Present Tense: Embracing the Trans and Non-Binary Body Through Mindfulness
Whit Ryan has long been a facilitator and practitioner of mindfulness, a meditative technique involving accepting your current reality and rooting yourself in the present moment.
According to Ryan, mindfulness practice stems from many different cultures and traditions, including Buddhism. It’s something he’s applied with many of his clients, especially those who are trans, nonbinary, and gender-diverse.
Ryan is a trans man. He is a current PsyD candidate at the University of Denver and holds an MA in sport and performance psychology.
In a 2017 blog post for the Point Foundation, Ryan discusses his time leading a mindful meditation practice at the Gender Identity Center (GIC) of Colorado.
“He writes that people whose bodies don’t always conform to societal norms receive messages which tell them they are not.”
Ryan notes that internalizing those messages can be very destructive.
During a time when harmful anti-LGBTQIA+ political rhetoric floods the media and discriminatory policy proposals target gender-expansive, transgender, and nonbinary people, mindfulness practices can be a way to stay centered in the present.
They can also provide helpful tools during Pride season, when many are reflecting on, processing, and better connecting with their identities and coming out journeys.
The greater LGBTQIA+ community might be especially useful if you read on.
There is a rich history in wisdom traditions all over the world.
It became more widely discussed in the West when John Kabat-Zinn devised the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979.
The approach of the MBSR has been applied to a lot of things, from improved cognitive function to reducing anxiety and depression.
Meeting a major need
Mental health support for people with sexual orientation is needed.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, LGBTQIA+ teens are six times more likely than their straight and cis-identifying peers to experience symptoms of depression, and four times more likely to attempt suicide, have suicidal ideations, or self-harm.
An annual National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health by The Trevor Project found that 48 percent of trans adults report having considered suicide in the past year compared to just four percent of the United States population overall.
LGBTQIA+ mindfulness research
Some initial studies are positive, and there is limited research on the topic.
One 2021 study looked at the mental health effects that a practice including loving-kindness, open awareness, and self-healing imagery could have when used by transgender women.
A single meditation session was useful for 96.9% of participants, with benefits including greater awareness of mind and body, as well as positive affect, or mood.
A 2021 paper examined how mindfulness and self-compassion interventions might affect mental health outcomes among LGBTQ+ youth.
The participants said they would like to continue using the practices to address stressors and foster self-compassion.
Many of the benefits of practicing ombs are unique to individuals who are exploring their gender and identity. Let go of self-judgment is one of the most important things.
Constantly receiving stigmatizing messages that reinforce cultural norms around gender and sexuality that are at odds with your personal identity can make it incredibly hard to feel a sense of self-acceptance.
Ryan says that many trans and non-binary people spend a lot of time trying to distance themselves from their bodies.
He can see where the benefits of meditation have been.
Ryan says that he is a trans man and that he may have felt too much when he was working through it. I was working with a doctor to help me be comfortable with my chest. It is not good, but it is.
“He says that by practicing meditation, a sense of acceptance can be created. That doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.”
“Acceptance of what is in the here and now can lead to a sense of ease. This results in a clearer mind to explore and affirm one’s gender.”
Brooklyn-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist Heather Zayde (she/her pronouns), who often works with LGBTQIA+ clients, agrees with Ryan.
She sees acceptance as a positive response to culture that tells her that she should marry a man because she is a woman.
She says that it could affect how she sees herself. If I feel attraction or longing when I see a woman, I judge myself as being wrong or bad.
This kind of self-judgment can lead to low self-worth, a sense of alienation, and even self-hatred.
If I can simply observe my feelings of attraction and honor them without any assumptions or preconceived messages, I will be able to exist just being my unique and authentic self.
That example can be applied broadly to a range of intersecting LGBTQIA+ identities.
“The journey to transitioning or embracing one’s true gender identity can be much less challenging if you accept your true gender identity at the beginning.”
“Trans and non-binary people can focus on affirming aspects of their experience, including the steps they want to take to express and share their identity, if they let go of resistance towards what their body is now or how they don’t fit into social expectations.”
The body and identity are viewed from a non-judgmental stance.
This is where I am. It is neither good nor bad. Ryan says his body is neither good nor bad.
This realization can be freeing for people who are not gender-expansive. It can help them let go of their self-judgment and the pressure they are put under to conform to certain expectations.
