Talking with gay mystic Andrew Harvey: Using both sexuality and activism to journey to our deepest spiritual selves
by Alan Davidson
One night in India, the six-year-old Andrew Harvey learned that God could appear anywhere, anytime. The family cook taught him. His parents out for the evening, he ate his dinner on the balcony. Afterward, the family cook sat on the ground beside him and beat a drum in ecstatic rhythms. Suddenly, the cook stopped, set the drum aside, and touched his forehead to the floor. He explained to the surprised child that he was thanking God.
“And you think God hears you?” Harvey asked.
The cook explained. “God is the moon. God is the garden. God is you. God is me. God is all around. God is always seeing. God is always listening. All you need to do is to whisper, and God will hear.” Young Andrew experienced an epiphany that would carry through his entire life.
Andrew Harvey was born in south India to English parents in 1952 and lived there until he was nine years old. He credits this early life with shaping his vision of the inner unity of all religions. The love and acceptance he felt from India’s diverse peoples and strands of spirituality—from the Hindu cook, to holy fakirs, to the Muslim driver of his Protestant parents—told him that this was so. India also bred in Andrew the sense that the divine is present in nature; he could see the sacred in the sensual as well as the transcendent.
Andrew was sent to private school in England when he was only nine. The separation from his mother and India traumatized the young gay man for years. He entered Oxford University in 1970 and at 21 became the youngest person ever to be made a fellow of All Soul’s College, England’s highest academic honor. He remained at Oxford to teach, mastering the English culture of “irony and despair,” as Harvey describes in Gay Mysticism. However, Harvey was soon disillusioned by the academic culture, which he likened to “a concentration camp of reason.”
After suffering a nervous breakdown, Harvey returned to India while still in his 20s and began his spiritual search. There, he studied the world’s great religions, which inspired two books, A Journey in Ladakh, about his studies with Tibetan Buddhist master Thuksey Rinpoche, and Hidden Journey: A Spiritual Awakening, about his 13 years studying with the Indian teacher Mother Meera. That spiritual search has led, thus far, to the writing and editing of 30 books, including The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (co-authored with Sogyal Rinpoche) and The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi. Of particular interest to the gay community is Harvey’s The Essential Gay Mystics, a compilation of gay leaders and thinkers from all the major mystical traditions—the first time such an attempt has been made.
Harvey was deeply moved by Mother Meera. She had been his guru and inspired his first understanding of the holiness and redemptive power of the divine feminine. Then, in 1993, she told Andrew to leave his husband, Eryk, and renounce his homosexuality. Despite his reverence for her as a teacher, he was able to see that her teaching on gays was not divine law, as she said, but instead deep-seated homophobia. He and Eryk stayed together and began the traumatic five years of separating from Mother Meera, which had a staggering effect on Harvey’s thinking. The result was a sophisticated understanding of the difference between false authority and one’s own inner divinity, which he wrote about in The Direct Path.
Harvey was recently in Houston, brought by Brigid’s Place to give a workshop on “Mystical Paths to Wholeness” at Christ Church Cathedral.
Alan Davidson for OutSmart: It’s a privilege to speak with you, Andrew. Many of our readers have a real commitment to spirituality and integrity.
Andrew Harvey: That is so important to the gay movement, isn’t it? It can’t all be poppers and sex parties, can it? There must be other things.
The Bacchic revelry can only last for so long.
A lot of my work has been devoted to trying to get the truth of the gay Tantric mystical experience out. Without it, the whole picture of humanity is falsified, isn’t it?
What do you mean by “mystical” and “Tantric”?
The mystical journey is where everyone meets their divine essence, their soul without dogma. The best way to spirituality is to find the place of radiant balance, where spirit meets body and body is infused with spirit—that place is simply love. A Tantric path is the path of dignity, of respect, of tremendous mutual honoring of fidelity, of tremendous surrendering to and worshipping of each other as divine beings. We mustn’t confuse very exciting sexual experiences, which can lead to delight, with Tantric experiences, which lead to initiation and revelation.
