TW: This article contains content about sexual assault and suicide ideation.
TLDR: Taking refuge in the triple gem can guide us to safety. To be at peace at whatever hardships life may throw at us. While sharing metta to ourselves might be the hardest, it is necessary for us to heal and grow over our wounds.
Poem of contemplation:
Knowing I’m not perfect
Whatever that can be suffered, I have endured.
Life oh life
Have you had enough?
Are you satisfied?
Don’t you find yourself annoying?
Always testing my tolerance
Why is it so tough?
I have never asked for happiness
Neither do I expect a miracle
I just hope some nights
I’m able to have some peace and contentment
And some hope to go through the next day
I’ve never cried because of my self-pity
neither do I expect a happy ending
I don’t even cry to make myself feel better
Guilts are redundant
It won’t change into happy endings
I’m not a greedy person
I’ve never asked for more than I needed
I have already surrendered to pain or sorrows
I will not reciprocate the phenomenon that life promises
I’ve always disdained the result
only ask for the consequences
Ending myself won’t get me anywhere either
I will not feel sad for what I never once had
I just ask for one night where
I can be more hopeful
And be left alone
Where Dhamma is by my side
If I wanted to drown myself in the sea, I would, but ever since I took refuge in the triple gems, after all these struggles and all the silence through these years, I simply don’t want to do that anymore.
It’s hard to breathe even when I’m not drowning, but I have enough of it now, I want to live, I want to breathe harder and I want to do something meaningful in this life and I will walk away from the sea to climb up the mountain. Any darkness, any uncertainty however fluid and however dangerous, the triple gems will lead me and take me in hand.
The beginning of physical & mental pain
Something is not right.
I woke up with pains in my butt, anally. I remember last night, I was invited to a house party and with a few drinks, I was feeling dizzy. Something was in my drink, but it was too late. I’m so lost, confused and can’t wrap my head around what had happened.
I got dressed immediately, saw a few men asleep on the floor but I ignored them, and rushed for the door. That was 7 years ago, I never told anyone what had happened until recently.
I put on a brave front, pretending nothing happened but in my heart, I blamed myself.
I felt ashamed and responsible for not taking better care of myself.
There are so many possible scenarios I could think of why this shouldn’t have happened to me if I…
I could have also exposed the ones who did this to me, I swear with my character, I would have made them pay for it, but time wasn’t on my side, I have to catch a flight the next day.
As I’m a foreigner travelling, I figure how complicated legally I will have to get involved. I anticipate the overwhelming emotions I’ve to undertake, that scares me and I’m a coward I know but I felt like I wasn’t ready to confront them.
I was also distraught and feeling disgusted, I wanted to leave that godforsaken country as soon as possible.
The questions that flood my head
Why me? Why? I have asked myself many times. I have enough of asking, and what happened has happened.
I’ve stopped asking questions that don’t come with any answers. There is only one thing I’m sure of, knowing what I should do next and how I respond to this adversary.
I need to get a blood test. It takes time for the body to make antibodies after it is exposed to HIV, and different people make antibodies at different rates.
The window period for antibody tests is between 3 weeks and 3 months. Up to 95% of people will have antibodies after 6 weeks, and 99% of people will have antibodies after 3 months.
I waited for a 3-month period to get tested. That probably is the darkest time of my life. That anxiety that keeps building up is killing me. Like a prisoner in the dark cell, trapped within the 4 walls.
Trying to scream but no sounds can come out.
When I closed my eyes, I saw the ugliness and bad things that had happened. My pain and sufferings, who can I relate to? All this is just a battle I’m fighting inside myself. Regardless of winning or losing, it all seems ridiculous.
The day had arrived. Here I was at the clinic waiting nervously, a volunteer working in the Anonymous HIV Test Clinic had taken my blood for testing.
I know it is not over yet, emotionally I’m still haunted by what those bastards had done to me, but I also know it could get much worse.
Everyone said being positive is a good thing, but for me, being positive is the worst thing that could ever happen to me.
It’s like you got hit by the bus and a motorcycle ran over after. I went into a room and this kind gentleman was trying to break the news to me. My nightmare becomes real, the blood test result was out.
I’m HIV positive.
I’ve prepared for this to happen, yet I still can’t believe it when it happens, but there is a voice in me that says keep it together.
Even in my darkest moments, when I felt the most challenged, I often found a glimpse of light that can warm my heart from the Buddha’s teaching.
Facing my ugly pain & suffering head-on is the fundamental Buddhist way that has always kept me going. I must find a way to cope with it.
