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Labels and Naming

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I would personally like to reject most labels that are given for the sake of comfort and conformity. I would personally love to embrace gender-fluidity, stand against the outmoded paradigm of patriarchy, and reach out to find co-creators of a revolution that see the commonality of spirit as the primary trait that yoke us together on our shared journey; with gender, race, belief, attraction and ability being unique expressions upon various spectrums of this unifying spirit meant to be celebrated instead of being concepts used to isolate and divide us. I have just enough of a rebellious streak to find this anti-establishment mentality appealing, but that’s not my motivation for writing this piece.

My true intent of this essay is to address the difference that I give to labels and names, my personal account with labels (which has left a bad taste in my mouth), and why names hold so much power. While it’s true that we need a certain level of labeling to find commonality, so that we understand what it is that we are discussing, the danger comes when people come to believe that these labels are more than an understanding, that they are a hard and fast universal truth.

The biggest problem with labels is that they are assigned externally.  In other words, society/others assign labels.  This is most problematic when it comes to labeling people. The consensus of society works on assumptions that there are a finite number of categories.  This is where the inherent problem begins.  To maintain consensus, (in other words, to maintain order) society must only have so many views and vantage points.  To allow there to be too many different ways of seeing things would make it too difficult for the powers that be to maintain their perceived stronghold of control.

Before you write me off as a crazy conspiracy theorist, let me give a major example to illustrate what I mean: Advertising.  The field of marketing and advertising uses demographic information to sell products. These demographics are labels. What would happen to the way that advertising were done if suddenly gender were addressed as a spectrum instead of the male/female either/or choice that we’re inevitably given? What would happen if race and ethnicity were suddenly de-emphasized in the marketing world, and advertising agencies starting acting like people of color are just as likely to have true wealth as white people? (There are reflections of positive changes that I have actually been noticing in baby steps in advertising. But the overall average is still quite stuck in a stereotype.)

Advertising is just one representation of the perceived “powers that be” who direct the focus of society. It makes sense to want to keep their nice, neat, little labels to be able to organize all of the people to direct them.  Boys should play with this toy.  Girls should wear this outfit.  People of this ethnic group should listen to this music.  And so on.  The truth is this: Labels are not neat and clean. Labels are not truth, because they were never meant to be. Labels were meant to be a tool, and only a tool – not an identity. Sadly, many of us have been duped.

Many labels assigned to us don’t even have anything to do with our demographics, but these are just as often misused and misconstrued. This is where my personal experience with labels come into play.  From a very young age, it was clear that I was……different.  In West Virginia, this got me the label of being a bit ‘touched’, meaning off or crazy or deviant. I was in kindergarten. By the time my family moved to Virginia, my ‘oddness’ and my ‘knowings’ earned me the label of being a witch, so I started on the path to become exactly what was expected of me.  The same thing happened when I was ten and became the ‘faggot’ or (more appropriately, in every sense of the word) the ‘queer’.  Now, before you think that this was just a bunch of kids calling me names, let me inform you that there were just as many (if not more) adults using these lovely verbal points of reference for me.

I took these terms – these labels – as parts of my identity.  I used them to define myself, and while there was truth in these statements, there was limitation and a lot of danger that came with it. I decided that since I was gay, I should learn to do hair, so I completed an apprenticeship in cosmetology. I studied Wicca, which was the only form of ‘witchcraft’ my teen self could find outside of the practices of my family. I literally took their taunts to heart. Their hatefulness defined me. (And we wonder why queer teens are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide.)

Labeling isn’t just something that happens in the formative years of childhood either.  About two years ago, I was sexually assaulted.  Shortly thereafter, I had to share this information with a few people. Those that I was close to held space for me, and couldn’t have been any more wonderful or supportive. Those that were professionally trained to help me though immediately labeled me: victim.  I found that outside of the close circle of about 4 or 5 people that truly held space for me, everyone else reacted in a way that cemented me in the role of the victim.  I was pitied, and told how brave I must be. I was told all of the empty things that you tell a victim when you are trying to convince them that it will get better.

I very quickly decided to mostly keep this to myself. I worked through my healing process as best I could. I went through several counselors before I finally gave up because I just couldn’t find someone that could see me as something other than victimized. I slowly worked spiritually to reclaim my power.  I eventually shared my experience with someone that I knew and trusted to not try to label me. Unfortunately, she fell into the trap of pushing her viewpoint, paired with/behind her spiritual experience. She didn’t push the label of victim, but it was a label nonetheless.

She insisted that I must be a Survivor. I must rise above. I must prove to the world that I am every bit of the man I was before – otherwise that bastard rapist won! And she was quite animated in her insistence. Here’s the thing though – I am not a survivor. I did not survive my rape.

A part of me died. I am not the man I was before. I mourned. I transformed. I had to let go of EVERYTHING from the life I was leading prior to the assault, and then slowly reclaim the pieces and parts that actually fit me. I am now more myself than I think I ever have been because of it, but I am no survivor.

This is where I finally introduce the difference between naming and labeling. I’ve made this distinction to help me wrap my brain around a few spiritual concepts, as well as provide a tool for empowerment.  To me, naming could superficially be seen as how we choose to categorize ourselves.  It can be thought of as the self derived, self empowered version of labeling. But, to me, it’s so much more.

In some forms of magic, it’s said to know a spirit’s name gives you power over it. Uttering the names of deities from the Kabbalah or mantras from Vedic and Tantric traditions is a way of invoking their power. In short, names have power. When we name ourselves, we are giving ourselves a kind of power, or maybe more appropriately, affirming a kind of power for ourselves.

