Badpuppy Gay Today

Tuesday, 02 September 1997

RAM DASS
A Life Beyond Labels

By Mark Thompson

 

If eyes are the windows to one's soul, then Ram Dass's are shatterproof. At first, they are all you notice, suspended in space, lambent and unflinching, a world unto themselves, until slowly the surrounding features assemble. It's like watching a portrait by a sidewalk artist take shape: first the eyes, and then, in a few deft strokes, the rest of the face is drawn.

The face itself is generous and kind, inset with permanent lines of amusement. But it's the liquescent, penetrating gaze of the man that so clearly impresses, momentarily jolting me out of superficial pleasantry. We finish our handshake, and I renew my introduction. Ram Dass nods jovially. I try to feel reassured despite my nervousness.

It's this quality of being stripped so clean, so zero to the bone--a vast but potent emptiness that Ram Dass reveals with one effortless look--that leaves me unnerved. I've come to his front door armed with questions and theories, a lifetime of assumptions left intact. With uncanny ability, he absorbs my projections and hands them back to me. The interviewer, in the end, must answer to himself.

I've long considered Ram Dass a wise gay elder, a conferral that comes as a surprise not only to Ram Dass but to others as well. While the author, speaker, and spiritual activist has made no attempt to hide his homosexual past--it is discussed at random, usually in passing, among the pages of his seven books--the fact that he is gay is not commonly known. And while he counts among his followers many who are gay, he has left little imprint on the gay community itself.

"Gay sexual autobiography," he quietly muses to himself after we've settled down to talk. We're sitting in a high ceilinged room that has one wall covered with shelves holding hundreds of tapes of his lectures. A bowl of figs and other fruit sits on a small table between us. He continues to reflect while fingering his mala beads; the raucous laughter of children in a nearby schoolyard fills the silence. It's almost as if he's flipping through the various tapes in his head containing past life experience. Finally, he looks up smiling. "It's interesting," says Ram Dass. "I've never been interviewed about this topic, so this is fun for me."

I'm surprised to hear this but, of course, allow its truth. After all, much of Ram Dass's life for the past thirty years has been about unloading the weight of personal history, chucking away and burning in the bright, pure flame of spiritual enlightenment all that is not needed. Sexual identity has undoubtedly been part of that consumed baggage. Judging from the spartan, business-like trappings of his home Ram Dass seems to need or want very little these days other than the opportunity to perform compassionate service in the world.

When asked anything about his personal life, he casually mentions a longtime male relationship: "We've had a very close and dear friendship for fifteen years," he says. " we don 't define it, and its extremely satisfying to me as a fellow human being."

Ram Dass was born in l 931 as Richard Alpert, 501l of a wealthy and influential Jewish lawyer. A bright scholar; he studied psychology, eventually earning a Ph.D. from Stanford. From 1958 to 1963 he taught and did research at Harvard University. His study involved exploration of human consciousness, which eventually led Ram Dass to conduct pioneering research, in collaboration with Timothy Leary and others, with LSD and other mind-expanding agents. Amid a firestorm of public scandal, both professors were fired on account of their psychedelic investigations.

Ram Dass continued his research privately until I967, when he traveled to India and met his spiritual teacher, Neem Karoli Baba. Under his guru's guidance he studied yoga and meditation, receiving the name Ram Dass, which means "servant of God." He returned to the United States the following year and quietly began to talk about his transformative experiences in locating the true self that exists beneath ego-driven personality. Candid in talking about his own previous dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment, Ram Dass attracted a growing number of listeners. In I971 he published Be Here Now, a spiritual guidebook that has since gone on to sell over one million copies.

