Goddess (Sort of) Lessons : Kuan Yin


Sometimes life just hurts. And the temptation is to close off, armor, numb, protect. We are encouraged by our modern society to do this in all kinds of ways:

don’t text the person back right away.

brag about how many fucks you don’t give.

filter away your imperfections and pretend that everything is okay.

And then there’s life’s inevitable heartbreaks, many of which are out of our direct control. there are still black kids dying for no reason except a world that says their lives are without meaning. there are the never actualized desires of our friends and family.

how do we stay open when there is so much pain in our own hearts and in the world?

I’ve never been someone who was good at not feeling. I was the crybaby of homeroom 18 who hated being picked last for kickball and couldn’t hold back my tears if someone made fun of me.

when i got into a fight in fifth grade (i accidentally hit a boy in the head with a red bouncy ball during a game  of keep-away and he called me a bitch), i was crying hot tears as I swung for his head.

I quickly learned that no one likes a crybaby. especially a dark-skinned black one. girls who looked like me are supposed to be neck-craning, eye-rolling, lips smacking tigresses who reduce people to dust with venomous tongue lashings.

black girls like me are not supposed to cry, to be hurt, to feel anything but rage.

One of the best things that has occurred on this journey to be whole is that I am releasing these old stories and locating my own path.

even if it means being kind of alone.

I used to never cry at movies, training myself to steel away tears when the violins hit by balling my hands into fists.

a couple of weeks ago i cried when I saw Moana. (that grandma part, man…)

I’ve cried on public benches, during graduate classes, in my office. I close the door and I let it all come out.

i  am a contemporary Mary Magdalene.

I allow myself to feel and look at my tears with an air of compassion.

I have been thinking of Kuan Yin as I embark deeper on this path of integrating my full emotional landscape.

As someone very invested in studying the Divine Feminine in any way I can find Her, I am always on the lookout for a good goddess story. I cannot (and will not) “invoke” various goddesses like I am picking from a grab bag, but I can remain open to their stories for inspiration.

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Patricia Monaghan, author of The Goddess Path, describes Kuan-Yin this way,

“She [Kuan-Yin] is not a goddess, for there are no such figures in Buddhism–although some may call her a folk goddess. Nor is she a buddah, one who has attained perfect enlightenment. Rather Kuan-Yin is a bodhisattva, someone who stands at the threshold of enlightenment; she is called a celestial bodhisattva, the highest rank of these semi-divine beings, for she stands as close as it is possible to heaven itself…she remains perpetually a bodhisvatta, rather than progressing into utter illumination, because she made a vow not to attain enlightenment while a single person on earth suffered.”

Kuan-Yin is greatly loved, especially in China and Japan (where Monaghan notes that Kuan-Yin is occasionally called Kwannon and sometimes pictured as male).

She is seen as the epitome of mercy and compassion, often pictured with large ears so that she can more clearly hear the suffering of the world.

Lately, I have been adopting a practice borrowed from Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and sending lovingkindness towards all that makes me want to armour against the world or myself.

For instance: I have a habit of recounting my past mistakes and fuck-ups on repeat like some slow turning rotisserie chicken. I used to think such preoccupation made me a “better” person, that by punishing myself I was preventing future mistakes.

it never worked like that. instead I’d become really disgusted with myself, project my fears of failure or smallness onto others, and never fully learn from my own life.

i also noticed that such thinking made my heart harden. I could feel the tenseness in my neck and shoulders, the mental heaviness of carrying so much shame.

I decided to alter this not-so-swell habit. instead of berating myself for a mistake or missed opportunity or some bad judgment of another person, i inwardly soften and relax into an open space of lovingkindness.

I breathe. I allow the feeling to be as big as it wants to fucking be. I check in with my body and notice where I am armoring and closing off. 

i direct love toward myself or the other person/issue by inwardly repeating things like,

may i accept myself as i am.


may this person be happy. 

lovingkindness doesn’t excuse or condone bad behavior . I am not some wanly smiling robot.

it’s not easy. and sometimes i still reach for my old familiars to numb the pain of being so open and alive. sometimes i forget this practice, but as the name implies, this lovingkindness practice is not about getting it all right all the time.

it is a practice.

Life has a way of bringing you great reminders:

On Sunday, I participated in Carnegie Museum’s February Wellness Day and took part in a meditative gallery walk.

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As our tour guide led us to the last piece, i felt a softening in my heart occur.

we were standing under the warm and gentle smile of Kuan-Yin. Dated from the Yuan Dynasty, the large head was once part of an entire statue. We walked around the Kuan-Yin figure in thoughtful silence as the tour guide directed us to think about what message Kuan-Yin would have for the world today.

All I could think about was compassion. Intelligent, open compassion. A softening and an allowance for life to be as it was, a roll back of judging ourselves with such malice.

I stayed for a couple of extra minutes as the last of the group left the statue, staring up at her downcast eyes.

I felt a renewed connection to the practice of lovingkindness and staying open.

it was just the reminder i needed.

I hope that you can allow Kuan-Yin inspire you to soften and to feel, to have compassion toward yourself for how difficult life can sometimes be. It’s so much easier to try and muscle our way through life, to go it alone. to pretend or reason away our hurts.

May the supreme compassion of Kuan-Yin teach you about the power of softening, of sending lovingkindness to all aspects of our lives and staying open.



Art (from top to bottom):


Sue Halstenberg

My adorable i-phone


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