One of my old students just called me for advice. He wanted to know if I was a religious person or if I was, “Some kind of athiest.”

Different students know different things about me. Some students know I’m gay, some students know I’m married, some students know I’m into health and wellness, and some students know I’m Buddhist. All of my students know me as someone who’s radically honest, sarcastic, and eccentric. I regularly say off-the-wall things to my students in off-the-wall ways. I can bring any kid, no matter how rigid, into the learning experience by joking with them and making them have fun with the day’s lesson through unconventional and hilariously bizarre game-play.

But for some reason my totally blind students are often astonished when they find out that I’m religious. I guess most of them automatically associate religion with a certain kind of speech pattern. (Judgmental? Stiff?)

I explained to the student that I’m extremely religious, but also an athiest. He couldn’t reconcile the two.

I told him about non-theism. I don’t believe in a higher power, but I also don’t disbelieve in a higher power. I’m a Soto-Zen Buddhist. I believe that everything is connected to everything else. I believe in applying your awareness. And I believe in not accepting, not rejecting, and not ignoring things as they arise. I don’t know or care how a higher power fits into that. I’m content with not knowing. And if for some reason my lack of belief results in a punishment after I die, then, as is the Soto-Zen custom, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

He got it. What I found interesting was that my totally blind student sees me as a whimsical, adaptable weirdo, but my fully sighted colleagues and classmates find me to be overly formal and standoffish.

Sighted people get the idea pretty quickly that I’m extremely religious. I shave my head, I’ve worn all black for years, I often wear a samui (a traditional jacket that acts as something like a more socially acceptable robe,) and unless someone needs me to be funny and outgoing for some reason, (like an unenthusiastic student,) I’m usually a quiet, observant person. Even my body language is pretty Zen. My movements are intentionally respectful. My body, voice, appearance, and interactions are all measured to be supportive and non-threatening to people.

This is why I’m concerned that the more outwardly religious I become, the more people are going to walk all over me, or worse, be uncomfortable around me. I’m already a little different. Several people who I could imagine myself befriending avoid me, and my understanding is that it’s because my behavior makes them start to reflect on theirs, and they’d rather avoid me than to reflect in that way. Basically, my influence makes them squirm.

I wonder if people’s discomfort is based in the same confusion as my student’s cognitive dissonance? They don’t understand my religion, it’s obvious that I’m religious, and so rather than asking, they avoid me. The problem is compounded by not fitting neatly into the stereotypical Buddhist box from television and movies. I don’t wear an orange robe, I’m getting my master’s degree, I’m a teacher, I have a laptop, and, if required, I’m joking and playful.

My student probably isn’t alone in his confusion, and it could be representitive of something deeper for many others. My student can’t see me, so he can’t use my visual presence to form a mental checklist of uncertainties about my identity and how to interact with it. My identity has to come to him, and it has to unfold based around the interactions we’re having before those uncertainties can come into existence. It’s a much more organic, less fearful dynamic that I have with my totally blind student than I have with many of my sighted classmates/colleagues.

I think it might be because blind people get to know me based around conversations, and sighted people don’t need to get to know me because they have vision.

I’ll continue to reflect on this. One thing I’m going to do is to start wearing different clothing when I’m not at temple. That way I’m at least not in all black every day. I’m also going to make more of a point to let sighted people know that I’m a real human being, too, and not just made of my outward appearance. I’ll ask them how their weekend was or make it a point to interact on a more friendly (less formal) level. Normally I wait to speak until people address me directly. Maybe making sighted people more comfortable will be as simple as treating them like my blind students– telling them good morning, asking how they are, and creating a dynamic around speech and action, not just appearance, body language, and perceived formality.

I’m aware this must be obvious to most people. I’m socially awkward. But I’m learning. And that’s okay.