American Genders Part I: Transgender and Two-Spirit

feather wheel

Wingnut fundamentalist Pat Robertson recently shocked both sides of the political aisle by publicly proclaiming that there is nothing wrong with being transgendered.  If that isn’t a sign of times changing, I don’t know what is.

In the last few decades, Americans have been compelled to take sides in the “culture wars” on the transgender issue, falling into conservative opposition and discomfort, or liberal advocacy and compassion.  I think many of us fall somewhere inbetween.  For my own part, advocacy and compassion have never been in question, but I’ve struggled to let go of a discomfort with the surgical solution, perhaps because as a holistic healer, I question the over-use of surgery in western medicine.

A recent passion for the field of anthropology has provided me a new rabbit-hole for considering the issue.  Anthropology is the study of human beings, and in particular cultural anthropology investigates the genesis, growth, and clashes of human culture.  One of the tenants of the field is that to truly understand any culture, it has to be understood on its own terms.  This cultural relativism doesn’t mean abandoning our own ethical positions, but it does mean that ethics aside, every culture creates value in its own way.

So why is anthropology at the heart of the transgender issue?  It’s obvious when you think about it: physical sex characteristics are certainly biologically determined, but the meaning of “gender” is just as certainly construct of culture.  The meaning of “male” and “female” designations, as well as the roles that those designations carry, inevitably vary from one culture to another.  Just think about gender roles in the American 1950s versus American gender roles today.  Thus, we cannot speak of the transgendered without looking into the meaning of gender in their culture of origin.  What does it mean to be a man or woman in the local culture the transgender child grows up in?  What feelings, experiences, roles, responsibilities, and behaviors are expected of that gender role?   If these culturally constructed stories and expectations were not in play, would the transgender child still grow up to feel so uncomfortable in their bodies?   This is no easy question, but it must be considered, because the human body itself is inevitably encoded with cultural meanings; hating the body or changing the body must in large part be a cultural act.  And because adult sexual characteristics are largely a function of hormones that don’t activate until puberty, transgender children especially must derive their gender identity from their culture of origin.  I make this point to suggest that what transgender children are reacting to developmentally is not nearly so much their given biology as the cultural values attributed to that biology.

We might pause here for a moment to consider exactly what is meant by “transgender”.   In Psychiatric terms, transgendered individuals experience a condition known as “gender dysphoria” in which their gendered self identity does not match their sex.  I’ll say more about this medical model shortly, but first lets look more deeply into the word itself.  The etymology of the word “trans” suggests either moving across or moving beyond something.  So to be transgendered suggests an individual moving across the gender divide of their culture, or else going beyond it.  We might conclude that this becomes a matter of “transcending” gender, but such a move just brings us full circle: the notion that gender can be transcended or altered is itself a cultural construct, based on cultural assumptions of gender.

And to be clear, saying that something is culturally “constructed” does not mean that it’s somehow unreal or meaningless.  On the contrary, from an anthropological perspective, meaning itself is derived from culture.  Everything we do – our work, leisure, religions, ritual – everything that makes the lives of a people meaningful is a cultural expression.  I know from my own work with the mens movement that gender identity can offer a tremendous sense of belonging and purpose, something I would never take away from anyone, no matter how unusual their gender affiliation seemed to me.  Deconstructing something in this way is about understanding it, not negating it.

Americans now live in technically advanced society in which hormone therapies and surgeries can literally begin to physically “re-assign” the physical sex of an individual.  But these re-assignments and hormone therapies are themselves a unique product of western biomedicine – yes, as much as the materialists want to deny it, medicine is a cultural construct as well!  One of the best kept secrets of anthropology is that indigenous healing practices actually work for members of their own culture.  A lot of effort has been made to explain this scientifically in terms of placebo effect, but at the end of the day, from a pragmatic perspective, if it works, it works!

This means that gender re-assignment surgery is as much a matter of medical anthropology as cultural anthropology; culturally constructed understandings of medicine and health are employed to “heal” the transgender individual who does not feel whole living in the body s/he was born into.  Without these technologies, physical gender re-assignment would not be possible.  So any depth analysis of the transgender phenomenon in western culture must be incomplete without a thorough exploration of western biomedcine and all of its underlying cultural constructs around health, healing, and wellness.

