What can we learn from MLK about how to be powerful leaders?

As Thursday was just the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, it seemed like a good time to reflect upon MLK’s leadership and what makes him such an inspiring figure to this day. Video and transcript below.

 

 

 

Most MLK celebrations talk about the end of King’s life and his big accomplishments, but what about his early years when he was just starting out as a leader? What sort of struggles did he face and how did he overcome them in order to step into his greatness as the conscience of an entire nation? And what can we learn from him regarding the insecurities and fears that we may have about speaking out as leaders?

Personal Insecurities

First of all, regarding personal insecurities, he was extremely young—only about 25—when he was called into his life mission. He met with presidents at the White House, flew to India and met with Gandhi—it must have been very intimidating, especially for someone so young. Bayard Rustin, the African American gay man who organized the March on Washington where King spoke his “I Have A Dream” speech, actually had much more experience with non-violent resistance than King did. So he must’ve had some inner questioning about “why me?” when there were clearly other very talented people who in many ways were more qualified than he was.

The second thing that strikes me is that he was quite short. He was only 5’6, which for a man is pretty short stature, especially a national leader. Which must’ve lent extra significance to all of the physical assaults that he was subject to and his level of feeling safe in the world.

And finally, he was a junior—his father was Martin Luther King Sr—who, from everything I’ve read and heard about him, was quite a powerful and dominant man who wielded great influence in the Black community and who was feared by both blacks and whites, due to his frankness that could be cutting at times. While MLK Jr was only 5’6, his father had a big presence—he was a large man with a dynamic personality that commanded attention. He was very strong and self-confident. Even as a child, his father stood up to whites, confronting the plantation owner who was cheating his own father out of his rightful wages and, as an adult, his father was president of the NAACP in Atlanta.

King was very reliant on his father. As he writes in one of his books, “The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years. If I had a problem I could always call Daddy. Things were solved. Life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package.”

While King clearly admired his father and saw him as a role model, both in his community involvement as well as his moral conviction, his father’s example must’ve also put pressure on him. MLK Jr followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming assistant pastor to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, so he surely must’ve had some father issues, wanting to live up to his father’s reputation and make his father proud.

 

His Fears

So those are some likely insecurities that he had to grapple with in stepping into his power of leadership. How about fears? Clearly, this is a man who could not have felt very safe in life. For those of us called to leadership, his example can represent our worst nightmares of what might happen when we step out to share what we know.

Some of the things he faced:

  • He was arrested over 20 times
  • He received many threatening phone calls, often late at night
  • His house was bombed and set on fire.
  • He was regularly slandered in his reputation. J. Edgar Hoover called him “the most notorious liar in the country” (similar to Nelson Mandela was considered to be a terrorist for most of his life)
  • While at a book signing for his new book, he was stabbed and had to be rushed to Harlem Hospital where a team of doctors successfully removed a 7-inch letter opener from his chest (that’s pretty intense when you think you’re just going to your book signing)
  • During the closing session of the southern leadership conference in Birmingham, a member of the American Nazi Party assaulted him, striking him twice in the face (also would be a little shocking at a conference).
  • Burning crosses on his lawn were common and likely very intimidating
  • And ultimately, he was assassinated—the fate of most prophets over human history

 

Being here from the future, I’ve long felt like something of a prophet myself—bringing messages that most people simply don’t want to hear and that can be pretty intimidating stepping out, knowing what usually happens to people who bring those messages. So one of the biggest obstacles for me in my own path of leadership has been about overcoming those fears about what would happen to me if I stepped out. And I really felt a very visceral fear in my body for my own safety in this regard, that I would be harmed for speaking out, though I knew rationally that this was probably ungrounded.

I don’t know much about my past lives, but I did have a past life reading when I moved to Colorado and the woman who did it for me wouldn’t even tell me everything she saw—she just said it was a whole a parade of really terrible ways that I was murdered for stepping out and speaking the truth. So I feel like there were real ways that was stuck in the cells of my body, so I had to confront my own fears about the possibility of that happening to me, although I knew on some level that it was probably not that realistic of a fear.

 

What Made MLK Special as a Leader?

Nevertheless, MLK fulfilled his life mission and became a hero to people all over the world. So how did he combat his own fears and insecurities and what can we learn from his example?

Some of the things that made him special as a leader:

  1. First of all, he had a Clear Vision

MLK’s vision represented the aspirations of millions around the world; his “I Have A Dream Speech” was not his dream alone. So he tapped into a universal message.

  1. Because he was tapped into a Universal Message, he had a strong sense of Moral Conviction.

He was not just trying to make a name for himself or to make life better for himself or his little group—he wanted to transform the entire world for the betterment of everyone and, similar to Nelson Mandela, really inspire all people to rise into their highest potential. This is a message that I identify with as well, that “We can do better” as a people.

  1. Soul Strength

He received this message, as well as the strength to bring it out into the world, by being tapped into his connection to Source. He was not just running on his own steam, and that’s really important. He was channeling a Divine Message and was therefore given the Soul Strength to bring it forth, even under great adversity.

One of his memoirs details how receiving a threatening phone call late in the evening prompted a spiritual revelation that filled him with the strength to carry on in spite of the persecution he was experiencing.

  1. Finally, no doubt as a result of all of these things, he had a strong sense of his own dignity and humanity.

He knew his inherent worth as a person. It came from his religious faith as well as from his upbringing. He was not somebody who was plagued by feelings of unworthiness.

He describes how his mom taught him that he should feel a sense of “somebodiness.” She told him that he would have to face a system that stared him in the face every day saying you are “less than,” you are “not equal to.” But she made it clear that she opposed this system and told him you must never allow it to make you feel inferior. She reminded him constantly: “You are as good as anyone.”

Interestingly, he reports that the first time that he was seated behind a curtain in a segregated dining car that he felt as if the curtain had been dropped on his selfhood. He said, “I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, and separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.”

This sense of dignity and self-respect is probably what is most striking about MLK. If you watch his speeches, it is so evident in his body language and the way he speaks and carries himself. He is poised, he is still, he is powerful, he is fearless, and overall he is very present—you feel like all of him is there in the way he speaks and carries himself. And I believe it is his inherent sense of worth, and accompanying sense of self respect and dignity, that is what most upset people about him. Because it was a kind of insubordination. He didn’t carry himself like an oppressed person.

I think that is really interesting. One of the things I’ve noticed in the negative responses to my ad for my Facebook group for trans leaders are the changes that are taking place as I have sought to fill the place where all the negative comments and nonsense was happening with my own voice and my own videos, speaking from my own sense of knowledge, my own sense of authority, and my own sense of vision—which is not just a vision for my little group but really is a vision of what trans people, gender creative people, intersex, genderqueer, non-binary people are here to teach all of us, that we are here to teach humanity what we know based on our life experience as people largely standing outside of the gender binary.

It has been interesting to see the result. One result is there’s not so many comments. So I do feel like my stepping out and putting a stop to that has really shut down some of that nonsense to begin with. People don’t feel the same sense of permission to be able to just stand up and say ridiculous things. But also people’s comments have gotten a lot more aggressive and violent and the attacks a lot more personal. So a lot of them say something like “Sam Bullington, you’re a fucking idiot and you should go off and die” basically.

So I think part of that response, that increased aggressiveness, really comes from that sense of insubordination, that I’m not standing there pleading for cisgender people to tolerate me. I’m really speaking from a sense of authority and speaking the truth—about the nature of gender and our biology, for instance. My next video especially is going to be about the dysfunction of cisgender heterosexuality and the healthiness of gender creative people—to combat the notion that being trans is a mental illness and so therefore gender creative people should not be leaders in society. I want to instead really demonstrate what we know.

So I feel like this really upsets the sense of power that cisgender people tend to feel—that trans people are ridiculous objects of pity and so therefore I have power over them as a cisgender person and I can exert myself as a bully. And so to not fight back in traditional ways, but just to stand in your own sense of authority and dignity I feel like is quite powerful and really does tend to ruffle people’s feathers. When you dare to speak out of your place, to speak with authority not apology. And to really embrace your own humanity.

 

Healing our Fear and Lack of Worthiness to be in Vibrational Alignment with our Mission and Message

So how is your sense of dignity and self-respect? And where does it come from? Are you tapped into Source or are you trying to run on your own steam? What Source means to you and how you access it is entirely up to you, but we really can’t get very far just trying to run on our own steam. Many of us did not receive that sense of somebodiness and inherent worth from our families—in fact, for many of us, that’s where the greatest damage was done. What that means now, as adults, is not that we are just fundamentally damaged and must limp along in life, but instead that we are tasked with healing that and clearing up our energetic vibration. Which is really necessary not only for us to step into our most powerful place as leaders, but also to really be able to have happy and joyful and peaceful lives.

Ultimately what strikes me most about MLK was that he was in total vibrational alignment with his mission and his message and his sense of worth. It IS scary to step out if you are not in vibrational alignment, because people can sense that you are an easy target and will feel your vulnerability, the ways you expect to not be treated very well and they will treat you in that manner. But there are ways to heal this and clean this up—that’s where I can help. If you recognize this as something that is holding you back, let’s have a conversation.

MLK was able to speak for those who didn’t have the vision, or the words, or the articulateness to be able to speak it, as well as those who didn’t have the courage and soul strength to step out into the spotlight and to receive the glory as well as to absorb the wrath that goes with stepping out like that. I believe that those of you who are listening have been called to step out and speak for the others who can’t. Whenever you are ready to be that leader, reach out (Sam.Bullington@colorado.edu) and I can help you get there.

 

Why New Year’s resolutions don’t work and how you can better approach creating a life that you love

http://bit.ly/2SlE8mJ

Transcript below

The start of a new year is a portal into a new existence, full of possibility for change. We feel this instinctively and thus have many cultural rituals to celebrate the passing of the old and the stepping into the new. However, our feelings of optimism and possibility never seem to last.

Does this seems familiar?

You approach the new year full of determination—THIS is going to be the year! For many folks in the mainstream, the year that you drop the weight and get in shape and have the body of your dreams. The year that you finally get your finances in order, get out of debt, and create the abundance you desire. Maybe you start off strong: new resolutions about self-care, for instance. But usually by the end of January, folks have given up and slowly slide back into their same disempowering mindsets and unhealthy habits—often even more jaded about the possibility of change. So why is this and what happens to undermine our success? I’m going to talk about 2 areas in particular: what is our imagined destination and what is our fuel or motivation?

 

New Year’s Resolutions are Characteristically American

New Year’s is a big time for making resolutions and the energy of resolutions is characteristically American, in my opinion—rooted in limited American cultural beliefs about how change happens. The energy of resolutions is really about identifying a particular material world outcome that you believe is key to your happiness, and then setting a linear goal, which is the path that you believe is necessary to achieve your external outcome, and applying the energy of self-discipline to get there. So what’s wrong with this model?

First of all, it reinforces the American belief that happiness is found in external circumstances: I’ll be happy when I lose the weight and have the body I desire, I’ll be happy when I get the job and have the money I desire, I’ll be happy when I have the relationship and get the love I desire. Similar to our mainstream frameworks about leadership and social justice, this way of thinking locates our happiness in the future, rooted in control of things outside of ourselves, and sets us up on a path of endless striving to try to achieve it. And the juice for that exhausting journey is self-discipline, essentially trying to force ourselves to do things that we actually don’t really want to do. When we inevitably fail—because how could we not—then we blame ourselves and our energy to create our best life sinks even lower.

Actually the whole process of making resolutions is rooted in shame—the energy of New Year’s resolutions is basically I’ll do better. It starts with identifying an area of life you are unhappy with, so you are likely motivated by what you don’t want, rather than what you do want. And the resolution is that I will do better—so it is rooted in self judgment, the motivation generally fear and shame driven. You rely upon your inner task master to berate you into action. It is generally joyless and one of the reasons that it doesn’t work is that it creates resentment and resistance. The part of us that doesn’t want to generally tends to win out, creating another round of self-judgment and shame until we get so tired of feeling that way that we give up and release ourselves from the expectation–and hope–for something better and walk away with underlying feelings of failure and despair: “another year I couldn’t make my dreams happen,” fueling our sense of worthlessness that is really at the root of our unloving choices in life.

So what do we do instead?

First, we shift our motivation. If we start from deep value and acceptance of ourselves, the desire to take care of ourselves and live our best life just naturally arises. We want to eat better, drink more water, find gentle and enjoyable forms of movement to support our body’s strength and flexibility. We want to cultivate and share our gifts and talents, have authentic connections. We want to have better boundaries, get more rest, surround ourselves with positive people and activities that support and value us. We want our lives to be out of crisis so we can be at our best and make our highest most positive contribution to the world around us. All of this flows from the energy of tenderness and kindness, not shame and blame. So maybe just close your eyes for a moment and really feel that energy and drink it in. You want your very best life because of how much you deeply love yourself.***

Secondly, our culture teaches us that our happiness is tied to particular outcomes so we must create the outcome first, then we experience the feeling of happiness. However, from a spiritual perspective, this is backwards. From a spiritual perspective, first you give yourself the inner experience of what you want—and then you naturally draw to yourself external circumstances that match that inner experience. So, for instance, if you feel continually victimized by life, you will tend to continually draw to yourself experiences that reinforce that feeling of victimization.

 

Start with the Inner Experience

So we can be proactive about what we want to create instead. Say, for instance, you would like to create radiant health or abundance—since we are all powerful creators, you can give yourself the inner experience of radiant health or abundance and focus your attention on it (rather than focusing on whatever scarcity or dis-ease you might be feeling). So let’s do that right now—just close your eyes and focus on what radiant health feels like.** And just drink that in. Aaahhh…*** Now switch and focus on what abundance feels like—maybe abundant finances, abundant love, abundant opportunities. Feeling the inner expansiveness that abundance inspires. And just really take it in and celebrate! Whoo hoo***

So often—in the American way of thinking—we get bogged down in the steps we believe are necessary to create our goal. So if we want radiant health, for instance, we think “oh, I have to eat better, go to the gym, etc”—and our vibration sinks as we imagine the drudgery involved. However, when we stay focused on the inner experience we want—radiant health—we may find that we don’t have to do as many steps as we think. You might find yourself just drawn to the right health practice or practitioner because that’s just what you need, and because it’s the right fit, you feel more motivated to do what you need to do to be healthy. Or you might find that your attention is drawn away from health altogether and you heal spontaneously while pursuing a new and gratifying career path.

And you don’t need to wait until you win the lottery to have an abundant-feeling life. Build into your life now, even in small ways, time for activities and people that you enjoy. You don’t need to live beyond your means to give yourself an expensive chocolate or a perfect flower or other item that will allow your life to feel prosperous and luxurious. Give yourself the inner experience of what you would like now rather than telling yourself “I’ll be happy when…”

 

Addressing Unconscious Blocks

Finally, we need to address our unconscious motivations that keep us stuck in familiar struggles. For instance, if you spend a lot of energy stressing about money, what are some ways this might actually be a smokescreen covering over a bigger issue in your life? So ask yourself, “If I did not feel stuck around money, what else would come to the surface? What am I really afraid of? What is it that I want even more than money?” Being in a struggle around money may just be a familiar—hence safe—pattern keeping your attention away from something that feels deeper and scarier to delve into.

If there is something that we have been struggling with unsuccessfully for years, there are likely unconscious payoffs to staying stuck that we’re not recognizing. Becoming aware of them helps us to deal with them more consciously and be able to let them go when we are ready. For instance, is being stuck preserving a familiar identity? Are you receiving attention from it (whether positive or negative) that you wouldn’t otherwise get? Is it allowing you to put off doing something that is frightening or protecting you from failing by preventing you from starting something?

I can say for myself that I felt frustrated for many years, as a gender creative person, that I was unable to be heard. That I had important things to say, but seemed unintelligible to people or they weren’t able to recognize the value of my perspective. It was easy to feel victimized and to blame others for my frustration.

However, I eventually had to recognize that many parts of me actually didn’t want to be seen and heard because I didn’t feel like it was safe to be seen and heard. Therefore, I was working at cross-purposes with myself—parts of me wanting to be seen and heard, parts of me not wanting to be seen and heard—which was a little like having your foot on the gas and on the brake at the same time, resulting in me not going anywhere.

But I wasn’t able to address and move on from the REAL problem until I was able to see it. So what are the payoffs of staying stuck and not having the life of your dreams? What are the ways you might be actually afraid to be happy or successful? I can say for myself that—in my own spiritual development—facing my wounds and traumas took one level of courage, but embracing my gifts and my power was actually much much scarier!

 

Try a Different Approach

So doing this kind of work does generally take support because it can be hard to see what’s in our blind spots—both our fears and our gifts that we can’t see. For instance, if you have a hand in front of your face, it can be difficult to see what exactly it is because it’s so close. But someone across the room can easily see “oh, you have a hand in front of your face.” So having this kind of help can save you years of struggle and suffering.

So, if the New Year’s resolution approach has failed you year after year after year, you might be ready to try a different approach. If this sounds appealing—or like a welcomed relief—reach out and let’s figure out what would be the best strategy for you. Because this journey does take support.

So I encourage you to start with trying a different approach to the new year. Rather than choosing a New Year’s resolution for 2019, I invite you instead to choose a spiritual power for the year. A spiritual power is not a specific outcome or destination, instead it is a quality—like Courage or Trust or Magnetism or Steadfastness—that has the ability to create many positive outcomes. For example, the disappearance of a physical symptom is an outcome, while the capacity to heal is a spiritual power. Creating a circumstance or event that evokes joyfulness is another example of an outcome, while experiencing joy regardless of outer circumstances is a spiritual power. I’ll create a post inviting people to share the spiritual power they are claiming for the year—and then I’ll regularly have check in’s where people can share how they are embodying that power and, as holders of that power, giving it away to others.

Ok, so the ending of our calendar year and the beginning of a new one is a very significant and potent marker in our individual and collective journeys. I hope that you make the most of it and have lots of fun in the process! And I’ll see you on the other side!

 

Portal

Tribute to my Grandma, Beloved Friend

Though I did not get to spend much time with Grandma growing up, she was always an important role model and point of connection for me. Life saving, in fact. Growing up as a gender creative kid, it was hard to feel a sense of belonging. Peer groups were organized by gender, so I had my friends who were girls and my friends who were boys, but I was just always something else–something for which there was no language available, so when I looked out on the world, I didn’t see anything that resembled me.

In this context, it was so incredibly reassuring to have Grandma in my life. Here was someone like me, someone else who was introverted and bookish so it must be ok to be that way. I thought she was super cool and saw myself in her. I always gravitated towards her understated presence, and her physical presence was always very calming and comforting to me as well. Her quiet demeanor was a respite for my senses that were used to being bombarded by continual stimulus and her body was soft and nurturing. I remember as a kid driving down to San Diego with her during one of her and Grandpa’s visits, when we first moved to southern California. I lay my head against her arm in the back seat on the car ride home. It was so pleasing to me that I still remember the sensation of it even today.

