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Yang finds strength in meditation

by Sari Staver

Larry Yang, who teaches meditation, is a Pride parade<br>community grand marshal. Photo: Courtesy SF Pride
Larry Yang, who teaches meditation, is a Pride parade
community grand marshal. Photo: Courtesy SF Pride  

In the early 1990s, when Larry Yang first began studying meditation, he rarely saw people of color in San Francisco's Buddhist temples, known as "sangha."

"I was like a fly in buttermilk," Yang, an Asian-American queer man, said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter .

Yang, 61, received the most votes from the public in balloting for this year's community grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride parade. He is being recognized for his work helping to found a number of long-running meditation groups for people who are members of marginalized communities, including queers, people of color, and people in recovery.

One of the core teachers at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland and the Insight Community of the Desert in Palm Springs, Yang has taught meditation to over 10,000 students in the past 25 years. He is also on the Teacher's Council of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, a small town in Marin County.

Yang's current focus is training spiritual leadership within communities of color and LGBTQI communities, he said. He is part of the coordinating team developing future diverse community meditation teachers in Spirit Rock's Community Dharma Leadership Program and is part of developing the next residential retreat teacher training program to include the participation from multicultural, queer communities.

Yang's work has had a "profound" impact on student Amanda Ream, a 40-year-old Oakland union organizer who nominated her teacher for Pride grand marshal

"Larry Yang is a spiritual leader for the new queer era â€" he engages us in healing our hearts from separation, fear, and the harshness of the world, and creates a healing space of community and reconnection for us to come back to the basic goodness and tenderness of life," Ream, a queer woman, said in an email to the B.A.R.

"This is no small thing â€" to have a leader like Larry, who can hold the broadness of our experiences as queers, along with the specificity, means we can be together in our wholeness, building queer resilience, getting free, falling in love with community and supporting each other," Ream added. "Totally vital work to our survival â€" Larry creates a place for that and for our brilliance, the fun, the excitement and magic of queer life.

"To be around Larry is to feel like we can survive and build the new queer land of our dreams," Ream said. "Larry gives queer people in the Bay Area and across the world a place to come and be safe, at ease in our bodies and our lives, to rest a while, grow and heal and make the world a place where we can be whole."

Another student, Louije Kim, 38, has been practicing meditation for over a decade, "thanks to Larry's work," she said in an interview with the B.A.R.

Kim, a queer person of color, said that when she began meditating she "was in a hard place in terms of racism in my personal and professional life."

Yang "constantly brought to light the dire need for practice spaces for people of color and brought that concept into the consciousness of the broader meditation community," she said.

Kim, a mental health clinician, is also studying to lead LGBTQ meditation groups. "A queer-only space provides the freedom, joy, connection, and understanding" that adds to the healing effects of meditation, she said.

Yang's focus on developing spaces for people in marginalized communities was an outgrowth of his childhood experiences. As a boy, he said that he heard the word "chink" on the playground at his school in the largely Caucasian community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, and didn't know how to deal with that.

When Yang realized he also had feelings for other boys, "I decided then and there that if being different as a person of color was going to be this painful, there was absolutely no way I was going to be gay. I couldn't hide being Chinese, but I thought I could hide â€" or deny â€" being gay," he said.

That plan "made for an absolutely miserable" adolescence, he said. By the time he entered Yale University as an undergraduate, "I was drinking myself into unconsciousness to deal with my isolation."

After obtaining his master's degree in fine art from Yale, Yang taught graphic design at various colleges and had a successful business as a graphic designer after graduation. Several of the posters he designed are now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

"I channeled all that sexual repressed energy into art â€" trying to gain some control of my life," he said. "I didn't realize at the time that being so closeted was bringing on all of the pain and anguish that I felt. Everything looked good on the outside but everything felt tortured on the inside."

After a move to San Francisco in 1989, Yang examined his life when a psychotherapist suggested he consider getting sober.

"I was in such a deep state of denial that I thought it was normal to open a bottle of wine when I began to iron my shirts and stop only after I finished the bottle, not the shirts," he said.

Eventually, Yang began attending 12-step meetings, started studying and practicing mediation, and decided to go to graduate school in social work to make a career change.

After obtaining at master's degree in social work from San Francisco State University, Yang held a series of jobs at San Francisco General Hospital, Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, Baker Places, and the Department of Public Health's Tom Waddell Clinic. Yang has spent time studying meditation in Burma and Thailand, including a six-month period of ordination as a Buddhist monk.

The practice of meditation, said Yang, can also help people to develop the awareness skills necessary to have successful personal relationships.

Growing up so closeted and isolated, "I realized I had missed all the heteronormative development that goes on in the dominant culture. I didn't have role models where I could learn these things."

After Yang began practicing meditation, he met his husband and partner of 16 years, Stephen Pickard, who teaches social work gerontology at UC Davis.

"I am so grateful for the many blessings that have come into my life since I began to meditate. I don't believe the timing is a coincidence."

 

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