The following are selected posts from my Facebook author page from Oct 10, 2022 through Nov 30, 2022: https://www.facebook.com/JoanTollifson.
The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:
October 10, 2022:
The Quest for Perfection and Final Enlightenment
I used to imagine that someday I would arrive. I’d be fully enlightened. I’d never again bite my fingers, lose my temper, feel insulted, get upset, or experience dark moods. I’d be a wonderful, generous, kind, compassionate, loving person—all the time. I’d always be “present” and “aware,” never again “distracted” or “lost in thought.” Words of wisdom would flow ceaselessly from my mouth. In short, I’d be perfect. I would have arrived. I’d be okay at last. I could finally relax.
For a long time, I was very sure I hadn’t arrived yet. Eventually, I felt that I was close, very close—in fact, it seemed that sometimes I was fully there, in this place of boundless and selfless perfection and certainty, but then I’d find myself seemingly back in the Joan Show, flawed and imperfect, full of unenlightened emotional reactions and doubts, my mind wandering hither and thither. And again, I’d be convinced that “this isn’t it,” that “I’m not okay,” that “something more, better and different needs to happen.” And I imagined (and hoped) that one day “I” would stabilize permanently in the enlightened state. My “me” would be gone forever, never to return, and I would experience only a sense of open, spacious, boundless presence.
Eventually, I noticed something fishy about this whole set-up. Who exactly was this “I” who was trying to get rid of “me”? Were there two of us here? I also began to notice more and more clearly that this whole quest for Final Enlightenment was all about this phantom self, which I’d already discovered was unfindable and mirage-like, that wanted to improve itself by having no-self. Hmmm. Actually, this was pretty funny. I also noticed this search was also all about a “there” that never arrived (or never stayed put if it did seem to arrive) because, in fact, there was always only Here.
And while Here-Now is ever-present, the way it appears is ever-changing. It became clear that no experience lasts forever, and that any SENSE or EXPERIENCE of open spaciousness with no self-center was only another passing experience, one which I was referencing as “there” or “enlightenment.” But whatever momentary form present experiencing takes, it is always empty of any substantial or abiding shape, and it is always simply this present immediacy, which can never really be pinned down.
It began to dawn that no experience is more or less “THIS” (the Holy Reality, the One and Only) than any other experience, that there is no finish-line other than Here and Now, and that however far I appear to travel, I never depart from this one bottomless moment. There is no “there” outside of this, and there is no “me” apart from this present aliveness who could ever lose or attain it. The whole quest for Final Enlightenment was like a wave searching for and hoping to find and then finally stabilize as the ocean.
I also spent many years trying to be someone else—trying to be Ramana or Eckhart Tolle or Nisargadatta or Toni Packer or Tony Parsons or whoever else I thought was profoundly awake and enlightened and in some way vastly superior to me. I compared myself to these others and inevitably found myself defective and lacking. They seemed to have something that I didn’t, or else they had apparently lost something that I still had.
But eventually, I came to see that in this play of life, I’m being called upon to play Joan Tollifson, not Nisargadatta or Mother Teresa or anyone else, and at the same time, “Joan Tollifson” is no-thing that can be pinned down or separated out, and actually, “I” am the whole show and all the characters and the whole universe. Nothing was ever actually missing or out of place, and none of it was personal. It no longer mattered if someone else apparently had less frequent me-thoughts or less me-identity or less delusion than I apparently did—we were all indivisible expressions of one undivided whole, like waves in the ocean.
It didn’t matter anymore what the present moment looked like or how it felt. Of course, there were still preferences, desires, aversions, disappointments, and so on, and there was still a natural desire to wake up from suffering, but all of this was included, and none of it had any actual substance or persisting form. There is no final anything. There is ONLY this, even if it sometimes seems otherwise.
And then, there was that old nagging question: What IS this? Was “THIS” mind or matter, or what exactly was it? It seemed that “I” needed to find the “right” answer to this perplexing question. After all, “I” didn’t want to be clueless or fooled, especially when so many others seemed absolutely certain that they had The Right Answer. Why did I seem to feel doubtful and uncertain?
But wait a minute—this was only that same old mirage of “me” seemingly apart from “THIS” trying to grasp “it” in order to secure some kind of advantage (control, security, prestige, certainty) for “me.” The question itself (What is this?) doesn’t really make any sense. That separation been subject and object is always illusory, and THIS is not an object that is “out there” somewhere, and whatever this whole happening is, it is totality impossible to step outside of it to pin it down or figure it out. All there is, is present experiencing, whatever we call it. And beyond that, we are clueless. And this isn’t really a problem.
Life itself—present experiencing—is utterly obvious and unavoidable, yet totally inconceivable and ungraspable. It is showing up in infinitely different ways, in multiple fractal or holographic dimensions, in countless shapes and colors and textures. It includes sensing and imagining and thinking and perceiving, day-dreaming and mindfulness, being born and dying, the movies of waking life and the germinal emptiness of deep sleep—the whole seamless and inseparable happening with no inside or outside, no beginning or end. Just this, as it is.
Perfection is always already here, but this is not the perfection we imagined. This is the perfection that includes everything, even apparent imperfection, even feeling separate and being lost in The Story of Me with all its endlessly changing twists and turns. This all-embracing and all-inclusive perfection could be called unconditional love: it has room for everything to be just as it is, and it sees only itself everywhere. It recognizes that everything that appears is a kind of evanescent dream-like kaleidoscopic Rorschach blot vanishing as soon as it arrives.
That doesn’t make it something “unreal” to ignore or transcend. Rather, it opens the possibility of enjoying and BEING it in a whole new and more playful way. And it opens the possibility of holding our interpretations of what’s showing up much more loosely and tentatively. And although the interpretations are always questionable, the living actuality requires no belief at all. It simply can’t be grasped. But neither can it be avoided. In short, this is it, just exactly as it is.
October 14, 2022
The Difference Between a Zen Master and a Thief
In my last post, I talked about the journey many of us go on of imagining and chasing after some future perfection and final enlightenment, and then finally waking up to the realization that there is only right here, right now—that enlightenment is now or never, and that it is never final.
Was I saying that spiritual practice or exploration is useless, that there is no such thing as enlightenment or waking up? Well…not exactly.
Years ago at Tassajara, someone asked Zen teacher Reb Anderson what the difference was between a Zen Master and a thief. Reb replied that the Zen Master knows that he is also a thief, while the thief does not know that he is also a Zen Master. This relates to the analogy I often use about Buddha and Hitler, where I compare them to two different waves of the ocean, noting that they are both equally the ocean and equally water, with no actual separation or boundary between them, but the difference between samsara and nirvana is that Buddha realizes this while Hitler is caught in the delusion of believing he is a separate, independent wave. They are both inseparable movements of a seamless totality, but because one realizes this while the other does not, they experience life and act in radically different ways.
If you sit motionless in silence doing nothing for long enough, you begin to actually realize wholeness, and you also see delusion more and more clearly. You see how the mind works. You see all your own ways of being manipulative, weaseling, phony, dishonest, arrogant, judgmental, self-pitying and so on—all the ways you don’t really fit the self-image you have of who you are. In short, you see that you are a thief, that you are Hitler, that you are all the things you think are wrong with everybody else. And you also begin to realize that you are the only Zen Master and the only Buddha there is—that it all comes down to YOU.
And you realize that God or Truth or Enlightenment or the Absolute is not “up there” in some far away heavenly realm—it’s right here in the traffic jam on your way to work, or in the act of changing a diaper or doing your taxes or talking to your neighbor who is once again doing the very thing that irritates you the most. It’s not some magic carpet that takes you “up, up and away,” above and beyond all of this, leaving this messy world and your messy mind far behind. No, it’s JUST THIS.
