Teaching Myself

Stephen Levine, one of my core spiritual teachers, would often tell us that we had to “teach ourselves the Dharma.” By “Dharma,” I understood him to mean “the Truth” as it manifests in our own lives.

I love this teaching.

I have spent (and still spend) countless hours listening to spiritual teachers talk, reading books on meditation, going to workshops, etc. I’d say that 80% of what I hear resonates with me and helps me a lot in my development. The remaining 20% however, pushes my buttons. It might be that it has a tone of judgement, or “should,” in it, or it references religious terms or concepts that I don’t identify with, or it sounds exclusive or hierarchical. Or it just makes me feel bad.

Sometimes I’m able to just let those teachings that don’t feel right slide on by. But often I get stuck in them, mulling them over, obsessing about how I must be missing something or doing something wrong. This is when teaching myself the Dharma is really handy. And this is also why I’ve found it hard to subscribe to any one particular path of spiritual development completely.

And because I’ve had to forge my own way spiritually, I’ve needed to do a lot of translating of various teachings into my own ways of understanding. And because I live a life as a Queer artist that is often very far outside the mainstream, and very hard to find models for, the translating is sometimes complex.

Writing, like I’m doing in this blog, is especially helpful in this area. While I would like to be able to call myself a spiritual teacher (since many of my heroes are in that line of work,) I feel too much of a spiritual mess to claim any kind of authority on the matter. I spend too much time in doubt, fear, and anxiety to feel confident about sharing my wisdom. I’m too unsure of myself to sit up on that cushion in front of hundreds of people and tell them about the nature of reality. So in some ways, writing a blog like this feels improper. Who am I to lay out my philosophies for anyone to come across and project some kind of wisdom onto? Who am I to say I know what’s going on here?

But I find as I write, that I tap into some kind of intuitive wisdom, that I maybe am not always able to put into practice yet, but that is still in here somehow. I haven’t been able to find a model to follow, someone who practices art in the way that I do, that also combines it with spiritual practice in a way I relate to. And so, I’m attempting to be my own model. I’m attempting to call upon whatever wisdom I have accumulated so far, to teach myself how to be more mindful, more spacious, more accepting, more connected.

In some ways I’m playing the “character” of a wise-person when I write. So far, it is helping. I’m referring back to the things I wrote about when I encounter real-life conflicts and trouble-spots. I’m using my own teachings as reminders in my life. Maybe a lot of spiritual teachers do just this. Maybe not. But it is how I’ve found my way as an artist, and it seems to be how I’ll find my way as a meditator.  In a sense, I’ve got nowhere else to turn.

The other day I was feeling particularly down and unmotivated about going to teach a dance class. So I sat in my car for a half hour and wrote an essay on how to bring everything, including the unpleasant, into the studio for rehearsals, classes, performances. I wrote about the aspect of art-making that I find so powerful–the fact that everything I feel, think and do becomes compost for rich art. After writing about this for a half hour, I followed my own advice, and brought my “bad mood” into the studio with me. And it immediately transformed. The feelings didn’t go away, but I wasn’t fighting them, so I felt much more energized and much more at peace. Staying with the truth of my experience in that moment allowed me to use it as fuel for what was next.

I’m glad I have this blog now as a container for that very process. And thinking that some people might be reading it as I write it, or come across it later, gives that much more support to my teaching of myself–that much more urgency (like performing does) to whatever it is I’m working with at the moment. If I just wrote all of this in my journal, I wouldn’t be investing it with the same hunger for clarity. I wouldn’t try so hard to express my intuitions accurately. It’s an interesting cycle: I write this to teach myself, and the fact that I have to craft it for others to read, makes me teach myself all the more clearly, and then that hopefully can be of that much more benefit to others.

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