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 whose pronouns are he/him. He holds an MA in sport and performance psychology and is a current PsyD doctoral candidate at the University of Denver.
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.
“As people whose bodies don’t always conform to societal norms, we receive messages which tell us we are misaligned,” he writes.
Ryan notes this can often result in internalizing those messages in destructive ways.
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.
Read on to learn why mindfulness might be especially useful for members of the greater LGBTQIA+ community right now.
Mindfulness has 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.
Kabat-Zinn merged Buddhist teachings with his own studies of Hatha yoga, and his MBSR approach has been applied to everything from improved cognitive function to reducing anxiety and depression and managing chronic pain.
Meeting a major need
The need for mental health support for LGBTQIA+ people is great.
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
While there’s limited research on mindfulness specifically for the LGBTQIA+ community, some initial studies are positive.
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.
Out of 27 participants, 96.9 percent self-reported that a single meditation session was useful for them, 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.
Participants responded well to the mindfulness practices, reporting that they’d like to continue the use of mindfulness to address stressors and foster self-compassion.
Mindfulness practice offers a number of benefits for practitioners, many of which have unique advantages for individuals exploring their gender and identity. One of the most essential is letting go of self-judgment.
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.
Many trans and nonbinary people “spend a lot of time trying to distance ourselves from our bodies and from our bodily experiences,” says Ryan.
He can pinpoint where mindfulness has been beneficial in his own life.
“I am a trans man, and so working through coming into contact with my chest may have felt too much at some points,” Ryan says. “I was working with a practitioner to help me just be in a non-judgmental space about my chest. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.”
Mindfulness can help lead to a greater sense of acceptance that “the body that we have is the body that we have,” he adds. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.
Still, acceptance of what is in the here and now can lead to a greater sense of ease in the present moment. This results in a clearer mind to take the next steps into exploring and affirming 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 the constant messages from culture on how things should be: for instance, that she should be attracted to and marry a man because she is a woman.
That “could influence how I see myself and my emotions,” she says. “Perhaps then if I feel attraction or longing when I see a woman, I judge myself as being ‘wrong or bad.’”
“If I’m able to simply observe my feelings [of attraction] and honor them without any assumptions or preconceived messages, I’m more able to exist just being my unique and authentic self,” Zayde says.
That example can be applied broadly to a range of intersecting LGBTQIA+ identities.
This initial acceptance can, paradoxically, make the journey to transitioning or embracing one’s true gender identity much less challenging.
Letting go of resistance towards what their body is now or how they don’t fit into social expectations means trans and non-binary people can focus on the affirming aspects of their experience, including the steps they want to take to express and share their identity.
Part of this process is viewing the body and identity from a non-judgmental stance.
“This is where I am. It’s neither good nor bad: it just is. My body is neither good nor bad: it just is,” Ryan says.
This realization can be uniquely freeing for trans, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people. It can help them let go of any sense of self-judgment and the immense pressure imposed by society 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’s what makes mindfulness 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 fully and non-judgmentally 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 be,” says Zayde.
She notes that gender identity is often figured out through trial and error.
“We try different things to see how they feel and accept or reject them accordingly,” Zayde says. Mindfulness can “allow us to be present with our feelings during the trial and error process.”
This can be useful in people’s coming out journeys as they further understand and explore their gender identities and sexualities.
“The non-judgment part here is integral. We can be aware of society’s expectations of us and yet choose instead to focus on how we feel inside,” Zayde says. “Mindfulness helps us get in touch with our own 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, 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, mindfulness opens the door to what’s actually going on in the present moment.
“Anchoring ourselves to the present moment allows us to fully experience our lives without being mired down by the past or the future,” says Zayde. “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.”
If that sounds a bit abstract, Zayde offers the example of going out in a thunderstorm. Instead of deciding that she’ll get soaked and ruin her evening, she simply focuses on the reality of the present moment.
“If I can see this thunderstorm using a non-judgmental framework, I can observe the sounds and feeling of the rain on my skin, hear the sounds of the thunder, see the lightning cracking, and take in the beauty of what’s around me,” Zayde says. “By setting aside my judgments, I’m more present and less stuck in my head analyzing what might go wrong.”
“From a therapeutic perspective, if we stay stuck ruminating on the past that’s where a lot of our depression lives, and if we find ourselves stuck thinking about the future, then that’s where a lot of anxiety lives,” says Ryan. “To come to the middle and be wholly and entirely aware of the present moment, it creates a lot of freedom and psychological flexibility.”
“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, LCSW
Ryan says you don’t need an authoritative guide to walk you through a practice. The concept is broad enough that you can apply it to your own life and schedule however it works for you.
He chooses to set aside 15 minutes each morning before he starts his day.
“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.
“It’s important for me that there is no striving,” he says. “I’m not striving to be better or calmer. It’s just about being present.”
Want to learn more about mindfulness as it relates to the LGBTQIA+ community? Check out the 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.
Mindfulness is fundamentally about being in the moment without resistance. This can be especially freeing for those who are constantly receiving messages that they aren’t OK as they are.
The LGBTQIA+ community has come a long way in gaining cultural acceptance, but mindfulness takes it one step further: it cultivates acceptance from within.
Brian Mastroianni is a New York–based science and health journalist. Brian’s work has been published by The Atlantic, The Paris Review, CBS News, The TODAY Show, and Engadget, among others. When not following the news, Brian is an actor who’s studied at The Barrow Group in NYC. He sometimes blogs about fashionable dogs. Yes. Really. Brian graduated from Brown University and has a Master of Arts from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Check out his website https://brianmastroianni.com/ or follow him on Twitter.