Basic Mindfulness Meditation Instructions for PWP – Part 2

This blog post is Part 2 of a basic set of instructions for mindfulness meditation, tailored specifically for people with Parkinson’s disease (PWPs). In my previous post, I looked at three components of setting yourself up for a successful meditation practice: finding a regular, undisturbed time and place to meditate; using a timer or sitting with a group; and tips for having an upright posture.

In this post, we’ll continue on to the basics of meditation itself. There are LOTS of styles of meditation in our day in age. In addition to meditative methods coming from religious traditions – many from Buddhism, but there are also Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious meditative traditions – we are now privy to the relatively recent flowering of secular mindfulness.1

If you are interested in starting, renewing, or deepening a meditation practice as part of your Parkinson’s disease self-care, or as part of a palliative care plan or spiritual practice, I encourage you to look into which type of meditation seems most suitable to you.

There are a huge variety of in-person groups, books, podcasts, Youtube videos, and more with which you can experiment. The suggestions I give here are in line with the secular mindfulness tradition, though informed by my long term practice of Zen Buddhism.

Focus on the breath

Meditation is fundamentally a practice of disciplining your attention to keep it on the present moment, instead of wandering with your thoughts. In order to stay present, it is extremely helpful to have something to put the attention on. Here it helps to notice that, while our thoughts may wander in time, our bodies are always existing in the present.

We never breathe in the past or future, only in the present. Thus the breath is the classic focus of meditation. You can use the breath to begin to become familiar with the interiority of your body – which spaces in your body feel open and familiar? Which feel less so? Do you notice areas of your chest or belly that seem closed off and hard to feel?

If you find it hard to access your breathing, it might help to picture the action of the diaphragm, the main muscle of breathing, as you meditate. This dome-shaped muscle sits underneath your lungs, attaching to the spine in back and around the bottom ribs all the way to the front.

As you inhale, the dome flattens down like a pancake to let your lungs expand – you can feel it pushing your belly down and out. As you exhale, it returns up underneath the lungs, pushing the air out. As you breathe, you can picture the action of the diaphragm, and feel your whole torso inflating and deflating like a balloon.

Stay aware of your mind and body

With repetition, attention on breathing will gradually soften and open your body to your awareness. Inevitably, people who meditate experience unpleasant sensations, including pain. Whether a sensation is pleasant, neutral, or painful, try to maintain a sense of open awareness of it – observing the sensation without reacting.

Here again there is a caveat for PWP: Be gentle with yourself! See if you can push the envelope a little bit in terms of observing pain, but also give yourself permission to make small movements, take a quick stretching break, or whatever you need to do.

Developing the ability to observe your mind and body without immediately reacting is powerful, but each person has to find the right balance for him or herself between developing awareness-within-discomfort, and taking a break to alleviate pain, stiffness, or other symptoms.

One last idea is, if you are dealing with, say, a sharp pain in your back but don’t want to move, you can try expanding your awareness to the limits of your senses – focus on the sounds in your field of hearing, or the colors in your field of vision, as a way of broadening out your attention. These kinds of sensorial meditations are very interesting and fruitful in their own right.

Be patient with your practice

This last instruction is fairly self-explanatory. Meditation is a practice, just like playing piano, lifting weights, or learning a new language. It takes patience, persistence, and repetition. This is true within each session, and it is true of the overall process of developing a practice.

The tedium and frustration you may face as a beginner turn out to be necessary precursors to later experiences of fluency and power in the practice - but only if you continue! The thoughts “I am bad at meditation” or “This isn’t meant for me” are very common for beginning meditators – don’t take your thoughts too seriously! Start with an amount that is do-able for you – 5 minutes a day, 10 minutes three times a week – and slowly build from there to the amount that feels right for you.

One of the best pieces of advice in this area is – if you notice that you didn’t meet your goal, just try again! Getting angry at yourself or feeling ashamed of not meeting your goal is counter to the whole spirit of meditation. There is always the chance for a fresh beginning.

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