To me, naming is something that is seated deeply in the Spirit, down to cockles of the Souls. To claim your naming is to set yourself on your path of truth. To find a name is to find a home. I think of the example of a transgendered person claiming their proper gender.It isn’t just a ‘Huh, yeah, ok’. It runs so much deeper. It’s a powerfully resonant truth that is driving enough to help them shift and change a lifetime of gender based assumptions levied onto them. Naming runs deep.  For me, I’ve had to name and re-claim my names several times throughout my life.

Part of the discrepancy I feel from being labeled a survivor comes from my spiritual practice.  If I am to be a victim or survivor, then I am to carry the hurt and pain of the attack with me for the rest of my life. I am supposed to be ‘brave’ like that, and to me, that simply isn’t healthy. My spiritual practice is one of forgiveness. I forgive my attacker. Not for him, but because I refuse to carry that bitterness. I forgive myself for the attack. I forgive those that hurt me after the attack, that didn’t respond the way I needed them to. I do this so that I can take this burden off of my shoulders. I do this so that I no longer have to wear these labels. I am no faggot. I am not touched.  I am no victim. I am no survivor.

I have journeyed long, and I have found many homes in several names. I reclaim my home in the practices of yoga. I reclaim my name as witch, as healer, as psychic.  I claim my name as artist.

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Breathing in Aloneness

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I met my yoga mat for practice with the intention of a quick practice to bring myself back into alignment before jumping into writing and painting.  I greeted my practice, blending my movement with breath. My body was hesitant to embrace the fluidity of movement that I typically feel in my practice, but as the heat generated from my core, I felt the asanas (yoga postures) smooth out with each pass through the sun salutation sequence.  I found the focal point of peace and I opened to my Spirit. Then, something shifted, and I suddenly felt tears flowing down my face.

I became aware that my breath was being impeded, and once I brought my awareness back wholly into my breath, I felt myself begin to sob. I gently muffled my sob, and pressed on through the yoga flow of poses. I felt the constriction continue against my breath, and finally gave in and allowed my breath to lead my movement. That’s when I found myself face down on my mat, my hands slipping in a mixture of tears and sweat. I still tried to rail against the crying, tried to force my body into the movements of a sequence of postures, but to no avail. The tears still came, my breath still seized up with staccato sobs punctuating my movements, pulling me back down to the mat.

Finally, I surrendered to my breath and allowed my body to go limp against the floor. I allowed the flow of my flesh to embrace stillness. I allowed my breath to be the gentle unencumbered sobs that accompanied to flow of tears I allowed to flow from eyes.  I rode the wave of this non-movement into an awareness of my emotions, my spirit. I observed what I was experiencing, and finally I found the root of today’s practice, and the mantra that fueled my practice: I am alone.

I recognized this mantra. These words echo through the back of my mind and this sense of aloneness is something that I’ve become persistently aware of, to the point that I’ve become numb to it, as if it weren’t there. But it is. It is always there at the back of my awareness, patiently reminding me of my singularity. Here, in my practice, on my mat, I finally decided to respond to this singular litany.  In this moment of recognition, I breathe into this space and embrace my awareness of being alone.

In my practice, I am alone.

When I walk down the street, I am alone.

When I am with my friends, I am alone.

As I breath in, I am alone. As I exhale, I am wholly in the seat of my self.

I greet myself and the divinity within with compassion. I am alone. But this does not mean that I am lonely.

I begin to move again pressing into the mat, greeting the flow of asanas with focus and acceptance. I find the limitations of my body, and I allow the heat to build within me through my breath once again.  Though I am alone, I am not lonely. Each pose moves into the next through the gateway and momentum of the breath, a part of the flow but distinctly unique and individuated. Though I stand as an individual, I am a part of something bigger than myself.

After a much lengthier, grittier and more intense practice than what I intended, I sat in meditation and reflection.  I am alone in meditation. I am alone in my thoughts.  But I am not lonely.

Buried deep in this feeling, there is a fear, and I am not the only one who feels this fear. It is fear that drives the sensation of being alone into one of despair, of loneliness. But even as fear drives this sensation, it betrays itself. The world is populated by people who are afraid of being alone. We are all connected in this need to be connected. We are all one in our aloneness.

And we are all alone in our oneness. This practice taught me that. Even when I found that point of connection, I was independent. We have to be. We have to honor our individuality in our journey into connection. The leaves must be different than the bark of the tree, though no part is less important than another.  Sangha – community – is comprised of all of the individuals that make up the collective.

We all feel alone at times. It doesn’t matter how surrounded by others we are, how loved we are. Feeling alone is not a reflection of how much others love us. Feeling this sense of aloneness has nothing to with any other person. This sense of aloneness can be scary, but only to that part of us that seeks to validate ourselves against the measure of others.  The fear of being alone arises from ego.

When we are able to pause long enough to just feel the sensation of only ourselves –without the expectations of others, without the fear, without the illusions that we are not connected – then the experience of this state changes.  This awareness can become a tool to help anchor us, to help us see past the illusory shadow cast by our fears, to slowly become aware of the difference between our egos and our true selves.

Once we can center our focus on this awareness, the illusion that we can ever truly be alone begins to unravel. As a community, we move as one. As a world, we all breathe collectively. Each of us individually breathes the same air inhaled by our siblings, by our ancestors, by our neighbors, by the trees, by the oceans, by the Earth herself.  And each breath draws us closer to that divine nature that is succinctly unique, yet paradoxically universal and all encompassing.

And so the journey is written – what began in the fear and pain finds it’s resolution in the breath.

 

The Flower Prayer

Who is this flower above me?

And what is the work of this God?

That I would know myself in all my parts.  –  Victor Anderson, oral tradition