I had a chance to reconnect with Grandma on my own terms as an adult when I started attending the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I stayed with her for a couple days after the Festival for most of the 17 years I attended the Festival and our regular visits built a strong relationship. Though I’d brought my girlfriend at the time, Cindy, the first time I attended, I was not out yet to Grandma and Grandpa. But Grandma was deceptively savvy.

When I came downstairs the first morning after the Festival–my tent and gear strewn about their communal backyard drying out, as everything had gotten soaked at the Festival in one of its characteristic August thunderstorms–she was busy reading the newspaper. I was barely awake when she mentioned quietly, “it seems like that Festival of yours is mostly lesbians.” My jaw dropped and I was speechless. While the Festival was pretty well known in lesbian circles, its existence was largely a secret in mainstream society. Still to this day, I have no idea how she found out about the nature of the Michigan Festival–especially in the days before the internet!

Coming out as transgender to Grandma, I felt even more warmly received. In my first visit with her afterward, she simply asked, “Should I call you my grandson now?” I said, “Whatever you would like, Grandma” and she just replied “Oh ok” and that was that. There was never a moment of awkwardness or tension–it was something that could just be openly acknowledged without having to be a big deal. Characteristic of this interchange was her frequent amused observation, “I don’t know where you get all that hair–not from our side of the family.”

When Angie and I did a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist church in Kalamazoo, we spoke at a forum on transgenderism following the service. In the midst of one of my descriptions of the effects of testosterone, I looked out in the audience and saw Grandma sitting there in the back row. “Oops,” I thought, “I probably shouldn’t be talking about my genitals in front of Grandma…” But that was the kind of relationship we had–I always felt like we could talk about anything and nothing seemed to shock her. And I always welcomed her thoughtful, intelligent observations as she was extremely well-read and had interesting commentary on most any subject you could think of.

Because of our incredible personality similarities and ease of communication, over my adult life I always thought of Grandma as one of my best friends, rather than just family. I genuinely looked forward to spending time with her and I did speak openly with her as a friend about whatever was on my mind or going on in my life.

Despite that ease and commonality, we did have areas of tension. Grandma was a morning person–the only morning person in the Bullington clan–and I was definitely not. When I would visit her, to be polite I would drag myself out of bed much earlier than I ordinarily would at home. As soon as I would straggle out to see her, she would instantly inquire, “What do you want for breakfast?” which always made me feel like puking, as I’m never ready to eat anything for several hours after getting up, regardless of what time that might be.

I’m also frequently overheated as a person, so visiting Grandma could feel suffocating at times. Especially when I used to visit her when I was living in California, I found the humidity oppressive, so trying to fall asleep in the little bedroom upstairs in her townhome–where there was not even the slightest breeze–was quite impossible and overwhelming. I don’t know whether she was actually opposed to air conditioning or it was just her frugal nature, but, in more recent years when I would visit her at her senior apartment and sleep on the couch, I would secretly put on the a/c for a couple hours after she went to bed (which always made me feel guilty…), because the temperature in her apartment was far too warm for me to be able to sleep.

Grandma was a forward thinker, involved with yoga and health food in the 70s, well ahead of mainstream culture. As a kid I was always amazed at her flexibility–the ways she could flop over and instantly touch her toes–and grateful that, as a vegetarian, there were always things I could eat at her house (including yummy desserts). However, being a small sized package, she often ate like a bird, so having enough food to eat could be challenging. When I used to visit her after the Michigan Festival with my partner Amanda, we would always stop for “pre-eating” en route to Grandma’s house, knowing that we would likely be served small portions of several vegetables for dinner, which–after a week in the woods–just wouldn’t cut it.

Such stops would also delay our arrival time, which used to annoy Grandma considerably. As an INFP on the Myers-Briggs temperament scale, time for me is always approximate and fluid. When my partner Angie–who is also known as Time Lord–would ask me how long something would take, my first response was always to laugh. I had no idea how to answer that question–how people make that kind of prediction. Things take as long as they take, which could be 5 minutes or 5 hours!

But I learned with Grandma that such imprecision with regards to time was not advisable. Due to her long history of abandonment, she had a strong need for people to show up exactly when they said they were going to. So many August visits with her started out with her feeling hurt and mad because I was late arriving. Thankfully, she was always willing to get over it, so that we could go on to have a lovely time together–and I learned to overestimate the travel time required to her place in order to better manage her expectations.

Usually I traveled to Grandma’s house, but one time I had the opportunity to travel with Grandma–when we drove south from Michigan to Georgia and Florida to visit Grandpa’s relatives after he passed away. Despite the fact that I love road trips and I love Grandma, bringing the two together was not the easy fun I’d hoped for. As an INFP, my approach to road trips–and the journey of life–is very organic, which turned out to be the opposite of Grandma’s inclination. She had a very rigid plan, only stopping for meals and gas where she and Grandpa always stopped previously, which I found frustrating.

For me, road trips are all about the music, which she found annoying. I’d carefully packed only my tamest artists for the trip, so when her response to the kd lang cd I’d chosen was to complain about “the beat,” I nearly lost it because I did not even experience that music as having much of a beat! The only music we could settle on was Hawaiian music–which made her sentimental about Grandpa–and what I would refer to as “elevator music,” resulting in long stretches of me staring angrily out the window, wishing that I was elsewhere.

And Grandma’s legacy was not entirely positive for me. The motto of the Bullington side of the family always seemed to be “Don’t make waves.” While this outlook definitely suited my personality, as a largely shy people pleaser, it was not compatible with my life mission, which is to change the world, generally by speaking difficult truths that most people would rather ignore. So I’ve had to spend many years working hard to intervene in my family programming in order to be an effective and confident change-maker.

Despite our areas of tension, my relationship with Grandma was one of the easiest and most supportive connections of my life, a deep and steadfast love and devotion coupled with the easy camaraderie of former college roommates. Despite our structural relationship, we always felt like peers to me–such a gift, as I have really struggled to find peers over the course of my entire life.

My last visit with her was characteristic of the energies of our connection. In her later years, she lost the ability to participate in conversations in ways she had previously and she was frequently between realities, as parts of her would travel to check out what was next for her and to solidify bonds with those beings who were preparing the way for her. As a result, I got to experience the purity of her presence, unencumbered by the limiting conventions and pretense of linear rational conversation.

What I found was similar to what I experienced with my Dad when he was in a coma–a strong and comforting essence that shone through. Grandma and I sat together for hours, just making eye contact and smiling at one another, with her occasionally reaching out to touch me and explore my physical body, much like a small child would. In that time together, we felt and shared all the love and happiness and reassurance our connection had always provided, without saying a word.

Since her passing, I continue to feel strongly connected to Grandma. A couple days after Halloween, she came to me in a meditation. She hoovered above me, standing between my Dad and Grandpa, radiant with happiness and childlike innocence similar to my last encounter with her in the physical realm. They let me know that they would be my support team for my new spiritual business–and what a dream team for a budding entrepreneur! And, since then, I regularly get this oracle card in my inquiries:

Grandparent card

Minimalism

I have a friend who identifies as a minimalist, and another who lives in a tiny house up in the mountains. I am a big believer in minimalism and I know that it definitely serves my spirit. Whenever I’m in a hotel room, I always secretly wish that I lived there, surrounded only by the things I am actively using with lots of empty space.

My one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis had almost no furniture. I had a single mattress on the floor where I practiced somersaults while I was writing my dissertation (great for turning your thinking upside down and seeing things from a different perspective—as well as giggly fun for my inner kid). I had a desk in the dining room where I wrote my dissertation. Eventually I inherited a couch so guests could stop sitting on the carpeted floor. And each room had an altar representing an area of life according to the feng shui principles of my space.

I am very positive that I’ve had multiple past lives in the monastery because a life of austerity surrounded by books and immersed in contemplation comes very naturally to me. Though I now lean more toward hedonism, prior to going on hormones I had strong ascetic tendencies, prone to regular fasting not only of food but of anything that brought pleasure or threatened to distract me from my spiritual path.

Despite my appreciation for simplicity and inner leanings towards minimalism, my everyday life often tends toward the opposite. Those of you who know me know that my inner and outer life is always filled to the brim with complexity. Decades in the academic world taught me to deeply unpack the intellectual and political underpinnings of any aspect of life. My 3 spiritual paths help me to perceive the emotional and energetic dimensions of life unnoticed by most people. And my polyamorous romantic orientation has taken me through complex negotiations and explorations many folks find baffling, even abhorrent.

Once I care for somebody, I tend to keep them in my life, despite challenges presented by geography and change, so my life is abundantly full of relationships. And my home space is still cluttered with boxes brought home from my office when I left my position at CU, my socks and underwear living downstairs in our meditation room closet because my bedroom closet is piled high with teaching materials I am currently using for my Transgender Wisdom book project.

My schedule is perpetually filled beyond the limits of human capacity—solved in grad school, in the absence of available cloning technologies, by only sleeping every other night. Since leaving teaching, my professional offerings have multiplied such that, when listening to one of my favorite gospel songs and the preacher exclaims “Somebody is getting ready to start a business, a practice, write a book, score a hymn,” I find myself saying yes, yes, yes, YES to all of the above. On any given day, it is hard to know what to prioritize because I am living multiple lives simultaneously.

I realized when I was living in Missouri that this is just how I do life as a trans person, multiply. In Missouri I had an office and responsibilities in multiple university departments, and most of the time I lived there I also maintained an apartment, sang in a choir, and participated in a spiritual community in Minneapolis. It is how I got together with my Beloved so I don’t regret it for a moment. Living this way has been a rich learning experience—double the lessons, double the work, but double the rewards.

However, recently I have been in a season of extreme clearing out. Spirit is helping me clean house and has been pretty ruthless. After a summer of intense challenges and loss, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as the weather turned towards fall, the semester started, and astrologically we finally moved out of the ass kicking summer cycle of confronting and shedding our programming. I made it! I survived! I was prematurely overjoyed and proud of myself. Little did I know that the season of challenge and loss was only beginning for me, the summer merely a warm up for some of the most intense circumstances of my life.

An hour before my first day of class I learned that my mom was on her way to the hospital. While I was in California with my mom, my partner of 12 years asked me for a separation. When I returned, my housemate was diagnosed with breast cancer and, on the day she was diagnosed, my partner—my Beloved soul mate with whom I’d planned to share the remainder of my life journey—broke up with me.

My mom has Parkinson’s so I knew at some point she would have a health crisis, but the loss of my Beloved was something I never anticipated. In my whole life, she was the only thing I ever felt 100% certain about—I never doubted whether I was meant to be with her. And never spent a single moment contemplating life without her. So it has been a major adjustment to my whole story of my life—past, present, and future.

I have been practicing letting go and letting go, accepting, trusting the process of life, trusting that everything that happens is for my highest good, even if I can’t see it. I’ve felt inclined to reach out to those who are suffering more than me—and to use what I’m learning from my own suffering to help the world. That feels like the best path forward.  

Despite the losses, there have been incredible gifts! My mom, my housemate, and I have been supporting one another in making healthful life changes, finally mastering the fundamentals of self-care that the 3 of us never quite learned—all of us facing some pretty severe consequences if we aren’t able to get a better handle on it. It has really been key for each of us to not be trying to do it alone and I have felt a new depth of partnership with both of them, as my life partner moves out of that spot.

And there have been dramatic, life changing, miraculous healings with my mom. My relationship with my mom has been my most challenging relationship over my whole life. I’ve spent most of my life running away from her, trying to stay clear so that I could feel safe. But since my recent time with her, I’ve come close and we’ve shifted to a daily relationship. She got out of the hospital last week and I am out in California with her again, ensuring that she gets off to a good start in the transition back home.

The Parkinson’s has forced her to slow down, which has allowed her to be more present and I am finding myself surprisingly nourished by our everyday connection—not something I even would have imagined possible—and she is really thriving in the consistent contact. We now have the kind of easy friendship I have with many people in my life, enjoying one another’s company and readily sharing back and forth, including her apologies and regret about the disconnection in our past. Truly miraculous!

The departure of my partner has also allowed the consolidation of my energy and focus which has led to a blossoming of my creative work. Over my whole adult life, I have mostly focused on relationships—that’s where I have given the bulk of my life energy, oftentimes to the detriment of my work in the world. Since I’m not being allowed to do that right now—since I’ve been freed from that—my life energy has been focused on my writing, pushing me forward like catching a wave when you are sea kayaking.

Despite being suddenly and unexpectedly single, I don’t really feel fearful about my future. I’m sensing this might be a season in life where I am meant to be unpartnered so that I can give myself fully to my work in the world. It was a huge gift that I did have such an ideal partnership for 12 wonderful years, one that lovingly held my testosterone journey and all the upheaval it caused, and—since I have never been single for more than a few months in my whole life—I’m a little excited to see what learning that might hold for me. And the deeper sense of partnership I might feel with myself as a result.

So now I am cultivating more of a life path of minimalism. Over the last couple years everything non-essential has been steadily removed so that I can touch my core and life force energy more directly. I’m starting to enjoy the new simplicity in my life. It is easier to focus. There is space for energy to move. Without all the clutter, I can see myself—and my path—much more clearly.

I’ve always been afraid of change because I was so afraid of loss, so this purifying process has lifted that deep fear from my heart so it no longer has power over me in the same way. That has been liberating—almost exhilarating. And it has made me even more determined to love.

I have a feeling I may eventually look back on this time in my life with tremendous gratitude, as a destiny changing turning point that was one of the greatest gifts of my life.

Snake shedding skin

Working with Strong Emotions

Whew, what a summer! I don’t know how you all are holding up with the extreme astrological energies we have been grappling with, but it has been INTENSE! If you are feeling rocked and discombobulated, raw and vulnerable, bogged down and stuck or unexpectedly liberated, know that you are not alone.

What has been coming up is all of our wounds, limiting beliefs, and dysfunctional programming so that we have an opportunity to consciously examine and then shed them as we move into the next stage of our evolution, personally and collectively.

This is definitely for our highest good and greatest freedom and happiness (we don’t want to take all that old painful baggage into our next creation), but the process has certainly been daunting and has required us to dig deep into the reserves of courage and commitment, as well as be creative about finding our way through.

Shadow work

 

In my last post, you heard about my crisis of confidence in my professional journey this summer. This post features my parallel crisis of confidence in my personal/relationship life—and the tools that I gained from that experience that I want to pass on. Since so much of our current collective experience has featured heated communication, dramatic changes in relationships and circumstances, and the arising of our deepest hurts and core challenges, I figured other people could benefit from what I’ve learned and what has helped me navigate this time and come out stronger and happier on the other side.

I’ll begin with an excerpt from my book project of this summer, Learning from Polyamory: A Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Love (one of a series of offerings I’m planning to call the Fresh Perspective Series). And then I’ll present the toolkit that I developed for dealing with strong emotions which sustained me through some pretty intense challenges this season.

 

Learning from Polyamory

My partner is on an overnight date with someone else right now, so my polyamory skills have been getting a workout lately. Though my partner and I have been polyamorous for our entire relationship, it has mostly been me who has engaged in extramarital explorations, especially after I went on testosterone and became attracted to men for the first time. So I am very grateful for this opportunity as it is increasing my capacity to love. As my heart is breaking, it is stretching open and expanding. I have choices every day, even every minute, about whether to choose feeling victimized or finding my ability to love, fighting to have my needs met or experiencing peace.

I remind myself, I want my partner to have fun. I want my partner to have a great experience. I want my partner’s needs to be met. These all feel like true statements. When I speak them, in my body I feel a sense of calm and resonance. My partner was only 27 when we got together, and only had one 2 year relationship prior to me, so I could hardly expect that all the learning she would need to do around love and romance and relationships would come just through me.

So I want her to experience all the steps, the fun of dating and sex and romance. Because it is fun so I wouldn’t want the person I love more than anything in the world to be denied that fun, even if it’s with someone other than me. Because the dating and sex and romance between us is excellent and I’m extremely grateful for that—so the tithe to express my gratitude is that I can’t just keep that all to myself. I value sharing so this is my opportunity to live that value. 

Of course, there are other feelings as well. Whenever we talk about polyamory in class, my students always assume that polyamorous people simply don’t get jealous. Not true. There’s always the underlying insecurity: what if my partner finds something they like better? How much of my partner’s life energy will this new relationship take away from me? Does this mean that I’m not special anymore? There’s the resentment of not wanting to have to deal with it, of feeling put upon by having to be uncomfortable. There’s the sheer terror that makes my body so agitated and overwhelmed that the last time my partner told me she was interested in someone, I spontaneously took off running down the street.  

While in any polyamory arrangement the old familiar partner cannot compete with an exciting new interest, excitement comes from uncertainty and familiarity comes with safety. So there are ways that my partner venturing out is vulnerable feeling for them as much as for me—they risk being rejected, they don’t have the depth of trust with the new person, they feel insecure. I can choose to focus on the compassion that I feel for them around that.

I know that the new person is also risking a lot and probably feeling some insecurity, stepping into an established 12-year marriage, so I can have compassion for them as well. In fact, since the new person is someone who has been a friend for the last several years, and is now someone my partner is choosing to love, I can simply choose to love them as well, rather than setting them up as a threat or enemy.

I can choose to align myself with what is happening, and offer my support and congratulations and create positive good will in my marriage—or I can align myself against what is happening, which is a path of pain and ultimately fruitless. Even if I “got what I wanted”—which would basically be to avoid feeling fear and discomfort—I would not be happy because my partner would be unhappy. For things to seemingly work out in my favor means not working out for her, so I’d rather take on the discomfort myself.

Because my partner really deserves this. She doesn’t have opportunities very often and her last attempt at this about 3 years ago fell apart at the last minute—which was very crushing to her, so I’m thrilled that this is working out for her. I know that is very healing and very important. And I got off easy last time as the dating relationship ended suddenly before it really began. There were definitely challenging months of build up through non-acknowledged dates to give me some good practice, followed by the opportunity to be in a much easier support role of offering comfort for her broken heart. So now I’m being asked to step it up to another level. And I believe I’m being spiritually supported in that endeavor and that it will lead to many rewards, most especially increased freedom.

And my partner has certainly suffered through worse with me, especially in the early years of my testosterone journey when my sexual orientation changed: the uncertainty when I started having sex with men about whether I would end up still attracted to her, what that meant about me as a person that I enjoyed having casual hook ups with guys, all the boundary violations, the moving bar as I navigated what I wanted and needed. Truthfully, I don’t know why she’s stayed with me—I think I am actually very tough on my partners. So it would be ridiculous for me to now offer any resistance.

