An Interview with Gavin Harrison
Gavin Harrison was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1950 into an affluent English-speaking family of British and Dutch descent. At university, he qualified as a certified public accountant. In 1974, having become involved with anti-apartheid politics, he faced a choice of going to jail or leaving his country. After living in Iran for four years, he came to New York, where he supported himself as an accountant but became increasingly dissatisfied with his luxurious lifestyle and the “wild, gay scene.” On a visit back to South Africa, he did his first meditation retreat with the American teacher Joseph Goldstein at the Ixopo Retreat Center in Zululand. He left his job and stayed at the retreat center for a year. Eventually, he returned to the United States, where he has continued to study, primarily with Joseph Goldstein and Michelle McDonald, both of Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. He was ordained as a monk, and over the past few years he has been teaching in the Vipassana tradition.
In In the Lap of the Buddha (Shambhala Publications, 1994), Harrison interweaves the life story of the historical Buddha with his own journey, which includes speaking candidly about sexual abuse and being sick with the AIDS virus.
Today, Harrison does minimal public teaching. He works closely with a few individuals and is writing a second book. This interview took place at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, in December 1995, and was conducted for Tricycle by Helen Tworkov and Trudy Goodman, a psychotherapist and teacher with the Cambridge Buddhist Association, and a longtime friend of Mr. Harrison’s.
Tricycle: How do you understand karma in terms of your sickness?
Harrison: If I seek an answer as to why I am HIV-positive and why somebody else isn’t, I’m going to drive myself crazy because I’m never going to get an answer to that.
Tricycle: I didn’t mean it in quite that way. Rather, that AIDS has pushed you deeper into practice than you may have gone without it, and you often refer to your life now as a blessing.
Harrison: I would never call the virus a blessing, but I have no doubt that if I had lived to ninety years without this sickness, I probably would never know the depth of peace and contentment that I’m experiencing in my life now. I truly am happier than I’ve ever been.
Tricycle: Does practice make it easier to die?
Harrison: Yes. Part of what was driving me when I came to the meditation practice was an intuitive belief that there is a way to be at peace with the reality of the world, with all its suffering and its angst and beauty and wonder. And I feel that to some extent I’ve tasted that. If I were to die tomorrow I think it would be a far easier process for me than if it had happened a year or two ago. I feel blessed for having had the dharma as a foundation for eight or nine years before the diagnosis. But there’s no doubt that this virus has been the fieriest meditation teacher.
Tricycle: Does it make you long to continue your life, just to continue that fire?
Harrison: I would like to stick around as long as possible because it’s just delicious - the feeling of peace where there never was peace, love where there was so much fear, feeling a part of the web rather than feeling alienated and isolated. These feelings are not conditional upon the absence of suffering.
This year I had real serious pneumonia, then a devastating sinus infection in Africa with complications, then another bout of pneumonia, two hospitalizations and some really difficult information in terms of the figures that the medical world spews out. Through it all there’s been an increasing contentment with what is. And that feels like the greatest gift, and I attribute it directly to the dharma.
Tricycle: In your book, you speak of being sexually and physically abused in boarding school.
Harrison: That was a nightmare of isolation and brutality. Then after I was diagnosed, I felt like something cracked. Everything just came up, including very clear recollections of abuse in my second, third month of infancy. What happened in my infancy conditioned what happened at boarding school. In some ways, grappling with the effects of the abuse has been a greater fire than the virus itself.
Tricycle: I think that one of the reasons your book has had an impact is that it is a very explicitly told tale of transformation through suffering. But it must be difficult to keep telling the story without identifying with it. How engaged do you feel with your story?
Harrison: Presently, more disengaged than I’ve ever been. The whole area of abuse most often feels like a non-issue now. I’m not for one moment saying that I’ve transcended it. But the experience, the pattern of conditioning, is now dealt with very effectively in meditation practice when it arises, when my buttons are pushed.
When you feel the fear and you feel the rage in meditation, there’s no storyline. There’s just the experience of the arising and passing away of the emotions and the sensations in the body, and seeing how they relate to one another. And in that seeing, the abused person becomes less and less a victim of what’s going on because you realize that you have choices that weren’t available to you before. Having choices is a liberating experience. But those choices are coming out of a way of dealing with it that has nothing to do with “Gavin the infant who was abused or at boarding school beaten with a hose pipe” and that sort of thing. Meditation practice is about the experience of what“is,”of what’s going on. That is what is liberating. And this truth is quite beyond “the story.”
Tricycle: Did you take the story into therapy as well as into meditation?
Harrison: Oh, yes. Meditation practice can be so elegant, sedate, and pristine. Thankfully, my therapist used to encourage me to completely lose it at times - to just scream, to say the things I didn’t get to say a long time ago, to be the child, to be the brat, to be whatever I felt that I needed to be. And if that meant indulging in the story and being outrageous, even if it meant going over the top, that was an important part of the healing.
It is also important to have someone say, “Yes, this is terrible,” and “Yes, I validate your experience.” To unburden myself of the story and the drama and to continue the exploration in a meditative way. I can’t imagine dealing with abuse and not having it acknowledged, because the abuse leaves one so untrusting of oneself and so much in denial of the truth. There’s something very important about being told that what is happening is okay and that you’re not going crazy, that you’re not on the edge of a nervous breakdown. So, I was told by my teachers to go back with love to my cushion and just be with the truth of what’s going on.
Tricycle: What might it mean viewed through the Buddha’s enlightenment when he proclaimed: “Everything is enlightened exactly as it is”?
Harrison: One of the most self-defeating attitudes that people who are sexually abused most often have is that they are to blame, that it was their fault and they have to deal with the consequences. Beyond any doubt I know that the direction of happiness and freedom is the way of acceptance. And so I know that whatever it is that happened, the challenge for me is to open to it as it is, with as much acceptance as I can.
Tricycle: How does one create balance between acceptance and denial, between acknowledging one’s desire to live and at the same time accepting a prognosis of death?
Harrison: Somebody once asked me, “How can you accept the virus in your life? It is killing you. You’ve got to fight it, fight it, fight it.” For me, wherever there’s not acceptance there is conflict and wherever there’s conflict there is suffering. I’m not condoning AIDS and I’m not condoning sexual abuse. But coming to some sort of reckoning and at the same time forthrightly saying that sexual abuse is wrong and that this virus is a nightmare - both give me the balance that I live with.
I’ve tried to run in so many directions in order to hide from what it means to live with AIDS. For example: soon after I was diagnosed, somebody said, “The visualization you have to do is of all these T-cells gobbling up the HIV virus.” I tried and realized that this was creating more conflict. It felt like a war going on inside me: the good guys and the bad guys, and I had to make sure that the good guys won. So the relationship with the virus was pivotal in terms of finding a way to coexist with what was now true in my life. I needed to give attention to my relationship with the virus.