“Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion you are sheep. You are souls immortal, spirits free, blessed and eternal.”
One day, the devil and his friend were walking down the street. Ahead of them, they saw a man bend down, pick something up off the ground and stuff it eagerly into his pocket. “What was that?” asked the devil’s friend. “Oh, that was a piece of the Truth,” said the devil. “Well, that’s bad news for you, isn’t it?” said the friend. “Not at all,” the devil said with a smirk. “I’m going to let him organize it.”
On our spiritual journeys as lesbian, gay, bi-affectionate and transgender people, some of the most insidious illusions that arrest our progress are the trappings of organized religion. For many of us that were expelled from the garden of our faith tradition because of our gender identity or sexual orientation, the struggle to return takes over our thinking about religion and spirituality. But return to what? Too often we are content to return to the rituals, the community or the drag of our faith tradition — overcoming those who thought they could hold us back or keep us out — but fail to engage our lives and souls in a transformational relationship with the Divine. We claim the words, but not the power; we celebrate the customs, but avoid the practice; we bind ourselves to institutions, but drown out the Spirit; we sketch vast architectures, but remain blind to the truth.
It’s not that religious traditions are bad, quite the contrary. Beautiful buildings, colorful fabrics, smoke, crackers, cadences and harmonies are all nice things to have, but if they do not facilitate the deepening of an individual’s consciousness, if they do not simplify instead of complicate, transform instead of translate, if they do not, like language, point beyond themselves, if they do not lay bare our true selves, then they are all of them empty, valueless barriers to the evolutionary maturation of the human spirit toward God.
The simple truth is — and you can stop reading after this is you want since the rest will just say this with more words – the simple truth is that salvation, enlightenment and inner peace can only be found by going inward, and never by rummaging through whatÌs outside.
“If your leaders tell you, ‘the kingdom of God is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there before you. If they say that it is under the sea, the fish will enter and will precede you. I say unto you that the kingdom of God is inside you and outside you and all around you. Whosoever knows oneself will find the kingdom. And when you know yourselves, you will know that you are the children of the living God,” says Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas. How do we come to know our true selves? We become still, quiet and fully present. We close our mouths, block off our senses, blunt our sharpness, untie our knots, soften our glares, and settle our dust. Only then can we know our primal identity. Only then can we hear the still, small voice of Spirit. Only then are we open to the action of Spirit. Only then are we available for the great work of transformation.
There are many techniques that can support this transformation, from centering and contemplative prayer to yoga, Zen meditation and Vedanta. The goals of a transformative spiritual practice are self-realization and partnership with the Divine. Of course, self-realization and partnering with the Divine mean exploring parts of ourselves and parts of God that we wish weren’t there. Only when we become fully conscious of the web of assumptions and beliefs that we have constructed about the world and about ourselvesÛa web in which we now are caught – are we forced to dismantle our illusions. Then we learn to see what lies within us and what lies outside us as they really are; only then are we able to interact with the world as it is and not as we imagine it to be. “Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease,” cautions Lao-tzu in Tao Te Ching. “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”
Unfortunately, queer people are as skilled at avoiding this kind of conflict with our own mindsÌ constructions as we are adept at confronting the discriminatory traditions and values of our society and many religions. This conflict is so primal, so radical — to change not only the public translation of spiritual values but to transform our very understanding of reality — that part of us wants to escape it. The loud, pushy voice of ego keeps our focus outside of ourselves – driving us to change things on the surface of the phenomenal world. Any kind of fundamental questioning, any opportunity for deep, inner quiet, threatens to shatter the concepts of what the self is and how the universe operates upon which we base every thought and decision! Many of us think, subconsciously or not, that we just don’t want to know that much.
I’ve certainly seen this hesitance in myself; it took me years to pick up a Ken Wilber book because I knew I just couldn’t handle having my worldview challenged that much. The last time I confronted my Dad about the religious reasons for his disapproval of my marriage, he emotionally responded to my informed exegesis of scripture with, “I donÌt want to hear it. I need to believe what I believe.” ItÌs true of most of us. Our entire lives are constructed around certain assumptions about how things work and why. We want our understanding of Spirit and our experience of the world to be static things — after you get them once, they never change. Unfortunately, as time goes on and human beings learn more and more about the universe and human nature and how they operate, our personal understanding has to change or we become fossils of an outmoded worldview. Our development becomes arrested: full stop. Just because a way of being has become comfortable doesn’t mean it’s correct.
In fact, we usually become more and more uncomfortable as we become closer and closer to Spirit through meditation and prayer. First, “We see that God is not a drug or an instantaneous bliss maker,” explains Julia Mossbridge, gifted author of Unfolding: The Perpetual Science of Your SoulÌs Work. “We discover that our lives are not the sole item on GodÌs agenda. Partnering with God is not about developing an ethereal, airy-fairy relationship with some force of Love. It is about developing an intimate, everyday, every-moment-of-every-day friendship in which you are with God all the time: while doing volunteer work, making a speech, singing in a choir, dancing at your wedding, getting in a fist-fight, eating the third plate of nachos, cursing at pedestrians. All the time.”
“It is a call to follow Jesus out of all the structures, security blankets, and even spiritual practices that serve as props. They are all left behind insofar as they are part of the false self system÷The false self is an illusion,” says prominent Christian contemplative, Father Thomas Keating in Open Mind, Open Heart. In short, when we become fully, deeply present — as we begin to recognize our true selves and look God in the eye — we get the rug pulled out from under us.
It’s not a bad thing, although we have a low tolerance for discomfort. Getting shaken up is just evidence of our rising up. If our feet stayed firmly planted on the rug of our conventional understanding, our feet would never leave the ground. Groundlessness is inherent in the process. Just as there must be silence for Spirit to be audible, there has to be space in our thoughts and beliefs for Truth to manifest. Groundlessness wipes away our preconceptions. Pema Chodron explains in The Places That Scare You that as we become used to this insecurity, “To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear.”
There is no fear in love. When groundlessness cultivates our fearlessness, we encounter our own genuinely loving nature, and we become available for open-minded, whole-hearted interaction with the universe. As gay Christian mystic Jim Marion puts it in Putting on the Mind of Christ, “All we need to do to be ‘saved’ is to consciously realize who we have been all along. We need to realize our own divinity, own it, take up the responsibility of it, and live it.”
If transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay women, men and young people do not awaken to our full responsibility, to our fulfillment, our empowerment, then our natural function as human beings in society will continue to be frustrated, obstructed and disjoint. The possibility for our final emancipation, legitimization and liberation will wither if LGBT people do not unmask and become more present to others, in service to others, and bring the gentle qualities of Spirit to the details of living.
These universal qualities of Spirit — love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, humility, contentment, responsibility and harmony — will help us transform straight communities into just and sustainable environments that nurture whole, mindful and evolving individuals. Our awakening of spiritual and emotional intelligence will be the thunder that cracks their slumber. Our care and service will rain down and wash away the dark stains of hate and prejudice. Our radical realization will be the shirt of flame that burns bushels and allows our inner lights to shine.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us ’til we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake?
~Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners
Michigan native, author and activist Clayton Gibson wrote Shirt of Flame: The Secret Gay Art of War under the pen name Ko Imani and is the creator of MyOutSpirit.com and founder of QWELL Community Foundation in Austin, Texas.