From the Under 35 Project: Heart on Fire

Here’s the latest installment in the Under 35 Project, “Heart on Fire” by Brian Otto Kimmel. It’s the first post June’s theme, Social Action.

Brian Otto Kimmel
1 June 2012
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer

Finding Zen

I came to Zen in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh with my heart on fire. I came without knowing I was in need of inspiration. I came without recognizing the sufferings in my life as unnecessary burdens. I was a survivor of sexual child abuse; a queer teen coming out; a singer-songwriter, pianist and accompanist for local choirs and bands; and an activist for causes important to my community—the protection of forests, clean water and an absence of bullying at elementary schools which I was victim.

I had a momentary glimpse of freedom the first time I sat, my eyes closed and butt cushioned by a tuft of moss underneath a cherry tree in my Dad’s front yard. I was inspired to sit after reading the first few pages of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace. A classmate at the community college I attended for high school credit introduced me. For a few small seconds as I sat under the cherry tree I was aware of having no burdens, no obtrusive thoughts, no catastrophic emotional meltdowns, no worries, and no concerns. For a moment I was being peace. That one moment inspired me to return. Returning to the cushion, to my freedom seat, did not come naturally at first and it did not always feel enlightening.

 Deeper Peace and Courage to Stay

For a period of time after high school I attempted to sit every day, once a day, in a small nook in my studio apartment I designated as a breathing room. At the time I was only looking for peace. I did not understand that practice, sitting and the like, was about more than peace. Practice was also about liberation and the peace that comes from liberation—a deeper peace. In the first few years of learning Zen mindfulness meditation I would find a seat, close my eyes and focus on my breath. When I felt discomfort or struggle of any kind I would immediately squirm, get up and walk away. It was not until I completely lost all hope—my early twenties—that I actually developed the courage to stay. Through passion, aggression, fear, aloneness, doubt, worry, anxiety, sexuality and more, my method in my early twenties became to sit, walk and abstain from endless distraction. My method was to cultivate a curiosity for what I was experiencing. With an open heart, open mind and connection to earth I attempted to completely reorient my world.

It was impossible to live in the world. It was challenging to find and keep a job. I was terrified of anyone I did not know. I struggled to even get out of bed. When I did get out of bed I was often challenged by an insurmountable anxiety, panic and physical memories of trauma that rose like daggers in my chest, spine and genitals. Mixed with memories of abuse were sexual desires and longing for a partner, touch and connection. My heart so badly needed a way to both express its longing for love and to heal from the love that had been betrayed by my former stepfather.

Accepting Myself

I sought ongoing refuge in psychotherapy. Though it helped me to deal with emotional triggers that came up because of past trauma, Zen practice further helped me to know myself. The combined force of psychotherapy and Zen mindfulness meditation was the recipe I used on a daily basis to help meet my own personal world. My personal world was a metaphor for all the ways I met the challenge of just being me. Never mind a desire to change the whole world outside of me. I needed to change the relationship to my inner world.

When I started the practice I could not accept myself. I wanted so badly to be of service to others. I wanted to “heal the world” I grew up saying. I did not realize until my later twenties that what I really needed was myself, my own loving embrace. What I really needed was to stop looking at how I could change the situation outside of me in order to make my world more livable. I really needed to stop, breathe, notice and appreciate my inner world—to inwardly smile.

When I came to the practice I thought I needed to put on a good show, to be the perfect practitioner. I was a showman. I had been in the performing arts since I was six years old. I had performed in concert choirs, musical theaters, produced several music albums and toured locally as a pianist since I was twelve. I knew how to smile, how to bow after seeking applause and look good for a camera. I knew the etiquette of showing up in the world outside but I did not have the sense of what it meant to actually arrive.


In my twenties I devoted ten years off from school and work to heal from the effects of childhood trauma through psychotherapy and Zen mindfulness meditation. I depended on family and friends financially and sometimes lived on the streets. I knew my long-term goal was to love others and serve. I was told time and time again by close friends and teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh that I needed to love me first before I could really love others. I did not get what it meant to love myself first and questioned it whenever the advice appeared.

Growing up surviving trauma, before I even heard about Buddhism, I believed that sacrificing my own needs, thinking only about others, I would be freed. I believed that if I thought about myself, I would have let the mysterious disease of sexual abuse infecting me during the six years of my mother’s marriage to her second husband, completely destroy me. It nearly did. I was eleven years old when I finally told. I was thirty pounds underweight, anorexic, severely malnourished, and as psychologically vigilant as a deer feeding in an open field. I watched for prey and was startled at the tiniest touch or sound.

