YogaCityNYC’s Sharon Watts sat down with Bill Auerbach, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and adjunct assistant professor of Psychology at NYU, as well as a Buddhist practitioner who has been teaching and coordinating these LGBTQ gatherings at Shambhala for the last four years.
Sharon Watts: This sounds like such a salve for the current political climate. Is Queer Dharma a relatively new offering at Shambhala?
Bill Auerbach: Actually, it’s been in existence here since the mid-1990s. In our meetings we have a Dharma talk, meditate and share conversation, and provide a community environment to explore or simply be who you are, even (or especially) if you aren’t sure. I’ve been teaching and coordinating the the group for the last four years. We meet the first and third Saturday of each month, from 6 till 8pm.
SW: The acronym LGBTQ seems to morph to include other initials, which can be confusing in itself. Intersexual and asexual are often added to the mix. You’ve centered on the word “queer” to describe your dharma talks. What does “queer” mean these days?
BA: “Queer” broadly embraces the notion that sexuality can be expansive—morphing and changing, or is multiple—and a person need not identify with an early assigned gender, either male or female. The wonderful thing about self-identifying with Queer is that it is such a freeing element. Our gender and sexual identity are poured into a category at birth, when the fit is bad, then it is very alienating.
SW: What do these particular meditations and talks offer to the drop-in and/or regular practitioner?
BA: Basically we offer a comfortable and inclusive community in which one can practice meditation and learn about Buddhism and not be singled out for being different. For some it's a place that serves as a stepping stone to being part of a larger community—our Buddhist community, and beyond.
SW: Are these talks open to straight people as well? What can one expect at a Queer Dharma gathering?
BA: Our invitation says “and friends,” and we certainly don’t do a card check at the door! All are welcome. We begin with a half-hour of guided meditation, followed by a talk given by one of our senior teachers, and then encourage dharma-sharing, where anyone can speak. After a break, we have a social gathering over juice and cookies, which adds another dimension to feeling part of a community in an unstructured way.
SW: What are some of the topics discussed?
BA: We cover Buddhist topics such as teachings on love, unconditional confidence, working with prejudice both in ourselves and outside. Sometimes we have poetry readings, and recently we showed some documentary films, followed by community conversation with the filmmakers.
SW: How does Buddhist dharma practice help someone struggling with his/her sexual identity?
BA: Buddhism teaches about the emptiness of self, but in spite of the view of emptiness, we still have an appearance to ourselves and others. Buddhism offers the perspective that appearances of gender or sexual orientation are radiant and convey wisdom. However, something very interesting happens when we try to cling to that identity—we find that there is nothing permanently there. The middle way of Buddhism teaches that while we regard appearances (including our gender and sexual identity) as basically good, clinging to those identities creates more suffering. We are encouraged to approach our identities with a light touch.
SW: Buddhism and psychology somehow balance each other, especially in a setting like New York City. How can the tandem approach both address and alleviate fear and anxiety?
BA: Buddhism has profound teachings on meditation, and the purpose of communities like Shambhala is to offer these authentic teachings. Meditation enhances the brain's capacity to self-regulate, which has been shown in extensive research to reduce fear anxiety and impulsive anger. A living community in real time, rather than a virtual online experience, allows for a deeper experience. The human exchange of teacher and community is a reminder that we are not alone, and that enlightenment is not separate from culture and being with others.
We are all looking for a “safe place.” The heart of this concept often beats in a community before centering each of us in a spiritual way. Knowing that the Shambhala Meditation Center is such a place, just around the corner from my often unquiet mind, is something I can sit with.
For more information, please contact Bill Auerbach directly at firstname.lastname@example.org