Over the past two decades, Ram Dass has devoted himself to many causes working to bring about social change. His Hanuman Foundation has developed diverse projects, from helping the spiritual growth of prison inmates to providing support to the dying, including those with AIDS. His latest book, Compassion in Action, recounts the evolution of his commitment to service and offers advice to others who would also like to alleviate suffering in the world. The human fate of suffering--on both the physical and spiritual planes--is the one universal condition that Ram Dass seems most apt to address. Suffering is "grist for the mill" (to borrow the title of his classic I977 work), the propellant of conscious awakening if one only employs it as such. Sexual needs of whatever persuasion and material wants, such as fame and fortune, are fueled by the personality-possessed "me" part of our minds. Desire creates suffering and keeps our innermost selves from finding life's ultimate fulfillment: the state of being at one with God. Given this quintessential Eastern view of life, I can understand Ram Dass's objections to labeling people based on their sexual predilections. Gay or straight--what's the difference if we are meant to transcend attachment?

Still, as appealing as this philosophy may sound, we live in a Western world deeply entrenched in its prejudices and roles, a you-are-what-you-own attitude. Modern gay identity has been spun out of those elements, but some of us cling to the belief that there remains an inexplicable mystery about our being that exists far beneath the constructed surfaces. According to Ram Dass, the answer lies in examining the clinging itself.

To rigid Westerners, Ram Dass may seem like an anomaly living a contradiction. But after a few hours in his presence there's no doubt that here is an individual who acts and speaks from the integrity of an awakened soul. The eyes alone communicate that. Yet to be fully human is also to be imperfect and seeking. Appropriately enough, at the end of our afternoon together comes Ram Dass's startling admission that, concerning homosexuality, there is inner work left for him to do.

Later, while driving toward San Francisco, I think about what Ram Dass has to say regarding the artifice and unnecessary containment of labels. That evening, while strolling through the city's gay ghetto, I study the faces of the gay men and lesbians passing by. It's Friday night in the Castro district, time to have fun and be oneself. Here, among the crowded streets of this newest of old neighborhoods, I wonder what essential elements of the human soul are being allowed to breathe free and what parts are being stifled. The last words of our conversation ring in my mind.

"It's been nice being with you," he says, as I begin to depart. "I really respect where you're coming from, what you're trying to do."

Being HlV-positive, I allow, means doing a bit more of my work while I still can. "I don't assume a thing," I shrug. "I may live to a ripe old age, but who knows? "

You may give 'em light before you die," he quickly replies.

"Yeah, I may give 'em light before I die," I say, taking my first steps down the stairs.

"So you will have died before you die, and then it won't matter anyway," Ram Dass concludes.

I'm almost gone before his final words reach me: "Take care, dear."

In Compassion in Action you freely relate past homosexual experiences, something you have not often done. Have you been uncomfortable in talking about being gay? When did you first know?

I had a late latency, and not until I was fifteen years old did I start to really become sexually awakened. Up until then I hadn't differentiated, I had no labels; I was just so floored by sex. By the time I was seventeen I started to have relations with boys and realized I enjoyed that. But it was still within the category of teenage folly. You see, I grew. up at a time when homosexuality was far deeper in the closet than it is now. I became engaged to he married when 1 was in college in Boston, but then I started to go out cruising. I'd pick; up people or get into sexual encounters with men in parks and bathrooms. So I was confused. Later, when I moved to California to do postgraduate work at Stanford, I started to get more involved in gay life in San Francisco. I've only roughly estimated, sometimes to just blow people's minds, but I'm sure I've had thousands of sexual encounters. It was often two a night. Then I returned east 3S a professor at Harvard and continued to have this incredible sexual activity. But 1 always had a woman as a front to go to faculty dinners and things like that.

As many did, and continue to do, you were leading a double life.

My life was completely duplicitous for thirty years. I had an apartment and would have guys in overnight, but I didn't live with anybody and didn't make any real liaisons. I gained a reputation at the health service for how sensitive I was to people with gay problems. The psychiatrists kept referring all the homosexual cases to me, but they had no conception of who I really was. This was 1958 until 1963, the year I got thrown out of Harvard.

That's a famous incident. What really happened?

Tim Leary and I and a lot of friends had one of these big community houses. We got into a situation where Harvard started to get so freaked about the drugs we were using that they asked us to stop doing our research using any undergraduates. We could use graduate students, or outside populace, but we couldn't use undergraduates because it was too risky. But I had all these relationships with young men whom I really wanted to turn on with. And it had nothing to do with our research; it was my personal life, so I went ahead. It turned out there was another student who was very jealous of this, an editor of the campus newspaper, and he created a huge expose.

