Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Coming Out to My Students

I did something momentous today. Something I’ve wanted to do since I first started teaching middle school ten years ago.  I told a group of my students (20 sixth graders in my advisory group) that I am gay.  I was ready and the time was right.  Our entire middle school (6th through 8th grade) had watched a documentary called “Bully” about Jamie Nabozny, a gay man who was bullied for being gay, starting in the sixth grade and continuing throughout high school.

After the movie, all teachers at our school led a discussion about the documentary and bullying.  At one point I asked, “What was this movie really about?”

A boy said, “About a gay boy who was bullied and beaten and how we need to accept gay people.” 

“Right,” I said.  “You may not think you know any gay people but there are kids in your class who are gay. They might not have told anyone, but they know. And when you go into the high school, or college, or the workplace when you’re an adult, you will know gay people.  They are everywhere. There are millions and millions of gay people in the world.” 

Then I realized I was talking about these “gay people” as if I wasn’t one of them, and I decided, in a split second, that the time was now, and I was going to tell them.  Now is the time, I thought. Here is your opportunity. 

“You may not know this,” I said, “but I’m gay.”

 Pure silence.  All eyes on me. 

“I was teased in middle school and high school. Not because I was gay, but because I was different. Because I grew up in a small town and I didn’t hunt or fish or play football, and instead was smart and liked theater and speech.” (I should have added and had impeccable taste in shoes.) I continued: “Kids pushed me and shoved me and called me faggot and queer and gay, and for that reason middle school and high school was really awful.  But when I got to college I realized there were other gay people and I wasn’t alone and I came out. I told my family and friends and they all accept it. All of the teachers here at school know I’m gay.  I’ve been out as a gay for twenty years.  I’ve never told my students because I was scared, scared of what your parents might think, scared of what you might think.  But today, watching the movie about Jamie, I realized that if an eleven year old boy in a small town in Wisconsin can come out, then I as a forty three year old man can come out to my students at the school where I teach.” 

I stopped. I had said what I wanted to say. I had said what I never thought I would say. I had said what I had practiced in my head so many times hoping for the right time and the courage.

 And then a girl clapped her hands.  And then a boy.  And then the whole class. They were all clapping for me. Clapping because I had been courageous with them and told them I was gay.  I felt relieved and scared and exhilarated and proud all at the same time. 

A girl in the back raised her hand.  “So are we the first class you’ve ever told?”

“Yes,” I said. 

“That’s really cool,” she said. 

A boy raised his hand. “Are you going to tell your other classes?” 

I smiled and laughed.  “I’m sure they will all find out.  You’re all going to put it on Facebook, right?” Several laughed.  “I’m sure most kids will know by Monday,” I said.

It’s true.  With news like this and texting and Facebook, they will share the information.

Before I left for the day and the four day Thanksgiving break, I also told several teachers, my principal, assistant principal, and discipline coordinator.  From all of them I got unwavering support. They were happy for me, they were proud of me, and they understood the difficulty of hiding my gay self that I have been doing for ten years with students.  Each of them said the same thing to me, the theme of the anti-bullying campaign at our school: We will stand up for you.  And I know they will.  Any backlash from narrow minded and prejudiced parents who think a gay man who is a middle school teacher shouldn’t tell his students that he is gay will be dealt with in a  twenty-first century way: acceptance and celebration of gay men and women who deserve all the respect and rights of their heterosexual counterparts. 

On this Thanksgiving Eve, I certainly am thankful that I came out to my students. I am thankful that I work in a school environment that has created a culture and community where I can come out.  I am thankful that I know I work with people who will support me and stand up for me.  I am thankful that I am proud enough and courageous enough to come out in this capacity.  It’s been a long road to get here.  But life is a long road.  A long wonderful road that I am thankful I am walking on in my own way. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Just Sitting for Ten Minutes

It's Sunday morning. I'm drinking coffee, sitting by the lit fireplace, reading a book, and enjoying the quietude. I hear the steady humming of the refrigerator and my own breathing, and now, a jet plane passing over in the distance.

I woke up this morning, showered, and meditated for ten minutes. It felt good to meditate right away. A good way to start my Sunday, a good way to stop and sit and not do anything. So often I've got a mental list of things I want or need to do: eat, clean, read a book, get ready for work. I'm not a crazy busy overbooking multitasking person but I like to use my time efficiently and effectively-there are only so minutes in the day and I want to use them wisely-and so I plan what I'm going to do with the minutes.

