What Does Mindfulness Have to do with Pride Month?

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Pride Month is a funny thing. Of course, its main focus is on sexual and gender minorities; folks who don’t fit into the majority’s boxes of male, female, heterosexual, or cisgender. This week, after all, is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, a crucial turning point in the contemporary LGBTQ rights movement.

But in recent years, Pride has become a holiday for everyone.

Who does fit into all the majority’s boxes, anyway? Everyone is a mis-fit in some way. We might have bodies that don’t conform to society’s impossible standards, or we might hold quirky tastes or interests, or we might come from backgrounds (national, racial, religious, economic) that other people stigmatize.

For that matter, before meditation became mainstream a few years ago, just practicing mindfulness made you a weirdo.

The fact is, all of us – even privileged white cis guys like me – have experienced “closets” of one kind or another. Some closets are helpful – in professional or communal contexts, some things really are better left T.M.I. But many are stifling, constraining, soul-killing.

“Pride is, above all, a time celebrating coming out of those closets, whichever ones you find yourself in. It’s a celebration of life itself, of the joy that comes from freedom, openness, and integrity.”

Not surprisingly, I find all of this closely connected to my meditation practice and to the overall project of leading a life of authentic happiness, integrity, and the pursuit of greater justice for others. Here are three examples.

1. Mindfulness is like coming out

I didn’t start meditating until right after I came out – which, in my case, was relatively late, around age thirty. This can’t be a coincidence. I wonder what it would even have been like to meditate while still lying to everyone I knew – most of all, people closest to me – about something so important to my self-conception, so essential to who I am in the world. Could I have possibly “sat with” all of that shame, tension, and deceit? I don’t know. I doubt it.

Yet that denial played an essential role in my being able to function. Being gay, when I was growing up, was about the worst thing a boy could be. I knew the word “faggot” before I even knew what it meant, and I definitely knew I didn’t want to be one. 

So, for roughly ten years of my adult life, I denied, denied, denied. I wasn’t just lying to my friends; I was lying to myself. I wonder if I could have made it through a single meditation session.

And it’s not just me; when, in my thirties, I worked as an LGBT activist, I would so often counsel people who said they were just fine, who were unaware of how much pain they were actually in, who couldn’t perceive the heavy burden they were carrying around with themselves every day. 

This denial, conscious or unconscious, is the exact opposite of the practice of mindfulness, which is about seeing clearly and non-judgmentally whatever is going on. By definition, if you’re denying, you’re not accepting. Often, you’re not even seeing. 

In a sense, then, every moment of mindfulness is a moment of coming out. It’s a small “yes” to whatever your reality is, whether it’s mundane or terrifying. It’s acknowledging what’s true for you, and doing your best to coexist with it.

 2. You bring your whole self to meditation

This aspect of mindfulness – its insistence on truth – is also a helpful corrective to the misconception that meditation is just about ‘Zenning Out’ and becoming a kind of blank slate with no thoughts or identity whatsoever.

In fact, we bring our whole selves to meditation. White people and people of color bring our different experiences of race and privilege. Women and men and the rest of us bring our different experiences of gender, sexism, safety, and (again) privilege. Queer people and straight people; conservatives and liberals; people with all kinds of abilities and bodies -- all of our social locations and identities are brought to meditation, because we bring whatever is true in our moment-to-moment experience to meditation.

That doesn’t mean that meditation means sitting around and thinking about all of this stuff. That is definitely not the point. It just means that whatever experiences arise in meditation – thoughts, feelings, perceptions, emotions – are conditioned by these different parts of ourselves, naturally and effortlessly. I don’t have to think “how would a man experience this breath?” I just experience it, and that experience is shaped, in part, by being a man.

And then there are those moments in meditation where all of these experiences and identities melt away, and we’re left with the raw experience of “just this,” as some spiritual teachers say. Those moments are profound: simple, quiet, gentle, still. 

It’s a dance, then, between living in our different experiences and, briefly anyway, shedding them; between what we all have in common and what we don’t have in common. The invitation is to bring our whole selves to meditation, and perhaps see them more clearly than we did before. Then we might leave those labels and identities behind. And then we dance back into ourselves, and the cycle begins again.

 

3. How to really “get it”

Finally, one of the most powerful aspects of meditation is its capacity to stimulate empathy.

To take a personal example, when I grew up, “transgender” was not a word. I didn’t have any notion that people’s felt gender could be different from their biological sex. Certainly I had no idea what that would feel like subjectively. So of course I was transphobic. We all were. 

But as time went on, and I became friends with trans people, read books, and watched films, I started to “get it.” 

I remember one time, I was contemplating what it would really be like if my sense of maleness (which, in my case, is pretty certain of itself) was at odds with my physical body. I delved into this one time while meditating, trying to imagine that sense of dysphoria and discomfort. What might that be like? Could I really feel it, inhabit it, in a clear and quieted mind? 

I tried to really “get it,” to listen to trans experiences and learn from them, using meditation as a tool.

And then, both with my friends and through popular culture, I tried to really “get” what transgender and gender-non-conforming thriving looked like: how much life, love, joy, and strength was unearthed when people could “simply” be themselves, in whatever way that plays out for them. I experienced what Buddhists call “sympathetic joy” by watching my trans friends come into themselves, or by watching trans celebrities like Janet Mock or Laverne Cox. (Of course, there’s no single trans experience, or gay experience, or bisexual experience. These are just examples.)

Developing that empathy has real consequences for justice – especially for trans people, whose rights and basic safety are seriously endangered today. This isn’t about party or politics. It’s about understanding and empathy, as opposed to ignorance and fear. 

If we really “get it,” that is, get the reality of trans experiences as trans people describe them themselves, not only does the heart open, but the mind understands the injustice of denying trans people their safety, equality, and dignity. 

When we wake up our emotional capacities, we enable ourselves to care more, understand more, and act more justly toward those who are often stigmatized. 

These are three of the ways that mindfulness has enlivened my experience of Pride: by learning the art of acceptance, by seeing how our diverse backgrounds inform all our experiences, and by cultivating empathy and understanding, to whatever extent that’s possible.

It doesn’t matter where you find yourself on the spectrums of sexuality or gender. Pride is for you, and so is a more mindful, awakened life. 

Happy Pride!

Dr. Jay Michaelson is the editor of wisdom content for Ten Percent Happier and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including the forthcoming "Enlightenment by Trial and Error," which will be published in October, 2019.

Jay Michaelson