So it was gay eros and not LSD that got you thrown out of Harvard.

It was a combination of all those things. In a way, LSD had given me the license to be what I am. It looked at me inside and out and said what you are is okay. And that gave me a license to start to say I didn't want to hide anymore. The American Association of University Professors wanted to defend me, but I realized that that would just be such a mess--the hell with it! I wasn't interested in going back to Harvard anyway; I was too far on the drugs. I wanted to go on that trip much, much more.

Most gay men, particularly of that time, have had to deal with overwhelming emotions of guilt and shame. How did you cope with your feelings of internalized homophobia?

The guilt was toward all sex in life. There was no differentiation because nobody even thought about homosexuality in my upbringing. So after that, I didn't feel called upon to define myself in any way at all. I mean, why define myself? I can fill many roles in life. So I didn't join "being gay," I didn't become a clubbie within the gay community--I just wasn't drawn to it. Instead, I became very involved in consciousness and spiritual work.

There was a moment when there were four of us making this pilgrimage around southern India in a Volkswagen microbus. One of the fellows in the car was an extremely attractive young man, and one night he and I ended up having a sexual affair together. The next day we sat down in front of my guru, whom I knew knew everything even though I'd never discussed this kind of thing with him. He looked at me and he looked at this guy, and then he said to me, "You're giving him your best teaching,." I thought, OK, if you say so. I'll buy that. But then he said we shouldn't have any more sex and we didn't.

There was a long period which I really saw my homosexuality as deeply pathological. I was growing up in the zeitgeist of Western psychology. I had been trained as a Freudian therapist in the analytical institute-- and that's the way it looked. Men and women were made to go together; and everything else seemed like something had gotten fucked up somewhere along the way. .I saw my mother as a prime contender of that because she had taken my power. She was such a deep love for me. The reason my puberty was so late was because I kept trying to stay a child to stay in intimate relationship with her. It was clear that if I became a man, she'd reject me. And so I got fatter and fatter, eating everything. she gave me as my form of intimacy with her. At one point in prep school, where I was horny all the time, I hugged her and got an erection .She pushed me away and said there's mil and cookies downstairs.

This is a more common dynamic between gay men and their moms than would be supposed.

Oh, I understand! So I ended up having a hard time in my relations with women, in getting, my own pleasure. The women that I ended up having sex with were women who were quite aggressive, who really demanded it of me. I mean, they were just scratchers and yellers. I got to the point where I would take huge amounts of acid and look at these slide pictures of women to try to see where my fear was because I saw that there was a block where I just turned off women.

As you were growing up, what was your relationship with your father like.

I was sort of an appreciator of him. He was a very successful and upwardly mobile person-- so he didn't have too much time for the family. He was a somewhat remote figure. When he was around we did a lot of things together but I never felt he heard me.

In Compassion in Action you state: "As the result of being a Jew, I felt that I had been imbued with three things: first, the sense that behind and within the multiplicity of forms there is One, seamless and radiant, and that loving that One, with all my being, is a path. Second, a love and respect for knowledge as a path to wisdom. And the third great gift I felt I had received was an awareness of suffering and the compassion that arises with that awareness." I'd like to know how being gay has also shaped your spiritual journey. What gifts have been endowed to you from that?

As a result of being caught with another fellow in prep school, I was completely ostracized--nobody would speak to me for about a year. I'd walk into a room and all the kids would stop speaking. I couldn't tell my parents, so it cast me way back inside myself; it drove me inward.

That deepened, first of all, the quality of my compassion toward other human beings who are ostracized. But I also think it served me in good stead later on when I started experimenting with psychedelics. I have always felt like I was an outsider.

The added burden was that I had small genitals, and in this society that is a major crime. I was ostracized a lot for that, too. I was laughed at, and I'm sure it affected my behavior a great deal because it was the double whammy of not only being gay but having this feeling of deficiency. But--after I had done a lot of deep work with psychedelics, genital sexuality wasn't a dominant issue. The areas of my gratification had shifted. It didn't matter to me that much.

