11/04/2013 04:45 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Arts of Living and Dying: Spiritualities for Transgender Day of Remembrance

The International Transgender Day of Remembrance is an annual candlelight vigil celebrated toward the end of November to commemorate those who have been killed for gender nonconformity, not only to mourn those lost in our community but to raise wider awareness of the prevalence of such hate crimes and counter that loss with a celebration of the lives cut short by transphobic prejudice. This year, many communities will be celebrating this vigil on Nov. 20. In preparation, those who celebrate and survive may draw from ancient traditions of world cultures that meditate on death as a way that the living can not only mourn but embrace a deeper gratitude for life itself -- both the lives of those lost and our own.

For example, medieval Western Christians developed popular devotional art, dance, and literature that expressed their reflections on varied feelings about death in order to face it fully, with spiritual integrity. In the late medieval era, Western Europe was beset by so many famines, plagues, wars, and religious persecutions that in some places, anywhere between half and a quarter of the population was dying. In response, Christian mystics and scholars began to focus on how hope for God's fulfillment of divine promises about a coming peaceful and egalitarian loving community (the Kingdom or Reign of God) could strengthen people's courage and commitment to life in spite of life's obvious impermanence in the all-too-constant threat of imminent death. One strain of this spiritual tradition focused on the "art of dying," encouraging an honest and courageous acceptance of death, making peace with this reality rather than dying in fear or denial, or with a false hope of somehow cheating it. The other spiritual dynamic encouraged "the art of living," facing death with equal honesty, courage and acceptance, not just in order to die well but, even more importantly, to transform the experience of continued living. For transgender people today, remembering our vulnerable position as members of the community most targeted for violent, murderous hate crimes in the U.S. can likewise lead us to an artful spirituality of living and dying, so that the Day of Remembrance is an occasion not only to rightly grieve and mourn our slain trans* sisters and brothers but to remind those of us who survive to celebrate and value our own continued survival on a day-to-day basis rather than surrendering to the fear and despair that this focus on transphobic violence could kindle in us.

The ancient spiritual dynamic described above helps the living by encouraging us to recognize and accept the impermanence of the things of this world as a way to break free from excessive focus on the kinds of goals that will always be external to us, those things in the world that we can't actually control. Tibetan tantric meditation on the gradual decay and annihilation of the body after death symbolically trained the one meditating to accept the dying process itself as inevitable and natural, thus liberating the mind from both ignorant denial and fear of death. This way of remembering death encourages a deep acceptance of physical mortality -- not as a way of brooding in depression but as a way of realizing that the existence of the true self is not completely limited by the weakness and decay of the body in death and dying. Being trans* may actually (in some ways) deepen our spiritual insight that the fullness of a human life transcends the physical limitations of bodily life, for example as a wider application of the experience, shared by man of us, of not being defined strictly by certain physical gender characteristics. For trans* people and our allies, this tantric spiritual acceptance of death as an always imminent possibility and eventual certainty can help us let go of futile anxiety over preserving our own individual life at all costs, which may not be possible. Instead, like tantric Tibetan Buddhists, we can come to value the present so much more deeply that we grow in greater mindfulness of living at peace with ourselves and others. This tantric spiritual tradition teaches us that by facing death's presence squarely in the here and now instead of living in fear of it, even by remembering its brutality together, we can bring light and love into the world rather than further perpetuating the hate and harm that so tragically cut short the lives of members of our community. In its tantric and Christian forms, this "art of dying / art of living" spirituality reminds us that we can widen our spiritual openness by accepting the ways in which we transcend the limits of the body (even the limit that death itself seems to place on us).

Earlier Central American cultures also practiced an art of living / art of dying spirituality by encouraging spiritual and even physical self-sacrifice as a way of opening oneself to the divine. In these traditions, physical death is neither feared nor denied but affirmed as a universal and necessary part of the cycle and web of all interconnected life. Our remembrance and celebration of death and dying then become a way for human beings to sacrifice a bit of our personal time and energy, a bit of our autonomy and individuality, to participate communally, actively, intentionally, and voluntarily in "the art of dying," which, in any case, will always be inevitable at some point.

All these historic global spiritual traditions value the human body as constituted from the elements of the web of life or creation, to which it returns, and with which it reunites in death. By encouraging us to remember that death is not only an individual ending but a part of a larger cycle that connects to the wider web of creation, these art of living / art of dying spiritualities can give us strength on the Transgender Day of Remembrance not only to mourn our sisters and brothers well but to celebrate continued life, connected to their memories and to each other.