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: And how do you do that?
Harrison: In many different ways. For example, I decided to regard my latest meditation retreat as my last. This was going to be the final opportunity I had to sit. I resolved, as best I could, to open to everything that arose, including the things that I kept a little bit to the side. This retreat turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences of my fifteen years of practice. What it gave me - that resolution - was the commitment to be even more accepting than ever. So yes, I have times when I’m there at two in the morning and I’ve changed the sheets on the bed half a dozen times and now I have to change them again, and I’m sweating and I’m coughing. It’s like, I will throw out to the universe my anger and my rage at this disease. The acceptance and the letting go must nevertheless continue until the end, whether it’s the end of this lifetime or whether it’s the end of duality and there’s some sort of opening.
Tricycle: Does indulgence creep in?
Harrison: There have been so many years of practicing awareness that I feel very inclined whenever necessary to extend mercy into a body that has endured a lot of hell and still does. The Buddha said that if you looked all over the world, you wouldn’t find anyone more deserving of your love than yourself.
Tricycle: What do you think happens at the time of what we call death?
Harrison: I had pneumonia last year and was hospitalized with a 106-degree fever, which can induce brain damage and seizures. I had the experience of waking out of this in the middle of the night and feeling myself encompassed in a blackness that almost had a velvet texture to it. I was sitting comfortably in meditation on a river of apricot, salmon-colored rose petals. And this river went ahead, ahead, and ahead right until it was a pinpoint in all the blackness. It was just me, this experience of color and the blackness. And I was just skimming along the surface, heading towards whatever lay ahead on the river. The closer I got to the end, the brighter the light became, and the experience of that light was one of a kind of love unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and yet at the same time it really felt like a homecoming. And as I progressed closer and closer, it became brighter and brighter until my whole body and heart was infused with the experience of this love. And then my mind climbed in and I had this thought: “Oh, this is so great. I haven’t suffered all that much and I guess I’m dying and I’m ready to go. And so this is wonderful.” And as soon as I said that, I did a ninety degree turn into the darkness and I was back in bed. I don’t know what that experience was. It might just have been a hallucination, a dream, whatever. But the experience of that light and that love is something that has left an indelible impression.
Tricycle: Do you ever become frightened of dying?
Harrison: Not any more.
Tricycle: You did when you first were diagnosed?
Harrison: I was consumed by terror. I’ve lost about fifty friends to this virus. And a number of them I’ve seen die in the most unbelievably complicated and terrifying ways. But in recent years, because I have taken personal steps to get ready to die - in a very practical way: wills and living wills and medical proxies and all that - and as I’ve discussed it more with my friends, and family, and also because my life feels richer than it’s ever been before, it feels easier to die. I’m sure that when the moment comes there will be fear - I’m not for one moment saying that I’m completely attuned to the idea of my death - but it feels a lot easier. I used to read just the word AIDS and freak out. But now it’s like how much of life can I live now? And I’m being more extravagant and outrageous than I’ve ever been before.
Tricycle: What does that mean for you?
Harrison: In the last year I’ve found myself feeling increasingly open to regarding myself as a fully sexual gay man again. For many people with AIDS, myself included, the diagnosis puts you right back into the closet. You go through all the trauma of feeling diseased, untouchable, and terrified of passing it on. Celibacy at times, like my experience at the monastery, can be very healthy. But celibacy out of fear is a closing, not opening. I belong to a gay men’s spirituality group. At a meeting a couple of weeks ago, there were a dozen guys in the group, all saying what a nice group we were, how connected they felt and da da da. And I said, “You know, I’m the only one here that has AIDS. In some sense, it’s been skirted as an issue, like everybody knows, it but it’s sort of unspoken. And I would like it acknowledged. But,” I said, “More importantly, I am a good-looking, some people think ravishing, man. If I come here and you think I’m looking hot, or cute, or sexy, or you want to make a date, or you want to kid with me or pinch my backside, I encourage you to do it because I’d enjoy it and that is how you can support me. I don’t want to be patronized by you. If possible, please try and disregard any fear of hurting me or feeling frozen by your fear of AIDS.”
Tricycle: Is there some inescapable link for you between the abuse and having AIDS?
Harrison: I know the exact moment I was infected. I’d met this guy and there were all sorts of voices saying, “Don’t go with him. This is not good.” This is before we knew there was a virus, before we knew about safer sex. I couldn’t say no. He wanted something from me and therefore he was going to get it. And so I went with him totally reluctantly. We had sex that was completely unsatisfying. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. And I knew that I’d made a huge mistake. So one of the links between the two is that the abuse robs you of self-reference - the sense of you for you, being a person for yourself instead of a person for others. No self-protection or self-consideration. And that has completely changed now.
Tricycle: Do you ever dwell on the possibility of a cure?
Harrison: A guy in Cambridge once said to me, “You’ve benefited so much from this virus and so much good has happened. If they came up with a cure, would you accept it?” And I said, “I’d run across this room over every one of you to be first in line for that injection or for that pill. Let’s make no bones about it.” I have this fantasy that one day they are going to find a cure. And I will have done all of this work, and I can put my feet up for the rest of my life while the rest of you are going to have to continue to slog on. And I’ll be there relaxing and enjoying the rest of my life, having done my homework all those years ago!
Tricycle: You spoke of how, during this last retreat, you were dealing with things that you had kept to the side.
Harrison: Ever since I started the meditation practice, it was always very difficult for me to follow the breath. My chest would tighten and I would start gagging. Over the years I used other systems for cultivating the mind. But the whole abdominal, pelvic area has always been a complicated place. There would be enormous pressure in the gut, pressure in my head and bands of steel around my body, and the only thing that was workable was to hold all of this in a heartfelt spaciousness that was larger than the pain I was experiencing. So on this retreat I had a series of dreams that culminated in an image of a little home with curtains, a very safe looking place, a very inviting place. I knew immediately that this was an invitation to me to go into the center of where I’d never been before. And I woke up and I was already sitting in meditation somehow. I dropped down into the abdominal area, a place that had always been absolutely inaccessible to me, and there was nothing. There was nothing. There wasn’t a murmur. There wasn’t a stirring. It was this complete silence. I sat that whole night in meditation, just observing nothing going on. And that was maybe five weeks ago. So it’s still new. There still is nothing. On this retreat I was also dealing with immense amounts of fear; it felt like an existential kind of fear.
Tricycle: No story?
Harrison: No story. And after this experience there was just no fear. And I entered a period of the most sublime happiness that I’ve ever known. Emptiness. Gavin was gone. It was completely effortless meditation practice, too, which I’d never experienced before. My body feels like it’s six kilometers behind my heart and mind, and we’re all saying, “Come on, catch up.” I’m still going through a lot of night sweats. My temperature is elevated. I’m unable to sleep, but there’s been such a significant realignment that I believe it’s going to take time for the body to catch up. Once again, after this experience it feels easier to die. And I want to live more than ever.