Meditating-just sitting as I like to call it-is “doing” something, but it represents the bare necessity and the simple essential. Often for myself, and others, just sitting there and “doing nothing” is difficult. We get mentally and physically restless. We have the mental list of things we could or should or would like to do instead of just sitting. We have the mental list of things we could or should or would like to do after we are done sitting. We have the machinations of our minds: the wondering and worrying, the remembering and envisioning. If you're like me, you think a lot. If you're like me, you think you should always be doing something, whatever that is. Just sitting there seems idle and counterproductive to the creative and successful person.

But I did just sit there. I stopped. I just sat. For ten minutes. It may not seem like a long time. It's certainly not the two periods of thirty five minutes every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday or the all day meditation retreat I used to sit ten years ago, but ten minutes is where I'm at right now and wherever I am is where I am.  I accept that.

Ezra Bayda states in his book Saying Yes to Life (Even the Difficult Parts) that “equanimity is being present with whatever is happening without believing our judgments about it.” What this means is that when I'm just sitting I just sit. I don't judge it. I don't say it's good or bad. I don't tell myself I'm distracted and unfocused, or the opposite, I'm concentrating and clear minded. Similarly, when I'm done just sitting, I don't judge the sitting, and I don't judge whatever I'm doing. I just do it: just drinking coffee, just sitting by the lit fire, just reading, and just enjoying the quietude.

Just Sitting Mindfully

I like to think of zazen or meditation as just sitting mindfully. You don't do anything for a while. You slow down. No, more than slow down. You stop.

You plop your butt down on a pillow or meditation cushion, you face a blank wall, you cross your legs in whatever comfortable fashion you can do, you place your hands in a similarly comfortable position, either palms up or down and on your knees or your right hand in your lap and your left hand on top of your right hand with your thumbs lightly touching, you wiggle and adjust until you get comfortable, you get still, you sit still, you keep your eyes open, and you breathe.

You notice your breathe. Maybe you count your breath up to ten and then start over again. Maybe you just keep breathing  and noticing your breath whenever you can. Over and over again.

Your mind will wander. You'll think of things: the past, the present, the future; the mundane, the ordinary, the extraordinary, the profound; the things you need to pick up at the grocery store, the ways you'd like to improve yourself.

And when you realize you've thought all this stuff, just return to your breath. Set aside the thought right now and return to your breath.

Maybe you'll start thinking about that thing again. You'll finish that grocery list in your head because that's what you plan to do right after you meditate. That's okay.

Sometimes you'll spend the entire time thinking. Sometimes you'll return to your breath often. Sometimes your mind will feel clear and spacious. You'll think eureka! This is it! This is meditation! This is enlightenment! This is the blank mind the Zen masters speak of! This is what I want when I meditate! But this thinking is an illusion, because meditation isn't about any of this.

Meditation is about just sitting. Just sitting there and no matter what happens in your mind, sitting for a bit. That is what is important. That is what just sitting is about. You took the time to stop and sit. Whether it's 10 minutes or 15 or 25 or 35 minutes. Whatever you did. Fantastic! You carved out time from your day and you just sat.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Moment of Mindfulness Before Eating

This is what I say before I eat:

As I eat and drink I accept and appreciate the present moment, and acknowledge, awaken to, and act upon what life is teaching me. 

 Most people would call it a prayer.  I like to consider it a moment of mindfulness before I eat. 

My moment of mindfulness is a variation of the chant we recited at the Cedar Rapids Zen Center and which is chanted in most Zen Centers.  I wanted to remove some of the Buddhist words,   I'm interested in “Americanizing” Zen, in particular by changing Sanskrit, Chinese, or Japanese words into their English counterparts. 

Here is what the original meal chant is: 

As we take food and drink I vow with all sentient beings to rejoice in zazen being filled with delight in the Dharma. 

Zazen is the form of sitting meditation in Japanese Zen.  Zen is a Japanese word which means meditation, derived from the Chinese word chan which was derived from the Indian source, the Sanskrit word dyhana, which means meditation.   In its simplest form zen means meditation.  In its complexity, it means taking what we learn in meditation into our everyday life.  The infamous saying “chop wood, carry water” captures this idea of doing what we are doing, whatever it is, even and especially those fundamental activities that sustain us.  Beyond that, there is nothing else.  It is nothing special as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Bend reminds us. 

To rejoice in zazen means to rejoice in meditation.  The “za” in zazen means “just”.  Zazen is just meditation.  The emphasis means that when we are meditating we are only meditating.  We are  doing nothing else.  We are just sitting there.  If only it were this easy though!  Just sitting can me physically difficult when we feel restless and fidget and adjust and attempt to get comfortable.  Just sitting can also be mentally difficult because we are left alone with our thoughts and our effort to not think   However, we are going to think.  That is our nature as human beings.  Our minds will race to past events.  We will wonder and worry about the future.  We will become increasingly aware of the present moment.  This is good. This is the goal of mediation: to become aware of and appreciate the present moment, the moment right there on the cushion as we are meditating. 

