Mind Constructs and their Pitfalls

Sandra at an esplanade by night

This was NOT the esplanade where I was sitting and drinking hot lemon tea. But I wish it had been.

As I sit drinking some hot lemon tea at an esplanade in my home town, Lisbon, a gentle rain is falling, turning the whole day grey. It’s not a day for joy and happiness and radiant news. Rather, it’s a day for being introspective.

If you live in Brazil or Venice, this Tuesday will be the most important festival in the calendar: Carnival. In the countries and cities where Carnival is celebrated, preparations have started months ago. Millions wait eagerly for a festival that usually lasts during the preceding weekend until the holiday on Tuesday, generally celebrated with all sorts of frolicking all night long.

Portugal doesn’t celebrate Carnival throughout the country (unlike Brazil), but several dozens of cities do, indeed, celebrate it – their own version, different from either the Brazilian or Venicean Carnivals, although certainly in recent years there have been some inspirations (mostly from Brazil). Until recently, Carnival was also a national holiday; now it is delegated to being a municipal holiday in those cities which celebrate it.

It is also the season for crossdressers to go out. Although, if you have been following my blog, you know how much tolerance my small group has found in the Lisbon Area, as well as in the Algarve, the largest stretch of touristic attractions in the south. But during Carnival, there is even more tolerance. In those cities that celebrate it, practically everybody will go out dressed in the weirdest possible fantasies. The odd crossdresser will not stand out. It’s a season where you can go out with your ‘male friends’ dressed as a woman and they will not only not mind you, but not even think twice about your choice of ‘fantasy’. Well, if you do it year after year, they might become suspicious… But for all practical purposes, crossdressers are aware that this is the best season to go out dressed: the only time in the year where they are sure not to get pointed out in streets and laughed at. And even if they bump into an acquaintance, it’s easy to shrug it off as merely another fantasy costume. For those who are especially shy, it’s also the perfect occasion to go out shopping – people will simply assume you’re dressing up for Carnival. What could be safer?

Every year, small groups of crossdressers will organize themselves to go out together. Sometimes they will go out every day during the 4-day season, or at least every night. More often, they will pick one of many possible events to attend. In the Lisbon area, the nearest town celebrating Carnival at a large scale is Torres Vedras, some 40km away. Tens of thousands frolickers will converge there, so a few dozen crossdressers will never stand out. In fact, several groups might go separately there, and not even meet each other – the city will be packed full, crowded beyond description, and it’s highly unlikely that we may meet anyone we know.

Local LGBT bars, clubs, and even restaurants will also host many events during this season. It’s not just for the crossdresser community, of course. LGBT people also want to celebrate Carnival in safe places. While many might have no qualms to attend a public event, others simply don’t want to take the risk: there will be plenty of opportunities to go out in the LGBT quarter of Lisbon and attend the many parties and celebrations there – every night at a different place.

Of course, not everybody really likes the antics of Carnival, or ‘organized’ events. While most places in Lisbon city proper will not really host any ‘special’ event, during these days they will not frown upon any ‘fantasy costume’. Although the largest part of the population that ‘dresses up’ for Carnival are little children, the odd adult will still be welcome anywhere. Crossdressers, once again, will never attract undue attention during this time.

For a long time, I have been always planning ahead for Carnival, and something always ruined my plans. At first my wife would not let me out – period. Then I was fine to go out, so long as I did it after 3 AM. This seriously limited what I could do. On a few occasions, I just drove to some small villages in the municipality I live where some Carnival celebrations are common, even though at a very small scale. Almost always I would be way too late, as drunken frolickers were abandoning the parties and being carried by their sober designated drivers to the cars. It was more frustrating than satisfying…

Last year, as you know, my wife finally let me out, and I went to visit my good friend Claudia in the Algarve. As you know, this was a fantastic experience for me. I certainly wanted to repeat it this year. In fact, a small group of crossdressers, transgender people, and friends of them will assemble in the Algarve, go out to some restaurants and bars, and possibly also attend the huge Carnival celebrations held at Loulé, a neighbouring town to Algarve’s capital, Faro. Instead of just two crossdressers having fun without any real plans, 2016 will feature a much larger event, with more complex logistics, with people all over the country arriving by airplane or by bus, on different days and different hours. A small logistics nightmare, but everything has been planned well in advance.

I will be at home, watching the rain fall. In fact, I was at the laundry, watching the rain fall while the dress I wore last to a party was getting cleaned. 250km away from me, people were having a wonderful time together, but I was not part of it.

This time I cannot even put all the blame on my wife, of course. When I mentioned my plans some time ago, she was absolutely adamant that I was not allowed to do the long drive back and forth. So I had already told my friends not to count with me. Sometimes miracles happen (they happened last year, after all), but this time, I was struck by karmic misfortune, having contracted another cold – even if I were allowed to go, I would still not go due to the cold. Yes, I know a cold is nothing. But it’s terrible to be sneezing, coughing, and dripping fluids from your nose while you have makeup on.

There were more planned events. In fact, there were tons of events, from several groups, splitter groups, and people who refuse to be in any group 🙂 My calendar, just for Saturday, listed six simultaneous events, for which I had been invited. In the past few days, I got a flurry of messages through all communication devices asking me where I would spend the Saturday before Carnival. There have never been so many choices in the past years! But I had to decline them all. Instead, I spent a solitary time doing the laundry, watching the rain fall, nurturing the cold with hot lemon tea, while waiting for my wife to finish her work at university.

I had such grandiose plans! My hair unit would be specially conditioned and washed by my dear hairdresser, who does wonders with it. Since I expected to dress on every one of the Carnival’s four days, I wanted to do gel nails. Yes, they are expensive, but not that much; I’d do them before all the events started and remove them on Wednesday. It would be a wonderful treat!

And I had events for every day – in some cases, yes, I would go out in broad daylight. Or, rather, in grey light under the rain. But nothing of that actually happened. After a lot of arguing, my wife allowed me to go out on Sunday and Tuesday, but not more than that. Unfortunately, the cold prevented me to do even that. So I stayed at home and wrote this blog article… or rather, this long essay!

Identity doesn’t exist (?!)

This past week I have been making an effort to get back to my work again, to fight depression; I have some new medicine to help me with getting more energy and motivation to do that. It sort of works, to a degree, at least while I’m dressed, but it’s not a miraculous drug. Still, I have no other choice but to try hard!

When I get too tired and nauseated to continue to pursue my work (yes, these are psychosomatic symptoms), I keep reading academic articles and blogs, but this time, turning to transgender issues, which can keep me entertained for hours and hours.

I stumbled upon a post questioning the existence of a gender identity. If you are familiar with this question, you will certainly remember that this reeks of Blanchard’s theories – no matter how much Blanchard/Lawrence/Bailey get debunked, their ideas still linger around to haunt us. There will always be a few followers who try to build up more complex theories based on Blanchard’s assumptions. And these have to be formally debunked in academic papers; something which doesn’t happen so quickly, so it’s normal that those ideas still get spread around for years and years.

By some sort of ironic coincidence, my bedtime companion has been a book by one of my favourite contemporary Buddhist masters – Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, who wrote a thought-provoking book called What Makes You Not a Buddhist. It’s not an easy book. Unlike the garden variety of self-help books, this one, in spite of the lightness of the writing style, the sarcasm and dark humour, and the stripping down of the philosophy behind Buddhism to its essential aspects, it’s still not easy to grasp. Not only it’s thought-provoking (all good Buddhist masters are thought-provoking!) but it tends to grate on your nerves: some things seem to be so easy to do, but for some reason, we are so absolutely against them that we find the task impossible.

The most difficult thing about Buddhism is that it is very hard to explain or summarise. As any good teacher will tell you, it’s not really a religion, although sometimes it looks like one. It’s a bit more than mere philosophy, because you’re supposed to put it into practice. And it’s almost a science, in the sense that you have to validate the methods and techniques through experience – and reject what doesn’t work. The historical Buddha, Gautama Siddharta, left us tens of thousands of methods and techniques – each one tailored for a specific kind of person. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some schools of Buddhism look nothing like each other, even though they might be similar in some points. Enter a Zen Buddhist temple, and you’ll find absolute silence and meditators turned towards a blank wall, and decorations will be minimal. Enter a Tibetan temple, and there will be chanting, dancing, music, a cacophony of sounds, and garish decorations on the temple. One of them must be wrong, right? No. Each has different techniques to achieve pretty much the same result. The problem, for an outsider, is to figure out what works best for them, what they are more comfortable with. I meditate while rolling cigarettes, with a machine to put tobacco inside the tubes. This might be a heresy for most Buddhist sects (and my own teachers are strongly against smoking, but not against drinking wine) and very likely also for all people who have created in their minds an idea of what Buddhism is supposed to be, and definitely rolling cigarettes (or smoking them!) does not fit the picture.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s book (I’ll call him ‘DJK’ from now on; I’m sure he won’t mind) tries to show what all these techniques and methods have in common. And he uses a simple tool for that. Fortunately for us, the Buddha foresaw the need, in the future, to figure out what is Buddhism and what is not, and he gave us a simple set of four rules to help us. If some philosophy, doctrine, or even scientific paper, follows those four rules, then it’s Buddhism, no matter what it might call itself, or how strange it’s methods and techniques might look. If any of the rules is not followed, then it cannot be Buddhism. These rules are known as the Four Dharma Seals (dharma in this context means the teachings of the Buddha). As you’ll see, each of those is actually quite obvious when stated; sometimes they require a bit of thinking.

The first rule states that all compounded things are impermanent. This ought to be immediately obvious for most of the objects in the world that we see and/or own: cars break down, houses need repair, iPhones break their glass, and even satellites orbiting the Earth will one day fall back to the ground. No matter how well something is preserved – like ancient scrolls stored by museums in ‘perfect’ environments with carefully controlled temperature, light, and humidity – they will eventually degrade and fade away. Obviously, some things last much longer than others. The Egyptian pyramids are still with us, after thousands of years. Our own planet is still around after billions of years. But eventually the Sun will blow up and Earth will be gone. Scientists call this universal rule entropy – it’s the same concept.

