The Right Amount of Space
by Nomy LammBreathing in and out, I focus my concentration on my nostrils, the air brushing the cells, activating my senses, challenging me to stay present. Simultaneously I work to hold my back pain in my awareness without falling into it or thinking I can fix it by fixating on it. “I feel you, I acknowledge you,” I say to the back pain. It seems cool with that. We have a pretty good relationship. The woman next to me is snoring again – not as bad as the first couple days, not loud enough to warrant a tap on the shoulder, just enough to let me know she’s asleep.This is day three of a queer meditation retreat and I am still not sure exactly what I’m getting out of it, feel like I am skimming over the surface of things, trying to work my way into myself. First couple days were all about becoming accustomed to the environment, getting acquainted with the routine. Riding the scooter up and down the hill to meals, figuring out when were the best times to use the toilet and take a bath, getting used to taking my leg off eight times a day for each sit and every meal. And then there were the walking meditations.I didn’t know walking meditation would be such a big part of this retreat. It’s cool to watch other people all slow and intentional in their bodies, but walking for me is not so easy to stay centered in, it pulls me in uncomfortable directions, makes my body jerk and ache. I do pay close attention, trying not to escape my body the way I did for the first twenty-five years of my life, but it’s still not pleasant, especially not for hours a day.So, I was given another option. Aware that there are people with disability and mobility issues in the room, the teacher asked us to come speak to her if we needed an alternative to walking meditation. Her suggestion was interesting, considering that this is a silent retreat, but it’s perfect for me: a vocal meditation connected to the chakras. She narrated us through the first two chakras and nodded at us, like “get it?” We nodded, and she moved on. I should have asked more questions, but the moment passed.I wondered how this would work, considering that everyone else would be silent, and we couldn’t exactly tell them what we were doing or make sure they were okay with it before we launched into sound-making. Silence is strong when you’re in it, it feels strange to interrupt. But I figured this would be a good opportunity to look at my insecurities around permission and voice, fear of being heard, and need to be approved of. I am a singer and vocal teacher, always looking for ways to strengthen my mind/body connection through voice. So I decided to just go for it. I hoped that the other people with mobility issues would also do the vocal meditation, but they kept quiet – I guess it feels too vulnerable for them.It is vulnerable, but the idea that I should limit my participation, perhaps go hide away to do my meditation feels even worse. As a person with a disability in this community, I want to be a part of things, to connect to my body, the land, the other creatures, the sunshine, the wind and yes, the people. I have already faced frustration with the feeling of being caged – like everyone else gets to explore the land on the narrow winding hilly paths, while I have to stay in areas that are paved and wide enough for the scooter. Not to sound ungrateful. I’m glad they provided scooters. It was really thoughtful. And it’s complicated. My mental health depends on a certain feeling of autonomy, so I’ve been challenging myself as much as possible, walking the narrow paths, using my cane to help me navigate, hiking my hip up to get my fake leg to negotiate the uneven walkways. My back and knee are paying the price, but my psyche is much happier being acquainted with my physical surroundings.I sit on a bench overlooking the hills and valleys, staring out over the land, imagining giant-sized creatures coming over the hills. I see them over and over throughout the days, mythical beings from another time. I let my self open with the vowels: first chakra on the pubic bone, second chakra below the belly button, third chakra solar plexus, fourth chakra heart, fifth chakra throat, sixth chakra third eye, seventh chakra top of the head. Ahhh, ayyy, eeee, ohhh, ooo. Ahh, ayyy, eee, ohhh, oooo. Am I allowed to do this? I was given no instruction about how to enter the space with my sound, and sometimes when I begin my meditation, people look at me like I’m an asshole and run away.After the first time someone walked away from me, I felt like I had been hit in the gut. I checked in during a group interview with the teacher to see if I was bothering people. I got good feedback, in fact one of them said that my chanting helped deepen her own meditation, and asked me to continue doing it in public spaces. But immediately after that, someone walked away from me again. Now as I begin my vocal meditations I feel a mounting sense of dread, fear, constriction inside me: afraid of rejection, afraid