However, although the temple has stayed the same, the object of my devotion has not. When I first was initiated into the cult of “body building”, I was worshiping a false idol.
Around the age of 15, I declared a kind of war on my body. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what it was. I played soccer my freshman and sophomore years in high school, and it coincided with the time when puberty was in full bloom for me, so not only had my body changed drastically in the three years or so leading up to that time, but my mind had only just begun to play catch up. (And it was repeating something along the lines of “What just happened?”)
The social experience of being on a girl’s soccer team was awkward and embarrassing at times, a stark contrast to the new joy of physical fitness emerging in an adolescent body. Unfortunately that social discomfort almost completely eclipsed soccer’s positive aspects, and ended up being the main reason I abandoned team sports for the more solitary ones like rock climbing and ski racing, where I was free to be a wolf-pack of one. Yet when I think back to 9th grade soccer, I recover a nanosecond-long memory in which, after a couple of months of the most structured and rigorous physical training I’d yet experienced, I looked down at my stomach and arms one night while I was half-naked, getting ready for bed. I was lean and surprisingly muscular from soccer practice, and it was very curious because it was as if I’d never looked at my body before. I could see my abdominal muscles swelling and the veins in my hands and arms, and the shadowy reflection in my dark bedroom window conjured up an image—me—that was simultaneously new and old; unfamiliar yet oddly arcane, mythic. This memory is iconic because I think it was the beginning of my awareness of my body as a body that was differently-gendered, and also of a growing body that was becoming something (but what?). When I turn down the dial on the mental noise surrounding that memory and try to identify a single feeling, I realize that in that moment I saw something I liked about myself. Or I saw an image… an icon, perhaps, to which my “self” had maybe only a spectral relation. I thought that maybe, if I could keep “becoming” like that, I could grow up to be just like my older brother. You see, identity isn’t that complex. It’s painfully simple, although the consuming desire to “be(come) something” feels anything but simple at that age.
Some time after this revelation, I cut my hair short, signifying to the world and myself a modicum of awareness about this creature I’d seen in the mirror. Shearing my long, thick and rather unwieldy mane of chestnut locks that had up to that point made me resemble a teenaged metal-head was a sort of flag planting act, or a passage through a magic gate, after which I was definitely Not in Kansas Anymore. I was in between (not in between genders, because I still identify as non-binary and I’m now 26)… but in between understandings. And I would struggle there for some time.
I started going to a local gym and my enthusiasm for working out developed rather quickly into an addiction, supplemented by the worst possible companion: anorexia. I worked out nearly every day after school and sometimes ate next to nothing. Thankfully the eating disorder never progressed to the point where I had to receive medical treatment—I was very lucky. I had always had a lean, compact figure—weight was never “the problem”. Very simply, I wanted my body to be a different body. Isn’t that always what anorexia is about? For me, the “ideal” wasn’t even that different from how my body really was (a relative reality which was unknowable to me at the time)… but it was different enough to create an obsession with a future mirage that I was always only a few steps away from—an eschatological body that, once I stepped into it, would never change. It would stop time—along with my female puberty. To this “false idol” I sacrificed far, far too much, and my “real” flesh-and-blood body paid for it dearly. It was the summer after my 16th birthday that started the long, non-linear path toward healing from this, which is to say, I still suffered from iterations of eating disorders, exercise addictions, and body/gender dysphoria over the several years that followed, but the severity of the anorexia at least subsided.
That summer was 2001 and I backpacked for seven weeks in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California with a small group of other teenagers who I’d previously gone to summer camp with. That summer I began to learn the simple but yet complex lesson that food was fuel for my body (and all bodies) and that it was what kept me alive. Beyond that, food was what could allow me to perform well above and beyond the baseline of simply “surviving”. It could actually help me thrive. (Rocket science, I know!) That summer we hiked Mount Whitney on an 11 day trek—the highest mountain in the continental U.S. at 14,505 feet. The summit was a jumble of sun-warmed boulders, with little rivulets of old snow packed into the shadows, and there was an outhouse with no doors or walls—just a gleaming white toilet behind a small pile of red rocks. This ironic throne glibly symbolized the circular nature of all of life, and the endless sequences of consumption that form its often tenuous foundations. It was definitely a wake up call… but I still had a long way to go. Recovering from an eating disorder is a long process, and the recovery happens in stages. That same year I also joined a climbing team and started a regular training regimen for competition. If long-distance backpacking inaugurated the process of repairing my relationship with food, climbing did that with respect to my relationship with my body. In rock climbing I truly found a moving meditation, a place of flow that collapsed all surrounding time and space into the corporeal trinity of my muscles, my breath, and my center of gravity, which was also the earth.
