or -- how to practice love in sleazy bars
illustration by Akemi Shinohara
This is an essay about meditation. Which is maybe something you plan to do -- once you get your act together. On the list with getting sober, settling down, eating oatmeal and removing all the porn from your computer.
Personally, I suspect I may be dead before I ever get myself all buttoned-up and presentable. But, in the meantime, I still practice meditation.
Metta means loving-kindness--and loving-kindness is just a fancy word for real love. The Buddha taught metta meditation 2500 years ago. I've found metta meditation to be very useful, even in the most scandalous places, the most low-down situations. Useful even when I am completely nuts.
I’m looking to incite a queer metta craze.
Metta is a perfect accessory for our gay lives, like techno, poppers and fetish gear, like water-soluble lube, like manhunt and gaydar. Leaving your apartment without metta is even worse than neglecting to moisturize or put gel in your hair. Metta is essential. The practice of love need not wait until you're proper and respectable-- it cannot, must not wait.
If it's only noon and you're on beer #4 already, if you've spent the last six hours jacking-off online, if you're reading this hurriedly on the way to the baths--honey, it's metta time. Trust me: I've tested this myself. Repeatedly.
I'm not sure I have a right to talk about meditation. I have zero credentials. OK, I did live in a Buddhist monastery, about a century ago. I was always the one chosen to answer questions about masturbation. I'm not exactly radiant with virtue. Nonetheless, here we are. Someone has evidently neglected to lock up the computer. Therefore I will offer a few notes on the practice of metta in sleazy gay bars.
Of course, I'm sure that metta would also work at, say, a piano bar, or one of those places where gay businessmen gather to drink a very dry martini before going home to their husbands to, uh, assimilate some more. Personally, I prefer sleazy bars. Spectacularly sleazy, if available. Places where you can get blown standing at the bar. Places where there's a fisting party on the first Sunday and watersports on the last Thursday. Red light bulbs, a sling, free condoms, lurkers at the urinal, lubricant in a pump dispenser. What a wonderful place to meditate!
Like most guys at the bar, I often sit alone, staring into space. Macho cruise mode: trying not to slouch, trying to look tough and hunky. Do you ever do this? This is a perfect time to meditate. You can keep the same posture and just change what's in your mind.
If it's a bar that shows porno, pry your eyes off it. (For now -- we will return to this point, and to porno.) And please don't worry -- if a man comes up to you, begging to be ravished, you may interrupt your meditation at any time.
Give yourself a minute or two to breathe. Notice whatever is going on in your mind: complaints, desire, fog. Usually what's going on in my mind is: I want him. He doesn't want me. He wants me. Do I want him? Am I good enough? Shouldn't everyone be paying more attention to me? Is it too late to do something about my ears? Whatever it is, just notice it.
Traditionally, it should be said, meditation is done without beer. Which is worth trying -- but perhaps not in the beginning. Sip slowly.
To start, think of someone you're fond of, someone for whom you have a soft spot. Imagine that person in your mind. Maybe it's your Mom or your best friend. Or maybe your Mom is a bitch two-thirds of the time, and your best friend just yesterday spilled red wine on the only decent pair of white pants you've ever owned. Try Grandma?
For me, it's often easiest to start with someone who's almost a stranger. A beloved stranger. That guy at Seven-Eleven who winked at you and cheered you up. The coffee lady who slipped you a free muffin. Honey, there are no rules. Kylie Minogue or your dog will do. The point is just to get some love percolating through your sad heart.
When you think of someone, address them in your mind. May you be happy. May you be free of suffering. May you be healed. May you be at peace. These are all phrases commonly used in metta meditation. The point is to use phrases that work for you. I used to say, May you be well -- but I couldn't stop thinking of a pulley and a bucket. Think of a person for whom you feel tender -- and love them in your mind.
Actually it's not really so different from getting turned on. (Buddhist police are coming for me now. They're leaping into their cars.) Maybe you weren't thinking about sex at all until you saw that guy at the gym, the one who struts around with his towel slung over his shoulder, his long floppy penis practicing hypnotism. Then you started checking out random hot pedestrians. By the time you got to the bar you thought, whoa baby, I better have something on the rocks because I am feeling damn friendly toward everybody.
Metta is like that. You want your loving-kindness, which started with one person, to overflow and spill toward other friends, then random people, then to the bar regulars you tired of years ago, and finally even to the guy you gave your number to -- but the bastard never called.
