The Lesson of Pain

I have recently been ruminating on the idea of pain; both physical and emotional.  Prior to the new year I started running.  In the beginning, and to a certain extent even now, it was painful.  My knees, my shins, my calves, my thighs.  I also felt the pain of my lungs as they struggled for air the longer my stints of running grew.  I remember hearing, when I started going to the gym several months ago, “pain is weakness leaving the body.”  I would ironically quote this to my workout partner numerous times throughout each of our sessions. He, however, liked the quote and used it often in the most sincere manner. Then, as we both began to use the phrase more often it began to percolate.

Pain, both physical and mental can initiate spiritual growth.  As I feel my physical pain I become very mindful of how it makes me feel.  The part that makes me most aware is the pain I feel as I try to breathe.  As someone who meditates and does yoga I have grown more keenly aware of my breath as it passes in and out of my body.  The more and more I focus on getting my breath into my lungs, into the part of me that were hurting physically the easier the running becomes.  Breathe into the pain.  It is the perfect solution.

As for the emotional pain, I recently ended a relationship with someone I have cared about for several years.  We haven’t dated in almost a year and a half but we have remained friends and intimates in that time.  I was not emotionally prepared for him to move on and begin seeing someone else.  Don’t get me wrong, deep down I know it’s the right thing and needed to happen.  He needed to move on and I needed to let go.  But, when the truth finally came out it was like a kick to the stomach.  The wind was completely knocked out of me.  I remember thinking, “why are you surprised, you’ve suspected this for a while now.”  That doesn’t help soften the blow when your suspicions are confirmed.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last time I was hurt in the name of love (or should I say my expectations of what love is supposed to be – love does not hurt).  I was recently drawn back to the song Try To Remember from the Broadway musical The Fantastiks. My favorite line in the entire song is, “…it’s nice to remember, without a hurt the heart is hollow.”  This led me back to the idea that pain is often the greatest catalyst to spiritual growth.  Growth comes when we are still willing to open our hearts to love even when we still feel the raw pain of our failed love attempts.

Physical and emotional pain feel very different to each of us.  But, I find I combat the pain in exactly the same manner.  After completely cutting off the person I have loved for quite some time I was reeling and struggling to breathe.  Just as though I were running. Then, I began to breathe into the pain.  The pain in my heart, the pain in my mind, the pain I was feeling in my deepest recesses.  At first the breaths were shallow, but with each in breath and out breath I knew I could breathe more deeply, fill my body with the healing breaths. And it began to work.  I felt the immediate sting die away.  I felt the peace coming back to my mind.  Such great advice, breathe into the pain.

This does not end pain completely, after all, pain is weakness leaving the body.  It does though offer us a way to dull the pain, embrace the pain, work with the pain, and grow from it.  That is the lesson of pain; grow from it or be devoured by it.

Namasté
Matthew

I’m Homophobic (About Myself)

I have a fear.  I’ve only really mentioned it to a few people.  I am homophobic.

Let me clarify what I mean by this.  I am homophobic of my own homosexuality.  I recently watched myself in a video and I caught myself cringing at the things I was doing.  My voice is high and “feminine.”  My mannerism are über gay.  I even half joked with a colleague that there was no way, after watching this video, that anyone would EVER mistake me for straight.

In the last ten years people have compared me to Nathan Lane’s character in the Bird Cage, Jack from Will and Grace (though I’m not that shallow), and Cam from Modern Family.  This comparison is always followed with, “they always make me smile,” or “they make me so happy, like you do.”  It is never said to me maliciously.  The comparison is always made as a compliment.  And, more often than not, I take it as such.  I like making people laugh and smile, and I love knowing I bring them some form of happiness.

My homophobia (which is reserved and aimed exclusively at me) is most evident at work.  I have always believed that in life we actually never leave middle school.  We tend to group together in cliques much like we did in middle school.  We talk about others and stir up drama, just as our younger versions did.  Which is why, I think, working in a middle school has brought this feeling to the forefront.

Now, to be fair, in my life I have suffered little from homophobia directed toward me.  In high school the captain of the basketball team tried to throw my from the second floor of my school yelling, “faggot” the entire time.  I was called, “the little faggot” by an administrator at the first high school I taught in.  And, most recently I had a parent e-mail me that he does not approve of my “lifestyle.”  Beyond that, even growing up in a small town, I was pretty lucky.  My mother, like all protective parents, used to tell me to sit on my hands when I talked or to try to speak in a lower tone so people wouldn’t think I was gay. But, I know her concern came from that place all mothers fear; the pain that their children might suffer.

