Lama Rod: My hierarchy of needs actually is sleeping and being alone; being silent. But beyond that, when I’m not doing those things, sex is important for me, but not imperative. Sexual expression is a profound way that we can connect with someone and share an experience of body and mind. But it’s not the only way I experience intimacy in the world. I think when we come together in communities we’re ideally building a kind of intimacy because it involves vulnerability. Sexual expression is also based on vulnerability; about opening up to someone and showing parts of yourself, both physically and emotionally, that you don’t show to everyone.
Community is the same way. We come together and practice vulnerability. Social justice communities, especially, should be places where we can practice vulnerability and get assistance dealing with the discomfort and pain we experience being in the world. The danger is that when we open up and show our most intimate, deepest struggle, we can get hurt and traumatized when our partner or our community does not know how to be a safe container for our truth.
The MOON: I don’t know too many communities where people have the time and emotional capacity to be there in that way for each other.
Lama Rod: Exactly. I advise people all the time to “go where you’re loved.” For most of us, there aren’t a lot of places that qualify. That’s why so much of my work in the world is helping to create these communities of authentic love and vulnerability. To do that, I have to model what it looks like to be loving, to be in love with myself, to be in love with others around me, and to be vulnerable.
This is the primary teaching of the communities I’m forming around me, that of radical presence. How can we be radically open? How can we take risks? How do we have the conversations that begin to build communities where we can actually be ourselves? And how do we leave communities where we’re being hurt over and over? If you don’t have a community where this kind of radical openness and vulnerability is being practiced then you leave and you may have to create your own.
It’s the same thing that we have to do in intimate relationships too: stop settling for all the bullshit. If you keep getting hurt, then leave. Do the work so that next time you seek partnership, it’s with people who are able to meet you where you are. It’s not impossible, but you have to know that’s what you want, and you have to know you deserve it. And sometimes it means you have to be alone. I have learned the most when people have stopped putting up with my own bullshit and have walked. The walking throws it back in my face as work I need to do.
Even if I have a one-time sexual hookup I’m always going to communicate as much as possible, I’m going to practice love and compassion as much as possible, and I’m going to have fun. If I can’t express compassion, and love, and vulnerability then it’s not fun, and I can’t go through with it. Because it’s not just about sex; it’s actually about experiencing this kind of intimate exchange.
The MOON: So what might it look like to be able to constructively hold another person’s vulnerability in a community setting?
Lama Rod: In a community setting it means that we’re witnessing, we’re being present to someone’s opening. We’re not flinching, we’re not arguing, we’re not judging; we’re just witnessing. Basically, if someone starts sharing something then you start listening. You’re not planning an argument, but you’re inviting the opening to continue by being interested in what they have to say.
That’s where we need to get to: where everyone feels as if they’re safe enough to share something and not get marginalized, judged, or criticized. Which is not to say that people can’t offer feedback, but first and foremost they have to allow space for someone to present their experience. Once that has happened, others can share their experience, and there doesn’t have to be conflict if the experiences differ. It can just be people sharing the same space together.
The MOON: You’ve said that on the other side of the fear of vulnerability is liberation, but it sounds like it’s excruciating.
Lama Rod: Of course. If liberation were easy everyone would be doing it.
The MOON: Okay, but you signed up for 24/7 excruciation.
Lama Rod: Yes, but the pain and suffering isn’t where we stay. We move through it. But you actually have to move through it in order to see that it’s teaching you how to make different choices and become free. Otherwise we waste our pain and suffering, instead of listening to it. Our suffering is telling us, “I’m here because you chose for me to be here. You chose to be in certain relationships, in certain spaces, you’re choosing to buy into certain narratives and get lost in certain kinds of mentalities. You can make a different choice and have a different experience.” So we begin to make different choices and we see that the experience of suffering begins to change.
By the way, pain and suffering are two different things. Pain is a sensation that’s very cause-and-effect. If I break my leg it’s going to be painful. That’s always going to be the reality. Suffering, however, is optional; it’s a layer we add on top of pain. You can see it in the way someone becomes aggressive because they don’t want to be present for the pain. That’s a choice they’re making. Once we start making the choice to be present to the pain, our suffering begins to decrease.
The more we’re able to let go of the roots of our suffering, the more space begins to open within us and around us. Within that space is a kind of wisdom that involves seeing clearly the ways in which we are really, deeply uncomfortable with so much of life. Seeing it helps us to actually form strategies for being present. As you’re willing to experience uncomfortable moments instead of running from them, you enter longer states of happiness.
