Nick Kientsch has run a weekly mindfulness meditation class for gay and bisexual men for the last nine years. Here Nick explains how mindfulness can help overcome some of the challenges of our lives like an HIV diagnosis, loneliness and quitting chemsex.
Imagine this; a silent room, lit by the low glow of candles with 35 gay and bisexual men sitting in a circle, their eyes closed. Each man calmly attending to the sensations of his breath as he explores resting into a sense of peace within the busy rush of thoughts. A calm non-judgemental attention to the present moment and a joy that is not dependant on any external substance.
This scene has repeated itself every Monday for nearly ten years since the gay and bi men’s mindfulness group started in April 2009 with a group of 12 men. The group now attracts around 30 men every Monday, and has had nights where over 60 men have attended. Looking around the group you’ll see men of all ages, of different religions and no religion, and a mix of cultures and ethnicities. What brings such a diverse range of gay and bi men to the class?
Phil’s description of why he comes speaks for many of the men at the group: “I didn’t expect to find anything special other than a space for meditation. It has ended up being one of the most important things I do all week. It gives me some time to focus on myself. But more importantly I found a place full of warm friendly and compassionate gay men. I never thought that meditating with other gay men would be different to a normal meditation group, but the connection you feel in this group feels so different and I always walk away feeling a little bit better each week.”
It’s this feeling of connection that is so important for many of the men at the group. Others come to find support as they deal with difficult life experiences: a diagnosis of HIV, a break up, quitting chemsex or loneliness.
The Huffington Post article The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness identified minority stress as a key factor in causing gay men distress. Minority stress occurs for us in childhood when we have to deal with isolation, discrimination, bullying or violence whilst not knowing there are others like us. It’s the feeling of being alone in an alien world, especially when the families we grew up in often did not reflect back who we were. As youngsters we were alone as we tried to work out who we were, often feeling confused, conflicted or even self-loathing. Add to this the issues discussed in the books Straight Jacket and The Velvet Rage, principally the impact of shame – the feeling as a child and teen that an essential part of oneself, our sexuality, is somehow wrong or dirty, leading to the belief that we are wrong.
This feeling of isolation, not belonging and that on some level we are wrong, can cause low self-worth and impact on mental health, leading to a tendency to try to escape the discomfort through coping strategies such as addiction, looking for validation through sex, and for some using chemsex as a way to feel at ease and overcome shame. It does not mean in any way that being gay is wrong, only that living in a hostile culture has an impact on our wellbeing, as it does for any minority.
How does mindfulness help? My own experience is that from learning to meditate 28 years ago as a shy, anxious and self-critical young man it offers a way to build a new way of being. Mindfulness is not about stopping thoughts. It is more about learning to be present to what is there and make a choice about how to respond. As Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning, says “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.”
As we meditate we see how our attention gets pulled away into thoughts that may not serve our wellbeing: worry, self-blame or any other unhelpful thought patterns. Rather than fighting these or trying to escape the thoughts, we learn to stay present, with our attention gently focused on the breath. Like Ulysses tying himself to the mast to hear the siren’s song without going mad, focusing our attention on the breath during meditation allows us to attend to the chaos without being consumed by it, and we find a freedom from struggle in this clear knowing of our experience.
The session starts with connecting to our bodies through mindful movement and then noting sensations in our body before going into a guided mindfulness practice. Being fully present in our body is essential to finding this freedom from our mental struggle. Every difficult thought and emotion will have a sensation in the body if you investigate it. Breathing into this place and creating space for it will be the most powerful way to allow it to be heard and to heal. This builds resilience: a knowledge that we have the strength to be present with whatever life throws at us. The evening continues with time to socialise in the tea break or sit quietly listening to a talk and then we finish with the Loving Kindness practice, where the focus is on patience and affirming kindness towards ourselves and a good friend. Looking for a change? You’re welcome to drop in and see how it works for you.