When I first heard the teachings of the Buddha seventeen years ago, it was his wild, radical passion for truth and his defiance of external authority that got my own blood boiling and catapulted me on a spiritual journey:
“Believe nothing, merely because you have been told it or because it is traditional. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for your teacher. But by whatever way, through thorough examination, you find to be one leading to good and happiness for all creatures, that path follow like the moon follows the path of the stars.”
The Buddha’s words, spoken two and a half thousand years before, were speaking now to my own broken, confused and closed heart. He was not telling me what to do. He certainly was not threatening me with damnation, retribution or punishment. He was simply suggesting that I listen, look and find out the truth for myself.
When I look back over the years, long before I learned to meditate, to moments when I was able to say no to external voices, when truth burst through inner and outer confusion to protect me, when I refused to sacrifice my spirit to the will of another—those moments were the most important, defining and certainly the most mobilizing junctures of my life.
My first moment of defiance happened when I was sixteen years old. I had been conscripted into the South African army. I was terrified. There was so much anger, violence and malevolence around me in the army camp. The identified enemy was Communist, ever-present and very black. We were required to kill for and protect the whiteness of our country. Early one morning we were all taken out to the shooting range in camouflaged trucks. Dressed in battle gear and holding our rifles, we traveled deep into the veld. It felt like war. In military formation, we lined up and were issued live ammunition for the first time. Suddenly, a siren blew, and a series of concentric circles appeared on targets before us. Superimposed upon the chest of the silhouette of a man was the bull’s-eye. I knew in that moment that I was being schooled in murder. I refused to fire at the target. Instead, I sprayed my bullets wildly, hitting the surrounding targets but not my own. In front of my fellow soldiers, the sergeant major thundered at me in Afrikaans, “Is jy’n moffie of is jy’n man?!” (“Are you a faggot or are you a man?!”) I paid dearly for my defiance, but as I look back, it was the first time in my life that I was truly able to say, No!
Perhaps one moment of courage—when we allow the wisdom of our hearts to lead the way—conditions further moments of deeper listening. After military service, I and other students at the university in Johannesburg rioted and protested against apartheid. For weeks we kept a twenty-four-hour vigil day and night beside a busy street. It was lonely as we stood there night after night with our placards and our candles flickering in the darkness. One evening a woman stopped and gave us a plate of fresh, warm baked pies. We were hungry and very grateful. Before devouring them, a friend suggested we give thanks for this unusual kindness. Then, we opened the pies and inspected them carefully before eating. There in the moonlight twinkled bits of ground glass mixed into the meat. I realized in that moment how much they feared our young and independent spirits. Though we were bludgeoned, tear gassed, beaten and dragged by our hair; though we were jailed by police and some of us died in custody for participating in these protests, I was blessedly able again to defy the intimidation and authority of the State.
At this same time in my life, I had the courage to honor and at long last to admit to myself that I was gay beyond any shadow of a doubt. I refused to deny my sexuality to myself, my family or my friends any longer. It felt triumphant to defy those voices within and outside of me that tried to convince me I was deviant, sick, abnormal, amoral or just going through a phase.
Many years later in December 1980, I began to practice Buddhism. Had I known what was in store for me on the Buddhist path, I probably would never have had the courage to leave the straight and narrow road from Pietermaritzburg to Ixopo for the wild adventure of vipassana meditation practice. It would have seemed ludicrous that my ascent to that mountaintop retreat center in Ixopo, Zululand, would begin a long journey that would shatter every notion of who I thought I was. Years later, within the fire of vicious disease, this left turn up the mountain would unquestionably sustain me as I entered a life close to death.
Diagnosed with AIDS eight years after beginning meditation, I was able fiercely to affirm:
I will not be defined by this illness. I am so much more than a person living with AIDS. AIDS ultimately has no authority over my life. In spite of everything, it remains my birthright to know the greatest joy, love and that peace which passeth all understanding.