Sitting right there at the bar, looking cool and bored, slowly look around the room. Find someone who has been kind to you, or someone cute, and in your mind offer him loving-kindness. Think of it as cruising with a purpose. Maybe start with the bartender, if he ever slips you free shots. Is he doing all right? Does he look tired tonight?
If it's a weeknight and the task doesn't seem too overwhelming, try to offer loving-kindness to every man in the bar. One by one. Be specific. What else do you have to do? A typical night at the bar: you're there with your vodka cocktail, watching a bareback gangbang video, being totally ignored by the guy that you want most. It’s meditation paradise.
Remember that, just like you, all these men want to be happy. Yeah, and just like you, they're probably doing a piss-poor job of it. Make a wish for them to be happy. Deeply and truly happy. Wish for their healing. Remember that they're going to be dead soon, just like you. Ever come to this bar ten years ago? Who's left?
One by one, send metta. For the vicious queen: may you be full of loving-kindness. For the
leather daddy who’s been on retrovirals forever: may you be healed. For the jittery dealer: may you be at peace. Be careful not to skip over the guys you don't know so well, or the ones who are kind of non-descript. Middle-aged in blue jeans: may your heart be flooded with joy.
Extend your loving-kindness toward the entire bar, toward all the bars you know, all the drunks and depressed folks, all the addicts, the whole city, the country, the world. May you be happy. May you be healed. May you be safe. May you somehow be remotely all right at the end of this long night.
If it starts to seem mechanical, don't worry. Go back to someone you really care about, someone who was kind to you. For me, it's those folks at the soup kitchen, who always called me a volunteer, even though I chopped carrots maybe once a month, but ate there every day. Even if your meditation stays mechanical, don't worry. What would I normally be doing? Watching Big As They Come for the ten-thousandth time, sneaking hits off a bottle of poppers. Keep practicing metta, even when it's just words.
The point is to increase the love in your heart and start including more people in it. The point is to end up a friend of the whole world. However, it is not actually necessary to sleep with everyone. I often forget this. Sleeping with people is optional.
By the way, don’t forget to include the beautiful men in your meditation. Personally, I have this handicap: I think the gorgeous don’t suffer. Ridiculous, I know. But I keep thinking that, if I had a perfect face, a perfect body and, most of all, an uncut porno mega-dong, all my problems would be solved. When in fact it does not work this way. The horsehung bubble-butt big-bicep washboard-abs crowd is also suffering. I have to re-learn this nearly every evening. This man I see now, posed beside the bar, who looks like he fell off the box cover of Real Hung Straight Marines Volume Eleven -- if he was so freaking happy would he really be on coke and using steroids? Would he have this face like sucking lemons?
Remember to include yourself. Send loving-kindness toward yourself. Make a wish for your own healing, your happiness and peace. You there at the bar, feeling a little lonely, with all your bad habits, extra kilos and old hurts. May I be happy. May I be at peace. May I be full of loving-kindness.
Traditionally, metta practice started with yourself because loving yourself was easiest. (Insert hysterical laughter here.)
I try to sneak myself into my meditation, like a drunk crashing a wedding. Once I've thought of lots of other people, I toss myself in as well. Like, oh yeah, and the funny looking guy, whatshisface, may I be free of suffering, may I be joyful, may I learn some social skills which allow me to keep my pants on.
One problem is, if I succeed in smuggling love to myself, I start to cry. Which is oh-so-not the Hot Macho Leather Stud persona I'm aiming for. If at any point you start to cry, massage both sides of your temples with one hand, thus covering your eyes.
At certain points in your meditation, you may find yourself nailed by painful realizations. Such as: if I really loved myself, I wouldn't be drunk in this bar every night of the week. If I really loved myself, I wouldn't be kneeling in this dark room offering myself as a urinal. If I really loved myself, I wouldn't be having safe sex just, oh, well, maybe 70% of the time. Allow yourself to be skewered by these thoughts. Send loving-kindness to yourself. And please feel free to change your life.
Often I hear: first, get sober. First, stop fucking around. Then meditate. One wonders where the love and sanity required to make these changes is supposed to come from.
I'm trusting you already know it would be better to just stay home. Eat dark leafy greens and go to bed early. I’m trusting you know this already. A much better idea than going out, drinking six beers, and four shots that taste like Scope, and sucking off three guys in the corner. Those smart people staying home, I hereby refer to the 700,000 books and articles published every year on Buddhism for Respectable People. These notes are intended as company for those of us headed out. I wish I could buy you a beer. Hell, I wish I could play with your nipples. All I can offer is this typing. Hope it helps.