And I have learned, from my somewhat limited past experience, that raising a fuss puts her in the unfair position of having to choose (and she won’t choose me—or at least not without resentment). And it destroys trust in my marriage hence undermining the very thing that I’m afraid of losing. It makes her angry, upset, guilty, and afraid. And it makes me angry, upset, guilty, and afraid. It drives us apart and reinforces the separateness we’re both afraid of.

My partner spends nights away very frequently. They were just in Dallas for a week for work, they semi-regularly cat sit for a week in Boulder, and they attend a week long spiritual camp in Missouri twice a year. So my feelings about them being away tonight don’t have to be any different than that. I can remain calm, wish them well, and turn my attention to other things. This is far preferable to being up all night in agony, tormenting myself with my worst fears, replaying fictional images of them having sex in my mind over and over, ending up spent and exhausted and terrified.  

My partner also frequently engages in other very absorbing and satisfying pursuits—whether musical, spiritual, or creative—often in intimate relationships with others. And why should any of these things feel threatening? I feel a sense of wariness in my chest, but why? Why would I not want my partner to have a deeply absorbing and satisfying life? Such things are the lifeblood of her aliveness so why would I want to deny them? What life would we have together if she were robbed of the things most satisfying to her—simply because they are not me and so therefore threaten me? It is not her job to keep me comfortable, to avoid threatening me. If I feel threatened by her experiencing joy and satisfaction in people and pursuits that don’t involve me, I am basically saying that all of her joy and satisfaction should come through me, which is preposterous.

Our partners are the people we love supposedly more than anyone else in the entire world. Out of all the billions of beings on the planet, this is the person we have chosen to love and we often stand up in front of friends and family to commit ourselves to their happiness. Yet this is the person whose happiness most threatens us, who we allow the most limited range of pursuits—and this is what our culture calls “love.”

Well, my contemplations have started to raise my discomfort level and I don’t want to upset myself before bed, so I’m going to end here and get to bed. Self-care is a really important aspect of this journey, and I want to maintain an even keel as much as possible, so I need to make sure I am as well- resourced as possible.

 

Strong Emotions

Polyamory is such an incredible path of growth because it acts like a metal detector/magnet, finding and raising to the surface anything that is unhealed in you. I think of it as a form of emotional yoga. Through polyamory we learn where our restrictions and resistance reside and then we can gently lean into these areas to expand our range and flexibility. Much like disruptions in our professional/financial lives, it cuts to the core of our feelings of safety and security. So dealing with instability in both core areas of my life this summer understandably generated in me some very strong emotions. Here’s an example:

My skin feels like it’s on fire and I’m burning burning out of control. I feel so hot and agitated I can no longer calm myself down. Though my body feels weak and shakey from strong emotion, I feel like I have to move—to walk and walk—because I can’t hold all this energy in my body. I feel reactive, like a wounded animal, ready to lash out in a moment’s notice—chasing away the love that I want so desperately to receive. Even being approached or touched in kindness feels threatening and painful. I feel like I want my life back, but it feels like it is now changed forever so all I can do is surrender and watch it transform into something new. I’m just riding the hot lava carrying me toward a cliff over which I will plunge—to my death and to my freedom.

Indeed this summer has been one of the most intense and most relentlessly challenging times of my life. While the reasons were particular to me, I knew I was not alone. Given the intense astrological forces working on us right now—the still present energies of the July lunar eclipse as well as the multiple planets that have been in retrograde—I feel like the inner challenges I’m facing are not just mine alone.

Collectively, this is a time for us to courageously grapple with our conditioning—with the dysfunctional familiar beliefs that keep us small and limited and our habitual strategies for dealing with our inner pain that might serve to temporarily keep that pain at bay, but prevent us from actually moving beyond it. Part of our unhealthy cultural conditioning is how we are trained to deal with challenging situations.

Being raised in a masculinist culture that highly values control and deeply fears vulnerability, I haven’t been given very helpful tools for working with intense feelings. Here is what I have been taught—see if any of this resonates with your experience.

 

American Toolkit for Dealing with Challenges and Strong Emotions

 

Don’t have challenges—if you do, there’s something wrong with you

Don’t share challenges –if you have challenges, pretend like you don’t

Medicate away strong emotions as they are dangerous

If you can’t get to a doctor to be prescribed medication, try these to disconnect:

Recreational drugs

Alcohol

Food

Shopping

Sex

Work

TV/Netflix

Social media

Computer games

Compulsive exercise

Distract yourself away from the pain

Change the circumstances that are upsetting you

Blame the circumstances that are upsetting you

Better to be numb

Especially for women, find a way to hurt yourself to process the pain

Especially for men, find a way to hurt others to process the pain

 

Sam’s Toolkit for Working with Strong Emotions

 

“Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with it, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down. When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.”

Pema Chodoron from When Things Fall Apart

 

American culture teaches us to aspire to be comfortable and, especially for privileged folks, to sound the alarm anytime we are feeling discomfort. We see discomfort as an aberration—a sign that something has gone wrong—and we are trained to quickly identity the cause of our discomfort and to focus our efforts on changing our circumstances, rather than changing our reaction to our circumstances.

Polyamory is fundamentally a path of self-responsibility. My emotions arise from within me, they are not “caused” by my partner. While consciously negotiating boundaries is an important aspect of living polyamory, the goal is not to eliminate discomfort, but instead to use it as an opportunity for growth and healing.

And the focus is on self-change rather than demanding or manipulating your partner to change their behavior. While your partner may be an ally in your healing, ultimately working with your own emotions provides an opportunity to know yourself better, to see where you have blocks to happiness and peace, and to work to free yourself from them, enhancing the quality of your life overall.

Here are some of the things I’ve found helpful this summer in working with my own intense emotions. I hope that you will find something within this list that might be useful to you.

 

Breathe into your heart

Deep slow breathing generally is excellent for helping to calm down. It soothes and de-escalates the body and mind and helps to bring spaciousness and deliberateness to the agitation and urgency of the fight or flight response. It gives us something to bring our focus to, where we can consciously apply our will power, rather than feeling out of control and at the mercy of the fragmenting explosion of emotion.

I’ve found breathing into my heart to be even more powerful. We’re not talking about a 20 minute meditation practice here. I find that with just one deep breath into my heart, I instantly calm down and with just 5 such breaths, I feel noticeably different overall. It doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t go back into a state of agitation, even right away, if I allow or need that, but I know if I simply breathe into my heart, I have the power to instantly calm myself down.

Heart nature

 

Stay in the Present

As I brought attention to what helps me calm down, I also noticed the things that exacerbate my upset. The quickest way to add fuel to the fire of my distress, I found, was stepping back into the past or rushing ahead into the future.

When, at the beginning of the summer, someone I felt close to decided to step away from our friendship, I found myself drowning in shame and regret, rehearsing everything I’d said and done, wishing I could go back and do something different to create a different result. I found that my thoughts were continually berating me for perceived mistakes, criticizing me for “blowing it,” and frantically searching around for some way to “fix it.” I would work myself up into a full blown panic.

Similarly, watching my partner’s emotional investment with someone else steadily grow over the summer, I couldn’t help but jump into the future. I was certain that I knew how things were going to unfold, and I was convinced that there was no possible way that I could survive that. So my mind generated a lot of resistance to what was happening in the present based on my belief about the impossibility of my imagined future.

So I needed to continually remind myself to stay in the present. I’m not being asked to survive that future right now, I’m just being asked to survive this one present moment. And in this moment, I actually am surviving. It may be at the edge of what I feel I can tolerate, and it may take all of my skills and resources, but I am surviving it.

And ultimately, it is temporary. I keep reminding myself of what I’ve learned from my experiences in sweatlodges over the years: no matter what stories my mind creates about what’s happening, it is only intensity and it will eventually pass. Just stay present, resist the urge to run from it, and face it head on.

And trust the process. Though my friend may have stepped back this summer, for reasons that I can’t really know or control, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is gone forever. As my spiritual teacher Lynn Woodland always reminds me, if we need to jump over a big gap or obstacle, we will step back to get a running start and some momentum. So the times in our lives that may feel like a setback might actually just be the preparation for a big surge forward. It could be that my friend stepping back now allows her to step forward into deeper intimacy in the future.

 

Truth calms

What I also noticed this summer, during periods of agitation and upset, is that when I tell myself lies about a situation (generally the projection of my fears, which I rehearse supposedly to “protect myself”), I exacerbate my distress, but when I tell myself the truth, it serves to de-escalate my emotions. You already saw this in my excerpt above: when I started to feel agitated about my partner’s overnight date, I reminded myself that I want my partner to have a great experience and I want my partner’s needs to be met. And these truths helped my body and emotions to relax—and allowed me to make choices in accordance with my values, even if they were emotionally difficult.

During the frantic moments about both my partner and my withdrawing friend, I reminded myself that I have survived such moments in the past. In particular, I thought about the break up with my ex a decade ago. I remembered the moments of despair and heartbreak, sitting on my living room floor in my apartment in Minneapolis, feeling like I would never love again.

And 3 truths came to mind: first of all, just on the other side of that break up that I couldn’t see (literally months later) was my soul mate, my perfect match partner who was the catalyst for my going on hormones and who changed my entire life. My relationship with my ex had to be cleared away to create space for the experience of love and partnership that I most needed.

Secondly, although my ex had proclaimed that if we broke up she would not be able to be friends with me, we actually remain extremely close, texting most every day, and I consider her my dearest family. While it had been stressful trying to do life together as partners because we had very different goals and values, in our current relationship I get to enjoy all of the positive aspects of our former connection without any of the stresses. Hence not only was my romantic life improved on the other side of the break up, but even my relationship with my ex is even better.

Finally, although surviving those very painful moments of transition were extremely challenging, once my life settled back into a comfortable place, I actually found myself somewhat nostalgic for those intense moments during the break up. During that time, I was really tested to bring forth all of my skills and tools, and I developed a very close daily relationship with my spiritual guides and teachers, because I really needed them to survive. Though challenging, it was a period of tremendous growth and aliveness and empowerment that I actually missed during the somewhat bland days that followed. I wondered if, on the other side of this challenging test, I might too feel nostalgic for its intensity.

The truth is inherently peaceful.

Peace

 

Affirmations

Affirmations are another way to counter the lies we continually tell ourselves. You may notice that much of your inner dialogue consists of disparaging self-judgments. Rather than feeling victimized by our negative thoughts and their resulting emotions, we can be proactive and begin to create a positive inner landscape that nourishes and affirms us.

For those of you who think affirmations are just new age nonsense or silly self-indulgence, I find them to be a crucial aspect of the deprogramming process that I shared about in my last post. Not only do we need to identify the unhelpful beliefs that we want to shed, but we can also consciously choose the beliefs we do want.

To me, that is an aspect of creating the foundation for the new world: consciously utilizing our attention and intention in new ways. Whether individually or collectively, we need to stop focusing on what we don’t want and what we are against and instead use our creativity and our will to envision and keep our focus on what we do want—and use our energy to bring it into being.

While I have used affirmations regularly for much of my adult life and have healed many imbalances in my body and thoughts through this practice, this summer I discovered a wonderful numerologist named Kari Samuels (KariSamuels.com). She custom designs affirmations for your particular life path and sets them to meditative music that you can listen to every day to begin to reprogram your conscious and unconscious mind. I’ve found her recordings to be very nourishing—and moving. When I saw the list of affirmations she sent me, my eyes instantly welled up with tears as they touched upon all of my lifelong core struggles.

I am safe and at home in the world. I claim my space in the world.

My sensitivity is a gift. I shine my inner light brightly.

I am safe being seen and heard. It is safe for me to speak my truth.

I love and accept myself exactly as I am; I am loved and appreciated for who I am.

What is one area of life where you feel perpetually stuck or would like to see change? Come up with a one sentence positive statement about being, doing, or having the life that you actually want. So if you imagine yourself on the other side of where you feel currently stuck, what would that look like?

To give a couple examples, if you feel physically exhausted and stagnant, maybe yours would be “I have abundant energy for my exciting life”—or if you feel stuck living your life for other people, it might be “I choose to do what brings me joy.”

There are 5 guidelines you want to keep in mind for your statement:

1)  It should be in the present tense—you are experiencing it now, not in the future

2)  Your statement should be positive—what you want instead of what you don’t want

3)  Use the language of being, doing or having instead of wanting

4)  Focus on changing your own experience instead of controlling the behavior of others

5)  Affirm the end result you want, not the steps you believe will take you there

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

To see results, consistency and repetition are key so I suggest repeating your affirmation 15 times a day. You are building a new belief system so consider how many times over the course of the day that you tell yourself something negative and actively counter this with your statement of what you are choosing instead. You can repeat it silently as you move about your day, speak it out loud (looking in the mirror is the most powerful), or write or type it up. Keep it posted where you will see it often: on the bathroom mirror, on your steering wheel, on your computer. And let this be a reminder to keep your attention trained on what you WANT rather than what you don’t want.

During moments of intense emotion this summer, my affirmations were a lifeline. There were times when I felt swamped by some emotional tidal wave and didn’t know how to right myself. In those moments, I would put in my headphones, set out on a walk, and just listen to my affirmation recordings again and again until I felt calmer.

Not only did they aid me in feeling more peaceful and trusting, they also helped me feel more empowered. Especially when I was feeling bounced around by the choices of other people over which I had no control, I could actively choose to nourish my mind and heart with the beliefs and life that I wanted to claim for myself.

I am surrounded by people who love and appreciate me and relationships that nourish my well-being.

I relax and trust the process of life. My life unfolds beautifully in divine timing.

I create and maintain healthy boundaries and make my happiness a priority.

I see myself thriving in every way. Every day my life gets better and better.

I have the power to manifest my dreams and effortlessly manifest the life I love.

Just imagine if everyone in this country—every time they felt enraged or despair over what Trump is doing—chose to focus their attention and energy instead on imagining AND CREATING the world that they want to live in. Rather than getting lost in the downward spiral of emotion and helplessness, empower yourself to be an active creator of our emerging collective world.

My loving presence is a gift to the world. I have a positive impact on the world.

I use my words to uplift and inspire. My voice is clear, confident, and strong.

If I imagine it, I can create it. I am a powerful creator.

 

Creating Inner Safety

Those of you who have been in my classes or attended my workshops might be familiar with this super helpful guided meditation (courtesy of Lynn Woodland—check out LynnWoodland.com) for creating inner safety. I consider it to be an essential tool for being a peacemaker in the contemporary world and a terrific way to empower yourself to take ownership of your own emotional state.

Take several deep breaths, relax and begin to imagine a feeling of safety.  Say to yourself, silently, over and over, the words, “I am safe.” It’s not necessary that you believe these words. “I am safe” is the belief you are creating, not necessarily the belief you hold. 

Let this feeling start in your stomach as a soothing, peaceful sensation and allow it to radiate through your entire body and then slightly beyond, forming a safe, comforting pink cocoon around you. Feel your stomach relax into deep safety and well-being. Feel your shoulders relax as though you’ve just had a weight lifted from them. Imagine a hard and heavy layer of protective armor now dissolving out of every part of your body because it’s no longer needed.  Imagine that you’re naturally protected by this state of peaceful defenselessness. 

Picture this safety as a beautiful light of unconditional love that fills and surrounds you.  See this light attracting to you everything that’s for your highest good and repelling everything that’s not. Imagine this light to now be in place around you all the time, even when you’re not thinking about it.

Remind yourself many times each hour of the day that you are safe and put yourself to sleep this way at night.  Take this even further by spending a day imagining that everyone you encounter has your best interests at heart.

 

Tonglen

Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that reverses our American training to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. In Tonglen practice, with every in breath you take onto yourself the suffering of others and with every out breath you send out whatever will benefit them. In Tonglen practice, we resist the urge to disconnect from our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others. In Tonglen practice, we transcend the isolation and self-absorption that often fuels our suffering. Instead we allow our own suffering to connect us to the suffering of others—who else on the planet right now is feeling this same weight of shame, terror, pain, loneliness, rage, desperation? Our in-breath welcomes the difficulties of the human experience; our out-breath shares what is most precious to us.

If you are going to be experiencing suffering anyhow, you may as well intend for yourself to take on the suffering of others, that you may seek to spare them some of the difficulty of what you are experiencing. And you can maximize whatever joy and success you experience by sending it out to all others to share as well. This practice not only cultivates compassion but can give purpose and a sense of empowerment to whatever challenges you are experiencing.

 

Metta practice

This practice of loving kindness also comes from Tibetan Buddhism and can be used to cultivate peace and compassion when your mind feels like a battlefield. Doing this practice not only helps to shift out of the stubborn deadlock of ego conflict, but it can open doors to mutually beneficial solutions to whatever interpersonal challenges you might be facing.

Begin with those who are easiest for you to love (either individually or as a group). May my friends, family, those I admire be happy, healthy, successful, abundant. May they know peace and be free from suffering.

Then move on to those about whom you feel neutral—acquaintances, strangers, service professionals, co-workers, neighbors. Recite the same words (for individuals or the group): May they be healthy, happy, successful, and abundant. May they be free from suffering. Be sure to include people everywhere and all living beings in your remembrance. Wish them happiness and health in the present, past, and future.

Practicing loving kindness with strangers can not only create a more humane world, but it can help us to feel more safe and empowered as we move through life. We begin to see others as less inherently threatening to our well- being, as well as realize the power our love has to change people’s lives.

Finally, bring to mind those who it is difficult for you to love—those who have hurt you, those with whom you experience conflict or competition, those you blame for your own unhappiness or the state of the world (Donald Trump and his supporters, parents, lovers/ex lovers, bosses). May they be healthy, happy, successful, and abundant. May they be free from suffering. If this is exceptionally challenging for you, begin with “May I let go of this resentment. May I be free from this anger.”

With every round, notice what’s happening in your body and emotions. Notice your personality’s preferences: who it likes and dislikes, with whom it feels safe and unsafe. Watch for any tension or hardening of the heart as you bring to mind those with whom you may feel conflict or competition.

DON’T FORGET YOURSELF! You may start with yourself, with the recognition that if you cannot give loving kindness to yourself, you actually cannot give it to others with sincerity. Or you may be in the final round, among those who it is most difficult for you to love. This is an opportunity to practice giving loving kindness to all everywhere without conditions.

Imagine if we taught this practice in elementary schools all over the country. Doing this practice regularly literally changes the world.

 

Dealing with strong emotions together

Since so much of the current astrological configuration has involved communication challenges and relationship hot spots, I thought I’d end with some suggestions for how to deal with strong emotions in partnership.

 

Share a breath

This is a very simple but powerful practice for cultivating intimacy. I’ve mostly used it to grow closeness and partnership, but it can also be used to de-escalate charged emotions. You simply face your partner, look into their eyes, and breathe together (breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is easiest as then you have visual cues). This practice helps to sync up your energies to facilitate working together, to come together as one being, breathing together.

