The sky of the Lake:
A Manifesto of Freedom and of care
Zhenevere Sophia Dao
I am not a spiritual teacher. I am a person for whom what is called “spiritual” is discovered in my body and my thought in the spontaneous evolutions of my life, which means that my ever-developing sensitivity is my ever-changing religion, and therefore what I teach is not codifiable as a “spiritual teaching,” if by the term is meant a platform of religious security from which, and through which, any student might orient themselves. No. In fact, because I transform what I call the sacred through my body, at every moment, I am not “followable” as a teacher. I suppose I am the teacher of un-followability, and I would encourage students to transform themselves into forms, shapes, moods, and intentions unrecognizable to those who have thought they knew them, even “yesterday.”
I am a woman; I am a transwoman; I am an artist, above all. I am a woman, above all. I am a transwoman, above all, and my gender is the art of my original soul, my womanhood is my only biography, however I have been gendered in this life, assigned, or tried to accommodate that gender, that assignment, through forms of assimilation called culture. I repudiate culture, even as I suffer it, even as I am responsible for making it, for trying to heal it, grow it, make it hospitable to my own wilderness, and to the wilderness of all free people.
I am a woman; I am an independent scholar, by which I mean, I think in order to know how I might live, and I live farther than my last thought, and, therefore, have to begin thinking again, making thought again, each time I have a feeling. For my feeling is my thought, and my thought is my feeling, and my past bends around and contours itself to the shape of my present and my future. In this I am not unique, for all people make their lives from the shapes that their souls call reality, while those shapes and visions last. Only I am perhaps unusually attuned to death, to the way the personality is properly murdered by the soul, instant to instant, and this is the only understanding I have of truth: the acceptance of the way the soul murders the personality, murders performance, which is calm and graceful—if we understand “calm and graceful” immensely, as the authenticity that shatters one’s past—as the soul emerges, each time, with relief, into who we really are.
I am not a spiritual teacher. I am not a spiritual leader. I do not preside over a “spiritual community.” I am a professor of the radical sacred. I am a director of human emergence, which I call Immanence Theater. I am an inventor, one who innovates from one crisis to another. Innovation, then, is my therapy. I have had no spiritual teachers, I come from no lineages. Every technique I have learned, from study, or inherited from the hearsay of history, I have graduated from and developed beyond its own idea and form; developed and moved beyond to such a degree that my sources vanish under the pressure of their own inadequacy to express the inexpressible, and are not so much sources as flagstones of permission, permission to exist, which is to create, to make novelty. And this pressure, to express the inexpressible, I call originality. And it frightens me; and is unjustifiable and indefensible, as any form of novelty in the face of history must be. Every true creator is terrified; every true creator can barely survive their own improbability.
But even originality is not original. It is merely the pressure of ancestry building up in an individual so that the shape of an expression that has not precisely existed exists as an homage to the teeming truth of the multitudes that inhabit the self. The multitudes are justified in the original creation. Originality, then, is homage to its own impossibility. Singularity is otherness; we are composites; we are not ourselves; we are all the others, all the endless suffering and consecrating others. The more we refine our unique visions, the more we become “original,” the more populated with ancestry we are—and we see, in the final analysis, that we are not original at all. That we are, rather, the history that has not been told.
If I have invented and innovated protocols of meditation, forms of qigong, theatrical experiments, conceptions of asana, atmospheres of spiritualized martial arts, ideologies of essential goodness in the face of a damning history of consciousness, protocols all of which are are nothing but prayers, it is because I am an atheist to religious history, meaning that the institutionalized forms of worshipful ideation and the behaviors and rituals that surround these have not satisfied my longing for the numinous. Above all, my body, which is my spirit, has not been satisfied by institutions of worship to the degree that I might call these inherited mythologies “true,” by which I mean germane to the exigencies of my soul. And here I am speaking of both the East and the West. And so I have created for myself pathways of embodied numinosity that I call “techne,” which is the antique word for artful practice.
These pathways are not “universal.” What is universal, like what is “classic” in the arts, proves itself only over the course of long arcs of time, over great stretches of human consciousness, over the long evolution of bodies and beliefs. I have no idea if what I have created will outlast the centuries, or even the decades. I cannot care, for life is too immediate with me to care about legacies. I cannot know human need beyond my own exigencies. So my forms, my ideas, like my body and my heart and my mind—these are creations, works of art that are temporal, in time.