Interestingly, it is the language and culture of biomedicine that often offers the strongest rhetoric for tolerance and compassion for transgender individuals, defining the condition as “biological”, which is meant to carry the connotations of something innate and immutable.  This rhetoric is useful in arguing for compassionate treatment of the transgender community, but it unfortunately (and ironically) leaves the cultural construction of gender out of the picture.  By this model, gender is dictated entirely by brain structure.  But if gender is determined solely by brain structure, the hard reality of culture is being blatantly ignored.  In light of recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics – which holds that gene expression is itself influenced by environmental factors (Lipton, 2005) – it seems far more likely that the “biological” factors underlying gender identity are themselves significantly influenced by the cultural context.  That is to say, cultural understandings of male and female roles, behaviors, and experiences may influence the biological development of the brain toward a more “male” or “female” structure.  This process of neuroplasticity in the brain (the tendency of the brain to radically alter itself) is now well documented, and is especially pronounced in children (Begley, 2007).  The implications of epigenetics and neuroplasticity taken in tandem is that biology itself will in part become an expression of culture.  One astounding (and little known) manifestation of this is male lactation:  Americans largely assumes that only women can breastfeed their babies, but evidence is mounting that under the right conditions the average male can produce breast milk to nurse an infant (Swaminathan, 2008).

Given that physical gender re-assignment surgery is a very recent development of western biomedicine, it may be helpful to consider the question of “transcending” gender in a cultural context where no medical solution is possible.  In Native American culture, a more fluid understanding of gender roles is expressed in the concept of the “two-spirit” – a broad term covering a range of transgender traditions and behaviors across over 130 tribes (Roscoe, 1991).  Brian Gilley has gone so far as to assert that the presence of male two-spirits “was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples” (2006).  In this case, strict male/female gender roles are “transcended” by certain individuals who do not feel that their gender identity conforms to the body they were born into.  However, it is important to understand that most of these tribes simply do not have the same kind of rigid conceptual split between the genders that Western culture does (Pope, 2012).      In these cultures, gender has an inherently broader and more fluid definition, and thus the same level of “gender dysphoria” documented in the west has no cultural basis to occur.  Although there is great diversity across the two-spirit traditions, it is worth noting some key features in stark contrast to western culture.  The Two-Spirit was often thought to have both female and male qualities, sometimes understood as two souls in the same body.  Their extra spirit was often (but not always) seen as an indication of greater spiritual depth and power.  Their sexual partners varied in different traditions, but often included either gender.  For a biological male one-spirit to engage with a biological male two-spirit was not seen as homosexuality in the way we mean it today, because the two-spirit was not understood to be a man just because “his” body was shaped that way.

Overall, we see in the two-spirits a cultural tradition that honors the “transgendered” members of their community by making gender a fluid and largely spiritual affair.  Rather than condemning and ostracizing the two-spirits, they were often granted a special reverence, perhaps even seen as being closer to the spirit realm and possessed of unique spiritual abilities.  This is in stark contrast to traditional western culture, which has tended to define gender rigidly and biologically.  With such rigid definitions and a lack of compassionate cultural recognition, it is not surprising that transgendered individuals would naturally seek a medical procedure to correct their culturally constructed “problem.”

Personally, the one thing that has always left me uncomfortable about the transgender issue is simply the reliance on surgery.  As a practicing holistic healer, I feel that surgery is over-prescribed in general.  And as a former actor, I can’t help but notice that Western culture is also home to the beauty $ fashion industries, Hollywood celebrity culture, and cosmetic surgery.  All of these factors arguably contribute to a society that highly values aesthetic appearance over substance, sets unrealistic standards for masculinity and femininity, and encourages individuals to feel inadequate about themselves – in order to encourage further consumption of various “self-improvement” products and procedures.  At times it has seemed to me that gender re-assignment surgery gives too much value to appearances, to surfaces.  But as a healthy and attractive American white male, I’ve learned to be careful about these kinds of assumptions – it’s all too easy to judge others for being concerned with issues that I have never had to deal with.

The truth is, without a cultural container that honors transgender identity spiritually, the only alternative is physical transformation.  Most anthropologists will warn you that taking an ill person out of their tribal culture, away from their trusted healers, and putting them in a western hospital, is a recipe for disaster.  The same principle works in reverse – in a culture that insists that gender is strictly a matter of biology, only a biological solution will suffice.  As biomedicine continues to advance, these physical transformations will become increasingly thorough and convincing.  In fact, western culture will need these physical transformations in order to heal the deep gender wounds that its own emphasis on biology has created.

References

Arenson, L. & Miller-Thayer, J.  (2007). Cultures of the United States. Plymouth, MI: Hayden-McNeil.

Begley, S. (2007). Train your Mind, Change your Brain. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.

Gilley, B. (2006).  Becoming Two-Spirit:  Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Lipton, B (2005).  The Biology of Belief.  Carlsbad, CA:  Hay House Inc

Pope, M. (2012).  “Native American and Gay: Two Spirits in One Human Being” in Casebook for counseling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons and their families. Dworkin, Sari H. (Ed.); Pope, Mark (Ed.); Alexandria, VA, US: American Counseling Association.