But being JUST THIS is actually a very rare thing for human beings. It’s not a state of cynical resignation, as in, “Life sucks, and I’ve finally realized that.” Or some form of self-justification, as in, “There’s nothing to attain and no one here, so I’m fine with kicking the dog, beating my wife and drinking myself to death in front of the kids every night because it’s all ‘just this’ and no one is doing it.” Hmmm. No, not quite.
Words like awakening and enlightenment aren’t pointing to some intellectual realization that “all is one” and “I am everything” and “there is no self” that we believe to be true. It’s something much more concrete and experiential and all about right now. And paradoxes abound in trying to describe or point to it. Being AWAKE is an aliveness, an openness, a clear seeing, a willingness to be just this moment, exactly as it is. But it includes a kind of aspiration that arises naturally, a balance between effort and effortlessness, between tension and relaxation, very much like what Suzuki Roshi pointed to when he said, “You’re perfect just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.”
This is it, and there’s room for seeing something new, for waking up. There is no final enlightenment. And there is no enlightened person. Any so-called person is never actually the same from one instant to the next, just as no wave is the same from one instant to the next. There is no persisting person to be always in some permanent condition called enlightenment. Enlightenment is only now, and in enlightenment, it is clear that this is not some kind of personal achievement or identity. It isn’t even “enlightenment” any more. It’s just life, as it is. But it’s a radically different way of living than being hypnotized by the thought-sense of being a separate self in a fractured world.
When you’re awake, you naturally behave ethically. If you really see someone, you don’t put them in a gas chamber. I tried to address this in an earlier post (July 6, 2022: “The Power That Knows the Way,” which you can find in Blog collection #17). I say in that post that when we speak of free will as an illusion, it is the imaginary “me” that is powerless and without free will. That “me” doesn’t really exist. It is nothing more than a mental image or a thought-form mixed with sensations. It has no free will, no power to do anything, because it is only a mirage. But whatever this is that is being and doing everything, it is not something other than or outside of myself. The power that is moving the whole universe is HERE, in the wholeness and immediacy of NOW, in Presence-Awareness. In 12-Step programs, they call it a power greater than myself or God. It is God in the best sense of that word. It is not the self-image, the little “me” or the thinking mind. It is the awaring presence HERE-NOW. Only as this openness, is there any real freedom or choice or possibility. And it’s not a personal freedom; it’s the freedom of the whole. It doesn’t move from will. And there is no persisting person who is forever after permanently free from delusion. It doesn’t work like that. The ocean is always moving and changing.
When I started Zen practice, I was told that Zen was useless. My teacher emphasized with great force that this wasn’t about benefits. It wasn’t result-oriented. It was JUST THIS. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking, “This can’t be it,” and then looking for something bigger and better and more permanent. It took many years for that delusion to be worn down and to really grok what was meant by “just this.” And if we’re honest, that delusion is never totally and completely worn down in any of us. But eventually, it doesn’t really have traction any more. So, something can change, and something did improve. Again, paradoxes abound. For it to be useful, it had to be useless. That seems to not make any sense, or at least, not to the (always binary, dualistic) thinking mind. When you actually open into it experientially, it makes perfect sense. Experiencing is nondual.
So I’m not trashing the whole of spirituality and dismissing all practices as a waste of time, as some folks are doing these days. I’m not saying there is nothing to realize or no enlightenment, or that the only thing to realize is that there is nothing to realize, or that there is no difference between Buddha and Hitler. Of course there’s a difference! But at the same time, they aren’t two separate things, and each of us contains the whole ocean. We can’t land on it is or it isn’t. We can’t pin this living reality down. Nothing we say or think is ever the whole truth.
So maybe in one minute we talk about enlightenment, and then maybe in the next minute we say there is no enlightenment, and then an hour later, maybe we say there is. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. Well…which is it? The mind thinks it has to be one or the other. Either there is or there isn’t. If we try to think our way through this and figure out the right answer with logic, there will always be confusion. But THIS is not confusing at all.
Many centuries ago, Zen Master Dogen’s burning question was, “If everything is perfect as it is, then why do we need to practice?” At the end of his Genjokoan, Dogen relates a story about a monk who asks a teacher why he needs to fan himself given that the wind is everywhere. The teacher replies, “If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind.” Dogen came to see that practice is not something we do to attain enlightenment, but rather, practice IS enlightenment. They are not two. In his book The Other Side of Nothing, Zen teacher and punk musician Brad Warner opens up the first chapter, which is called “The Music of the Universe,” by summing up the relationship between nonduality and ethics as follows: “You are the universe, but you keep punching yourself in the face. So stop doing that. That’s all there is to say. The End.”
Well, of course there IS more to say, because the little me who seems to be who I am cannot just decide to stop hurting myself and everyone else. Nor can we pull apart the light and the dark and have only the light. It’s not quite that simple. We often don’t even notice that we are punching ourselves in the face. And so, we have the long and winding pathless path from here to here in which many things are brought to light, and many false assumptions fall away, and many discoveries happen, and something changes in very profound ways, while in another sense nothing changes at all.
So, while I would never say that such practices as intelligent meditation and meditative explorations and inquiries of various kinds are essential, or that being awake depends on them, I’m also not knocking or discouraging them. In fact, I very much encourage such things! I continue to sit quietly in silence every day and to explore the nature of present experiencing as I have for many decades now. Have I gotten anywhere? Yes and no. But accomplishing nothing may really be something!
October 17, 2022
When we “spend time” (timelessly, presently) in silence, in stillness, in presence, different aspects of this living reality reveal themselves. As they do, instead of immediately trying to take hold of what is being discovered by thinking about it and comparing it to things we’ve read or heard, there is the possibility of letting the thoughts go and simply being this alive presence, exploring and enjoying it directly, by sensing and awaring rather than by thinking.
Many people have suggested, and it seems true to me, that the deepest transformations often happen gradually and imperceptibly, below the level of conscious awareness, in ways that can’t be understood by the rational thinking mind. We may not know anything is happening, but things are shifting. What has long been ignored or overlooked is coming to light, and delusions are gradually falling away. Because what we find in stillness and silence and open listening is quite different from the fractured, frozen, categorized world and the apparently separate self that we think is here.
This is the beauty and the possibility of true meditation. In true meditation, nothing is rejected or resisted, and nothing is being sought. There is no meditator, there is simply this aware being or present experiencing—this awake presence, with no boundary between inside and outside. Simply feeling the body as sensation and energy, breathing, hearing sounds, seeing shapes and colors if the eyes are open, exploring the ever more subtle textures of this aware presence that we are. We may discover that boundless awareness could also be called unconditional love.
Taking time to simply be present—to be silent, to be still, to do nothing, to simply be—is a wonderful possibility. It can be five minutes or an hour, on a meditation cushion, in an armchair, on a train or a bus, in a waiting room, on a park bench. It can happen anywhere. It is both marvelously useless and amazingly transformative.
These words, like all words, are never quite right. They can only invite and point. What is being pointed to is wordless and can never be grasped as knowledge. It can only be known directly, and direct knowing is sometimes called not-knowing. It’s not about philosophy or belief or ideology. The juice is in the aliveness and the presence to which the words point.
November 1, 2022
Someone asked me in a comment about distraction, which came up in my recent Zoom conversation with Shiv Sengupta and Judy Cohen. I replied that the whole notion that something is a distraction is an interesting one to explore. What does it mean actually? I'm doing a task (or getting into some peaceful meditative state perhaps, or thinking through a problem, or writing a book), and then something "distracts" me. Something pulls my attention someplace else. Is that a problem? Well, sure...if I have a deadline and something is making it impossible to concentrate or finish the job, that's a problem of sorts. But even then, in what ways do we compound the problem with our thoughts about it and our resistance to it? And by thinking of it as a problem!