And yet, students find that these forms, shapes, and moods of practice and training, created from nothing but the crisis of my own sensibility, feel timeless, and worthy even of their own inimitable uniqueness. And so the practice of forms and ideas are helpful to them, though undogmatic, and partial, and everlastingly partial. For forms and practices, to me, are only stepping stones. And life—that is to say, experience beyond concept—is the only measure of one’s capacity to exist as themselves. No form, no ideology, no concept can justify anyone’s life. One has only one choice if one is to exist, and that is to risk one’s own existence, beyond all form, and beyond all idea.
I am not a “healer.” I am not responsible for people’s healing, simply because I have healed myself, and continue to heal myself where I fracture myself. I disorient my orientation, and orient my disorientation, and I cannot say if disorientation or orientation is the more healing. If I help people gain tools of expression that might help them to “heal,” according to their own definition of the term, it is simply because I do not believe, for myself, in safety. And so all my arrivals reach out and touch my terrified beginnings, and this truth, this width, makes a wider understanding of what it is for anyone to heal—and in that ample atmosphere, of what healing might constitute, love for the interminable magnitude of the soul, there are those who may actually begin to “heal,” even on the level of disease, resistance, or complaint, and according to their own definitions of the phrase, “to heal.”
I am not a guru; I am not a spiritual leader. I do not steward a spiritual community. I am a woman; I am a transwoman. I am a female hermaphroditical queer institution, as all queer people are ahistorical, and therefore their own institutions of incompatibility. I am a self-poeticizing creation; I am other to myself, until I am not. And when I am not myself, I am most myself; and when I am most myself, I am beginning to die. And therefore I cannot be followed, because no one living can follow anyone who is dying, even if they are dying constantly into their own birthing. I am not a guru. I am not a spiritual teacher. I am woman; I am a transwoman.
I do not wish for, or appreciate “devotees.” I am not a guru. Devotees would depress my soul, because to accept devotion is to accept the clarity of one’s own soul over the clarity of another’s. My soul is clear only to me, and only for a moment: then it’s murky again. A devotee must have one guru: their own soul. A devotee would be devoted to the clarity and the murkiness of their own soul. And some individuals, devoted to themselves, might find forms of liveliness in my teaching, and in my theatrical directing, and in the atmosphere of my irrepressible insistence that human beings must try to become free.
The practices that I have created are designed for the journey of individuation. But I am suspicious of the concept of individuation. I am not sure where the collective and the individual divide. So I call “individuation” the process, never-ending, by which one’s self dialogues with all the ancestors that are impregnate in oneself. My practices, my theories, my experiments in thought and embodiment, are not created to reflect back on my person in the form of adulation, but to inspire people to discover themselves. My teaching is a continual outcry of permission, the permission of liberation; the permission to inestimably care: for oneself, and for one’s frangible others; for all others are selves, in the final, most exacting understanding of sensibility.
I am a person, a free person, by which I mean I believe in the accurate beacon of my desire; I make my futures as I make my present; and my futures and my present justify the indeterminate gestures of my past. I am surrendered to an unwieldy fecundity; an unwieldy fecundity I call a self. I am one who is devoted to unchaining myself from inheritances that would make the impossible impossible. For the purpose of the possible is nothing other than the impossible, if one would unchain the inheritances of thought and restraint, of unfreedom. I am a woman; I am a transwoman; I am a queer individual; I am an artist; I am a religious, and an atheist of religious history; I am a director of theaters, in order to find the meaning of the calm and the eruptive earth, in order to imbibe endlessly the magnificent inconclusively of being.
And I am afraid; I am afraid for myself, and for all humanity, for all tender things—and there is nothing authentic that is not tender. I am afraid that we have failed, that we have failed emancipation, kindness, care, bravery, dissolution of pettiness and of triviality; that we have failed magnanimity, generosity, forgiveness, love. And my fear makes me fearless. I am fearless in my fear. I am aware of moments as lifetimes, for every moment is a potential recovery of failure. And that means that fear is essentially fearlessness, if one is a maker. To make is to be awake. I am trying to be as awake as anyone one who has ever walked this earth. As awake as the raindrop is awake when it crashes into the sky of the lake.
~Zhen Dao, 2020