It’s much tougher to see that not only the external world is compounded, and therefore impermanent, but that our own thoughts are subject to the same rule. In fact, Buddhists prefer to use the expression ‘movements of the mind’ to include not only thoughts, but also cogitation, reasoning, emotions, feelings, and so forth. Pretty much everything which is registered at the brain, and therefore acknowledged by the mind, is subject to this same rule: because many of our thoughts, emotions, feelings etc. have so many causes (think about a pain on your large toe, for example), these are also ‘assembled things’, and therefore they are impermanent. We can see how pain grows and subsides, for example. Some pains may not diminish over time – until we die, and there will be no more pain. That might be an extreme example, but without a living body, there is no mind: therefore, pain, as all other emotions, require several causes, one of which is the body that hosts the brain. Remove one of the causes (the body dies), and the emotion of pain will disappear.

Note that Buddhists insist that all compounded things are impermanent. The rule says nothing about things that are not compounded. They just dare people to figure out something which is not compounded!

The second rule says that all emotions are insatisfactory. While we might agree that some or even many emotions are insatisfactory (think about enjoying a wonderful dinner with friends – at some point, the dinner finishes and everybody goes back home. That’s why we have sayings like ‘it was fun while it lasted’ – we acknowledge that even good, pleasurable emotions do not last forever), it’s much harder to see how all of them are insatisfactory, We tend to believe that things like romantic love, compassion, and so on, might be perfectly satisfactory, but that is not really the case. So the bad news is that things that make us happy, being loved, and so forth, will never ‘be enough’; the good news is that all negative emotions will not be around for long, either.

The third rule is a bit more complex, and, in fact, it is the central tenet of Buddhism. It states that all phenomena are empty of inherent self-existence. This means that nothing exists by itself, but rather, as a series of causes and effects that produce those phenomena. You cannot ‘spontaneously create’ anything out of nothing: you need to have assembled an array of causes and effects that will make those things appear, Therefore, all things are interdependent. The usual example is to think about your current meal, say some lamb chops. To have lamb chops, you must have cooked them first. That means going to the supermarket. It means paying at the counter. That requires an economy which makes your money worth something. But the supermarket didn’t create the lamb chops out of nothing: they bought them from a producer, who had to ship those lamb chops from their butchery to the supermarket, which involves a long chain of logistics, which, in turn, also requires people who have paved roads and assembled the 18-wheelers that are transporting those refrigerated lamb chops to the supermarket. But we can go further back: the lamb, before getting chopped, was probably raised in the countryside, where someone had to take care of it and feed it and so forth… Whew! As you can see, the chain of events that produced those lamb chops still sizzling at your plate is huge, involving probably hundreds of thousands of people or even more, just so you can have your lunch in peace.

In reality, everything we do is subject to those very long chains of causes and events – so many that we cannot count them, not even enumerate them all. But this also means that ‘nothing is created out of nothing’. You need all those incredibly long chains of causes and effects to produce things (Buddhists often say ‘appearances’). Without them, nothing would exist.

Buddhists would be familiar with the Copenhagen school of quantum mechanics, which postulates that the wave function of particles collapses in the presence of an observer. Although there are other schools of thought: for instance, one proposes that the wave function naturally decoheres and does not require an observer for that; another, currently slightly out of fashion, believes that there are multiple universes, each representing one of the possibilities of the wave function collapse.

Quantum physics is extremely odd because it does not seem to have any relevance to the world we see with our senses. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most proven theories in science (the others being Einstein’s relativity theory and Darwin’s theory on the evolution of the species). Buddhists would have no qualms with either explanation. For Buddhism, ‘appearance’ and ‘mind’ occur simultaneously: that is, we cannot see the tree before there is a mind seeing the tree. Note that what we call a ‘tree’ is a complex assembly of leaves and branches and trunk and root, which, in each case, can be further subdivided… What Buddhists say is that before there is a mind observing the tree, there is nothing there but leaves, branches and so forth. It requires a mind to label the tree as being a tree. They can label it anything (even ‘that thing over there which is greenish-grey and blocks my vision’), that’s not important; what matters is that you cannot have objects without a mind observing them, while you also cannot speak of a mind if it is not observing an object. Complex? You bet it is. This principle, of co-emergent interdependence, is unique to Buddhism, and when Buddhists speak of ‘objects’ they are not limiting themselves to objects of the material world, but also including ‘objects of the mind’ – mind constructs – and this is where things really start to be interesting. We’ll get there in a bit.

For the sake of completeness, the last rule is Nirvana is peace, which is a very cryptic and apparently ‘mystic’ formulation. What it means, however, is much more straightforward, but also more profound: awakening, or enlightenment, is the only way to achieve ‘peace’ (in the sense of not being subject to insatisfactory emotions and being able to see things as they are, not as our senses perceive them). And what is this ‘mystic’ enlightenment? Actually, it’s nothing really extraordinary – no superpowers, no magic! – it means realising those other three rules (as opposed to merely understand them intellectually). Realisation comes through putting a lot of methods in practice that will help us to understand how things really are – an understanding that is not merely intellectual.

That’s one of the many reasons why Buddhists need to have a teacher. Simply reading books or attending workshops is of no consequence. Yes, books are useful as ‘memory aids ‘ – to recall how a certain technique is applied, for example – but they cannot bring anyone to fully realise those four Dharma seals. For that, you need a teacher to tell you which technique is more appropriate for you to realise those rules. Because there are so many possible methods and techniques, it’s up to the teacher to figure out which one is best. This is not always easy – students might not like what they hear, and might switch to a different teacher. That’s perfectly all right and it makes sense to do so at the start. Ultimately, all teachers will teach the same thing, just using different words, methods and techniques. But at some point you have to decide which method you will follow and stick to it to the end. It’s like taking a university degree: at the beginning, you might have many options, be confused about what degree is best for you, and eventually lose one or two years switching between courses or even universities. But at some point you have to make a decision about which career to pursue, and follow through the studies to finish that degree. Or else you will be endlessly hopping from course to course, taking more and more classes, never being entirely happy about your choice, and years or decades will be wasted while you don’t reach just the decision to commit to a specific degree.

Buddhism is pretty much the same thing: stick to a teacher and follow their training until the end. Interestingly enough, one can reach results rather quickly (yes, I was very skeptical about seeing any results in one lifetime…). But that’s just the start: knowing what you’re  actually looking for. And once you get a glimpse of that, you know you’re in the right path.

If you’re interested in the subject, you can read a transcript of one of the explanations that DJK made about the Four Seals. You’ll see that he explains it far better than me – but, then again, I’m not a qualified teacher anyway. All I wish is to make a point, which, however, has deep philosophical implications, and I had to give you some background first.

Mind is an illusion… And so is identity

‘Braaaaaaains… we need braaaaaaaaains…’
By Dmsxxx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So where do we go from here? How does Western science define things like ‘mind’ or ‘identity’?

In fact, we really don’t know how the brain works. What science calls a ‘mind’ is an epiphenomenon, an ’emergent behaviour’, which is considered to ‘appear’ once certain conditions are met: in the case of the brain, it required billions of neurons to interconnect themselves in just the right way to ‘produce’ a mind. In a sense, from the perspective of science, we cannot really tell that the ‘mind’ exists, in the sense that brain cells exist: it’s an epiphenomenon of those brain cells, and it cannot exist without those brain cells. ‘Mind’ is more a functional description of what the brain does and not really an ‘object’ in the usual sense of the word.

There are obvious parallels with Buddhism thought. Gautama Siddharta was not a brain surgeon, and I’m sure his knowledge of neurosciences was next to zero, but he was very good at observing things. Like modern Western science, Siddharta also saw that the ‘mind’ is intrinsically connected with the body, more specifically with the brain (if someone is hit on the head, they lose consciousness; that was true 2600 years ago as well and easily observed…). But the reverse is also true: a mindless body has no conscience; but there are no bodyless minds either. Both are interdependent: as long as the body is alive and healthy, the mind ‘exists’; if the body ceases to function, the mind is gone as well. Neither can exist without the other. This, as you can see, is a huge departure from many philosophies and religions which postulate that there is ‘something more’, like a ‘soul’ or something similar, which somehow exists before the body/mind, and persists after it. Science has never found anything like that; and for Buddhists it makes no sense, because of the First Seal: all compounded things are impermanent. In other words, due to entropy, the body will age and fall apart: it will not last forever. Once the body is gone, so is the mind: the mind, therefore, is also an ‘assembled thing’, a compounded thing, and, therefore, impermanent: it ‘begins’ when the body is born (actually, even before that, but we’re splitting hairs here), it ‘remains’ while the body is alive and healthy, and it ‘disappears’ once the body disappears (i.e. dies).

Although Buddhism talks about ‘rebirths’, for Buddhists it’s not the mind that is ‘born again’ in a different body. That makes no sense: the mind can only exist as long as the causes for its existence are present – in this case, the body. Once the body is dead, the cause for the existence of the mind is gone – so the mind must be gone as well. There is no logical alternative, unless we refute the principle of cause and effect – one of the central tenets of Buddhism – but that is much harder than it seems, and often requires toying around with time; but for Buddhists, ‘time’ is another compounded thing, subject to impermanence as well (science says that time ‘starts’ with the Big Bang and ‘ends’ with the end of our universe), and most definitely differently perceived by different observers (just like Einstein postulated – remember, relativity is another one of those theories that has been validated countless times).

It would be easy to claim that Buddhist views and scientific views are perfectly aligned on this subject, but this is not the case. Although the past century has seen science admitting that there are a lot of unexplainable holes in its reasoning – thus the talk about ‘epiphenomena’ or the whole study of ‘epigenetics’ – it still admits that there are some truly existing things, that is, things that exist intrinsically on their own. It’s also true that, as time goes by, science has dropped more and more of those things (we’re becoming less platonistic, in a sense), but it’s still generally regarded that there are some inherently self-existing things. At least we postulate their existence for the convenience of everyday speech.