I remembered an issue of a Buddhist magazine on the topic of distraction, and as I recall, most of the articles were about how not to be distracted, but then John Tarrant's article was about how wonderful distraction is! I loved it. It felt so liberating, because really, it's just about letting go and being okay with the movement of life, which is constantly "distracting" us in one way or another...taking us off one track and thrusting us onto another.
This is a link to John’s very wonderful article which I very highly recommend:
The World Catches Us Every Time
November 6, 2022
WHAT ARE WE?
I’ve been reflecting lately on what is being pointed to by different words such as organism, person, self, ego, soul, personality, self-construct, and selfing. Do these words all mean the same thing? Are the referents in each case illusory or do some of these words point to something both vital and real?
From the perspective of science, there is certainly an organism here, something we call a human being or a person. Each person has what we call a personality (certain tendencies, inclinations, and ways of being). A person has a functional sense of boundaries, location, agency, proprioception, and so on without which we would not be able to function. The person, the organism, and the personality are not solid, fixed, unchanging, independent things. They are processes—thorough-going flux inseparable from and interdependent with everything else in the universe. They are expressions or movements of the universe, just as waves are a movement of the ocean.
The ego is a psychological term that seems to mean a variety of different things, both healthy and unhealthy. It seems like ego can mean everything from our concept of who or what we are, to a healthy functional sense of personal boundaries and integrity, to a kind of self-conceit or self-centered egotism. Like the personality, the ego isn’t a “thing” in the way an organism is. It’s more like a function or a behavior. (Of course, nothing is really a “thing” in the way we often mean that word, since every apparent form is a momentary, never static expression of an indivisible interdependent whole.)
So, what is it that spiritual teachings point to when they speak of no self? As I see it, the illusory self that spirituality aims to see through, or in some cases wants to dissolve, refers to the mirage-like captain who is supposedly at the helm of “my life,” steering the ship, authoring my thoughts, making my choices, doing my deeds, experiencing, observing and navigating my life. This self or “me” cannot actually be found. Meditators can’t find it, neuroscientists can’t find it. It is an idea, a mental image, a concept, a grammatical convention, a kind of mirage made up of thoughts, memories, sensations and imagination.
If we close our eyes, stop thinking, and look deeply into what we most fundamentally mean or refer to with the word “I”, we find nothing at all (absolute zero) and at the same time, absolutely everything (present experiencing). Most fundamentally, we find simply the awaring presence that is here before, during and after thought. If we open and feel into this awareness or presence that we most fundamentally are, we find that this “I” has no age, no gender, no nationality, no location, no size, no shape, no limits. It is the common factor in every different experience. But it is not an object that can be seen or grasped or separated out from what appears. It is ineffable, ungraspable, intangible, and yet most intimate, utterly obvious and undeniably present. It is the very nature of Here-Now, this ever-present immediacy that is timeless and in which all locations and experiences appear.
When we open our eyes and engage in the activities of everyday life, this person that we seem to be shows up intermittently, and this person does indeed have an age, a gender, a nationality, a location, a size, a shape, a beginning, an ending, and limitations. This person always shows up in relationship to something else—a world, a chair, a dog, an environment, other people, the sun, the stars, etc. Like the jewels in Indra’s Net, the person is a reflection of all the other jewels. Every form and every moment is the whole universe showing up as that form, as that moment. Each person, and each moment, is utterly unique and unrepeatable, but it is always changing, so that nothing has an essential nature.
That, anyway, is the perspective we find in Buddhism, and in Advaita and some Buddhist schools, everything is seen as appearances in and of Consciousness or Mind. Both of those ways of conceptualizing what is resonate with my direct experience. But other religions posit a soul that dwells within the body. This soul seems to be some kind of amorphous cloud, our sense of self maybe, our sense of being “me,” something essential and persisting, and many people believe this soul moves (or reincarnates), either intact or in bits and pieces, into other lives after we die, or even that it goes to heaven or hell and meets up with long lost family members. (I tend not to believe in souls or reincarnation, but as I often say, nobody knows for sure what happens after death, and nobody knows for sure how the universe works or what any of this is.)
The word self refers to our subjective experiencing, whereas the word person refers to how we appear objectively, either to others or to ourselves in the mirror. The self is our sense of who and what we are. This includes our sense of gender, our social roles, our sense of being powerful or powerless, oppressed or privileged, fulfilled or unfulfilled, and so on.
Some teachings instruct us to identify exclusively as boundless impersonal awareness and not as a person. Some teachings insist the person is only an illusion. But what is it that identifies as this or that, and why identify as anything at all? Or as only one aspect of reality to the exclusion of all others?
What is identity? What does it mean to be, or to feel like, or to identify as a woman or a man, a black person or a white person, someone who is straight or gay or trans, conservative or progressive, European or Chinese, young or old? How real or unreal are these things? Should we totally transcend, deny or erase all such distinctions and categories? Can we actually do that? Can we live without them? Is it possible to appreciate the infinite variety of this amazing manifestation without making some categories superior to others? Can we be both the boundless, all-inclusive, limitless whole and also a vulnerable, transient, particular human being? Is there a contradiction?
These questions seem to swirl around not only in the world of nondual spirituality, but also in the realm of politics and social justice. In the latter realm, in my experience (as a woman, a lesbian, a person with a disability, and someone on the transgender or nonbinary spectrum), identity politics definitely have a place—they allow us to identify the particulars of how certain forms of oppression and exclusion manifest, and they give a way to organize and work for change. Similarly, affirmative action has a place to help level the playing field and lift up those who have been pushed down. But, in my opinion, there comes a point when both identity politics and affirmative action become counter-productive. They reinforce divisions and solidify things that are not really solid. Everyone will disagree, of course, about when that point is.
In any case, as many of you know, I recently wrote a post, which I later deleted, questioning what it means to be in the wrong body or the wrong sex, and questioning some of the things that the transgender movement is fighting for. Since then, my exploration of this has continued in some very interesting directions. I have changed my mind in many ways. And I’ll hopefully be sharing more about that at some point. But it certainly ties in with these questions about what we are. So I invite all of you who are interested to explore these questions in the context of your own experience.
November 13, 2022
ON NOT GETTING STUCK:
These days, there are many popular expressions of nonduality that I would say are stuck in the absolute view. People who put out this kind of message relentlessly assert that there is no self, no mind, no choice, no person, no world, nothing happening and nothing that needs to happen—there is “just what is.” All forms of spiritual practice are said to be dualistic reinforcements of delusion. And because there is an element of truth in all of that, these uncompromisingly absolutist expressions of nonduality can, at a certain point on the awakening journey, be very liberating. They were for me. But they can all too easily become a kind of vapid and absurd new dogmatism. What I regard as the best teachings point beyond fixating on any view.
In Zen, they have a story. It comes in several variations, but all with the same basic point. One version goes like this: “Before I took up Zen, there were mountains and valleys. After I began Zen practice, there were no mountains and valleys. After enlightenment, there were mountains and valleys.” The first stage and the last are seemingly the same, and yet, they are very different, because the last stage incorporates and transcends the second stage. The awakened view includes both relative and absolute. It doesn’t get stuck on any conceptual formulation or way of seeing life.
The mind and the controller-self are unfindable and do not exist in the way we think or imagine. Discovering this is enormously liberating. Nonetheless, there is undeniably an ability right here to act. Free will and choice, self and no-self, enlightenment and delusion are all conceptual formulations, abstract ways of describing and pointing out aspects of this living reality. They are like maps, which are useful, but no map is the territory it represents. The word water is not water, and yet, the word can be useful. But we humans very easily get hypnotized by words and concepts and stuck on the maps.