Maybe being gay has less do to with how you have sex, or even if you have sex at all, but rather with something else.

I don't know which way you want to put the essence of the label. I mean, there's probably a differential use of the brain, a differential tenderness in gay men. In my own life, I feel very much more like the mother of a system than like a father. I feel very matronly in my embrace of pain into myself. At times during drug experiences I've turned into a very large black woman with huge breasts just reaching out and almost vomiting in the midst of drawing a world of suffering into myself. So that's deep--primordially, mythically, archetypically--in me. But how do I start to label what is a gay quality and what is not?

I have very close relationships with a lot of men who are truly heterosexual. I find the same deep reservoir of psychic qualities in them--this tenderness, softness, and compassion. These are things I look for in people whether they're gay or straight.

Perhaps within the kinds of people we today label gay there is a particular matrix of archetypal forces at work. Some of the archetypes that seem prevalent in the gay male psyche are the Trickster, the Wounded Healer, and the Double, which is the archetype of the sames. These influences vary in our lives, of course, depending upon our personal history, who our parents are, our cultural upbringing, and so forth. Does this ring a bell with you? Certainly I see some of those archetypes quite dominant in your personality.

When I am responding to you, I'm attempting to place gayness in the same central position that you place it in, which is quite alien to the way I think. You see, I don't regard being gay as a central, defining characteristic even though I could build a case either for the psychogenic or somatogenic or reincarnational point of view. There's space for all of those interpretations. It's all the speculation of the mind, it seems to me, as to which way you want to place being gay in terms of causality. Everything can be an effect of a cause because we're beginning to realize the way the mind and the body are just one thing. I can certainly put all the pieces together under your theory, but I can't feel a predilection for that theory over any other at this moment.

Rather than discuss ideas and theories let's talk about something that is very real in the lives of gay men--the issue of being wounded. I have talked with hundreds of gay men over the years, and not one has escaped being ostracized, or being called a "sissy" or a "faggot, " or having some other kind of deeply wounding experience.

I would say that's true. But being "wounded" refers to the personality--not to the soul. I'd say I've been deeply wounded in my personality. Absolutely, deeply wounded. And I don't think I've ever gotten over it. I still feel wounded by it. I still feel unwelcome in this culture. Because I live among so many straight populations, I've started to talk more about being bisexual, being involved with men as well as women. Most of the audiences with whom I do that are people who already love me so much they couldn't care if I turned into a frog. Allen Ginsberg, who's an old friend, goes and confronts people with his gayness. I don't see any reason to do that--it's not my trip. I never deny it, but I don't push it because it's not part of my active identity.

You've been more open in recent years. Why the candor now?

I trust myself more. Before, the candor would have been a bid to try to seduce people, to get young men to come near me. Like as an initiation or something like that--come up and see my holy pictures! I don't think I trusted myself because I think my desires were so strong.

Do you still have strong desires for young men?

I delight in the beauty of..the male body, of youth and all. But I don't have any craving to do anything about it.

You've written that within you there still lay some remnants of the little boy who desires to be good, who needs to achieve and accomplish, and that these desires may stem from a sense of inadequacy.

My whole personality is built on a root of inadequacy, which I don't think is unique to me, by the way. I think most personality is built on that, actually.

But what can happen, and often does happen, in the lives of everyone is almost certain to happen in the lives of gay men. The fate of being the best little boy in the world, the boy who has been psychically wounded and left with a deeply compromised self image, is all too common to us.

If I want to venture a psychogenic description of my gayness, I would say that it's about the absence of my relation to my father and the love affair I had with my mother, which I was never willing to give up. If anything, gay people are to me better lovers because they took their first love and wouldn't let go, which was the love of the mother. Because I'm a Freudian, that would be a way I would interpret it. I experienced that I didn't want to let go of the nurturance and intimacy I had with her. But I didn't experience the wounding in my childhood; the wounding came later in my adolescence.

How do we use the wound for our own awakening?

