Archives for posts with tag: identity

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.


Giving my identity over to Buddhism is frightening to me. I can’t necessarily put my finger on why. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to advocate for my students anymore. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to make people laugh. I’m afraid that I won’t have friends. I’ve been afraid of these things for years. Only now, the potential reality is much closer than before.

Yesterday I wrote in a mixture of anger and confusion about my sister-in-law being ungrateful and irritating. But the Buddhist part of me recognizes that she has her reasons. I don’t make excuses for her behavior, but, if I’m being honest, it feels wrong to outright condemn her for it.

Soto-Zen teaches us to be aware of our passion, aggression, and ignorance, and to apply our awareness to all forms of interactions with others.

I’m known for being funny. I’ve strongly considered becoming a comedian. I’m extremely comfortable when I’m making people laugh. But if I apply my awareness, I start wondering about why I want to make people laugh at all. Is it because I want them to see me as clever and likable? Is it because I think I know what they should be thinking about better than they do? If so, isn’t that ego?

I’m also known in some circles for being polite, direct, and observant. But because I’m polite and observant, which might come across as weak, some people think of me as a pushover. I have a professor who regularly reminds me that I’m wrong, she’s right, and that’s just the way it is. I want to lash out at her and show her my cutting brilliance. But that’s ego, too.

I suppose that when I get down to it, my fear is that applying my awareness and giving up my identity will make people see me as stupid, weak, and boring, and take advantage of me the way my professor does.

I’m afraid that by being quiet, people will walk all over me.

Or that there won’t be a me for them to walk all over.

I’ve talked before about gentle firmness. The idea that you can be quiet, polite, and watchful, but when push comes to shove, you’re a boulder in the stream.

I wonder what that looks like on a daily basis? In a conference room, I get it. But what does that look like when my sister-in-law’s being rude and part of me still wants to vent? (Or slap her for it?)

So many questions…

And about friendlessness; people don’t want to spend their time with someone who’s boring. People really don’t want to spend their time with someone who’s calmness and honesty make them put down their defenses and start to self-reflect. It makes them feel guilty and confused. They want to drink, eat, and gossip.

How can I be part of American culture without pretending to be something I’m not? How can I keep my twentysomething friends without pretending to be something I’m not?

So many questions…

I have no idea who I am anymore.

I’ve spent 22 years being a know-it-all, arrogant, power-hungry, problem-solving, only-happy-when-I’m-miserable, dark-clothes-and-a-scowl kind of person. Now… now I don’t know what the hell is going on with me.

I’m happy. I’m content. I’m a loving, caring, compassionate, awareness-applying Buddhist. I’m breaking away from dark colors. I’m even starting to smile! But worst of all, I’m losing the urge to swear, make crude jokes, and complain.

I have no idea who I am anymore.

I’m losing every ounce of myself that I ever found comfortable. I don’t gossip, I don’t overeat—And I’ve become the kind of person who not only enjoys exercise, but who feels worse without it.

I’m afraid. Very afraid. The only parts of myself I have left are my swearing and my crude humor, and I… I don’t know who I’d be without them. The people who’ve come into my life in the last two years would never know the difference. But Reven? Diana? My parents? I’m honestly afraid that they wouldn’t even talk to me anymore. I love them all so much, (Well, except my parents,) and I’m petrified to imagine a world without them. If I don’t make fun of Reven for being gay (which he’s not) will he even know how to be in the same room as me? Last weekend I almost broke down in tears because I was watching myself be awful to him and I didn’t know how to stop it. I didn’t know how to not push his buttons just because it was habit. I wanted to hug him, to hold him, to let him be anxious and to make everything all right, and instead I mocked him, made him laugh, and tried to make light of his discomfort.

I have two parts of myself left, and if I’m being honest, I know they’re not long for this world. The old me is dying. And I can’t keep pretending it isn’t.

I’m scared. I’m so indescribably scared. And there’s no one to help me.

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