Roscoe, W.  (1991).  The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Swaminathan, N.  (2008).  “Strange but true: Males can lactate” in Scientific American.  Retrieved July 24th, 2013 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=strange-but-true-males-can-lactate

Cultivating Mindfulness & Healing Bodywork

As a meditator of 17 years I am often eager to admit that my practice is rarely as consistent as it should be.  There are weeks when I meditate almost every day – last week I think I meditated only once.  But consistency and aspirations to perfected spiritual discipline aside, the truth is that I am in familiar territory when it comes to cultivating mindfulness, the “awareness of awareness” as Daniel Seigel puts it (2007, p.13).  I first taught myself to meditate from a small book as a teenager and from there explored many roads, from vipassana to visualization to yoga to zen and back to vipassana again.  The longer I practice, the more I become a true beginner.  Meditation is like making art: though mastery may grow with time, the practice itself is one of humility, each time stepping anew into the stream of life, to see what is there.

The novelty of a sitting practice has somewhat worn way, even if the contents of awareness continue to evolve over time.  What has come to fascinate me more, in recent years, is exploring how cultivated mindfulness integrates into the practice of living and working, day by day.  I’ve lived and worked briefly in spiritual communities that carried injunctions to clean toilets and wash dishes mindfully, as spiritual practice.  There is great value in this – in any activity, undertaken in deep, full awareness of the present moment unfolding.  William Blake saw “infinity in a grain of sand,” – and sometimes finding a whisper of inifinity in a dirty toilet bowl is exactly the kind of shock the modern American psyche needs to shake it out of its materialistic and status driven stupor.  And yet something even more fulfilling can occur when mindfulness is awakened and applied into those realms of life that already carry some sense of joy, vocation, and meaning.  In my case, this involves doing healing work with peoples’ bodies.

Yoga is a form of bodywork that we practice on ourselves, usually under the guidance of a teacher.  My understanding of yoga, which I usually translate as “union,” understands mindfulness as an essential component to this process – that yoga without mindfulness is like a boat without water.  Difficult though it may be for our celebrity culture to accept, what matters here is not what a particular yoga posture looks like, but what it feels like, how it is experienced and understood, and how that experience is worked with internally, in the moment.  When I teach yoga, we usually begin with a guided mindfulness meditation: the class is invited to become more intimately acquainted first with their physical sensations (the voice of the body), and then their emotional reality, specifically how their emotions often (but not always) show up in a specific and embodied way. Finally we turn our attention to the activity of the mind, honoring the thoughts and images that arise without identifying with them, or letting them carry us away from ourselves, from our bodies, or from this moment in time.  In sitting meditation this process would be an end in itself, but in the context of a yoga practice, it also works as a foundation for the somatic process to follow.  It is one thing to listen to the body and emotions while sitting, another to listen and stay present after holding a physically challenging pose for three minutes, heart pounding, muscles shaking, emotions triggered.  I invite my students to track the physical, emotional and mental changes that occur throughout practice, to come into more meaningful relationship with the difficulties and pleasures that arise.  Body, emotions, and mind are all continually activated in the course of a physical yoga practice in a way that sitting practice does not invite. In this sense, we might say that yoga becomes an arena for mind-body alchemy, a safe space to confront the complex reality of embodied life on Earth.

But the area of my life where applied mindfulness has come to fullest fruition is in my role as a hands-on holistic bodyworker and massage therapist. In this case, it is not a matter of teaching mindfulness with words, but allowing the practice of administering healing bodywork through my hands to become a kind of meditation.  I have come to recognize that this applied mindfulness is often integral to the client’s healing process.

As psychiatrist Daniel Seigel (2007) puts it, “Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to the novelty of our everyday experience” (p.5) – in this case, being sensitive to the novelty of each new aspect of every unique body-soul on my table.  This means remaining fully present from one moment to the next, listening to the subtle language of tissue and biological rhythm, tracking the softening of brittle connective fascia over time, the slow, tentative release of muscle tension held far too long, the sensitive cries of tired adhesions, grasping and stretching beyond their limits – all factors which can change from one millimeter to the next.  All the while I monitor breath, the pulse and circulation of life-giving fluids and energy, and the subtle vocal tones of my clients when they choose to speak, making plenty of room as well for the content of their words.  One of my primary criteria for a successful healing session is the degree to which I am able to maintain this steady attention throughout the eighty-minute treatment.  Of course I’m only human, and just as in sitting meditation, I contend with constant distraction and mental digression – sometimes because my client keeps drawing me into ancillary topics of conversation, or, in the case of a silent treatment, my own whirling thoughts and concerns, which take me out of my hands and away from the ever-present moment of contact with the client’s skin.  Although I can sometimes get away with it for minutes at a time, it is nevertheless in these moments of distraction that I make my mistakes: pushing a bit too deep, or not deep enough, missing the spot that calls for attention, treating the body like a body I’m working on, instead of a body-soul I’m working with.  As in sitting meditation, the goal is not perfection, but a deepened awareness of both presence and distraction: intimately knowing presence so as to return to it when distraction inevitably arises.  The point is not to eradicate distraction (which is probably impossible) but to recognize it and gently return to center – in this case, returning to the moment of contact between therapist and client, again and again.

