthday. I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father. My father has come to rest at home in me.
I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him. Many regrets. Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.
Awesome job, Dad. And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about. I cared about you.
Switching away to JOY!! I have everything I need right here. My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and
I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.
The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning. I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors. I can dance around naked if I please. It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.
If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself
You should make your way steadily, alone.
In the childish there is no companionship.
From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada
The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings. By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children. He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”
Later on the Dhammapada reads,
If one cannot find a mature friend,
a companion who is wise, living productively,
let him go alone,
like a king abandoning conquered land,
like an Elephant in the forest.
A life of solitude is better–
There is no companionship with a childish person.
Let one go alone and do no damage,
Like an elephant in the forest.
It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else. Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions. She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”
If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far. You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret. You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable. You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it. And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up. So you keep to the path, watch over your mind, and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.
Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person? Not a really young person. Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company. But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber? After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient. You grit your teeth, you endure. You are not looking about you. Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation. The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them. Walk steadily on.”
These are not the Buddha’s words. I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”
Hold On, Be Strong,
When it’s on, it’s on.
The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song. Thus everything he says has a double meaning. He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.” Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain. He’s also not campaigning against weed. He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it. We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.
So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means. Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication. He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change. The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha” Tupac says something similar. Be strong, but not in the rigid, hyper-masculine manner.
To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality. You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it. And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution. It solves nothing and it’s childish.
No one is coming to save you except yourself. It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering. Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can
If I had known how difficult the journey was going to be, I never would have attempted it. Getting up here to this enormous mountaintop shrine to the Buddha took all my energy. I started out in the heat of mid-morning, with plenty of water and a good breakfast in my stomach, on a walk that the guidebook said would take two to three hours. I followed the water’s edge from the center of the tourist strip past the rental boats and scrubby jewelry vendors, past the fancy lakeside restaurants, across a grassy area and over a brick wall where I pointed out a beautiful blue butterfly to a little boy whose parents were bathing below. I followed a footpath through weeds, across a parking lot for an expensive hotel that you had to take a ferry to, and through a gate to an abandoned park with a brick wall around it. I headed towards some peaked red roofs atop crumbling brick buildings, which turned out to be ancient temple grounds, four or five smaller shrines set around a larger mandir dedicated to Shiva.
There I met a young priest, who invited me into the sacred area where non-Hindus almost never get to go. He also opened up the doors to a smaller temple to Durga, the great mother goddess, whom among the thousands of Hindu deities I have adopted as my personal protectress. The priest told me it was too far to walk to the Buddhist Stupa that I had set out to visit, and that it would be best to take a boat across the lake to the beginning of the path through the forest. I turned around and looked for a boat. When I found out how much it was going to cost to cross, and also that the boatman had elected himself my personal tour guide, whether I wanted him or not, I reversed course and headed through the temple grounds again.
I decided to believe the guidebook, not the priest, since like all Nepali men he assumed that western women are unable to discern what is best for them, and this attitude pissed me off. But before heading out, I asked him for tika, which he happily gave me, apologizing for not having offered it before. This red mark on my forehead brought me good luck and guidance, as you shall hear.
I crossed a trash-filled stream on a metal suspension bridge. Boys stood knee-deep, fishing, in the filthy water. The path took me around the lake behind a plump, short woman who shielded herself from the burning sun with a purple umbrella. I had been walking slowly to conserve energy and to stay cool. Even so, I caught up with the woman pretty quickly, and greeted her as I passed: “Namaste.”
Namaste means, “the divine beauty in me greets the divine beauty in you.” This is the common greeting, which all Nepalis use to say hello and, sometimes, goodbye. Strangers on the street do not routinely exchange it the way Californians say, “Hello, how are you,” as they pass one another without waiting for a reply. But whenever one meets eyes it is polite to say hello and common to hold up one’s hands in prayer as one does so. If someone greets you with hands in prayer and you do not return the gesture, it is considered very bad manners and bad luck. I love this greeting! Namaste: The divine in me salutes the divine in you! It feels like the most natural and honest expression of my heart, as well as the most appropriate way for human beings to greet one another. Every one of us inherently good and capable of remembering and cultivating the goodness in ourselves.
