RuPaul: my new Zen guru

RuPaul. Uncredited photo.

I tell my writing students that our teachers are always available 24/7 waiting on our bookshelves or a click away on the internet. We only have to read, to listen. If we’re lucky someone will place the book we need for instruction into our hands at just the right moment.

As they say: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

But writers aren’t our only teachers. The world is our collaborator, and sometimes we can be surprised from where inspiration comes.

My friend, children’s author and illustrator Matt Phalen, couldn’t stop talking about Master Class (video lessons taught by experts in their fields) the last time I saw him. He plays the lessons as he draws, and not just the ones on writing and film, but others on food, music, or science.

I was convinced and signed up for a year-long subscription. I chose to start with “RuPaul Teaches Self-Expression and Authenticity,” because I wanted something I could listen to without feeling the need to take notes. (I’m a compulsive note taker.)

As I listened to the first lesson, “Finding Your Frequency,” I was surprised to hear him talk about stillness and meditation!

There’s a frequency that is unique to you, and your job is to locate it. You locate it through stillness.

RuPaul talking about mindfulness? Yes. He talks about how there’s so much noise! As my blog is called Writing Through the Noise, he had my attention. Meditation is as simple as “being still and listening to your body.” “You want to create space in your conscious for your frequency to shine through.” When that frequency comes through, not only will you have a sense of your true self, but once you embrace it, your people, your tribe will find you.

In “Cultural Lighthouses to the Soul,” RuPaul describes himself as always being a seeker, and pop stars were who he looked to. “Pop stars represent your secret self.” He was drawn to rule breakers like David Bowie and Diana Ross, and (now for something completely different) Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

At one point early in his career, he thought that he couldn’t make it to the big time doing drag. When a friend encouraged him to return to drag, he wondered where he’d heard that he couldn’t do it. He realized that he was the one telling himself that. He was the producer of that limiting thought. As he says,

The calls were coming from inside the house.

Once he changed his mind about that limiting thought, everything changed.

RuPaul talks about his childhood, his struggles as a gay black man, his self-esteem, his tribe, his strength and creativity and so much more in these lessons. As I listened to one lesson after the other, I thought, everyone should listen to RuPaul. He’s a daily devotional, a Sunday sermon. There is so much love and acceptance and wisdom in his words. (And yes, he does talk about makeup and wigs and dressing in the right shape for your body.)

I’ve been meditating for years now and these aren’t unfamiliar concepts, but I can always use reminding, particularly from a new perspective. Thanks to my new Zen guru I remember that my teachers, whether they be mindfulness or writing or life experts, can come from unexpected places. RuPaul taught me about finding my own voice in the stillness and how to recognize when I’m the one standing in my own creative path.

When it comes to teachers, I only need to stay open to the possibilities.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What surprising teachers have you had? Have you ever realized you weren’t pursuing a dream, because of self-generated limiting thoughts?

Filling in the Blanks, Sitting with Racism

In the early 1990s I worked for a management consulting firm owned and operated by an African-American man. We taught Diversity Training in Corporate America. For the most part, he was the only Black person in the room. Often, I was the only woman, the only white woman. Our clientele was not diversified, hence the training. 

At the beginning of class I would distribute an icebreaker handout, asking participants to write their names at the top. They were to complete the one-page worksheet with about twenty fill-in-the-blank statements as quickly as possible with the first thing that popped into their heads. Some of the sentences were:

All Southerners are ______________________________ .

All bad drivers are _______________________________.

All hairdressers are _______________________________.

All lazy people are _______________________________. 

The majority would scribble down their answers, others didn’t fill them out, but there was usually one man who would protest. “What is this?! I’m not filling this out!” Once a man threw the paper at my boss and me, and for a moment I thought he might flip the table, but he just stomped out of the conference room. It made you wonder what kind of things popped into his head. 

Diversity training handout

And that was precisely the point of the exercise. 

That man was not alone in hearing ugly words and ideas leap into his consciousness and that was why we never asked participants to share what words came to mind. All of us were fed stereotypes, bigotry, misogyny, and racism from the moment we were born. We might not have been aware of them, but they were there, and they were influencing how we interacted with people, especially those who were different than us.

This still holds true in the 21st century. We are not a post-racism nation. Today, Americans in all 50 states are marching for Black Lives Matter. To move forward, white Americans need to face racism not only in our country, but in our own minds. Closing our eyes, saying we don’t see color, isn’t helpful. Saying we are not racist, because we don’t use the n-word, or we voted for Obama is not enough.

While that Diversity exercise showed me how our minds fill in the blanks, it was mindfulness that taught me how to see and to be with my mind’s activity – good and bad. How to recognize these thoughts when they arise (not just when prompted in a training class) and how to sit with them, investigate where they come from, and understand how they affect the way I move through the world.

In my Mindful Writing classes, I remind students that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spirits having a human experience. Now, we, in particular white Americans, must see that Blacks in America are having a different human experience. 

It is incredibly uncomfortable to recognize our privilege and own our role in systemic racism, but as practitioners of mindfulness we are trained to sit with our discomfort, to acknowledge how our brains automatically fill in the blanks, and to see the truth, treating ourselves with compassion and patience. We need to recognize that our silence, our unwillingness to break those thought patterns, is costing Black lives. Once we do this difficult inner work, we can begin to have these difficult conversations with others, treating them with compassion and patience. Through our mindfulness practices, we have the tools we need to be actively engaged anti-racists.

“Minding” Dani Shapiro

Dani and me

My good friend Lynn Rosen asked me if I would be a “minder” for author Dani Shapiro during an Open Book event at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA.  Author and fellow podcaster Gretchen Rubin interviewed her about Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love for an episode of Shapiro’s podcast Family Secrets.

As a minder, my job was to take care of the author, making sure no one monopolized her time or approached her when she wasn’t signing books.

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Marie Kondo teaches people to listen to their bodies

Perhaps you listen to your body when it tells you that you’ve overdone it at the gym or that you shouldn’t have binge watched all of season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel the day it dropped. Maybe there were times you ignored the subtle messages of your body until they got louder, fighting hard to get your attention, and you found yourself with the flu or a pulled muscle in your back. Your body had to shout, take care of me!

But do you listen to your body when it’s not in distress? When it’s happy?

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Taking time to be grateful

This past year I spent much of my time developing mindful writing curriculum and leading workshops and retreats. I love this work, not only because it brings me joy and purpose, but because of the people it has brought into my life. I looked back on how I came to develop this work and found that there were a lot of people to be grateful for.

I am grateful to have discovered mindfulness all those years ago by reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

I am grateful to the Penn Program for Mindfulness. It was there when I needed it after my husband’s death, giving me a way to structure my grief and a new way to live my life moving forward. The MBSR foundational 8-week program really did change my life.

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