Orlando Kai O’Shea’s life holds an abundance of challenges. He is a transgender man who began transitioning in the middle of a long-term relationship with a heterosexual husband. He is raising two teenagers on the autism spectrum. He volunteers as a crisis counselor and a supervisor for a suicide hotline. And he has a twenty-year history of anxiety disorder. In Orlando’s words, “Support and grounding are crucial elements to whether I survive and even thrive in an environment wrought by storms. These are strong factors in my attraction to Zen Buddhism.” Here are some more words from Orlando, about his journey towards PZI and koan practice:
I was raised in a loosely Catholic household. My grandmother was an Irish immigrant, and my four older sisters went to Catholic school, but by the time my brother and I rolled around my family was lucky to make midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Still, Catholicism weaved its way into my day-to-day existence. When things went missing my mother invoked Saint Anthony and when I visited my grandmother as a teenager she dragged me to Sunday services in between card games accompanied by beer. She reminded me that church was a sacrifice and not meant to be fun, an obvious contrast with our evenings of cards and booze. My grandfather, an English immigrant forced into the tradition, gave up golf for Lent, yet only if snow was in the forecast. If the weather was mild he switched to maraschino cherries, which he despised. While traveling through Europe with my family we visited the Catholic cathedrals and paid tribute to our departed at altars lit by candles. My mother preferred sermons spoken in Latin because of their haunting beauty.
As a young adult living in my hometown, Los Angeles, I accompanied a friend to a Hindu temple and ended up following that path for ten years. The organization was heavy on long hours of strict and focused meditation and encouraged ascetic living. While there were aspects of the teachings that drew me in, and from which I derived a sense of value, I always felt like I was failing in my practice because I was failing at meditation. I had a monkey mind that would relentlessly wander, but there wasn’t very much wiggle room for this, or for any variation from the protocol. Still, my tendency to stay where I was planted won out; I persevered. Until one winter, when I was under severe stress while sick with a prolonged and severe bronchitis, and I turned to the nuns for comfort and guidance. The sole advice that they dispensed was: if you can lift a finger, then you can follow the mediation practice. At that point I made the decision that the path was no longer meaningful or relevant to my life.
I spent the next five years as a spiritual nomad; no home, no affiliation, studying Greek myths with Pagans and fasting on Ramadan with Muslim friends. I renewed my relationship with nature and with pre-Christian Irish deities of the moors and mountains. Always passionate about my inner landscape, I delved into the shadow of my psyche, came face-to-face with my fears, romanced my anima, ultimately claimed an authentic self, and made the long-overdue transition from feminine presentation to masculine. With a renewed relationship to myself, I found myself yearning again for a spiritual home.
I knew that some doors were closed to me because of my transgender status. I would never be fully accepted by my religion of birth. I wanted to inhabit an environment where I could bring all parts of myself: my joys and my sorrows, my struggles, my strength and my shadow. I wasn’t looking for answers as much as I was looking for the right questions. I was drawn to the idea of Buddhism, but I had always steered clear of Zen Buddhism in particular. My partner warned me against it on several occasions, claiming that it would be too “austere” for me.
In fact, it was only once I was through the doors of PZI’s Santa Rosa space (I had read about Sunday morning meditation, and that was enough to draw me) that I realized I had indeed stepped into a Zen meditation center. I braced myself and sat down to meditate. Not only was the community made up of thoughtful and introspective individuals, a quality that I greatly value, but the meditations and koans themselves began to change and move my psyche in rather profound ways. It was a natural home for my philosophical mind, and it had the depth that my deep, human soul desired. Perhaps the thing that I liked best was that there was no wrong way to be there, no wrong way to meditate. I was allowed to be the conscious observer, watching my thoughts and my various parts without judgement, with real loving kindness.
Almost a year later I decided to deepen my commitment and become a member. Perhaps what I like best about Pacific Zen Institute is that I can leave shame and judgement out of my practice. Wherever I am is the perfect starting point, and wherever I get to in my practice is right where I need to be. I find that having this freedom opens a lot of space for self-compassion. I’m not overly concerned with what my practice is going to look like in five years, or in ten. I’m focusing on what is in front of me, and that is the here and now.
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