I’m not sure which of these issues, or more likely all of them combined, caused my inner homophobia.  In most aspects of my life, the fact that I’m a “flaming homosexual” is joyfully embraced.  The only time I hate myself for it is when I think a student will be malicious enough to call me a “fag.”  This epithet has been hurled at me by many students over my ten years of teaching.  When kids get angry their first thought is to lash out, and when it’s aimed at me, it is usually, “faggot” or “fag.”  The “clever” little ones even came up with the nickname, “Mr. Cava-queer.”  The first time this happened it was like a kick in the stomach.  Thoughts reeled through my head.  “How did they know?” “How can they be so cruel?” “What’s wrong with being gay?”

I was indignant.  I wanted the child who dared use such a term toward me thrown out of school.  How dare they?  Disappointment led to anger.  I was pulled into my administrator’s office (not the same administrator that called me “the little faggot”) and they talked me down from the ledge.  They also gave me a piece of advice that I’ve never forgotten, but that, unbeknownst to them, cemented my inner homophobia even further.  I was told that I need to keep these incidences much calmer because even though my administrator would back me up 100%, they would never be able to protect me if a parent came in complaining about the “faggot” teacher.  I was told that homophobia was the last acceptable bigotry in the education field.

Even today, that sticks with me.  When I can see a student getting angry I often prepare myself for the “fag” remark to be flung out.  I know I should not allow the hateful words of an eleven year old to get to me.  Nor should I live my life ever believing that there is something wrong with being gay.  I am amazing just as I am.  Each day I remind myself of that.  But each day I also tense up with the fear.  This is definitely a personal issue I am constantly working on.  I have come a LONG way since the scared high schooler being shoved by a star athlete, but I have a long way to go before I stop feeling bullied by the thoughts of an eleven year old.

I know this may make me seem weak. But, I believe that admitting this is a strength.  And the fact that I still do my job and what I believe is best for my students, even though I fear what they might say, is another sign of strength.  Each year, each month, each day, and with each student I get better at accepting and being proud of who I am.  And each time I can accomplish that pride my hope is that it encourages gay students to accept, with pride, who they are.  To not allow homophobia to settle in their souls.  If sharing my pain and fear makes even one person stronger then I have made this world a better place. Spread only love and love will return to you.

Namasté
Matthew

Love is…

Love comes in many forms. At times we do not recognize it. We feel as though it is hiding from us. But Love does not hide. It does not disguise itself. Love is always open, always available, always reaching for us.  Often we are the ones running in the complete opposite direction, away from Love’s embrace.  We scream and shout, “Love, where are you?  Why have you forgotten me?  Why do you not find me worthy of your presence?”

The irony of our plight is the simplicity of the solution.  Instead of running around shouting for Love to find us all we truly need to do is stop; be silent, present, and still.  Love will always find us no matter how far we run, how complicated we make things, Love will be there.  It will hold us in its warm embrace, as mothers have held their children for eons.  It will shelter us against the storm as husbands and wives have protected each other through the ages.  It will rejoice with us as new lovers have celebrated each charged moment of the fledgling passion.

Love is kind.
Love is gentle.
Love is eternal.
Love is daring.
Love is passionate.
Love is soothing.
Love is new.
Love is ancient.

But Love is never callous, never vengeful, never hurtful.  Do not blame Love for your pain, Love cannot cause heartache.  It is only our mistakes, our misjudgments, our lack of faith in the all encompassing Love that leads to devastation.  Love fights for us, never with us.

Stop running.  Stop screaming.  Stop searching.  Stand still.  Be silent.  Be mindful.  Love is ready to find you.  Here it is!

Love Thy Enemy

Our society has grown to be very antagonistic.  Us vs. them.  As a former president once proclaimed, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Conservative vs. liberal, pro-choice vs. anti-choice, Christian vs. Muslim, pro-gay vs. anti-gay.  It’s become a war between differing opinions.  Each side convinced of their own righteous.

I will openly admit that I am guilty of this mentality.  I have found myself unjustifiably angry at people that do not share my views of the world.  During the last election cycle I found I could not stop myself from thinking everyone that badmouthed the president was a flaming idiot and that everyone that blindly supported him was brilliant beyond belief.  When the election was over and my candidates were successful I recognized how ridiculous my beliefs were.  Now, had they lost I would more than likely still be licking my wounds, much like many conservatives are still.

