Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and teacher, says that our embodied identities are fluid and dynamic. Our incarnations in bodies are fixed but our identities are as fluid as water. Unfortunately, we do not acknowledge this fluidity in our society. We don’t typically see a welfare mother as a potential corporate executive, or a rich white man as a thug. The uncertainty about identity that we hear about in spiritual communities is not recognized in the world at large. If the fluidity of identity were readily recognized, it would certainly be more difficult to disenfranchise some or to privilege other groups of people. It would be much more difficult to monopolize resources in a society where identity is recognized as fluid. The truth is that we do not naturally see this fluidity. We all still think of ourselves and our identities in terms of our incarnated bodies, each with their own physical characteristics, even if these can be changed with modern technology or medical procedures.
When the natural fluidity of our identities erupts from within our ideas of who or what we are, the experience of the inevitable groundlessness of our selves is thrust upon us. In my experience, it is actually this groundlessness that we struggle with when we grow attached to or detach from the body and identification with it. Both acts revolve around the question, “Who or what am I?” In the process of building up or tearing down who or what we think we are, we come face to face with the unknown. Staring into this uncertainty, we quickly move to ground ourselves in some kind of identity or embrace the idea of erasing identity. The pull between grounding or erasing identity is the natural tension found on the spiritual path. Coming to see this natural tension allows us to see groundlessness or opening needed to experience liberation. We come to see evolution in such groundlessness.
According to Chödrön this groundlessness is the liberation within. The uncomfortable feeling of not having anything to grab onto is liberation. Likewise we cannot hold onto groundlessness to be liberated. An experience of groundlessness, non-clinging, is as impermanent as the body and the identity that goes with it. For this reason, seeking to be boundless when we are bound to the body can be a place of suffering in itself. It is difficult to not cling when we are embodied. The body is here until we die. This body is the path by which we experience the groundless nature of liberation.
—From The Way of Tenderness (pg 94 – 95)
Recently folks have asked, “What lesson are you to learn around home? You have moved a lot.” Yes, my partner and I have fallen into the abyss called homelessness several times in the last year. When I am asked about the lesson or the karma of such, I have not given an answer because an answer seemed to minimize the vast experience inside me. In a broad view, I understood their question as an exploration of their lives as we are truly related beings. Plus, I tend to share my life so it made since for folks to ask.
First, I would like to say that the notion of looking for a lesson in every event of suffering feels too analytical while going through the experience. It is difficult to reflect on an experience that is in progress. Also, I didn’t want to reduce an important journey into an answer and then walk away with some kind of implication that, “I got it now.” In some indigenous cultures and in Buddha’s teachings, there is what is called initiation or time spent in life where one is constantly going through major life events that include loss and gain. These initiations are continuous. I have experienced my life as an accumulation of initiations. When does it end? Upon death I imagine. How else could I be a formidable ancestor without the initiations of life?
In my Zen practice I have learned to walk through life just seeing without the analysis. In this way I see more than my mind can figure about life. I breathe as in meditation and just look at what’s with me. So, when I am asked about the lesson of my homelessness, I can only breathe, even if I am barely breathing.
Of course, my political stance rears its head and says many of us are being pushed out of our homes and the rental fees are meant for those making six figure salaries (despite their credit scores). Valid. On the other hand, I can access astrology and say the planets are definitely lined up in a way in which every living being is going through remarkable changes to rid ourselves of all the old ways that have caused incredible suffering. There is a collective movement afoot that is out of our control and is pushing us at a clipped pace toward awakening. Valid. I feel these things and I know it.
However, let’s go back to the lesson thing for a moment. In 2013 my partner and I sold a home in New Mexico to buy one in Oakland that we loved. We knew the owner of the home in Oakland and began negotiating for purchasing what I called the “garden house.” It was small, modest, and needed some tender loving care but we were ready to provide such. The process of buying a house is mindboggling and often feels ridiculous when you consider we are not really buying a “home” as much as we are trying to reserve a place off the streets. And the longer story is the land we are reserving for thousands of dollars is actually stolen. But that’s another essay.
Let’s go back to the lesson thing. Briefly, the house we were trying to purchase in Oakland went into escrow with our down payment and fell out of escrow two days later for several reasons. We cried. We were sad and we were angry. We walked away feeling the homeowner didn’t want to help as she promised. We walked away feeling “done in.” We ended up subletting three homes during the year of 2013 and finally renting in June of 2014. Then, as the ancients would have it, the new rental became mold infested in November of 2014 and we were forced to leave for more than a month. Hence, the question from others, “What’s the lesson in this?”
I must say I don’t like the question. It implies there is a lesson to be learned and I have not learned it yet. The question puts me immediately in defense mode. “What?” But deep down, I had reviewed my steps a thousand times and I could not find anything wrong but something was gnawing at me. So, the question about the lesson added to the discomfort in my belly. “Why is everyone looking over here anyway?” Of course, that closed reaction was not helpful and a gentler voice said, “Folks are only trying to learn from your life.”