That kind of honoring is a rare thing in the world I live in.
It’s amazing that we’re still in a world where homophobia is still so rampant and the understanding of sexuality is still so primeval.
I feel that homophobia entrenched in my own mind, and so many other gay people I know still have it as well.
How could we not have it?
If you’ve been treated in a despicable way for so long, it’s in our genes. It’s in the first conversations we ever heard about sexuality. It takes a massive effort of the psyche to exorcise it.
The massive effort to overcome that kind of programming, that’s really the essence of the spiritual journey.
Yes it is, and it’s important to realize that you have the divine on your side, that the divine is not against love, or the body, or sexuality. The divine wants the complete flowering of body, heart, mind, and soul together to produce a completely different kind of human being. This is what Walt Whitman saw. Whitman is the supreme prophet poet of the last 300 years—the one who really understood the deepest possible connections between sexual liberation and the birth of democracy and the freedom of all beings to live their complete lives in the sanctification of nature. If gay people really read Whitman’s poems, they’d be given an extraordinarily beautiful image: of the nobility of what their love could be. It gives people courage. It gave me courage to not sell my love short. It’s not surprising that he was a bisexual poet.
I’m trying to make real inroads into gay consciousness, opening up a whole Tantric vision for gay people. And the majority of the gay press is just not interested in it. It’s business as usual. And that’s very sad, because I think it’s keeping back hundreds of thousands of gay people from their spiritual journey, from their enormous potential for spiritual growth that’s hidden in homosexual passion. Gay people have chosen to experience their love and to live it. They have learnt something about the extraordinary transforming force of love.
You say gays have “chosen the path of love.” In my experience, there is a deep hunger and longing for love, but we often choose the path of sex or choose the path of a gay culture.
I think that hunger for true communion with someone else is part of the deepest human hunger. I think that the culture at large is the culture devoted to pornography and sensual excess really out of despair. That is particularly clear in the gay culture, where an addiction to youth and an addiction to physical beauty and an addiction to sex mask a very great self-loathing and self-despair. It’s that self-loathing and self-despair that has to be healed—which can only be healed really by the mystical journey. When you do meet the divine in this way, you begin the great process of healing oneself of one’s inherited homophobia, body shame, body hatred, or the fear of love itself. And that slowly starts to transform you into a warrior of love.
There is such a self-loathing of the body in so many of the religious traditions.
This is the source of the nightmare that we’re in. We’re in a crisis of the body. We do not know the divinity of our own bodies. We do not know the divinity of nature. We’re wandering blind and greedy and crazy in a coma of disassociation. The religious traditions are responsible for this because they have been, what I call in my work, addicted to transcendence. They’ve been addicted to a vision of the divine as absolute light, as totally remote from reality, as eternal and final beyond all the mess and chaos of blood and of the creation. A great many people are using spirituality and mysticism as a form of drug to try and bliss out from the pain and agony of this time and the enormous challenge of this time. I think that’s fatal. It’s been a total disaster. It’s a total misreading of the divine because it depreciates and devalues all the different aspects of life.
Gay people endure so many woundings from society, ourselves, and the religious traditions. There are so many opportunities for neurosis and pathology. How do we take an experience of wounding and cultivate that for growth and healing as opposed to just more pathology?
It depends on how you view the wounding. If you view it as making you a helpless victim, then you’re trapped in the victim position. If you see your wounding as an opportunity to enter more deeply into compassion, as an opportunity to understand the other kinds of woundings that limit and damage people, to use your wounding as an oyster uses the grit that comes into it to make a pearl, by using it to spur you forward into the mystical quest, spur you forward into all the different forms of therapy and meditation and self-help and service that can really help you transform yourself—then the wound becomes not something that limits you but in fact becomes something that provides the basic soil in which the rose bush of your human divine identity can grow.