When people get stuck in the absolute view, fixated on believing there is no self, no mind, no choice, nothing to do, and so on, it is as much an error as the more common delusion of being stuck in the relative ordinary view. If one took this kind of uncompromisingly absolutist nonduality to its logical conclusion, there would be no use in teaching our children how to cross the street safely, or how to drive a car or prepare a meal. There would be no use for education, athletic coaching, or for any kind of psychotherapy or spiritual practices—and yet, clearly all of these things can be very useful and transformative.
Someone can say to you, “Bring your attention to your breath,” and that shift in attention can happen. Or they can say to you, “Please pass the salt,” and that passing of the salt can happen. Can these things always happen on command? No. Such actions and responses always depend on many things. And who is the speaker making that suggestion or that request, and who is the listener-responder? We cannot find either one or say (experientially) how any of this happens. And yet, it happens. And the apparent ability to make suggestions or requests and follow them seems to be part of the process. In the deepest sense, it is all an activity of the whole universe, or in other paradigms, it is all like the happenings in a dream.
And sometimes it is very helpful to recognize the absence of a self with agency and the seamless, interdependent or dream-like nature of everything. At other times, it is helpful to have a sense of response-ability and power to act. So I would say, don’t mistake the map for the territory or try to nourish yourself by eating the menu. Or as someone once said, Don’t hang yourself in a nondual noose.
Response to a comment:
We need some sense of self, location, boundaries, etc. in order to function. If we really couldn't tell the difference between our body and the food we were cooking, we would be in deep trouble. But the self that can be seen through, or found to be non-existent, is the self-image, the "me" that sometimes seems to be at the center of our experience, the supposed author-chooser-observer-doer, which turns out to be a kind of mirage made up of memories, stories, ideas, sensations, images, thoughts. It's possible to be aware of ourselves as distinct beings—just as we are aware that the chair is different from the table—and at the same time have a sense that everything is showing up together as one, indivisible, interdependent whole in which nothing actually exists independently or separately. That recognition, in my view, is nonduality. Nonduality is not some experience of everything as homogenous mush or the total loss of any sense of personal identity.
Response to another comment:
I also lean strongly toward the “no free will” perspective, or more accurately, the "no independent chooser" perspective. But I also recognize that no formulation can ever capture the living actuality, which is what I hoped to convey in this post, along with the value I see in flexibility, an open mind, and the ability to see the truth in multiple perspectives and from different angles.
I have no certainty on this, but I wonder if there may not be an awareness that is unconditioned, in the light of which something entirely new and unexpected can emerge. I wouldn’t see this as personal or as the result of a cause. It isn’t free will I’m talking about, but something else.
It might even be similar to what happens in an evolutionary leap, as when the first sea creature climbs up onto the land, or in other cases, it might be a false start, an evolutionary experiment that peters out and fails to survive.
I do have an experiential sense of this kind of awareness, along with the deep recognition that no independent chooser can be found and that everything is a movement of the whole and the result of infinite causes and conditions (albeit that, too, is a conceptual overlay on an ungraspable living actuality).
Response to another comment:
I do see growing numbers of these radical nondual expressions, as I call them, popping up, more all the time, and for many of them, it does not feel like a passing phase, as you suggest, although for some it may be. And to be clear, I am by no means intending to put them down. I resonate deeply with this kind of uncompromising radical expression—for myself, it was enormously liberating to come upon, perhaps the most liberating message of all—but unlike most of these folks, I don’t see it as The One and Only True Nonduality. For several years, my own expression took that kind of uncompromisingly radical form, or at least tried to, and sometimes it still does show up that way, but for better or worse, I have never been able to be as unwaveringly and consistently absolute as some of these folks are. I seem to lean toward what I would describe as a more balanced and open perspective, such as I tried to express in this post. But as I see it, every different approach has both strengths and potential pitfalls, and the advantage or strength I see in the uncompromisingly absolute and radical approach is that the message doesn’t get diluted or watered down as it can in a more balanced approach such as my own. So, everything has its place and its value. But I do seem moved to call out dogmatism and fixation when I sense it, which is part of what I was trying to do here. Anyway, no real separation, each voice a unique and perfect note in the Great Symphony.
November 23, 2022
What Does It Feel Like to Be You?
Who or what is this aspect of presence that feels like me, this particular person, and that can feel either at home in this body or in some way incongruent or perhaps misgendered? What is this subjective sense of self that to some degree we all need in order to function? What aspects are functional, what aspects are maybe extra or even dysfunctional? What does it mean to have an identity (as a person, as a man or a woman, black or white, gay or straight, British or French, Democrat or Republican, young or old, beautiful or ugly, smart or stupid, and so on)? Is there some essential self or unchanging soul, or is all of this impermanent and contingent? Don’t answer too quickly. This is an exploration.
Back on Nov 6, I wrote a post called “What Are We?” in which I was reflecting on what is being pointed to by different words such as organism, person, self, ego, soul, personality, self-construct, and selfing. Do these words all point to the same thing or to different things (or activities)? Are the referents in each case illusory or do some of these words point to something both vital and real? What is it that spiritual teachings point to when they speak of no self? These were the kinds of questions I was raising and that are still percolating here.
Since then, I posted an article about transgender issues, correcting and apologizing for some of my previous views and again identifying myself as someone on the gender nonbinary, trans spectrum. [I have since deleted this post for reasons I go into in my Nov 25 post “Disappearing Posts?”] I mentioned in that post that I’ve never felt like a girl or a woman and that I’ve thought seriously about transitioning. One reader, who seemed strongly anti-trans, suggested that this incongruence is nothing more substantial than passing thoughts and feelings, all referring to an illusory self, and that the way to deal with this apparent incongruence or dysphoria is simply to see it as nothing more than thoughts and feelings, and then let them go. Or maybe do The Work of Byron Katie on them. Or in Advaita circles, we might be told that this is all about the person, and that nothing can be solved at the level of the person—that we must instead focus on being the unbound awareness beholding it all. While all of that sounds a lot like things I also talk about at times, it seems obvious to me at the moment that this is almost certainly a deeply flawed approach to gender dysphoria.
But at the same time, we can wonder, what exactly is this aspect of presence that has a felt-sense of gender identity, which can feel either congruent or incongruent with the body to which it seems to be associated? In my case, these feelings are there and have been for most of my life—not at every single moment of course, and never when I’m simply experiencing myself as vast boundless presence-awareness, but intermittently when I’m feeling myself as a particular individual bodymind, these feelings are there.
I suspect everyone has a sense of gender identity, albeit one that is probably made obvious only in the case of incongruence (gender dysphoria). Otherwise it simply seems like just how it is. For people who have never experienced this dysphoria, I often suggest they imagine themselves having to walk through life—every day, always, forever, in all circumstances—wearing some kind of clothing that feels totally out of character and antithetical to their sense of themselves—for some, it might be a frilly dress, for others, it might be combat fatigues, for some it might be something else that feels completely out of line with their sense of how they want to appear and who they feel themselves to be internally—and then imagine and feel into what that might be like to go through your whole life in that costume. That may give you some idea of what gender dysphoria feels like. Yes, it’s “only” a costume, and yet….it seems to touch something much deeper.
Zen says there is no essential self. Some radical nondualists say there is no person at all. I (along with many others) say there is no autonomous, separate, individual author-chooser-thinker-doer. Some radical feminists say there is no gender, other feminists say there is, but that it is entirely a social construction. Anti-trans folks say gender and sex are one and the same and cannot be pulled apart. Transgender people clearly do pull them apart and do experience them differently. So, who or what is it that feels like it is not in the right body?