What I find most disturbing about my thought patterns are how closed minded I can be when someone doesn’t agree with me.  Why can’t I see beyond this differing of opinions and see the person for who they actually are.  Confession: my father, brother, step-mother, and sister-in-law are staunch conservatives and we rarely agree on anything politically. For them I often find myself softening my own views and demurring for the sake of peace.  But, this is my family and I find very little worth destroying the love we hold for one another.

So, the question I often pose to myself is, why can’t that sentiment pervade the entire country?  I have been pondering this post for several days.  And I couldn’t figure out the answer to that question.  These differences have caused different factions to put up walls. How can anyone spread love when there are obstacles blocking the way.  We tend to congregate with like minded people; often too afraid to open our hearts to others.

One thing I have discovered with the us vs. them mentality is the feeling that if our side doesn’t win we are somehow “less than” the side that was victorious.  I vividly remember when Al Gore ceded the 2000 election.  I was distraught.  How could we be cursed with George W. Bush for 8 years?  But, on the flip side I know many conservatives in 2000 that were saying, “thank God, our Clinton nightmare is over.”  Now, I’m not here to argue politics.  In fact, I’d like for everyone to give up “arguing” about politics.  It’s not a win/lose situation.  It’s not a game.  When we see it as a win/lose strategy game we make enemies of our brothers, our friends, our co-workers, our partners.  Is it really worth it?  Can this not be approached with an open heart and mind?  When you think mindfully on this idea you cannot help but think of a 3 year old that does not get their way.  How many politicians, acquaintances, friends, family, loved ones, have you seen, throwing a childish tantrum because they did not get their way. (I think I our recent government shut down was the perfect example, no matter which direction you lean politically).

A New Earth

A New Earth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eckhart Tolle teaches us to strive for the death of our ego.  This desire for “our side” to win at all costs is nothing more than ego telling us we are better than “them” if we win and they have humiliated “us” if we lose.  These self-defeating thoughts must be purged. The ego cannot gain control.  It has no place in our spiritual life.

Ohhhhh, I talk a big game here.  My Mr. Know-It-All rears his ugly head.  And, I recognize that it is far easier said than done.  I know for a fact that my ego is deeply entrenched and I still focus on the us vs. them ideal.  My greatest us vs. them that I cannot let go of is me vs. Christianity.  I have had a bad taste in my mouth for a long time when it comes to “Christians”.  I am ashamed to admit that I have so often thought that anyone who is a self-professed Christian is automatically weak and a bigot.  I remember in high school my favorite teacher often told me that organized religion was for the weak of mind.  I held on to this idea.  I still have not completely let it go, but I now see it as a fault of my ego, not of my Christian brethren.

What has stemmed this dislike and distrust of Christians?  Their long held belief that I am somehow flawed for being gay.  Growing up hearing you are an abomination who is doomed to the fires of hell does not place those that proclaim this in your good graces. Logically, I know that not every Christian believes this.  Logically, I know that when I think of Christianity and Christ as bad words that deserve my derision and not my respect that I am allowing anger, disappointment, hurt, and ego to lead my heart.  I still find my self cringing when someone professes to be a Christian.

I work hard every day to overcome my prejudice.  My hope is to open my heart fully, to love everyone completely.  I am not there yet.  But as well all know I am not perfect.  No one is.  Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians; they are so unlike your Christ.”  I have held onto this saying for many years.  I agree with the sentiment for so many of the in your face, judgmental Christians that hold themselves as better than others.  But, I also recognize the ego and hypocrisy of feeling I am somehow better because I do not identify with Christianity.  I am no better by assuming that every Christian I meet is a weak minded bigot.  I certainly know this is NOT the case.  I have met many beautiful and loving Christians.  And my heart turns to them each time I see another so-called Christian misusing the words of Christ to justify their hatred.

Thich Naht Hanh wrote an amazing book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ” that shows the parallels of these great men.  It has begun to lead me on the long walk back into the light of acceptance of all beliefs.  Another great book that has softened my heart is “The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young.  Both books have helped me open my heart to the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of The Christ.  And it is with this open heart that I go forward. Not perfect, not fully forgiving my past hurts, but forward on the road to love and healing.

Will you join me?  Can you forgive your hurts?  Take my hand and let’s walk together as a family.

Namasté
Matthew

What Scares You?

What scares you?  I don’t mean the things that go bump in the night (though I readily admit they scare me). I want to know what scares you.  What makes you say, “I’m not going to try that, what if it doesn’t work.”  “I can’t do that, what if I fail?”