Buddhists are a bit more shifty there. They talk about ‘relative truth’ and ‘conventional reality’. In simple words, what is ‘conventionally real’ is what everybody can agree with that it ‘exists’. For example, all inhabitants of the Earth can agree that the Sun ‘exists’. All of them will be quite sure that the Sun is not a collective hallucination, but that it is truly exists for everybody – we can, after all, measure it quite efficiently.

But what exactly is the Sun? A super-hot plasma in constant nuclear fusion, producing heat and light, massing gazillions of particles. We just conventionally name that ‘the Sun’, because it’s so much easier to say ‘the Sun’ than ‘that bunch of gazillion particles flowing in that general area of the sky, in continuous fusion under massive gravity’. So which of those descriptions is ‘more real’? Well, both describe the same thing, of course. The important point is that we name things and label them according to our perception. We see a difference between the sun and the sky beneath it – so we describe the two different experiences. One gets labelled ‘sun’, the other ‘sky’. Everybody looking up can confirm that they see the same thing, and agree, ‘ah yes, I see the sun in the sky’. We teach our children, pointing upwards: ‘that yellow ball shining hotly is called the Sun; the rest that is blue, we call the sky’. And so our knowledge of all those labels and conventions is passed from generation to generation.

Ironically, when we point at the ‘sky’, we are not quite clear about what we’re actually seeing… because, in fact, the sky is just a distortion of the colours of the the light coming from the sun as they cross the atmosphere. But we can go even further: we teach our children that rainbows don’t really exist, they are just optical illusions, but nevertheless beautiful to behold. It’s worthless to run after them, though, because they are not really ‘there’, even if we can ‘see’ them. Although rainbows are not ‘real’ in the sense of not having any material properties, just optical ones, we still label them as any other object.

And here is the catch. Buddhists claim that we are constantly creating those labels to everything we perceive. They call them ‘concepts’, and our mind is a ‘conceptual mind’ because it is constantly labelling and categorising things it encounters. It matters little if those things ‘exist’ or not. We have tons of labels that only exist conceptually: ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ being good examples. There is not one single atom of ‘justice’ in the entire universe – nevertheless, we create complex societies based on ethical values that ‘pretend’ that ‘justice’ truly exists, and that it somehow shapes our lives and our societies. Such ‘pretenses’ can be naturally useful, but sadly they are often also turned to the bad – xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia are such abstract concepts, where people are tagged as being somehow ‘different’ and therefore valid targets for one’s hate and discrimination.

It’s easy to see how things like ‘democracy’ or ‘justice’ are mental constructs, abstract notions that we create with our minds, and that don’t really ‘exist’, in the same sense that the Sun exists. It’s a bit harder to understand that what our eyes see is not the ‘Sun’ but rather a perception of what our senses tell us: a bright shining dot, which also warms our skin. Based on those perceptions, we create a mental label for it, and call that bright dot ‘Sun’. We have no idea how the Sun works, or what exactly it is; we just blindingly accept its label, and learn to associate it with certain feelings and perceptions of our senses.

It’s way harder to see how everything we think about are really mental constructs, and that our mind works with nothing else but with those mental constructs. This, indeed, requires some training: because we have a firmly rooted conviction that I think, therefore I exist, and that means that even if nothing else is real or doesn’t exist, because I think, that gives me ‘existence’. And this is a sort of intrinsic self-existence. In other words: we believe very strongly, with a profound conviction that is not really shaken, that we do have an ‘inner core’ of ‘something’, which we can call by many names, such as ‘ego’, ‘self’, ‘mind’, or even ‘soul’, and that this ‘thing’ is firmly attached to our body. We can say that somehow, at the very least, deep below our conscious mind, there must be ‘something else’ – something which gives us ‘the sense of self’. Or, if you prefer, identity.

Neuroscience has been able to put forward some interesting ideas about identity. António Damásio, whom I’m quite fond of quoting, has discovered certain areas in the brain which, when damaged, fail to produce a sense of ‘identity’. His analysis brought him to many conclusions, and a very interesting one is that what we call ‘identity’ or ‘sense of self’ is produced by what Damásio calls the ‘autobiographical memory‘: a bit of the brain where images of our past are stored, but all those images also store our body’s position relatively to the image – so we get a ‘sense of a continuous self’ because all those memories include ourselves in the picture, so to speak. Damásio worked with patients which had a broken autobiographical memory: they still recalled lots of events in the past without trouble, but the self-referencing of their body on those events or images was absent. As a consequence, those people felt as if those events happened to someone else. They had no bearing whatsoever with themselves. More dramatic cases come from an autobiographical memory which just stopped working after a traumatic event: that person might recall distant events in the past as being related to themselves, but has a lot of recent memories that feel as if they belong to someone else, and they cannot understand why they are recalling events which they do not ‘feel’ that belong to them.

The cases that Damásio researches are extreme, and I’m always filled with pity and compassion towards those so very strange human beings with broken brains – and therefore broken minds – and the strange perceptions they have not only from the universe surrounding them, but also about themselves. This creates the most strange deluded perceptions, like some patients who have completely lost the memory about themselves – they had no more ‘sense of self’ – but would recall all previous skills flawlessly. A dramatic example was of a piano player who didn’t have the slightest idea of whom he was. When asked if he knew how to read music, he said that he didn’t recall ever studying music in his entire life. But when placed in front of a piano, he would be able to perform any piece among his former repertoire flawlessly, just as he ever did. Once he finished he would be completely baffled and not understand how he could play so well, since he didn’t recall ever playing before…

So let’s summarise the point where we arrived at. Mind and consciousness are a ‘subproduct’ of the brain — that’s how Western science explains it. Buddhism goes a slight step further, saying that mind and brain are interdependent: what happens in the brain affects the mind, but the mind also affects the brain. This can actually be seen with modern imagiology technology: when we think of something specific, certain areas of the brain ‘light up’ (they get more irrigation, which shows on specially-prepared CAT or PET scans). On the other hand, when certain areas of the brain are damaged (by tumors, aneurisms, concussion, some sort of disease), we also know that it affects the mind. There are evident parallels here.

Western science, more thanks to a certain framework inherited from centuries of philosophy, believe that things like emotions and feelings are of a substantially different quality than ‘thoughts’ and other mind constructs. There is ample evidence that certain physical stimuli in the body will affect the brain: for instance, pain signals travel from the area where the pain emerges through the nervous system into the brain — and we can see that happening in real time using modern imagiology technology. But on the other hand, we are also aware that the brain changes the way our senses work. A good example is the ear: there are more nerves travelling from the brain to the ear than in the reverse direction! That can only be explained if the brain is able to exert some action upon the ear — in essence, ‘reconfiguring’ the ear to hear differently. This explains how we can be inside a noisy room and still focus on a specific music playing on our computer, for instance, or isolate a conversation in the background even if someone is using a sledgehammer next door. The eye, by the way, also has this kind of ‘brain remote control’ built in; the difference is that sending visual information to the brain requires far more bandwidth than aural information (the explanation for that — which I have read about recently on Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension — is simply because vision is an evolutionarily more sophisticated sense than hearing, having been developed more recently, and therefore being far more complex). By the way, even though there is a lot we still don’t know yet, at least we have managed to decode the signals sent by the neuronal system. While that is a fantastic step forward, it still doesn’t explain everything — it’s just something that can be used to develop a visual prosthesis for blind people, which might give far better results than current approaches.

On one other hand, we can see how the brain ‘lights up’ when pain information reaches it. The interesting discovery is that when we recall a painful information, the same areas ‘light up’ as well. In fact, this is the same approach that is used to develop mind-reading machines: by examining which areas get ‘lit’ when we think of something (or when we’re reading something — which somehow triggers an ‘inner voice’), researchers have been able to figure out what people are thinking. This technique requires some fine-tuning: essentially, scientists need to see what patterns emerge in the brain when someone is watching an object (say, a hammer or a plushie), and detect those patterns as people recall the image of the object. This works with surprising accuracy, within the constraints of the experiments (i.e. a limited amount of objects, words, images, etc.).

What can we conclude from such experiments? Essentially, that everything we experience happens in the brain. ‘Pain’, although it is caused by physical changes outside the brain, is only recognized as such when the signals reach the brain. If it weren’t so, we would be unable to develop anesthetics — effectively ‘shutting down’ the ability of the brain to interpret those signals. In other words, the signals continue to be carried to the brain, but the brain is ignoring them. So we don’t ‘feel pain’, even though the pain-conveying mechanism in the body is still active to a degree.

But the reverse is also true (something which, when first reported, baffled the research community): the brain can evoke images or memories of past events when it felt emotions or examined objects, and the same areas are ‘lit up’ when that happens. We must therefore conclude that this happens in both ways (and having nerves from the brain to the eyes, ears, and other senses confirm this hypothesis): the ‘mind’ that somehow inhabits the brain is affected by signals travelling to the brain, but the reverse is also true: the ‘mind’ can also physically affect the brain, by triggering similar areas when it is recalling images, memories, or the results of cognitive processes. Simply put, it works both ways: brain and mind are indeed interdependent. Scientists are glad to know that, because it allows them to ‘prove’ that there is no need to postulate any other explanation for the ‘mind’ (i.e. we don’t need a ‘soul’ or anything non-material to explain how the mind works). Buddhists, of course, have been saying this all along for centuries, so they are quite happy to see science validating their own experimental findings.

If there is enough consistency in this theory, and if we look at the similarities to Buddhist thought, then we must accept that, no matter how complex we wish to describe the brain functions — postulating ‘lower functions’ like instinct, pain/pleasure triggers, and so forth; and ‘higher functions’ like complex abstract reasoning — we must assume that all that happens in the brain and not elsewhere. In other words: to experience all those ‘mental functions’, we have no other choice but to assume that the experience happens ‘inside’ the brain. We cannot feel pain if the brain is numbed. We can artificially trigger happiness using certain chemicals (‘happy drugs’). This is only possible because the end result affects the brain, and it is inside the brain that the ‘mind’ resides.