What exactly is a man? Or a woman? If you’re a man with a penis and you lose it in a war, are you no longer a man? If you are a woman with a uterus and breasts and you have a hysterectomy and a mastectomy due to cancer, are you no longer a woman? If you are born with male genitalia but have female chromosomes, are you a man or a woman, both or neither? Are you a man (or a woman) simply because you say you are? And if not, what are the criteria?
At first glance, it seems obvious what a person is, what a body is, what a man is, what a woman is. And yet, the more closely we look, the less resolvable it becomes. This is, of course, true of everything we can name. Nothing really holds up as a coherent, persisting, independent “thing” when examined closely, either with science or meditation—not even mountains and planets and suns.
And yet, we undeniably have a subjective sense (fluid in some areas and persisting in other areas) of who we are as a character. If we’re “awake,” we may also have a strong and abiding sense of being the boundless field of aware presence that is being and beholding the bodymind and the entire universe—the sense of being no-thing and everything. Like the duck/rabbit illusion, both are actually always present in everyone’s experience right now, and both are here in the very same picture. In my view, we can’t deny or ignore either aspect or dimension of what we are or what this is, personal or transcendental.
I’m not presenting conclusions here, just raising some questions that are alive for me right now, and that I find interesting to explore. Maybe some of you will find them interesting as well. But—and this is important, folks—rather than instantly latching on to whatever conclusions we have already come to about such things, maybe it might be possible to come to this inquiry with beginner’s mind, from a place of truly not knowing—and then simply live with these questions and explore them freshly, open for being surprised and truly not knowing what might be revealed. So please don’t be too quick to pop out “the answer” you already have.
November 24, 2022
It’s Gratitude Day (aka Thanksgiving) here in the US. The historical roots of this holiday are a bit twisted to say the least, but gratitude is a wonderful thing to have and to cultivate. I’m grateful for all of you who read my outpourings and my books, and all of you I meet with, and all of you who send donations, and I’m grateful to be alive on this very beautiful November day. I’ll leave you with some favorite lines from the end of one of my all-time favorite movies, American Beauty, written by Alan Ball. This is Lester, the main character, in a voiceover, after being shot in the head:
“I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”
November 25, 2022
In the last month, I’ve posted several things on my Facebook pages (and here on my blog) about different hot button political issues. Predictably, I got deluged with comments, some supportive, many argumentative, some hostile, and I got pulled into responding, sometimes arguing, sometimes being triggered, sometimes deleting and blocking, sometimes apologizing. It all felt very obsessive-compulsive and often left me agitated, plus it took up an immense amount of time and energy. I found myself neglecting other things I’d committed myself to doing and not taking enough time to be quiet and silent and doing nothing.
One of the topics I wrote about was the transgender issue, apologizing for and correcting some of the things I felt I had previously gotten wrong in earlier writings. In writing that post and revisiting the issue, I went through quite an intense inner process over my own sense of gender. I even found myself again thinking about transitioning—I’ve since become (once again) clear that I am not going to do that. But I certainly understand from my own life what moves people to do this, and I am most definitely somewhere on the gender agnostic, nonbinary, genderqueer spectrum. It was a very rich and deep exploration I went through, many things were unearthed, and I don’t regret it at all. In fact, I’m deeply grateful for it, I learned a lot about the issues from the transgender perspective, and my mind and heart were opened in many ways. I still have uncertainties and mixed feelings about some of the issues involved, but I do feel that love and open listening to each other is the better way forward. (I often fail).
In the course of all this, I became ever more clearly aware that my heart is in the spiritual work I do (being quiet, exploring, writing, meeting with people), and that whenever I write about political issues, it pulls me away from that. I do care about many political issues—I listen to podcasts and read things—and I am in no way abandoning that interest or suggesting that spirituality and political work are incompatible. Many people have done both in truly beautiful ways: Martin Luther King Jr, Thich Nhat Hanh, Brother David Steindl-Rast, engaged Buddhism, liberation theology, and more.
But for me personally, with my temperament and at this stage of my life, with limited time and energy and getting ever closer to the end, I feel I need to focus on what matters most to me—what I feel I have to give and what I am myself most nourished by. (My health is fine as far as I know, so when I say ever closer to the end, I just mean I’m in my mid-70s and have already survived two cancers).
Anyway, I have deleted all of these recent political posts on two different issues. Please do not read into this that I no longer stand by what I said in any of them. Or that I no longer care. I simply need to focus on where my heart is.
Note: I changed my mind (again!) and re-posted the transgender article on Nov 30 (see below).
November 26, 2022
God is speaking everywhere this morning, in the mulchy smells, the wet leaves, the deer who pass me, the clouds, the old man coming toward me on the path walking slowly with two sticks and the warm smile exchanged as we pass, the cold damp morning air, the wonder and joy of walking.
Coming back to my warm home, checking my email, opening a message from Pacific Zen Institute about tomorrow’s morning gathering, in which John Tarrant writes: “The world carries us from the moment we are born.”
And then, here is Ken Wilber, something from one of his books I think:
"The realization of the Nondual traditions is uncompromising: there is only Spirit, there is only God, there is only Emptiness in all its radiant wonder. All the good and all the evil, the very best and the very worst, the upright and the degenerate—each and all are radically perfect manifestations of Spirit precisely as they are. There is nothing but God…in all directions, and not a grain of sand, not a speck of dust, is more or less Spirit than any other. This realization undoes the Great Search that is the heart of the separate-self sense. The separate-self is, at bottom, simply a sensation of seeking. When you feel yourself right now, you will basically feel a tiny interior tension or contraction—a sensation of grasping, desiring, wishing, wanting, avoiding, resisting—it is a sensation of effort, a sensation of seeking. In its highest form, this sensation of seeking takes on the form of the Great Search for Spirit. We wish to get from our unenlightened state (of sin or delusion or duality) to an enlightened or more spiritual state. We wish to get from where Spirit is not, to where Spirit is. But there is no place where Spirit is not. Every single location in the entire Kosmos is equally and fully Spirit…The Great Search simply reinforces the mistaken assumption that there is some place that Spirit is not…There is only Spirit. The Great Search for Spirit is simply that impulse, the final impulse, which prevents the present realization of Spirit, and it does so for a simple reason: the Great Search presumes the loss of God. The Great Search reinforces the mistaken belief that God is not present, and thus totally obscures the reality of God’s ever-present Presence. The Great Search, which pretends to love God, is in fact the very mechanism of pushing God away; the mechanism of promising to find tomorrow that which exists only in the timeless now." (Ken Wilber)
November 28, 2022
We can get into many gnarly debates about whether there is or isn’t free will, but no way we try to conceptually grasp or formulate this living reality can ever actually get hold of it.
When we look for the apparent author-thinker of our thoughts, do we find anyone? When we watch carefully as choices and decisions unfold (even the apparent choice to shift our attention), can we actually get hold of how it all happens?
I can seemingly choose to type and post these words, just as you can seemingly choose to read or not read them. But again, can we actually find this chooser?
Undeniably, we do have a sense of agency and choice, but could this simply be a neurological sensation, as one neuroscientist puts it? And does that make us robots, or does that mean we are the whole universe?
Could it be that the whole universe is doing everything, and that part of how it is functioning and moving is through our human sense of agency and choice? Could it be that our seemingly intentional and freely chosen efforts to change things—through medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, social change, technological developments, and so on—are all a movement of nature, a movement of the whole universe doing what it does?
Could it be that EVERYTHING is included, both the apparent problems and the apparent solutions, along with the functional sense of agency and choice that is part of the human operating system?
When we see it this way, a burden seems to lift—the burden of needing to make the right choice and the fear of making the wrong choice, for ALL our apparent choices and actions are the movement of life itself. Nothing could be other than exactly how it is.
