Blessings in Disguise
Legend has it that a notorious outlaw once roamed the Northern plains of Tibet whose crimes included robbery, rape, and murder. His reputation spread far and wide, instilling fear in all who crossed the Tibetan Plateau. This fierce and fearless bandit thought nothing of assailing groups of travelers and taking and raping whatever and whoever he liked.
Then, one day, he came upon a caravan that included a beautiful, spiritual woman who was the consort of a revered guru. This particular guru was known for his ability to manifest to those he met in a form that would most benefit them according to their personal needs.
Apparently, the woman also had this unusual, yet powerful gift. Seeing her beauty, the bandit kidnapped and raped this devoted woman several times. Yet shortly afterward, the bandit renounced his life of violence and took up the path of a wandering monk. Over the years, he became a great healer and some say even a saint. He lived in service to all he met.
When the man was old and on his death bed, someone asked him what had changed him all those years ago. He grew quiet for a moment and thought back to the rape, remembering how the woman had looked at him with such tenderness and understanding. He leaned back on his bed, closed his eyes for the last time and answered, "It was her absolute compassion that changed me."
When I first heard of this legend many years ago, its message spoke directly to my soul. As a war child who carried a legacy of tremendous abuse and violence, I knew the story had something to teach me about the curative power of compassion.
The daughter of a U.S. soldier who took a Vietnamese woman as his wife, I am one of 25,000 Amerasian children born as a direct result of this country's involvement in the Vietnam War. My mother and I immigrated to this country when I was eight months old.
The year was 1974. The war was nearing an end, and my father dropped us off in Long Beach, California. Then he left to fulfill his tour of duty. My mother had no money, no family, no way of going home, and a new babe in her arms. With little more than a third-grade education, she worked seven nights a week to support us.
I will never forget the excitement I felt years later when Mother announced she had hired a woman named Gloria to take care of me. As a child so often left alone to fend for myself, a babysitter sounded like a guardian angel in the flesh – a gift, pure and simple. Nothing could have prepared me for what would actually come my way.
My world suddenly turned dirty and terrifying. For the next three years – at the hands of my caretaker Gloria – I became the victim of daily sexual perversion and brutality. I had no power over my own body, felt no feelings save anger, and endured a near-fatal wounding of my soul. My pain and ignorance made self-destruction and abuse seem normal, even intriguing at times.
Gloria made it so easy – I was the center of her universe and, in truth, she was the center of mine. I wanted love, even if I had to pay the devil in secrets. My head swirled with contradictory feelings as love became entwined with feeling bad, dirty, and shameful. I learned to leave my body during those twisted nights; it was the only way to survive.
By the time I entered puberty, rape, violence, and seduction were the ordinary components of intimacy. At fourteen, I followed the siren call of love again. I went with John, an eighteen-year-old crush, to his house and was violently raped. Why would I, a victim of long-term sexual abuse, enter such a dangerous situation? Perhaps I was destructively repeating the pattern Gloria had started.
I only remember being excited to be going home with John, hoping like any naïve fourteen-year-old to hold his hand or be kissed. I had no idea that sexual terror came in the shape of men as well as women. Now that I saw good reason to be afraid of everybody, regardless of gender, I instead became afraid of no one and nothing. Disassociation had helped me get through the first traumatic abuse with Gloria, and now it worked again – ultimately leading me to feel nothing at all, not during the rape, and not after. Not for a long, long time.
I handled major traumas like sexual abuse, being chased by a gang member with a gun, or watching my neighborhood go up in flames when the Rodney King verdict sparked the L.A. riots with surprising ease. No one could hurt me; I could walk away from any person or situation and feel nothing. In fact, I became the hunter.
I was attractive and men were everywhere. If a man had money, respect, and an impressive pedigree – all of which I lacked and believed would keep me safe – he became my prey. A few times, I felt something I thought of as love, but not for long. Sex, money, alcohol, and lies always tied me up into a suicidal knot of loneliness and despair. No matter who or how much I got, I was never satisfied.
During those years of numbness, I saw my life in terms of absolutes: situations were always either good or bad. I now understand that life isn't really that way. Most moments generally contain a little of both.
Even when I look back at some of my worst experiences, I can see beauty, love – even innocence. The universe had been blessing me all along. Some blessings were obvious, like summers spent with my sister Diana and her family, or Mother bringing home our first puppy. Even my brother Tim brought an unexpected gift when he led me to believe that meditation could give me the power to levitate. In a funny way, he turned out to be right.
I started to meditate, and slowly my spirit began to lift. I did not see flashing lights, but I did feel moments of pure joy, a flicker of hope that life could be different. I had a new secret, only this was a good one. Little by little, the heavy rock of shame I carried inside me began to dissolve.
Then, at the age of nineteen, I met a wise and gentle woman. We talked for hours about my life and my suffering. She told me of a Tibetan prophecy that predicted a dark age of chaos, suffering, and ignorance. The prophecy stated that out of this darkness, an equal amount of light would come into the world in the form of healers.
"Such a healer is a Bodhisattva," she said, "one who lives for the benefit of all other beings." Her words were like a lightning strike to my soul. Could this painful journey of mine have been a part of my spiritual path all along? Could my suffering be somehow linked with the spiritual development of all sentient beings? Did my sufferings contribute in some way to the evolution of the planet?
I couldn't decide what to believe, but her words offered me a new way of seeing my life. I opened to the possibility that my suffering could actually be a gift, that the harshness of the journey was proportional to the learning I could gain, and that my greatest tormentors were also my greatest teachers. And in this I found forgiveness – both for them and for my own transgressions.
