Mindfulness meditation is a common technique used for healing from trauma. But a lot of these practices, at least in the traditional sense, can present challenges for trans and nonbinary survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, or hate-fueled incidents. When we find these practices difficult, uncomfortable, or even triggering, it can feel like we’ve failed.
In a blog post from The Breathe Network, Molly Boeder Harris shared an experience of struggling with mindfulness practices at a retreat:
“Maybe, I am just “bad” at healing? I mean, how much help does one person really need? I had been afforded so many incredible mind-body-spirit oriented opportunities to work through my rape, and I was still not actually through it. Shame came creeping back into my consciousness.”
When we are taught that there’s a “right” way to heal, a “right” way to meditate, a “right” way to practice mindfulness, what does it mean when those “right” ways don’t work for us? It suggests we’re healing the “wrong” way, or that we’re failing at these practices that are supposed to be so healing.
There are many reasons that meditation and mindfulness may be difficult for survivors of trauma, and particularly trans and nonbinary survivors. Feeling comfortable, safe, and at home in our bodies enough to close our eyes and focus intently on our sensations and perceptions, is not always attainable. Guided meditations, yoga classes, and mindfulness retreats that are not trauma-informed may lack an awareness of this, putting trans survivors in positions of having to choose not to engage, or following our own internal sense of what feels right and what doesn’t.
While this sense of discomfort or being triggered by practices that others may find helpful can feel like a personal failure, this is far from the truth. There are many ways to heal that do not involve mindfulness or meditation. There are also forms of mindfulness that break from the conventional deep breathing and sitting quietly, which may feel more comfortable and more possible.
A friend of mine invited me to do a guided meditation with him over the phone. In our two separate spaces, I sat on my bed and joined a spotify party so we could listen to the meditation at the same time.
It followed a familiar pattern, inviting me to get comfortable, close my eyes, and pay attention to my breath. As I did this, I noticed a tightness in my chest, and anxiety arising as I focused on the physical sensations in my body. I decided part way through the meditation to open my eyes instead of keeping them closed, and take the moment to sit quietly rather than following the instructions to clear my mind and focus on my breath.
For me, part of this difficulty comes from discomfort in my body from chronic pain that I can “tune out” at other times. Sometimes sitting with it and focusing on it makes it even more difficult to relax. At the same time, focusing on the sensations in my body brings up a lot of anxiety and spiraling “thought loops” that steer my attention away from the present moment when I want to be focused on it.
After this experience, I found myself feeling frustrated that I hadn’t gotten something helpful out of the meditation, and that it had brought up even more stress for me. When my friend and I finished the meditation, he texted me, “I didn’t enjoy that one very much.” Receiving this message was a huge relief. Even though he hadn’t explained why it didn’t work for him, I was able to recognize how much pressure I had been putting on myself, and that my expectation to find every meditation productive and healing was unrealistic. I appreciated his honesty and willingness to say “that didn’t work for me.” It reminded me that I always have permission to reflect on how an experience didn’t work for me, just as much as I do to consider how it did.
There are many reasons that a trans survivor may struggle with somatic practices or meditation that focus on the body and/or the breath. Some of these may be related to trauma triggers rooted in the body, others to experiences of discomfort and dysphoria in our bodies—about our gender(s) or other things—or as the result of chronic illness, pain, or disability, some to the struggle to quiet or minds while pervasive thought patterns try to interrupt us, and often an interconnection of all of these and more.
“Meditation and trauma are a delicate coupling since a trauma survivor can find themselves overwhelmed, isolated and even immobilized by the physical, emotional and spiritual volume of their pain. At times, it is anything but quiet inside and the external silence can feel like a cruel magnifying lens on internal noise and suffering. Even the expectation to close the eyes and trust the safety of your surrounding environment can be unbearable for someone who’s nervous system is wired for unconscious, ongoing, threat detection after sexual abuse.”
For myself, the seemingly-innocuous instructions to “notice the sensations in my body and focus of my breath” are frequently challenging. These instructions assume a sense of safety or ease within our bodies, which is not always the case. At other times though, meditation can be helpful and relaxing. In recent years, I’ve had to pay more attention to how I feel when trying something new, or even a practice I’ve used many times in the past, like meditation, and give myself permission to change gears if something isn’t working.
Making the choice to participate or not to participate is empowering.