I testified in court against my stepfather when I was twelve. I believed it was another opportunity to serve. The grownups around me, including parents and the county prosecutor, said my testimony would help save other kids, preventing similar atrocities from happening. The prosecutor said my testimony would help legislators make laws to protect kids from molesters like my former stepfather. In many ways my testimony did help. It stopped my stepfather from hurting me and others and helped increase prison terms for child sex offenders in the state. Left unattended was the little child inside of me. The little practitioner in me needed a refuge. To stop, breathe and listen. The child inside needed grownups who could teach me how to stop, breathe and listen. I thought I had to be a savior, a hero, a protector and forgot about also caring and seeking protection for myself. I needed a mindful friend.

Meditation in the World

When I sat under the cherry tree for the first time my little practitioner awakened. My mindful friend seed within was watered. Through time my mindful friend grew. By my late twenties I ordained as a lay member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Our order is comprised of monastic and non-monastic practitioners dedicated to a life of service through compassionate listening, action and applied mindfulness trainings or ethics for a healthy life and society.

My ordination, even at a young age, was the continuation of my life as a social servant. It was the continuation of touching and feeling the connectivity of loving me and others. I began to witness the deep effect of personal transformation. When others find out I am a survivor of abuse, queer, a musician, and an activist, they often ask questions. Many are curious about how I found Zen at a young age, what allowed me to stay for so long and how the practice and tradition affected me. As an Order of Interbeing member I have learned skills in being more fully present for those with questions and in answering from my heart. From the depth of what is true for me.

The more I know myself, the more authentically I relate with the world around me—people, animals, plants, minerals, events, places, corporations, organizations, and circumstances of all kinds. Every thing and being I interact with shares who I am at my most intimate moments. With a more authentic presence, insecurities, vulnerability, strengths and confidences all appear through my body-mind. Relating authentically through being more intimate with myself I let myself be seen.

Right social action is when I am more fully present with whatever action I am committing. When I am more fully there, I can discern what action is right or wrong for the moment—for me and the situation. The more comfortable I am with myself the more I am able to show up for life in new, more meaningful and impactful ways. The sense of fearing life, fearing actions has dissipated. I am more willing to be right where I am.

After devoting ten years exclusively to Zen mindfulness meditation training in my twenties, I am now more available to finding my freedom seat anywhere in the world. I do not always have to be at a monastery to practice deeply. I do not always have to have peace and quiet in order to meditate. Something happened after ten years of concentrated practice that allowed me to find meditation in the world and to create practice centers anywhere I go.

Modeling Social Change

Thich Nhat Hanh once offered a teaching in Indonesia at the foot of the Cosmic Mountain, the great Buddhist monument, Borobudur. “As practitioners we can be like a mountain,” Thich Nhat Hanh said. A mountain is a refuge for many beings. A place one can turn to for solace, peace, freedom and food—spiritual food and other. I am becoming a mountain through Zen mindfulness practice. Like many of the great sages and leaders of our world: Aung San Suu Kyi, H.H. Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, I learn to cool the flames or use the fire in my heart to burn up inhibiting afflictions. When I burn up what prevents me from showing up in the outer world, through practice, I am then more available, freer to love and serve others. “The object of practice,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “is to grow our hearts big.”

The more afflictions I burn up, the more beings can take refuge in me. Arriving in the world courageously through everything I have experienced, with open heart and open mind, others can look toward my actions as a model for social change. If I can do it, so can you. If the Cosmic Mountain has stood for hundreds of years amidst volcanoes, typhoons, floods, millions of stampeding tourists and the heavy steps of pilgrims unloading their burdens, I can too. So can you.

My burning heart gifted real joy, intimacy and the immediate need for waking up. The gift of Zen mindfulness practice offered tools to touch my burning heart. With heart and practice, grew my personal method of working with pain, healing suffering, taking refuge, and continuing by the grace of impermanence. True service is when actions stem from actually lived moments. Life becomes a teaching when I have done what I advocate and practiced what I preach. My social work need not be separate from daily life. Practice need not be different from what I do every day. When I learned to stay, my whole world blossomed. Through the process of accepting myself, my ability to show up in the outside world grew. My burning heart and how I related to it became a form of social action. May this life continue in true service and love.

Brian Otto Kimmel

Brian works with individuals and groups seeking an integrative, embodied approach to contemplative practice in daily life. He has published several articles and is in the process of writing a book on mindfulness and healing from sexual abuse. He recently submitted for publication a collection of wisdom poems on being single and queer. He earned his BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Naropa University in 2012 with a concentration in Contemplative Psychology, Religion and Performing Arts. His final thesis was titled: Healing Gender Wounds through Dancing Like Men. Brian is a non-monastic member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing since 2006. He regularly facilitates retreats, offers speakerships, mentors, and guides practice communities in his tradition and beyond. As a performance artist, he is developing an intimate knowing through body-mind research.