Saturday, 31 May 2014

My graduation experience

I wrote this experience for my Graduation Day.

As things stand now, I don't know if I will share it on that day, I but I am scheduling the post so that it will go live on the 31st anyway. People who know me already know parts of it. If you read my blog I speak about different parts of it in other posts, so some things will look familiar. I will put some links at the bottom for people who are interested in reading more about my journey.

Here is the experience: 

My name is Ewa, I am 28 and I come from Italy. I am the vice team leader for team S and I will graduate today.

In this experience, I will try to talk about how much lilacing has changed my life.

In September 2011, I was lilacing at my first Summer Area course in East London, where I had recently started practising after moving city or country eleven times in the previous five years, and where for the first time I felt a sense of mission and belonging that made me determine to stay there for as long as I could. I was sitting at the front on the very last day, during the Q&A session, and someone asked a question about the Priesthood. I felt I had something to say. As many of you know, I am a Fortune Baby and I always chanted. I felt it was not appropriate of me to stand up to speak while lilacing, so I called my lilac chief and asked her. She said that she would take my place and to take my scarf off as if I were on a break. So I simply did it. My action of taking my scarf off came across as a lot more melodramatic than I meant it to be and as a result, most of the people in my new area, who were at that YD course, got an impression of me as this incredibly strong, confident person who is not scared to stand up for herself and speak her mind. I had people actually telling me these things, I’m not imagining them.

Was that impression incorrect? I certainly felt so at the time.
I grew up in Sicily, a strongly Catholic, conservative, misogynistic place. At the time I didn’t know that people like me had a special name for them and if I had heard someone calling me a fortune baby I would definitely have laughed in their faces, because I felt the farthest from fortunate I could be.

I grew up as the poorest child among my peers, and the only one who wasn’t catholic. Not being catholic meant that I was excluded from all the youth activities (such as scouting or summer camps) as they were controlled by the Church, and as a result my only point of aggregation with people of my age was school. 

School was my personal hell. I loved studying and I loved learning. I understood from a very young age that the only way out of poverty was to get good grades, go to university and find a good job. I was already thinking about my university dissertation at age 11 and often felt overwhelmed by the idea, then I would remind myself that I still had time and that of course I would get more mature and be ready for it. 

The social aspect, however, was pure, unadulterated hell. Five to six hours a day, every day, six days a week, of hell.

When I was a kid, nobody in Italy was really talking about bullying, or if they were, it was only about physical bullying. There is no pastoral system in Italy, our teachers are not trained to take care of the child as a whole, only to administer knowledge.

I don’t blame them entirely for not protecting me. What they could see was an unpleasant, bitter child who looked as she felt superior to her peers getting her comeuppance. They never felt the need to scratch the surface and discover the well of pain and loneliness I was trapped in. They often partook in the abuse and defended the bullies.

I was an awkward child. I could barely speak Sicilian and because of my mother’s acting training I spoke Italian in what I can only describe as a posh accent. I also had a vocabulary so wide it was often better than some of my teachers. I never learnt to hide my intelligence. I knew that that was the thing that kept me from being accepted, I could see the disgusted faces of my peers when it was me, again, who answered a question, and I could see the gleeful expression when I made a mistake.

I wasn’t even ignored by the popular kids, I was the scapegoat. I lived in a constant state of fear of saying the wrong thing, of upsetting someone and causing the wrath of some “cool” member of the group which would then determine my ostracism from the others.

I was also constantly threatened physically, with the caveat: “but you’re a girl, so I’m not going to hit you”. 

The bullying continued until I finished high school, at the age of 17. I would come back from school crying almost every day, and my parents would be helpless to help me. I don’t blame them, either. They wanted me to be strong, to solve my problems on my own. They didn’t want me to get the idea that I could run to them to solve my problems.

They tried their very best to be the best parents they could be, although in this case, they were oblivious to the issue. Like I said, bullying that was not physical was not an accepted concept, and it was not socially acceptable for parents to get involved in their kids’ school life.

As a result, I always felt helpless and alone, desperate to feel love and protection. In my desperation I would reach out and open up to anybody who would show me any kindness, attaching my sense of self worth to these people who would invariably feel overwhelmed and leave me experiencing an immense sense of betrayal.

I got to the point that feeling meant pain, so I just stopped feeling. I accepted the fact that I was a broken machine, unloved and incapable of love, and faced a feelingless life in front of me.

I don’t even remember when I started self harming, biting myself furiously as a way to express my rage and pain.
I would always do it when I was alone at home and my way of doing it didn’t leave any scars, so nobody noticed. Only once someone saw a bruise on my arm, but I smilingly said it was nothing, so they desisted. I was sixteen at the time, and felt an odd surge of pleasure because I made someone worry for me, followed by disgust in myself.