Following the introduction of meditation to my life, I spent the happiest year of my life at Ixopo and then sought to bring the meditation practice to the fast, racy and successful life I had left behind in New York City. Back in the U.S., to my horror and surprise, I found the trappings of my affluent lifestyle—my Persian rugs, my collection of silver and goldware and paintings from around the world—all meant absolutely nothing now. After great anguish and confusion, I decided to shave my head, ordain as a monk, and give away all my possessions. I would soon fly to a Burmese forest monastery in the redwoods of California. Before entering the holy life, however, I had one final, wild, fateful fling during which time I was infected with the AIDS virus.
I saw him the moment I entered the hotel bar. He stood in the semidarkness holding a beer, leaning against the wall. A black leather cap hung down over his forehead. He was very handsome, and I knew instantly that a decision had already been made. Suddenly, he was beside me. Voices within me whispered their caution. The longer we talked, the louder the voices said, No, no, no. Regretfully, my courage flew out the door as I silenced all sense of the truth calling to me. I sublimated my will to that of a complete stranger. When he invited me home, I immediately accepted his invitation. I was unable to refuse. He was, after all, gracious enough to invite me. How could I say no?
Over the years, I’ve returned to this encounter many, many times. Why had I jettisoned the voices of caution that called from within me? In retrospect, I was probably determined to have one last fling, knowing instinctively that I was leaving behind forever a life that had offered only fleeting moments of titillation and gratification. Perhaps also it was a gesture of defiance against the momentum of the spiritual journey that at times seemed to carry me faster than I understood. Or maybe this fateful episode was a speed wobble to ensure that I would never again sidetrack myself from this journey. It was many years later that I fully understood why my courage failed me.
It was fortuitous that my meditation at the monastery was an ancient death awareness practice, a systematic reflection and visualization upon the thirty-two classical parts of the body. I remember the first five: hair of the head and body, nails, teeth and skin. Then the reflection moves on to pus, blood, feces, fluid of the joints and other succulent imagery. My ongoing repetition of this visualization practice dissolved all sense of bodily solidity. The physical experience was one of enormous flux and flow. It felt both courageous and precipitous to touch the truth of my body, to bring into question my lifelong alignment and identification with a body that now appeared so unstable and ephemeral.
Late one night, a number of fellow nuns and monks, all practicing the same meditation, were taken to the department of anatomy at a local university. We were each seated beside a table upon which lay a huge, zippered, plastic envelope. Under the guidance of the head nun, we sat quietly together and extended loving kindness to ourselves and others. Later, we were asked to unzip the envelope beside us. To my great surprise, I found beside me the body of a middle-aged woman preserved in formaldehyde. I noticed her gold earring, her painted toenails, her youthfulness. After a while, I moved to the other side of the table and was astonished and quite unnerved to discover that she had been sliced in half right down her middle! Fear gripped my heart as I slowly observed her brains, jaw, neck, heart, lungs, organs, intestines, bones, genitals. The fear gradually subsided as interest and compassion arose within me. As I moved from side to side of the table, I had the privilege of feeling the texture of the individual organs. If I pulled a tendon, the toe responded. I perceived for the first time in my life that the surface of the skin, the outer appearance, what I had always identified with, was paper thin and so vulnerable.
Eventually, I sat beside the body, held this stranger’s hand, and extended compassion and gratitude for the lessons I had learned. I gazed at countless bodies lying upside down and upright in the huge pool of formaldehyde nearby. All had no doubt yearned for happiness, all had suffered, and all were now deceased.
I returned to the woman lying on the table. Once again I perceived the spleen, the brain, the ligaments, the overlapping muscles, the vertebrae, all with their intricate physiological interconnections. I was filled with awe and wonder for the miracle that lay beside and, of course, within me. The idea that I, Gavin, might in some way be a fixed aspect of my own bodily complexity seemed like a ludicrous and impossible notion. “My body is simply a vehicle,” I realized, “Pure, awesome, miraculous—hers deathly still and mine blessedly and thankfully breathing, for the moment.”
