I began this series of posts on the four aims of life, the four purusharthas, with the story of Bob Bergeron, a gay man who seemed to have everything, yet committed suicide at age 49. I want to be careful about drawing any conclusions from what I know of his story. Each life is a mystery to be held in awe, and I do not presume to know who Bob was. None of us knows all the reasons why we ourselves do what we do, much less why another person would choose to end his life.
But I take from Bob’s story a lesson that is admittedly my projection onto him, namely, that we gay men need to find meaning for our lives beyond the pursuit of pleasure and prosperity.
It is not easy for us to find that meaning. Our culture has stripped our gayness of any significance beyond mere sexual preference or, in many religious circles, the negative valence of sin and disgrace. It falls to us, then, to reinvest our gayness with positive meaning. We must teach ourselves and then our culture what being gay means. I will come to that at the end of this post. At the outset, though, it is important to build a framework for our understanding.
In our need for meaning, we gay men are no different than the rest of humanity. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, lists meaning as one of the five elements of well-being, along with positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, and accomplishment. “Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life,” he says. “The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self, and humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political party, being green, the Boy Scouts, or the family.” Yet we are only beginning to be welcomed in some of these institutions.
Meaning is often socially derived, as Seligman suggests. In the first half of life, our roles and responsibilities often provide meaning. Like our straight counterparts, we are students, employees, entrepreneurs, sons, brothers, uncles, partners, husbands, and perhaps fathers. Excelling in these roles gives us a sense of well-being.
As we age, though, we increasingly turn inward for meaning. This insight is part of the genius of Abraham Maslow’s theory of motivation. There comes a time when the pursuits of the social needs for belonging and esteem no longer satisfy. “A musician must make music,” says Maslow, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.” What does it mean to self-actualize as gay men?
The Aim of Dharma
The Hindu tradition speaks of this need for self-actualization as one of the four aims in life, namely, the aim of dharma. What is dharma? I can do no better than Barbara Holdrege who wrote, “It is the dharma of the sun to shine, it is the dharma of the river to flow, it is the dharma of the bee to make honey, and it is the dharma of the cow to give milk.”
The Sanskrit word dharma is almost impossible to translate into English. We have no word that conveys the same rich range of meanings. It comes from the root dhṛ, which means “to uphold, support, maintain.” Dharma is the underlying structure of things. It gives to each being its place and function. “Dharma structures the universe as a vast cosmic ecosystem,” Holdrege so eloquently says, “an intricate network of symbiotic relations among interdependent parts, in which each part has a specific function to perform that contributes to the whole system.” Every part of this cosmos has its own dharma, which is entirely in harmony with the cosmic system. We gay men also have our part in this harmony. And like all human beings, our taking that role is a matter of moral dharma. It means living out a moral order which is not imposed on us by any god or philosophy, but inherent to our nature.
Science is beginning to discover the biological basis of human morality. Mirror neurons were first discovered in 1988 in experiments with macaque monkeys. These brain structures allow us to imitate the behavior of others, and together with other brain regions, construct stories about what another person or animal might be thinking or feeling. In a word, they are the biological basis for empathy, which forms so much of the foundation of morality. Some researchers now believe mirror neurons demonstrate that morality is inherent in our biology, or at least that biology is a major factor in the formation of morality.
From a Hindu point of view, this should not be surprising. In Hinduism, there is no discontinuity between that which is transcendent and that which is biological. Indeed, the transcendent is the deepest Self of all beings. It makes sense, then, that the dharma of the cosmos, which is of a piece with ethical dharma, is written into the structures of our biology. That includes our biology as gay men.
How, then, does Hindu teaching define our moral obligations to one another? The Manusmṛti, an ancient text on dharma, enumerates ten such duties: contentment, forgiveness, self-control, not misappropriating, cleanliness, bodily discipline, wisdom, knowing the transcendent, truthfulness, and abstention from anger. The Mahabharata offers a slightly different list; but, the principle is the same: “Moral law is defined so that man will not injure his neighbor. Moral law is certain to be found wherever human beings refrain from mutual harm.”
Hinduism has long understood that the specifics of one’s moral obligations depend upon many factors. They depend on one’s place in society, on one’s age and stage of life, on one’s gender, and most importantly, on how far one is along the journey toward the transcendent. Alain Daniélou writes, with perhaps a dash of exaggeration, “No action, no external or inner attitude is bad in itself. Atheism, debauchery, murder, or prostitution may be, and very often are, stages of liberation that are essential to a particular individual.” Indian culture certainly imposes consequences for some behaviors. Yet, to Daniélou’s point, it is extremely reluctant to pass moral judgment on anyone. It assumes we are each doing what we must on our ascent to the ultimate freedom.
The Dharma of Being Gay
If the dharma of the sun is to shine, and the dharma of a river is to flow, what is the dharma of a gay man? What part do we play in the harmony of the cosmos? To put it another way, what is the meaning of being gay?
