Battling a chronic illness is hard. It’s draining physically, emotionally and mentally. While I can control most of the external influences, it is very difficult to control the emotional and mental. When you suffer day in and day out with various and sundry symptoms your perspective on life changes. Which, in turn, effects your disposition. That’s why it’s especially important to take care of your mental health as well. I’m not talking about keeping a positive attitude. I’ll be the first person to tell-off someone who’s telling me to “just think positive.” I’m talking about giving your mind and emotions a break. I’m talking about allowing your mind to check out so it’s not focused on absolutely everything, especially the negative. I’m talking about learning a medication technique called concentration meditation.
A short time ago, I attended a Lyme picnic where I listened to the guest speaker, Jordan Fisher Smith, share some of his own personal advice. It wasn’t the typical eat right, take your meds kind of advice, it was really good advice. It was the sort of advice that chronically ill people need to be reminded of from time to time. It was about how we can help ourselves to heal. One way he mentioned was to take care of our whole being. He went way beyond just “positive thinking.” He guided us through a meditation exercise that opened my eyes to my reality. He asked us to imagine ourselves 10 years after Lyme. It was enlightening.
As any chronically ill person is aware, the person we were before we became ill is often difficult to remember. We may see glimpses of that person in the mirror every once in a while, but overall who we are has changed, significantly. That makes it that much harder to imagine ourselves without the illness. So when Smith asked us to visualize ourselves 10 years after Lyme, I scoffed. How could I when I couldn’t even remember what normal was like? I’ve been sick for 16 years, so it was going to take some effort to see myself as a healthy person, free from the restrictions of my illness. But since he was willing to be our guide, I’d give it a try.
After all, there is evidence that meditation can, among other benefits:
-Lower blood pressure
-Lower heart rate
-Promote deeper relaxation
5 steps to concentration meditation:
(where you’re focusing on one thought or image.)
Focus on your breath and being; just take stock. Inhale, exhale-just breathing normally. If it helps you focus, play a nice relaxing soundtrack of meditation music or singing bowls.
(I closed my eyes and focused on the hard wooden bench under my derriere, my feet planted on the ground, the rock beneath my shoe. The damp cold and since we were outside, the birds chittering.) In other words, notice everything.
2. Turn your focus inward
Then turn your focus inward and focus on your thoughts, clear your mind. Visualize your safe place. The one place that you always feel at peace. Think about it, put yourself there and use your senses (taste, touch, sound, smell, sight) the more details the better. These steps can take time to master, so you may need to try it for two or three minutes at a time until you can keep your focus. If stray thoughts enter your mind, simply refocus on creating the image.
(For me, my safe place is a forest; moss claiming the old growth trees, trodden litter fall beneath my feet, a cool breeze caressing my face and the smell of damp earth. In the real world, it’s where I’ve always been able to go to ground myself, to calm my mind and to refill my soul.)
3. Expand on your vision
(Smith guided us to imagine another person in our vision. Ourselves, 10 years after Lyme.)
Imagine yourself ‘after.’ Approach that person. How do you look? Walk? Talk? Act?
4. Not to sound like Yoda, but feel the force
Linger here as long as you can. Have a conversation with yourself if you can take it that far, ask yourself the questions you are afraid to consider. Then, step into that new you. How does it feel?
I didn’t have a conversation, but I did step inside. That feeling, of me taking over the future, healthy, me’s body, well that’s when the tears started to sting the backs of my eyes. Because I could feel it, or rather I couldn’t feel it; I didn’t feel the pain and stiffness and worry and stress. My body moved easily, smoothly, my heart and mind were light and clear. I could feel the force. That’s when I realized that I have not been taking proper care of my whole self. Oh, I was doing everything I could to keep my physical body healthy enough to fight this disease, but I had done almost nothing to make sure that my mind and emotions were taken care of. At that moment, meditation became my new priority.
(Our session took maybe four or five minutes. For the first time, that was long enough.) It takes practice to learn to control your thoughts and calm your mind. Therefore, practice everyday. Try to stay focused on controlling your thoughts and just sit in your safe place for a few minutes. Then try for a minute or so more each time. If you can’t make it into the future you right away, that’s okay. Eventually, you’ll work your way up to visualizing yourself “10 years after.” And once you do, pay very close attention to how it makes you feel. The hope you feel after, the renewed focus and hopefully you’re a little more relaxed.
Let’s face it, chronic illness takes you through one hell of a roller coaster journey. And it adds a weight that can feel like cement blocks dragging you to the bottom of the bay. Having that weight released, even for a short few minutes, is an awakening. That is a feeling that I strive for each time I meditate. Because yeah, now I meditate. I’m cool like that.
Heather was an assistant Fiction editor of Soundings Review and submissions editor for Whidbey Writes. She received a BA in Elementary Education & Language Arts through Grand Valley State University and a MA in Creative Writing from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.