So, if I consider the lesson without taking it personal, I would offer this. Recently, the homeowner of the Oakland house invited me for tea at a shop on College Ave. I had no idea the reason I was going to have tea with someone in my mind did not help us. I went anyway. Maybe I had something to say. After much chitchat she asked me what happened around buying her house. It was a strange question. Didn’t she know? Turns out her agent never told her what happened to us in escrow and if she had known she would have worked things out for us to purchase her home. We both had tears in our eyes. We had not called her because we were angry and she had not called us perhaps because she thought, yes, we were angry. We had not returned to create another offer. We had simply dropped the communication because in our minds were defeated and we decided the owner was going for the big bucks. We had stormed away thinking we could buy another home, a better one, a bigger one, but not the one we loved.
At the tea, I could see I was so used to struggle and being “done to” (which is a syndrome of slavery/oppression) I simply accepted defeat without really going for what was being offered. I walked out of the teahouse as if I had never seen College Ave. I was in some kind of stupor. My world had changed. More precisely, how I saw myself in the world had changed. No, I was not holding onto the revelation that I accept defeat but I was overwhelmed with the acceptance of the open offers of life. So, I walked away knowing that everything in life was being offered.
Let’s drop the lesson thing for now because it implies all is well and the journey has come to end, or the end of the journey would be buying/finding a house, or Zenju is now awake, or something, as finite as those things. The journey of our lives is infinite. The event of pain and suffering around home was another opening upon the other million openings to the field of life. We are always opening and opening with each challenge as a slow gradual path towards compassion. However, groundlessness like homelessness, can cause one to panic. What do we do with the panic? Pema Chödrön, in a talk on the Heart Sutra (one of Buddha’s teachings of love and compassion) reminds us of a mantra that is meant to ease such fear. It goes like this: Gate (ga-tay), Gate (ga-tay), Parasam (para-sum) gate (ga-tay), Bodhi (bo-di), svaha (swa-ha). It has many translations but one is: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it. She says, we are not transcending or going beyond the suffering as if we are coming to some end. “Yeah, I made it.” Our lives are gradual paths of groundlessness that opens our hearts.
When our lives are overwhelmed with many events of pain and suffering or groundlessness then we are moving to the next beyond, and the next beyond. Chödrön says we are becoming intimate with our fear and developing a compassionate and patient relationship with it. We might even feel as though we are going down in the groundlessness and want to cry out. But the shaking earthquakes in our lives are the nature of going beyond, flexing our hearts that are often stiff with arrogance, opinions, anger, self-righteousness and prejudices.
Our homelessness was and is wearing down and out our dogmatic views of life. So, each time my partner and I encountered finding home and experiencing suffering we were simply living out the mantra, gone, gone, gone beyond, awake. We were moving in life as we are all down a gradual path that when it all becomes too much we have to go back to the basics. We have to come to the ordinary things of our lives and cease wanting for some big gigantic breakthrough. All along the way we are breaking up, breaking through. When the fear, angst, frustration, “why me,” arises we can ground in the ordinariness of our lives. Live one day at a time. All suffering teaches that. Often, we are suffering so much we can only be still and take each moment, each day as it comes.
Please don’t be attached to these words being Buddha’s or Buddhist teachings but rather know them as the teachings of the earth, of life.
May you be well in your journey beyond the beyonds:)
——Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
Suggestion: Purchase on iTunes (for .99) and listen to Pema Chödrön’s CD: Coming Closer to Ourselves: Making Everything the Path of Awakening (on the Heart Sutra)
Don’t forget: Pre-sales of The Way of Tenderness by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
…Because they interfere with how we see one another, our ancestral and karmic tendencies help to create what we learn about each other. So, we must explore the tendencies that blind us to true interrelationship. If we continue on unaware of the learned tendencies regarding race, sexuality, and gender that are stored within our mental lives, then our ancestral and karmic tendencies will simply ripen again to confront us with new forms of racism, heterosexism, and oppressive gender roles. We will continually become subject to new forms of oppression and to new notions of supremacy among living beings. Day by day the list of peoples who are pariahs will grow, and rarely will it shrink. Once placed in the category of inferior in terms of image presented to the world by those who are “superior,” rarely are any ever released.
Can we halt the ripening of past prolonged and cruel mistreatment between us? Yes we can. We can use direct, unlearned, experience of kinship to sow the seeds of new ways of seeing and thinking. It is possible to cultivate an awareness of the erroneous interpretations we bring to race, sexuality, and gender. It is possible to set aside the attainment of spiritual supremacy or supremacy of any kind and the attainment of political power over one another to exist personally and collectively in this ever-present, spontaneous kinship of life. There is a spontaneous undistorted interrelationship between us like the waves of the sea.
—from The Way of Tenderness by Zenju