In other words, happiness emerges from the space that we gain as we begin to work with our suffering. That is actually how we’re able to move through the world, embracing the difficulty that arises, because you have this spaciousness and this happiness that actually supports the movement itself. So you don’t get stuck in the suffering; you notice that it is wrapped in spaciousness and happiness.
This is how people die happy. As a hospital chaplain I sat with a lot of people at the time of their death and I saw a lot of people celebrating dying. I was floored. “Wow. How?” Because yeah, it’s painful. There’s some suffering. But there was also such a contentment, a peace, in people who had lived their lives in a way they felt so good about that they were ready to move on. There was very little clinging. There was a kind of faith that they had done everything they could do and they were welcoming the next stage. I was so moved by that.
The MOON: Can you tell us how you negotiate coming together with a partner out of sexual attraction versus coming together out of shared vision for social justice? Does one of these take precedence over another in your personal life? Do you look for the conscious, social justice person and then hope to be attracted to them? Or do you let who you’re drawn to lead and hope that the conscious partnership will come later?
Lama Rod: I think attraction is complex and multilayered. I can initially be attracted to someone whose values and ethics don’t line up with mine, but it’s not going to last very long. If I am just hooking up, I’m not so concerned with that. I will strive to do no harm in the experience and have fun and help my partner have fun. Yet in longer-term relationships, what’s most important is alignment in ethics and vision for one’s life. For me, being in a conscious relationship means that I’m not spending a lot of time fighting you or educating you. We have to share a commitment to living a just life and working towards just communities. If that’s not there then I can’t communicate safely; and if I can’t communicate safely then I can’t be with you.
This is another way that embodiment shows up for me. When our awareness is in tune with our physical bodies then they’re collaborating. They’re speaking together. The body doesn’t lie. It always tells the truth. So as I move through the world I use my body to pick up cues that my thinking mind can’t discern. What is my gut telling me? What is my intuition telling me that I feel in my body? I listen to that information. If I feel relaxed in my body when I’m with someone, that’s a really good sign. If I feel tension in my body, especially in my gut, when I’m around someone, then maybe that’s a clue that something’s not right for me.
Some people believe that we can’t always bring our politics into relationships. I think we absolutely have to. If our politics are really important to us, we have to be with people who understand our politics and share them. Otherwise, there will be ethical conflicts. Ultimately I think that once you invest in being embodied and you listen to both the mind and body together, you begin to discern a kind of truth about people, or about a relationship. The earlier you’re able to listen to your mind and body together, the less likely you will find yourself in a relationship that is unsuitable for you. And the sexual expression within a relationship is even more fulfilling when we are with people who align with our politics, our ethics, and so forth.
The MOON: Well, I agree now, but I’m 64. [Laughs] My life could have turned out differently if I’d been more discerning earlier on.
Lama Rod: Absolutely. When I started listening to my body I started having really different experiences. I started making different choices. And I started actually learning what partners I should be with and which ones I shouldn’t. The relationships that have been really important for me have started off talking about how we feel about the world, about justice, about gender, about the work we’re doing in our lives to be better people. During that period of discernment my body and my mind were really relaxing into the experience. And the physical attraction deepened as I realized how aligned we were in other parts of our lives. I think so many of us are settling because we feel as if, “This is the best I can do.” I used to feel that, because of the body I was born into and other circumstances, I could only have certain kinds of relationships and I had to be okay with what I was given. That came from a severe lack of self-esteem and depleted self-love and self-compassion. I had this energetic mentality that no matter how out-of-sync someone was with me, if they were attracted to me I had to be grateful for that, because so many other people weren’t attracted to me.
As I began practicing, and moving through retreat, and coming back out into the world, I had to really challenge that mentality and assert that I deserve to be with someone I’m compatible with. Maybe I’ll have to be really patient, but that’s okay because I’ve also taken on some of the tasks people often rely on their partners for—like appreciating myself, and loving myself more and more. Of course, it’s wonderful when someone else shows up and appreciates you; but I’m not in need of it because I can give it to myself.
So now I seek relationships because I want to take care of someone and I also want to be taken care of. I want there to be a balance of care.
The MOON: Is that hard?
Lama Rod: As a teacher it’s easy to fall into the role of giving, which can become my default setting, which gets in the way of being cared for myself. It’s easy to minimize my own need for care. I’ve noticed, however, that it’s my mind that tells me, “Oh, you don’t need help,” but my body is more likely to say, “Actually, you could use some.”