November 29, 2022
We are deeply habituated to trying to manage, control, direct and “do” our lives. But this realm of spirituality or awakening (by whatever name you prefer to call it) doesn’t work that way. It’s a surrendering, an undoing, a relaxing of that controlling impulse, a letting go into the unknown, trusting in something much deeper than the thinking mind. It’s not about will. We don’t do spiritual practice; spiritual practice does us. We don’t do meditation; meditation does us. We don’t do awakening; awakening does us. Much of the process happens outside of conscious awareness, in the dark, or in the realms of deep sleep and dreams. We can’t see where it’s going. All we can know is what’s right here, right now—and this is always everything we need, the whole universe in every dust mote, in every passing sensation, in every falling leaf, in every disturbing mood, in every rush of excitement, in every instant of boredom. Without the labels and the stories, it’s a magical lightshow. We want to grasp it, understand it, control it, make sense of it, possess it—but this awakening journey is the surrendering of that impulse—not once-and-for-all, but again and again, here and now, in this one bottomless moment.
November 30, 2022
TRANSGENDER REVISITED: A Fresh Look with New Eyes
Several years ago, I came out in a Facebook post as being somewhere on the transgender spectrum, and for a number of years now, I have openly described myself as nonbinary, genderqueer, gender agnostic or gender nonconforming. I even briefly came out as trans in a one-liner in my last book (on p. 161 of DEATH), published in 2019. Then more recently, after reading a book by Abigail Shrier with the fear-inspiring title Irreversible Damage, I wrote another Facebook post, which I later deleted, questioning what it means to be in the wrong body or the wrong sex and raising a number of questions about childhood transitioning and the possible ways that trans rights may conflict in some areas with women’s rights.
I’ve done much reflection, have had some very informative conversations, have done more reading and listening, and have learned a great deal since I posted and deleted that last article.
First and foremost, I want to apologize for some of things I said in that last post. I now believe that I inadvertently contributed to the transphobia, anti-trans bigotry and misunderstanding that is leading to hate crimes, anti-trans legislation and generally making life harder for trans people. As someone who came out as a lesbian back before Stonewall, I remember well what it was like when being gay was considered a mental illness, a sin, and a reason to be fired from most any job. Lesbian and gay rights have come an enormous distance in my lifetime, but we still have a long way to go, and bigotry and misunderstanding still exist. I regret that I contributed in any way to seeing transgenderism in this kind of distorted and negative light. I definitely do not see being trans as a mental illness, and I very much want to offer love and encouragement to the trans community (of which I am very much a part), not the opposite. We all need the love and support of the human community, not its fear and bigotry. And for sure, anyone who transitions is doing something very courageous and challenging.
Yes, I still have questions and concerns. I hope it’s possible to be supportive and also have questions and uncertainties, because that’s my reality at the moment. I know I still have much to learn (or unlearn), and this article should not be taken as any kind of final word on this subject. Along with still having questions and concerns, I’m also still considering the possibility of transitioning (F to M) myself. At my age, in my mid-70s and post-cancer, living in a mostly pretty straight (albeit progressive, open-minded and good hearted) retirement community in a small city in rural Oregon, it probably isn’t too likely that I will end up having surgery, doing hormones or even changing my name. But who knows? And even if I don’t do any of that, I definitely see myself as a nonbinary, genderqueer person on the trans spectrum finding my way.
When I was growing up, I didn’t feel like or want to be a girl. I wanted to dress like a boy. I played with boy’s toys, not dolls. I wanted to take shop, not home economics. I imagined myself growing up to be a man. I have never felt like a girl or a woman, and I feel more male than female. I’ve always dressed in a pretty androgenous way, and I’m sometimes mistaken for a man. From my own experience, I get what it’s like to not feel at home in your given gender, not only as that gender is being defined in the world around you, but at an even more fundamental level as well. I don’t hate being in a female body or find it unbearable, but I suspect I would feel more at home in a male body. We can wonder, what exactly is this aspect of presence that has a felt-sense of gender identity, which can feel either congruent or incongruent with the body to which it seems to be associated? All I can say is that these feelings are there and have been for as long as I can remember. I suspect everyone has a sense of gender identity, albeit one that is probably made obvious only in the case of incongruence (gender dysphoria). Otherwise it simply seems like just how it is.
For people who have never experienced this dysphoria, I often suggest they imagine themselves having to walk through life—every day, always, forever, in all circumstances—wearing some kind of clothing that feels totally out of character and antithetical to their sense of themselves and their gender—for some, it might be a frilly dress, for others, it might be combat fatigues, for some it might be something else that feels completely out of line with their sense of how they want to appear and who they feel themselves to be internally—and then imagine and feel into what that might be like to go through your whole life in that costume. That may give you some idea of what gender dysphoria feels like. Yes, it’s “only” a costume, and yet….it seems to touch something much deeper.
Over the years, I knew a number of transwomen, but no transmen. (For those who don’t know the terminology, transwomen are people whose sex assigned at birth was male and who now identify and live as women, and transmen are human beings whose sex assigned at birth was female and who now identify and live as men). I don’t think I even really knew that transmen existed until I was in my 50s. They certainly weren’t visible in the way transwomen were, maybe especially because I wasn’t immersed in LGBTQI culture for many years when I was in the radical left, and then in the Zen world, and then on staff at Springwater, and then in the Advaita and nonduality subcultures.
In middle age, when I was in my 50s and living in Chicago, transgenderism was receiving more media attention and public acceptance, and as transmen became more visible, and as I watched various documentaries, I realized their stories were my story. I began to seriously consider transitioning (F to M). After I moved to Oregon, in my 60s, I saw a therapist for several years in part to explore this. But eventually, I settled on simply calling myself gender agnostic, genderqueer, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming.
I’m very aware of how identity labels can feed into imaginary divisions and separations, and as someone whose life work seems to be focused on nondual spirituality, I see everyone, myself included, as boundless presence, impersonal awareness, no-thing at all and absolutely everything. But at the same time, as a human being in the play of everyday life, I also have a particular age, gender, race, sexual preference and so on, and I exist in a particular time and place, in a specific cultural and historical context. In my view, both perspectives are real, the personal and the transcendental, the relative and the absolute. They are, as they say in Zen, not one, not two. Sometimes it’s important to emphasize one side, and sometimes it’s just as important to acknowledge the other.
As a feminist, I thought for a long time that gender was entirely a social construction, that if boys could wear dresses and girls could be firefighters, then no one would need hormones or surgery or a new name or different pronouns. But as I began to explore the transgender phenomenon more deeply, I began to feel that this is only partly true. I came to regard gender as a creation of both nature and nurture, biology and culture—and it seems to me now that we can’t even really find the dividing lines between all of these. I distinguish here between gender, which I understand as a felt-sense of masculinity or femininity and how we experience and express ourselves in that realm, which obviously exists on a wide and fluid spectrum, and biological sex, which I have until very recently understood to be essentially binary with occasional intersex anomalies, but I’m learning that there are variations within each side of the binary, so my views on that are changing. As a nondualist, you would think that any apparently solid binary divide is something I would question! (But I hadn’t). In any case, I was very excited in the early 2000s to learn that children were being given the chance to show up in their felt-gender at school and at home, and that being trans was becoming more socially accepted. As I said, I thought seriously of transitioning.
But when I stumbled a year or two ago upon Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, I became quite concerned about some of what the transgender movement is advocating. I wrote a post about it in which I questioned the use of puberty blockers, wondered if transitioning was in some cases a new social contagion among teenagers, especially girls, expressed concern over transwomen competing in women’s sports, and wondered about the erasure of women in language. Some people agreed with my post, others expressed hurt, anger or disagreement. Eventually, I took down the post and continued to reflect.
