Can Mindfulness Meditation "Cure" Me?
Living with an illness, chronic or not, we have all asked these questions; "Is there a cure?", "Will this kill me?", "Is it going to hurt?"; and those are typically pondered within the first minute of receiving a traumatic diagnosis. It's because of the fear and uncertainty that we experience during those moments of having a diagnosis explained to us by our healthcare provider that I felt the need to write this article. I want to share with you what I have learned in my own journey of living with a chronic illness and how meditation can be a tool in dealing with the ups and downs of your illness and treatment you are going to experience. This is not an article about how to get back to your "old" self but help you find your truer self; both because of and in spite of your current situation. Now you might be saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, I thought this was about how mindfulness meditation can cure me?" The short answer to that question is "Yes and No". Yes, I am going to help you find a remedy to what ails you; however you may be surprised by the form that remedy takes and it's effects.
As you may (or may not know) a growing body of research now links the practice of meditation to improved conditions for serious ailments, from diabetes to heart disease and even cancer. These improvements are accomplished by treating the entire individual, mind, body and soul. That sounds all well and good but what does that look like and more importantly what does that mean for me, right? Let's talk numbers:
- A study conducted on cancer patients who participated in a mindfulness program showed a 30% reduction in stress symptoms compared to non-meditators.
- Another reported that diabetic patients who meditated had decreased depression, anxiety, and diabetes-specific distress (nearly 40 percent of diabetics struggle with emotional distress that, in turn, leads to overly high blood glucose).
- Still another found that mindfulness meditation reduced the intensity and emotional sensations of pain by 44 percent compared to a placebo 'pain' cream.
"What's going on here? How'd they do that? Can I get the same results?"
To answer these questions let's start with what mindfulness meditation does, especially in the context of it's use in health and wellness. There have been thousands of studies showing that there are psychological and physical benefits to mindfulness meditation, but the intention, is not to cure the disease or fully treat the symptoms, but to treat the whole person — and that includes their mental and emotional well-being. Mindfulness helps us stay in the present moment. Usually, we’re okay in the present moment, but when you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, there is a lot of fear, sadness, and anxiety about what’s going to happen. We can get stuck in the past and start ruminating — that’s where depression comes from — or get anxious about the future.
Speaking from experience I can tell you that mindfulness meditation has helped both my mental and physical health tremendously. Living with a chronic disease PSC (Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis) and being a two time cancer survivor, colon & kidney, I know a thing or two about pain, depression and anxiety. I utilize numerous forms of meditation but my primary form is mindfulness. When dealing with either symptoms or side effects from medications or treatments I find solace in mindfulness. I wear a mala; either draped around my neck as a necklace or wrapped around my wrist as an aid to help me focus. Seeing the mala reminds me to stay present. Mindfulness has allowed me to better appreciate my life. I am demonstrably less stressed and more capable of dealing with whatever may come next. I am reminded of a quote by one of my favorite stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, regarding the subject of the future, "You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present."
Incorporating mindfulness meditation into your daily routine is not hard. Choose specific activities that you’re going to do mindfully for the week. So for this week, I might choose to practice mindful eating. Another example is mindful driving or mindfully taking a shower. Anything in this life can be mindfulness practice. There are also wonderful mindful apps, which you can use, and set to ring every hour. A charming bell rings, you take a deep breath, come back to the present moment, and reenter your focus.
In closing I want to leave you with a few words from Dr. Mark Bertin, a doctor specializing in developmental pediatrics. This is what he had to say on the subject of mindfulness and dealing with a (temporary) illness published in an article by the New York Times:
"Don’t pretend to be happy that you’re ill. Just acknowledge that right now, this is how you feel, for better or worse. Remind yourself that it will change. Noticing your mental state, without falling into indulgence or self-pity, come back as best as you’re able to a sense of patience and kindness toward yourself.
Start by taking a few deep breaths, focusing on the subtle physical movements that follow along with breathing. If your illness makes breathing itself a challenge, consider focusing on your feet touching the floor, or the back of your legs on the mattress. Continue breathing naturally for a few minutes, or focusing on body sensations.
Notice whatever feels uncomfortable. As you do, aim to pay attention to that experience with less resistance, anger or judgment. Without being falsely upbeat, just note that it is what you are feeling right now. If there’s a sense of tightness around the discomfort, see if you can let go of the extra tension a little with each outbreath. Focus next on how you would comfort a loved one in the same situation.
Often these wishes are summarized in mindfulness practice through specific phrases – “May you be happy,” “May you be healthy,” “May you feel safe,” and “May you live your life with ease.” Without aiming to force any specific change to how you feel, focus on those wishes with each breath you take now, but for yourself. “May I be happy.” “May I be healthy.” “May I feel safe.” “May I live my life with ease.”
If this compassion practice leads to a sense of striving or craving for health, just note that feeling with patience, and then return to your mindfulness practice. Whenever your attention wanders, return to the phrases. Or if you prefer, follow your breathing, or note sensations in your body.
Let go of striving to fix anything for a moment, staying aware of both your illness and desire for relief, and return yourself to a healthy state of mind, over and over, supporting your body as it heals."