Mindfulness and Illness

Newcomers to the practice of mindfulness meditation tend to imagine that mindfulness practice should ideally be associated with a state of calm happiness or relaxed bliss, so the idea of mindfulness as an approach to illness may seem odd or incongruous.

It is worth going back a few years to Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s early work popularizing mindfulness in the United States. He began by teaching the practice to people with chronic or even terminal illnesses, in order to help them with coping with pain and discomfort.

His early success with this led to the development of similar programs around the country, as an alternative to either ignoring the pain or over medicating it.

Back to the topic of this blog post, how to apply mindfulness to the experience of being ill.

  1. Take a few slow breaths. The experience of slowing your breathing and focusing on your breath can help you to begin to approach how you’re feeling in a different way.
  2. Acknowledge the illness and your discomfort. Don’t try to minimize the real physical symptoms that you’re experiencing or to pretend that you’re not in pain.
  3. Alternate between focusing on your breathing and gradually expanding your awareness of all of the physical sensations. Notice the parts of your body that feel uncomfortable but also notice the other sensations that you’re experiencing.
  4. Work on accepting the feelings. See if you can be a little bit more accepting of the physical sensations you’re experiencing, not falsely minimizing them, but just accepting that this is how you are feeling right now.
  5. If you notice tension see if you can let go of it a little bit. If in the process of exploring the physical sensations in your body you notice an area of tension see if by focusing on acceptance and slow outward breathing that you can let go of a little bit of that tension.
  6. Give yourself the gift of love. As you acknowledge and accept spirits of being ill imagine what you might say to someone who you love who is experiencing an illness. Offer that same comfort and reassurance to yourself if you can.
  7. If you notice impatience with your illness emerging accept that too and move on. If you’re doing what you can to feel better and to take care of yourself then this sense of impatience has accomplished its goal and you can let go of it knowing that you and your body are already doing what can be done to get healthy again.

For More Information

How to Be Mindful When You Are Sick, in the New York Times, was an article that inspired this post.

Meditating When You Are Sick – a longer blog post on the same topic.