“As challenging as it might be, learning to trust your own path and intuition is central to your resilience. This requires letting go of expectations or comparison to anyone else, most particularly yourself – accept yourself as you are right now and begin the practice from that place of presence and non-judgement.
When meditation that involves closing our eyes, clearing our mind, and noticing our breath isn’t working, what other options are there? There are so many different ways to approach healing, and even mindfulness, that don’t involve meditation in the traditional sense. We’re often aware of options like therapy and social support, but there are other strategies that may be helpful we haven’t even heard of yet.
Alternatives to mindfulness meditation
While meditation is one common form of mindfulness, there are many other ways to practice mindfulness in our daily lives. Mindful attention can be applied to almost any activity engaged in with a conscious awareness in the present moment, or practiced with an intention in mind. Here are some examples of non-meditation activities that can be practiced mindfully.
In a teleseminar with the Breathe Network, Dr. Jamie Marich discussed supporting trauma survivors in their healing through mindful dance. Importantly, Dr. Marich noted that mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean sitting still, and that any human activity can be engaged in mindfully.
Dr. Marich leads Dancing Mindfulness classes focused on helping people “connect to a higher awareness” and let go of perfectionistic mindsets that tell us that there is a right or wrong way of doing things. She says all that is required is the intention to connect, and going in with curiosity.
While the idea of dancing in a room with other people during a class may feel exciting for some people, it can feel equally daunting. Classes may be a great option for folks who prefer a more guided approach, but anyone can practice dancing mindfully. It might be as simple as dancing along to your favorite song in the privacy of your bedroom, moving in whatever ways your body wants to, or using a guided facilitation like this video on dancing mindfully with the elements from Dr. Jamie Marich.
Walking meditation is another form of mindfulness that involves movement, and may be helpful for anyone who doesn’t feel relaxed or tuned-in while sitting still.
While walking or rolling during our daily lives, our minds may be elsewhere–planning what to eat for dinner, stressing about plans for the future, reflecting on conversations or relationships. This means we may be less aware of our surroundings and the act of walking.
Walking meditation is the simple task of focusing on the present moment and our movement through space. This might involve noticing the rhythm of your walking pace, paying attention to the things you can sense around you (for example: sounds, smells, sights, temperature). You might also notice the sensations in your body as you move.
I have found walking meditation to be an important way to check in with myself and re-orient to the present when I’m otherwise caught up in the business of work or stressors in my life. Instead of focusing on my breath, which can sometimes cause an anxiety response, I’m able to focus on the rhythm of my movement and the sensations of my feet on the ground.
You can practice walking meditation anywhere, but choosing a location with access to nature can include the added benefits of another mindfulness practice called forest bathing.
Originating in Japan and China, forest bathing does not require strenuous exercise, or meditating in a traditional sense. Instead, you are invited to tune into the present moment and the nature around you.
Research shows that the practice of spending time in nature has physical and psychological health benefits, for example: decreasing blood pressure, reducing psychological distress, boosting the immune system, and reducing stress hormone production. This can be especially helpful for survivors with post-traumatic stress.
Creative practice/flow state
Being in a flow state is described as: “that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.” (Headspace)
A flow state involves becoming completely immersed in a creative practice. When our attention is fully focused on one task, this can help to reduce mental chatter and feel more present. Because getting into a flow state means focusing entirely on the task at hand, in the present moment, “in essence, flow state is a very active, moving meditation.” (Headspace)
While in a flow state, people often experience a sense of clarity, a reduction in stress and anxiety, and a release of positive emotions.
To get into this space, it’s best to work on a task that you enjoy the process of, not just the end product. This might be a creative practice, like drawing, collaging, knitting, writing, or playing an instrument. This could also be engaging in another hobby or activity you enjoy, like physical exercise/movement, playing a game, or cooking a meal. Avoiding multitasking and finding a calm, quiet environment can help to reduce distractions.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness that do not involve sitting still, meditating, or deep breathing. While these practices can absolutely be helpful and healing for some people, for others (or just at other points in time), meditation can be uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, or reminders of past traumas. If you’ve found that these “traditional” forms of mindfulness don’t work well for you, you might consider trying alternative approaches that are more focused on movement, observing your surroundings, or focusing on a task or creative project.
Mindfulness is also just one approach to healing, and not the only possibility. For more on different strategies for healing, check out this video. There is no right or wrong way to heal, and there are many options to explore beyond meditation or deep breathing.