I left the monastery after nine or ten months and continued intensive meditation practice at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, with Michelle McDonald Smith and Joseph Goldstein, whom I had first met at Ixopo. It was during this retreat that a terrifying episode occurred that was directly related to my fateful sexual encounter before entering the monastery.
During meditation on this retreat, there was a considerable accumulation of pressure in the lower part of my body below the groin. When I thought I couldn’t bear it any longer, there was a huge release. Immediately, pressure reappeared in the pubic area, and the same sequence of events continued to unfold elsewhere in my upper body. Finally, energy shot out the top of my head. The next days were highly energized. I felt elated and open, but soon I was again in excruciating pain. To practice awareness of breathing felt too complicated and fear-filled for me at this time. Gasping for breath, I shifted my attention to touch points on my body as objects of meditation—my lips touching, my fingers touching one another, my knees and feet on the floor. During one meditation, completely unbidden, forgotten episodes of history started arising with difficult emotions related to the terrifying imagery.
Back in my room at IMS, with the first snow falling outside, I was inundated with memories relating to excessive alcohol abuse by my father as I was growing up, of much whiskey poured from elegant crystal decanters into cut-glass goblets. Then images of boarding school began to arise. I vividly remembered all the times I’d been beaten by teachers. I remembered the terror of older and bigger boys—often the tough jocks who despised and ridiculed me by day—forcing themselves into my bed night after night as they fondled, kissed, hurt and masturbated me.
I crawled down to the frozen basement of the meditation center and huddled in a corner alone. I felt safe and isolated there as I had years before when I retreated to my hiding places around the school, safe for a while from those who tormented me. Under the retreat building in the middle of winter, the frigid concrete floor chilled my body. I wept and wailed and shuddered in the stark reality of what had occurred all those years earlier.
Joseph and Michelle supported me through the nightmare of the next years. Each year I did a long retreat at IMS. There was no stopping the process. I picked up at the point I had left off months earlier. I began an ongoing practice of forgiveness meditation.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the abuse left me with a pattern of conditioning that may be triggered in the present, causing me sometimes to regress to the vulnerable, terrified and reactive child I once was. I probably will not know absolute deliverance from the effects of this wiring, but I can change my relationship with what arises now. Certainly one of the most painful and courageous acknowledgments over the years has been the recognition and acceptance of an ethic of victimhood that has profoundly defined my life. Learning to respond rather than to react to this conditioning has been a primary blessing and joy of the meditation practice. Through the eighteen years of grappling with this legacy of abuse, I have today an unshakable faith that everything that arises in the meditation is ultimately workable.
1989 was unquestionably the most difficult year of my life. This was a time when many friends were dying of AIDS—about fifty loved ones had already died. My therapist told me he had AIDS and was winding up his practice. I returned to South Africa to be with two close friends, one a lover of many years. Roy died as my plane touched down in Johannesburg, and Michael died a few weeks later. A couple of days before I was to leave, my father died in my arms. When I eventually returned to the United States, I immediately had my blood tested. On the ninth of July, 1989, I discovered that I, too, was living with AIDS. The virus that was killing my friends was wildly proliferating in my own bloodstream.
As soon as possible I returned to IMS and began a long retreat. In a leaf-strewn sanctuary deep in the New England forests, I felt the presence of my father all around me. I had an opportunity at last to mourn his death and find a measure of completion with his passing. During the final weeks of the retreat I experienced a great pressure on the front of my head. I allowed the awareness to move to the sensations across my nose and mouth—a feeling of being pushed and smothered. One day the pressure across my face was so sudden and strong that I was knocked from my cushion and fell flat on my back. Several surrounding meditators screamed in alarm, for by now we were all very quiet and extremely sensitive to shock, surprise and loud noise. I meditated in my room for the remainder of the retreat. The pressure and the falling continued. Slowly the pressure took the form of a palm of a hand, and I also noticed that my breathing had become particularly difficult at this time. A fiery pain increasingly enveloped my groin. Sometimes the nauseating smell of tobacco and alcohol accompanied these episodes.