At sixteen, my teenage rebellion took the form of me quitting SGI activities, which I had started at the age of 12.

I had been a very diligent little buddhist until then. The SGI was the only place where I felt safe, where I could be who I was without shame. In Sicily there was no Mimosa or Future Group, so at 12 I joined the Youth Division, when the youngest member was in their early twenties. It was awesome. It was like having dozens of big brothers and sisters and being a little mascot. Nobody cared that I had a posh accent, nobody cared that at 12 I could read the same books they were reading. They all knew my parents and they knew what awesome people they were, so they reversed on me the gratitude and love they felt for my parents, who had spent years encouraging and helping others to the point of severely harming their own financial situation.

At sixteen, my beloved district was dismantled and I was told that, as a minor, I had to attend meetings with both my parents. Also, at that time, some idiotic rule was made that only leaders could lilac. That broke my heart. There was nothing I wanted more than lilacing. I was eagerly awaiting my 18th birthday so that I could become a member of the SGI and finally lilac, an activity that in Italy is called Byakuren and that only members can access.

Being told that I had to wait who knows how many years to lilac depressed me and angered me so much that I stopped activities altogether.

It took my parents three years to drag me to a meeting again, and a few more months after that to get hooked on Buddhism again, this time as a young adult. I received membership soon after and I immediately went onto a three day non residential lilac and soka course.

It was during this course that I looked at myself and realised that I was in the early stages of an eating disorder. 

My self loathing and hatred for my soft figure brought me to stop eating. I would go an entire day only eating two apricots. I had a diary where I wrote everything I ate, giving me compliments when I starved myself and insults when I ate. I wrote on my diary to compliment myself on not eating any of the pastries that my lilac chief offered at the training course.

You know when you are starving, that cold, empty pain at the pit of your stomach? One day, that feeling became my biggest source of joy. A sense of freedom and elation. Of power.

I knew I had to stop, but I also understood that I was addicted to that feeling. As a powerless, hopeless child now turned into a young woman, I was addicted to feeling powerful for the first time in my life.

But I did stop. Going back to eating was probably the first victory I had when I received membership. The second was finding a way out of Sicily, to do my Master’s degree up in Northern Italy, where my paternal side of the family lived. And the third, or so I thought, was to meet the most amazing guy. He was from New Zealand, he loved languages like me and told me I was beautiful. He was in awe of my intelligence and made me feel for the first time in ages. It was the first time that feeling didn’t equal pain for me, so I quickly fell in love with him.

That was the start of a painfully abusive relationship that dragged on for about four years.
I shared with my boyfriend my struggles with my self esteem and my eating disorder.
His answer was to be brutally critical of anything I did, especially how I ate. I felt like throwing up so many times when I was with him, I remember hours of tears, of pain, of desperation, of suffocation, of begging, only to be given more criticism, more abuse, more pain. 

It was only after moving to the UK that I understood I had made my boyfriend my honzon. As a matter of fact I seemed to be very good at making everything my honzon. My grades, my friends, my IQ, my being good at things, my weight.

Honzon is the object of devotion. Our honzon should be the Gohonzon, the object of devotion to observe the mind of the Buddha, not our weight, our partner or our job.

If we look for the Gohonzon outside of ourselves, we are going to suffer.

I understood this, and that my boyfriend had been abusive, when I was lilacing. I was chanting at the front and all of a sudden something broke inside of me. I had to run outside and cry like I had never cried before. And I was surrounded by other lilacs, who gave me a shoulder to cry on (right Yumiko?). These people saw me at my most vulnerable and chose not to hurt me. That alone helped restoring some faith in humanity.

A lilac activity after the other, that faith kept growing, and my heart kept opening, until I felt that maybe, maybe I could feel again. Maybe I had found a balance inside me, so I could feel, without pain and without feeling so much that it took over my brain and transformed me into a bumbling fool.

At the end of my first year of Dedicated Lilac training, I had a problem with a Young Woman. She was very rude to me during an activity and caused me a lot of suffering.
I quickly decided to chant for her and with her, to study a bit more and to win. However, I felt I still wanted some advice on how to deal with a similar situation should it happen again. I was at a loss and had learnt enough about my appalling social skills to decide to ask for advice. I called one of my leaders and told her what had happened. I told her I just wanted some practical advice and I did not disclose the name of the young woman, just that she was less experienced than me, since I thought that would add to the context.

