Mindfulness as medicine
When we are ill, the focus of our thoughts can vary with each moment.
We think about the past, rummaging to find a cause or something or someone to blame
for our condition, we get into yearning, loss and regret – if only we hadn't done x,y,z we
wouldn’t have lost good health. This ruminating keeps us stuck in ill health.
Or we come into the present, attracted by our pain and discomfort, but what we focus
on grows, and so our ill-health struggles to heal. If we focus on the pain dissolving, that is
different to just focussing on the pain. The former heals, the latter contributes to ill-health.
Or we fear the future – perhaps fantasise negative outcomes, negative what-if scenarios,
creating future images of negative health and illness – thus again impeding our healing.
What we visualise, we tend to actualise!
When in hospital recently, I reminded myself of these tendencies, and became content to lie in bed or sit in my room chair, focussing each present moment as a moment to heal. I practised mindfulness—sometimes referred to as meditation in action —it helped me stay and live in the present moment, where trauma, loss, and illness could be transformed with kindness, gratitude, and love.
When it came time to be hooked up to yet another drip or face another clinical procedure, I simple meditated (noticed or focussed on) on what the nurse or doctor was doing, whilst simultaneously making positive affirmations and prayer treatments and if my mind wandered to thoughts about what they were doing (this painful, not nice, hurting, gory etc) I would return to simply focussing on what they were doing, noticing my breathing as I did so.
And when it came to time for food, the same process applied. Moment by moment I noticed what I was eating, how I was eating, and expressed gratitude for the food and the health to be able to feed myself, for the service from staff, for my good fortune to be looked after.
We can learn how to be mindful in every moment throughout the day -
as we walk, talk, cook, eat, play, relate, exercise, and work.
As we become more aware of our body, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions,
we are able to notice what was but without getting attached to our story around it,
to what is without getting side tracked by thoughts, and to what will be without fearing it;
we avoid fighting or fleeing the experiences.
Being in the present moment, being aware, not getting attached to stories of loss and regret
and fear, but instead, to being in a mental space where we are neither re-creating the negative
past, scratching and disturbing old wounds, nor imaging a negative future, we can devote all
our resources to focus on healing (it’s what happens we sleep) —the ability to be peaceful
and relaxed in the face of things that typically cause us to suffer—becomes something concrete
that we can proactively do in every moment.
Meditation is not just something we do in our mind; it all begins and ends in the body with constant communication going on between mind and body. When your brain is stressed, your body responds. If your frazzled and feeling chaotic in the brain, your body in its way becomes frazzled and chaotic. So when you are ill, being as calm of mind as possible impacts the body, allows it to heal.
Working with one changes the other, even down to the microbes in your gut, now often called your second brain yet mostly ignored by medical professionals who hardly recognise even the importance of nutrition through the gut, let alone how the gut communicates.
Using mindfulness, we nurture both mental and physical wellness.
If your immune system is weakened, if you are being held to ransom by chronic inflammation and the damage it rages in the body, the whole body system won’t operate as usual. Our infections, wounds and any damage to tissue would never heal without inflammation - tissue would become more and more damaged and the body, or any organism, would eventually perish. So a level of acute inflammation tells us the body is healing.
However, when acute leads to chronic inflammation, it can eventually cause several diseases and conditions, including asthma - in which psychological stress plays a major role - atherosclerosis, some cancers, Chrohn’s disease, hay fever, inflammatory bowel disease, periodontitis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation needs to be well regulated. People suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions may benefit from mindfulness meditation techniques, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center.
What we focus on grows and if we only focus on thoughts of healing, of gratitude and positivity, we help the body to heal.
Make mindfulness, in the moment, your medicine, your healing practice.
A simple way to get started
In this meditation technique we work with the
physical, the body, the breath and thoughts.
First, preparing the physical environment.
Very few people can give up a whole room to their meditation practice, so they choose a corner of a room or a spot in their home where they can set up a regular quiet space. Some then choose to make a small altar of some kind and decorate it with pictures or photos and sacred objects of their own choosing. Some light candles and incense as reminders of impermanence, whilst others prefer a simple, a plain wall in front them. They ket is to minimise electronics and distractions eg TV, untidy desks and so on.
Now choose your seat. You may choose to sit either on a cushion on the floor, or on a chair, one which does not lean too far back. You may choose a cushion designed for meditation practice eg a zafu or gomden or use a substantial, stable but comfortable cushion or low bench. If a short person, you may want to put something on the floor for your feet to rest on, taking a little bit of weight eg a small foot rest or cushion. If you are tall, with long legs, ensure your hips are higher than your knees-regardless of what you sit on.
Sit down. Make your posture upright but not stiff, dignified and not rigid. Imagine your spine as a tree and lean against the tree.
Sitting on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you, as a child might do naturally, hips higher than your knees.
Hands rest on the thighs, facing down. The eyes softly open, your gaze resting gently on the floor in front of you, facing out about four feet away. Don't stare or intently focus your gaze; just allow it to rest where you've set it.
Now just sit for a few minutes in this environment. If your attention wanders off, just gently bring it back and softly focus on your body or the environment. The key words here are "gently" and “softly.” IE no forcing.
Accept that your mind WILL wander; that's what it does 24/7. When you notice the wandering mind, gently shift your attention back again to body and environment.
Now, after a few minutes, let your attention lightly notice the breath. There's no special way to breathe in this approach.
Notice the feeling of the breath as it naturally comes into your body and as it goes out. Don’t force the breath in any way. Just let it be however it is.
For a few minutes maintaining posture, notice your environment and your breathing. Your attention will naturally want to flit and float from body, to environment, to breathing. As you notice it wandering, bring it back to your breathing.
As you notice the wandering, you will also notice thoughts arise, sometime many, sometimes few, sometimes overlapping one over the next: memories. Thoughts are just thoughts - plans for the rest of the day or reminders for the future, memories of the past, some good, some not so, imaginings, or even a catchy tune you’ve just heard that day.
It may be hard with all that thinking to notice any gaps between thoughts in which you can focus on your breathing. It is as it is. And gently bring yourself back to the breath. For some it helps to mentally say, “Thinking” then noticing the breath, “Breathing” and stay with the breath.
Aim first for about 10 minutes. As you gain in experience – of sitting, noticing, and returning to the breathing when you mind wanders, aim for 15 minutes, then 20 if you can. Some days you may naturally be so “in” the experience, you keep on meditating. It will decide when it’s time to end!
Mindfulness meditation is not about control. It is not about stopping thinking. It is not about becoming blank in the mind. It is simply and respectfully noticing (honouring) what comes to your attention and instead of getting caught up in that, noticing the mind has wandered and gently bringing your attention back to the in and out of the breath. To repeat - if you find yourself thinking (and you will), just notice the thoughts, be with them, and return to the breathing.
I found in my early practising that some sessions were pure bliss, I almost felt
hypnotised, with a numbing of the nasal area, the forehead, sometimes the side
of the face, a feeling of not having a body. At other times, my mind would go
into overdrive and be hyper active. The key was simply to notice what it was
doing, notice the thoughts and gently aim the attention on the breathing.
There is no specific way that the experience ought to be. Cease control and
allow. Let it be what it is.
Meditating at work
Mindfulness in therapy
Dr Jonty Liversedge
Mindfulness is powerful