In this spirit, then, I saluted the woman with the purple umbrella, who returned my salute and then quickened her pace to keep up with me. She was inquisitive. “Where are you from?” She asked. “Do you like Nepal?” “How long have you been here?” “How long will you stay?” “Where are your friends?” she demanded, along with a number of other questions that I didn’t understand. I did my best to converse but lapsed, with apologies, again and again into frustrated silence. I showed her the tika on my forehead, which she found so astonishing and wonderful that she insisted that she photograph me immediately. She managed to hail another woman, sitting in the shade in a walled garden behind a gateway that proclaimed, “No unauthorized persons may enter.” The woman with the umbrella, now my fast friend, convinced the other woman to allow us into the shade and to take a photograph of us together. As soon as she handed her phone to the woman, my new friend threw her arms around me. I obligingly put my arm around her, and smiled. I was happy to have pleased her so much, if also somewhat bowled over by her enthusiastic affection.
After the photo, my admirer walked along in the same direction, still gabbing away at me, even though it was clear that I understood very little. I asked her where she was going, and she said that she was heading somewhere off to the left, to her home in the New Road. My path took me to the right, and I expected her to leave me at any moment. She chattered away at me in Nepali using that lovely up lilting “enah!” at the end of her sentences, which is both a question and command. I had no idea what she meant but she sounded friendly and content. I kept expecting her to break away, but she seemed determined to direct me. Finally I stammered out something like, “I am strong and okay. You are going with me? I can go alone.” She just grabbed my arm firmly and pushed me further down the road. The one word I recognized again and again in her lectures to me was “Saathi,” or “friend.” I asked her if she thought it was dangerous to go to the Stupa alone. The guidebook had warned travelers not to go through the rain forest without a group, because robbers were known to prey upon tourists there. I had deliberately left my wallet at home, bringing only enough cash to get a little food and a boat back, and this I had hidden well in my backpack. I also happen to be as tall if not taller than most Nepali men, and relatively brave or foolhardy, and thought I would be fine. She explained that she was taking me on an alternate route, one that would be safer although longer. We passed a sign at the trailhead of a path leading straight up through the forest. It said in large, bold letters: IT IS BEST TO TRAVEL IN GROUPS.
I began to worry about her health. It was indeed very hot and although she was sturdily built, she did not have the most appropriate walking shoes on. Then again, the Nepalis never do and they go great distances in flip-flops that tear my feet to shreds. Still, I felt anxious about the debt that I was building up to her as well as the danger she seemed to determined to protect me from. A couple of 10- or 12-year old boys approached us from behind, and I stepped aside to let them pass, wondering if these were the sorts of robbers I should look out for. To my surprise, they very cheerfully and sympathetically began to fire questions at me in English. This was a relief after the past 45 minutes of language breakdown, and I asked them to please tell the wonderful woman with the purple umbrella that I appreciated her help very much, but did not expect her to take me all the way to the Stupa. They spoke a few words to one another and she agreed to leave me there, with the boys. Once again she threw her arms around me, this time kissing me on both cheeks, in the French fashion. Then she waddled home as the boys announced that they would take me through the forest.