Now, neuroscience, as well as related areas like psychology, prefer to elaborate a far more complex hierarchy of ‘mental processes’, claiming that some are purely ‘brain-related’ (e.g. complex reasoning) while others are fully dependent on other organs and mechanisms inside the body. This is reminiscent of the ‘pineal gland theory‘ postulated by Descartes around 1640 (and shortly thereafter debunked by Spinoza), where somehow certain glands in the body are able to exert influence in certain areas of the brain, thus being the true and ultimate source for a ‘soul’ or a ‘proto-mind’ or an ‘inner self’, depending on what conspiracy theory you prefer. Such theories are still strongly believed today. Even though science has abandoned the search for the ‘location of the soul’ inside the body, and instead prefer to postulate that what we describe as ‘mind’ is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of the way the brain works, the truth is that many areas of science are still strongly influenced by centuries-old descriptions on how people imagined that the brain/mind worked.

That’s why we still get descriptions in contemporary science articles of ‘subconscious thought’ or even ‘unconscious thought’, as if its quality were fundamentally different from ‘regular thought’, or if we had special areas in the brain that somehow the mind is unable to tap into. Even Damásio is convinced that there are different kinds of mind-affecting brain patterns, in the sense that those ‘kinds’ affect the mind differently.

Here is where there is a significant departure from neuroscience in Buddhism. Buddhism, according to some texts, identifies some 64 types of consciousness, which is claimed to be perceivable or identifiable by a trained practitioner. No matter how many they are, however, Buddhism affirms quite clearly that they have exactly the same quality. That’s why they use the expression ‘movements of the mind’ to encompass everything, from feelings and emotions, to complex thoughts and reasoning. The consequences, as we will see, are interesting.

When current scientific researchers postulate that there are different ‘kinds’ of mind activity — allegedly produced by significantly different ‘triggers’ in the brain — it necessarily needs to explain certain abstract concepts that we know that have somehow to be ‘encoded’ in the brain: typical examples are the notion of ‘self’, ‘identity’, and so forth. Because we know that damaging certain areas of the brain will make the person lose such abstract notions, we know that these have to reside inside the brain as well (and not on any other organ, or on mystical ‘auras’, ‘spectral fields’, ‘cosmic energy’, or any such similar nonsense). It’s simply a question of cause and effect: damage this area of the brain, and the person’s mind will fail to register a sense of self.

However, explaining how that ‘sense of self’ actually ’emerges’ is a far more difficult question. Researchers merely shrug it off as another epiphenomenon: if the brain is sufficiently complex, then a ‘sense of self’ emerges. And we can even identify some areas of the brain that have to be somehow related to these abstract concepts. One does not need to deliberately render those areas inactive; certain hallucinatory drugs have the property of ‘shutting down’ those areas, making the person temporarily feel a release of their ‘sense of self’. So we know that there is something material about the sense of self, because we can affect it, either with drugs, or by destroying certain areas of the brain.

Buddhism is a little more vague about the actual description of how the mind works, because for Buddhism, explaining how neurons interconnect to produce a ‘mind’ is of little relevance. It is enough for Buddhists to understand that mind and body are interconnected; that mind and brain are interdependent; and that one should not artificially affect the brain, or the mind will be affected as well, and this will make the training harder (that is the reason why some Buddhist schools forbid their students to drink alcohol or take mind-altering drugs).

For Buddhism, ‘identity’ or a ‘sense of self’ is nothing more and nothing less than another ‘movement of the mind’, or, if you wish, a thought — more precisely, a mental construct. However, Buddhism doesn’t claim that such a mental construct ‘appears magically’; and neither is it shrugged off as an epiphenomenon. Rather, Buddhism is very keen on showing that ‘identity’, like everything else, depends on causes, and, as such, it is as impermanent as any other compounded ‘object’ — for Buddhists, mental constructs and physical constructs are similar, in the sense that both depend on causes to appear.

One such cause, of course, is ‘having a working brain’. And that also means a living body that supplies the brain with information and nutrients. We can start detailing all the causes — there will be an insanely amount of them to list — but the whole point of Buddhism is that there are causes for the mental construct of ‘identity’ to appear. It doesn’t happen magically, or causeless. It merely requires an insane amount of causes. But such causes can be further investigated by a trained mind, and identified. Once we know at least some of the causes for that mental construct to appear, we can change them, or eventually even cease them. When the cause is removed, if you remember, the effect will be removed as well.

A typical example: to have ‘identity’ someone has to have a living brain. Kill the person, and the brain will die as well; that person will have no more sense of identity. That might seem absolutely trivial, but it is not. It shows quite clearly what Buddhism means when it claims that all phenomena, physical or mental, depend on causes. Of course we don’t need to be so drastic — we can take a drug that will make the brain work differently, therefore removing one of the causes that produces ‘identity’, and, therefore, the sense of ‘identity’ will be lost. Because the drug’s effect is impermanent — it is also a compounded substance! — and will eventually wear off, then the cause that produces the sense of identity will be restored once again.

You might think that this is all trivial, and pretty much what science says today about how these things work. You would be correct, because you’re fortunate to live in the 21st century, where science has advanced to an impressive degree. But look back half a century, and these mechanisms would be nowhere near to being obvious. We were still stuck at the ‘we haven’t the slightest idea on how this works’ stage.

Ultimately, I predict that during this century Western science will finally discard the remains of the ‘gland theories’ and accept that everything that happens in the mind is of a similar quality, no matter how exactly the brain is ‘affected’ or even ‘configured’ by neuronal input or hormones from the messaging system. At this stage, we still think that somehow there are different ‘qualities’ of mind activity, and that somehow we can create a compelling narrative to distinguish, say, a feeling from an emotion.

But you can now appreciate why Buddhists say things like ‘mind is an illusion’. They don’t mean that ‘mind’ does not exist at all! Instead, what they are saying is that, like an illusion, ‘mind’ does not exist by itself. Instead, it depends on a substantial amount of causes and conditions, and is interdependent with many things (like a body, having a brain, and so forth). So, when one of those causes ceases to exist, just like an illusion, the mind ceases to exist as well.

Many people misunderstand the explanations provided by Buddhism, because unfortunately there have been some philosophies in India which stated that ‘everything is illusion, nothing exists’ and this, in turn, was a good excuse for people doing pretty much what they wished (since nothing was real anyway).

Buddhism is much more precise with meanings. It attaches the meaning of ‘real’ to only those things that inherently exist by themselves. As we have seen, however, all compounded things are impermanent, and are interdependent among themselves, requiring causes and conditions to appear, and, once those causes and conditions are exhausted, they fade and are no more. Therefore, compounded things are not ‘real’, according to the meaning of ‘real’ given by Buddhism. And this true for all compounded things, not only material/physical ones. Thoughts are also compounded; they have parts; they emerge with causes and disappear once those causes are not there. ‘Mind’, ‘identity’, and ‘self’ are similar compounded, abstract concepts, and we know that at least one cause for their existence is a living brain inside a working body — when we remove that (when we die), mind, identity, and self cease to exist. So there cannot be anything that we call ‘inherently self-existing’ inside ourselves (or indeed inside our minds). This is what Buddhism means with things being ‘like an illusion’: it means they are not inherently existing by themselves, nothing more, and nothing less.

But if the whole world (and our whole thoughts) are not inherently existing, then does that mean that nothing truly exists? Isn’t that just banding with words?

Not quite. Unlike other philosophies, one of Buddhism’s original concepts (the other being co-emergent interdependence, as said) is the notion of conventional reality (versus absolute reality — we’ll get there). Conventional reality is what quantum scientists would call ‘the physical world’. We are aware that in this physical world, things are not like they appear — time and space, according to relativity, depend on the frame of reference. While locally we don’t feel these effects directly, they are measurable. Nevertheless, we are also aware that time and space are differently experienced by different people. For instance, being forced to go to a boring conference about an obscure subject which only the speaker knows about, who will be droning endlessly for hours in a monochordic voice — time seems to have slowed down until it stops. We get to look at the watch every five minutes and despair of how slowly time passes. By contrast, a meeting with our new boy/girlfriend will seem to last merely an instant — although hours might have passed without either having noticed it. Similarly, for a jogger, walking for an hour might seem effortless, and 5 km is ‘nothing’ — while for an elderly lady, suffering from osteoporosis, even a short walk across the street seems like an endless nightmare.

While we can objectively measure time and space — even within the constraints of relativity — the subjective experience of time and space is a different matter. One of the hardest things for a judge to figure out, when questioning several witnesses, is to figure out what is the ‘truth’ behind each account. Although all witnesses might have seen ‘with their very eyes’ what happened, each will tell a slightly different story — based on their perceptions. Abstract concepts like ‘quick’, ‘tall’, ‘dark’ or ‘violent’ mean completely different things for each witness, although everybody will agree on the meaning of those words. The problem is not with the words themselves, or even with the concepts behind them: it’s the subjective interpretation of that meaning that differs from person to person.

Can we say that all these people have really witnessed the ‘same’ scene? Of course we can. After all, we can objectively know what happened, by installing a videocamera there and watching the recordings. But even when facing the ‘objective reality’, witnesses might actually be surprised at what they are shown: when they were present at the scene of the crime, the assailant might have seemed ‘taller’ and ‘darker’ — now that they see him on video, their perceptions change again. Now they might not be so sure about their memories. Was the person really so small? Maybe it’s because he looks so thin that they thought he might have been taller? So even when faced with ‘reality’, people still hesitate.

What is ‘real’, then? Is it what the camera shows — or what people experience? But people also experience movies differently: the same scene, after all, might evoke laughter to some, but tears in others, and complete indifference in some people. We can watch the same scene again and again: our experience of it will also depend on our mood or background. If we watch Disney’s Snow White at 50, it will be experienced quite differently than when we were 5! Why? After all, it’s exactly the same movie.

