Mindfulness for LGBT People
By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.
Research has brought to our attention the impact of early life experiences on the development of the brain. What occurred in the past can condition our brain to have certain expectations about the future. This can raise concern for many gay people with a history of homophobic mistreatment such as being called derogatory names, being bullied, and becoming subject to physical violence. Gay here refers to our entire LGBT community.
Gay youngsters often spend many years of their childhood in a state of hyper-vigilance in order to be ready for possible homophobic attacks. Spending many years of not knowing what is around the corner can condition the brain to be in a constant state of over reactivity and might cause severe anxiety. It can also condition many gay people to relate to the future with a sense of threat instead of optimism.
As gay people, we need to have empathy toward our painful experiences and work on healing from our past homophobic mistreatment. In addition to psychotherapy, mindfulness practices can help us stop living life based on our past conditioning. For LGBT people who grew up mistreated and had to rely on hyper-vigilance as a survival skill, mindfulness can help them be in the moment without getting lost in catastrophic thinking. This also applies to anyone who is a survivor of any kind of past traumas and needs to shift to a more balanced state of the mind.
Regardless of our past experiences, mindfulness is useful for anyone who desires to be fully engaged with the present moment. In this brief article, I attempt to explore mindfulness and its benefits. My understanding of mindfulness is based on my training at the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (http://marc.ucla.edu/), studying literature, and many years of my own mindfulness practices.
In the 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh brought mindfulness to the attention of Westerners. Later in 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill. A variety of mindfulness practices exist today and much of it was inspired by teachings from the East.
For the most part, mindfulness involves bringing our complete attention to our present experience on a moment-to-moment basis with acceptance and compassion. In particular, we can observe our physical, emotional, and mental experiences with kindness. We pay attention to whatever is happening in the moment, and we can use our sensory awareness to stay fully present. For example, when we wash the dishes, we can see and feel the soapy water on our hands. Also, paying attention to the sensation of water on our body during a shower, and noticing the taste of our food when we eat are examples of being mindfully present.
When we practice mindfulness, we don’t get lost in either the memories of the past or the fantasies of the future. Attending to the sensations of the moment helps us not feel overwhelmed or get lost in catastrophic thinking. We can cope with overwhelming emotions by focusing on external sensations such as hearing the sound of our shoes making contact to the ground while we walk. This way, we ground ourselves in the reality of the moment which improves our capacity to tolerate difficult emotions.
Often our minds can wander away during the practice of paying attention to the present moment. We don’t need to judge ourselves when that happens. Instead, we can gently bring our awareness back to whatever we were focusing. We can also choose something new to notice in the present moment, such as a particular sound or sensation in the body. With practice, this non-judgmental awareness of the present moment can be a peaceful way of living.
Paying attention to our breathing is one more way to be with the present moment. Awareness of breathing is the most accessible path to the present moment. Over time, this practice can help us improve our ability to be in the moment. Each breath combined with acceptance of our moment-to-moment experience can allow us to experience serenity.
Mindfulness can help us regulate our attention and observe our mental activities with consciousness. We bring conscious awareness to our current thinking, feelings, and sensory experiences. For example, we can label our thoughts as we mindfully notice things like “planning” or “remembering.” We can also label whatever emotions we are experiencing in the moment by labeling them as “feeling anxious” or “feeling calm.” In addition, witnessing our bodily sensations such as numbness, pain or tingling with an attitude of curiosity instead of judgment can deepen our connection to our body.
Showing curiosity toward our surroundings is another path toward the present moment and can help us notice and engage with life in a new way. The greater awareness that we bring to our current life, the more we can be part of life.
Finally, the practice of mindfulness can be enriching for anyone, including LGBT people, in order to live a more present-centered life. This state of active, open attention to our present moment can help us awaken to our life experiences instead of letting life pass us by. Mindfulness can help us avoid living a life based on multi-tasking and maintain our connection with the present moment. To learn more about mindfulness, you can read Fully Present, The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness by Susan L. Smalley Ph.D. and Diana Winston.
© Payam Ghassemlou MFT Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist) in private practice in West Hollywood, California. www.DrPayam.Com