Illustrations by Leo Mateus.
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For May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ve compiled a guide on making mindfulness more accessible to transgender people.
Transgender people may find meditation difficult for many reasons. Many of us don’t feel safe in the environments we live in because our gender identity or gender expression isn’t accepted by those around us. Many of us find gender dysphoria too emotionally difficult to bear. Many of us also have overlapping marginalized identities in which we experience systemic oppressions based on race, socioeconomic class, ability, size, etc. Likewise, life in the present world may make us not feel safe in our own inner world. When the outer world becomes too overwhelming, the human mind often shuts off from what’s going on internally and emotionally.
With that, we acknowledge that a meditation practice isn’t achievable nor desirable to everyone and that’s okay. However, if you’re transgender or nonbinary and interested in meditation, read on.
How trauma impacts transgender meditation
Many LGBTQ+ people (especially the transgender community) carry with them the weight of complex trauma, or “multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure,” as described by the National Child Stress Traumatic Network. On top of interpersonal violence and other types of traumatic events that have occurred in our lives like sexual violence and/or eating disorders, we also experience `historical and current collective trauma within our community, such as around the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the ongoing wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeping the nation. This collective trauma also overlaps with other kinds of trauma from other marginalized, especially for queer and trans people of color, who face increased surveillance, policing, and incarceration from law enforcement and beyond.
If you have trouble meditating and sitting still, you’re not alone. Any of the aforementioned reasons would be enough to send the nervous system into overload. Meditation and yoga expert Jay Moton explains that sitting in his body used to be incredibly challenging.
“It was a big challenge for me to understand and be very aware of my thoughts because that too causes anxieties and the tension to come up,” he explained. “I was always in a state of fear, always in a state of maybe shame, guilt, all of those ‘negatives’ that come from being uncomfortable in the world. It felt very overwhelming in the beginning.”
Considering the trauma we’ve endured both individually and collectively, many of us may have difficulty regulating our emotions in our daily lives. Likewise, when our brains don’t allow us to sit still, this stimulation protects against what could harm us: our feelings. The weight of extreme emotions—grief, disappointment, fear, guilt, shame, resentment, pain, etc.—may be too overwhelming for us to face in the present moment, thus making meditation inaccessible.
However, when we are mindful of our emotional limitations, we might still be able to practice meditation or some kind of mindfulness successfully, such as in small bursts or on occasion. Little by little, we have the potential to expand our window of tolerance, which also helps us strengthen our ability to emotionally regulate ourselves.
Finding our windows of tolerance
Intentionally or not, one goal of healing can be to stay within our window of tolerance, or the sweet spot where we’re able to exist emotionally without being triggered or feeling endangered in any way. In his book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, psychotherapist David A. Treleavan describes the window of tolerance:
When people are in their window [of tolerance], they’re more likely to feel stable, present, and regulated. When they’re outside of this zone, they’re more likely to feel triggered, out of control, and disregulated. Unless survivors can stay in their window during mindfulness practice, they can simply end up recreating traumatic stress.
Sometimes, queer and trans people’s window of tolerance can be very small due to trauma. Widening our window of tolerance can promote our mental health and emotional wellbeing. When we consider our window of tolerance when developing a mindfulness practice, we practice trauma-informed mindfulness. When trauma-informed, we are more likely to live more in the present rather than the past.
Similar to meditation, mindfulness is not being okay with systemic oppression and violence. It’s not being idle in the face of injustice. Instead, mindfulness can equip us with the tool of being emotionally present in the face of injustice, rather than the alternative: re-living in the past and being traumatized.
Moton explains that when he practices mindfulness, he feels less triggered in interactions with other people, including those close to him as well as strangers. He elaborates:
I know that as soon as I find alignment in myself, it shifts people around me. We’re sending the message just by being who we are, but as the best versions of ourselves. Meditation and mindfulness are very active because you are shifting the paradigms within yourself and going out shining that bright light that you are.
Consider mindful movement
When we think of mindfulness, many of us think of meditating while sitting on the ground in a silent room for a long amount of time. Maybe there’s music on or incense burning. Perhaps you’re in your bedroom or another safe space in your home. However, meditation doesn’t have to look like this if it doesn’t work for you.