One day the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, not by design, but in remembrance. I remembered lying in my cot as an infant, way back beyond a time when I could verbalize or speak. A great big tobacco-stained hand came down over my nose and mouth to quiet me while another hand fondled my genitals. I was terrified then as I was terrified now, thirty-eight or so years later. The hand was my father’s beyond a shadow of a doubt. This knowing is not visual, nor is it verbal. It is founded in instinct, sensation and intuition.
Now I understood why at boarding school I was such an immediate and accessible target and magnet for the abusive behavior that occurred there. By then, I was already firmly on track for the abusive eventuality that was to follow. I knew, more deeply than ever, why it had not been possible for me to resist those fateful sexual advances in Seattle, why there was no self-reverence, no sense of boundary, and no capacity to honor the voices within myself at the time. I realized why I had always loathed my father’s touch, why I hated him calling me his baby (which he did all his life), why I always felt so instinctively ashamed of my father, and why I so much wanted to be different from him.
Over the ensuing nine years I have gradually become able to accept more deeply and forgive my father’s shortcomings and all he did. I feel today a genuine respect and appreciation for his considerable strengths and virtues, many clearly alive within me now. I can celebrate his good, kind and fallible heart. In some way, my struggle for freedom feels like his also. We are in this together now. I believe that my father’s activity with my genitals, though devastating and terrifying for me, was for him a desperate attempt to reassure himself that I had not inherited his own impotency and malfunction (caused by a war injury that I later learned about from my mother when I told her everything I had remembered). Back in 1989 I had no idea how long, arduous and challenging the road to forgiveness would be—forgiveness of myself, my father and my mother, Adelaide, also. I had no idea how deeply forgiveness would eventually heal us all.
When the revelations surfaced, I felt defiantly unwilling to consider the possibility of forgiving my father. The terror, rage and truth-telling of those years needed to happen first. As my heart perceived and felt my father’s suffering and confusion, I found within me a willingness and readiness to let go of the nightmare that had gridlocked my heart for so long. A transition from the brittle terrain of anger, shame and victimhood to acceptance and letting go with forgiveness is one of the great blessings of my life.
A few years ago, in 1994, I was admitted to the hospital in Northampton. My temperature was 106.7 degrees. I had pneumonia. My friends and the doctors all thought I was checking out. I dropped twenty-five pounds; I was drenched in sweat day and night; my mind was dull, my body exhausted. One night in the middle of all of this, I awoke from this nightmare with a jolt. My mind was crystal clear. Surrounding me in every direction was a deep, comforting, velvety blackness, and below me, stretching way ahead to a pinpoint in the distance, was a river of salmon-apricot-colored rose petals. As the river disappeared, a bright white light shone back towards me. In the embrace of this light, my heart erupted with great joy as I remembered again a love that I’d somehow forgotten. At this point, my mind got really busy. This is far out, I thought. I’m dying. Instantly, I did a ninety-degree turn into the blackness on my right, and my eyes opened. I was back in the hospital. Life-support equipment surrounded the bed. My fever broke, and the crisis was over.
My overwhelming memory of that night was of the loving light. I have no idea what happened, but I’m left with an unshakable knowing that for me, in some unfathomable way, the movement toward death is a movement toward a profound and boundless love, long-forgotten. For me the fear of death is diluted by the indelible impression left by this experience. More than ever these days, death feels like an illusion, a short step from one garden to another. What increasingly defines my life is an unquenchable thirst to know the deepest and most unconditional love possible within the fire and the drama and the complexity of my life. The practice of meditation—mindfulness—is for me a practice of love. Unconscious love is an oxymoron, an impossibility. To be fully present with oneself and others, I believe, is the truest love there is.
Our courage to enter the darkest recesses of our hearts and minds births a deliverance from all that has kept us tight, disconnected and loveless for so long. We forget and we remember.