When you have real mystical knowledge, you realize that we are all traveling in time, and we are all reincarnate souls who have been traveling a long time. And the woundings that we experience are at least partly the result of karma. Karma isn’t just punishment. Each wound is gloriously and particularly tailored by the divine intelligence to offer the chance to transform parts of ourselves that need to be transformed. Knowing that would give you a calm and a generosity and a self-wisdom, which, in itself, would help you grow.
Generosity for ourselves and for everyone else. A person needs to claim a sense of responsibility to heal these woundings. There is such a lack of personal responsibility in our society.
How do we on the mystical path inspire people to begin to claim their own responsibility?
The most important thing is to live your life in such a self-responsible way that people are delighted and amazed by the joy and fire in us, by the exuberance and creativity and inspiration of your presence. That in itself will inspire them to take self-responsibility. You can’t lecture people about it; you can’t beat them over the head with it. That just drives them deeper into the victim position. Through your own flowering, you give other people the passion to flower. That is what I think is the deepest way of helping people. You have to be shrewd and subtle about these things.
To “be the change you wish to see,” as Gandhi said. That kind of personal responsibility requires action.
The world’s future hangs on the definition of two words: mystical activism. The true “axis of evil” is the inner axis of disassociation from nature that’s allowing the death of the environment; that’s allowing the creation of two billion people who live on a dollar a day; that’s allowing the persecution of homosexuals in all religions; that’s allowing a hundred million women to get genitally mutilated; that’s allowing the holocaust of the animals.
The mystic sitting on his/her futon, vibrating with the infinite, is not going to change anything. The activist that’s not fed by the powers and wisdom of mystical awakening is going to be rapidly destroyed or burnt out by the tremendous powers ranged against change. It’s a vision that fuses the hightest mystical understanding to the responisbility that arises from the suffering of our time, a radical, political, economic vision that really changes the structures of power. That is exaclty what the authentic Jesus did.
Gandhi had a vision of how the spirit could be made politically active, and he gave his life for it in the most noble way. Gandhi is a terrific example. So is Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course, His Holiness the Dali Lama. These are the three key spiritual activists of the 20th century. The ones that are really trying to show all of us the way through.
One of the inspiring quotes that I live my life by came from your book on Rumi. You said something about the enlightened heart must be able to contain the horrors of Auschwitz and Dauchau as well as the ecstacy of the divine. It’s just that reminder that I can’t go chasing after all that is good and beautiful and easy in the world, I have to sit with what’s most horrific as well.
You must! If you don’t, you’re using your vision of the divine as a way of secretly sealing yourself off from the world, and that is escapism and narcissism. That is joining the coma of the new age. The real use of mystical knowledge is to make you strong enough to withstand the full blaze of the pain of reality, to give you the courage to see it without illusion and to give you the even greater courage to make your whole life a testimony to that love that could transfigure suffering.
More on Andrew Harvey…
How does this gay “warrior of love” sustain the intensity of his passion?Love. “By my love for my husband and my love for my cats and my love for my intimate friends. They give me the courage to be my whole self.”
- The example of others. “By deeply inspiring myself by the great lives of the bodhisattvas and warriors of love of all the traditions, because they have all faced this darkness in the world. They have all faced this refusal of love in the world, they’ve all faced this inertia and indifference and despair. That has made them only more committed to real inner transformation, so as to become stronger.”
- Prayer, meditation, and service. “Through daily no-nonsense spiritual practices to keep myself constantly in the stream of the sacred fire. For me this involves fundamentally three things: prayer, meditation, and service.
- “Deep passionate prayer to the divine, asking the divine for what I need to do my work, to stay as illumined as I can be, clear, forceful, and discriminatory.
- “Through meditation, you come to know the intimate nuances of your own saboteur. You can then free yourself from that saboteur. And also in meditation you taste the boundlessness and peace of your essential being so that gives you constant re-immersion in your deep self.
- “Through service, through really trying to give myself completely in all the work that I do as a teacher, as a writer, as a speaker. If you approach your work and being in the world with that sacred intention to honor the divine in all beings that you meet, that gives whatever you do a great inner beauty. That inner beauty reflects itself back to you as courage and power and energy.”