Another edge for me is being in a relationship where a partner offers support and care that I don’t usually get and then we fall into roles. I do all my caregiving in the world and then rely on my intimate relationship to replenish what I have given to others.
So then it might become a practice for me to be conscious of how I accept generosity from a partner. That can be such an incredible lesson. The flip side of it is to learn how to be really attentive to the ways that you return care. In conscious relationships we should be asking, what do I need and what does my partner need? And you communicate with one another. Maybe you’re in a situation where you can’t possibly give what your partner needs and then you have to discern together whether certain needs can be met beyond this particular relationship. All of it—communicating and listening to our bodies—becomes a space for discernment to happen.
The MOON: Can you give us an example of that?
Lama Rod: I think open and polyamorous relationships are interesting. They’re two different practices, but a core that links both of them is the recognition that we may have needs and desires that are important to us that maybe are not met in our primary relationship. So we may have to create ways to honor and explore our connections to other people while protecting our primary relationship. People have to communicate what the needs are, what the boundaries might be, and so on, so that the primary relationship can be protected while the partners explore different relationships.
It’s incredibly important to have these conversations if indeed people have these desires. I’m not saying everyone should be in an open or polyamorous relationship. They take an incredible amount of maturity, and there has to be mutuality; it can’t just be the interest of one partner. Multiple significant relationships take time and communication. They require openness, vulnerability, processing, all of which takes a lot of energy. You have to be honest with what you need and you have to be honest with what you’re willing to give.
If you are not in a relationship and just enjoy sex with different partners, it’s still important to have some clarity about how you define being safe. This is different for everyone. We also have to be honest about our reasons for engaging in this kind of practice. Does it stem from sexual trauma or sexual addiction? No matter what choices you’re making in terms of expressing your sexuality you have to be honest. You have to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sex can then become a profound way that we shape our character and our moral selves. My sexual relationships have helped me develop a sense of what’s healthy for me, how I have valued or devalued myself, and how I can make choices to protect and value myself and others.
Sex positivity is important too. We’re not a sex-positive nation at all, even though sex is everywhere. We’re sex-saturated but not sex-positive. That comes from a lot of sexual trauma, and a lot of body shame. The dharma has helped me to critically examine my own body shame, my shame around sexuality, and to do some healing work around both. And of course this led me to teaching and providing resources for other people doing the same work for themselves.
The MOON: That’s a lot to take on.
Lama Rod: It is. It’s a lot of positions to hold. I found myself recently bordering on sounding judgmental towards people who weren’t thinking about open relationships. [Laughs] It would have been easy for me to dismiss them saying something like, “Well, you’ve just been colonized by the white supremacist, hetero, able-bodied, monogamous culture and you need to break out of that.” That’s judgmental.
Instead, as a spiritual teacher I try to help people make the best decisions for them at this point in time. I want those decisions to be supportive of their ethics, and I hope that their ethic is about getting free. I can’t tell you what to do, or what choices to make, but I can help you develop a meditation practice, an awareness practice, and through it you will begin to discern what’s right for you.
The MOON: There’s a high level of anger and animosity out in the world today. As a queer Black Buddhist activist do you even attempt to engage it? Or do you only engage with people who are willing to meet you where you are?
Lama Rod: To an extent I don’t have a choice. I feel as if I’m going to be among people who might be hostile no matter what I do, even if I’m not actively arguing or pushing back. Yet my primary activity is actually just being myself. I can be in spaces that are really aggressive, violent and full of anxiety, and I don’t have to engage in it. I can use my awareness practice to erect barriers within which I can just be myself—happy and at ease. This is how I get so much attention in the world. People see me maintaining my presence in a toxic room and ask, “How do you do that? How can you go sit and talk about racism with all-white audiences?” And I say it’s because I don’t take on their work. I’m just showing up and expressing how I see things. I’m not trying to convince anyone else. I give the work back to them. That way, I don’t get drained and depleted. I’m just pointing out truths; it’s up to them to decide what to do. Afterwards, I’m going to go do something to have fun and I’m not going to think about it.
I also don’t carry certain experiences in my body, mind and spirit like some people do. I know how to let things go. I understand that change takes a lot of work, so I don’t expect people to transform just because of an experience with me. It has taken an incredible amount of self-examination on my part to get where I am, and how many people have devoted full-time effort to it? I’m committed to providing the same teachings that helped me to everyone else, but it’s up to them to go and figure out how put it into practice in their own life.