Yes, but we’re not. We have changed. And when we change, our perceptions change. Things that we loved to do or to eat when we were children are now boring (or completely inappropriate), or taste way too sweet. We often complain how a sundae was ‘done differently’ when we were young. But maybe the formula is still exactly the same. It’s just that we perceive things differently!

So we struggle to make sense of both the world and ourselves. Both are in constant change, but we grasp at some things in search for ‘solidness’, for something that remains ‘constant’. In truth, nothing remains ‘constant’; so we merely create elaborate mental fabrications and abstract concepts to create the ‘appearance of solidness’, when in reality no such thing exists.

Houses get repaired, painted over, get a new roof. Is it the same house we have bought? We claim that it is; no matter how often we refurbish the house, it’s still ‘our house’, the house we own. We confer it a certain quality of ‘houseness’ that remains, in spite of the changes. Even when the house falls apart and nothing else remains but a ruin, we still say ‘that used to be our house’ — even if it’s just a bunch of piled-up stones, without an inkling of ‘houseness’, except for ourselves.

Similarly, we are aware of ancient relics that are passed from generation to generation. Musical instruments or samurai swords might claim to be over two hundred years old. But are they really? Even the best-preserved Stradivarius will very likely have a new set of strings (assuming that it continues to be played, of course); an ancient sword from a 17th century daimyo might have much more recent handles, it might have the blade sharpened again (and having the kinks beaten out of the sheets) or even reforged. We still claim that there is a certain ‘swordness’ to it. Even if we admit that it’s not quite the same sword, there is an essential quality of that sword that remains, although it might have been changed and repaired over the decades.

Therefore, it is very hard to claim that anything truly ‘exists by itself’ and is able to be ‘permanent’, in the sense that it remains unchanged and unchangeable over time. We cheat, by working against entropy — repairing, maintaining, changing things — but still claiming that the ‘essence’ of an object remains, and therefore claim it to be ‘permanent’ in that regard. We can look at a building and say, ‘this is exactly the same building as it was built a century ago’. But clearly it isn’t. The paint is new — probably even using a formula that didn’t exist in 1916. Very likely the whole electrical wiring was done from scratch, as well as the plumbing. Possibly the building now has to comply with new zero carbon housing regulations — while when it was built, no such laws existed. So it’s most definitely not the ‘same’ building whatsoever.

All these examples are what Buddhists call ‘conventional reality’. By convention, we all agree that this building we see today, and which was originally built in 1916, is the ‘same’ building. We might be aware that technically it’s not the ‘same’ building, since so many changes have been made to it; but our conventions are far stronger than the ‘reality’ behind an ever-changing building. Similarly, we point at ourselves and at a picture of a kid with 5 years and say, ‘that’s me’. Well, of course it isn’t! However, by convention, even though we certainly have changed a lot over the decades, we still can all agree that it is ‘almost the same person, just younger’. Nevermind if that person had completely different thoughts, feelings, goals, wishes, desires, etc. when she was 5 years old. We still conventionally agree it’s the ‘same’ person — only somehow ‘different’, tainted with age, but that’s the ‘only’ difference.

Conventions lead us a long way and are very, very useful for everyday conversation. Like the example of the sun and the sky, it’s far easier to explain what happens ‘up there’ if we stick with those simple conventions. Our brain is much better adapted at grasping at those concepts, and we create our own narratives to explain our surroundings, saying things like: ‘the Sun goes up every day’. Of course it’s not the same sun! After 24 hours, some billions (or trillions?) of atomic nuclei have fused together, photons have been expelled and travelled all the way to our planet, and the star that we call the sun has become ever-so-slighlty smaller, inevitably walking towards its ultimate collapse. But for all practical purposes, we ignore all this — even if we are aware of the change happening to the sun over the night — and still make up our narratives to ‘believe’ it’s the same sun. By convention, yes, it’s the same sun. It’s far easier to explain things that way.

Conventions, or abstract concepts based on our perceptions, are not a problem by themselves (as said, they are very useful for meaningful conversations). The real problem happens when we forget that they are mere conventions and start believing that they are the ‘ultimate reality’ — a reality that somehow is fixed, immutable, ever-existing, and existing independently of everything else. This is what Buddhism teaches that we have to overcome: our natural tendency of believing that the conventional reality is the ultimate reality, and not being able to say which is which. When Buddhists talk about ‘wisdom’, they only mean the ability to distinguish between conventional reality and ultimate reality. It doesn’t mean being well-learned, educated, having a doctorship in Buddhist philosophy; history is full of old masters who were absolutely illiterate but who had the wisdom to understand conventional reality as it is, and experience the ultimate reality. In fact, in Buddhist teachings, intellectual knowledge is scorned at, to a degree; all that matters is experience — practical, empirical experience. Just like you can’t be a surgeon by reading books on anatomy, you cannot reach the so-called ‘awakened’ state by studying philosophical treatises of Buddhism.

One might ask, why not? What is that so-called ‘ultimate reality’ that Buddhists talk about? Isn’t it the same kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo that all other religions talk about — they just call it ‘God’, ‘the Universe’, or something like that?

Well, not really. Quantum mechanics are also aware that the so-called physical world doesn’t truly ‘exist’ as such: it pops into existence thanks to the collapse of the wave function of the particles in a system. Studying how that happens means delving a layer deeper than what we can experience with our senses (or even with our common sense!). Beneath the layer of our perceptions there is an alien universe, where none of the rules of ‘our’ world apply. Nevertheless, the quantum nature of the universe is not disputable: we have way too much direct evidence that things are really like that, no matter how weird it sounds, or how little sense it makes.

Although we cannot perceive the quantum reality of our universe, we can get evidence that things work like quantum mechanics describe it, by making high-energy experiments which take into account the strange nature of the ‘microcosm’ at the quantum level, and produce effects in our ‘macrocosm’ at the perceived level, which can only be explained if quantum mechanics is correct. So far, all those experiments validated the theory. That means that although we cannot really perceive the quantum state of the universe with our senses, we can indirectly validate its existence, by doing those experiments.

Buddhists in 500 BC certainly didn’t have high-energy particle accelerators, but they pretty much reached to the same conclusion: using nothing more than our mind, trained according to certain techniques for raising awareness and mindfulness, we are able to experience this reality that is not conventional. Unfortunately, we cannot say what it is — it lies beyond all conceptual thought, which means that it can be experienced but not described (remember, language requires concepts). That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t ‘exist’. Again, we have to get back to the old chocolate example: anyone tasting chocolate has the experience of tasting chocolate, but we cannot describe it. Conversely, we can read as much as we want about how chocolate is made, how certain molecules are attached to our olfactory receptors or to the taste buds, and even recite all the chemical formulas involved in the tasting of chocolate — but nothing of that intellectual work will ever be enough to describe the experience of tasting chocolate. It can only give us a conceptual idea of what the taste might be — but not the real experience. Nevertheless, just having a nibble of a corner of a chocolate tablet, and we immediately realize what the tasting experience is. Now we can relate to all others who have tasted chocolate and are aware of the experience. It’s like we suddenly opened the door to a treasure room: if we have seen the treasure, we know exactly what it is, even if we cannot describe it — and anyone who has had the same experience will know what it is about. It’s also easy to recognise those who have tasted chocolate from those who have not, even if they are experts in the theory of chocolate manufacture.

I admit that I have departed a little bit from my argument… well, quite a lot, really. My point was to show the analogies and the differences between Western science and Buddhist philosophy regarding the nature of the mind and how it works — and how it is related to the brain (and the body that sustains the brain). The main difference, as I can see it, is that Western science is still rooted in the belief that there are different qualities of input fed and processed by the brain — thus the explanation of how feelings and emotions work, how they are related to hormonal discharges (while ‘pure abstract thought’ might not be — even though that is not entirely correct in any case), how certain biofeedback mechanisms make us ‘think’ in a certain way, and so forth. We still talk about different ‘kinds’ of minds — conscious, unconscious, subconscious, and sometimes we even consider things to be ‘instinctive’. Although long ago debunked, most people (and that includes many scientists in the field) still see the brain as some sort of very complex supercomputer. We know that this is impossible to be the case because the mind is able to process both conceptual and non-conceptual thought — and has no problems in holding paradoxes (i. e. simultaneously believing something to be true or false). And to make matters worse, we also know how the chemical messaging system of the body actually changes the way the brain works — something that we can experience when we’re drunk, for example, but also when we’re pumped up with adrenalin. We have made precise measurements of what is the ‘normal’ processing speed of the brain, and such similar measurements, and we’re quite sure that during such chemical changes many parameters are physically changed — neurons fire faster (or slower), they recover more quickly, and so forth. So the analogy would be a supercomputer rebuilding itself, adding faster CPUs on their own, and discarding them as they are not needed any more. Clearly we cannot describe the working of the brain merely based on a computational model — it’s far more complex than that.

Buddhism, not overly worried how the brain works, but focusing instead on what the mind is doing, have simplified things very much. There are not ‘multiple minds’, but merely ‘a’ mind, which can, however, work at several different levels of consciousness. No matter how deep we go in those levels, it is still the same mind, and consciousness is just consciousness, just the perception of that consciousness becomes more and more subtle. To be aware of feelings or emotions, we need to have a working brain, and it’s clearly the mind that is made aware of those feelings — so, for Buddhists, feelings and emotions are the same thing as thoughts or memories. Just because they are perceived differently doesn’t mean that their quality is different. Indeed, the Buddhist model of the mind assumes that all mental constructs, no matter where they originated, have the same essential quality. Generally speaking, this gets translated in English by ‘conceptual thought’. Even what we call ‘the mind’ is nothing more than another conceptual thought — a conventional description of what we perceive that goes on inside our brain. Here, again, we see the similarity with contemporary Western thought: the mind as an epiphenomenon of the brain, but not ‘truly existing’ by itself. Buddhists would say that epiphenomena are nothing more and nothing less than another conceptual thought in the conventional reality that we perceive — it’s easier to talk about ‘the mind’ as if it truly existed by itself, because it makes the conversation (and the philosophical discussion) much easier that way, but, in truth, we should always be aware that the ‘mind’ is, once more, a compounded entity (it is made up of conceptual thoughts), and, as such, cannot exist ‘by itself’ but merely interdependently, and is obviously impermanent (when we die, the mind is gone).