I’ve been doing a lot of counselling recently, my counsellor thinks I might be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I agree, I have a suspiciously high amount of traits. One of them being that I tend to speak literally. I don’t load my words with emotional meaning. If I want to say something, I’m likely to say it.

Long story short, the leader came to homevisit me since we had to cut the phone call short. She came with some very strict guidance about arrogant leaders, then said that she was very concerned after hearing me saying that I was more experienced than this other girl. The only advice she gave me was to chant with her, she criticised me for calling her instead of just chanting, then she said that she was worried that a lot of people had gone to talk to her to complain about the fact that I was bossy, that I only spoke about myself and that they didn’t feel encouraged by me.

Her words utterly destroyed me. After all my years of chanting, studying and training, I thought I had filled up that well of pain and loneliness with joy, friendship, encouragement, strength, courage. I thought I had overcome the bullying and the abuse, the self harm and the eating disorder. I thought I had opened my heart. Little did I know, that well was still there. That leader’s words cut it open again, and I quickly drowned. (I refer to this in the blog as That Thing That Happened, or TTTH)

The poor girl escaped from my house, leaving me in a puddle of my own tears. I must have given her the scare of her life. She thought she was talking to the girl who took her scarf off, and that it was only a little thing. She had no idea she was talking to a bullied, abused child who spent her life being told she was wrong, ugly, horrible and disgusting, and that she had to ask permission to exist.

My initial reaction was to give up all responsibilities and stop going to meetings. How could I possibly face anyone again without asking myself “Is it you who has spoken about me? Is it you who has taken my painful sharing of my experiences as me just faffing about myself? Is it you who robbed me of my only safe place?”

Luckily, I had my parents, who quickly reminded me that when I was appointed vice team leader I had decided that that was a sign to work on my ego. What better opportunity that that then? My father told me: “You are in the right, there is no doubt on that. But because you are right, then you have to be doubly careful not to slander. Do not slander. Do not disgrace the practice” My mother told me to chant to find joy.

I lived in the textbook definition of hell for the following weeks. I felt sick all the time. I could just about function in school, schools are very special, safe, artificial places. But the second I took off Ms Munchkin’s mask, my entire self would disintegrate and all I could do was cry and sob. 

A lot of times, there is that one big epiphany, that moment of being when you understand everything and you suddenly are aware of how wonderful your life is. You have found a new source of energy to tap from, and everything is going to be ok from this moment forward.

This did not happen that way.

Coming out of hell was a slow process. It didn’t happen in a day, or in a week. There was no moment of being. At some point, I realised I had come out of it.

How I did it is by persevering. And by finding a new myself, since the old one was gone. This new myself if, oddly enough, a person I can truly like. This new myself went through the motions in countless lilac activities until she realised she could feel happiness in the activities again. The new Ewa is bright and beautiful. She doesn’t look for the Gohonzon outside of herself. She is conscious of an inner sense of self worth that only depends on her buddhahood. This Ewa is not scared to share this experience because she knows that she is not just “talking about herself”, she is baring her soul in the hope that these words can inspire someone out there. Because I have been in the hell of incessant suffering, I now have a newfound respect for the people, like my mother, who tend to end up there often. I know how it feels when encouragement sounds empty rhetoric and you are just too devastated to see any hope. I KNOW there is a way out, and I am going to be silently supporting every person who is going through a similar struggle, because they have to find the courage in themselves. If I found it in the pit of hopeless pain, everybody can.

I graduate today and thanks to this training, I have transformed my life in ways I didn’t think possible. I am not scared anymore. I actually speak up if I think something needs to be said. I don’t cower in a corner and beg for attention, I dance center stage. I don’t hate my body anymore, and I was able to shoot a video of me bellydancing and send it to sensei. I also transformed so much as a teacher that people have remarked on the atmosphere of mutual respect you can perceive in my lessons, even the most challenging ones. On a sidenote, thanks to lilac training I am also an ace at school briefings, talk about practical implications! This training is so radicated in real life, it is so wonderfully NOW and it will transform your life. You have no idea how amazing your life is going to become.
I have become the girl who took her scarf off. I now fully embrace her. I haven’t found true companionship yet, but I trust the Gohonzon, which is not outside of myself.

Some more on my journey (I am not listing all the posts here or I will list almost every post I wrote):

about my early practice in Italy:
When my life opened wide
A new start to my Human revolution (this is the basis for another experience I shared in my first year)

about overcoming past abuse:
Guilt and Hon-nin myo
On the transformation of Karma
Courses and songs

about dance (and also overcoming abuse):
Dancing experience in the making
Dancing experience part the second
Dancing experience part the third

about TTTH:
No fighting, just trying to find joy...

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