I love the idea of letting children be free to find their own gender expression. I fully support schools teaching children that being gay or gender nonconforming is totally fine. I’m in favor of abolishing gender-driven dress codes in school, and I’d love to stop dressing babies in blue or pink so that people will know how to treat them “appropriately,” i.e. differently. I’m all for allowing gender-fluidity in dress and expression.
Had childhood gender transitioning been available back in the Dark Ages when I was growing up, I probably would have done it. I would then have missed the wonderful adventures of the Women’s Movement and being a part of the lesbian community and having some truly wonderful relationships. And who knows how it might have affected my two cancer surgeries that occurred decades apart. On the other hand, I probably would have felt more at home in my body, it might have opened me up on all levels in ways I can’t even begin to imagine, and I would certainly have had a world of very different adventures. I’ll never know. It would have been a whole other life. I certainly don’t regret the life I’ve had. But I’m not dead yet, and anything might still happen.
Since I took that article down, I’ve had to look at my own transphobia and anti-trans attitudes. In my view, we all to some degree have internalized the racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, and other biases of our culture, even if we ourselves belong to some of these groups, and even if we are consciously opposed to such biases and have worked to overturn all such injustices. If we think of ourselves as progressive, anti-racist, feminist, LGBTQI-friendly people, and if we ourselves belong to some of these groups, we may not even be aware of these deep-seated and often unconscious attitudes and ideas.
As an older person who remembers the long and still ongoing struggle for women’s equality and full inclusion in society, I felt in some dark corner of my psyche that men (i.e. transwomen) were in some way “invading” women’s hard won territory, and that new forms of inclusive language, such as “pregnant people” or “people who menstruate,” designed to include nonbinary people and transmen, were in some way erasing women, after the long struggle we'd had years before to include women in language. I didn’t think I was being transphobic. I thought I was just being protective of women’s rights and concerned about children. But I have come to see these attitudes as ungenerous, unwarranted, and definitely transphobic and anti-trans. Transwomen are not men, and trans rights are not opposed to women’s rights. I’ve come to understand that trans people are not denying biology or sex. They want to expand the definition of a woman to include both cis and trans women, and the definition of a man to include both cis and trans men. They’re not denying the differences between cis and trans, but rather emphasizing the common ground. As I see it now, trans people, cis women, and all LGBTQI+ people should be allies, not enemies feeling threatened by one another and defending our turf against some imagined assault.
Sometimes people with my personality type (One on the Enneagram) get angry and judgmental at others who are doing something we would like to do, but are not allowing ourselves to do. I have seen clearly that some of my negative judgements were coming from that. In talking recently to a transman, I felt a deep sadness that I hadn’t transitioned, that there was a leap into the unknown that I had considered but didn’t take. Had I held back, in some way played it safe? After all, being trans is dangerous. Having spent my life as a one-armed, gender non-conforming lesbian, did I really want to spend my old age being a transman and dealing with that too? Especially now that I no longer live in the trans-friendly Bay Area.
This whole process of reflection has reminded me of how transgressive, creative, and magical the LGBTQI movement has been, all of which I loved, and how normalized in some ways it became as we focused on gays in the military and gay marriage (two institutions of patriarchy) as our ticket to full social acceptance. Now the trans movement is the transgressive and dangerous part of LGBT, the part that seems to most threaten the fabric of “normal” society. Even many LGB folks are uncomfortable with the T part of the movement, just as I was after reading Abigail Shrier’s book. I think many LGB folks don’t want to rock the boat and risk losing our new-found acceptance, and sadly, maybe that was at work in my unconscious as well. And some people have the mistaken idea that trans people are really just lesbian and gay people who are trying to escape that by changing gender (as if that really makes sense given the oppression and difficulties trans people face), or that trans people are somehow threatening lesbian and gay people. The fact is, you can be both trans and gay. Some transmen are gay and are attracted to men, and some transwomen are lesbians. And contrary to what some anti-trans lesbians are saying, I have found no evidence whatsoever that trans people are in any way demanding that cis lesbians and gays (or anyone else) must want to have sex with them.
Trans people have been around forever. In some cultures, we have been respected and regarded in a positive way, as with the two-spirit people in many Native American tribes. Of course, we have also in most cultures, and certainly in the Abrahamic cultures, been hidden and persecuted. But we have always existed.
What I’ve learned about gender-affirming care for children is that children are never given surgery to change their gender. The earliest possible medical intervention is the occasional short-term use puberty blockers in children about to start puberty. Blockers are used under the careful monitoring of an endocrinologist and for a short time only. Used in this way, they are not harmful. They give a child time in psychotherapy to explore transitioning before deciding if hormone therapy is appropriate, and for the minority who decide not to go on to hormones, a pubertal pause is entirely reversible. The alternative is leaving the child to go through puberty in a body that may cause them great distress. And for M to F transwomen, using blockers and then HRT (hormone replacement therapy) allows them to end up with bodies that are much more identifiable as women. Transmen tend to be less obviously trans, even when they transition later in life, but for transwomen, getting an early start can make a huge difference. For more on gender affirming care, see this wonderful Jon Stewart program on the subject: HERE.
Yes, a tiny minority of young people who transition do end up de-transitioning and regretting what they did, and certain changes from HRT and surgery are not reversible. Yes, some of these young people obviously did not receive excellent, unbiased, explorative and informative counseling beforehand helping them to openly explore their reasons for wanting to transition, and making sure they understood all the possible risks. But the fact is, some people also regret not transitioning, or many other life decisions. And no field of human endeavor (medicine, psychotherapy, law, spirituality, religion, politics, etc.) is exempt from occasional mistakes, bad practitioners, sloppy work, unintended outcomes, and so on. And while I do still wonder if children and teenagers are in a position to make such life-altering decisions, I realize that all too often, trans children are met with anti-trans responses to their situation, or are prevented from getting the care they really need by anti-trans legislation, bigotry or ignorance, which is surely worse. So, on balance, assuming they have good psychological counseling and well-informed, well-monitored care, I now support making blockers available to children and HRT available to teenagers. It seems that the wiser option is for this to be in the hands of trans people themselves and not in the hands of ignorant or bigoted legislators.
And while I certainly would not want to see children (or anyone else) pushed into changing their gender, I very much do want children to know that being gay or bisexual or nonbinary or transgender are all viable possibilities. And I very much want them to be supported in exploring and finding what is true for them. From my own experience as a lesbian, I know for sure that getting the best care possible means getting it from people with direct firsthand experience, which in this case means people who are trans themselves or who are at the very least well-informed and acquainted with trans people. I definitely do not support the anti-trans and anti-LGBTQI legislation that is being pushed and passed in many red states in this country. And I deeply regret having in any way played into that. For more on how this kind of anti-LGBTQI+ legislation is part of the larger, long-term, well-funded right-wing agenda that includes ending reproductive freedom for women, watch this conversation between Laura Flanders and Imara Jones: HERE.
What I’ve learned about transwomen in women’s sports is that there is a spectrum depending on how much testosterone someone has, how early or how long ago they transitioned, how much male muscle they developed, and so on. And while biological sex may be essentially binary with intersex exceptions, there can, as I’ve been learning, be significant variations on each side of that binary. For some transwomen and transgirls, competing against cis females may be unfair, and for others, it may not. A nuanced approach now seems reasonable to me.