I like to think of zazen or meditation as just sitting mindfully.  You don't do anything for a while.  You slow down.  No, more than slow down.  You stop.   You get very still.  Whether it's 10 minutes or 15 or 25 or 35 minutes, you carved out time from your day and you just stopped and sat still and developed mindfulness.  You mindfully sat. 

This is where Zen kicks in.  We take that awareness and appreciation of the present moment we gained in meditation into every moment of our lives.  This is our practice over and again with each new moment. 

“Rejoicing in zazen” always surprised me because “rejoice” is not a word I ever encountered in the dozens of books I've read by Japanese or American Zen teachers.  Rejoice reminds me of songs sung in Lutheran churches and Christmas carols.  It sounds so pentecostal and exuberant.  My idea of Japanese Zen was one of quiet contentment and at times austerity and stoicism. Perhaps this is the lesson of spiritual surprise and dissonance.  So instead of “I rejoice in zazen” I played with the words and after several attempts landed on and like “I accept and appreciate the present moment”.  It's something I know I need to remind myself of daily and so including it in my before meal thought strengthens me.  It is, I believe, the essence of Zen. 

The next part of the traditional chant is “delight in the Dharma.”  Dharma is the teaching of Buddhism.  It is the books, the teachers, the tradition, the rituals.  Dharma is also life itself as our teacher when we realize that if we are willing to learn life itself is the greatest teacher on how to live a good life.  Therefore in my prayer I substituted “what life is teaching me” for Dharma.  I like the implication that life is an active teacher and that it is teaching me.  I might not always know this.  I might not always like what it is teaching me.  I might feel like it's teaching me the same things over and over again in different ways because I haven't learned it yet.  But, as I say in my prayer, if I acknowledge, awaken to, and act up on what life is teaching me, then I will learn.

Again, the word “delight” in the original Zen prayer surprised me.  Similar to “rejoice” I didn't read or hear “delight” used often by Zen teachers.  It conjures up chocolate desserts and close friends who tell you they're going to visit you. What a delight!  “The Dharma: what a delight!” doesn't ring a Zen bell for me.  “Acknowledging, awakening to, and acting upon” does.  Again, I played with the words over several months and settled into this.  It asks me to act upon what I have acknowledged and awakened to.  Life is acting upon what we intuit we must do.  Life is doing it.  I like the reminder. 

So there it is.  My moment of mindfulness before eating:  As I eat and drink I accept and appreciate the present moment, and acknowledge, awaken to, and act upon what life is teaching me. 

But why have a moment of mindfulness before I eat? 

I have a moment of mindfulness, because it's a mental reminder three or more times a day to practice the essence of my spirituality:  accept and appreciate the present moment and acknowledge, awaken to, and act upon what life is teaching me.  I have a moment of mindfulness, because I want to take a few seconds before I eat and offer thanks for this moment of eating.  I have a moment of mindfulness because I want to be grateful for a meal I prepared for myself or someone prepared for me, and that I could afford this meal.  I have a moment of mindfulness because I want to be aware of the interconnectedness of existence that placed this food on my plate.  I have a moment of mindfulness because I want to mindfully engage my six senses  when I eat—mindful tasting, mindful seeing, mindful touching, mindful hearing, mindful smelling, and mindful thinking-feeling. 

And what is a moment of mindfulness?

A moment of mindfulness is that which we think or say over and over again.  A moment of mindfulness thought or said before we eat meals reminds us to take heed of the moment: we are about to eat.  Be thankful.  Food and liquid sustain us.  Not all people in the world are so fortunate to have it so easily and in such amble abundance. A moment of mindfulness said at other times, such as before we go to bed, is typically a triage of thankfulness for the day, bequest for the best, and compassionate extension of well being to people we love and ideally even those we don't.

At this time I don't have a moment of mindfulness at the end of the day.  Perhaps it will emerge.   

I do, however, have my moment of mindfulness before meals and I think or say it at virtually every meal now.  If I'm in public or eating with friends I can usually just sit there for a few seconds and most of them don't know I've even thought it.  A few observant people have and have simply asked if I just prayed.  I usually say, “I'm just having a moment of mindfulness.   My moment of mindfulness grounds me.  It places me firmly and yet tenderly in the moment. 

And like I take what I've learned while meditating--mindfully sitting—into the other moments throughout my day, so too I take what I've learned while mindfully eating into the other moment of my day.  My goal is to become more mindful in all of them.  .   

May you also.