Now, Western science struggles with more complex abstract concepts like ‘self’ and ‘identity’, and, as we have seen, there are several theories to explain why we ‘feel’ that we have an ‘inner self’ or why we have an ‘identity’ or a ‘personality’. Damásio’s autobiographical memories give a possible explanation, but there are some flaws in his argumentation (which I will not discuss; it lies beyond my own abilities to understand!), and several other models have been proposed. This field of research is actually quite important for us transgendered people, because an understanding of what ’causes’ gender identity would be useful to treat gender dysphoria better.

Buddhists, by contrast, describe all these things very simply: ‘self’, ‘identity’, ‘personality’ and so forth are all mental constructs — again, nothing more, and nothing less. Because we can all agree that we have such qualities, they are in the realm of conventional reality — useful for talking about it (or I wouldn’t be able to type this long article!), but not truly existing by themselves. In other words, without a mind, there isn’t a ‘sense of self’. That’s obvious! But strangely enough, Western thought seems to somehow believe that there can be a ‘self’ even without a mind — thus Damásio’s proposal of a ‘proto-self’. Such elaborate conceptualizations would make no sense for a Buddhist. They can argue about levels of consciousness, and about ‘subtle’ consciousness (as opposed to the more ‘gross’ consciousness that we usually are aware of), but it’s not quite the same thing: there is no space for a ‘differently existing mind’ inside the brain, from the perspective of a Buddhist — there is just one brain, and one mind. But that mind can be infinitely complex, at several levels. And why are Buddhists so sure about that? Why, because of course they have trained themselves to identify all those levels 🙂 While we in the West struggle with hypnosis and other similar techniques to do ‘regression therapy’ and other more borderline quasi-scientific procedures, sometimes with some degree of success, Buddhists have for millennia gone much deeper than that, because they use not only completely different procedures and techniques, but mostly because they have a different vision and understanding on how the mind works.

We can obviously be skeptic about such claims. To disprove them, however, we need to follow our reasoning to the end — and not stop at the point it’s convenient for us. Suppose that we wish to postulate that the ‘sense of self’ lies somehow outside the scope of what we label as ‘mind’ — that it is something intrinsic to the brain properties, namely, the way its neurons are interconnected. So we have an area that ‘creates’ this ‘sense of self’, which is distinct from the usual brain processes that we consider to be ‘the mind’.

There is some scientific evidence to support this claim: after all, we know that if we destroy some structures of the brain, the ‘sense of self’ disappears. However, what science cannot so easily explain is how we can change that ‘sense of self’ without ‘destroying’ the brain in the process. And that is so easily accomplished with some hallucinatory drugs. Or often by merely dreaming of ‘being someone else’. The ‘sense of self’ is not only changed, and changeable, but it can ‘revert’ to the ‘old sense of self’, sometimes at will (in fact, some schools of Buddhism teach very simple methods for experiencing different ‘senses of self’). So obviously the ‘mind’ can affect the ‘sense of self’ without breaking things. The literature is full of ‘out of body experiences’, and while they are usually discarded as merely ‘hallucinations’, we would still have to explain how we can hallucinate that we have a different ‘sense of self’ (one that is not tied to the body, in those out-of-body experiences), if that ‘sense of self’ were something immutable and fixed. Clearly there is a contradiction here, or at least an incomplete theory which cannot account for all possibilities. If we read things about this subject, the usual explanation is that there is an infinitely complex mechanism through which somehow the brain part that holds the conscious thought is able to ‘influence’ the part that holds the ‘sense of self’. This, again, gets flawed, when we examine certain patients that had some damage in their brains, but were able to ‘retrain’ themselves to still maintain conscious thought (and a sense of self). Many people, after having suffered some sort of stroke, are able to recover lost faculties due to the death of brain cells in a certain area of the brain. There is a limit to how much can be recovered, of course, but in general we know that therapy can help. The mysterious reason for that is shrugged off as being merely ‘neuroplasticity of the brain‘, or the ability of the brain to rewire itself. We now know that we retain that ability until our death, even in old age, and that’s why so many people remain perfectly lucid and able to do pretty much everything they did throughout their lives even at a hundred years of age; among architects, it is said that architects die at their tables, because they will never stop projecting new architecture.

Neuroplasticity is a very convenient umbrella term for attempting to explain why we can, merely through the power of our minds, to force the brain to change itself. It is a relatively recent area of research and has questioned a lot of assumptions regarding how the brain works — before the latter half of the 20th century, it was believed that each area of the brain corresponded to a certain mental activity, and that those areas were relatively fixed — because we could see how brain lesions had an impact on the mind of the patient, and lesions on the same areas produced, in general, the same type of issues. Nowadays we know that this is hardly that simple. But in truth this should not have surprised us much: after all, what is ‘learning’ but the ability for the brain to rewire itself? To account for that, it was postulated that the neural connections of the brain weren’t fully developed at birth, and that as we grew older, we would be able to rewire certain areas, as we learned new things — but that this process would eventually stop shortly after adolescence.

The point about mentioning neuroplasticity is to explain how Western science is fully aware that the brain’s structure can be changed — either through learning (a typical example) or through specific drugs. There is, however, a limit on how much we can change in the brain. We know that certain lesions are not recoverable; we cannot cure (yet) most cases of dementia, although we are able, to a degree, to limit its progression. We also know that people who keep themselves mentally active (that means avoiding TV 🙂 — among many other things, of course) are able to continue to ‘exercise’ their brains so that they remain lucid and cognitively functional until their time of death, even if they live beyond a 100 years (remember, the human body was evolutionarily designed only to last about 40 years or so!).

Switching back to Buddhism: because Buddhism claims that mind and brain/body are interdependent, there is no question for Buddhists when claiming that the mind can change the brain — that is practically a given, and it’s philosophically explained that the brain, being impermanent, is subject to change, depending on causes and conditions; the mind is certainly one of the many possible causes that affects the brain. Similarly, the brain also affects the mind. This is important for Buddhists, because they consider that, although all sentient beings share the same basic nature, and in theory are able to reach a state of awakening, only the human brain/body is effectively able to learn the methods and techniques that allow one to ‘train’ the brain in order to attain that state. Why? Because Buddhists also believe that there are certain habitual tendencies that, in a sense, model the way the mind works. Such tendencies are also causes and conditions. A cat’s body/brain has certain habitual tendencies that prevents it from learning language, and, therefore, it cannot benefit from the methods and techniques taught by Siddharta.

Can we ‘fight’ those habitual tendencies? Sure! That’s what’s most of the Buddhist training is all about! But, again, it requires a fully working brain/body. Buddhists are not discriminating when they claim that mentally impaired people, or people who somehow are prevented, by either their brains or bodies, to learn the methods and techniques, are unable to reach a state of enlightenment. This is simply a pragmatic view. In fact, certain sorts of meditations focus on the qualities and advantages of having a healthy human body. Not for feeling somehow ‘superior’ to others, which would be contrary to Buddhism — but merely to appreciate that because we have a fully functional human body/brain, we are able to master those techniques and progress in our training towards awakening. People — or animals — lacking certain qualities (i.e. being unable to read and/or understand a teacher explaining the methods and techniques) are sadly left out of the picture.

Mens sana in corpore sano, wrote the Roman poet Juvenal some 1900 years ago. We still employ that phrase to explain that a healthy mind also requires healthy exercise. Buddhists would certainly agree with Juvenal as well: a flawed body/brain (in the sense that the brain is not working properly) will have much more difficulty in establishing a healthy mind. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, it just means it’s much harder to accomplish the training.

And now we come (finally) to the issue of gender identity…

So, where exactly is gender identity ‘stored’ in the brain?

Some experimental results tend to correlate certain chemical markers in the brain to so-called ‘gender identity’. It is important to understand that those chemical markers are not a result of sexual hormones affecting the body, but far more subtle biochemical changes, that are actually produced directly from transposing the DNA of brain cells, without the need of fully functional glands for sexual hormones. This is the only scientific explanation that makes it possible to understand why certain persons are born with a sense of belonging to a gender that is not aligned with their physical bodies — because as sexual hormones start to develop their body according to the DNA’s gender, this will not affect the gender identity (somehow ‘encoded’ in the brain) at all. We can pump those people up with as many hormones as we want that it won’t produce any measurable effect. Similarly, we can also put those people through aversion therapy and electroshocks, to force them to ‘reject’ a ‘wrong’ gender identity — but we also know that this will not work, either. No matter how plastic our brain might be, there are simply some things that we cannot change.

You can imagine those chemical markers as being a sort of ‘permanent lesion’ in the brain that cannot be ‘compensated’ by establishing new neuronal interconnections. Why exactly this is the case, science doesn’t know — yet. In fact, even the discovery of those chemical markers is quite recent, and a lot of more research is necessary. At this stage, it remains a conjecture to explain transgenderity, but it’s not conclusive yet.

What we only know is that ‘somehow’ something like ‘gender identity’ emerges from the brain and affects the mind — which ‘believes’ to belong to a specific gender identity. Yes, it’s one of those epiphenomena that modern science is so fond of — and which basically means that we still have no definite clues about why it happens, and how it works.

Therefore, we must be very cautious when speaking of such things. ThirdWayTrans (TWT), an anonymous author who writes about his experiences about de-transitioning, has recently launched the discussion around gender identity, and why he thinks that no such thing actually exists. This fostered a healthy discussion around the topic.

Buddhists would ultimately agree with TWT — gender identity is just a concept, so, as a concept, it has no inherent self-existence, but is just a mental construct like any other. Because it arose from causes, if we can identify those causes and eradicate them, gender identity will cease to exist. As such, we cannot speak of ‘gender identity’ as being truly existent.