The Healing Begins
Regardless of how I have suffered, the happiest thing I have ever come across is the teachings of the Buddha.
Silly me, coping doesn’t resolve my pain; it merely distracts me from it. The first step to healing my pain is to stop coping with it and start being with it. It hurts, but it needs to be acknowledged.
The more I run away, the further I get from acknowledging my pain and misery. This is the Buddha’s first noble truth: acknowledging the suffering. Why haven’t I learnt it, especially since I know it by heart? How can I heal the sorrow that I haven’t identified? Similarly, the Buddha taught me that through acknowledging one’s suffering, they open the door to alleviating it.
By three things the wise person may be known. What three? He sees a shortcoming as it is. When he sees it, he tries to correct it. And when another acknowledges a shortcoming, the wise one forgives it as he should. ~ Anguttara Nikaya I – 103
Forgiveness, that is what I need. Once I’ve acknowledged my pain, I need to generate more loving-kindness for myself so I can forgive myself.
It is not possible to have sunshine without the rain, smiles with no tears. By the laws of the universe, there is an inevitable polarity we must all experience.
How can I possibly forgive myself if I don’t forgive others first?
I stop focusing on what others have done to me unfairly gradually and try to accept it. Forgive them, I find myself with less hatred.
When I accept other people’s mistakes repeatedly, I realize that I can also accept my own mistakes in the end. Since forgiveness starts within me, it is imperative to start the process of forgiveness from the inside out.
When we do something wrong, we have two choices: change the situation or accept it. In Buddhism, this is referred to as right action and right view under the teachings of Noble Eightfold Path. If there is something we can do to change the course of things, we should take the right action or practice till we get it right. However, if we can’t change anything, we should practice the right view, which means looking at the situation in a new light.
Non-acceptance often leads to feelings of guilt and frustration. We should accept that we are human beings with emotions that often lead us to ignorance.
It is because of our ignorance that we might commit mistakes. But, if we shed light on our ignorance, we can transform it into wisdom and learn from our mistakes.
Sending loving kindness to myself
In the past, when I dwell on the past and constantly analyze a situation, I might somehow be able to overcome it. Sadly, It never works that way, instead, it chained me to the past with torments. The past is gone, but my mind keeps it alive.
Mentally revisiting a situation repeatedly only causes more suffering — it doesn’t solve anything. Instead of holding on to these dark memories, meditation is a way to look inward and get to know what’s happening inside my mind.
By seeing through the self-generated feelings and emotions, I learn to let go.
I began meditating, as best as I could and doing it daily. Loving-kindness meditation is one of the meditations I practice often.
Keeping my eyes closed, thinking of a person close to me who loves me very much. It could be someone from the past or the present; someone still alive or who has passed; it could be the Buddha or my mother. Imagine that person standing by my side, sending me their love, sending me wishes for my wellness, for my health and happiness. I could feel the kindness and warmth coming to me closely. That gives me the strength to carry on living.
May I live with ease, may I be happy,
may I be free from pain.
May I live with ease, may I be happy,
may I be free from pain.
May I live with ease, may I be happy,
may I be free from pain.
Acknowledge the sufferings, accept it, forgive myself, and most of all, send loving-kindness to myself and let the Buddha’s Dhamma guide me.
No matter how many years I have suffered, the best thing that happens to me is I have Dhamma by my side.
Handful of Leaves and Kusala Mag are in collaboration to share Inspiring stories sprinkled with Buddhist wisdom.Check out the latest edition!
TLDR: As “spiritual people” we might go through difficult events thinking we have transcended them – but actually, it may have just been spiritual bypass. To truly let something go, we must first find a way to meet ourselves and our suffering.
A phenomenon I’ve often observed within me is spiritual bypass. According to clinical psychologist John Welwood, this is the tendency to use spiritual explanations and practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues and psychological wounds.
Why It’s Problematic
With spiritual bypass, we may go through something traumatic and then pick out a line of Dhamma and think, “Yeah, the Buddha said this and he’s right, so I should get over it now.”
For example, say someone close to you has passed away. Spiritual bypass in this situation may look like telling yourself that “everything is impermanent” and that “death is natural, it happens to everyone” so “I shouldn’t feel grief”.
You use the Dhamma to rationalise the grief away – but without healthily processing the emotions that naturally arise.
This is problematic because externally, it may appear like you’ve been able to transcend the suffering, completely unaffected – but you haven’t actually done the real work of processing the painful experience and unpleasant emotions that come with it.
