Being an openly non-binary, gender non-conforming, trans-femme person, there’s a lot I could say about harmful binaries. More than I could possibly fit here. The most obvious way I am forced to be attentive to constrictive binaries is through the lens of gender, as my ability to navigate public space is threatened by how aggressively people insist on categorizing human beings into one of two boxes. This binary doesn’t just harm me, it harms all of us. These categories do not reflect our organic wholeness. They change the way we act ourselves, and invite us to heap assumptions onto people we know nothing about. They misrepresent and de-emphasize our vibrant, embodied multiplicity. 

There’s a tremendous deal more I could say about the gender binary, but it’s actually not what I want to discuss here. If you want to engage with the “not-two”-ness of gender, I invite you to read the works of Alok Vaid-MenonHida ViloriaPaul B. Preciado, and others. These folx have been deeply formative, and radically affirming, in my own coming-to-understand systems of gendered violence. 

I don’t want to only talk about gender because, while it is a prominent and non-negotiable part of my life, my relationship to it is largely a battle against its limitations. I insist on the not-two-ness of gender because I am something more than what gendered words can say about me. This is true for all of us. And it is true in many more particularities of our lives than gender.  There is always a difference between your complex, ever-changing experience of yourself and what you are able to share with the people around you.

Our brains like categories. They need categories. And at the same time that our categorical thinking helps us make sense of and engage the world, it also cuts us off from it. It reduces the uncertain, transforming richness of things to a single, safe-enough story.

My thinking on this really evolved around a (mis)understanding of Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of the island of self:

“Our true home is what the Buddha called the island of self, the peaceful place inside of us. Oftentimes we don’t notice it’s there; we don’t even really know where we are, because our outer and inner environment is filled with noise. We need some quietness to find that island of self.” 

His teaching emphasizes the island as a place of refuge, solace, and clarity. But when I first heard the phrase “island of self,” I immediately, somatically connected it to the subtle-but-ever-present feeling of isolation I carry with me. 

This feeling has been with me for as long as I can remember. Even while living communally, surrounded by friends and social support and material abundance, part of my experience of being a “self” really does feel like being marooned on an island. I can send a “message in a bottle” to neighboring islands, I can swim out to get a different look at my surroundings, but I can’t get off the island entirely. And even while people might be able to “visit,” no one can know or understand me in all the ways I understand myself.

This is one part of my experience. It is real and vulnerable and true. I often feel affirmed by this image of myself as an island, particularly when I cannot connect with the people around me in the ways I want to, despite all my best efforts and good intentions. Sometimes I discover things that are unique to me, and are uniquely mine.

Like the categories of gender, the isolated story of “self as an island” is not altogether untrue, but it is incomplete

There are other stories we can tell. About how, no matter how isolated my island feels, it is always located on a much larger island, Turtle Island, a magnificently infinitesimal blue speck drifting through a sea of space. For better and worse, I am always connected to my environment, to the circumstances of fate and choice around me. No matter how marooned I may be, it is also true that I am inescapably entangled. 

There are times when it feels isolating and crazy making to be alone, to be myself, but there are also times where it feels grounding, stable, and secure. There are times where it feels suffocating and horrifying to be connected to everything around me, but there are also times where it feels awe-inspiring and reassuring. There are times where either experience can feel both good and bad, perfect and unbearable, at exactly the same time. The experience of reality always seems to exceed our conceptions of it. The world overflows us.

I am captivated by what I perceive as a scientific turn towards affirming what mystics have been saying about this for a long ass time. The Gaia Hypothesis suggests that certain scientific realities may be best understood by thinking about the Earth itself themself as an organism. This perspective renders human activity as part collaborative process, part of a larger body seeking equilibrium. Meanwhile, New Materialism reveals that the boundaries between things are sometimes fuzzy, porous, and relational. As I heard Sharon Salzberg say many times when I was learning to meditate: “what happens over there doesn’t stay nicely over there”. Science is discovering that, in many cases, this is literally and materially true.

Whatever islands we find ourselves on, whatever our experience of self may be at any given time, we are also wrapped up in this experience of life together. We may be on islands, but these islands are made up of many smaller “islands” of their own. They are also themselves sitting on “islands” that are much larger. It would be too much to say that the distinctions we make are useless, but what I want to emphasize is that they are always limited. 

We are located on nested islands. Both perfectly complete and utterly incomplete. This is the pervasive not-two-ness that I find myself able to rest upon, when the conditions are right.

Whatever story we tell about ourselves may be beautiful, helpful, and necessary, but we also shouldn’t be surprised when it changes, when we outgrow it. And even though our experience of the world feels inescapably singular, it is also a small part of many other mysterious happenings. You are and are not who you think you are. You are and are not who you know yourself to be.

“Non-dual” is one way people have tried to describe this. Notably, “non-dual” is itself a translation of other words/ideas that are transformed by their movement across cultural context. But one, simple way I will describe it is: no matter how vibrantly we experience reality as a place of separate, distinct, subdivided categories and things, it is also all a part of a much larger thing. A universe. Not-two.

When I am feeling dysregulated and overwhelmed, oftentimes what I need is to return to my secure island of self, to rely on stories I have tested and can trust. They offer me some stability in the midst of incomprehensible change. 

But sometimes, it is precisely this experience of isolation that I need to let go of. I need to relax into a subtle, but equally true awareness of something that is much bigger than me. From this space, I can see that even my biggest, most volatile experiences are unbelievably small. When I zoom out, I can see myself as a matter-of-fact participant in something I cannot, and don’t have to, understand.

“Both” perspectives are rich and beautiful, and “both” are ones mindfulness makes more accessible. The more I practice, the more I pay attention, the more I can appreciate just how not-two everything really is.

*Joss has been an educator in assorted capacities for over a decade, including a tenure as an Outreach and Education Specialist with Planned Parenthood. Their professional interests include: improving quality of life for queer and trans people, mindfulness interventions and mental health, trauma, collective care, mutual aid, coalition building, public scholarship, and pleasure activism.