How is it that one can go from producing daytime television shows where angry people shout at one another to building a business where people are taught to sit quietly? How did I go from “Who’s My Baby’s Daddy?” to “Who Am I?” What I’ve realized is the two actually are not that different. Having produced daytime TV for 17 years, I know from experience that people come on talk shows because they’re in conflict with the way things are and are searching for answers. Those same reasons led me to mindfulness meditation.
It was in October of 2008, within a month of being promoted to executive producer of the long-running court show Divorce Court — I was diagnosed with HIV. The collision of these two things happening simultaneously resulted in a full-blown emotional crisis. Having to navigate through the world of HIV after professionally getting to a place for which I had worked so hard felt overwhelming.
The threat of mortality wasn’t my issue. I was put on medicine fairly quickly so my viral load became and has remained undetectable. What was far more destructive was the manner in which I thought about my HIV. The stigma around virus became very real to me. The only person I told was my boyfriend, who thankfully was negative. I was so intent on controlling how people perceived me that I didn’t want my friends and family to know. In addition, I thought if my boss knew he wouldn’t think I was capable of doing my job.
Then one day, in a darkened control room. I noticed a dark spot in my line of sight. I was diagnosed with a stress-related retina disorder. The spot would disappear in a few months, but the only way to prevent it from reoccurring was to reduce my stress. My best friend told me about an article she read on mindfulness and specifically MBSR (Mindful-Based Stress Reduction) in Oprah’s magazine. So I found an MBSR class in Los Angeles and signed up. My teacher was an OB-GYN who gave up practicing medicine to teach mindfulness. I was fascinated by the way she expertly wove meditation instruction with the neuroscience that backs the practice.
Throughout the eight-week class, I started to relate differently to what was happening in my life. I was recognizing that my thoughts, feelings, emotions and the psychical sensations in my body come and go. The fact that nothing in my life is permanent made sense to me in a way that was very different from the intellectual notion of knowing that.
I took the eight-week class a second time and shortly after it ended, my contract at Divorce Court wasn’t picked up. A few weeks after that, my relationship ended. I was scared and sad, but through meditation, I knew all these feelings were temporary. I also realized my fear of how my family and friends would respond to my HIV wasn’t real either. I began to see more clearly the stories I told myself of how they’d react were just that — stories.
In March of 2011, I moved to New York to launch a new daytime talk show. While there, I met a guy and three months into our relationship he disclosed to me that he was addicted to meth. If this disclosure happened prior to my mindfulness practice, I believe I would’ve left him. But because of meditation, I had the space to see more of him. I saw the pain he was in. I saw the causes and conditions that led him to begin using and I saw the deep desire to be happy. He was just like me.
I returned to LA in April of 2012. Shortly thereafter, I attended a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Joshua Tree, Calif. For lodging, I was assigned to share a small house with eight men. Although we were silent, eight people rustling around, going to the bathroom, etc. resulted in quite a lot of noise. Because of this, I barely slept for the first three nights. On day four I woke up with a bloody nose from the dry desert air, my dreaded eye disordered reappeared and I felt like I had the flu.
I met with a teacher that morning and began crying uncontrollably. I felt so sorry for myself. All I could think about was how horrible it was that I was HIV positive, how exhausted I was from not sleeping, how the blind spot in my eye was annoying as hell. On a larger scale, the career I defined myself with for my entire adult life was no longer interesting to me.
The teacher comforted me, and because of her ability to be present, I felt heard and understood. She encouraged me to stay with the feelings and stick out the retreat. She also arranged for me to sleep in one of the bungalows that the teachers were using for student meetings.
That night after the last meditation sit, I walked alone to my room. As I entered and walked past two chairs just like where I had sat with my teacher hours earlier, I noticed an empty box of Kleenex and a garbage can overflowing with tissues between them. It was then that it hit me: We all have something. Just like me, the other 200 people on the retreat had reasons to cry. Just like me, they had issues to deal with. Just like me, they were trying to figure out how to be happy. We all have battles and challenges in life, and, in that moment, mine became less personal.
When I returned home I realized I wanted to do something different with my career. I had an idea for secular luxury brick-and-mortar mindfulness studios. This idea would soon turn into a meditation lifestyle brand called Rihpl, which I co-founded with my first MBSR teacher. Today, we are building the business together and are looking for funding. As I make this transition from television producer to mindfulness entrepreneur, I’m still developing TV shows and take jobs in television to support myself. My last gig was on a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network called Iyanla Fix My Life. Seeing as though it was Oprah’s magazine that introduced me to mindfulness, the significance of working for Oprah was not lost on me.
On the show, Iyanla often asks the guests who they are and what it is they believe. Prior to mindfulness, and working as a TV producer, it never would have dawned on me to ask myself the same things. But because of meditation, I was already beginning to ask myself those very questions. What I realized is that I’m so much more then I think I am. There is no stigma that defines me. No one word or identity that describes me. How I think about or feel about being gay, HIV positive and even a TV producer is just a result of causes and conditions that are constantly shifting. My identity isn’t solid and that’s okay. The one truth I know is I’m like every other person on this planet, talk show guests included. I’m someone who is trying to be happy and feel connected to world around me. I’m someone who is learning that living each moment with compassion for myself and others is what this shared experience of life is all about.
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