of not being liked, afraid that I am doing something wrong, taking up too much space, invading other people’s space, energetically colonizing. I want to feel connection, fullness, community, wholeness, and peace, but I don’t know how to negotiate this block. The next time someone walks away when I begin to sing, I feel so much pain and guilt I can barely make it through. I feel jealous of the crows, who swoop and scream in the sky, making a racket, doing what they please without self-consciousness.Maybe I shouldn’t sing around other people anymore. I haul my butt back to the tree I found in the woods, not too far down the path, close enough I can make it there if there is an open hour. I love this land, and this tree is magnificent. Her trunk is enormous, split in two, and leans up the hill, her branches actually bending so low that they run along the ground, offering a place to sit. I hug her trunk like she is a lover. I tromp over dead leaves, slipping on loose dirt, forging my way to that moss-covered branch on the side of the hill where the tree will embrace me and teach me about new ways of growing. Right in front of my seat is a new baby tree, just beginning its life. I open myself, my voice, my body, offering myself to the wise old matriarch and the young sapling, asking for their acceptance, which they freely give.That was day three. That was before one of the teachers actually approached me and asked me to go out beyond the gate if I was going to make sounds. I broke down, cried like there was no end to it, accidentally locked myself out of my dorm room, became convinced I was too loud, too big, too obnoxious, that there was no room for me. Even here, in this space where we are supposed to heal the hurts of alienation, I was the different one, the one who didn’t belong. I ranted in my head that this was no place for people with disabilities, convinced that everybody was irritated by the sound of my scooter as much as by the sound of my voice, considering me an interruption of their beautiful natural experience. On the other hand I felt like I was being a colonizing white asshole, taking space away from the people who this tradition belonged to, choosing to play by special rules. (I had observed that several of the people who reacted to my chanting were Asian – or at least appeared to me to be.)In those moments, everything revolved around me, my feelings, my behaviours, my decisions. I cried and cried imagining a scene where the teacher – the one who introduced the vocal meditation to me in the first place – would single me out and everyone would look, everyone would know, and feel bad, or quietly judge me. It was a tragedy, and I was the star.And then, the teacher did speak about it in the main meditation hall, and it wasn’t a huge deal. She apologized for not making it clear that she had given this teaching as an alternative to walking meditation for people with mobility issues. When I had the opportunity to ask her about my fear of appropriating this tradition, she very quickly set me straight. “Do not go there,” she said. “You have no idea what is going on for those people. This is your work. If they came to me about it, I would tell them the same thing - to process their feelings about it. We’re all here together. You are being supported.”I felt mad. I felt like she didn’t see what a crisis this was. But I felt humbled. Everyone has their stuff. This is mine.So now, apparently, I’m in it. The space feels deep. I move through the thickness of connection and I give myself permission when the time feels right, to let my voice emerge in the most natural way it can, tender with its recent upheaval of hopes and fears. I don’t know what any of these people think of me, but what we think about is not the point here. The point is to be love, to move from love, to observe our thoughts and feelings and let them be transformed by awareness.On the last night, before the final sit, we exit the temple into the night air, eighty-five queers, trans-people, and same-gender-loving people, dedicated to our own healing practices. I cross the courtyard and sit on a bench, disconnecting my prosthetic leg and laying it next to me. I begin to rock back and forth, watching the other meditators moving slowly and deliberately on their own paths. Deep inside of me, a vibration begins that leaves my body as a hum. I look up at the stars and say hello to the spirits of those lights who sent their message to our planet so many thousands of years ago. I focus on my pubic bone, feeling the energy of my first chakra, and begin to sound: “Ahhhhhh….” The people around me move like planets, slow and solid, and I let my arms swim with the sound as I change vowels and move up my body through each chakra. My heart feels open. There is nothing dramatic here, just fullness and truth. I know I can’t live here forever. Tomorrow I will return to my apartment in downtown San Francisco. So for now I will let this moment be eternal, my entire reality. It is perfect.