Without properly taking the time to receive these things and truly let them go, they might stay repressed, festering away until they come back to bite you in the a** later on.
I’m Buddhist, so I Should Just Get Over It
Something that can make this tendency worse is a strong attachment to “being Buddhist”. You may hold yourself to very high standards, putting pressure on yourself to “be strong” and “get over it”, thinking you need to be unfazed by suffering.
“I am Buddhist, so I shouldn’t be angry. Instead, I should be contented.”
“I am Buddhist, so I should be beyond such petty emotions.”
“I am Buddhist, so I should be able to let go of suffering.”
From my experience, this can be a kind of conceit. It’s a deluded expectation stemming from a heavy attachment to a “Buddhist identity” – an idealism about how your practice “should” look like, instead of working with what actually arises.
You may feel guilt or aversion around the unwholesome thoughts, intentions and desires that inevitably arise. And because of the shame, you want to hide them away, from others and even from yourself.
But what happens when you don’t allow yourself to process all that?
It doesn’t just disappear. Instead, it gets buried in the heart and resurfaces later on.
In my late teens, I experienced several traumatic events and at the time, spiritually bypassed them and then left to study abroad (which was a niceee, biiig distraction).
Years later, when I returned home during the pandemic to familiar conditions with lots of quiet, idle time, many of those unresolved negative emotions and thought patterns began to resurface.
It was surprising because for the last three years I thought I was “fine” for the most part. But evidently, I had just swept things into “the basement of unawareness”. Now that they’d reappeared, it was time to clear out the basement – to finally meet myself and deal with the repressed suffering.
This was important because, as Pema Chödrön says, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know”.
So, How Should We Approach Suffering?
We know that everything is impermanent. We know that everything decays and dies one day.
We often know the Dhamma very well on an intellectual level.
But if intellectual understanding was all it took to let go, then everyone would be enlightened, wouldn’t they?
How do we apply the Dhamma beyond just a conceptual level?
In Thai, one of the terms for the mind is jit jai – “mind and heart”. There’s an ambiguity in the language that likens the mind to the heart. To me, this seems to say that processing things up in the head is not enough – we must also deal with them on an emotional level.
One of my favourite authors, Yung Pueblo, says “Manage your reactions, but do not suppress your emotions.”
Certainly, if there is, say, anger in the heart, we should take care to ensure that it doesn’t leak into our actions and speech in a way that harms ourselves and others. We might have to suppress it for that little while, but then we should make sure to process it healthily later on – this is necessary so that it can really be let go of.
Of course, this sounds straightforward in theory, but it takes a lot of skill to acknowledge these emotions without indulging in or avoiding them.
One way I practice receiving negative emotion is by being mindful of how it feels in the body. Focusing on how anger physically feels and changes helps me to receive it without indulging in it or denying it. However, I find this difficult to do for certain emotions (e.g. depression, which tends to lure you in and make you want to wallow in it), if I have a strong attachment to the issue at hand, or if my mindfulness is weak at that time.
Apart from mindfulness, the Buddha recommends five ways to remove distracting thoughts, which you can read about here. What works for you may depend on your temperament.
Letting Go of Repressed Dukkha
A process I find effective for dealing with old negative emotions is this:
1. Returning to familiar conditions in which the trauma took place can cause these old emotions to resurface. So if a situation is too triggering, remove yourself from it to prevent unwholesome speech and action.
3. When you’re calm enough, receive the emotion. Let yourself feel all of it. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to vent, do it with a trustworthy friend. I remember a story by Ajahn Sumedho, who had so much aversion towards a particular visitor to the monastery that he sat down one day and just began writing out all his anger –completely unfiltered, not trying to be nice or reasonable or “a good monk” – until there was none left. This is acceptance and release.
4. I find that receiving the emotion comes hand-in-hand with developing insight around it. When your mind is calm enough to look at the situation, you may develop new perspectives and understandings. These “paradigm shifts” are the real good stuff that helps to create lasting “liberation” from the issue. Bit by bit, they help you make sense of the experience and let go of it.
For me, this process usually takes place over a few days. You may also find that you have to go through it multiple times. That’s because, after some time, these habitual mindsets that we carry can become cemented in the psyche, becoming our “default mode”. Reframing these thoughts can thus be very challenging – so don’t be afraid to even seek guidance from a therapist.
To quote Yung Pueblo again, “If the pain was deep, you will have to let it go many times… Letting go is not a one-time event, it is a habit that requires constant repetition to become strong. Sometimes the reaction to the pain is so deep that you will have to observe and release the tension repeatedly to fully cleanse the wound.”