Not only did this perspective help me accept and understand my past, it opened a path to an unforeseen future. Like the bandit on the plains of Tibet, my life took a deep banking turn toward a life of healing and service.
My first lesson was to realize that my tendency to be judgmental, impatient, and angry only perpetuated my suffering and sent a ripple effect of suffering into the lives of those around me. Understanding this, I made my personal healing a top priority, eventually gifting myself and others who were thus freed from the burden of my unhappiness.
Healing came full circle when I realized this essential truth: suffering does not belong to me alone, and any healing forged in me is a healing for the whole.
Mindfulness practice has been a great resource in my healing. When the mind and senses become still, our body-being has a chance to come into harmony with nature as the essential self emerges.
The embodiment of this quality can clearly be seen in the beautiful woman who met the bandit's savagery with compassion. Her behavior suggests a full realization of Buddhism's basic teaching: suffering exists when we attempt to secure our relationship with the "world out there" instead of with the "world inside here."
According to this teaching, when we relinquish attachment to body, mind, and emotions, we lose the fear of death and thus transcend the primary cause of suffering and pain. Mindfulness practice reveals the essential emptiness beneath emotions, and the impermanence of mental constructs and concepts. Freedom from misery follows, as our higher nature – blooming with compassion for the human condition – begins to flower.
Healing is, in a very real sense, a second birth, an awakening in which we engage consciously by going after the truth that sets us free. When I began to see my early traumas as the path of a healer in the making, a second life began. When we re-conceive suffering as the potent contractions of the soul giving birth to a spiritual path and higher purpose, pain becomes a guide – a signal alerting us to what needs attention.
If we don't listen to pain for what it's telling us, we run the risk of going numb and distracting ourselves in any of the myriad ways readily available. In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes, "…it is easier to wake up from a nightmare than an ordinary dream."
In other words, extreme suffering provides an alarm that can awaken us from the nightmarish state in which we are separate from God. What we awaken to is a deep reservoir of wholeness that stretches far beyond what we normally see as ourselves. To realize that fullness, we need to let go of many notions and convictions, to literally die to our old concept of who we are. The fire of our suffering can actually help us to burn through to this deeper discovery.
Likewise, the fire of desire and the deep pleasure of sex can draw us closer to the present moment where old wounds can be released. Years of mindfulness practice taught me how to stay present and breathe through whatever arose on the meditation pillow – be it excruciating knee pain, extreme boredom, or angry frustration. In time, I brought this same mindfulness to lovemaking. Sex became a meditation.
In so many ways, this practice is what finally brought me home to my body and to a healed sexual life, closing the gap in self-connection that disassociative processes had carved. I no longer had to abandon my own pleasure to an old reactive pattern. Breathing my way through it all, I discovered that awareness heals.
I had always paid a price for my disconnection. Or as I see it now, I did not really pay any price but was repeatedly and lovingly reminded that I could not be free of sexual suffering, of any suffering, by trying to escape it. I would need to accept and integrate my sexual self in full, all of it – the pain, the learning, the Gloria, and the glory.
For more than a decade I struggled with health complications all centered in my sexual and reproductive organs. As I moved toward greater compassion and gratitude for all my lovers, even the Glorias, I found my medical symptoms disappearing as if by magic. One after another I let go of my painful experiences, of the anger and guilt, of proclaiming myself Victim or Perpetrator. When I stopped coupling alcohol, even one glass of wine, with sex, I stopped getting the yeast infections that had plagued my relationships.
Since then my single purpose in sexual relationship has been to unite spirit with body, to find pleasure in consciousness and consciousness in pleasure. I no longer have to abandon my sexual response or my sexual health to the old reactive patterns of seduction, fear, power, and control, of juggling who would be hunter and who hunted. Breathing my way through it all, I could love and be loved in safety, feeling ecstasy and ultimate surrender with my eyes wide open.
Over the years, sexual suffering has come to me in many forms. I've been sexually attacked by women and men, humans and microorganisms, family, strangers, myself, and my own body. I now see that each of these has been a spiritual signpost saying, "turn here; look here; walk here."
Suffering powerfully points us toward God by challenging us to open and stay open – to override the impulse to shut down. Vital to the healing process is an attitude of acceptance and surrender.
Indeed, suffering itself is often a clear signal that we have shut down with blame, self-condemnation, and guilt – popular detours thoroughly modeled on daytime television. When we understand this signal and trust enough to let go and open to the experience of the moment again, then we can truly begin to face the actual in-the-moment pain. This is when we begin to heal.
This, then, is the great gift that suffering offers us: a challenge to dig deeply, to find within us an untouchable state of well-being, a place of wholeness and joy that exists independent of changing circumstances and the actions of others. This is what I call using suffering to know God. Suffering has a way of pointing us Home and inviting us to let go and discover the grace and wholeness underlying it all. Seeing this again and again builds faith, a deeply lived faith that embraces fully the process of life.
Rather than shutting down and disassociating in situations that are difficult, I now subtly move toward the mystical abyss of surrender and letting go. And with that movement, I feel ever more connected to God and to Truth.
As Rumi said, "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." Even the most painful experience can be transformed into understanding with the eyes of compassion. Once we learn to see through the disguise of our suffering, we delight in the realization that only angels surround us.
Note: The above is an edited excerpt from a compilation of essays in the enlightening book The Marriage of Sex & Spirit, edited by Geralyn Gendreau.