‘Work within your capabilities’ was the sage advice I received from my cardiologist when I was discharged from his care. I was then on my own trying to work out exactly how to do that. Only I didn’t know what my capabilities were any more nor what work it would be safe to do. I think this dilemma is a familiar one for many of us.
I can’t remember now at what point meditation was suggested. I’m sure I would have been fairly sceptical, associating such with Eastern mysticism. I looked into it though and found a fairly confusing world with different terms and suggestions, books, audio, visualisation, body scans, self-hypnosis and so on. Lots of folk punting their wares!
I like simplicity so the following is my distillation of the essence of what I’ve found, experienced and the benefits. I hope it helps anyone who might be considering trying these practices or, like me, finds it all a little confusing.
Mindfulness or Mindsight
This is about cultivating awareness of the contents of your mind, body and world, and that of others. I think of it as being aware of the awareness of your own awareness! It is done by observation with openness and objectivity. You will pay close attention to thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, information and also their inter-connectedness and causation. For example, you may be having worrying thoughts which cause your muscles to tense which causes a headache which causes pain which causes a worrying thought or low feeling. You may also notice that you are not any one of these elements–you are not a pain, or a thought or a feeling–and that it is possible not to be dragged down or overwhelmed by such.
Dr Daniel Siegel wrote a book called Mindsight and I urge you to consider reading it. I found it fascinating and also very comforting.
This is about sitting or lying still focusing your attention solely on an object, image, audio, mantra, prayer or your own breath. When your mind moves away from the object of your attention, you bring it back repeatedly, with gentleness and kindness.
This is about sitting or lying still and paying close attention to your mind, body and world. You can do this in a number of ways. Simply watch what arises in your mind, or choose an area on which you might like to focus. For example, by conducting a body scan which involves going through your body systematically, paying attention to how each bit is feeling. Or you can choose to pay attention to your thoughts or emotions or anything at all.
I used a form of this practice when I travelled to and from work on the train. In the morning I would sit still (if I was lucky enough to get a seat!) and mentally prepare myself for the day ahead systematically going through my to-do list. On the way home I thought about each of my children, other family members, household tasks that needed to be done and so on.
There are a huge number of aids to mindfulness on the market. If you want to get started, listen to a lovely example called the Wheel of Awareness meditation. Devised by Daniel Siegel and read by Dr Bob Leckridge here. Incidentally, I could never picture a wheel, always a vase of daffodils!
I view this as a meditation practice that involves first mindfulness then an intervention to change what you find. During a body scan you consciously relax your tense muscles, soothe any unhelpful thought patterns and create a sense of ease.
You can do this in many ways but I find following a relaxation audio to be most helpful. In particular I have enjoyed Andrew Johnson’s Relax and Deep Sleep.
I’ve encountered this is the form of Paul McKenna’s Instant Calm audio. What happens is you lie still and count back from 300, returning your mind to this when you lose track, while Paul speaks to your unconscious mind, saying some powerful and soothing words.
This involves sitting or lying still and consciously re-creating feelings of joy, ease and contentment. It is best done at the end of a successful meditation or relaxation session when your mind is still and best able to. This causes your brain to create stress-relieving chemicals, smooths out your heart rhythm and engenders a feeling of well-being. For a fuller explanation of how to do this and its benefits read here.
I’ll preface my remarks here by saying that these practices are not easy and, often, I’ve been too ill to make them work for me. If this happens, then don’t force yourself. Instead, give yourself a break and return to them when you feel the time is right but I think it’s worth giving any of them another go, bearing in mind that there is nor right or wrong way to do any of them, because when they do work, this is what happens:
1. Your muscles, mind and brain relax. The washing machine of swishing thoughts is switched off or at least calmed. You might even drift off to much-needed sleep.
2. You feel a sense of ease, peace and contentment.
3. You make better choices from a mind which is calmer, enabling you to pause, reflect and choose your response to any situation.
4. You get more done when your mind isn’t using up precious energy in whizzing thought patterns, or tensing muscles, or reacting unconsciously to urges.
5. You take the pressure off your exhausted brain, allowing it the space to do its healing, recuperative work on your body.
6. You sleep better as your brain waves are soothed from high alert mode to relaxed.
7. Your heart rate and blood pressure are decreased and heart rhythm improved.
8. In the long term, you change the architecture of your brain, creating useful, relaxed patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviour and, above all, proper bodily regulation through a properly functioning autonomic nervous system.
These practices are the key tools in my self-repair kit. Nothing else I’ve found comes close to inducing the conditions that will allow my body to return to a state of homeostasis, strength, vitality and resilience.
I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on what works for you: any tips, recommendations or resources you feel are useful to help me work within and expand my capabilities.