In terms of prisons, bathrooms and safe spaces for women, I believe there are nuanced issues in these areas that are not entirely black or white. I suspect everyone on all sides will need to learn to listen to one another, and my sense is that these issues will gradually resolve themselves over time. There may not be any perfect solutions, but I favor love and acceptance as the best approach. Clearly, putting a transwoman in a men’s prison is not an acceptable way to go, and I have realized the pain and humiliation that transwomen experience when they go into a women’s bathroom and are met by some woman yelling, “There’s a man in here!” and shooing them out. Decades ago, I always favored inclusion over exclusion when it came to such questions as whether transwomen could be lesbians or be part of a women’s group, and I still feel that way personally. But I also understand that some women, especially those traumatized by rape and sexual abuse, may need a space with only cis women, and may not feel safe sharing intimate spaces with women who have penises. And I understand the possible ways that unisex bathrooms and changing rooms can be problematic. So, in my view, these issues are complicated. But I think most of the fears people have are truly unwarranted or greatly exaggerated.
Although I’ve come to see how hurtful and harmful J.K. Rowling’s outpourings (like my own in the past) have been and are, and how seriously misinformed she is, it does continue to trouble me that people like her who question the trans agenda, as I once did, not from conscious or intentional bigotry and hate, but from genuine concern about the impact on women, children and lesbian-gay people, are too easily branded as transphobic bigots, and then sometimes de-platformed, cancelled, and even met with misogynistic, hateful comments, even sometimes physical violence and death threats (much of which has happened to J.K. Rowling). This, of course, doesn’t happen only around transgender issues. It seems to happen more and more frequently across the board and across the political spectrum on many issues and with many public figures. Trans people also get met with this kind of hate, in even greater degrees of severity and frequency. It’s obviously not the way to move things forward. In terms of both the treatment of gender dysphoric children and in the intersection of transgender and women’s issues, surely there are complex, nuanced issues on which people (including trans people) can disagree. For a clear, compassionate response to the concerns Rowling and others have raised and an excellent rebuttal of these views, please watch this excellent video here: HERE.
We live in a world of stereotyping and misunderstanding on all sides, amplified by deliberately partisan corporate media (whether it’s Fox on the right or MSNBC on the left), social media that feeds on the most inflammatory material, click-bait headlines, false information, absurd and often dangerous conspiracy theories, and plain old ignorance on all sides stirring up fear and animosity and leading us in this country toward civil war. I wonder, what can we each do to transform this, both in ourselves and in our relationships? Perhaps this is a good question.
Understanding our collective history as a particular group and the ways we have been stereotyped, excluded, oppressed, mistreated or kept down as a group is an important stage in breaking free and winning civil rights and social acceptance. Identity politics along with various remedies such as affirmative action are an important stage in a struggle for social justice and equal opportunity. Stages can outgrow their usefulness, and sometimes what was initially an effective cure for a disease becomes a toxic contributor to the perpetuation of that very same disease at another stage. What has helped initially must sometimes be abandoned, although people will disagree on exactly when that transitional moment is. Emphasizing our differences can become counter-productive, but needless to say, ignoring or denying them is equally problematic.
The ultimate goal, I believe, is a society where people have equal rights under the law, where differences between humans will be noticed and appreciated, but where they won’t matter in all the ways they really shouldn’t, and where authenticity, variety, nonconformity and transgressive creativity will be appreciated and not snuffed out. But however much we improve ourselves and society, life will never be entirely fair—it just simply isn’t by its very nature. So to expect a perfect utopia with perfect equity is inevitably to be disappointed.
Change and impermanence is the nature of life—nothing stays the same for even an instant. And change can be hard, especially when it seems to challenge our deepest assumptions or our sense of self in often unseen or unconscious ways. It’s easy to build walls and fall into the mind set of protecting our turf—I have seen this in myself in relation to this and other issues.
I want to encourage all of us to keep our minds and hearts open, to listen to each other, to find common ground when we can, and to work toward a society where all of us are free to be who we are. And again, I apologize to the trans community (of which I am a part) and to all who were hurt by some of the things I wrote. And I thank those of you who spoke up to tell me I was being hurtful or misinformed.
I considered not publishing this article until I had learned more, clarified more, and resolved more around all of these issues including my own gender identity. But I realized that might mean waiting forever, given that gender studies seems to be a rapidly evolving field and that life itself is an ever-changing, multi-dimensional dance. Furthermore, it felt important not to delay putting out an apology and a correction. And I’m used to publishing things that are imperfect and unresolved and that I would often say differently a year or a decade later. And so, I am sharing this now, as it is, but certainly, my views are subject to revision and change.
Note: This article was originally published on Nov 18, 2022. It was subsequently taken down because I felt the need to focus my blog and FB pages on spirituality and not on divisive hot-button socio-political issues. The above text is a slightly edited and updated version of the “Transgender Revisited” article of Nov 18. An explanation of why I changed my mind (again!) will be forthcoming in a second post on Nov 30, 2022 titled “On Inconsistency, All-inclusive Spirituality, and Why I Just Did What I Did.”
November 30, 2022
On Inconsistency, All-inclusive Spirituality, and Why I Just Did What I Did
I’ve just re-posted my recent (Nov 18, 2022) transgender post after taking it down and saying I was going to focus my FB pages exclusively on the spiritual work dearest to my heart. When I posted that intention (on Nov 25, 2022), my friend Shiv Sengupta wrote, “You are brave for taking on topics that cause people discomfort rather than just sticking to feel good teachings.” To which I replied, “Thanks, Shiv...causing discomfort at times may be okay, but I'm feeling (at least right now) like I want to be doing it in the realm of spirituality, rather has in the realm of divisive and polarizing political issues.” To which Shiv replied, “divisive and polarizing political issues is also what spirituality looks like.” To which I replied, “True. Still, I find myself wanting to move away from doing that on Facebook...but who knows, my mind has been known to change billions of times in an hours.” And it did!
I agree with Shiv that everything is spiritual, and I resonate totally with the Heart Sutra that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” I can’t deny either the personal and political or the boundless and transcendental dimensions of this living actuality. And furthermore, the thinking mind is not running the Joan Show, and thus, things change:
"People make their plans in their minds, but the Lord decides what they will do." --- Proverbs 16:9
“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” – Oscar Wilde
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds… With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
And so, the trans post is back up. I tweaked, corrected and expanded the post in a few places, added a few links to it, but it is essentially the same as what I posted on November 18, 2022. It is apologizing for an earlier post on the trans issue and putting forward a more well-informed and compassionate view, along with coming out about the unexpected resurfacing of my own desire to transition which, it turns out, is not dead yet.
I’ve put the post back up again because I really do feel called to undo the damage I (unconsciously and unintentionally) did in my earlier post on the subject many months back, and I feel called to speak out in support of trans lives. It’s a deeply personal issue to me, for one thing, but I feel it’s actually an important socio-political and human rights issue, in part simply because trans people are under concerted and vicious attack, but also because (in my view) it’s not just about some extremely marginal group that doesn’t matter that much to the larger whole. I see the attack on trans and LGBTQI people as very much a part of the larger right-wing agenda that includes taking away women’s hard won reproductive freedom, Christian nationalism, and more.
In my view, the trans movement represents a further opening up and breaking down of gender barriers and divisions—yes, I know, some people think, as I once did, that it reinforces the gender binary—but I now (having looked more closely) think it does the opposite. In any case, trans (or two-spirit) people have always been here—only the technologies of surgery, HRT, and puberty blockers are relatively new—and while many people recoil at these interventions, consider all the other ways that modern medicine and technology have improved and saved our lives. In my case, without the invention of the colostomy surgery, the ostomy bag, radiation and chemotherapy, I would have died 5 years ago from an almost fatal cancer. And actually, without the pap test and the cervical conization surgery, I would have died in my mid 20s, long long ago. So, perhaps it is always worth re-examining our prejudices, biases, and the things from which we recoil. That’s the process I went through and then wrote about in my November 18 trans post, and it’s back up.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2022--
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