Those of us who meditate in sleazy bars have several big advantages. First, there's the proximity of suffering -- that's very helpful. Most of the time, we're not neatly bandaged up, with all our wounds disguised. Nope -- we're bleeding all over the floor. Look around: that guy over there -- he started drinking at dawn. Those three are on tina. That one just got ditched by his lover. That one found out his T cells are shit. That one is so far gone he's willing to get fucked by anyone. Any love you can muster is urgently needed. Things are not going to be all right.
Still, it's astonishing how often I manage to think that I'm the only one with real problems. When I feel this way, I look around the bar and tell myself, "Yeah -- these guys are basically happy. They've got it together. They're at peace in their hearts. They're all going to wake up tomorrow with a smile on their face and a song of joy in their heart." I do this until I giggle. Then I resume metta meditation.
If, while cruising the bar, you notice that you're suffering -- that's useful. Whatever it is that's bothering you -- trust me -- it's bothering someone else too. Feeling not hot enough, feeling rejected, queasy from cheap shots, canker sore coming on, sore dick, hemorrhoids, worried about work tomorrow, love-sick, so horny you're a danger to society? Baby, whatever it is, you've got company.
I maintain that, when it comes to practicing metta, sluts have an advantage. (Buddhist police, driving faster now.) We’ve spent so much time smashing down barriers already. We’ve slept with lovers, friends, enemies and umpteen strangers. Now we just have to learn to share our loving hearts. And actually it’s much easier than sharing your ass.
Another major advantage of sleazy gay bars is the presence of an extraordinary meditative tool: porno. Whenever you’re having trouble meditating, porn is there to help you. When you can’t think of anyone, when you’re distracted, start directing loving-kindness to the boy up on the screen. Think about him. How’s he doing? Is he all right? Look into his eyes: bored, spaced out, or full of that fuck, yeah! fake passion at which I am expert and probably you are too.
Send your tenderness, your care, to the men in the video, to all the fake lumberjacks and lifeguards, to the leather men and twinks, to the Czechs and Brazilians, the experts and the amateurs. You’ll know you’re making progress is your meditation when suddenly the men on-screen are real.
Actually, it's very useful, on the nights you can't find any love at all, just to sit in the bar, looking at the men, reminding yourself, "That man is real. He's real." This sounds simple but it may in fact be quite revolutionary, especially if all your thoughts about him previously have been: "Ohmigod, for trolls like that, spandex should be illegal." Or: "Oh honey, that's gonna hit the spot."
Sleazy gay bars are such ideal places to meditate that I fear, if word gets out, we may be overrun by Buddhist meditators. By you know, respectable people. Clutching their cashmere shawls and their meditation cushions handmade in Vermont. You see, traditionally, Buddhist monks used to seek out places like this for meditation. Graveyards and battlefields -- places respectable people avoided. Now we are in the 21st century -- and here are the new charnel grounds.
If you see anyone at the bar who looks too respectable or, god forbid, holy--no problem. Show them your toys. Or your piercings. Offer to pee on them.
Actually, this is one of the dangers of practice. You might start thinking, “Oh these poor unfortunate men. And I, I am a compassionate meditator, with love in his heart. Oo la la!” This is to be studiously avoided. We’re all in this mess together. If you start feeling puffed-up, direct loving-kindness toward yourself.
Like the pretty boys who pose and act offended if you so much as smile in their direction -- we're all scared to death. Therefore, when you screw up, be even kinder to yourself. We have already been punished sufficiently, thank you.
You might think: I can't walk around a tough, nasty, mean-ass, hard-core leather bar with love blazing in my eyes, like I'm everybody's aunty, like some cow that's been grazing on marijuana.
Trust me: You can. I've tested it. I promise you won't get groped any less. Of course it doesn't help to grin like a happy Jesus poster. Keep your mouth as it is and blaze love out your eyes. If you feel self-conscious, look at the floor or into space. Imagine you are a loving-kindness secret agent.
And remember, love must often take action. The point of metta is not to sit at the bar in a happy daze -- beer does that. You are the designated friend of the whole damn bar -- whether you’re sober or drunk off your ass. It is your responsibility to help and to prevent harm. This is impossible -- and it’s still your job.
Every time you think “somebody ought to” -- honey, that somebody is you. Call taxis, hold wallets, make sure the kid about to pass out does not wind up in the sling. Steal car keys when necessary. Always have love in your heart -- and half a dozen condoms in your pocket. Little packets of lube are also often appreciated.