With each cycle, you might find that you let go a little bit more.
If you realise that something within your heart is unresolved, the first step is to let it come to the surface. Practice loving-acceptance.
Recognise your triggers and set boundaries for yourself. If certain situations are too much to handle, remove yourself from them. When you feel stronger, you may test the waters further in the future – but for now, protect your mind.
Having to deal with old trauma may feel like you’re regressing, but it is actually progress. Be patient and kind with yourself throughout this (often painful but rewarding) process.
Xin Yee (not their real name) shares with HOL on their journey of coming out as LGBTQIA+.
Content warning: This piece describes acts of homophobia, suicidal ideation and mental illness that might be disturbing to some readers.
LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexuals. These terms are used to describe a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some LGBTQIA+ members prefer the use of certain pronouns to reflect their gender identity. In this case, Xin Yee wishes to use “their”.
“I guess we all had inklings…you know, the dance of hormones, feelings you have as a teenager. I knew then I was gay.”
When I read coming out stories like this, I never related.
As a 13-year-old girl, I just recalled the pull of just wanting to get closer, and closer, and closer to some girls. There were no labels of relationships, normality, or even queerness. Just a simple innocence of “I just really like being around you, and I want you to like me too,” that’s it.
I was oblivious that I was different, and I was not aware of how sinister that simple feeling meant to others, and little did I know that could be the beginning of a crime punishable by death in 7 countries.
And then I start to learn about “the lesbians.” They are the red lines not to be crossed. Those who crossed them were treated with the same category as delinquent juveniles – who engaged in drug-taking, vandalism and gangsterism. At home, derogatory terms were thrown casually on people within the LGBTQIA+.
Conversations around them were about their differences, abnormality, and unnaturalness and almost always met with disgust and wagging tongues. Perhaps I was “fortunate” enough to not understand my feelings at that time, and hence I was not the brunt of the discrimination.
But I internalised the aversion towards them.
When They Become I
The complex feelings of attraction persisted and intensified. I liked boys, and I really like girls. I didn’t feel the inclinations towards expressing my femininity in stereotypical ways, nor did I feel the urge to become another gender.
I was beyond confused as there were no examples around me that I could relate to. Figuring out one’s identity and creating a meaningful sense of self in the world – one that is consistent and harmonious with what one feels-is immensely challenging.
Yet it is a crucial part of our lives. Thus, I set sail on my solo ship of exploration.
I remember navigating my exploration with much caution, as I have already internalised homophobia. I knew enough to live a double life. Away from my family, I opted for masculine clothes that I felt comfortable and free in. I gave myself bold side shaves and wax my hair up confidently like David Beckham. But when I was home, I always swept my hair over my forehead to justify that it was still “long hair” and that I was “normal”.
But of course, I was treading on thin ice – the desire to express myself freely did not sit well with my family’s heteronormative expectations.
One day, when I was minding my own business, I was beckoned into a room by my mother and, *surprise surprise* her gang of ladies, (comprising of well-intentioned relatives with the lethal combination of being too nosy and having too much time to spare ) to have “The Intervention to Straighten Me Out.”
Each relative had the unique role of holding 3 pictures:
A. Facebook photos of me in short hair,
B. Picture of male model with the same hair that I had,
C. Celebrities in the 2000s with cringy blonde long hair and feminine outfits.
They each interrogated me on why I was acting like a boy (picture B) and accused me of “Becoming A Lesbian.”
The bottom line was clear: My identity was not to be tolerated anymore and I had to “become” what was acceptable to them (picture C), and that the repercussions were severe. I was threatened to be “cut off completely” from the family if I were found to be “gay.”
I barely managed to keep an emotionless face and denied my way through their harsh (disrespectful, even) scrutiny but internally, my world shut down. I remembered feeling absolutely terrified, helpless and repulsed. These were relatives, family whom I spent weekly Sundays with, grew up celebrating birthdays, new years and achievements together.
They were supposed to be the people who had my back, not committing an “et tu, Brutus,” in the betrayal of “Julius Caesar.”
At the same time, I felt deeply hurt, ashamed and deeply alone in an overwhelming stew of conflicting emotions being rejected by my very own family. It was beyond what I even knew how to process. Eventually, I stopped expressing myself to the world, but my body continued to absorb all the stress as I tried very desperately to hide the emotions that I felt, while trying to force myself into normality, while fearing the terrifying consequences, while managing final year academics, projects and competitions, heartbreak etc……
And that’s when my body hit the breaking point.