They said that they were 12 years old and cousins, who lived in a nearby village. They pointed to their mothers working in the rice fields as we passed. They also said that they were in school, but did not know for how many more years they would attend since their parents were poor farmers. To make extra money, they said, they guided tourists through the forest on the way to the Stupa. They walked very quickly without any effort and I kept up with them until the path got and stayed very steep. One of them was very sweet and honest, while the other, taller one had already learned to manipulate and take advantage of others. After a while they seemed to be two angels, or demons, into whose hands I had unwittingly delivered myself. The nicer one wanted to know exactly how much money I would give them for guiding them. I refused to answer this question until we had reached the summit, partly because I was afraid that they would abandon me for a wrong answer in what seemed increasingly like a jungle. Footpaths led off in every direction, and there were no signs indicating the way to the stupa. The mosquitoes swarmed and bit mercilessly, and other, tinier, black bugs attached themselves to my legs and arms. To make things worse, the cheap sandals I had bought to replace the Chakos that someone stole from me fell apart. The bottom sole sheared away and one of the straps broke, so I had to walk carefully.
We climbed for an hour or two. My heart began to thud heavily against my chest, partly because I had tried to keep up with the boys, who climbed like mountain goats, instead of pacing myself for the journey. That would have been hard to do, actually, since I had no idea for how long we would be walking, or how steep the path would be. Still, because I had gotten winded early on, I had to stop often. I couldn’t sit down to rest, because leeches lurked under the leaves on jungle-forest floor and I didn’t want to invite any more insects to crawl up my legs.
I began to flag. I had rationed my water sensibly but had not brought any candy or nuts for energy. Just before we reached the summit, I had to force myself to lift each heavy foot, one after another, and also had to keep reminding myself not to rest my hands on my hips. Finally we reached a little shop at a crest of the mountain, from which we could see all of Pokhara as well as the stupa, still a half-hour’s walk up another steep hill. I threw myself into a chair and drank most of the liter of the water I bought before the shopkeeper could return my change to me. I also bought the kids, who had complained that they were hungry, some coke and chips. I also had a coke myself, just to get some sugar into my bloodstream. I would not have made the final trek without it.
I gave the boys 110 rupees each, all I could afford while keeping just enough to get back by boat at the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know where that path was, but the boys said that someone could show me as they said goodbye. All seemed well until the taller, ruder boy called after me and demanded more money. “I gave you all that I could,” I said and shrugged off his parting curse.
I limped up to the Stupa under a sweltering sun. The plaque at its base, where you are asked to remove your shoes, stated that it had been built by a Japanese Buddhist sect whose mission was to spread Buddhism and peace by erecting 100 peace pagodas in as many countries around the world. There were very few visitors, just a few Nepali couples and another pair who looked Dutch. One of the Nepali couples, who had unusually delicate features, asked me to take so many photos of them with their phone that I worked up the courage to ask them if I could photograph them with my camera. I liked the gentleness of their movements and the way that they looked at each other, obviously very much in love.
There were also a few groundskeepers. Typically, the man lounged in the shade while the woman labored under the sun, which sweltered above. All the clouds had gathered around the edge of the lake, obscuring the Himalayas, as they usually do at that time of day in the summer time. I hadn’t come for the view, but rather to see the pagoda and to have a bit of a walk. I hadn’t expected it to be a trek or an adventure. The pain and uncertainty I suffered getting up here was worth it. The four great golden statues and murals, which look off in the four directions, preach peace, enlightenment, love, and universal harmony.
I am now sitting at the doorway of a Japanese Buddhist temple, which is set on the steep hill just below the Peace Pagoda. The doors are locked but I can see through the screens. The interior is very different, quite a bit more subdued, than the Nepali and Tibetan temples I have seen. There are no chairs or benches outside here, just as at the stupa, so I am sitting on the steps. There are ants and mosquitoes but none of the biting bugs that attacked me in the forest. This friendly dog passing by probably has fleas, so I will not pet him.
I would like very much to write a letter to Tim, who has been on my mind for so much of this trip to Pokhara. I can’t resolve the conflicting and violent emotions that beset me, It is always this way with a breakup. One belabors the end on and on without reaching any satisfactory understanding. Usually the party who makes the break is more eager to stop talking about it, while the party caught off guard cannot discuss the problem enough. The only solution, which comes sooner or later, is to drop it.