When I teach lessons in class many of my students, when they are exploring a concept, will ask, “What if…” questions.  “What if I do this…?” “What is she does that…?”  I tell my students, “I don’t deal in ‘What If’s.”  This should become our motto when it comes to fear. No more “What If” scenarios.  Stand proudly and tell yourself, “I don’t deal in ‘What If’s’!”

Now, making that our motto and actually living our life that way are two completely different things.  I have many fears that have stood in the way of my happiness.  Growing up I wanted to perform.  I loved being in front of an audience.  I practically lived at our local civic theatre when I was in high school.  My first two years in college were devoted to musical theatre as my major.  Then, after some financial concerns I moved back to Florida and attended Florida State University.  I was accepted in their vocal performance major and was on the path into their musical theatre program.  It was then that my inner critic began to take hold.  “What if you can’t ever find a job?”  “What if everyone laughs at you?”  “What if they see what a horrible dancer you are?”  “What if you have absolutely no talent?”

I’m sad to say I let my inner critic win.  I am scared of performing now.  I have “What if-ed” myself into a fear of performing.  I used to have no greater pleasure than singing up on stage.  I loved the thrill of the audience’s applause, belting a tune, and holding that final note.  Now, my greatest performances come in front of a group of eleven year olds.  I tell myself that I took the more noble path, that educating children, our future, is far more rewarding than performing.  I try to convince myself that I have let go of my ego by choosing the life I currently lead.  But, that is complete bullshit and I know it.  But, if I keep repeating it, maybe one day, I won’t feel like I’ve cheated myself out of the life I dreamed of.

Once I let the idea of performing go, after listening to my inner critic, more fears began creeping in.  My most crippling one now if the fear of being “talked about.”  It’s that idea of not being able to control the situation.  At times it is crippling for me.  I try not to show the fear.  I hate walking into the cafeteria at my school because I’m convinced that the group of children that are laughing are laughing at me (I recognize the giant ego at play to assume everyone it talking about me).  At times I will allow infractions to pass because I don’t want a student to call me the word I live in true fear of being called, “FAG!” I have been called fag many times by students.  I’m sure I will be called fag many more. But, it has become so derogatory a term that I can’t get beyond it when it happens.  I’m taken back to my middle school and high school days when it was a popular epithet hurled at me by closed minded, small town boys.  And believe me, I am completely aware that the middle schoolers that call me that now hold absolutely no power over me.  And part of me wants to respond, “ddduuuuuuhhhhhhh!” But it is still painful.  And pain is often accompanied by fear.  We begin to fear the pain so much that it breathes new life into the the very object that should hold no power.

This is not to say that I allow this fear to win.  I conquer it every day I walk into the school house.  It is why I have perfected a “hard ass” persona with my students.  They know I don’t take crap.  But deep down that fear lingers and grips me with it’s cold powerful hands.  I will not allow it to win.  I will not allow any fear to ruin my happiness again.

I have a new dream now.  I want to travel and write.  My inner critic has talked me out of this many times over the recent years.  But no more.  I’m going to push ahead with it.  This blog is just the start.  I will not be taken hostage by fear again.  It is no longer a matter of, “what if I fail?”  Now, I stand strong and say, “I DO NOT DEAL IN WHAT IF!”  Each morning I repeat my affirmation, “I am a prosperous and successful writer.”  Though affirmations may not work for everyone, they are powerful to me.  Find where you can draw power.  Do one thing each day that scares you.  Even if it’s as simple as walking into that cafeteria with your head held high.  Don’t live a life of “What If!”  Stand up now, own your dreams.  Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Namasté
Matthew

How Do You Do It?

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine.  We were discussing how we were both feeling overwhelmed by our personal and professional obligations.  My friend is a passionate educator and a devoted wife and mother.  She juggles her theatre students, shows, her son’s theatre schedule, and her other son’s soccer schedule.  She and her husband have been together since high school.  And through all the storms of life, she makes it seem so simple.  And that observation will drive her crazy.  She related to me, while we spoke, that it frustrates her to no end when people ask her, “how do you do it?” Her polite reply is always, “I wish I knew.”  Her interior monologue is, “what the fuck are you talking about?  I’m barely holding on to my sanity!”

 

Cover of "The Invitation"

Cover of The Invitation

These feelings she shared remind me of an excerpt from the book, “The Invitation” by Oriah. In the book she says, “It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.  I want to know if you can get up, after a night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.”  This is an extremely powerful statement.  Can you?  Have you? Will you?

