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Mindfulness of illness

Following are some suggestions for healing that I have found personally helpful that work with the arising of suffering and pain within meditation. The technique focuses on three areas: mindfulness of body, mindfulness of breath and emotions, and mindfulness of mind and thoughts.

If you normally experience physical pain as part of your daily life, that pain may initially become more obvious during mindfulness practice, because while practicing, you are not distracted by your daily routine and physical activities. Likewise, when you sit down to meditate and allow your body and mind to settle, emotional or psychological issues that have been ignored or avoided may start to penetrate your usual defenses and enter your awareness.   The practice of mindfulness very much includes these experiences, and makes use of them in a positive way.

Body:  When you are ill, it is especially important to connect with your body in a simple and dignified way.  If there is a tolerable level of physical pain, you can learn to include it in your awareness rather than try to hide from it, block it or distract yourself. You can be present, within your own skin, relating to the pain in a spacious way.  The pain is never rejected, nor do you have to overly focus on it or try to minimize it.  It is seen as a momentary experience, part of your wakefulness, acknowledged without judgment or struggle, and let go.  By including it in your awareness, you may be able to relax into your entire body in a very natural way.  If the sensation of pain returns, you again go through this process of acknowledging, including and letting go.

If the pain continues to intensify, at first, allow it to fully be there, expressing itself. Cradle it in a feeling of awareness and gentleness.  You can say "hello" to it and welcome it, very consciously including it in your meditation experience. Generate a mind of kindness and sympathy for yourself, directing acceptance and awareness toward the pain, giving yourself the nurturing you may feel you need at that moment. If the pain becomes a huge distraction, shift your posture to lessen the sensation, if that's possible.  Basically, don't give up on relating to the pain.  Keep touching it and letting it go. Don't resist it, don't give in to it, and don't manipulate it. Respect the pain, feel it, let go and return to your meditation. Let your body relax around the pain, if it is fairly localized, or relax right in the middle of the sensation, without struggle or trying to get rid of it.

If the movement of your body provides some relief, you might also do more walking meditation at home. Yoga, stretching, Tai Chi or Chi Qong can also be very good additions to your sitting practice. Whatever allows you to be in your body fully, tuned into whatever is happening there, with a "light touch" is helpful.  Cultivate the attitude that pain is neither good nor bad.  It is part of your experience and a clear message that something requires your attention.  The pain is neither "for" nor "against" you. 

Breath and emotions:  Use the coming and going of your breath as a simple way to stay focused, to remain present.  By being aware of the movement of your in-breath and out-breath, you can relax into the natural rhythm and harmony of the breath. When you tune into the breath in an ordinary and simple way, witnessing its life-giving quality, you also begin to feel whatever emotions or tension you may be holding in your body, especially in the neck, back, chest and belly areas.  You can feel how the breath is restricted, either because of your reactions to physical or emotional pain, or because of a habitual, defensive posture.  As is the case with pain within the body, emotional pain can also be fully included in your practice.  Welcome it, allowing it to manifest itself however it wishes, while your attention continues to remain with the natural movement of the breath.  In this way, fear, heartache, sadness, anxiety – whatever you find, is allowed to be exactly as it is, without having to react to it.  It is just human experience, emotions coming and going without interpretation.  The unpleasant emotions are not rejected and the pleasant emotions are not held onto.  There is a feeling of the breath ventilating your emotionality, allowing feelings to shift or remain, as they wish.

Mind:  By keeping your posture erect and relaxed, your eyes open, and allowing your attention to stay with the movement of each breath, you have a very ordinary and dependable reference point for being present.  When thoughts arise and begin to steal your attention away from the awareness of the body and the breath, feel the strength of that current of thoughts, their seductiveness or habitual tendency to preoccupy you.  By continually reminding yourself to come back to the posture and breath, you can disengage from the obsessive or discursive thoughts and reconnect to being present.

If you are prone to being swamped by especially disturbing or repetitive thoughts, coming back to your posture and breath sooner, rather than later, is essential.  Every time you reconnect with your body and your breathing, you weaken the habitual pull of thoughts.  The thoughts themselves are not regarded as the enemy nor seen as a problem.  They are just the natural movement of your mind, and like the emotions, are not judged as being either good or bad.  The sooner you acknowledge the thoughts and disengage from them, the more spacious will be your practice of mindfulness. Also, you may find that your mental suffering decreases because you are not struggling with your thoughts or trying to convince yourself of anything.  You just let go of your preoccupations and come back, again and again, to a feeling of being present, openhearted, and awake.

Synchronizing body, breath and mind:  Mindfulness meditation is learning to relax, trusting your own body and its inherent intelligence.  Whatever fears and anxieties arise, if you acknowledge them fully, and then open and relax, you can let go into an awareness that is larger than the boundaries of the fear.  Of course, this takes time and a lot of practice.  But, you really do have the resources within yourself to fully understand what is happening in your life, and to appreciate everything as a teaching situation.  Your illness or disability is a teacher.  It can help you develop compassion for yourself and for others, and reveal the preciousness of your life, no matter what the challenges may be. When the time comes, your healthy relationship with your illness can also prepare you for properly letting go of this life, with a sense of appreciation, free of regrets. 

- Alan Sloan