I would like to be friends with him. Certainly what is most terrible and devastating about this breakup is that I seem to have lost my best friend. I feel very vulnerable and lost without his friendship, his support, his affection. I cannot deny that I was unhappy in our relationship, too, and that I felt we were not as suited to one another as I would have liked. Many of my needs were unmet.
Things changed. They do that. I gravitated to women friends who spoke freely and openly about their fears and anxieties and weaknesses. There were times when I felt slighted by him, and there were times when he felt slighted by me.
Still I believed in our bond, in our importance to one another. I loved the easy way we lived together. He comforted me.
My brain will not compute this reality. What seemed an oasis was a mirage.
Still, I sit here at the peace pagoda and wish to make peace with him in my heart. I do not know how to do it. How do I acknowledge my suffering, my wounds, and yet forgive? Why am I holding a grudge against him? What am I afraid of if I let give up this war? Isn’t the emotion at the bottom of my anger fear? What do I fear most of all?
That I am weak.
How do I now open conversation with him without attacking him? By sharing my own insecurities and vulnerabilities with him. Here is the letter I am sending:
Dearest Timothy, Namaste:
My last email was pretty angry, an outburst of the tumultuous emotions that I’ve been struggling to manage since we broke up. I act like I’m crazy when I am afraid and wanted to tell you about my fears as a way to open conversation between us again.
I am afraid that I will never again meet a man whom I love who also loves me.
I am afraid that no one will see the beauty and goodness that you saw in me, and that I will be alone for the rest of my life.
I am afraid that I will never have a family again, other than the wonderful family that I have with Brendan.
I am afraid that I will never again be included and accepted and desired and protected.
I fear I’ll have to find all strength, all courage, all support from within myself.
I fear I’ll get weak and dizzy and make mistakes and lose my way.
I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.
I know that these are fears, not truths, and also that they come and go like waves on the sea. I know that these anxieties cloud my mind and make me say and do things that I regret. I also know that these fears are not my fault. That is, they well up in me because of my experiences and culture and inheritance. I meditate to survive them.
I am sorry for every hurtful word and gesture between us, for every breakdown of communication, every dissipation of the love we have for one another. Above all, I want to hold you in my life as the cherished and trusted friend that you have always been to me. When my feelings of loss, fear, and self-criticism drive me to lash out at you or to despair I forget that what I want most of all is peace and harmony within and between us. I want to face the crossroads we have come to squarely with compassion for both of us. I wish now to be strong, serene, and levelheaded, to know my own Buddha nature and to be a good and kind friend to you.
Most of all, I wish to let go of my attachment to you and hold onto my love for you. You have been a good friend to me, after all. You are taking care of my house, our dogs, my cat, and my yard. You are collecting my mail and scanning and sending important documents to me by email. You let me know how the animals are doing and actually treat the cat better than I ever did. You words since our breakup have always been kind and soft. All of these gestures show your love for me, and I feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life as a friend, still my best friend. Thank you.
I dreamed that I was the passenger in a car. The person driving was a supportive male friend. A turtle wandered into the road and flipped itself over right in the middle of the lanes. I made the driver stop, got out of the car, and stopped oncoming traffic. Then I carefully turned the turtle right side up and gingerly carried it to the side of the road. I had never picked up a turtle before and worried that I was hurting it by holding it only from its shell. When I set it down, it began to crawl toward the center of the highway again, propelled by some archaic instinct. I rescued it once more and again held it nervously while I scanned the area for the place that it seemed to be wanting to go. I saw a path leading down away from and then underneath the road to a glen. I set the turtle at the edge of a pool and watched it as it sat, stunned. Then it eased itself forward into the water and swam away. I climbed back up the hill, feeling very happy.
When I awakened I wondered if I had dreamed about rescuing myself. I had to leave the car driven by a supportive man and carry myself to water, safety, and freedom. I didn’t quite know how to carry myself, and worried about getting hurt. But it was essential to figure out how to save myself. Only then could I return to companionship with the person who has always been waiting for me.