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. (For you muggles, any kind of flu or cold or infection can send multiple sclerosis symptoms out of control.) 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. 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. When one of Jack Kerouac’s critics first saw the manuscript of the book, “On The Road,” he said, “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 to be mindless, to not think about every word, plunging headlong into the stream of consciousness. 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. It has become an exercise in mindfulness. My fingers don’t work so well, so I have to dictate into a headset. The software that translates my speech into text on the screen works remarkably well, but it requires that I speak very slowly and carefully and precisely. I need to be conscious of every individual word and punctuation mark. I would like to think that my writing has improved with mindfulness. There certainly is less of it, and that is probably an improvement.

There are books and websites and seminars and retreats and smart phone apps dedicated to the practice of mindfulness. Those are all well and good, but in the end, mindfulness is nothing more than paying attention. Mindfulness just means being aware of what’s going on around you. The practice of mindfulness is identifying the “magic moment,” when the mind drifts away from what’s right in front of it, providing the practitioner the opportunity to refocus, and begin again. There are endless opportunities in every day to begin again. Disability provides many of them. In my case, not being mindful can easily mean falling down.

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.

Making the most out of two minutes.

I mentioned a while back that I was planning to write about mediation. Meditation is a very powerful tool that is often shrouded in mystery. It has a reputation for being difficult to get into, with retreats and special pillows and other accoutrements. All of that is way beside the point. I stumbled across this online somewhere (what did we do before the interwebs?), and felt that it was a wonderful distillation of what mediation is all about, and an example of how simple it really is. I hope it’s all-reet with Mr. Babauta, the author. Please investigate his Zenhabits web site, and sign up for his email messages.

The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
By Leo Babauta

Two minutes here and there rarely matter very much over the course of a day, a week, a lifetime.

But there are two minutes you could spend, right now, that would have a huge impact on your life.

I’ll save you the suspense: it’s two-minute meditation.

And it’s extremely simple: take two minutes out of your extremely busy day (cat videos) to sit still and focus on your breath. Just keep the gentle fingertip of your attention on your breath as it comes into your body, and then goes out. When your mind wanders, take note of that, but then gently come back to the breath.

That’s it. No mantra, no emptying the mind, no perfect lotus position, no meditation hall or guru (bald Leo Babauta). Just pay attention to your breath. No need to push thoughts away, just come back.

That might seem too simple to matter much. And in truth, you won’t get miraculous effects after two minutes of meditation. You won’t reach nirvana, you won’t be suddenly calm all day long.

But you will probably feel a little calmer. You will have created a small space of undistractedness in a sea of distraction (Facebook). You will have learned to notice when your random thoughts pull your attention, urge you to go check on something.

This is an amazing start. And if you do this two minutes tomorrow, and the day after that … all of a sudden you have a few new skills. You can create space between your thoughts and urges, and your reaction. You can create a pause that will cure your procrastination habit.

And the best part: it only takes two minutes a day. If you don’t have two minutes to spare, you might want to loosen up your schedule (Flappy Bird).

Practice the Habit
If you’re interested in forming the meditation habit, we’re working on that in April in the Sea Change Program.

Sign up in the next few days to join the Meditation Habit module: get a plan, a video, some articles on the habit, a live webinar with me and an accountability forum. Join us here.

– I also have, parked on my brower bar, this little mediation reminder.
– See also a beautiful and insightful book by Pema Chodron -“How To Meditate.”

Shenpa – Don’t bite the hook!

I have read several first-person accounts of life with multiple sclerosis (they are listed and linked there on the right margin), and found each of them, in their own way, informative and, dare I say it, educational. Each story is unique, a further example of how people can be diagnosed with the same disease but have wildly varying reactions to it and experiences of it. There are several more books of this kind that I know of, and probably dozens that I don’t.

Oddly enough, “Taking the Leap,” by Pema Chodron, has taught me the deepest lessons about how to live fully with MS – and it isn’t even a book about MS. Pema Chodron, for those who might not know of her, is an ordained nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She is a prolific writer and respected teacher, leading workshops, seminars and retreats around the world. “Taking the Leap,” subtitled, “Freeing ourselves from old habits and fears,” offers insight into the concept of shenpa, which she describes as, “the itch and the urge to scratch.” She likens it to biting a hook that is dangled tantalizingly in front of you. Chodron writes, “Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens— that’s the shenpa.” She seeks to teach us to recognize the hook, and offers a healthier way to deal with it, to not bite it. If you have a reaction to poison ivy, the resulting rash is itchy, but scratching the itch only makes it worse. Shenpa.

I won’t attempt to delve further into the concepts and teachings Chodron lays out in her book – it’s the kind of stuff that will require a few more reads to fully understand. But boiled way down, she teaches how to recognize the hook and suggests that, when you find one dangling in front of you, rather than biting it, you can take three conscious breaths, and allow yourself to fully experience the shenpa – anger, frustration, even joy – allowing it to be just exactly what it is, without snapping at it and allowing yourself to get hooked. In the calm space the those breaths can open up, you can experience the emotion without having to get attached, or hooked, by it. It is a concept that Chodron herself says is difficult to explain. She understands it more fully than I, and is far better suited to write about it.

My point here is that, “Taking the Leap,” while it is not specifically about coping with disease, illness, or any chronic condition, has taught me a great deal about how to recognize the various hooks that MS dangles in front of me. When I find my wandering mind wandering into areas of darkness, anger, sadness, and depression, I do my best to take those three conscious breaths, recognize the hook, fully feel the emotion, and let it go. It’s not a matter of avoiding or ignoring or escaping from emotional pain and discomfort. It is a matter of fully experiencing and understanding those emotions, without getting tangled up in them. Anger and frustration and depression need not be as overwhelming as they sometimes are.

I read studies that show how mediation can help people with chronic diseases, such as MS, and I wonder why they had to do a study to find this out. It makes complete sense to anyone with even a passing understanding of mediation. The study of shenpa offers a focused and simple (though not easy) meditative technique that can be employed at any moment of your life. I find that with a little attention, I can begin to recognize hooks there for the biting all through my day. And by learning how not to bite them, my day goes immeasurably better. I highly recommend “Taking the Leap,” but for a little taste of these concepts, and an introduction to the writing of Pema Chodron, read “The Shenpa Syndrome.”

(Also recommended is this nifty little online tool, “Do Nothing.” Take a look, and try it every day.”)