Certainly, neuroscience has corroborated the benefits of a sitting meditation practice for this kind of sustained, deep attention in bodywork.  Research by Mclean and others suggests that regular meditation improves the ability to sustain attention over long periods of time (Maclean, et al 2009).  Perhaps more important, and certainly more fascinating, is research suggesting that the very act of paying sustained attention to touch increases tactile sensitivity by literally restructuring the sensorimotor cortex of the brain.  In a groundbreaking study Mike Merzanich demonstrated that monkeys trained to develop tactile sensitivity through sustained attention actually developed larger and more complex neural networks in areas associated with finger-touch (Begley, 2007, p.158).  What this suggests is that the simple act of sustaining attention over time will concretely increase sensitivity, creating the “x-ray fingers” that massage therapists jokingly boast about.  The more a bodyworker pays sustained attention to the quality of tissue, fluid, and energy under their hands, the more sensitive those hands will become to subtle qualities and changes.

In our largely disembodied culture, this often puts mindful bodyworkers in an unprecedented position to have greater sensitivity to the voice of the client’s body than the clients may have themselves.  If this is true, it greatly expands the scope of therapy that bodywork can offer; rather than merely being a mechanistic manipulation of tissues, the bodyworker becomes a therapist for the neglected voice of the body, an attentive and nurturing presence for this abandoned, largely unconscious aspect of the soul.  Further, hands-on body therapists have potential to act as experiential instructors in embodiment, bringing the body more fully into consciousness through the process of mindful tactile contact.  Through perceiving the subtle work of the therapist and sharing nurturing, mindful contact with forgotten regions of the soma, the client is invited to make the unconscious body conscious, and in so doing come into a deeper sense of harmony with the self.  When I say that my aim is to help my clients towards a deeper and more meaningful sense of embodiment, I’m speaking as much of psychic wholeness as physical health.

Indeed, the psychological significance of touch and physical contact runs deep, and the psychic and emotional space that can be engaged through the skin is quite real.  In his monumental work Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu  points out  that in human embryology, the skin and the central nervous system develop out of a singular layer of cells, that they are two sides of the same primal organ of experience (1971, p. 5).  In this sense, we might imagine the skin as the true window to the soul, and that skin-to-skin contact which is safe, nurturing, and mindful, may indeed have the potential to touch us to the core.

To awaken this potential as healers of the body we must be present, we must listen carefully, and above all, we must be mindful in our actions, in the navigation of this nonverbal somatic conversation.  Such deliberate dialog with the body has been too long alienated both from our healthcare and our society as a whole.  To develop sensitivity to the forgotten voice of embodiment, we begin by paying attention.  And in learning the art of attention, sitting meditation has been, for me, a foundation to return to, again and again.

Bibliography

Begley, S. (2007). Train your Mind, Change your Brain.  New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.

Maclean, A. et al. (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination & sustained attention. Association for Psychological Science 21 (6)

Montagu, A. (1971). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin.  New York, NY: Harper & Row

Seigel, D. (2007).  A Mindful Awareness.  In The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company

Welcome!

Welcome to the Embodied Spirit Blog, exploring the relationships between somatic psychology, integrative spirituality, yoga, and bodywork.

My vision of an integrative spirituality honors both scientific data and transcendental models for understanding “reality”, recognizing the benefits and dangers of each approach.  My work is deeply grounded in the body as an expression of the soul.  In ancient Greek, soma was the word for “body”, psyche was the word for “spirit” and logos meant “to study”; the emerging field of somatic psychology can be thus poetically interpreted to mean “the study of embodied spirit.”

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have demonstrated how deeply connected and integrated mind and body really are, and offer stunning new potentials for human transformation through both cultivated mindfulness (meditation) and somatic practices like yoga, tai chi, and bodywork.  There is a growing cornucopia of nourishing and inspiring information in neurology which has the potential to change our individual lives and the whole world for the better.

At the same time, it is of utmost importance to recognize the limitations of science and scientific models, to avoid falling into the error of considering any model, scientific or otherwise, to be a comprehensive map of reality.  Science is a human practice with very real human limits, and it can be abused as readily as spirituality and religion by those who would use scientific models to colonize, supplant, and even completely wipe out alternative world views.

Peace lies in the balance, and part of the project of this blog is to find an integration of science and spirituality in which neither one dominates the other, but rather finds a meaningful dialog through which true growth and transformation becomes possible.

I’m thrilled to welcome you – and your body – along for the ride!

Jonathan Whittle-Utter