From Faculty & Friends: Oneika Mays

How would you explain the term “queer dharma”?

Queer dharma for me is living your truth as a queer person in the world. This means there isn’t separation between any of my identities. My Blackness is connected with my queerness and gender identification. Blackness is viewed through a monolithic lens and that usually means lifting up heteronormative ideas. I never felt completely seen. I didn’t feel completely seen in the LGBTQ+ community either, as queerness meant putting my Blackness second. I felt like I lived my life on the margins of both worlds. Even coming to this realization was another piece of living my truth. I often felt a need to prioritize one identity over another. That salience felt confining even though in many ways it provided a zone of safety depending upon the group I was interacting with. But it’s at the intersection of these identities where I find freedom. I celebrate who I am fully and it brings me joy. It’s also challenging because it’s clear that queerness is ‘othered’ and marginalized, so it also means that living my queer dharma can mean that I’m unpacking my anger and sadness. Living my truth and purpose is about honoring where I am in the present moment. 

How does the experience of queerness inform your approach to contemplative practice? 

I want to first say that my queerness and Blackness are entwined. So when I say queerness that’s what I mean. I think it’s an important note, because there are folx who don’t mean that and language matters when we are talking about historically overlooked, and marginalized communities. My queerness has allowed me to be open minded. As a queer woman there are times when I felt alone, overlooked and unsafe, and because of this I think embracing a spiritual path felt natural and in alignment with my identity. I sought out contemplative practice because I felt very disconnected from everyone and everything. Disconnection showed up as defensiveness and anger which was masking sadness. I wanted a sense of belonging. By embracing a mindful path, I reconnected with a tenderness that allowed me to honor all the ways I show up in the world as a queer person, and because I am queer, I think a spiritual path is in alignment with my spirit. This practice isn’t just contemplative, it’s somatic as well. White supremacy blunts emotions and tries to distance us from experiencing our wholeness. Movement practices allow me to investigate old stories that are inside my body, and I can decide what I want to do with that information. My practice gives me agency. Liberation is in the choosing. 

How do contemplative teachings inform your experience of queerness? 

The teachings of lovingkindness and Metta Meditation have deeply impacted my lived experience as a queer woman. For years, I spent most days holding my breath, feeling trapped. I couldn’t articulate it. I didn’t have a reference point for freedom. I knew comfort. I knew how to want, strive, and aspire. I knew anger. But the relief I felt from grasping so tightly couldn’t be experienced until I let go. I learned to both soften into my existence as a queer person and also transcend that identity and connect with the larger idea of oneness when I embraced compassion. I held a lot of shame around my response to white supremacy. Decolonizing my mind and body meant admitting that I was in fact colonized. And while I could admit that embodiment of oppression was a big part of the wall I had built to protect myself, I wanted my response to be different. Grasping compounded my own suffering. I remember the first time I took a yoga class and exhaled in mountain pose, I felt so exposed. Seeing myself in this way was glorious and terrifying. When I first practiced Metta Meditation, I didn’t actually connect with it. It felt like a way to bypass the very unpacking I was looking to do. It also felt like I was letting white supremacy off the hook. But I liked my teacher so I stayed with it. The idea that I could offer compassion to a loved one and a difficult person made lots of sense in a binary world. There’s heat and energy around those aspects of the practice and that’s easy to work with. Working with the familiar stranger opened me up to the idea that I could offer compassion to the parts of myself that felt neglected and ignored. This part of the practice has deeply informed my experience as a queer person. I let go; let go of the walls and let in the idea that I could be tender with every part of myself. I was at home. That was a revelation. 

What is the biggest obstacle to a queer-inclusive contemplative worldview?

I think that spiritual bypassing is the biggest obstacle to a queer inclusive comtemplative worldview. Contemplation must be followed by action. We cannot embrace the idea of interdependence and simultaneously exclude certain life experiences from the practice. This means sitting in the discomfort of privilege and accepting that you may be participating in upholding systems of oppression. We must do something with that discomfort and that something must be more than contemplation. We all have the ability to be a catalyst for change and our practices should provide us with the tools to support, invite, and lift up every life experience even when it is different from ours. Our practices should provide us with a sense of spaciousness to hold conflicting ideas, ambiguity, and infinite compassion. This is how we can do the least amount of harm. 

How does a queer-inclusive contemplative worldview nourish practitioners of all backgrounds, genders, and identities?

I think a worldview that is inclusive of queer-lived experience puts us on a path to freedom. When we make room to be with all lived experiences, we make room to heal. We collectively unpack the oppression that’s inside us emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I don’t think we are living the truth of interdependence if we don’t embrace a queer worldview. Ancestor Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree even if her shackles are very different from my own.” We have a chance to heal ancestral trauma, historical trauma and minimize future harm when we are inclusive.