René Rivera shares the direct experience of nonself he discovered along his gender journey as a trans man.
I became a man at 48 years old. Fifteen years into a dedicated daily practice in the Buddhist Insight tradition, I began my transition. My practice provided me with a unique perspective on the direct experience of gendered identity and its relationship to the self as I embarked on this gender journey, providing me with a profound teaching on nonself through direct experience.
The Buddha taught that there are three characteristics, or marks, of existence: impermanence (anicca), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and no self or nonself (anatta). This third characteristic of anatta is sometimes described as selflessness, emptiness, or the absence of a fixed, permanent, or unchanging self. At the most basic level, there lies a paradox in which there is both a “self” and also “no-self.” This characteristic of anatta points to the notion that the self is constantly changing and that there is no fixed self that we can find in our direct experience. His Holiness the Dalai Lama frames this paradox like this: “No-self means we do not have a self that is independent, singular, and permanent. But this does not mean denying the existence of self. Self is there. Nobody can deny that.”
In these times of attacks on women and transgender people’s bodily autonomy, there is great urgency to explore these truths.
My own gender journey has allowed me to directly experience the teachings of nonself, providing me with the evidence that there is no fixed self — that the self is constantly changing. I have also uncovered an additional paradox in my own direct experience: gender both exists and does not exist.
Growing up, I was labeled as female by my family and by society, but I never felt particularly feminine. From the age of three, I knew that I only wanted to wear “boy’s” clothes and play with trucks and tools. For as long as I can remember, I always had a strong masculine identity, but it was somewhere in between—neither male nor female—where I felt most comfortable.
My gender, in particular how it was perceived by others, deeply impacted my day-to-day experience from a very young age. As early as kindergarten, girls wouldn’t let me use the bathroom. This was a very real experience based on the way my gender was perceived, which had very real repercussions on my well-being, even as a small child. This experience caused me to run away from school. Gender and the expectations that came with it on how to act, dress, and be a certain way had real-world effects on how I experienced the world and life itself. These implications followed me, especially in gendered spaces, such as restrooms, which became a constant stress in my life until I began my transition.
As I began my transition and hormone replacement therapy, my direct experience allowed me to see the ways that gender actually didn’t exist. As my body began to change, I found myself asking: “Do I feel male?” My voice deepened, and hair started growing in new places — and falling away in others. My muscles changed, and my skin grew thicker. During my usual body-scan practice, I noticed these changing sensations and stayed with them, asking myself over and over: Does this feel male? The answer was always no. There was nothing that I could identify in my sensations that I could distinguish as “male.” I discovered that within my body, I couldn’t locate gender anywhere. As I experienced my mind and body changing, I remained present with the changes, acknowledging and accepting them on a moment-to-moment basis. I realized that for me and my body, gender was not solid, not ultimately real.
Despite this inner realization, my outward experience and how others perceived me was drastically different. Just the change in the tone of my voice during the first months of hormone therapy was enough for others to read me as male. People were no longer confused or alarmed by my gender. For the first time, I could travel without being patted down by the TSA. I could use the bathroom in peace, unchallenged. Suddenly, people started to laugh more at my jokes. They’d step aside to give me space on the street or in line. I experienced not just cisgender privilege, but also male privilege.
Through my own gender journey to my current identity as transmasculine, or a trans man, my direct experience has pointed over and over to the paradox of nonself. The physical and tangible outward change in my gender as I moved through the transition from a gender non-conforming female to male profoundly changed my day-to-day experience. Yet internally, the intangible feelings and sensations I remained mindful of along the way were ultimately genderless. Yes, there was pleasure and comfort in a body that felt more congruent with my identity, but I still couldn’t discern a direct physical experience through my senses that felt definitively male or gender-specific to me.
My experience of gender, especially as I move through the world perceived by others, is very real. At the same time, as my experience of self shifts moment-to-moment, it’s not. As a queer, trans person of color, my identity is very important to me. My whole life, the way others have treated me has been an effect of who I am, my identity, and who they perceive me to be based on these characteristics. In the face of this, what does it mean to say there is no self? As the Dalai Lama says, we cannot deny there is a self. But I know through many years of practice and bringing my moment-to-moment awareness to my changing body that this sense of self is constantly changing
In my own practice, I’ve experienced many moments where my sense of self becomes just one small node or intersection of consciousness within a great web of awareness. The small sense of self, or “I” simply drops away, and that, too, is a direct experience of nonself. The self is still there, but it’s held within the awareness that most of what exists is not only beyond the self, but beyond our ability to perceive with our own senses, including the mind.
As Lama Rod Owens writes in his book Love and Rage, “As the prism breaks the sunlight into the colors of the rainbow, so too do my identity locations break these spiritual teachings into strands of wisdom.” I believe that our specific identities and lived experiences are the path to wisdom. In my own case, my identity as a trans man gives me awareness of the conditioning around gender in the culture we live in. Gender can be the water we swim in, so pervasive that we don’t always feel it working on us. How we speak, walk, sit, smile or don’t smile, and make eye contact express our gendered conditioning constantly. My own experience of the pressures to conform to gendered expectations and the ways I simply couldn’t conform have allowed me to see this conditioning clearly, and through that, deconditioning arises.
When we skip over these experiences in our insight or awareness practices, we can bypass and miss great truths. I believe that everyone, regardless of their gender, can bring awareness to how they’ve been conditioned as gendered beings and find some awakening within that awareness. In leading groups through practices that bring mindfulness to our gendered conditioning, I’ve seen such moments of waking up to the ways that gender is constructed. In seeing this, we may be able to see the ways that self and identity are both connected and also distinct.
In these times of attacks on women and transgender people’s bodily autonomy, there is great urgency to explore these truths. Regardless of our gender, bringing mindfulness to our gendered experience in the world can serve as a path to wisdom and understanding of nonself, allowing us to awaken to its truth.