There have been two major threads that formed the essence of the quest of my life; gender and spirituality. Gender only exists in our social world; it’s a primal form of identity, which creates relationships, then our entire social world. Spirituality lies behind the world we live in, it’s the world of the intangible, the spirit, feelings, awareness, which is all the invisible hand in the glove that creates our lives.

I have now been a meditator for almost fifty years and have come to value the awareness, the insight, sense of being that this has brought. It is my conviction that to experience who and what we are in our hidden depths some form of spiritual practice is essential. It’s also necessary to have a guide, someone who has walked the tricky paths of self awareness before us and can guide us along our own camino, our own way.

In this episode I am quoting from the Karmapa, the head of one of the great traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, because his wise, concise words from his book The Heart is Noble, precisely match my own experience, with a special quality of humility and humanity that make them truly noble.

I then comment on what he has said from my own specific gendered experience, to share my own insights that parallel the Karmapa’s.

The image on this post, by the way, is of a sculpture that greeted me as I entered De Tropen, the cafe in the Tropenmuseum – the museum of the tropics – in Amsterdam just a few days ago. I find this high art sculpture entitled ‘Rhinoceros, father and son’ to be extraordinarily beautiful and powerful; it magically brings together the spirit of the animal and the human into our shared essence, full of love, beyond gender or species. The artist was from Zimbabwe, which has a magnificent tradition of sculpture. I am searching for their name right now.

My book The Choice is a kind of summation of what I learned over the decades of my spiritual practices, meditation, study and self examination, twenty five compassionately short chapters to fit in between stations on the commuter train, or fill in time in the bathroom during the release after breakfast.

As the tricky and profound matters of gender and identity was also an underlying theme of my life – and still is – my spiritual practice gave insights into my gendered conundrums.

First the Stomach is, I think, the most personal and direct chapter of the book. It’s about truth and loss, revelation, compassion (which comes up time and again) and what we are when all of what we think we are is stripped away. Who are we when our gendered tales are removed? What am I without all what I think is me? When I have no gender, what am I?

I’ve been thinking about masks, image and reality for many years. Shifting identity from the masculine which was assigned to me, and considered to be real, to the embodiment of my inner feminine being opened my eyes to the power and significance of masks, the presentation of our being we light up for the world.

The Eye in the Mask is a chapter of my book The Choice. It comes from my understanding that there is always a single choice to be made in our lives; to come from the mind and all its illusions, or to come from the Centre, the core of our being, the mind-free Self.

This chapter neatly states what the Masks of Gender is all about, or at least the principle behind it. I decided to insert some readings of my own words, mostly from The Choice, to give added depth and spice to the lovely conversations with remarkable people.

Sam Hall is one of the inspirations of the Masks of Gender podcast. Last year I began to take photos of inspiring trans people; I was so tired of the vitriol being poured on our vulnerable and highly self aware, profoundly conscious community that I wanted to show what we really are by showing their eyes, and with it their hearts and souls, to the world.

In time my aim changed from a photo with a little card of words telling us about them to a little photo and their own living words. When I took the picture of Sam which is on this page, we talked, and he told me of the shift that had taken place in his medical career, or vocation. In his previous persona, labouring under the gender mask of the feminine, he was a consultant anaesthetist, with limited relations with patients. After his transition he re-trained as a general practitioner, face to face with patients, as an expression of his expanded compassion.

When I went to his house the other week to record the wonderful words of this man, this human, this good heart, this Catholic, I had the chance to delve deeper into his observations, his insights and wisdom. Listen, everyone, here is yet another great trans heart and intelligence. What wonderful people we are, I thought as I listened to it, what a privilege to belong to this extraordinary sector of humanity.

I met Lisa a few years ago now, when a successful event I hosted at the main library in Amsterdam failed to create the crowds I was promised would be beating down the doors to see me again. In the end only one person came, and that was Lisa. It was worth the trip.

In that way I met a great Friend, someone who is, in many ways, a reflection of myself. As she says in our Conversation, she knew people who had expertise in spiritual matters, people who had expertise in gender matters, but in our friendship found a shared deep interest in both, and this is what we talked of when she came to visit last month.

Without spiritual insight, wider and deeper awareness, our view of anything is limited, and this means gender as much as anything else. As gender is the foundation identity of our lives, this insight is critical. If we don’t see who and what we are in a deeper, wider way of seeing, we are destined to go round in circles, reading the same story every day, working hard but moving little, trapped in the mask we thought was who we are. But being awake brings light and choice to everything we do. It’s made a huge difference to my life, and the underlying intention of this podcast is to share this with you.

I have known Tina, the Reverend Dr Christina Beardsley, Church of England priest, since the very early 2000’s. From that beginning I was conscious of her leaning in to comfort trans people, help them with her highly developed spiritual heart, inspiring the creation of the Clare Project, which supports trans people to this day. To me she is the living goodness of heart that comes with the best of Christianity. She is also very smart, light and funny, and actually quoted me in her book; Transfaith: a transgender pastoral resource. I am honoured.

So when I began to create this podcast, The Masks of Gender, Tina was at the top of my list, and, in fact, I made the first recording of the all episodes at her flat in London last year. Always best to begin with a professional, I thought, and I was right. We talked from our own, parallel spiritual paths, which, I feel are, at the heart one and the same, what gender is, what it is to be true to ourselves, and how we can change the world, one step at a time. I hope this podcast is one of those steps.

Before the actual podcast episodes began I put up some audio of my own voice and life to see if could actually handle the new technology and get a post up and functioning. This recording is of a chapter of my book The Choice, in which I talk of the enlightening experience, the satori, that changed my life on a beach in Formentera in the spring of 1970. This experience is the foundation of everything I do.

Even though it’s not a conversation around gender and more, I’m going to leave it here for a while because some friends said ‘why not?’ It’s about the fundamentals of where I’m coming from after all; the spiritual and the personas, the egos, the masks we take to be ourselves, denying who and what we are behind them. A tragedy, until we wake up and find ourselves.