When I was in the midst of an attack of panic and having trouble staying in my body, my partner asked if I wanted to share a breath and it really helped me settle down. While at first it was hard to stay present and to sync up with her, focusing on her eyes and breath and trying to match it eventually brought me back into my body and into a comforting rhythm that ended the crisis I was feeling and allowed me to access other inner resources.

 

Burn some sage and/or palo santo

Treat your potentially charged conversations like a sacred ritual. Prepare yourself by burning sage and cleansing one another’s energy fields. This will help to bring the proper mindset to your discussion as well as energetically support your work. While sage has been used for cleansing for centuries on this continent, palo santo is especially good for lightening the energy when something heavy or toxic has come up. After a heated discussion has arisen, cleanse your space afterward so that there’s no remaining energy of conflict. This practice can also be a useful habit in polyamorous explorations to create energetic containment so that you are not bringing the energy of one encounter/relationship into another. If you spend your days in a toxic work environment, this practice can also be invaluable so that you are not bringing that energy into your home space.

 

Share something you are grateful for and something you are proud of

My partner and I do this practice together most every night before bed and it was a helpful ritual to draw upon during times of conflict. It can be a way to ease into dialogue about troubling issues (reinforcing a more neutral tone, rather than jumping into debate) and it reminds us to be mindful of both our own experience and the other person’s experience (either of which I can forget about during moments of conflict).

 

Active listening

Rather than arguing, practice active listening. Instead of countering what the other person is sharing, state “What I hear you saying is…” and then state back in their own words (rather than your interpretation of what they said). Ask if you got it right and allow them to make adjustments. Then ask “Is there more?” until there is nothing else. We have so few experiences in life of actually just being heard and acknowledged, just this practice alone can create miracles in your relationships.

When people feel heard, and are encouraged to go deeper into their perspective rather than instantly being told they are wrong, their defensiveness decreases pretty immediately and they are capable of much more than you might imagine. Try this with family members, co-workers, especially folks who don’t share your political perspectives. Just this practice alone can help to free us from the incredibly painful polarization we are currently trapped in collectively.

Remember that you don’t have control over how other people show up for you, but you do have control over how you show up so resist the urge to feel like it’s unfair if you offer active listening and the other person does not. You are changing the dance, even if you don’t feel the effects right away.

 Be love to have love

 

Hold the container for one another, one at a time

There is a time and place for venting. The key to its purposefulness in releasing intense pent up energy is to have the discipline to hold a neutral container. This means that one person has the floor—I’d say a half hour is a good amount of time. One person is the sole focus during that time and they simply get the chance to be unconditionally heard. This means no arguing or debating or problem solving about anything they say.

Regardless of what is said (“I’m honestly contemplating breaking up with you”), do not take the attention back to yourself, your emotional reaction, what that means for you. It is simply a time for one person to just verbalize anything that’s going on in them without consequences. Sometimes all it takes is saying it out loud and you can move on from it. It is a time to listen and learn and, although when I do this practice, I usually struggle in the beginning to not have an argumentative tone (the ego does not want to give an inch), invariably at some point I learn something surprising about the other person’s experience that shatters my assumptions and generates compassion in me.

This also means no encouraging or egging on when someone is sharing. If someone is complaining about their boss or job, for instance, this is not a time to commiserate or exclaim “That’s terrible!” It is simply an opportunity for them to externalize their upset. A better response (whether you agree or disagree with whatever they’re saying) would be “That sounds like it’s really painful for you.”

You can take turns holding the container for one another, but I would recommend doing that in separate sessions. You want to have a clear buffer between trading so the experiences are totally separate and each person just gets to have their say without challenge. You don’t want the second session to feel in any way like a counterargument and it is good practice to just put aside your own feelings and reactions for a time to just hold space for someone else.

 

Emotional release

Even more important that sharing the story of why you are upset is simply releasing the emotional energy from your body. Emotions are physical energies and when we store them in our bodies we create tension that can compromise our health and keep a lid on our happiness. We don’t even need to know what is causing the emotion for us to release the energy from our bodies. We don’t even need to be actively feeling the emotion in the moment. Just embodying the physicality of the emotion (whether the big dramatic external movements of anger or the curling up and turning within of sadness) will take us where we need to go. And we become aware of the complex layering of emotions—how when we release the defensive volatile anger on the surface, it might reveal the hurt and sadness and vulnerability lying underneath.

While just having a primal scream in your car can be very helpful for letting go of all of those daily hurts and frustrations (just grip the steering wheel and shout AAAAAHHHHH at the top of your lungs—emotional release doesn’t need to be directed at anything), maximum healing happens when our emotional release is held and witnessed by others. Consider for yourself the difference between crying while another holds and comforts you and the tears you shed alone in your room behind closed doors. While sharing your feelings with others might create uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability and embarrassment, you are also likely to feel more connected and genuinely healed afterward versus the ways that solitary tears can actually increase our feelings of aloneness and isolation.

Releasing the emotional energy that has been activated prior to trying to dialogue can be key to having more productive and less heated negotiations. For instance, one family with teenagers kept a supply of thrift store dishes in their garage. Whenever conflict came up in the family, they would retreat to the garage together and take turns smashing the dishes against the wall until their emotional energy was discharged. Then they would return to the house to sit down to talk about it.

 

Laugh

During times of conflict, we can forget to have fun with one another. Fun and play require us to step away from our protective defensiveness and let our guard down, which can feel threatening during times of disagreement. But when fun and laughter leave a relationship, it can be challenging to remember why you are doing the hard work of healing in the first place.

My partner and I have actually received homework from therapists to NOT process, since we are so prone to talking about everything. It is easy to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders during periods of disharmony, so it is important to lighten up and laugh together. We take ourselves so seriously and forget that fun and play are crucial aspects of growth and success, whether individually or together. So take a time out from the serious matters of life to reconnect with your joy and innocence.

Laugh

 

REMINDER: The perspective of non-violent communication is that conflict comes from unmet needs, so, if you can keep this in mind and just step to identifying and addressing the unmet needs, oftentimes you can redirect or sidestep the conflict entirely.

I hope that you have found these tools helpful! If you try any of them out, please let me know how it goes and what you learn from the experience. And if you have tools or suggestions that I have not named, I’d be super appreciative to expand my toolbox so please feel free to share them with me!

Peace on your journey,

Sam

Being Tested, Part 2: Here’s How I’m Doing It!

Greetings again!

I hope yesterday’s introduction was useful for you. As I mentioned yesterday, here now is the account of how all that is working out in my life. I hope that you will find it a helpful reference point in your own journey. If there’s anything you feel moved to share about your own process—or questions or suggestions about mine—I am always happy to hear from you. 😊

 

Deprogramming

“I’m through accepting limits cuz someone says they’re so

Some things I cannot change, but til I try I’ll never know!”

(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)

Wicked logo

Much of the last year for me has been a slow process of deprogramming from the mindset of the academic world. The academic world is a source of incredible wounding—in fact, one specialty of my counseling practice is working with folks who have specifically been wounded by higher ed. As I’ve moved from university to university over my career, one thing has remained constant—it is an environment in which most everyone there feels somehow like they are failing. An example of this that I talk about in my work on decolonizing teaching is the ever-present scarcity of time, the ways that the hurried pace of higher education, and the resulting negative emotional states of anxiety, guilt, and inadequacy, dramatically interferes with the joys of both teaching and learning.

The academic world is fundamentally based on hierarchy, elitism, and competition. One of its main activities is gatekeeping—deciding who gets in and who stays out, who is rewarded and who is punished, who is appropriate and worthy and who is not. It is an environment thick with ego, fear and shame. Its lifeblood is measurement, evaluation, and critique—which I have come to view as forms of violence. And this mentality—especially coupled with the scarcity thinking that drives the institution—leads to other forms of violence, such as massive economic exploitation. A whopping 70% of academic faculty are glorified temps, contracted semester by semester to teach individual classes for below minimum wage.

One of the frustrating things about the academic world is that I was continually being judged by values and standards that were not my own—and feeling bad about myself as a result!

As an intuitive feeler, I never fit well in the academic world, where solely the intellect is valorized—the white male disembodied voice of rationality which rejects ways of knowing and being that arise from the body, the heart, and the spirit. I’ve referred to this previously as the “academic wound” as it compromises our wholeness as humans as well as our understanding of the world, and leads to a lifestyle that is unhealthy and totally out of balance. It is a world in which you are expected to be working constantly (as my partner always jokes about the freedom of being an academic: you can work any 24 hours you want…), where faculty members brag about their stress levels to demonstrate that they are at full productivity.

For years my partner has been voicing their concerns about the impact of this lifestyle on me (as well as the ensuing effects on her): my disconnected heart and antagonistic state of mind from being in the continuous mindset of intellectual critique for 15 weeks, my exhaustion and frenetic unstable energy from multiple all-nighters a week grading papers that compromised my ability to be present with her, the subsequent damage to my body in repetitive strain injuries, the emotional impact of being in such a dehumanizing environment (after the first week of classes last year, I came home from campus and just lay in my bed and started sobbing because I’d been witness to so many dehumanizing experiences over the course of the day—none of which even directly involved me), the anger and agitation from feeling unvalued and undercompensated (which even my ex who is an Associate Professor grapples with), and the underlying currents of shame and defensiveness, anxiety and inadequacy from feeling like you are never doing enough.

It has taken me most of a year to even begin to detox from this deadly combo. After decades of continually pushing past my limits, my body has struggled to come back into balance. It’s only been since May that I’ve been able to fall asleep consistently—after so many years of forcing myself to stay awake to work, I found that I’d trained my body to pop back alert when nodding off.

Even harder to shake has been the critical academic voice in my head that has kept my writing largely frozen. I’ve found that I’ve needed to distance myself from other people’s ideas and judgments in order to allow my own voice to re-emerge. It’s been delightful watching the freeing up of my creativity and imagination, the return of my joy and innocence, and my increasing investment in my own happiness and well-being the further that I move away from the toxicity of the academic environment.

 

Wanting to go back…

Despite the obvious negative effects, leaving the world of higher education has been a deep and scary journey for me. It is why most people stay in bad relationships, I think—whether romantic or professional. While you may be aware of the ways that you are having a negative experience and your well-being is being compromised, your experience is never JUST negative and so there are things that you are attached to as well, ways that your needs are being met, things that you would miss, ways that your sense of self has been shaped as well as compromised by being in a negative situation that over time alters your sense of possibilities and limits your ability to choose something different.

I’m a teacher—this is not only my professional training, but also my calling and life mission (or one of them at least). Although teaching is extremely labor-intensive, mostly it has never felt like “work” to me and most days I would do it for free simply because I love it (something true of many teachers I know, which our educational system has hugely taken advantage of and frankly relies upon).

And we are told that if you want to teach, you must do that in a school (if you want to be legitimate anyway). While my intention in leaving CU a year ago was to expand my teaching beyond the classroom (in response to our collective needs after Trump was elected), I quickly realized that I actually had no idea how to do that.

Since I am still teaching one class at CU during fall semester with the INVST program, a peace and social justice leadership certificate program affiliated with the School of Education, I did not have to really grapple with this dilemma until January. While it was very disorienting feeling everyone going back to school without me—since I’ve lived according to the semester cycles for so long—fortunately, Phoenix went on choir tour in April to the Twin Cities, with concerts scheduled in Omaha and Iowa City en route, so I was pretty absorbed with preparations for that for much of the semester.

In the post choir tour funk, as it approached what was usually for me end of semester frenzy, I found myself really missing teaching. Though I had an amazing gig just drop into my lap—doing workplace mediation and gender trainings for an organization in Boulder—that was very satisfying and rewarding, it can be very stressful and exhausting always doing new things that are out of the comfort zone, utilizing skills that don’t feel super honed or deep yet, and having to continually negotiate payment. I longed for the ease of doing something I know I’m good at with an audience and platform that I don’t have to cultivate for myself with guaranteed returns—whether student transformation or a regular paycheck.

I think this is probably why a lot of people stay in jobs (or relationships) that they have outgrown. You have to give up something guaranteed to take a chance on something unknown and most people simply don’t have the desire or fortitude to withstand that degree of risk and uncomfortable uncertainty.

Foundational change can be slow. As my spiritual teacher in Minneapolis, Lynn Woodland, always used to remind me, if you are trying to turn a cruise ship around, there’s going to be a long delay between when you start turning the wheel and when you actually feel the ship turning. Something big that’s been in motion for a long time has a strong momentum so it takes a while to significantly change course.

So by mid-summer, I found myself increasingly despairing that I would ever be able to carve out a place for myself in the harsh “real world” of capitalism. It is how I ended up in higher ed in the first place—the university felt like a safe refuge. So by mid-summer, I was filled with self-doubt and regret about having given up my teaching position at CU.

 

The Test

“I hope you’re happy, now that you’re choosing this, I hope it brings you bliss

I really hope you get it and you won’t live to regret it.”

(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)

Wicked logo

In the midst of my crisis of confidence, I was presented with a gift—the opportunity to teach an Intro to Peace Studies class at Naropa! I was thrilled! When I first moved to Colorado in 2010, I was certain that I would be teaching at Naropa. A whole university founded on contemplative education—what could be a better match for me! Though I was determined to separate myself from higher ed, Naropa seemed worthy of making an exception. As someone interested in starting my own university, I was curious to have first hand experience with the Naropa model and I was delighted to have the opportunity to be back in the classroom, doing something I love and do well, and with a steady income!

I had my interview last week, which was basically just a formality—I had the position if I wanted it and I knew I wanted it. I’d basically already planned the syllabus in my head.

Except on the way to campus, I noticed a nagging uneasiness arising in me. Especially after hearing the pay (which was the lowest I’ve ever heard of for teaching, even less than I was paid as a grad student—incredibly about $137 a week for what would be at least 15 hours of labor!), I began to wonder if it was really in my best interests, especially knowing I would have to put on hold my book writing as well as growing my counseling practice and public speaking career that were the foundational steps for my new life.

I felt at an important crossroads and, the more I sat with my uneasiness, the more this position began to feel like a step backwards. It felt like a test—right on the threshold of stepping fully into guiding my own destiny, could I still be tempted away by the illusion of security (which I know is actually just exploitation)? By the “respectability” that comes with being associated with a university? Am I still willing to stuff my expansive soul into the box of an old paradigm institution in order to have a place in the old paradigm world or am I really committed to building the new paradigm world?

It reminded me very much actually of when we first moved to Colorado. I’d just left the tenure track at the University of Missouri for ethical reasons and, upon arriving in CO, got an interview at the School of the Mines for a tenure track position—teaching environmental ethics to people who were going to do fracking (which I knew would destroy my heart). So it was like a carrot dangled in front of me to test the authenticity of my commitment. Would I still jump at the chance for that kind of security and status? I said no to that position and never regretted it.

So I decided to trust myself and stay the course I’ve been charting since leaving CU, even though it’s scary and hard. I’m very tired of subsidizing higher ed with my free labor, compromising my own well-being in the process. This summer I’ve come to a new regard for my own well-being, my own peace, and my own limits and boundaries—which I never felt able to have during my academic career. I’m very tired of giving my best ideas and insights and energy to an institution that is antithetical to my own values, one that will use me up and spit me out with no regard for my well-being. I think probably a lot of folks are feeling this way about their location in the current economy. And I certainly didn’t leave one institution that undermined my well-being to trade it for another.

Though I was originally very excited about the thought of teaching at Naropa, the thought of it now makes my body feel heavy. Ultimately, Naropa gave me the same feeling as Women’s and Gender Studies—like a very lovely vision, but its actual practice is not necessarily in alignment with the vision. And I can see that I would feel a lack of peace around that, which would then put me out of integrity to be teaching about peace, as my energy and my message would be discordant.

As I composed my email to Naropa declining the position, my housemate said to me, “Well, you don’t want to burn any bridges.” And I pondered that and responded “Actually, yes I do!” I thought about third century BC Chinese General Xiang Yu, whose victory came out of burning his troops’ ships so that they could only move forward. In order to fully step into my new life, I needed to close the door on my old one.

 

New Paradigm

“So if you care to find me, look to the western sky

As someone told me lately: ‘Everyone deserves the chance to fly!’

And if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free

To those who’d ground me, take a message back from me

Tell them how I am defying gravity!”

(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)

Wicked logo

It was really my time at the Arise Music Festival the prior weekend that shifted everything truthfully. I was excited about the Naropa position pre-Arise when I was filled with despair about how to fit myself into the old paradigm world. Naropa seemed like a pretty decent match.

But after feeling the community support for my teaching at Arise (I led 2 workshops there and had 30 enthusiastic folks at each), and being in the new paradigm energy (including the ways that Arise seems to effortlessly care for the well-being of its community members), I was able to notice the big energetic mismatch with Naropa (Naropa is the old energy of settling) and felt empowered to say no to it, recognizing it’s not the only game in town.

Another world is possible–is happening now–and I will find that more and more the more I am able to let go of the old paradigm people and institutions that have been taking up all the space in my life.

I had immediate confirmation of the rightness of my decision.

1)      Wednesday evening, after my Naropa interview, I went to the Denver Dances of Universal Peace since my partner was co-leading. As I was in the circle, I noticed that the 2 people next to me were wearing Arise bracelets (they had been fire keepers at Wisdom Village, where I’m trying to get a trans/non-binary lodge created to supplement the women’s and men’s lodges). Then more folks I recognized from Arise kept arriving–people I’d never seen at the DUP before! At one point in the circle, both the person on my right and on my left were folks who had come to my Reigniting Passion workshop!

And it just felt like this was affirmation that I will be supported if I continue to free myself from old paradigm institutions. I was despairing about where are my people, but they are all around me if I just have eyes to see them–and they can find me the more that I am shining my light and sharing my gifts, which I can do more effectively when I’m not being beaten down battling with old paradigm people and institutions.

2)  When I signed my fall contract with INVST, I saw that (without even mentioning it to me) they increased my pay by almost the same amount I would have made at Naropa! This reaffirmed my sense that they ARE in alignment with their vision and they do value the well-being of their staff, as well as specifically value my gifts and presence. So that felt like a clear YES to continuing to teach with them. And further affirmation that I will be supported if I have the courage to say NO to the things that aren’t good for me/that I’ve outgrown.

3)  And these are the oracle cards I received Wednesday night and Thursday night as I was contemplating what to do:

(Wed) Release your ties to the past. When you let go of the old, you make room for the new.

(Thurs) New Beginnings and A Fresh Start

(Wed) Trust your decisions. March to the beat of your own heart.

(Thurs) You’re on the Right Path

(Wed) Be patient. Be willing to pass up good for great.

(Thurs) Keep Your Eyes on Your Targeted Intention

(Wed) Resurrect a childhood dream. Let your passion take flight.

(Thurs) Success! A favorable outcome is assured.

Wow…

Be Patient

Beyond the Classroom…

The childhood dream I’m meant to resurrect is clearly writing. I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer and my first autobiography was written when I was in the fifth grade! And that is how I’m meant to expand my teaching beyond the classroom. Teaching the class at Naropa would have given me the opportunity to strongly transform the lives of 18 people, but getting my writing out into the world gives me the opportunity to impact potentially millions of people.