Well, the question is: Who's used by it and who can use it? I would say that for many years I was used by it, and then I started to shift my consciousness and started to use it. Anybody who is awake to the human predicament of being lost in separateness starts to yearn for the truth that they are not separate, since then they are back home--they are in harmony with things rather than always being alienated and outside. Once that awakening occurs, then it's a set of inevitable steps before you get to the point where you see your incarnation as a curriculum. You see that the ways in which you're suffering are good things to work on in yourself. In other words, you begin to understand that suffering is grace.

That's a major shift. Suffering stinks, and then suffering becomes grace.

It still stinks, but it's grace. You'd rather not suffer, unless you're a masochist, but if you do suffer, you work with it and experience what it's showing you, which from the Buddha's point of view is where your mind is clinging. Because you always suffer where there is clinging.

If I have a model that society should act a certain way toward me and they don't, I suffer. If I don't have that model, I don't suffer--they act the way they do, and I'm responding like a tree on a river. The tree doesn't have a model for how the river should be. So I really hear the second noble truth of the Buddha: the cause of unsatisfactory conditions is the way the mind clings. Suffering is a clue that there is clinging in the mind. It gives you a place to look to begin extricating yourself from identification with the thought that is creating the suffering. If you can draw your awareness back so that you're not identified with thought--so you enjoy thought but you're not busy being caught in the thoughts--then there will be no more suffering. Is there a thought about death? I mean, until the last moment it's just another moment. The anticipation of death, the fear of loss of life, and the attractions and aversions of all that cause you to suffer. The phenomena themselves are just phenomena.

Like many gay men, I've been caught up in thinking about death alot these days because of AIDS. But that aside, it seems to me there's still an enormous amount of suffering around being gay in such an intensely homophobic culture.

I think there is, too. But for gay men, the work is to work on their own minds. They may be doing social protest, or be part of the Radical Faeries, or whatever, but let them do it from a place where they understand that it's all work on themselves. Because as long as their minds are the way they are, they're going to keep suffering. Ostracism and the judgment of the culture feed on very deep inadequacies in the individual that they're still clinging to in the mind, and these judgments play upon them. They resonate with those thoughts that are not quite excoriated, extirpated, expiated.

Do you think gay men have a special role to play in society today, a role that would encompass special aptitudes for compassion, empathy, and insight? And, if you do, then what is your advice for actualizing that potential in the world?

When you read the obituaries you become aware that an extraordinarily disproportionate amount of beauty brought into the culture was created by gay people. But how to interpret that? I would be hard-pressed to say that those qualities aren't available in everybody, but the cultural roles everybody found themselves in made it easier for gay men to express themselves in this way. It's like, the Jews became moneylenders because they weren't allowed to do anything else. People who have identified either androgynously or in a way not as male in the cultural sense of maleness have accessible to them qualities of creativity and sensitivity and appreciation that they would be well to capitalize upon and use. You've got to stand back far enough to see the stages of transformation in a culture. If you watch the women's movement, for instance, you see it go through many stages: from a kind of militant, male identification in which women want what the man has, to then finding themselves having lost something that they wanted because they were so busy getting something else, until finally you start to see women who are not imitating outward strength but are really developing inner strength as beings. At that point, they're more willing to accept differences and celebrate them rather than to deny them.

What is your view of the gay movement? It's made great social and political strides in the last forty years, but from your vantage point what's still left to be done?

Its at an early stage of its maturing process--a revolutionary, militant, us-against-them, exhibitionistic kind of flamboyance. There's a harsh quality to the gay movement that underestimates what the human spirit is about. I just think the game is more interesting than that. One of the things that human beings want is to feel at home, to be able to be who they are, to feel safe in the universe.

But any identification with any institution, any identity at all, is a limiting condition. Even when you've got everybody respecting you for it, it's a trap because you're stuck in a definition. And what we are is not defined--we are much more than any definition.

Defining yourself as gay is just like defining yourself as an American, or a Jew, or whatever. You may play within a subgroup, but you'll never feel fulfillment as long as you define yourself that way. Your fulfillment in the universe is on many, many levels. What is group membership about anyway? It's usually a way of having power, which means that one feels powerless in the face of other powers, so one bands together.