This will also mean that an advanced Buddhist practitioner will never suffer from gender dysphoria. At some stage in their training, they will simply discard ‘gender identity’ — and its eventual associated dysphoria — as merely yet another mental construct without inherent existence. Like a thought that appears and disappears by itself, the advanced practitioner can do the same with gender dysphoria, stress, anxiety, depression, and so forth. All those ‘states of the mind’, for an advanced practitioner, are merely mental constructs. Like the self. All those can be safely discarded — in the sense that they did never exist in the first place, we are just conditioned to believe that they have existence. So Buddhists don’t really self-hypnotise themselves to change the way they think! That’s not how it works. What happens is that at some stage in the training, Buddhists can see things as they really are. When that happens, they cannot be affected by them any longer. They can still experience those things — feel pain and pleasure, like any person, perhaps even more so, as they are acutely aware of everything at a level that we are not — but they don’t affect their mood. It’s like an adult watching children playing. We can laugh at their antics, and enjoy playing with them, but we really don’t take it very seriously. We know it’s just ‘play’ and not ‘real’, so we cannot be affected by what children experience as being ‘very serious and important’. But we can still enjoy playing with them! That’s because we see through the ‘seriousness’ and ‘importance’ and know, from our point of view, that it’s just a game, not worth getting too attached to it (even though a lot of adults get furious when playing on the console against their sons and losing — they clearly haven’t yet ‘detached’ themselves from the seriousness/importance of children’s games!).

It sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s not — it’s tremendously hard. And the main reason is that our habitual tendencies cloud the way we ought to see things. In Buddhist philosophical terms, we are conditioned to think of society as being heteronormative and cisgender, with two clearly defined gender roles. This conditioning starts at birth and is reinforced by pretty much everything we do throughout our lives. As a conclusion, it’s hard to ‘break the habit’ of thinking about two separate genders, and of two different gender roles, because that habitual tendency has been firmly grafted in our brains. So firmly, in fact, that we accept it as an inherent, fundamental truth. This is the realm of conventional reality: because we’re surrounded by people that constantly reinforce the habitual tendency of looking at bi-gendered humans, we — like them — believe this to be real. And it is, conventionally speaking. But at the ultimate level, social gender roles are merely mental constructs. However, our habitual tendencies are so strong that we cannot easily dismiss them, just by reading a book or having someone telling us so. It requires hard work using Siddharta’s techniques to get free of our habitual tendencies — and it takes a long, long time to do so.

Transgender people have, if you wish, a ‘faulty brain’. That has two consequences (remember, I’m using explanations from Buddhism now, not from Western science). The first is that the ‘faulty brain’, with its ‘wrong’ chemical markers for the physical gender of the rest of the body, is the cause of the ‘wrong’ sense of gender identity. Note that I’m not saying that this is morally wrong! ‘Wrong’, in this context, just means ‘unusual’, ‘different’, in the sense that it produces a different sense of gender identity than the one experienced by the heterosexual cisgender population. But that difference has a cause.

Once we start experiencing the moral conditioning done by everyone surrounding us, we transform our minds (and eventually our brains as well, since everything we learn somehow has to be ‘stored’ in the brain as well). The more time passes, the more hardened become our habitual tendencies. At some point, we start confusing what is part of our personality, what is pure social conditioning, what is inborn, and what are mental constructs that we have created to explain things for ourselves — if you wish, what is our personal narrative, the story we create (and believe) that ‘explains’ who we are and why we are like that. In other words, and still using Buddhist explanations, with the constant ‘conditioning’/learning, our habitual tendencies construct a ‘reality’ for ourselves which we believe to be inherently existing — while it is merely conventionally existing. We stop being able to know which is which; in fact, we take for granted that our conventional reality (even the one inside our heads, i.e. what we think, how we are) has, indeed, inherent self-existence. Remember cogito ergo sum — we are what we think, and we actually believe that our thoughts are somehow fixed, inborn, inherent, a part of ourselves that has always been there since we were born and that we cannot rip off and change with something else.

Authors like TWT question all that. He (I’m using the ‘he’ pronoun since he de-transitioned; no offense is meant) claims, very accurately so, that ‘gender identity’ might not be more than a mental construct: a narrative that we offer to ourselves to explain our habitual tendencies. As such, he questions what is really ‘identity’, and what is ‘authenticity’. It is only here that my own Buddhist training will depart from TWT’s explanations: obviously that ‘authenticity’, once again, is nothing more and nothing less than another mental construct. It is part of the realm of conventional reality. Yes, TWT’s first step in questioning the ‘true existence’ of ‘gender identity’ is a huge step, a bold one to take, since it will run against the mainstream thought. But he just offers a replacement which is as ‘unreal’ (in the sense of being just another mental construct) as gender identity, namely, ‘authenticity’. At the moment I’m writing these lines, I’m waiting for an explanation by TWT of what exactly he means with ‘authenticity’. If it is a set of qualities (i.e. what qualities makes something be ‘authentic’?), then it’s the same pitfall: anything compounded (meaning, as we saw, anything made of different parts or qualities) is also impermanent, not self-existing, and depends on causes and conditions, so it is nothing more and nothing less than another mental construct, albeit a more subtle and profounder one; in that case, one can only wonder what is gained (or lost) by replacing a mental construct by another mental construct. However, at this moment, I can only speculate about what TWT means with this.

How does Buddhism deal with the issue?

Before answering that question, you have to take in account that I’m no qualified Buddhist teacher. Even though I have some slight understanding of what I’m talking about, I have zero realization. All I have is a bit of intellectual knowledge, which, however, helps me to put things in perspective. That is the only reason why I’m borrowing concepts and logic from Buddhism to tackle this complex issue — because I don’t have the necessary tools from Western psychology to aid me.

We have seen that Buddhism considers pretty much everything that happens in my mind — from thoughts to abstract concepts like ‘gender identity’; and even the mind itself — as merely conceptual thoughts, that is, fabricated mental constructs. Because they are fabrications, they are not inherent. In other words, if someone experiences ‘gender dysphoria’, but later realizes that such an experience is merely transitory and dependent on causes and effects, with that realization comes the awareness that the experience does not exist by itself, and, as such, it is pointless to get attached to it. Advanced practitioners, therefore, are able to remove any attachments to ‘gender dysphoria’. In other words, while they might recognise the symptoms of gender dysphoria, they are not affected by them — they don’t get frustrated, stressful, depressed, anxious, etc. — but merely look at the symptoms of gender dysphoria with the same kind of detachment that they look at children playing a game of soccer. They acknowledge its relative existence without being affected by it, much less being ‘confused’ by something that only exists in dependence of its causes and conditions.

It goes further on: a good practitioner will not only know that ‘gender identity’ is merely a mental construct, but they will also understand why they experience such a mental construct. They will be able to trace some of its causes eventually to some chemical structures in the brain, and, thanks to social conditioning and learning, certain habitual tendencies were developed over the years, which will give a deep conviction that such things as ‘gender’ truly exist (i.e. ‘gender’ is perceived as something that inherently exists on its own). Such conviction gets deeper and deeper as time passes, and, at some point, a new conviction emerges, namely, that one’s ‘gender identity’ is misaligned with the body’s gender. Because ‘gender’ is an abstract word which includes a certain amount of identifying characteristics, and the person notices how their own ‘gender identity’ does not align with the characteristics of the gender they have been assigned at birth, a new habitual tendency is formed, which makes the person experience a dysphoria — a general sense of unwellness, frustration, anxiety, depression, suicide thoughts — because their own ‘gender’ experience is oppositely aligned to the gender assigned at birth. Over the years, this habitual tendency gets more and more reinforced, and, to a degree, thanks to a much wider knowledge of the subject — a knowledge that is freely available on the Internet! — one’s habitual tendencies to ‘believe’ to be gender dysphoric get more and more reinforced. As a consequence, it becomes harder and harder to escape its grasp. But a good practitioner will nevertheless be aware of that ‘grasp’ and apply certain techniques and methods to get rid of it.

That’s all very nice to know, but it doesn’t help much anyone who is not a good practitioner.

The analogy is having one’s car broken in the middle of the road, and talking with a marathon runner that passes by, and asking them for help. The marathon runner just says, ‘oh, there is a city nearby, it’s just 40 km away, it just takes a 4-hour run to get there’. Of course that’s true for the marathon runner. But for someone who has no running training, they might not even be able to walk the whole 40 km in a stretch — they might simply not be in shape for that! So it’s of little help to be aware that there is a simple solution (‘just run the whole 40 km’) if you haven’t got the required training! You can’t simply pretend to be a marathon runner — who spent decades training hard, 8 hours per day at least — and emulate their efforts just because they are a convenient way to fix your current problem. Just knowing that something is possible doesn’t mean that it is possible for you. There’s a world of difference between both things!

The main reason why Buddhist teachers kindly and compassionately teach their methods, techniques and trainings to their fellow human beings is because they are perfectly aware that, for their students, the conventional reality is perceived as being real. In other words: yes, Buddhism is all about eradicating insatisfaction, pain, and suffering. But the method to do so is to acknowledge that all these emotions are mental constructs — they don’t exist inherently, by themselves, but merely as a consequence of certain causes and effects. By learning what the causes are, they can be eradicated. But students have no means of identifying the causes (beyond intellectual elaborations) and require a long training to do that; therefore, for them, they are ‘trapped’ in the belief that what they experience is ‘true’, and, therefore, they actually feel pain and frustration and suffering and insatisfaction and fear and all those negative emotions. For them, these experiences are very real.

Switching briefly back to Western medicine and culture: honest ERs in hospitals will take your ‘anxiety attack’ seriously. Even if it’s nothing else but a psychosomatic experience — no, you’re not having a heart attack, you are just imagining that you’re having one — it’s a psychosomatic experience that can kill you just like a real heart attack! And even if you’re aware that it is merely an ‘anxiety attack’, you will still experience the pain, the fear, and — obviously — the anxiety from believing it’s a heart attack. It’s not a pleasant experience at all. The suffering feels real. As someone who has gone through several anxiety/panic attacks, even though I seriously suspected that they were psychosomatic, I nevertheless went to the hospital to make sure it wasn’t a heart attack.