I realized that all of the things that make me a popular teacher and speaker (openness and humanness, an overall sense of optimism, unusual and eye-opening perspectives, blending intellectual critique and spiritual insight) will also make me a popular writer. It’s the next expression of teaching for me—reaching a broader audience beyond my comfort zone of the classroom, less taxing on my body, and free from the soul killing toxicity of academia.

One way I’m deprogramming from the academic mindset is considering self-publishing, not only for my Transgender Wisdom book (the title and structure of which actually came to me at last year’s Arise Festival), but especially for my new book project that I started on this summer, Learning from Polyamory: A Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Love (my next blog post coming soon will include an excerpt from this book). The academic voice in my head scoffs at the very notion of self-publishing. That is for charlatans. You are only legitimate as a scholar if your work is published by a big university press.

However, the world of traditional publishing is another gatekeeping old paradigm structure. A big publishing house can tie up your book for a couple years, absorb most of the royalties, and ultimately your work and ideas serve their brand. With self-publishing, you can bypass the “middleman” and go directly to the reading public; they can receive your insights and you can receive their financial support much more immediately. Although I still have some work to do to completely shed my academic elitism, I’m getting better at recognizing what are the old paradigm structures that are collapsing and which are the new paradigm ways of being that we are stepping into that will build our better future together.

Here’s how you can tell the difference:

The old paradigm is top down, hierarchical, based on dominance, enforced by gatekeeping. It is rooted in scarcity-thinking and most of the resources are consumed by administrators, bureaucracy, large institutions. Authority figures use fear and shame to control and disempower people and people internalize this approach and motivate themselves through fear and shame. Competition is encouraged, even required, and people feel stressed and unsafe. Their hearts are guarded and protected—and, as a result, they create a lot of pain and suffering with one another. Life is lived in defense, self-interest is the norm, and everyone is scrambling to survive. Everyday life is managed through rigid rules and dehumanizing bureaucracy. Creativity is squashed, standardization is compulsory (at Naropa you can’t even just print out your own syllabus for class—you must upload it piece by piece into a standardized authorized template, including even a standardized font!), and difference is seen as threatening and must be punished, so people have to hide and pretend a lot which is exhausting.

You will know the new paradigm by how it makes you feel.

If you’ve never been to the Arise Festival, it is new paradigm in action. The Arise Festival is a reminder that people are fundamentally good. When people feel safe being themselves, they thrive. This principle should guide our national educational policy. When people feel safe being themselves, they relax, their creativity explodes and they want to make a contribution. They are confident and oriented towards what they can offer, rather than what they can take. I’ve found this in my teaching as well.

The new paradigm is horizontal, egalitarian, based on direct access to community rather than going through authority figures and institutions. Collaboration is encouraged and nourishing, and people’s unique contributions are welcomed, appreciated, and expected. Everyone is needed and has a place.

People’s hearts open when they feel safe, and trust and connection is a lot easier and less risky. Kindness is the norm—even unkindness is responded to with compassion.

In the new paradigm, your fear and scarcity-thinking won’t be activated. At Arise, there is no feeling of territoriality, no competing for space or food. At Arise, every time I feel like sitting down, there happens to be a chair nearby—and empty because nobody is trying to claim them. People sit for a time as needed and then get up and move on, freeing the resource for someone else. There is enough for everyone and a feeling of abundance. Access is prioritized, not ownership; experiences are valued over material objects. Like the internet or the Bernie Sanders campaign, as my teacher Lynn Woodland explains, abundance is created by many many folks contributing in small ways with everyone having access to what we’ve created together.

In the new paradigm, people are motivated to take care of the community. It is incredible at Arise to walk around a music festival and not see a piece of trash anywhere. People are trusted to largely govern themselves, to self-select, and they move freely in an atmosphere of spaciousness. Power equals self-mastery and leadership falls to those who demonstrate wisdom, integrity, and the ability to hold the needs of the community. Difference is intriguing and a source of learning and growth.

In the new paradigm, you realize you don’t really need a lot to be happy and your life is not cluttered with things, outdated relationships and identities, toxic food and addictive substances, relentless stimulus. When you no longer need something, you simply let it go and trust that whatever you need in the future will come to you when you need it. Joy seems to come naturally because you feel safe, valued, and connected, you feel the satisfaction of utilizing your creativity and capacity, and you trust that your needs will be met moment by moment.

We’ve been lied to. We’ve been told that the only access to safety and security is to go to big institutions. They are the ones we believe have all the resources. We feel we must be tied to one in order to survive and, even once we realize it is killing our soul and stifling our happiness, we tell ourselves we must stay—it’s the only responsible choice. We are told this is the only game in town.

But that is a lie. Another world is not only possible, it is happening all around us. It is the world that we are creating together–through our love, our vision, our creativity, our unity. Our old ways of being have taken us to the brink of collapse—individually (as you can see in my case) and collectively. We are facing a seemingly dire situation as a species: evolve or perish. But the happy news is that we are transforming into a world that will be easier and better for us all. While the transition feels daunting and may be bumpy—as you can see in my case—I’m confident that when we look back at where we are now, we’ll wonder why we didn’t change sooner.

 

Close up Mosaic pillow

My dad, who passed away in 2005, communicates with me through leaving me dimes. In April, at the last rehearsal of the season for Mosaic Gospel Choir, when I was feeling discouraged about my professional life, I came downstairs and found this dime, perfectly placed in the center of the couch, in front of a pillow that I had never seen before, with this incredible message. Thanks for the reminder, Dad!

Being Tested, Part 1

When we step off the conventional path to follow our heart, our commitment will be tested.

 

Greetings Friends!

I haven’t written in a while so I thought I would share the latest from my professional reinvention. I’m sharing this not because I think you are especially interested in the details of my life, but I’m hoping that in my story you might find some insights into your own journey of change, however that is unfolding in your life.

AND, since we are collectively in the midst of massive upheaval and desperately in need of positive change-makers with a clear vision and strong heart, I hope something that you read here will bolster your conviction that a different world is possible and give you the courage to create it!

This summer has been a time of deep inner challenges, frankly, so this is not a conventional “success story”—just an honest account of the process of fundamentally changing one’s world. I know it’s on the long side for this kind of post, but I hope you will forgive me since I only post every few months lol. For ease of reading and processing, I will post my account in 2 parts, one today and one tomorrow.

When I last wrote in January, I was exploring the void that comes when we let go of our former life, the vulnerability of starting over, and the creative awakening that was starting to arise in me. In this post and my next, I will share about my ongoing process of inner transformation.

One of the reasons why we keep creating the same struggles over and over (maybe you have a friend who keeps having the same dysfunctional romantic relationship again and again, just with different people…) is because we haven’t shifted our inner landscape. My former life arose out of my former sense of self and belief system; in order to create a sustainable new life, I need to cultivate new beliefs about myself and the world around me.

Fortunately, the extreme astrological energies we have been in for the last month are all about bringing up our wounds, limiting beliefs, and dysfunctional programming so that we have an opportunity to shed them as we move into the next stage of our evolution, personally and collectively.

 

“Something has changed within me, something is not the same

I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing, too late to go back to sleep

It’s time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap!”

(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)

Wicked logo

 

Here are the next 3 steps of change that I will be talking about. I invite you to think about how they apply to your own life.

  1. Deprogramming:

As you no doubt have seen in your own life, just because we move away from our families, religious institutions, or workplaces doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t still carry their unhelpful values and frameworks with us, generally unconsciously. It can be difficult work to bring those unconscious attitudes into the light for examination—and it can feel scary to allow ourselves to confront and reject them, as they have been standards by which we have been measured and so our sense of our own worth is often tied up with them. And they have often made us feel wounded and unworthy.

What standards and attitudes have you internalized from your environment that might be getting in the way of your happiness? What deprogramming are you needing from harmful values and beliefs (especially about yourself) that aren’t true or aren’t yours?

  1. The Test:

As I mentioned last time, the leap of faith that initiates a big change in our lives is only the first step. The scary leap can feel more exciting than the tedious hard work of building the foundation for our new lives. When the pressure of the void begins to assert itself, and the uncertainty of our new life feels overwhelming, our commitment often starts to waver.

Rather than facing the discomfort and pushing forward, everything in us wants to turn back (we see this constantly in our political environment), to cling to the familiar, and we can be filled with regret for having initiated the change (whether that’s ending a relationship, leaving a job, moving to a new city, going back to school, even having a baby or trying to eat healthier).

At this time of self-doubt, we might be given a test of our commitment: are we really determined to have our heart’s desire and stick with it until we see results or are we tempted to jump ship and go back to the comfort of our old ways?

What’s your test currently and what tools do you need to face and overcome it? Perhaps it’s courage or support or solitude or conviction or faith or determination. How can you summon these inner resources and/or ask for help?

  1. New Paradigm:

After you have confronted and purged the values and beliefs about yourself and about life that has been your programming (from your family, from the media, from your education, from all the institutions of your society), what are the values and beliefs you want to choose instead? What will replace your old unhelpful beliefs and what values do you want your new life to be built on (whether personally or collectively)? Being clear about this can give you the drive needed to bust through the obstacles (inner and external) that you might face on the journey of change.

What’s your new paradigm—the life that you are wanting on the other side of the change process based on your own/better values and beliefs?

I encourage you to take a moment to jot down your answers to these 3 questions. They can be a helpful reference point that you can explore more deeply in your own personal work—but, even if you do nothing but quickly make a list of the first things that come to mind, simply identifying them can be all you need to create a profound shift!

Case in point: during a recent time of emotional distress, I simply drew a messy map of all the various feelings and thoughts floating around tormenting me. It was super helpful just putting them down on paper—getting them out of my head and in front of my eyes where I could see their connections and understand that they are not me, they are just feelings and thoughts that I’m having.

I’d planned to unpack each one further—do some journaling about each—but found that simply writing them down was enough to catapult me out of that inner experience. When I returned to my messy map a couple days later, I was shocked to find not only that I was no longer feeling that way, but I made a list of my current beliefs and they were almost the exact opposite of all the ones that had been tormenting me just days prior!

If you are struggling to answer any or all of these questions, I can help. I assist my students and my counseling clients with this type of work constantly. Shoot me an email (Sam.Bullington@colorado.edu) and I can give you some further suggestions—or consider booking a session with me (we can Skype if you are not local) if you want to dive in in earnest. 😊

 

Where I’m stuck…

At the core of my current challenges is my lack of belief that there is really a place for me in life. As a non-binary trans person in a gender binary world, I’m confronted every day with a sense of existential erasure—all the ways that the world tells me that I simply don’t exist and am not welcome. When I look out at the world, I just don’t see a space for me. And so that has been my block professionally as well.

When I graduated from college and looked at all the various life paths to choose from, I simply didn’t see mine there—although I didn’t know exactly what mine was, none of the available options felt right for me. It felt too overwhelming as a 21 year old to contemplate creating my own path, given the ways my material survival was tied to this dilemma. So I chose the best match I could find at the time: university life.

School had always been a refuge for me and, growing up without a peer group (since those are organized by gender), teachers were my friends and peer group—so it is not surprising that I chose to be one myself. I knew how much teachers had profoundly changed my life, so I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my life energy than having that kind of impact on students.

However, when I found my partner, who is my soul mate, and decided to go on hormones, I began to realize what a right match for me felt like—and sadly recognized that my academic career was only a partial match. Though I loved campus life, being surrounded by cutting edge ideas, teaching, and being part of student transformation, all this took place in a toxic bureaucratic institution whose values were antithetical to my own.

I really wanted our relationship to work so I stretched and changed myself as much as I could to accommodate the environment. When that didn’t work, I tried shifting my position within it—I removed myself from the tenure track to distance myself from the bureaucratic structure and sought less rewarded positions that would allow me to focus my energies on teaching, as I believe that students are where the possibility for transformation lies within universities.

While this worked for a while, and the joy of teaching carried me through the challenges, eventually the bureaucratic structure kept encroaching and my ability to do the work of transformation became more and more at my own expense. Eventually I could no longer absorb the damaging costs of that arrangement and sadly found myself in the position of needing to leave the relationship entirely. Perhaps you have found yourself in this unfortunate position somewhere in your life as well.

Facing this loss only reinforced my core belief that there is simply not a place for me in life. My work in the world and how I feel inwardly led to go about it simply doesn’t match up anywhere with the values and operations of capitalism, so the intensity of that core belief has only grown since leaving the refuge of the university. In order to access my next steps professionally and find my rightful place in life, I first need to believe that I have a place and that it’s possible to find it.

 

Here’s how I’m doing it!

I hope my introduction to these concepts has been helpful for you. If you are interested in learning how this process plays out in specifics in someone’s life, I encourage you to read on about my journey. You will find that posted tomorrow!

Feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might benefit from it.

Blessings upon your journey,

Sam

Trans People Are Here To Be Teachers and Leaders

Transforming Gender Symposium Keynote:

Trans People Are Here To Be Teachers and Leaders

 

“We are the rising sun

We are the change

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for

And we are dawning”

NEW DAY DAWNING

I’d like to talk with you today about being trans as a path of transcendence. So, what does it mean to transcend—we’ll start with transcending gender, though I will be talking about transcending a lot more than just gender. What does it mean to transcend?–ask audience. Yes, it means to rise above, to go beyond. To break the box, not only for yourself but to free everyone.

For those of you who have seen “Moana,” trans folks—I believe—are explorers, the ones who have the courage to go out beyond the surf, to see what’s out there, and—like any hero’s journey, the whole point is not just self-exploration and personal gain, the purpose of the journey is to bring the gifts back to your community, to share what you have learned and to teach others who cannot make the journey themselves.

And sharing what you have seen and what you know from your explorations can fundamentally transform the understanding of the world for everyone.

I believe we are living in exciting and historic times. We are witnessing the beginnings of a fundamental shift in human perception of the magnitude of understanding that the earth is round. We are on the cusp of a major breakthrough as a species—a collective evolutionary leap to a higher level of consciousness. While the leap itself is positive and exciting, the process of breakdown leading up to the leap is chaotic and highly stressful.

Species evolve out of necessity, when they are compelled to do so by some crisis situation. Our choices—our old destructive ways of being in the world and interacting with one another—have brought us to just such a stark choice, where we must evolve or perish. Key to our transformation is the return of the feminine.

Although we have been taught that change happens slowly in a linear step-by-step process, this is not necessarily the case. Often there are no signs of impending change—or things look like they are actually headed in the opposite direction. I witnessed this in South Africa at the official ending of apartheid. While activists had been working behind the scenes for decades to bring about societal transformation, on the surface—in the years and months leading up to it—there were no signs that apartheid was just about to end. In fact, the apartheid state ramped up some of its most brutal measures and seemed extraordinarily entrenched—until one day, like that, it was over. We can look back and see that such brutal measures were actually signs of vulnerability—the last gasp of the apartheid state to try to hold onto power and stave off necessary change. Many have described the fall of the Soviet Union in similar terms. No matter how deeply entrenched they appear to be, these rigid structures disintegrated from within, to the surprise of many of those watching. I believe the United States is in one of those times right now.

Everything about the U.S. right now is reminding me of the end days of apartheid: the fixation on identity documents, the hyperfocus on safety and security, the defensiveness and isolationism, the police violence, the sprawling bureaucracy. When I fly back to the U.S. from South Africa, I can actually feel the density and heaviness of the energy around the United States, like a toxic force field.

I believe we are witnessing the dying of the old order, the last gasp of the wealthy white cismale Christian heterosexual able-bodied power structure, and all of its harmful and dysfunctional institutions, along with all of the worldviews underlying that power structure as well. All of the values and assumptions and belief systems that arise from and are in service to that power structure. We are undergoing a foundational remembrance of our actual relationship to one another and our planetary home: interdependence (and you can think in your own life, those peak moments of interdependence most often come during a crisis).

While this is a welcomed relief—since the current power structure represents a threat to the survival of the entire planet—change is scary! It truly is a death, the end of the world as we know it. And most of us would rather live in a familiar malaise than step into the unpredictability of change—why we so often stay in jobs and relationships that we’ve long outgrown. Although we may say that we want better, change requires letting go of what is known and stepping into the void, before we have concrete evidence of what’s next.

Many don’t even believe that something better is possible and it is hard to create what we don’t believe is possible. We have thousands of media representations of future apocalypse, but how many cultural visions do we have of a collective future that we might actually want? We are trained to feel powerless and defensively focus on avoiding what we don’t want rather than being in the hopeful vulnerability of imagining what we do want.

But trans folks are sort of experts at transformation so we have much to teach others about how to surrender to the scary and exciting process of change. In addition, trans/genderqueer/non-binary people well understand that things are not always as they appear! It is the crisis of now that is creating the conditions necessary for our evolutionary leap, so don’t be misled by surface appearances! It may feel like we are going in the exact opposite direction of where we want to end up—but that’s the nature of the paradigm shift that sometimes the quickest route to our destination can be what appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

So, I’m going to talk about some of paradigm shifts that we are needing as a culture—around gender, power and leadership, love and relationships, and our approach to social change—and share some of the key principles of new paradigm thinking. But first let me talk about the special role that trans/non-binary/genderqueer folks have in this evolutionary shift.

 

TRANS/GENDERQUEER/NON-BINARY PEOPLE HAVE AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN THIS TRANSITION

In many ways, we are the future, therefore we are embodying already some of the aspects of the new paradigm. In addition, there are things that we know due to our unique journeys that, when shared, can help other folks to wake up. For instance, we know that…

Binaries don’t represent reality

Dualistic thinking is one of the core aspects of western culture, perhaps stemming from the western need for order and clear and hierarchical classification. Binaries are created—let’s take the us/them binary so fundamental to nationalism as an example—by falsely homogenizing the us, falsely homogenizing the them, and then exaggerating and essentializing the differences between the us and the them—the extremes are highlighted, the middle is erased, and we call it a binary.

This imposition is not only inaccurate, but it actually shapes what we are able to see. According to sociologists Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna, the reason we have a gender binary is because we believe there’s a gender binary, which causes us to perceive a gender binary. This explains why the 1 in 1500 babies born intersex are subjected to traumatic surgeries to make them conform to the binary, rather be seen as evidence that our binary construction is inadequate.

Our training to view life in terms of oppositional pairs has serious implications beyond gender, as we can see with our current political polarization. The very construct of rigid dichotomies encourages antagonism. Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen reports, for instance, that when students are asked to compare two cultures, they are inclined to polarize them (so she has them compare 3 instead). Key to western culture is the belief that issues have 2 sides and that truth is best gained through debate. This creates an adversarial environment which encourages the demonization of one’s opponents. Since we need to make our opponents wrong to prove ourselves right, the temptation is great to oversimplify, and ignore facts and nuances that support, your opponent’s viewpoints—which actually undermines our pursuit of truth, and is damaging to the human spirit.