That's why there's a gay movement, so that individuals who were beaten up or shut off just like you were, can have a safe harbor, a place to mend, to take stock, and hopefully to go on.

I want to be really careful in what I say; I don't want to be glib about it. Yes, I also think gay people come together in order to breathe together through the pain and the wounding. They come together to feel comfortable, safe, and playful among people of like mind. However, I'm not convinced that the gay community comes together to grow. I don't think that model, or that metaphor, is a dominant theme. Instead, it's more like, "We are what we are and we're proud of it." That's fine, but I just don't want to join any clubs. I'm a universalist.

I would agree with you that in certain respects the gay community is in a stuck place. Do you have any wisdom and advice for taking the next steps?

First of all, we can't have this discussion without bringing up AIDS. It has changed the nature of the gay community in some very profound ways. Yet, in some ways, it hasn't. The question of what does the gay community do now has to take into account that issue. One of the most profound metaphysical issues of life is the relation of sex and death. And HIV has brought that right to the forefront, although it is interpreted by different segments of the gay population in different ways. For the younger, more immature group it's like surfing in water where the waves are a little too high--they're playing with death through sex. A lot of young people are becoming HIV-positive out of a cynical, "I don't give a damn" attitude. They're playing with the edge without really understanding what they're playing with. Death isn't real to a teenager.

A lot of the gay people I work with today have AIDS symptoms. There's a percentage of them who stay deep in their anger, self-pity, and feeling put-upon by God. And then there is a segment of more mature gay men who have gotten lighter and clearer and will say, "Boy, I'd rather be here than in all the shit I was in when I was so busy being this sexual operator." They've seen the superficiality of a lot of their past relationships and so are now seeking for deeper truth in the way they connect with other human beings. That's the beautiful side of it, that's where the really exciting part comes. We're meeting each other in a whole different way. Compassion is a much more dominant theme, and I had never found the gay community particularly compassionate before. Part of it was that I was trick or-treating all those years. I mean, I was in the hard part of sex, too. I wasn't having partnerships and long-term relationships. I didn't want them, I didn't feel comfortable.

That said, I'm very impressed with the way the gay community has kept pressure on the culture to bring its prejudices to the surface. There's a rhythm of change in a culture where you push, then you pull back a little bit and they adjust, and then you come forward again. You never stop the pressure, but you don't keep escalating it because then you force a confrontation. What happened in the sixties was that we forced confrontation, assuming the other side would fall before us. When you have that, nobody wins. That's an immature stage of a revolution. So I would encourage the gay community to keep the pressure up but to do it with wisdom. See it as a long-term game. Give society a chance to come along rather than demanding they come along, since the price of demanding is going to cost the gay community in the long run.

Finally, I would say that sex and social relationship is not enough--that eventually you will be driven into spiritual awakening. I figure my game is the only game in town. It's inevitable.

There are many spiritual seekers to be found within the gay community, of course.

Oh, many. The predicament is that the deeper your spiritual practice, the more you are aware that everybody is androgynous. That's why when you say "gay soul" there's something in me that grabs, since I don't think of souls as either male or female. I think souls have karma that determines the way they manifest, gay or straight, female or male. But I don't think souls themselves have any sexual identity at all.

I agree that AIDS has opened a lot of hearts and minds. Still, gay men have built a culture based largely on desire--the commercialization of sex and physical attractiveness. The gay sensibility is very Dionysian. So how do we learn to strike a new balance Is pursuit of sexual fulfillment really antithetical to spiritual enlightenment? Can both exist harmoniously?

There's a sequence: You grow up very invested in the physical and the psychological. Then you feel the finiteness of those things. And then you awaken through some process only to realize you've been trapped. After that, there's a tendency to go into a kind of renunciative fervor to get into the place where you feel at one with the universe and spirit. That often creates what are called horny celibates--it's a certain kind of rejection of the physical/psychological plane.

