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.
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.
Image 1: Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death / Fight AIDS / ACT UP, Keith Haring, 1989, color silkprint. Courtesy of Keith Haring.
Image 2: Gavin Harrison.
Image 3: Bad Moon Rising, 1989, David Wojnarowicz, black and white photographs, acrylic, string, and collage on Masonite, 37 x 36 1/2. Courtesy of PPOW Gallery/David Wojnarowicz Estate.
Image 4: Untitled, 1989, David Wojnarowicz, black and white photographs on museum board, 22 1/4 x 30 1/2 overall. Courtesy PPOW Gallery/David Wojnarowicz Estate.