Similarly, Buddhist teachers aren’t vengeful sadists. They are fully aware that the suffering experienced by most people is absolutely ‘real’ to them. They don’t dismiss their pain, suffering, and insatisfaction by merely saying ‘oh, nothing of that is really real, you know?’ and make condescending tut-tut noises. Rather, they are perfectly aware that people think that everything is solid and real, and, more specifically, that their suffering is real as well; and, through kindness and compassion, they teach them how to deal with that. Unfortunately, Buddhist techniques do not work fast enough for most people. It can take decades of meditation to be able to truly be able to be unaffected by one’s strong emotions — even though it’s a gradual approach, and some things are much more easily attained than others. To be able to overcome gender dysphoria, however, because that’s something so deeply rooted inside one’s brain even before we’re born, really requires a lot of training. And naturally enough, when someone is already suffering so much from gender dysphoria, it’s not really helpful to get anyone telling them that ‘gender dysphoria is not real, you should just realize that and you’ll be free’.

It’s quite similar to what depressed people get to hear from everybody: ‘you have to snap out of it!’ Yes, that sounds so easy and logical to say — when you’re not depressed. Depression is exactly being unable to ‘snap out of it’. Fortunately, in the case of depression, there is medication & therapy that will help you ‘snap out of it’.

Therefore, Buddhist teachers explain that while we’re still attached to conventional reality, and believing that things exist by themselves — as opposed to being interdependent, impermanent, and appearing due to causes and conditions — there is no point in ‘pretending’ that one is already enlightened and say, ‘it’s all illusion’. That makes little sense. Instead, a step-by-step approach is presented, a form of training which will gradually allow students to slowly lose their attachments to conventional reality, and see it for what it is — nothing more and nothing less than concepts, devised by our minds, to describe the phenomena we experience with our senses and process through our perceptions (and prejudices!) in our minds. But to reach that state requires a lot of practice. One reason that accomplished teachers (like His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama) are so excited about Western medical science is that it allows, to a degree, to ‘shortcut’ some of those steps, by using medication and/or therapy. On the reverse side of the coin, the ‘science of the mind’ developed by Buddhism has almost 2600 years of history of uninterrupted transmission of knowledge to our very days: a lot of Buddhist techniques can be adapted to a degree for psychologists to work with their patients. That’s why everybody is talking about ‘mindfulness’ these days. So-called cognitive behavioural therapy shares a few of its techniques with Buddhism as well. That’s no coincidence — several methods of ‘mind training’ have evolved all over the world, coming from completely different visions and with different purposes/goals, but they look and feel similar (to a degree).

And to conclude…

This has been a rather long article, even for my own standards. The main problem was getting the complexity of Buddhist thought, philosophy, and logic into context — it’s very hard to do so in a short time! You can’t get an ‘elevator pitch’ for Buddhism; it really, really requires much more than that to make minimal sense. And I had to oversimplify so many things that I’m afraid it becomes hard to figure out how things work together.

But to resume the whole point: students of Buddhism are warned from the very start never to mix up ‘conventional reality’ with ‘absolute reality’. When applying that to our issue, that means that it is absolutely pointless to claim that ‘gender identity’ does not truly exist, so ‘gender dysphoria’ cannot exist either — as some followers of TWT’s blog are so fond of claiming. From the perspective of a Buddhism, of course these things are merely concepts, mind constructs, and, as such, they do not have inherent existence, but merely a conventional one, assembled out of a lot of causes — from chemical markers in the brain through social conditioning up to discovery of similar-minded transgender people who talk about their experiences, and with whom we identify — which, over the years, become habitual tendencies that become very hard to shake loose. In effect, we can say that we ‘construct’ a gender identity — based on a lot of things — and reify it over the years, over and over again, so that we start believing and behaving as if that ‘gender identity’ really exists. It feels ‘solid and real’ to us, even if in reality it is not. But Buddhist practitioners do not confuse both things: for a person who suffers from believing that their ‘gender identity’ is misaligned with their body’s gender, that suffering is very real. It cannot be ‘dispelled’ by simply saying that ‘gender does not exist, so gender dysphoria cannot exist either, so what you’re feeling is completely fake, snap out of it and enjoy life’. That’s just being cruel — not helpful at all.

Instead, what we should do is to accept that gender dysphoria is real for many people, no matter if it is merely a mind construct or a concept, and that this dysphoria can make life crippling for someone suffering from it. The cure to gender dysphoria, therefore, is not claiming that it doesn’t exist and that people should just go home and enjoy life. That makes no sense. If the suffering is real — even if the cause might not be — it has to be treated seriously, not shrugged away.

However, it’s worth to quote TWT on this specific issue, who says, very accurately — since he has been a living proof of that — that gender dysphoria can be misdiagnosed. Overeager doctors, encouraged by the recent popularity enjoyed by some transgender people, and a slightly more tolerant society, might be way too quick to ‘diagnose’ a certain condition as ‘gender dysphoria’, and offer transition as a cure, when the real reasons behind those symptoms might come from a plethora of other causes. Psychologists and psychiatrists, therefore, ought to be very careful about their gender dysphoria diagnosis, and look at other possible causes first. But, on the other hand, there is also some responsibility on the shoulders of gender dysphoric people: they ought to be able to become introspective and skeptically question all their symptoms as well. Too many people take the matter in their own hands, eagerly finding some less scrupulous doctors somewhere in the world, willing to give them prescriptions for hormones and to sign them up for surgery — something which happens quite often when someone mistrusts doctors, or disagrees with their diagnosis, and decides nevertheless to go ahead and transition on their own.

TWT’s case is sadly not unique. For many reasons, a lot of people have detransitioned. Some simply felt that the whole procedure was too complicated, and as they became more and more victims of transphobia, starting a new life as the gender they identify with was simply overwhelming. Others, sadly, were misdiagnosed by overeager doctors. The sadness about that is seeing how people placed their trust, and years of their life, into a procedure that would relieve them from their suffering, only to find out that they were grasping at thin air instead. Many of those who have detransitioned (it’s not the case with TWT) are angry at the ‘system’, who somehow pushed them towards the ‘wrong’ path, and now they have to start from scratch for the second time in their lives — but now with a strong handicap (in many cases, surgeries cannot be easily reversed — it will never be quite like it was before — not to mention the immense costs to reverse the procedures).

In my own country, the vast majority of transgender people go through the National Health Service — because it pays for all medical procedures (except hormones, which, however, are heavily subsidized). According to one endocrinologist I talked to, they have a 100% success rate in treating gender dysphoria (through transition, with or without hormones/surgery). There haven’t been many cases — a few hundreds only — so that 100% success rate may decline as more and more people transition. But one reason pointed out for the high success rate are the very high requirements for transition. Doctors are really very, very strict in the guidelines they apply to patients. Many give up during the Real Life test. Others give up because they mistrust doctors, but have no money to proceed with the transition anyway — since they would have to get the surgeries somewhere in, say, Thailand, and illegally import hormones bought abroad (which has become increasingly harder, as the customs office will check the packages much more thoroughly). Only the very rich are able to get surgeries and hormones outside the National Health Service, and, as far as I know, there is just one case that went through that route (and she now lives happily as a model for an agency).

Although there are a lot of movements world-wide to allow people to freely choose their gender and make the gender change a simple administrative/bureaucratic issue, one thing is the legal gender change, the other is to make irrevocable changes to one’s body. I personally advocate for a simplification of the legal aspects — therefore making it very easy for those who wish to transition without hormones/surgery — but make access to medical procedures very hard. It might sound harsh, but the point is that State-sponsored medical procedures are supposed to provide people with a better life, that is, instead of having the State caring for someone who is perpetually depressed because they are in the ‘wrong’ body for the gender they identify with, it is far cheaper to allow them to have access to medically-assisted transition and enable them to get a new, productive life. But in turn it also means that no mistakes can be committed — we cannot simply toy around with people’s lives.

Of course, not all countries in the world have their national health service paying for the costs of the medical procedures for transition. In the US, for instance, everybody must pay everything out of their pockets (most insurance companies will not pay for transition, either, although a few might do so). In that case, transgender people are prey to unscrupulous, overeager doctors. I don’t know how to solve that issue, except through more information. TWT’s blog — by all means not the only one — acts as a light in the darkness, warning transgender people loud and clear that there might be some alternatives to transition to deal with their suffering, or, in other words, not all suffering comes from gender dysphoria, but from other possible disorders that can produce similar symptoms. Having the required information is important for people to make wise choices.

It’s not really fundamental to establish if ‘gender’ exists or not. That is interesting only from a philosophical point of view. From the perspective of someone suffering from gender dysphoria, the last thing they wish to hear is that ‘gender does not exist’. Instead, the better approach is to work with that person accepting that the suffering they experience is quite real for them. And doctors have a vow to help those who suffer, to try to ease it, using whatever means are available. Just telling them that their disorder doesn’t exist is not helpful at all. Telling them that it makes sense to take a look at other possible disorders first, however, is never a waste of time. With luck, some of those disorders (like trauma or depression) can be cured, without requiring transition. And transgender people ought to have the right to have access to that information — even if they, in their eagerness to go through transition, might feel it’s a waste of time. But it never is. Making absolutely sure that there is no other choice but transition is crucial in the doctor/patient relationship — both should be 100% convinced that this is the case. Any doubts should be dispelled very early in the process.

Jamie Young, author of a crossdressing guide available for sale as an eBook, wrote something like: ‘If you are in doubt if you’re transgender or not, you probably are’. Her point of view is that cisgender people never question their own gender — they take it for granted. It’s only transgender people who have those kinds of doubts. She might be right, but one thing is to fall somewhere in the transgender spectrum, the other thing is to think that the only option is to go ahead with transition. It is not — there are other options. I’m not saying that transgender people should not transition, but merely that they should spend as much time as they can — and ask as many professional opinions as possible — before they take the big step ahead.