But in a still later stage you realize that the aversion is keeping you from being free--and you want to be free, not just high. So you start to come back into who you are, passionate and nonattached. You are fully in life, joyfully participating--sex is a celebration. It's all wonderful, and at the same moment, it's all empty. That's a very evolved stage of spiritual maturation. I don't find the gay community as a group very spiritually ripe or eager to go beyond. I think they're too caught up enjoying the power and the desire systems. In some ways it feels like a certain kind of hell realm to me because it's not going to be enough.

How do we move out of that? How can being gay be used as "grist for the mill" of inner development?

Only when you have gone through your rebellion against the culture for cutting you out of the juice, then getting the juice, having what you want, and seeing that that is just another state. Once you get a partner, a bed without hiding, and freedom to walk down the street holding hands, then w hat are you going to do? But you can't shortcut the process. If somebody wants a Cadillac, you can't say, "Don't have it," because they'll be busy not having the Cadillac, and they re not gonna get free. They'll be somebody without a Cadillac.

One of the deepest issues plaguing gay men is inner-directed hate. People can go out and march in gay pride parades all they want, but that still doesn't mean they've dealt with low self-esteem or their own internalized homophobia.

There are corrupting psychological correlates to being gay in our society--I'm not necessarily saying of being gay, but of being gay in our society. There's tremendous frustration, self-hatred, and fear that's rooted in power issues--a good coating of masochism. Those things color the way a movement proceeds. You can make those things into icons to be worshipped. I mean, there's a lot of masochism expressed in the gay community. There are clubs for it.

What do you think about all of that? Does it bother you?

I like Genet's writings. You know, I've spent so much time in seedy places with that stink of decadent lust. It's so thick, it's like being in another realm. But I don't feel anything about it. I go to something like a Hollywood opening with all my Hollywood friends, and it stinks the same way! It's a slightly different odor, but I don't see that it's a hell of a lot better. I mean, if somebody gets fisted in a club, is that different from somebody getting an Oscar? I'm sorry, I'm supposed to be morally dignified, but I'm not, you know. It's not my way.

Many people have tried to ascribe a moral meaning to AIDS. How do you see this devastating crisis?

What's happened is that AIDS has cast everybody into the advanced course of dealing with death, loss, and grief--emotions that the gay community was not long on. Dealing with suffering well was not their long suit. They bitched and moaned and got caught in the drama of it, but they didn't really let it in. And it demanded it get in, this time. So AIDS is forcing the gay community to confront their deepest spiritual being. From a spiritual point of view, AIDS is an incredible grace.

You have said, "Trust that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should." But that's a tough lesson, particularly if you're in a shitstained bed in an AIDS ward somewhere. How do you help people in that situation see what you mean?

Most people try to get ready-made answers through fundamentalism, or through rationalism or humanism, and those answers are never good enough.

The people with AIDS I work with are at the edge of the human condition; AIDS has cast them into the mystery. Whatever I do or say to them is coming out of a balance in me, a balance of realizing suffering stinks and it's grace. I'm watching with awe the way the universe is working. It's just so incredibly, mysteriously beautiful--the suffering, fear, and all of it. They hear me as an empathetic person who feels their pain. And then as they feel safe enough they relax, and we start to meet in this other place, which is in ecstasy and bliss and equanimity and delight in the play of the universe, including what they're going through.

Tell me a little bit about the Living Dying Project.

As a result of all the drugs I took and the experiences I had in the East, it became clear to me that I had a different attitude toward death than most of the people around me. Death seemed perfectly fine to me, like a natural process. And as with myself, I realized that for all humans the deepest fear is death, and somehow I wanted to keep working with that edge of my being. So I found it very advisable spiritually to hang around dying people because my lack of anxiety created a space for them to get beyond their own anxiety. At the same moment, my being with them helped me deal with the issues I had about fear of pain and the suffering of death. The real healing is the inner healing when we learn that we are on this other journey, and dying is just part of it. I began to see that some of the people who were dying were busy trying to live and others were using that whole process as a vehicle for awakening. So then I thought, If there are people like me who want to take care of dying people in order to awaken, and there are people who are dying who want to awaken, why don't we put them all together? We'll have ashrams where some people are helping others and some are dying, but basically everybody's there to awaken.