If we count up all the folks who blur categories—trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks, bisexual folks, bilingual and bicultural folks, mixed race folks—we can see that, if we are not already the majority, we are rapidly approaching it.

And we also know that…

Nobody wins at the gender game

Trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks generally have intimate lived experience of the suffering caused by gender—not only the suffocating limitation of the gender binary, but first-hand knowledge of the dysfunction on both sides of the binary, the ways that there are no winners in the gender game. While the harm that falls to women as a result of their devalued position in the gender hierarchy is fairly well known at this point—even if still continually ignored!—the negative impact of masculinity on men is not widely acknowledged.

One of the most surprising aspects of my experience of masculinity since going on hormones is the degree of loneliness that I feel on a daily basis.  While—since going on hormones—everyone now wants to know what I think—and attribute tremendous value and authority to my thoughts, almost no one asks me how I feel or how I am, so I am often left without a sense of others’ care for my well-being.

This is especially pronounced with regards to my needs for physical affection.  I am a very physically affectionate person—it’s a big way that I connect with people and it helps me feel grounded.  But now I find I no longer touch women because, in my current vehicle, that feels creepy.  And I certainly don’t touch guys because that could result in violence.  Women don’t touch me and guys don’t touch me, so I move throughout my daily life largely without the experience of touch, which makes me feel rather disconnected and diminishes my own sense of humanity.  As is the case with many men, most of the physical affection I receive is in the context of sexuality, which is a different experience.

The emotionally damaging gendered training starts in infancy. In his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, psychologist Terry Real shows how parents often unconsciously begin projecting a kind of innate “manliness”—and thus, diminished need for comfort, protection and affection—onto baby boys as young as newborns. As Real explains, “little boys and little girls start off equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equally desirous of physical affection. If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls.”

However, parents imagine inherent sex-related differences between baby girls and boys.  When a group of 204 adults was shown video of the same baby crying and given differing information about the baby’s sex, they judged the “female” baby to be scared, while the “male” baby was described as “angry.”  And these differences in perception create correlating differences in the kind of parental caregiving that newborn boys receive—a child who is thought to be afraid is held and cuddled more than a child who is thought to be angry.  Real found that from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, and nurtured less—at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

Fast forward to middle age since we have a lot of territory to cover today: From 2009 to 2014, while mortality rates fell for most other Americans, they actually rose for middle-aged white heterosexual men, with most of the fatalities coming from what experts call “despair deaths,” including drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease, and suicide, all consequences of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Men die early because they do not take care of themselves—in large part because self-care is considered to be feminine. This mentality is a key aspect of masculine training—man up, play through the pain—because toxic masculinity teaches them to be afraid of looking “weak.”

Masculinity’s death tolls are attributed to the more specific manifestations: alcoholism, workaholism, violence, and risk-taking behaviors undertaken to prove or defend one’s masculinity (such as driving drunk or without a seat belt).  Even when masculinity does not literally kill, it causes a sort of spiritual death, leaving many men traumatized, disconnected and often unknowingly depressed.  Indeed, men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide then women (it is the biggest killer of men under 50 and men comprise 80% of all suicides)—in large part due to the pressure and isolation they feel as men.

Embodying new possibilities

As the sun is setting on the old order, what we are now most in need of is visionary leadership to point the way to fresh possibilities. Trans/non-binary/genderqueer folks are in many ways already living those possibilities, expanding our cultural sense of what’s possible, creating new paths that are changing the landscape of our choices for future generations.

Among the qualities most needed for the new era are creativity and flexibility. As the breakdown accelerates and we need to adjust to novel conditions and make the most of the opportunities presented to us, these are real specialties of trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks. Our uniqueness and fluidity is our genius. We are innovators and shapeshifters.

Phoenix, for instance, is not just a traditional choir made up of trans people—everything about how Phoenix is run flows from who we are as trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks. Just as we don’t feel the need to fit ourselves into the gender binary as individuals, we don’t feel a need to fit conventional expectations around how an organization operates or what a choir is.

Evolution requires change (i.e. death and loss)

Trans/genderqueer/non-binary people also understand from deep lived experience the ways that change can be exciting and positive, but also terrifying and heartbreaking. I come from a long line of change haters and I actually waited for 11 years to go on hormones after coming out as trans.

Much of my decision was an ethical choice. In 2004 I wrote in off our backs magazine, “I am happy living between genders, expanding the options of what’s possible and—especially as a teacher—being visible for others who are also looking for more options. Although my 11 year old boy inside longs to recapture the bodily freedom that he knew and would love to undergo gendered bodily modification, as long as we live in a world where ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not equal choices—and there are no other options—a world characterized by the hatred and ridicule of women and anything perceived female/feminine—then gendered choices are not merely matters of individual self-expression, but have ramifications that demand, for me, that they be weighed carefully and seriously.”

But an equally powerful deterrent was my fear of change and my belief that going on hormones would be disruptive to the fragile stability of my life at the time. In the same piece I wrote, “As I pass as a man on a regular basis currently without any bodily modification, were I to pursue surgery or hormones there’s a very real possibility that I would just disappear into maleness. And worse, become unrecognizable to the lesbian feminist communities that I cherish and that have fostered my survival.”

I can say that all my worst fears exactly came to pass: the unpredictable wild ride of testosterone disrupted every aspect of my existence, I did just disappear into maleness—making me feel at times like a woman trapped in a man’s body, and I was hurtfully driven out of the lesbian feminist communities that I relied upon for survival and now have become unrecognizable to the group of folks with whom I share the most life experience.

So I am very sympathetic with the very real fears that people are facing right now in watching the collapse of the society they have known and the uncertainty they are feeling about what comes next. Now I teach workshops on Embracing Change. The shamanic path is the wounded healer path—it is through learning to heal yourself that you cultivate tools that you can then use to help others. Because I had an especially strong resistance to change—which being trans forced me to confront—now I have a special passion and strength for guiding others through their fears around change.

Much of my counseling practice focuses on life transitions—the kind of death and rebirth experiences that we have when we marry or divorce, change careers or graduate from college, come out as queer. Having come out multiple times now, and having started over professionally not just once but twice, I have gone through the death and rebirth experience many many times (the essence of the Phoenix), which can be very reassuring to folks who are facing it for the first time.

In our current cultural landscape, many folks are facing this death and rebirth process on multiple fronts—collectively as well as individually, as many—like myself—have felt purposefully called away from former pursuits to serve the current needs of the collective and others have had their familiar lives fundamentally disrupted by the chaotic and cruel policy changes that the Trump regime has brought. Trans folks can be an important stabilizing resource during this time.

 

WE NEED A PARADIGM SHIFT!

What is a paradigm shift?

So, first off, what is a paradigm shift exactly? Anyone want to take a stab at explaining what we mean by paradigm shift? The language of paradigm shift came from American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn who described the shift in the scientific community from one set of operating assumptions to another—for instance, the shift in our understanding of ourselves and the universe when we abandoned notions that the earth is flat and the center of the universe, or the shift from a belief in an objective universe that can be impartially observed and studied free from bias to the awareness that the way we see the world dramatically impacts the way we experience the world and so there is no independent “reality” separate from our assumptions and “biases.”

In the everyday sense, a paradigm shift is a nearly instantaneous fundamental change in our understanding resulting from the expansion of our consciousness. It’s the “Aha!” experience of suddenly seeing the bigger picture, as though someone removed blinders that we hadn’t even known we’d been wearing. It is often experienced as the sudden recognition of many simple and obvious options in a situation that previously felt impossibly limited—in other words, the ability to transcend the this or that binary mode of thinking.

My spiritual teacher in Minneapolis has a favorite example of a paradigm shift describing the behavior of an ordinary housefly. We have no doubt all watched as a housefly bashes itself again and again trying to get outside through a screen window. All of its limited housefly senses tell it that straight ahead is the most direct route to freedom. It can see it, smell it, practically taste it—yet the more it tries, the more beaten and battered it becomes. If only the fly could step back and see the bigger picture and turn in the opposite direction, it would find an open door and freedom just seconds away.  This is how we often operate in life. We become fixated on the linear route that is most obvious to our physical senses and assume not only that it’s the best, but the only route to our goal. Then we limit our possibilities and wind up pursuing a path that won’t take us where we want to go and will just wear us out in the pursuit.

It’s kind of hard to explain how to have a paradigm shift (it’s kind of like an orgasm in that way), but once we’ve had one, we know it immediately and wonder why we never saw things so clearly before. Understanding the nature of the paradigm shift and how to have one requires a bit of a paradigm shift in itself, as we live in a culture that worships doing and believes that all outcomes are accomplished through intentional effort in the material world. However, no amount of practice is guaranteed to bring a shift in perspective—go back to the housefly metaphor, or the orgasm: simply increasing effort is not effective. A new approach is therefore required, one more based in surrender and trust, openness and flexibility, not necessarily hard work.

While such expansion of consciousness often feels good and liberating, it is also scary and vulnerable and requires a leap of faith. It can be very mind boggling to realize that the world has a lot more possibilities than just the limited range of what we’ve been taught—that gender is more than just women and men, for instance—and many people find such realizations to be very threatening. In order to move into a more expansive worldview, our limited perspectives must be shattered and this can be felt as a very real and disturbing death, the end of life as we’ve known it.

Paradigm shifts are also vulnerable leaps of faith because they generally require us to walk in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom—think of the housefly seemingly abandoning its pursuit by turning its attention away from the window. This can feel both “wrong” and very exposed (when everyone is walking in one direction and you are walking in the opposite direction, it is hard not to doubt yourself!), and so it can require both courage and trust of our inner guidance, believing that we are going in the direction of our highest good well before we have any concrete evidence to support that.

Why a lot of our social change work hasn’t brought very satisfactory results is due to the fact that we haven’t yet transcended our current paradigm. Most of what we call liberalism involves work within the prevailing framework—the tinkering with the status quo, which is fundamentally assumed to be neutral or positive, though perhaps requiring some adjustments to ensure the actualization of “equality.” For instance, with regards to gender, we now live in a world where—for the most part—women are allowed to do what men can do the way that men do it. As a result, although there may be more of a diversity of faces within institutions—even at the level of leadership—it has created a disappointing amount of change in the way that institutions are actually run because the fundamental values and operating assumptions remain the same.

The crossroads we are at now requires a fundamental change in our approach and underlying assumptions. This is a time when the usual or accepted ways of thinking and doing need to be replaced by new and different ways. I’m going to talk about 4 areas in which we are needing a paradigm shift: around gender, around our understandings of power and leadership, around love and relationships, and around our notions of social change and social justice work.

Rejection of the feminine hurts everyone

So we saw the ways that rejection of the feminine is harmful to men. But now we are seeing the rejection of the feminine by women too as feminism has largely taught women that in order to be taken seriously and respected—from the professional world to sexual relationships—you must act like a man.

(on the last day of class last semester, when I had students go around and share what they were taking away from the semester, one female student shared that the most important thing she learned in my class is that her feminine qualities are not bad!).

And this has resulted in there being more masculine energy on the planet now than at any other point—because, as trans theorist Julia Serano also points out, while women have reached in the direction of what we label masculinity, men have not counterbalanced that with a reach toward femininity. Serano writes, “I would argue that today, the biggest bottleneck in the movement toward gender equity is not so much women’s lack of access to what has been traditionally considered the ‘masculine realm,’ but rather men’s insistence on defining themselves in opposition to women (i.e., their unwillingness to venture into the ‘feminine realm’).” (342) The utter rejection of femininity is so integral to the very definition of masculinity that NFL quarterback Don McPherson argues, “We don’t teach boys to be men, we teach them not to be women and not to be gay.”

Despite this, the only real option feminism offers men is to be an “ally” to women. Nowhere is it mentioned that men have their own work to do around gender for their own well-being. As a result, most men don’t even know that there is work to be done, much less what the work is and how to go about it—especially since personal growth is already stigmatized as feminine, making it risky for men to even engage in self-inquiry.

The rejection of the feminine hurts everyone. In a society where the masculine is prized and the feminine is reviled, of course all feminine-presenting folks are going to be harmed—not only women, but gay men, transgender people, feminine straight men. And, of course, on the societal level we are all poisoned by toxic masculinity—felt very strongly in the current environment. This overabundance of masculine energy impacts me quite intensely and I don’t want to live in a world that is even more aggressive and competitive, more disconnected from vulnerability and tenderness.

Julia Serano argues that “The greatest barrier preventing us from fully challenging sexism is the pervasive anti-feminine sentiment that runs wild both in the straight and queer communities, targeting people of all genders and sexualities. The only realistic way to address this issue is to work toward empowering femininity itself.” (343) But what does this mean exactly and how do we go about it?

In my introductory gender studies class, we do a little femininity experiment. To confront and begin to get over the stigma around femininity, I ask everyone in the class—all genders—to come to class more expressive of their femininity in some way—not dressing in drag as a caricature, but moving up the femininity scale maybe from 2 to 4 or from 7 to 9. I come to class in a dress, which requires me to confront my own discomfort, and folks share about what they learned from the experience.

While most of the folks in class interpret femininity as femme aesthetics, what I’m more interested in are all the disowned qualities that are labeled feminine—things like nurturing, cooperation, listening, (the things that make life worth living, in my opinion!), asking for help, allowing someone else to lead. So, as we heal our own misogyny and celebrate and amplify the feminine in the world, of course that means that women and transfeminine folks are powerful—but it also means that powerful doesn’t just mean confident, assertive badasses. It means cherishing tenderness, recognizing the incredible power and strength in sharing one’s vulnerability, and celebrating the nourishment that comes from nurturing and being nurtured.

Leading from within

Which leads into the next necessary paradigm shift—around our understandings of power and leadership. Currently our limited understandings of both are so masculine identified (power equals power over, or dominance) that when women express power and leadership, it can compromise their feminine gender identity—as we saw with Hilary Clinton—and it can’t even be read as power or leadership unless it resembles a masculine style.

Our understandings of power and leadership are also externally focused—power is defined as the ability to manipulate circumstances in the material world, and people rise to leadership in our society by a tendency towards extroversion. As Parker Palmer from the Center for Courage and Renewal explains, “Leaders rise to power in our society by operating very competently and effectively in the external world, sometimes at the cost of internal awareness. I have met many leaders whose confidence in the external world is so high that they regard the inner life as illusory, as a waste of time, as a magical fantasy trip into a region that doesn’t even exist. The only changes that really matter are the ones that you can count or measure externally.”

However, Palmer argues that, since leaders create the conditions under which others must spend their lives, “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside themselves. Great leadership [what he calls “leading from within”] comes from people who have made that downward journey (into their own shadow) and who can help take other people to that place, to the certain knowledge that who I am does not depend on what I do.”

Trump is a master at projecting rather than owning his shadow. Since this is where we are stuck as a country—our inability to face our shadow: our history of slavery and genocide, the broken trust upon which this country was founded, the broken trust that is the foundation of gender relations in this country as evidenced in all the #MeToo posts—it makes Trump actually the perfect leader for us through this painful process of facing ourselves in the mirror.

It is ironic that so many liberal folks have claimed that they are upset with Trump because he doesn’t represent the America that they know—because Trump is prototypically American. Trump’s administration represents core American values/dysfunctions: greed, narcissism, ignorance about the life experiences of others, the “you’re in the way of what I want, so get out of my way” mentality upon which this country was founded.

So Trump is the ideal guide to take us through this evolutionary transition because he is a caricatured version of all the things we need to heal: toxic masculinity, toxic nationalism, toxic capitalism. We have the opportunity to see ourselves reflected back—especially because he is a larger than life version so people can really see it—and then we have the opportunity to say “Yuck, I don’t want that” and we can choose something else. He is helping us to wake up.

While the U.S. prefers its leaders to be overconfident and intractable, The Tao of Leadership exalts different characteristics, what we might deem a feminine leadership style: “Like water, the leader is yielding, fluid, and responsive. Gentleness melts rigid defenses. What is soft is strong. Whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow. Good leadership consists of doing less and being more.”

It took me a long time to be able to think of myself as a leader because, as an intuitive feeler introvert, I don’t demonstrate any of the characteristics associated with conventional leadership. I’ve spent much of my life actively trying to hide and disappear, I was so shy I barely said a word in class throughout my whole time in college, my own style of living has been so idiosyncratic I’ve mostly just been relieved to be left alone to do life my own way so I never would have guessed that anyone would want to follow me!

But over time I’ve been able to see the ways that I do have a strong impact on people, despite my understated style. But my tools (role modeling, courage, openness and vulnerability, kindness) are quite different than those valorized by the mainstream culture. For instance, as a teacher, rather than exercising power over my students, I lead from behind, motivating them to take interest in their own learning journeys—in part by sharing mine and making it clear that I am a co-participant with them, willing to do myself whatever I ask of them.

I tell my students that all you really need to be a leader is the willingness to be uncomfortable; when you are more willing to experience discomfort than those around you, you can have a powerful influence. Parker Palmer argues that inner work is as important as external and because I’ve devoted decades to doing intense inner work, I now have a pretty expansive comfort zone (because you know the secret to expanding your comfort zone? Continually doing the things that challenge you and make you uncomfortable!).

My experience founding and directing Phoenix has certainly taken me continually beyond my comfort zone, a relentless parade of things that felt simply impossible to me, especially because singing and my voice have been among my thorniest life challenges—so much so that I almost missed out on singing in my first trans choir in Minneapolis because I couldn’t get up off my bedroom floor to go because I found the prospect to be so overwhelming and terrifying. I started Phoenix because it needed to exist, not because I had the talent or training or time or resources to do it. Although I have grown a lot as a leader and director over the past 2 years with Phoenix, it is still hard for me to stay in my body when I’m directing, especially in those moments—which sometimes even still happens while teaching—when everyone turns to look at me.

Phoenix is more of an experimental laboratory than a traditional chorus. It is a safe space to take risks of self-exploration, whether around gender and identity, creativity and voice, or leadership and community-building (since we are a collaborative egalitarian arts collective). While people are taking growthful risks in different areas, we are all taking those tentative first steps together, which has built strong bonds of trust between us.

Trans/genderqueer/non-binary communities have much inner work to do given the degree of rejection and trauma we have experienced. If we do not attend to this painful legacy, it undermines the effectiveness of our social justice work—as well as our well-being. Paradoxically, the personal power I possess has largely come from the traumas that I’ve sustained. While obviously hurtful and disempowering in the moment, they have largely freed me from the dependency on people’s approval that was such a major component of both my feminine training and my white middle-class training.

