In Chinese culture, dragons represent traditionally masculine traits like strength and ferocity, but also perseverance, divine spirit, and success through overcoming hardship. For years now I’ve had large dragon tapestries on my bedroom walls and they’ve meant different things to me along the way.
Let me begin by giving a very brief backstory. Towards the end of elementary school and all throughout middle school, I was a victim of racist bullying. To be honest, it’s not something that I’ve given much thought until rather recently with the Black Lives Matter movement. Coming to terms with my own experience of racism has allowed me to better understand the racism of others and work to shake off its roots in our American culture.
My sophomore year of college, I bought my first dragon tapestry at a street market in Fremont, Seattle. I bought it simply for its aesthetic qualities, and didn’t think too much of it. But this was also around the time that I began to reclaim my Chinese identity. I proudly put up my dragon tapestry as a way to remind myself of my Chinese heritage and that I was proud of my family’s history. Looking back, it was also, in large part, a personal permission slip to give up the grudges I had held for so long against the racist bullies of my childhood.
When I moved to Davis, California I met someone who introduced me to a sort of mythic iconography where, in a visible place in your house, you put an animal or beast that represents your weakest traits, and the objective is to have this rich dialogue with it that becomes instinctual as you face the challenges of life. Essentially, one listens to it and learns from it not so much in an attempt to become it, but to become better as a result of it. I found this idea really fascinating. After all, I never fully identified in what the Chinese Dragon symbolized. I had, for the last six years or so, battled with weakness as a result of chronic insomnia and uncorrelated chronic fatigue. I knew that I had already found the perfect beast for this project, and so I decided I would give this iconography a try.
I bought another dragon tapestry at a tibetan store downtown. I paid the quiet and mysterious store owner, rolled it up, put it in my backpack, and biked it all the way back to my apartment.
When I got back, I surveyed the room, looking for a good place to put this new dragon. There was hardly any room in my bedroom for such a large sheet.
“Maybe I’ll put it downstairs in the kitchen. Better there than nowhere at all.”
So I walked it downstairs and found that there was definitely no room for it there, especially since I had another tapestry on the wall, which I had forgotten was there. So I brought it back upstairs to my room.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have bought this,” I said to myself.
I really thought there would be room. I laid down on my bed for a moment out of physical fatigue and looked up at an empty ceiling, and there, just like that, I had found both the physical space for my tapestry, and the perfect location for such a habitual practice of mythic iconography.
That year I spent countless miserable nights awake with insomnia looking at a dragon on my ceiling, and, call me crazy, but I think I became a better person for it. On those nights I would look up at my dragon and he would stare down at me and we would talk. Many times he would mock me and my weakness. He would tempt me to give into hopelessness. He would say, “You’re not a Chinese! You can’t overcome your suffering!” But I would think back to the stories of my grandparents, and remember where they came from and where they ended up. Poverty, prison camps, providing for their entire families just to be deserted by them, then going to college on their own dime, becoming successful lawyers, starting a family and paving the way for the life that would one day be mine. This history was also my history.
A year later, the dragons are up in my bedroom in Tacoma. This is the room where I continue to suffer with insomnia, and where my conversations with the dragons continue. I’m learning to identify with them more and more because I feel that in some small way I really am overcoming my hardship by facing my suffering. It’s through this long and consistent battle with insomnia and fatigue that the importance of fiercely loving myself and powerfully standing up to hopelessness becomes so clear to me. I simply cannot survive if on top of my suffering I am tearing myself down in my own heart. Although the Dragon is, in many seasons, my nemesis, he is also my teacher. He is teaching me that I can in fact become a lot like him, although it might take the subversion of the traditional model of power and success (hint hint… Jesus).
This week I am not at home. I am in Winthrop, WA with my father and there are no dragon tapestries here. But last night, I had insomnia again and discovered that there was one hiding in the shadows.
2:45am. I leave my room. It’s better not to stay in one’s bed tossing and turning all night because of negative conditioning. So I go to the dimly lit living room where the fire place is still on. I sit for a moment with my head down in defeat.
“Why me? What did I do wrong today to throw off my sleep cycle? Why the hell can’t I just be like other people and sleep like a normal human being? My vacation with my dad is going to be ruined if I don’t sleep.”
And like an avatar from another reality, this dragon suddenly appears with a fierce gust of wind directly above me to my right. I look up at it and it says,
“You’re weak! You will never know success. You will never be able to help others if you yourself are in need of help! You embarrass me. You bring no honor to your family. You are worthless!”
It takes me only a few seconds tonight to spit back with my own sleep deprived but fiery conviction.
“No!! Dragon, don’t you see? This is the only way to retain my true identity! Without facing my own pain I will never come to see the true gift that my life is. For as long as I drink this cup of suffering, I proclaim my victory until it comes.”
The Dragon usually gives up when I start to make parallels to my experience with the scriptures of my faith tradition. In this moment I feel victorious. However, to be honest, I felt a little lonely once the Dragon left. I enjoyed having a conversation partner at that late hour, even if it was a bit of a contentious dialogue.
I realize that the Dragon stops talking to me when I have all I need to accept my conditions, retain my power to see myself as beautiful and worthy, and remember that I contain a piece of divinity, a piece of God’s sacred spirit inside of me. I’m thankful for that because I need every reminder I can get that all the tools for success, for inner peace, are already within me. This capacity for love and peace is in me because it’s in all of us. I believe that. And I’m trying to infuse every facet of my life with this belief and am endeavoring to live like it moment to moment authentically whether it’s with my experience as an insomniac, my service to others, my friendships, my letting go of grudges, or my relationship with my family. To unlock these treasures within us requires only a subtle shift in perspective, although it has dramatically huge implications. For me, that has everything to do with the way I view my suffering in the context of success.
As Rumi said over seven hundred years ago, what cleans the dirt is dirt itself. It’s only in my present circumstance of my chronic insomnia that I have begun to understand this. What if the “dirt” of our finite, mortal lives is actually the path to heal and transform the dirt we see in the world? The exploration of our own dirt, our own ugliness, hate, aggression, fear, and weakness is where the journey begins. May we find our own creaturely teachers and tempters, and may it be a journey of healing for each and every one of us.