What do you mean exactly when you use the word awaken?

There are many planes of awareness, many levels of consciousness. William James really expressed it the best. He said, "Our normal waking consciousness is but one type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie other types of consciousness and we spend our entire lives not knowing of their existence. But apply the requisite stimulus and there they are in their completeness.... Whatever their meaning, they forbid our premature closing of our accounts with reality."

So I would say that awakening is the recognition that there are many planes of consciousness and that you exist on all of them. You are limiting yourself incredibly to define yourself only in terms of the physical/psychological planes, as if they were absolutely real. So it's an awakening into the relative reality of the world you thought was absolutely real. It's awakening to realize that you're in a prison you've created by your own thoughts--that your conceptual definitions of reality are imprisoning you from what reality is, which is something that has no concept. You've reduced yourself into a shadow of who you are, in a reductionistic way, through clinging to concepts, instead of understanding that the true nature of being is not knowing you know, it's simply being.

We got trapped in separateness. When we awaken we realize there's a spiritual dimension to life, that there is a wisdom that lies within the mystery that surrounds life. The answer is that there is something else going on, and realizing this is awakening.

So, if we let go of the certainty of being gay . . .

It doesn't make you any less gay. The art form is to enjoy being gay without being trapped by it.

In your own life, what fears and areas of resistance are you particularly aware of right now?

Gee, that's tricky. There are some bizarre ones, like trying to be at peace with the emptiness of it all. I would say trying to continually let go of models about existence into the richness of the moment. I still cling to somebody doing something, going somewhere. But I don't cling very much to it. I can see this correlated with gayness at some level. I have a tremendous perfectionistic streak in me about myself. And because I don't live up to it, I have a tremendous judgment of others as being not perfect enough. I find that a very unappealing quality, and I have to work with it. I'm horrified by my imperfections because I so want to be free. But I think that's a cop-out. I'm very fierce, at times, and the fierceness isn't coming necessarily out of love; it's coming out of judgment, out of my own pain.

How does your perfectionism correlate with your being gay?

That perfectionistic quality is very deep in many gay people I know. I think it comes from unworthiness and inadequacy, a sense of wanting to be perfect so that you can be loved enough. If I do something perfectly, I can love myself. I get the gold star. And that's hard when you're a human: you just can't do things perfectly enough.

You know, this conversation has brought to the surface in me a lot of uncooked stuff that I haven't fully integrated into my being--things I've just put into little compartments in my head.

Like what, for instance?

Different stages of life, different attitudes toward the gay community. Talking about these issues with someone who has given them as much thought as you gives me something to work on. I mean, what have I got to learn here? What have I got to learn about my own prejudices? I just took a course last year on hidden racism from a Latino man who was showing me my own oppression, my own subtle racism. I'm probably imprinted so deeply from my generation that I don't know if I will ever get out of thinking that gayness is a pathology. Even though I'm delighted that other people don't, and I would like not to, it's so deep in me.

I experience being gay as a wonderful blessing, an opportunity--anything but a pathology. But I've come of age during a different time than you. I'm making my assumptions with a different set of cultural references in hand. People who have defined themselves as gay are at a point in their collective journey where they don't need to throw the definition away, but rather keep evolving it.

I would say that if gay people who read this are willing to really sit down and examine their own minds in a systematic way, they may experience the freedom to take more delight in life and in their gay expression of it. And they will see that who they are isn't gay, and it's not not-gay, and it's not anything--it's just awareness . I really challenge them to make that exploration on their own before they write the script of their lives in stone too much. Because if they have picked up a book that's called Gay Soul, they're asking for it. And if they're asking for it, they should be able to get it. Somebody should say, "Look, don't get trapped in that. Get on with it." There's no need to label yourself at all.

___________________________________________________________________________________Excerpted from Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature by Mark Thompson, HarperCollins Paperback edition, 266 pp. $13

Mark Thompson's forthcoming book, to be published this fall, is Gay Body,: A Journey Through Shadow to Self. (St. Martin's Press.)

Thompson is also the author/editor of Gay Spirit, Leatherfolk, and Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement.

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