Sustaining so much loss as a result of following my path of authenticity has now brought me to a place of almost invincibility, as the allure of worldly rewards can’t distract me from my purpose, nor can the threat of dire consequences. That makes me much freer than most people. Leaving the professor path—and its rewards of status and financial stability—to chart my own path this past year has been incredibly liberating. Freely giving away something that most people find to be so important has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life—and, while I feared other people’s judgment (wait, you left being a college professor to start a professional cuddling business??), most of the responses I’ve gotten have actually been envy.

Love is a spectrum, not a binary

Unconditional love is the greatest power that we have. Our love literally has the ability to change people’s lives. There’s a LOT I could say about love, but, due to time, I’ll just share a couple points—so ask me during the Q&A.

When I was in graduate school, training to be a social scientist, there was a lot of debate about top down vs ground up theory. The traditional method was top down—you come in with a pre-existing theory and hypothesis and you try to use your “data” to prove it. As an intuitive feeler, I favored the ground up approach—you let your research “speak” to you and the theory flows organically from that listening process.

As a polyamorous person, that’s how I approach love and relationships as well. Whereas most people come with their relationship categories and then try to fit their connections within them—and then govern them according to the rules of their category—I believe that all connections have their own integrity and it is my job to deeply listen to the nature of that connection and how it organically wants to express itself. The unique inner experience of that connection is what is important to me, not the mental construct around it.

This is why, for me, transgenderism and polyamory are such a natural match, both key aspects of my spiritual path (as paths of growth and self-responsibility). Both require a ground up approach to life—a willingness to listen and learn and suspend the urge to classify and categorize based on assumptions and surface appearances. Both require an openness to fluidity and freedom, a willingness to flow rather than to fix. I can say for myself that the more that I have let go of the need to find my security in one person, the more secure and abundant in love I have actually felt in life. That’s the nature of the paradigm shift.

Just as trans folks need to figure out the right balance of masculine and feminine energies for our own individual gender expression, so too do we need to find the right balance of commitment and freedom for our relationship lives—as both are vital to the healthy experience of love in our lives. I have definitely noticed generational challenges to this balance. Whereas my students celebrate the necessity for freedom to allow love to flourish, they tend to be afraid of or resistant to the commitment side, which would allow them a deeper and more satisfying experience of love. Folks my age tend to welcome the commitment and enjoy the security it brings, but are fearful of the freedom aspect and, without that breathing room, often find themselves frustrated in relationships based in comfortable companionship but without the energy and passion they long for.

We tend to assume that that’s just how relationships are—exciting and full of vitality during the honeymoon phase, inevitably stale as familiarity grows—but such a trajectory is not inevitable (my partner and I are about to celebrate 12 years together and things are as fresh and passionate now as they were during our first 6 months together). Instead it is the outcome of our approach to relationships, which can be changed. Instead of being threatened by the ways that other connections and pursuits activate unexplored aspects of ourselves, we can welcome these new aspects and learn to utilize them in the service of our individual and shared growth to make all of our relationships deeper and stronger.

We tend to bring our capitalist cultural mindsets of ownership, scarcity, and competition to our experiences of love, but love is an unlimited resource—unlike money, the more we love, the more love we have. So many of the boundaries we are taught to set to honor and protect our romantic relationships (assuming their inherent vulnerability—which can then become a self-fulfilling prophesy) actually serve to block reinvigorating energies that could actually make those partnerships more satisfying—if we are able to take our hands off the wheel a bit and stop holding on so tightly from fear.

Though we are frightened of our expansiveness around love, I’ve found—whether it is our professional lives or love lives (the foundations of our security and so what we tend to hang on to most fiercely)—if we can just trust the urgings of our heart (and let ourselves be led by life rather than trying to force our own agendas), they will take us in the direction of our highest good in ways that keep us safe and often exceed our wildest dreams.

The second point is just that our very definition of sex is completely from a masculine perspective—that we believe that sex is about bodies and genitals and orgasms and sensations is a masculine-oriented viewpoint (not to mention the ways we teach that sex begins with the male erection and ends with the male orgasm and whatever happens with women is not even relevant to the definition of sex!)—so I’ll just ask you to contemplate: how would our understanding of sexuality be fundamentally different if we approached it from a feminine perspective?

Transcending Gender

One of the definitions of transcendence is wholeness. Gender, as our culture teaches it, is not a path of wholeness. Instead of being encouraged to cultivate the full range of our human expression, we are required to disown any characteristics not deemed “appropriate” to the gender category to which we were assigned—and then we are encouraged to find our “other half” so that together we can make a whole.

While gender is an elaborate set of rules and one of the organizational foundations of society, it is largely unconscious to most people. Most folks aren’t consciously aware that there are rules until the rules are broken. So as gender rule breakers, trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks help others to awaken to the presence of gender, which is the first step towards the possibility of change. But we can’t lead people away from the dysfunction of gender if we ourselves are clamoring to get in.

To be the teachers and leaders we are meant to be, we need to do our own work—not only around healing our misogyny and resisting those medical and cultural narratives that tell us that being trans means hating your body and not allowing it to be seen or touched (I’m a nudist myself), but also around our desires to be “normal.” In Fear of a Queer Planet Michael Warner convincingly links the shift to assimilation politics in gay and lesbian communities in the 90s to unhealed shame. Much of what has constituted mainstream LGBT politics is trying to overcome stigma by winning acceptance from the dominant culture—using all those “we’re just like you” arguments that Chase nicely critiqued yesterday.

But, of course, this framework of “inclusion” merely reinforces the power dynamics we are wanting to change. Marginalized folks must conform in order to win entrance into the mainstream, folks at the center are never asked to change—their main job is to help others become more like them because they’ve already arrived, despite the fact that they are the most in need of change (even just for their own well-being). So, we can see the ways that trans normalization is actually very tied to trans pathologization and we are vulnerable to both if we haven’t done our own work around shame.

The other piece I’d like to bring in—that I’ll return to at the end—is the way that we are trained to believe that societal change comes from authority figures, specifically convincing authority figures to adopt new policies. Our educational system primes us well to orient all our attention towards pleasing and deferring to authority figures—and this childlike perspective continues throughout life. As Chase mentioned, people also see organizations like the ACLU in this way, as saviors who will fix things for us. But the paradigm shift that is needed now is for us to stop waiting for someone else to do it for us and to understand the power that we have, the power of all of us together.

 

NEW PARADIGM PRINCIPLES

So I’d like to conclude with some key shifts and new paradigm perspectives with regards to our social change work.

Healing instead of winning

Conventional activism is often focused on “winning” a particular “battle,” and, as such, is generally filled with military metaphors for accomplishing “victories” that flow from and reinforce the dominant paradigm. Although “winners” may feel vindicated (temporarily, since “winning” is the ultimate addictive high—fleeting and unstable), as well as elated, powerful, and temporarily united, those who have “lost” often feel angry and victimized and also temporarily united. They tend to respond to the new organization of power by opting out, feeling that the new leadership doesn’t represent them, and by planning to take power back.

Although we think of the two-party adversarial system in this country as a sign of a healthy democracy, it is actually more like a tug of war at a local picnic. Both parties spend all their energy struggling to move the center of the rope a couple of inches. In the end both parties are exhausted and the whole group has gone nowhere significant.

In this environment of warfare, one’s opponents are vilified and the end seems to justify the means. For instance, I get multiple emails per day from the Democratic Party asking me to help them “destroy” and “humiliate” Trump. I continually write them back saying I don’t want to live in a world where anyone has to be humiliated or destroyed, regardless of who they are. What I’ve learned in my time in South Africa is that brutality dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrator. We cannot dehumanize another without compromising our own humanity. We need a more compelling vision. While the Democrats may indeed succeed in taking back control of the government, I’m not convinced that this will bring me any closer to the world that I want to live in.

I see social justice issues as being manifestations of imbalance and broken trust—which is an unhealthy state for all parties—and so what is needed is the restoration of right relationship. The need to win is actually rooted in fear—the belief in the inevitability of domination and so therefore the only way to get your needs met is to be the one on top. South African activists knew this during the struggle against apartheid.

While a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela took great care to speak to his captors with respect, believing that there is good in everyone and when you engage with people in this manner, you call forth the best in them. With the crumbling of the apartheid regime, Mandela sought not retribution but reconciliation—not through denial or making nice, but through the difficult path of truth about the pain that was experienced.

As Desmond Tutu explains, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done, but standing in the shoes of the perpetrators to appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them and declaring our faith in the capacity of the wrongdoer to make a new beginning on a course that will be different from the one that caused us the wrong.” And empathy and forgiveness actually take a lot more strength and courage than warfare.

Passion instead of anger and righteousness

Much of what draws people to social justice work is outrage about the state of the world and the conviction of rightness about needed changes, both of which provide a fiery energy that is a source of motivation for action and the drive to carry it out. But these fires are the kind that can burn out relatively quickly, and can often carry an underlying sense of judgment and righteousness that is ironically not unlike the energy of patriarchal religions who are frequently the target of social justice work.

Not only does our political analysis and action need to be complex and nuanced—rather than invoking the simplistic right/wrong, good/evil rhetoric based in binary thinking—and rooted in the change of the self, rather than blaming and trying to change others, it also needs to be sustainable, and anger and righteousness are just not sustainable.

Instead of the volatile and temporary fuel of rightness, I propose a different kind of fuel: the fire of passion. When we are doing what we love, we seem to have endless energy—sometimes having more energy when we finish than when we started! When we are fully immersed in what we love, with the sincere intention to serve the highest good of all beings (not just ourselves or our “group”), we’re not just drawing from our little human energy supply anymore. Instead we’re tapping into the essence of aliveness, the energy that sustains all that is and that powers the continual creation of the universe. Now THAT’S sustainable energy!

Sadly, much of our social change work stems from guilt not joy—the things that we should do to make the world a better place. Ironically, when we commit to things from a place of should rather than joy, we can find ourselves becoming an energy drain on organizations or movements, despite our best intentions. So, rather than dismissing our dreams and what we love as impractical, we can learn to recognize the feeling of passion as an inner call, directing us to where we’re most needed, even if it doesn’t seem to match conventional activist strategies.

We are building a new world, not winning a war, and all of our unique contributions are needed in that endeavor. Following the breadcrumbs of passion gives us a reason to keep doing what we’re doing—because it makes us happy!—and this joy and fulfillment, rather than the self-sacrifice and world-weariness of traditional activism, is the energy we want at the foundation of our new existence together.

Shifting from “Me” to “We” Consciousness

In American culture, we pride ourselves on our independence and self-sufficiency, but underlying this pride is our deeply enculturated fear that we must look out for ourselves because no one else will. This belief in our separateness—that we are isolated and vulnerable and live in a scarce world where we must compete with those around us to be able to meet our basic needs, like some national game of musical chairs—is actually very dangerous. As well as wasteful when you think about the massive amount of resources consumed in national and personal defense as we fearfully hoard what we don’t even need or love in our efforts to protect ourselves from an uncertain future.

Trump is the archetypal embodiment of this dysfunctional cultural belief—the idea that you can separate yourself from the plight of the masses, counting your riches on high in your personal tower. However, the true nature of our relationship (seen especially in global environmental disasters and financial crises) is interdependence—the distress of any one part is felt on some level by the whole, creating unnecessary societal tension that serves as a drain on everyone.

Just as we can all perish together, we can also all rise together. New paradigm prosperity, for instance, is about the power of all of us together, about abundance coming via participation in peer-to-peer networks. New prosperity—part of our societal shift from scarcity to abundance—is about access rather than ownership, following models such as the internet and the Bernie Sanders campaign, whereby many many people make small contributions to create a resource that is then available to everyone.

Making best use of these new models requires a fundamental shift in our identity, from “me” to “we” consciousness—including the Earth in our sense of self, as Joanna Macy argues in her article “The Greening of the Self” (seeing ourselves as part of our natural environment, rather than separate from it and dominant over it).

Again, Donald Trump is a great catalyst for this evolutionary shift, as he is one of the few people on the planet who has the capacity to alienate a wide enough group of people that we have the impetus to come together and move beyond where we’ve been stuck. Our political/cultural crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis of disconnection—disconnection from our planetary home and our physical bodies, from our aliveness, passion and creativity, from our hearts and authentic connection with one another. And I found it terribly encouraging that when Trump was first elected—despite the folks hiding under the covers—the first inclination of so many people was that we need to come together.

Being is as important as doing

Traditional social justice work is extremely action-oriented. However, just as doing our inner work is what allows for the external change to happen, activism in the new era is as much about being as doing. It is not our strenuous effort or fighting that will bring about the changes that we desire—instead it is the quality of our presence. In any situation, the energy that is the strongest will pull the other energies around it to match its own frequency.

You may have noticed this yourself say if you’ve ever received a massage or gone to any kind of healer.  In addition to the therapeutic benefits of the healing, the strength of the calmness and peacefulness of the healer draws that peacefulness out in you as well.  Conversely, you may have noticed when you are around someone who is complaining all the time that you begin to feel more negative yourself.  This is the power of resonance and think of the power that we have in all of the everyday situations in which we find ourselves to raise the resonance.  Introducing a fresh perspective is one way to go about this.

Let’s do a little experiment around this. Go ahead and close your eyes for a quick guided meditation. Take several deep breaths, relax and begin to imagine a feeling of safety.  Say to yourself, silently, over and over, the words, “I am safe, I am safe, I am safe.” It’s not necessary that you believe these words. “I am safe” is the belief you are creating, not necessarily the belief you hold.

Let this feeling start in your stomach as a soothing, peaceful sensation and allow it to radiate through your entire body and then slightly beyond, forming a safe, comforting pink cocoon around you. Feel your stomach relax into deep safety and well-being….  Feel your shoulders relax as though you’ve just had a weight lifted from them….  Imagine a hard and heavy layer of protective armor now dissolving out of every part of your body because it’s no longer needed.  Imagine that you’re naturally protected by this state of peaceful defenselessness.

Picture this safety as a beautiful light of unconditional love that fills and surrounds you.  See this light attracting to you everything that’s for your highest good and repelling everything that’s not. Imagine this light to now be in place around you all the time, even when you’re not thinking about it.

Now direct your attention to your heart, beginning with your physical heartbeat (start thumping on my chest).  Notice the steady pulse of your heart, the powerful rhythm that draws other organs of the body into alignment with it.  Notice how your physical heartbeat is connected to the heartbeat of the Mother (start drum heartbeat), to the comforting and pulsing rhythm of the Earth Herself.  There is no separation.  Any sense of separation we imagine emerges from the colonization of our consciousness by those who seek to profit from our disconnection.

As you focus your attention on your heart, picture there a beautiful source of light.  As you give it your attention, notice that it becomes brighter.  Feel a softening and opening in the area of your chest.  Let the light from your heart softly radiate through your whole body, the steady pulse of light filling you with peace and a sense of well-being.  It ripples further and further beyond your body into the space around you.  See how far it goes…

Just as your heart’s beat is the body’s oscillator pulling other organs into a healthy rhythm, imagine your whole being is now acting in a similar fashion, pulling the world around you into alignment with your vibration of love, of peace, of well-being.  Imagine this emanation touching everyone in this room, everyone you meet.***  (fade away drum heartbeat)  When you’re ready, complete your meditation with some deep, full breaths.  Return to a normal, waking consciousness feeling refreshed and alert.***

As Parker Palmer reminds us, “We have a choice about what we are going to project, and in that choice we help create the world that is.” This is a major point of power we have, one that is largely underutilized. You may have noticed, for instance, that when you show up in fear and defensiveness in a situation that you can actually activate fear and defensiveness in others. Or the ways that pretending—in the ways we are culturally taught—creates an atmosphere of feeling unsafe for everyone, so choosing to show up in your authenticity instead can create an environment of safety. When people see that you aren’t pretending, they can relax, knowing they don’t have to either. So we can see how our safety actually lies not in our excellent defense, but in our trusting defenselessness.

It can be very challenging to maintain calm and poise in the midst of such dramatic societal upheaval.  Given all the things pulling on our time and energy and our emotions—and all the unmet needs around us—it can be hard to know where to focus and difficult to even allow ourselves to turn our attention away from all the commotion and catastrophe, which we need to be able to do if we are to do the real work of building what comes next. Taking the time to attend to your own energetic presence can help you to access your own inner wisdom and move with purpose from your center rather than being pulled into reactivity.

And finally…

Be the change!

A new day is dawning. The sun is setting on one order and is just beginning to rise on a new day. We don’t have to wait for authority figures to get it and give us permission. We can create the world we want to live in now. Live in that world now. In all your everyday choices, ask yourself “Is this in alignment with the world that I want to live in?” If you want to live in a world where people care about their neighbors, care about your neighbor. It begins with us.

We need to stop always looking vertically towards lifeless bureaucratic institutions and entrenched authority figures and start looking horizontally, towards one another. What are the needs in our communities, what are the resources, how can we match resources and needs?

Politically I believe we are on the brink of a paradigm shift similar to the one that many have made from religion to spirituality. Spirituality is about direct access to the energy and wisdom of the universe—through nature, through transcendent states of consciousness, in other words through leaving behind the mental structures of everyday human society. But religion was largely created to block direct access and instead channel people through a human institution built on rigid mental structures we call dogma to then manipulate them through fear.

Similarly, we are encouraged to take our human needs to societal institutions and authority figures who profess to meet human needs, but in actuality function to block the meeting of human needs. Now that these institutions are dying, we are being freed to take back our power and have direct access to source—which is community. Not in the neoliberal fend-for-yourself-if-you’re-not-thriving-it’s-your-fault way, but loving communities built on attending to the well-being of everyone.

This is how we build the new world—we just do it. From the ground up. We stop waiting for someone else to do it. We stop waiting for permission, waiting for the money to do it, waiting for the right timing, waiting for the skills or the certification to do it. We stop waiting. I started a trans choir because it needed to exist, not because I had the talent or training or time or resources to do it. What gaps do you see that need to be filled and what can you offer towards that end? We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

So that’s what my life experience and training have led me to conclude about life. While you may not share my worldview, I hope what I’ve said here today has been helpful and thought provoking. I’m happy to field any questions you might have, but first I’d like to invite Phoenix up to send us off with a song. Please join us—the words are those I began my talk with: “We are the rising sun, we are the change, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we are dawning”—thank you.

Link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyTvi_1bIws&feature=youtu.be

Transforming Gender keynote

Starting Over–Next Steps

Greetings Friends!

Happy 2018! I hope that your end of year celebrations were nourishing and that you are feeling ready to manifest your dreams for the coming year. The spiritual power that I chose for 2018 is Effective Inspiration so hopefully by the time you finish reading this, you will feel the flame of inspiration and passion ignited in you as well.

Embracing the Void

There have definitely been times of anxiety, even panic, at the formlessness of my new life. One of the gifts of being a trans person is that it’s helped me to hold lightly to my various identities. Seeing how people have responded so differently to me based on my packaging, despite being the same person underneath it all, has aided me in not taking my “self” personally or too seriously. It is all impermanent and not my Self, which is timeless and formless.