I was diagnosed with a psychogenic movement disorder – which essentially was my body’s way of expressing the overwhelming psychological distress I felt through uncontrollable jerks, tics and even full-body spasms.
Emergency wards, ambulances, wheelchairs, a concoction of pills and painful injections were my best friend for the next couple of weeks and months. At my weakest, I was bedridden and completely lost the ability to perform normal functions like sitting straight up without toppling over.
I was scraping the bottom of the barrel.
The Coming Out
As the desperation to rescue me from the lifeless form I occupied grew frantic, I saw my parents in a different light. They were by my side all day and all night. Without hesitation, they fed me, wiped me, and even helped me take showers.
But yet, the disconnect was there as I was still weighed down by the burden of shame, guilt and fear. I still didn’t see a way out to reconcile how I felt with how the world would react. Hope was slipping away and I was losing the desire to hold on.
One day, I whispered meekly to my mother that I wanted her to “please let me go”.
Amidst volumes of tears that could sustain an Amazonian rainforest, I vividly remembered her asking: “Please tell me what I can do to bring you back, anything at all”.
And the dam broke. I stammered and stuttered my way through four simple words: “Ma, I like girls.”
I closed my eyes in anticipation of the world to come crashing down, for her to disown me, for her to pack her bags and leave.
After 5 long seconds that felt like an absolute eternity, she embraced me tightly, and said: “No matter what, you are still my daughter and I will accept and love you unconditionally.” For the first time in a long while, my tears were of relief and not of pain; And for the first time in a long while, I slept soundly like a baby.
The Healing Begins
Coming out does not mean rainbows and sunshine immediately. Acceptance is an up and down process. Most days we struggled, and some days we were backtracking to homophobic/transphobic slurs and disrespect, but more importantly, we were making baby steps of progress.
I had to learn also that acceptance was two ways – it was not just about her accepting my reality, but also in me accepting her as a human trying her best to unlearn her perceptions shaped by past experiences and alienating cultural narratives.
We both had to learn and practice compassion to chip away at the hatred, aversion and ill-will accumulated within ourselves.
Coming out does not mean that all problems cease to exist. The hostility and discrimination imposed by society still remains,but the most beautiful part is knowing that my family will be there with me, supporting me as I go through these challenges, and that we are together in charting an uncertain future. Family becomes part of the solution in alleviating suffering.
Coming to terms with an identity and establishing a strong sense of self as LGBTQIA+ was crucial to me in my younger days, and it defined a huge portion of “me, myself and I” as I struggled to gain validation and feel accepted.
But as I grow with the Dhamma, I realised just how fluid the sense of identity/self-view can be. Who I was, who I am, and who I will be… changes.
Internally, you may evolve as a person, and perhaps other aspects of your identities might become more important as you grow as a person – such as your spirituality, hobbies, passion, your contribution to humanity and your definition of yourself may change accordingly.
Externally, you may be defined and categorised by others based on their perceptions. You may be everything, and everyone at once, and yet find no one static self at all. More importantly, as Buddhist practitioners, how can we aim to eventually let go of the attachment to the sense of self? As Venerable Soma in the Sister Soma Sutta(S N 5.2) wisely reflects that the moment we have strong identities of who we are, defilements arise if our ‘self’ is provoked.
Many LGBTQIA+ people continually face generations of hate ranging from disrespectful slurs, homo/transphobic hate crimes, religious persecutions to even death sentences in some countries.
In Singapore, while the LGBTQIA+ community is gaining visibility and recognition, they still face unfavourable odds in public housing policies, military, healthcare and education. This leaves room for more progress ahead.
My intention in writing this article is not to persuade you to agree on LGBTQIA+ issues or have debates. My sincere hope is that through sharing my story, I invite you to see the humanity that both you, and I,a complete stranger share. I hope you draw parallels between our life stories and journeys, and recognise that just like you, all I want fundamentally is to be loved, accepted and respected.
Dr. Maya Angelou captures this fundamental union of humankind very beautifully below:
“As Roman Slave turned Playwright Terence mused:
‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’
Even in someone very different from you or someone you perceive as heinous…‘I have in me all the components that are in her, or in him; Likewise… if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which he or she was born, it means so can you.”
Let’s look beyond our differences and celebrate our shared humanity. Let’s stretch to use our energies constructively, to generate compassion, empathy and kindness, and destruct energies of aversion, ignorance and prejudice within us so that we can eventually be liberated from the suffering eating away at our hearts.