Fast forward this tape about ten years, to today, and I’m in the best relationship with my body yet. Since the stories I’ve shared with you, I’ve been compelled to explore beyond the monolithically human end-user world of physical fitness, into the world where food comes from, the rhythmic realm of seeds, soil, pastures, udders and milk. As the tattoo on my chest “earthling” alludes to (which means in Old English “one who dwells on (or cultivates) the land”), this realm is not a faraway, bucolic utopia where food comes from—it is, in a primordial sense, where we come from. Working with non-human food animals in biodynamic and organic settings and experiencing the ways they enrich our relationship with the earth, and also with time and space (opening up the possibilities and elasticities of those very concepts), was another step on the path toward my own practice of ‘fitness’. Those years of work in the small scale agriculture “business” (although I can hardly call it that since everywhere I’ve worked has always been intrinsically and in all ways opposed to industrial agriculture) deeply reconfigured the way I related to my body and also my gender (see the related post gender identity and participatory ecology for an elaboration).
Additionally I’ve written here and elsewhere about how beginning to learn naturalist skills in my native geography has furthered those understandings, in particular in revealing the paradoxical—and painful—truth that in the forest there is no gender, at least not in human terms, and in That Place the earth sees “me” for who I am because when I’m there, she is me (seeing her, seeing me, in an infinite regression of reflections). It’s been devastating in its own way for me to realize the ways in which gender is so very social and yes, so very constructed…and nature does not end at the gates of the city, either. It is here, we are it, and so I must learn to live with multiple realities, multiple truths—to hold in my mind, without any damaging dissonance, that gender both exists and doesn’t. It is worth mentioning though that I’ve also discovered that to say that something is “constructed” is indeed a high order compliment—for we are creatures that construct “by nature”, and that is beautiful. As Buckminster Fuller said, being myth-making and storytelling animals is perhaps one of our unique purposes as indicated by our silly brain-on-a-stick-with-opposable-thumbs anatomy. ;)
Connecting with the biotic world—the dark, boreal forests and the sun-drenched pastures—has taught me… far from the traditional (and problematic) romantic notion of nature being a harmonious, ordered system—that nature is a wild, lawless place; an ongoing science experiment; a relentless, unforgiving tug-of-war between mutation and replication, chaos and order, and dynamicism and stasis. So I’m in good company.
Asceticism comes from the Greek word “askesis” which means “training”. It doesn’t mean deprivation, repression or hurting the body. Its true meaning is more along the lines of the sort of training an Olympic athlete undertakes… and its purpose is to transform the body (and mind, and soul) into the cleanest vessels for the divine, for grace, chi or prana, whatever one chooses to call it. It’s a methodology of mastery which acknowledges that in order to gain competence in anything, one has to engage in choosing what not to do so that one can be chosen by one’s environment (an environment which one’s ascetic practice has helped to create!) It’s not about exercising your rational or free will—forget that. It’s about setting up the conditions under which you won’t need to choose—or rather, where your agency will be elevated to a level where your choices will have maximum positive meaning and impact for you. I’ll never forget the day I first learned what that word meant, I was in a Christian History class at the University of Vermont. I felt, with alluring certainty, that asceticism wasn’t some exotic thing that happened in an ancient time or in some oriental locale. Perhaps it had “gone underground”, but it was, somehow, at the essence of culture, and what it means to be human. I got asceticism wrong when I was 16 years old. I tried to achieve freedom by hurting the body, and it was unsustainable. But I didn’t know any better at the time. No one does, especially at that age, more so because we don’t live in a world, or at least in a society, where the ecstatic potential of the human body (and the synergy it is capable of with the heart and will) is nurtured. So ever since then I’ve been on a path to get asceticism right, to wonder what it looks like here, now, in the modern world, in urban Los Angeles or rural Vermont. What I’ve learned is that on the other side of that battle with the body, is a different battle, one where I don’t fight against my body, but I inhabit my body fully, with the greatest love and respect, in order to fight a greater fight. That is, the fight to move through the world with curiosity and compassion, and to be present on the earth, and in love. And the body is not a barrier to this, like I perhaps once thought, but rather, it is our only hope.