 

Often we are completely unaware of how we keep going.  We walk through our pain and grief, and despair much like Jacob Marley, weighed down by the chains we have forged in our lives.  The honest truth is I rarely know how I make it through the tough times.  My last major heartache I survived with anti-depressants, alcohol, and a violent temper that ignited far more often that I am even comfortable thinking about.  I am not proud of that time in my life.  And I know we all have those moments that we think back upon and hang our head in disgrace.  But each of these moments is an opportunity to build on our mindfulness to deal with the next moment.  Every pain, every heartache that we suffer is the key we can use to unlock our genuine selves.  Each of these moments in which we wonder how we do it, how we make it through, holds the answer to that very question.  Are we brave enough to look to see the answer?

Some times that answer may be as simple as FDR’s advice, “if you have reached the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.”  All you may be able to do in those moments is will yourself to place one foot in front of the other and keep moving through your life.  But, it is the courage to take one more step that makes all the difference.

In her book, Oriah also wonders, “It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.  I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.  I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.”  Those times that overwhelm us, those times that kick us in the face and laugh as we lie crying on the floor, those moments where we just don’t think we can go on; how have we faced them?  Is it straight on with bravery, compassion, and love?  Or, is it like a zombie that cannot feel pain because it isn’t truly alive?  Or do we face this life filled with anger and resentment?  Acknowledging our true coping skills is the first step.

I readily admit that my ability to face the toughest parts of life with bravery are far less frequent than my zombie approach or worse my anger.  But, as I consciously work to improve myself I find that love and compassion move in more quickly to take the place of the resentment.  I by no means have all the answers.  I often wonder how I have the nerve to write some of the things I write, when I clearly do not have my shit together.  But it is a start, it is a hope, it is a fervent passion to change myself that keeps me moving forward.

I wish for each of us the ability to face our toughest moments with love and compassion. That does not mean we don’t feel pain, heartache, or despair.  It means we can sit with that pain and move forward with a lighter heart.

Namasté
Matthew

 

Disappointment

How are we supposed to handle disappointment?  Let’s be honest, we face disappointment on a regular basis; both large and small.  We find it when our favorite restaurant is out of our usual culinary delights or when we arrive for happy hour to discover that it ended 15 minutes earlier.  We also confront larger disappointments when we are let down by those we care about or worse, when we let ourselves down.

The idea for this blog post came to me earlier this week when I was turned down for a job I’d interviewed for; my summer employment.  Of course I was disappointed that the job fell through, but where I felt the most confusion was in the fact that I felt disappointment at all.  I had, just a few days earlier, decided I wasn’t going to take the job. So, instead of disappointment, I should have felt relief.  But ultimately rejection brings disappointment to the forefront of our emotions.

In the end it boils down to this simple idea: I wasn’t wanted.  It isn’t the first time I’ve faced this realization.  I’ve been rejected by people I wanted to date.  I’ve been rejected for jobs.  I’ve been rejected for promotions.  I was once even rejected for rejecting someone (it’s a long story but they refused to accept the fact that we would not be dating).  Rejection does not feel good. No matter what spin you place on it, you’ve still been measured and found wanting.

The question then becomes, what do I do with these emotions?  How do I take this negative kick in the gut and transform that into a positive.  My answer? I have no freakin’ clue.  But I know what has been working for me lately.  The power of the affirmation.  I used to be a self-help junkie.  Of all the books on improvement I’ve read my favorite, by far, is Louise L. Hay’s book You Can Heal Your Life.  In it she extolls the virtues of positive affirmations.  I plaster them all over my bathroom mirror.  But for many that is probably going too far.  However, reminding yourself that you are strong, or powerful, or just simply saying “thank you” to yourself can make a positive difference in how you’re feeling.

I’ll fully admit that when I began my practice of affirmations I felt like a complete idiot.  Staring at myself in a mirror saying, “You are a powerful human being,” was completely unnatural and I was more than a little embarrassed.  Then, without completely acknowledging it, I started to feel better.  Less disappointment, less fear, less anger.  Did it solve the issue completely? No.  Did it take the edge off the emotions? Yes.  Just as with my anger, I sit with my disappointments as well.  I nurture them to find the root of my deeper pain.  The expectations I have set for myself, and worse, for others, has led to much of my disappointment in life.  As the Buddha taught, the cessation of desire leads to happiness.  Does that mean I stop wanting and striving and hoping?  No.  But I work, through my practice, to keep those in check and keep my disappointment at bay.

The next time you’re faced with disappointment sit with it, nurture it, delve into to it to find the deeper meaning.  For it is only through greater understanding that we can control and eventually conquer our difficult emotions.

Namasté

Matthew