“The beauty in a mindful practice is that the more we practice the meditation, the better we become at achieving the state,” writes Ryan. “If we can achieve the state more readily, we can remove those judgmental roadblocks and experience the joy that is the trans and non-binary body.”
That is what makes practice so powerful.
“We can remove those judgmental roadblocks and experience the joy that is the trans and non-binary body.”
Zayde echoes those thoughts. She believes mindfulness can assist people in understanding themselves, especially when it comes to sexuality or gender identity.
“Being present with our emotions and feelings can help us understand what we like and don’t like, what we relate to, what we’re attracted to, and the non-judgmental aspect can help us let go of that which we feel we should.”
She says that gender identity is often figured out through trial and error.
We try to see how they feel and accept or reject them. During the trial and error process, it is possible to be present with your feelings.
This can be useful for people coming out as they explore their gender identities and sexualities.
“The non-judgment part is important. We can be aware of society’s expectations of us, but we can also focus on how we feel inside. Mindfulness helps us get in touch with our truth and through that can help us understand and identify what gender or sexual identity feels most authentic and right for us.”
She notes that mindfulness practice can be helpful just on its own or in a therapeutic framework. It’s flexible and adaptable.
“Mindfulness helps us get in touch with our own truth and…identify what gender or sexual identity feels most authentic and right for us.”
Heather Zayde is from LCSW.
“Mindfulness has several healing benefits,” says Zayde. “First, a lot of times when we are dysregulated, it’s because we are thinking about something that has happened in the past, or worrying about something that might happen in the future,” Zayde said.
Instead of getting caught up in thoughts, the door is open to what is happening in the present moment.
The present moment is when we can fully experience our lives without being stuck in the past or the future. We only have this moment, and if we are thinking about what happened before, we will lose out on the future.
If that sounds abstract, the example of going out in a storm offered by Zayde is a good one. She focuses on the present moment instead of thinking about the future.
If I can see the storm using a non-judgmental framework, I can hear the thunder, see the lightning, and take in the beauty of the surrounding area. I am more present and less focused on what might go wrong by setting aside my judgments.
Ryan says that if we stay stuck ruminating on the past, it will cause a lot of depression. It creates a lot of freedom and psychological flexibility to be completely aware of the present moment.
“We only have this moment, and if we’re in our heads thinking about what’s already happened or what can happen, we lose out on the ‘now’ that’s happening before us.”
Heather Zayde is from LCSW.
“Ryan says you don’t need a guide to practice. The concept is broad enough that you can apply it to your life and schedule.”
He starts his day with 15 minutes set aside each morning.
“I just sort of take stock of my body, of the room, of my breathing. There’s no purpose to it, it’s just rowing the boat for the sake of rowing the boat,” Ryan says.
He adds that setting aside that time in your day to breathe, decompress, and take stock of where you and your body are at can be a gentle practice. It doesn’t need to feel like a chore or an accomplishment.
He says that it is important that there is no pressure. I am not trying to be better or calmer. It is just about being present.
Want to learn more about the community? There are resources below.
- Trans Buddhists is a small collective of practitioners who work to address the exclusion of transgender and gender nonconforming people from Buddhist spaces. They’ve created Developing Trans* Competence: A Short Guide to Improving Transgender Experiences at Meditation and Retreat Centers and host regular online video chats for trans*Buddhists.
- Queer Dharma at Shambhala New York is a bi-weekly meditation and conversation for queer-identifying practitioners and allies.
- Queer Dharma at San Francisco Zen Center is a group of LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies that meets monthly for meditation and dharma talks.
- The International Transgender Buddhist Sangha is a Facebook community for practitioners, allies, and those who are exploring Buddhism.
- Trans Survivors offers a helpful resource on practicing mindfulness for trans trauma survivors.
- Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices is a book that shares the stories of over thirty contributors on their mindfulness journey as trans individuals. It’s also available on Audible.
Note: Although most of the resources above come from Buddhist groups, mindfulness is a nondenominational practice that can be incorporated into any belief system, from Christianity to atheism.
Being in the moment without resistance is what is called smativism. This can be great for people who are constantly receiving messages that they are not ok.
The LGBTQIA+ community has come a long way in gaining cultural acceptance, but it is only one step in the process.
Brian Mastroianni is a health journalist. Brian has his work published by a number of publications. Brian is an actor who studied at The Barrow Group in NYC. He writes about fashionable dogs. Yes. Really. Brian received a Master of Arts in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on social media.