Metta -- just something else to take along to the bar. And keep it with you the whole time. Like your wallet. Add metta to your check-list. Condoms, lube, butt plug, wrist restraints, latex gloves, tit clamps, poppers and -- oh, yes -- do I have my good heart?
By the way, take it easy with the poppers. (I'm speaking to myself here.) It may be that your brain is something you will want to use later.
As I was saying -- metta is as essential as a condom. We cannot afford meanness. We cannot afford the petty acts of cruelty we dispense so freely. All the bigotry the straight world dishes out is not a tenth as bad as how we gay men treat each other. It must stop and you yourself must stop it. Tonight.
Probably you know plenty of bitter queens, eaten up by meanness. Maybe you’re one of them some nights. I sure as hell am. Don’t give up on yourself, but beware: unlike HIV, cruelty does not have a ten year incubation period. We suffer immediately. The effects of cruelty can be more sneaky than pneumonia and quicker than a brain tumor. We must ditch our petty cruelty like a shit-smeared condom. We must saturate ourselves with kindness. This is an emergency. Metta is essential. This world desperately requires you, and cries out for your loving heart.
OK, now it’s time to talk about some odd side-effects of metta practice. Which some would call rewards. This is where things get a little weird, a little magicky. Nonetheless, you should be prepared. Because it’s not like you just do your metta practice, night after night, forever, and nothing happens. Because -- I don’t know -- maybe the Buddha was wrong about karma. Maybe rebirth is all a hoax. But metta, gents and ladyboys, tops and bottoms, bears and cubs, metta is for real.
Of course metta should be practiced for the sake of cultivating a good heart, because it is our true nature to be loving, et cetera. If that doesn’t motivate you, practice metta because it’ll transform your nights in sleazy bars. (Buddhist police, pushing the pedal to the floor.)
Fill yourself with as much loving-kindness as you can, until you’re as saturated as canned fruit in syrup. Imagine breathing-in loving-kindness like emptying your bottle of poppers in one long whiff. Blast your loving-kindness like a fire hose at the raging fire of misery in the world.
Meanwhile, do not be alarmed if small odd things do occur. If the bartender suddenly refuses to let you pay for your drinks. If men, with no warning, suddenly embrace you and declare their love. Or buy you beer for no reason. If the creepiest junky in the place comes up to you and says, “Could you just hold my hand for a little while? I feel safe here.” If a man says, “Could you please sleep beside me -- I think my nightmares would go away.” If a man says, “Dude, I am going to get shot for saying this, but there is something going on with your aura.”
These are a few of the things that have happened to me, while practicing metta at the bar. Write in with your list, okay?
It can also work the other way. Suddenly the most difficult person in the bar -- actually the most difficult person in the entire metro area -- will accost you. You had such a good feeling going, a happy metta groove, and now you think, "Fucking A -- I have to love this one too?" Yes, him too. Him and his hair gel and his little snide remarks. Keep sending out metta and, when it gets tough, love yourself for trying.
Of course, you are practicing metta for the sake of ultimate liberation, for the good of all humankind. Thus I hate to admit that metta may also lead to drastically better nights at the bar, fewer hangovers and, yes, better sex. (Buddhist police, running up the stairs.) If you practice metta, more men will buy you drinks, chat you up, and, yes, sometimes even the hunkiest, most desirable, lick-able, dreamy, man-god will abruptly want -- you.
If this occurs, try not to act alarmed. For goodness sake, do not start talking about Buddhist meditation! (Ugh!) But don’t feel you have to stop practicing metta. Keep thinking: May you be happy. May you be free of suffering. Right on into his arms.
(Buddhist police, breaking down the door.)
I think I’ll stop here. These are just a few notes, based on my experience, meditating in sleazy bars. Please remember: love is not the property of respectable people. Love cannot wait till you pull it together. Love yourself, even the mess you are now, and love the people around you, busy with their own disasters. Do not wait a day or an hour, don’t wait a moment, not even until you sober up, or get your pants back on. Begin practicing metta at once.
May you be free from suffering. May you be at peace. May you be happy. May you be healed. May you always be full of loving-kindness.
(This essay was originally published in RFD. This revised version is based on the original -- uncut -- version. I am hoping very much that this essay, along with many other stories and essays, will soon be part of a book. If you have corrections or suggestions, please let me know. Who might ever publish such a book? Any clues? Your kindness and help is much appreciated. Thank you.)