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Learning to Respect Myself

by Milton Lopes
UK

Milton Lopez

I'm an actor and I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism in 2004. I've had some amazing experiences, but this is perhaps the most meaningful so far. In 2010, I wrote  the following determination for a local SGI-UK youth division meeting:

Since I started to practice, I struggled to understand how achieving my desires could make my environment happier. There was a part of me that thought chanting for myself was a bit selfish. But now I think I understand this a bit better.

I was born with no fingers on my left hand and this has not been a big problem for me. Recently I found an internet social network made up of a group of people who were born, or have children, with the same characteristics as myself and who were struggling with that. So my determination is to make a huge breakthrough in my acting career and keep developing my work, just to show that it's OK to be born and to live without fingers or any kind of limbs and encourage everyone to follow their dreams no matter how they were born.

However, 2010 turned out to be the hardest year of my life. I had no acting work. To make money, I worked for a company that has coffee shops in big exhibition venues in London, which was great because my schedule was flexible enough so I could attend auditions. However, I had to work shifts of 12-14 hours, several days a week, and the venues were an hour away from where I lived. As auditions had stopped, I found myself doing more and more shifts, which sometimes meant working nine days in a row and only sleeping four hours a night.

The conditions at work weren't great either. When the venues were closed to the public, the heating was turned off. But the coffee shops were still open to serve the people setting up the exhibitions. The winter of 2010 was the coldest for thirty years, and there were days when we were working in short sleeved T-shirts in temperatures of minus two degrees. Most of the fleece jackets we were given to wear had disappeared, and the management didn't want to spend money on new ones.

The other staff members were too afraid to speak up, so I decided to write an email. I determined to respect the management, even though the situation made me very angry. After chanting for wisdom, I wrote that I didn't know what to say when customers asked why we didn't have appropriate clothing. The jackets arrived a few weeks later.

During this time, I started to be bullied by a colleague. This person had been a friend, but her behavior changed when she became a supervisor. She constantly shouted at staff in front of the customers. When I told her that I was upset because she was always shouting at me, she said, "If you do your work well, I will not shout at you, but if you don't, I will!  They will not fire me, Milton." When she said that I replied, "This stops now! You will stop shouting at me." I was very angry, but I didn't raise my voice. It was like I was saying to everyone who had ever treated me badly that I deserved to be treated with respect.

A few days later, I had a breakthrough. I realized that because I had feared all the directors I worked with, the relationships I had with them were not based on respect. In that moment, I changed something negative in my own life. After this, although I experienced other situations where people aimed their anger at me, I always talked to them in a manner that made it clear that they had to respect me. My supervisor in the coffee shop stopped shouting at me. I owe her a lot because, more than anyone else in the world, she helped me to respect myself.

Meanwhile, a theater company called Graeae, which works professionally with people with different disabilities, offered me the opportunity to participate in an aerial show. To be able to do this, I had to develop a strong core and upper body. However, it was impossible for me to go the gym because I was working 12-hour days, so I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and trusted my Buddhist practice. I soon realized that pushing milk trolleys and dragging coffee units could substitute as a work-out. I got the part in the show.

After the show, the theater company asked me if I was interested in doing a fully-paid aerial circus course one evening a week for 18 months. That was great news. At that time I was chanting just to be strong. For a few months it was painful after standing up all day at work to then be swinging on a trapeze, climbing ropes and doing press-ups and push-ups.

Milton Lopez

I was also having problems with the people I shared a house with. So this was my life – bullied at work, unhappy at home and doing aerial circus training, while having no money at all. The only social moments I had were taking part in SGI activities and attending any meetings I could.

These were the best times of 2010. I wouldn't think about my problems and, in my role as a member of a group of young men responsible for the smooth running of meetings, I would just focus on the well-being of the people at the meeting. Every time I participated in an SGI activity I heard the same message: "Don't give up; something big is about to happen." I chanted desperately to change the situation and understand why the year had been so hard.

I started to reflect on my relationships with people, particularly with the people I lived with. I realized that for six years I had been chanting to change my circumstances in order to be happy. I was suffering and wasn't happy because I didn't respect myself as much as I should, and there was a pattern to my behavior. I was afraid of being selfish, so I would always put my own needs last and that was why I faced so many problems.

With this in mind, I determined that I had to be happy now, no matter what the circumstances. Through doing this, I became more joyful and things started to change. My life stopped being an austerity. I got a job in a coffee shop nearer to my home and I started working 8-hour shifts. I also sorted out the issues with my housemates.

After my experience in the aerial show with Graeae, I was invited to be part of the pro-aerial cast of mostly disabled performers in the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. To increase the number of aerial disabled performers, the Arts Council, in collaboration with Circus Space, a big European circus school based in London, created an 8-week training program to train people with disabilities so they could participate in the opening ceremony. After the course, we started rehearsals for the ceremony, which was centered round the theme of "Enlightenment." It was an amazing experience.

However, to begin with I felt disappointed as I was being taught techniques that I'd already learned. I started to get bored, but thanks to my Buddhist practice I was able to recognize this as an opportunity to help others struggling with complex trapeze moves for the first time. This allowed me to witness firsthand the amazing journey of people from very different backgrounds, including ex-soldiers who had lost one or two limbs in armed conflict, young men who had lost the use of their legs through an accident or disease, people of short stature, girls and boys with one arm, and people who were blind and deaf. Most of them had no experience in aerial performance, but were finding ways of familiarizing themselves with and performing on apparatus such as ropes and trapeze.

It was a journey of perseverance. I saw tears of joy when someone without mobility in one foot managed to climb a rope to the top after trying without success for five weeks. Also when a young man, who had lost his legs at the age of 12, decided to learn British sign language to communicate with his deaf colleagues, or when a girl with one arm climbed a rope with the help of her toes, which is one of the hardest and most painful techniques of rope climbing taught in the circus.

Everyone was excited to be able to take chances in an environment where the tutors pushed everyone to their limits because they didn't accept the word "impossible." An environment where tackling the apparatus made people accept themselves as unique individuals. So much so that we decided to make a calendar depicting and celebrating our bodies just as they are, with missing limbs and having many surgery scars, but also toned and muscular after such an intense period of training. Underlying this was the newly acquired pride of possessing a body that, against all the odds, had been trained to do things that the majority of people in the world cannot do.

When I made my determination in 2010, I was expecting to be offered a film or a TV show, which would be watched by a few million people. But what I ended up doing went way beyond my expectations. To be part of the Paralympics Opening Ceremony alongside an amazing group of people who inspired me every day is more than I could have imagined.

This inner journey has made me respect myself and made my faith stronger. I know now that I will never lose as long as I never feel defeated or give up.

Now, I have a big determination to write and perform a one-man show in a theater in London, and to build an inspiring acting career. I want to communicate SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's efforts for world peace through my work. It's a huge determination, but I am sure I'll succeed if I follow his guidance, particularly these words:

[An] important thing is that you concentrate on developing yourself. Whatever others may say or do, those who have established their own solid sense of identity will triumph in the end. The great Japanese author Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962) wrote in his novel Miyamoto Musashi [an account of the seventeenth-century master swordsman of the same name]:

"Rather than worrying about your future, thinking: 'Perhaps I should become this or perhaps I should become that,' first be still and build a self that is as solid and unmoving as Mount Fuji."

"Build an indomitable self, develop unshakeable character!" I would like to present these words to all of you.

[Adapted from the November 2012 issue of Art of Living, SGI-UK; photos courtesy of Sarah Woollard] 

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