Gilles Herrada writes in his book The Missing Myth, “After having been stigmatized as a sin or a perversion by two millenniums of homophobic culture, a mere half-century of well-intentioned pro-homosexual discourse has left homosexuality impoverished, truncated, disjointed, and ripped apart… As a result, modern homosexuality exists in body and mind but has no soul.” This is too harsh, no doubt. But I take Herrada’s point. And I agree with him that evolutionary biology is one source for constructing a myth that will give meaning to our lives.
Until such a myth emerges, we are not bereft of meaning. Several writers have addressed the topic of gay spirituality, and more specifically the roles of gay men in society. Yet, at least here on the east coast of the United States where I live, their insights are not well known in the gay community. In academia, which is Herrada’s background, gay studies is a contentious field, and generally allergic to questions of spiritual meaning. Many gay men eschew spirituality and questions of meaning because of painful experiences of rejection from religious people and institutions. Others do not think the question of meaning matters because they see themselves as the same as straight people except for what turns them on.
In my experience, being gay changes everything. I have different psychological realities than straight men. My unconscious mind functions by a different mythology entirely. Hence, my journey through the mythical to the transcendent – through the unconscious to the ground of my being – is different than that of straight men.
One basic difference is this: Many of us gay men, though not all, are a mix of masculine and feminine. We are masculine of body and feminine of soul. Yes, everyone has both masculine and feminine aspects. However, for the average straight men, the feminine is mostly buried in the unconscious until it is awakened and brought to the fore by a woman. For many of us gay men, the feminine is wide awake from our birth. Our feminine soul desires a masculine body. A woman’s body is not mysterious and magical to us, because we are very aware of the feminine in ourselves. A man’s body, though… wow!
The implications of this two-spirited nature are many. From birth or even before, we have lived at the meeting point of the opposites. If we are healthy and mature, we are masters of reconciliation. We have done so much work in bringing reconciliation within ourselves. With this background, gay pioneer Edward Carpenter observed a century ago that we “have a special work to do as reconcilers and interpreters of the two sexes to each other.”
Historically, we gay men have stood not only at the meeting point of the sexes, but also at the meeting of matter and spirit, of chaos and beauty, of so many seemingly irreconcilable opposites. Christian de la Huerta has distilled our roles down to ten, all of which could be considered spiritual. We have been:
- Catalytic Transformers: agents of change, and social reformers;
- Outsiders: those who help society see itself;
- Consciousness Scouts: the first to blaze new trails into the mysterious;
- Sacred Clowns and Eternal Youths: full of humor, entertainment, and joie de vivre;
- Keepers of Beauty: creators and performers of music, art, and beauty;
- Caregivers: healers, teachers, therapists, and counselors;
- Mediators: between the genders, and between the physical and spiritual realms;
- Shamans and Priests: in roles of spiritual leadership;
- The Divine Androgyne: evolving by marrying the masculine and feminine within; and,
- Gatekeepers: guardians of the gateways to the spiritual realm.
Today, as humanity stands on the precipice of multiple crises that threaten destruction – nuclear terror, unlivable economic disparities, environmental peril – there is a reason why we gays are becoming more visible and vocal just at this moment in history. The cosmos need us to take our place as transformers and caregivers, mediators and gatekeepers. This is our place in the world.
Will we fulfill our dharma?
- What meaning have you found in being gay? How do you think gay men contribute to society and to the cosmos? For what purpose has nature made us?
- Which of de la Huerta’s 10 roles best describes your sense of vocation as a gay man?
- How might you actualize more of your potential at this point in your life?
To go deeper:
Christian de la Huerta. Coming Out Spiritually: The Next Step. New York: Putnam, 1999. This is simply one of the best books on gay spirituality. The first section deals with our vocation as gay men; the second, with practices we may find helpful in the spiritual journey; the third, with the relationship between sexuality and spirituality; and the fourth, with living out our spirituality in action. The appendices include an overview of all the major spiritual traditions and their views toward homosexuality, a resource guide to relevant organizations, and an excellent bibliography. Highly recommended.
Gilles Herrada. The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love. New York: SelectBooks, 2013. Herrada is searching for the meaning of being gay. He offers an overview of mythic, historical, and cultural understandings of same-sex love. He is strongest when dealing with the biology of being gay, seeking meaning in how homosexuality has played a role in human survival and evolution.
Alain Daniélou. “The First Aim of Life: Dharma: Duty, Virtue.” In Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993: 74-97. Daniélou, a gay French Indologist, offers a detailed description of how moral issues are faced in India. The content is not broadly applicable to other cultures, but gives a sympathetic Western observer’s view of Indian culture.
Barbara A. Holdrege “Dharma.” In Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World. New York: Routledge, 2004: 213-48. In this academic essay, Holdrege makes the complicated topic of dharma accessible to the careful reader. Her essay moves through Vedic cosmology, hermaneutics, and ethnocultural considerations. After dealing with the dialectic between dharma and moksha, she concludes with modern reinterpretations of dharma.