Meditation can incorporate mindful movement where you’re not sitting still. Mindful movement is exactly what it sounds like: moving mindfully. When we move mindfully, we're aware of our bodies and breath as we move throughout the world. This can look like going for a walk, practicing yoga, or deep stretching.
Mindful movement can also look like your favorite hobby—cooking, gardening, painting, drawing, ceramics, etc. As long as you are moving some type of body part, even if it’s only your hands and fingers, you can incorporate movement into an engaging activity mindfully. We encourage it to make it your own. Play around and get creative.
Try out journaling
Another way to embody mindfulness is to write down our thoughts and feelings. Although this is often seen as a sedentary activity, it still involves the movement of your hands and fingers while actively engaging with our internal worlds. While all you need is a writing utensil and paper, my personal practice often involves lighting a candle and practicing deep breaths. Here are some different approaches to consider.
- Gratitude lists: Integrate gratitude into your mindfulness practice. Write down three to five things you’re grateful for every day. It can be as simple as taking a hot shower or spending time in the warm weather.
- Free writing: Write whatever comes to mind. Document your day, describe what happened, and mention the people who you spoke to.
- Prompts: If nothing comes to mind, it might be helpful to follow a prompt. Describe what a perfect day looks like to you. Write a list of your favorite memories with someone close to you. Manifest what your dream home or vacation would look like and incorporate visualization. If you could have the perfect day off, what would it look like? If you could customize your wardrobe to match your gender, what would it look like?
Tips for beginners
Start small: Moton recommends that beginners start small. “Even if you can sit and do a breathing technique for literally 30 seconds, the small things really do add up,” he adds. “If you can somehow discipline yourself to do a very short breathing meditation, even for a minute or two, and add on, that’s really helpful. It can be short increments or even moving your body.”
Schedule it in: Designate a time and place to practice your mindfulness practice/mindful movement activity. Put it in your calendar and be intentional. Do you want to be by yourself? Do you want to get outside or stay indoors? Set yourself up for success by planning ahead.
Make it fun and/or relaxing: Making your mindfulness practice fun and relaxing can help you stay motivated. Make it an activity you’re eager and excited to do. Maybe you want to light a candle or incense. Maybe you want to curate a specific playlist you only listen to during your mindfulness activity. Get creative and make it your own!
Take a break: If you find yourself feeling activated, overstimulated, and/or triggered in any way, you may have stepped outside of your window of tolerance or emotional threshold. Walk away from the activity and divert your attention to another task. If you haven’t eaten or drank water in a while, this could be a great opportunity to nourish your body and recenter yourself. If you can’t emotionally return to the practice or activity that day, practice self-compassion and utilize self-care.
Don’t force it: Mental health healing is a marathon, not a race. It requires so much rest. If you’re not feeling up for any kind of meditation or mindfulness, it might not be the appropriate time. Never force yourself into meditation or mindfulness, especially if you are prone to being emotionally triggered. After all, we want mindfulness to be a rewarding and fulfilling activity, not a punishment.
Guided meditations might not be for everyone, but if you’re interested in pursuing them, there are transgender meditation facilitators and practitioners out there offering their expertise when it comes to a mindfulness practice.
- Trans Embodiment - Coming Home To Ourselves by Ray Lewey
- Clearing Your Body Dysphoria Meditation for Transgender Women by Ashley Adamson
- A Guided Meditation on the Pride Flag with Dr. Stacee Reicherzer
- A Transgender Day of Visibility Guided Meditation with Point of Pride and Aydian Dowling
- Gender Dysphoria Guided Meditation/Full Body Awareness by Ashton Colby
In addition to guided meditations, here are some additional resources:
- Healing Resources for Black Queer and Trans Communities
- Can Meditation Help Heal Queer Communities of Color?
- Expanding The Lens: The Importance of Meditation for Historically Excluded Groups - YouTube Video from Headspace
- Mindful Transitions: For the Transgender/NB/GNC Community Meditation Affinity Group
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