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.