Over the last couple of years I’ve come to a place where the next step seemed to be to see what hormone therapy could do for me. I’m currently on biweekly testosterone injections, and at the moment it feels like this has been the last nail in the coffin of my struggles with food, my body, gender, and the troubled relationship between those things. I’m on a lower dose than many trans men so my levels aren’t as high as “average” male levels, but all the same, the psychological shift has been remarkable. It’s hard to say to what extent my psychological welfare is connected to the subtle—yet vitally important to me—physical changes I’ve gone through. But I no longer feel the need to “fight” my body, and no, it’s not because I’m stronger, faster OR in better shape than I was “pre-testosterone”. I don’t want to perpetuate false gender stereotypes that relate to exercise and fitness… and in fact, I know I’ve been in far better shape in the past, at least if we’re talking purely physically. But at what cost did that come? Simply put, I reached a point where I wanted to have the opportunity to have a healthy relationship with fitness, instead of use it as a crutch. That meant admitting that I badly needed to express a masculine identity, in the social world as well as within my own self (and I’m not so convinced that the two are so separate—I don’t know how much I believe in a pre-existent self at all… although don’t tell that to my doctors because they might take my T prescription away!) :P
Healing the wounds of body dysphoria had been a long time coming, and affirming this thing people call “gender identity” had something to do with it. Gender reassignment is not something that’s done to you… it’s something that you do to yourself, and it’s always first linguistic and symbolic, before it’s anything else (and it may not ever be “anything else”). I wonder what it’s like to be a cis gender woman and also be an athlete whose practice is self-affirming… unfortunately I’ll never know because I’ve never felt like a girl. But the fact that I know several amazing women who are quite exemplary practitioners of mindful and compassionate “asceticism”, whether it’s yoga, martial arts, climbing or some other bodily practice, reminds me that in the end, it’s all about transcending self-limiting attitudes we have about ourselves, whether we’re men or women, cis or trans.
The balance I feel physically has brought with it an odd kind of freedom whose effects aren’t quite what I thought they would be. When you are unchained from something that—however unhealthily—defined and structured a great deal of your life, you can find yourself in a place where you need to re-calibrate your “ascetic” practice, as it were. And it’s not all triumphal and celebratory… in fact it’s downright scary, because it means you’ve let go of something to which you were very attached, and that creates a space, which can easily become a void. I’ve dealt with quite an odd brand of depression lately because, as a creative and poetic creature, I’ve always thrived on a certain kinds of absence. Many artists, mystics and scholars experience this, and I’m no exception. The absence cannot be too great—or it will swallow you whole—but it can also not be too little—or else you might be lulled into a sort of creative amnesia, where you forget how to desire what is beyond. Right now I am needing to get to know my inner mystic in a whole new way, and see what his healthy discontent… his longing for the great mystery… looks like. Lately I’ve secretly feared that I’m experiencing a crisis of disenchantment in the death of a muse… my guilty mind frames it as a terrible (but maybe necessary?) consequence of my privileged ability to “cure” gender dysphoria with modern medicine. In this scenario my “power” or mystical inspiration (being characterized by discontent or lack) is taken away. But alas, this quaint story is merely another way for me to beat myself up, and it’s an unworthy notion, far from the truth.
I forget where, but I once heard the quote “discontent is the beginning of freedom.” It rings true for me, with a caveat; freedom is a tricky concept, and what many of us imagine (or are conditioned to imagine) “freedom” to be would actually, if it were to truly come to pass, be a sort of slavery to unmediated chaos. Too many folks casually imagine freedom to mean lack of constraint, theoretically enabling a vast multitude of unrestricted choices and courses of action. To many a free-market-loving liberal subject, “freedom” is an actual material state of existence, defined by what one is able to do with or concerning material resources. But this notion is a red herring; a carrot-on-a-stick; bait for a well-hidden trap. Why? Because there can be no agency in a void. Meaningful action can only arise from constraint. So too, real “individuality”—empowered subjectivity—can only arise from the collective, to paraphrase a quote from the EZLN.
Thus, I would modify that initial quote about discontent being the beginning of freedom; Discontent can inspire work that produces feelings of empowerment and autonomy… those holy moments of union between the will, the heart and the body, so powerful because they are one part ephemeral and one part eternal, seeming to open up a crack in the surface of things that allows you to peer into the universe’s dark, glittering center. These feelings are transient and they emerge like bright and crackling sparks out of a process… a flow that will not ever slow down, stop, or wait for you. The feeling of “freedom” is epiphenomenal… it rises and falls, like a waveform, in tandem with the process of your life and work. It’s not a destination, it’s not a currency, and it’s certainly not an essential state of being. Like your mana pool (if you’re a role-playing gamer), it’s a mercurial feeling that is coupled with your actions in the world. It’s very important for me to remember this. That freedom is a state of mind… and well, “freedom ain’t free”. Now it is here; now it is gone… but there’s no holding onto it, because it only works through that binary oscillation.
Discontent is an important spiritual process, indeed, it is imperative to the spiritual journey. It dictates where the path will go, where the line will point. It is holy suffering, it is being in love, it is that which orients all earth creatures, great and small. As such it is, indeed, at the root of mysticism. Sometimes I am afraid that this muse disappears… I lose sight of her and stand, idle in the woods, without any trace of a trail to follow. So then I stop trying to search for her, not knowing that she’s behind me the whole time. When I take a step back, I realize that the crisis of lost inspiration or lost creativity or lost hope is merely the muse giving chase, in her wrathful Kali-form. And the only way out is to chase back.
For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then we will see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:12