The Mindfulness of Disability

One night back in early December, I fell out of bed. Well, more like slid out. I was wrestling with the flu at the time. My fellow MSers will know what that means. I was feeling overall just plain weak. I sat up on the edge of my bed, and in the process of getting back into it, I started to slide off, and didn’t have the leg or arm strength, or mental clarity, to pull myself back in. So, I let it go and slipped onto the floor. I ended up on my side between the bedside table and the bed, unable to move in any direction. We called the Uh-Oh Squad, and two stalwart young men arrived to haul my bulk up onto a chair. Luckily, the only thing that was injured was my pride.

Like most evolved primates, I’m able to learn from events like this. The take away is a reminder to pay attention to every step. When I am getting out of bed, or transferring from my wheelchair to the stair lift, or out of the bathtub, or from wheelchair to car, or even reaching for something in one of the kitchen cabinets, I need to be fully mindful of what my various appendages are doing. I go so far as to actually talk myself through these transfers, paying attention to every handhold and foot placement and weight shift. It’s a little like playing Twister – left foot there, right hand here, right foot over there, etc., the goal being to not fall down.

Mindfulness extends into other aspects of life. Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, “This isn’t writing, it’s just typing.” I used to write that way, though not quite to the same effect. I just let my fingers do the work, pouring words onto the page, just typing. The goal was a kind of mindfulness, not thinking about every word, plunging headlong into the stream of consciousness allowing whatever happened – whatever words appeared – to happen without the filter of mind. I would go back after I was done typing and either make sense of it or not. (I think it is safe to say that both the typing and the editing worked better for Kerouac.) Writing for me now is whole different animal. My fingers don’t work very well, so I have to dictate into a headset. The software that translates my speech into text on the screen is remarkable, but it requires that I speak very slowly and carefully and precisely. I need pay attention to every individual word and punctuation mark. I would like to think that my writing has improved with this kind of mindfulness. There certainly is less of it, and that is perhaps an improvement.

In the end, mindfulness is nothing more than paying attention, being aware of where and when you are – here and now. The practice of mindfulness is identifying the “magic moment,” when the mind, doing what it does, will drift away from what’s right in front of it over and over, providing the practitioner the opportunity to refocus, and begin again. Disability provides many of those moments. Every transfer is a reminder to pay attention to right here and right now. In my case, not being mindful can easily mean falling down.

There are endless resources – books and classes and retreats and such –  for learning and understanding the practice of mindfulness, enough that you could very easily get overwhelmed and lose track … providing another opportunity to take a few slow mindful breaths, and begin again.

Two of my favorite mindfulness teachers are Pema Chodron and Thích Nhất Hạnh. They have both written several books on the practice of mindfulness, and occasionally host seminars and retreats. I also use the Insight Timer smartphone app, which offers a flexible timer and hundreds of guided mediations recorded by dozens of teachers, and connects you to a community of practitioners around the world.



Author: Stephen

Stephen Harris is a writer, painter and a photographer who lives with his family in Maine.

5 thoughts on “The Mindfulness of Disability”

      1. I was imagining two strapping teenage boys (sons) who you’d drag out of bed by shouting “Uh-Oh! It’s happened again!”.

        Mindfulness has helped me a lot, too. My proprioception is outta whack, (I fall over and bump into things a lot) so I have a small idea of what you mean about having to place each limb carefully. Mindfulness has helped keep my mood stable and to focus on what I have, not on what is missing in my life.

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