However, of all my worldly identities, I would say that “college professor” is one that has suited me better than most and one that I’ve grown attached to over the years. And, of course, the biggest source of anxiety, in a cutthroat capitalist society, involves my material survival—will I be supported as I move out of the dominant cultural stream?

In my Fall Equinox workshop on Embracing Change, we explored various reasons why we resist change. Here are some of the big ones:

1)  We fear the unknown and would rather stay in a known malaise than risk the unknown

2)  We believe that this is the best that it gets

3)  We don’t believe we deserve better

4)  We equate comfort with happiness when in actuality true happiness usually comes from risk, not comfort—too much comfort usually results in stagnancy

5)  We have a lot of motivation to move from crisis to ok, but little motivation to move from ok to great

6)  We are unwilling to let go of what we’ve outgrown, what no longer serves us, what we don’t love to make room for what we do love

Ok, I got through those. I decided that, while the university was a good platform for me for a time, ultimately it began to limit me (as well as endanger my physical survival) and I wanted more. My Being was longing to expand which couldn’t be accommodated within the hierarchical arrangements of the university. So I was willing to unconditionally let go of what no longer served me to make room for something better—the leap of faith from the ivory tower.

As scary as the leap is, it is also exhilarating. And—though most folks don’t even get as far as the leap—unfortunately, it is merely the first step. What really blocks our ability to change is the next step: the dreaded void.

7)  Even if there is a guaranteed positive outcome, most change requires a temporary period in the void first and we are petrified of and unwilling to experience this void

Especially in American culture, where we are taught to never leave a job or relationship until we have another waiting in the wings and to fill all the space in the endless search for more more more, facing the emptiness of the void can be terrifying. It is ironically one of our most powerful states because it is a space of unlimited possibilities—but it is a phase of the growth process where nothing has manifested yet in the material realm.

It is a time when you must have faith that the garden is growing even when you can’t see what’s going on under the surface. It is a time of choosing to believe in the things you can feel but can’t yet see, trusting them to manifest at just the right time. Some days this is easy and some days this feels quite impossible, but being continually asked to do so is without a doubt growing me strength and patience. Especially in a culture that values the big bang and instant gratification, patiently watching for the subtle signs of new growth is truly a character-building labor of love.

Trust that the garden is growing!

Seeds Sprouting

While I have overall been in the void phase of growth, that does not mean that the last semester was a time of emptiness for me. Quite the contrary! Despite doing none of the things people say are required to start your own business (I still haven’t even finished my website or gotten business cards or done any advertising), I have continually manifested various opportunities and a steady stream of people wanting my services and willing to pay me abundantly for them.

While the focus of my attention was primarily on working on my book, my counseling practice has taken off without me doing a single thing to create that! And interestingly—since both my counseling sessions and workshops are compensated through a guided meditation to determine the amount—time and time again whatever I decided beforehand that I would like to make ended up being exactly the amount that people would pay! While my focus was strictly on service—how can I best offer my gifts to the world to create positive change—I have been continually supported in oftentimes fun and creative ways.

Most interesting has been my relationship with CU. While I struggled to feel valued in the CU context in my former position, since breaking up with CU, it has been chasing me down, offering various far more lucrative opportunities with much less labor! Just in one semester, I was hired to lead a self-care workshop for the School of Education staff and a workshop on scarcity thinking for the INVST program, paid to come speak to the new student polyamory group, and amazingly offered $1500 for a 45 minute campus talk—all things that previously I would have been doing for free! And with no papers to take home to grade! Though I had proposed the scarcity thinking workshop (though not as a paid gig), the other offers just spontaneously came without me doing anything to create them or advocate for compensation.

The Vulnerability of Starting Over

One of the things that keeps us tied to our previous paths even when they’ve become stagnant and unsatisfactory—beyond the obvious fears around material survival during the starting over process (or emotional survival in the case of our relationship lives)—is the vulnerability of trying something new. We go through this every time we complete a phase of growth—we move from the culmination phase, the celebration and comfort of being seniors in high school, back to zero, returning to kindergarten again (oftentimes without even a sense of what the new lesson is!).

Once we reach a state of Ease with something we’ve been learning, our soul tends to move us on to something new—just as the bliss of end of summer quickly moves into fall and the dying away of what is no longer needed. Since Bliss and Ease are end of cycle stages, my spiritual teacher in Minneapolis, Lynn Woodland, argues that our resistance to endings and the vulnerability of starting over can prompt us to unconsciously avoid the rewards of manifestation to stave off the loss of control that inevitably follows.

At this stage in my career, being a college professor had guaranteed rewards beyond just consistent material sustenance. I knew without a doubt that my classes each semester would be successful—that on the last day of class there would be multiple students in tears, that a good half of the class would share how much the semester had changed their lives, that I would have glowing student evaluations and feel the satisfaction of competence and being in alignment with my purpose. These are compelling rewards, very challenging to give up!

I knew what my life would be like if I stayed on my current path, so stepping off it to take a chance on something not guaranteed was definitely a risk! But, since I knew what my life would be like if I stayed on my current path, the only way I could experience something different—potentially better—would be to step in a new direction. And the truth is, had I stayed longer at the university, I would soon be entering the anxiety of relevance stage that comes after we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. And frankly, I would rather grapple with the anxiety of emergence—which is taking me somewhere new and growthful with exciting possibilities—than the anxiety of decline, which is more a dark night of the ego. We are meant to keep reinventing ourselves—I believe a lot of what we call “aging” is merely the effects of stagnation.

And the truth is we are never truly starting over, but instead applying our old skills in a new context (something I’ve had to do again and again in my teaching career anyhow as I’ve moved institutions and geographic regions). One of the most fascinating things I realized this semester is that my non-shaming, we’re-all-in-this-together approach to teaching about social justice is ideal for couples counseling! My message in teaching is that the problem is not one another, but instead the terrible training we’ve had and the dysfunctional roles that we become locked into as a result (which feel awful regardless of what role you happen to be in). Applying that to couples counseling has been extremely effective so it feels like a natural match for me, something I was born to do! Especially since, as a transsexual it is easy for me to empathize with multiple perspectives since I have very broad lived experience—so all parties have the opportunity to feel safe and supported and I can help people in conflict understand one another.

Not to mention I didn’t start out as a great teacher! In fact, there was nothing in my personality package that would have indicated any potential greatness in that realm. I almost never spoke in class during college (so much so that my professors were always shocked when I did well on papers) and when I first told my mom I was going to be a college professor, she said “I don’t know why they let you teach when you are such a mumbler” (thanks Mom lol). I was so painfully shy that for my first couple years of teaching in grad school, every morning I had to teach I would have terrible diarrhea because I was so terrified of standing up in front of people. But now teaching is one of my greatest areas of confidence and skill, truly one of my archetypes for this lifetime—I am a Teacher regardless of whether I have a university position or not.

So, though it has been very awkward and vulnerable fumbling around in new areas and feeling the discomfort and embarrassment of not knowing what I’m doing, in the back of my mind I have been thinking “In 5 years I could end up being really great at this!” And the only way I will ever know is by giving it a try and somehow withstanding the terror and clumsiness of the initial steps…

Creative Awakening

The main thing that’s happened since my departure from the university has been a huge rush of creativity. The same thing happened to my partner when she left the academic world a couple years ago. Teaching is an excellent outlet for one’s creative energy—but it also takes ALL one’s creative energy—so practically from the moment the semester ended in the spring, I began to have a tremendous creative upwelling, beginning to release decades of pent up creative energy.

The most dramatic expression of this is that I wrote a song for the first time since high school! Last spring Phoenix did a collaborative concert with Mosaic Gospel Choir largely themed around racial justice. One of the songs we performed for that concert was Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fumaCsQ9wKw), a song that arose from the Black Lives Matter movement. In our preparation to perform Hell You Talmbout, we had ongoing dialogues in both choirs around the appropriateness of 2 largely white choirs singing a song that was written by and for black people. After the concert, I thought white people should really write our own songs about racial justice, specifically about white fear and white violence which is the root of the problem. So I approached the accompanist for Phoenix (who is also a music composition major at CU) about writing a song together around this theme, me largely the text and Selena largely the music.

What resulted, “Another Sunny Morning, Another Black Man Killed,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq_NwTkRQ0Q&feature=youtu.be) traces the consciousness-raising journey of a young white man, who first responds to racialized violence through the lens of mainstream media narratives, but through his own process of awakening—and through an encounter with a young black man on the street—begins to see the situation, as well as himself, quite differently. Amazingly, Phoenix performed this song in December in a collaborative concert with the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus—our 4 song set dedicated to Black Lives Matter in the middle of the DGMC’s annual campy Christmas concert! And in April we are taking this set on the road to the Midwest for our first choir tour! We will be performing at the Transgender Voices Festival in Minneapolis and bringing our message of racial justice to concerts in Nebraska and Iowa en route.

Another Sunny Morning

It was SUCH a thrill to watch this song take shape outside of my brain and to have the opportunity to present it to the 440 members of the audience! Perhaps one of the most important moments of my life! But the process of getting there was definitely bumpy. The first few hours sitting there trying to write it were horrendous—full of inner dialogue like “I can’t do this! I don’t know how. It’s too hard! I want to give up.” But I didn’t give up and eventually my creative flow began to unlock. What shifted it for me, surprisingly, was when I moved away from the computer and began to write by hand in my notebook. All of a sudden I felt totally engaged, words came spilling out, hours passed, and by dawn I had a song and was so exhilarated and energized, there was no way I could go to bed and sleep!

I can say that, for me at least, the most difficult part of the creative process is getting started—those moments of frustration before you find the flow, sitting in front of a blank computer screen and feeling like it will never happen. This is largely why I avoided my creativity for so many years—because that experience of stuckness was so painful, I just couldn’t stand it (as those of you who are students well know).

One of the things I learned this semester is that the time and spaciousness required for the creative process is quite different from the time and space needed for self-care or mere survival (and during my academic career, I was never able to master even basic self-care!). Working on my book, for instance, requires me to be fully immersed in my process, which can’t happen when I only have an hour here or there. So, as my schedule began to get busier (despite disappearing the main thing taking up all the space in my life, the university, I can’t say that my fall schedule was any less jammed!), I had to keep setting down my book project to attend to other responsibilities. The benefit of that challenge was that I got a lot of practice with starting over again and again and again—the part of the creative process that I fear and hate the most. I would have to work through all the inner and external obstacles to finally find the satisfaction and exhilaration of flow, only to have to step away, coming back to it later unable to find the thread again, so having to again sit with the discomfort until I can find the flow again—and not allowing myself to give up!

Abundant Life

Overall, it was a semester of trial and error as I sought to create a foundation for my new life. At each point I kept asking myself “Is this the life I want?” and making adjustments, as I figured out for myself what a life in which I can thrive even looks like. I have found that when I start with my own joy and a commitment to service that miracles inevitably follow. 

When most Americans think of an abundant life, their thoughts turn to money. One of the saddest things about our American training is not only that it misleads us about the destinations of “success,” “happiness,” and “power” and in fact leads us away from true happiness, success, and real power, but it also tends to keep us fixated on the process steps we believe are required, rather than the destination itself. Money is one of those process steps that we believe is fundamental to the achievement of our other goals in life, but not only is chasing money the sure path to unhappiness (especially in a culture oriented towards fear and scarcity that believes there’s never enough), it is completely unnecessary for an abundant life.

For instance, if we would like to go on a magnificent vacation, most of us would believe that requires a lot of money and turn our attention to how we can make more money—many of us getting lost in this process step. And while we may eventually have more money, that doesn’t necessarily mean we get our magnificent vacation. Or we could just directly manifest our vacation through various means, many of which don’t require any money at all.

Case in point: I just returned from a week in Hawaii, waking up every morning to the sound of gently crashing waves, kayaking with sea turtles—truly the vacation of a lifetime—which I paid almost nothing for! When we move away from our cultural training and the belief that life is a linear process of goals and steps and open to the miraculous, we can find ourselves at destinations beyond our wildest dreams with very little effort. In fact, it is often all our efforting—and our belief in the necessity of efforting—that can block us from all of the good in life wanting to come to us.

Hawaiian sunset

What’s next?

I’ve been having monthly themed workshops in Broomfield since the fall equinox. September was on Embracing Change, October was Doors Opening/Doors Closing, November was on Receiving, and in December we chose a spiritual power for the new year. Regardless of our goals and intentions for 2018, they likely involve other people so this month’s workshop is on Attracting the Right People. Whatever you are wanting to manifest in the coming year will most certainly require connecting with the folks that can help make it happen. If you are in the Denver/Boulder metro, I hope that you will consider attending—we are cultivating a lovely supportive community by coming together every month.

But whether you can attend or not, I will offer you a little new year’s homework assignment. Write down one thing you want to manifest this year (a new job, romantic relationship, having a baby, more clients, a new home, supportive community, physical healing, political change, etc). Then make a list of the felt experience that you would like to have in that realm (to feel valued and appreciated, to wake up every morning filled with vitality and passion, to be loved unconditionally, to have your unique gifts shared with the world, to have an abundant and inspiring life, more freedom, a world in which all beings can thrive, etc).

Now, instead of waiting until you manifest your outcome in order to experience it and be happy, give yourself that felt experience right now. Close your eyes and imagine feeling valued and appreciated, loved unconditionally, filled with vitality and passion, your everyday life characterized by abundance and freedom, in a world in which everyone feels safe and valued. Make it as real and vivid as you possibly can—and then let it go.

The way we’ve been taught in American culture to manifest our dreams is backwards—and leaves us in a perpetual state of disempowered wanting and dissatisfaction. Take your power back and give yourself the experiences you want NOW rather than waiting to be happy based on some external outcome, trying to manipulate life into meeting your needs (which is an exhausting path of suffering). There is tremendous power in how we use our attention and intention. Bringing greater consciousness and skill to how we focus our energy makes us more effective change makers.

If you really want to live your dreams more immediately, make a commitment to giving yourself the felt experience of them every day for 30 days (it’s a great way to start/end your day!)—and watch your life transform before your eyes as the world around you begins to better resemble your inner state!

I’d love to hear what you’re working on/learning/experiencing. Be in touch as you feel called.

My warmest wishes for the new year,

Sam

Tribute to Bass John Khumalo

As 2017 comes to a close and I reflect on this incredibly transformative year, I want to pay homage to a dear friend who passed away this semester, Bass John Khumalo.

Amanda and I met Bass John in Sept 1999 during our first week of dissertation research. We were at a dance at the International Lesbian and Gay Association conference in Joburg, the first ILGA gathering on the African continent. Bass John relentlessly hit on Amanda, they danced, and we all became fast friends.

Bass John was one of my favorite people on the planet because we could talk about ANYTHING! It was an incredibly intimate connection, especially given the constraints of its context. We were always touching and laughing and talking about all sorts of super personal stuff—across this huge cultural divide, staying together in close quarters—whether crammed together on the mini taxis or sleeping in the same bed. We trusted her with our lives basically, as she was our guide throughout Soweto—and she trusted us with her heart, which was not a small deal growing up in apartheid South Africa.

Me and Bass John
Bass John and Susie

Bass John was, I believe, 42 and, from what we’ve been able to find out, appears to have had some kind of seizures while out of town with her mom at a family wedding. They took her to the hospital, it was a 3 day weekend so there were no doctors, she was supposed to see a doctor on the Tuesday after and passed away suddenly that Monday. Her family had no money for an autopsy, so we will probably never know what actually happened.

I suppose Bass John’s early death was not totally shocking, however. Even compared to our other South African friends, Bass John had a life of hardship. Growing up in poverty, Bass John lost her father, a police officer, during adolescence and just a few years later started coming out as a lesbian. She attracted attention at school by playing soccer and proposing to other girls, wearing boy’s clothes and having a boy’s hairstyle, so her teacher called her mom in for a meeting. Though eventually a close and supportive relationship was forged with her mom, initially her mom was very upset to find out her daughter was a lesbian and Bass John felt quite rejected and lonely at home.

Despite the adversity and heartbreak that she faced, Bass John was so friendly and open, full of life, always singing and dancing and joking and loving boldly—a true light in the world. Being around Bass John was probably the single thing that most helped me to let go of some of my self-repression and be more expressive—being around Bass John really helped me to loosen up and come out more.

Bass John singing with Amanda

Bass John and Amanda—late night singing

While when we first met Bass John, she strongly identified as a butch lesbian and wanted to work in tourism (a natural match given her friendly outgoingness and her excellent English), by the time we returned to the States a year and a half later, she was becoming a sangoma (traditional healer). There are actually quite a number of lesbian sangomas in Soweto, as there are advantages to the path. If you are strongly led by a male ancestor, you are able to wear male attire and have relationships with women—and people are scared of sangomas due to their spiritual powers so it greatly decreases instances of harassment (Bass John actually made me and Amanda sangoma bracelets—they have red and white beads—because she knew it would keep us safe because people would be scared to mess with us, and it worked!).

It is typical for folks to receive their shamanic call through some kind of sickness or breakdown. For Bass John, this was an attempted suicide. There was a rash of Soweto lesbian suicides that summer. In addition to the economic hardships and family rejections, most of the township lesbians identify as butch so they mostly get together with straight women, and get their hearts broken, since most of those relationships don’t necessarily last. And they will often get raped or even killed for it, as township men get angry and jealous and go after them. When we first met Bass John, she’d been driven out of her township and was staying with some friends and there have been numerous high profile lesbian murders since that time.

During Bass John’s time in the hospital after the suicide attempt, her ancestors came to her and told her that she would not get well until she surrendered to her shamanic call. We visited her numerous times during her sangoma training.

Bass John throwing the bones with her sangoma teacher

Bass John and her sangoma mentor—throwing the bones

It was in fact where I received my first shamanic call ironically. Her sangoma mentor was pretty scary, I’ll be honest. One day she summoned me over—which alarmed me because I’d never directly interacted with her before and generally just tried to steer clear of her! She basically told me that I was spiritually powerful, that I was healing on behalf of my whole family, and that I should train as a healer. :-0 I wonder if, like my dad, Bass John will communicate from the other side (both of them were excellent and generous communicators in life). Maybe now that I’m really starting on more of a healing career, she will come and assist in my practice. 😊

I decided to dedicate the book I’m writing to Bass John. My dissertation was dedicated to my dad (who passed away just months before I finished) as well as my friends in South Africa who died of HIV and my 2 dissertation committee members who died prematurely while I was writing it (the structural hazards of both the academic profession and life in South Africa…). For this book, I plan to dedicate it to Bass John and Susie, 2 good friends who were lost along the way in the writing of this book.

Dancing with BJ

Bass John and Susie—late night dancing

I do think that in this world there are four directions—north, east, west, south. That means we have girls, boys, lesbians, and gays. There’s no world that lives with two directions.”—Bass John Khumalo