Bodies of thought

elevated thoughts

Julian Baggini‘s new book The Ego Trick arrived unexpectedly on the doorstep yesterday; thanks, Julian! He sent me a copy because I feature in it, in a small way. We met two years ago, to discuss ideas of self and identity. I described the meeting here, and Christina Alley wrote a considered response which became a post of its own here.

Reading it, I was interested in the thoughts of Jñanamitra, who also transitioned, though not before moving back to a male role for some time, as she was following the path of Dharma, and the Buddhist Order that she followed had ‘a rigid view that your gender is determined at birth and that’s it’.

This is of particular interest given the recent discussion of talking therapies as a ‘cure’ for gender dysphoria. My bold in the final sentence.

‘About three or four years after I was ordained, I began to notice more and more that I’d have a sort of gender dysphoria episode about every month. And I had to finally acknowledge that this was something I hadn’t really dealt with at all.’

It all came to head on a mindfulness retreat. Part of the practice involves observing what thoughts and feelings arise in the mind and considering what such thoughts depend on. What stimulated it? What was the trigger? ‘So there I was, mindful of this arising, that arising, and then I realised that underneath all that was an absolutely steady thing, my gender dysphoria, which wasn’t arising in dependence upon anything- it was just there. And when I spotted that, I had a most cataclysmic spiritual experience. I’ve never had anything quite like that since. The whole superstructure of my motivation for pursuing meditation just disappeared like a pack of cards thrown in the wind, and I realised that there was absolutely no point suffering and I might as well go back and see the doctor again. The whole thing that was putting the brakes on was the idea that I could transform this with insight. I did get an insight, but the insight proved that I couldn’t transform it with insight.’

Ch. 1 (Bodies of Thought) , The Ego Trick Julian Baggini

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2 Responses to Bodies of thought

  1. Halle says:

    Thanks for the link Dru. When it is available in Canada, this book will be on my “must buy” list I am sure.

    “What stimulated it? What was the trigger? ‘So there I was, mindful of this arising, that arising, and then I realised that underneath all that was an absolutely steady thing, my gender dysphoria, which wasn’t arising in dependence upon anything- it was just there.” describes my personal search and observation in the last three years exactly. Finding that GID underlies many other maladies, but of itself, is just a steady and independent fact of life has been a major revelation, one I had never expected and definitely one I would gladly reject. If only it wasn’t being confirmed over and over by experience.


  2. Sarah L says:

    Funny how we all come at this from different angles. Back in 2004 I read an article in Nature, which described the unusual occurrence of a zebra finch, born genetically male on the right hand side of its body and female on the left. Not only did this result in two sets of reproductive organs … testes to the right, ovaries on the left … but strikingly the neural circuits which ‘control male bird song were much larger on the right side’.

    I began to think about how it would be if areas of my brain to do with communication were somehow gender specific. What if I were programmed to communicate in a female manner and more especially to expect communication in return from both males and females which was gender appropriate to my original communication. Such innate gender specific calls and responses are after all ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. I then extrapolated from this to include all types of gender specific communication as well as vocal … body language, facial expression, smell … everything which helps to inform individual organisms of any species which sex they are communicating with. Sexual reproduction after all has been working quite well for the last 1.2 billion years and being able to make this distinction via all these basic physical communications has proved useful.

    To make a rather limited analogy, suppose spoken language was innate. Suppose you were born innately expecting to speak French and for the replies you got to be in French. Instead you find yourself assumed to be speaking English and all the replies you get are as though you had spoken English. From your first awareness of language this would feel very confusing. You might even want to scream “But I’m speaking French. Why do you insist on answering me in this other language which I find incomprehensible and inappropriate?”. Of course over time you would learn that speaking and receiving answers in English was expected of you. It might always feel uncomfortable and puzzling but eventually you might become quite fluent … not too different from a left-handed person in a militantly right-handed culture such as that in England a century ago.

    If you have any understanding of the complicated way sex and gender develop in humans from the moment of conception, it seems deeply silly to me to expect an absolute essential difference between male and female … that body sex, gender identity and sexual orientation should always be perfectly aligned every time. Obviously there are intersex people, whose bodies very evidently may not exactly fit either expected gender. Obviously there are people whose sexual orientation doesn’t match what might usually be expected of a species which perpetuates itself by sexual reproduction. In fact it would be very surprising indeed if there was not a spectrum along which individuals match up to a binary ideal in certain ways but not always in others.

    So to return to my original speculation, if you were born apparently male but expecting to ‘speak’ female with your body sex and moreover expecting to be answered as though you were female, life would be very confusing …. exactly as it has seemed to me throughout my life until I transitioned. And leading on from this basic trigger, you might do your best to speak male but it would never feel comfortable nor would the responses, which you received. There is no reason why such a condition might not be varied in degree. For some the neurological mismatch might be so profound that in ‘body language’ would be included communication by genital! This is not so far-fetched. V.S Ramachandran has proposed transsexuality as a mismatch in neural mapping … that the brain of a transsexual individual expects their genitals to be configured differently (and given the complicated way in which both male and female genitals evolve from identical organs in embryo, this is not so far-fetched either). But this difference in degree also would explain very well why other trans people feel a need to present and be seen as the opposite to their apparent birth-sex less permanently or with less extensive body modification.

    From this basic trigger … the need to be perceived as a different gender to your apparent birth sex … everything else follows. You identify with the culture and behaviours peculiar to that gender in your society to the extent that any other individual might do. In our society this is a far wider spectrum to chose from than for instance in Saudi Arabia.

    To my mind, none of the above really matters very much in terms of the fact that historically trans people have always existed in every culture in every part of the world and individuals have always experienced this need with different degrees of intensity. It’s fascinating to speculate. I’d love to know the answers but none of it alters the fact that TRANS PEOPLE JUST ARE. This to me is the essential insight for both trans individuals and society as a whole.

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