I’d Like to Meditate, But What About My Tremor?!?
A few years ago, I was making a presentation about mindfulness to a Parkinson’s disease support group in Denver, Colorado. Having gotten through most of the presentation – some history of secular mindfulness in America, tips about focusing attention and having an upright meditation posture, and a brief group meditation – a woman in the audience suddenly burst forth with a question: “Matt! How am I supposed to meditate when I’ve got a tremor?!?”
It was a great question, and I felt silly for not addressing it sooner. Although symptoms of Parkinson’s disease vary widely from person to person, tremor is a very common one. For some folks it’s just a minor quivering in one hand or arm, which might come and go at different times during the day. For others it develops into a larger and more consistent issue. Tremors can be affected by medication levels, stress levels, and many other factors. But when a tremor is happening, it’s happening, and this woman’s question got right to the heart of the matter – if a tremor is happening, how am I supposed to hold still to meditate?
Stillness is relative
My answer to her was this: holding still in meditation does not mean absolute, rigid, unyielding stillness. Stillness in meditation is relative stillness, meaning we hold the intention to quiet our bodies and minds for a preset period of time. Of course, during meditation, all kinds of bodily movements continue happening: the breath flows in and out of the lungs, the heart beats, food digests in the belly, we make subtle adjustments of posture, and so forth. If someone is experiencing a tremor during meditation, there’s no need to think of it as a violation of stillness. If the intention to be still is there, then that is enough.
I can attest to the power of this intention from my own experience. Although I don’t have Parkinson’s or deal with tremor, a bad neck injury I incurred while snowboarding as a teenager, as well as a host of smaller sports injuries, make it impossible for me to meditate in the classic cross-legged posture. When I began meditating regularly in my early 20s, I tried for several years to force my body into the half-lotus position, and ended up with swollen knees and terrible back pain. For some people, that kind of effort works over time – the body adjusts, and they are able to sit comfortably cross-legged. For me, however, I just kept getting injured. I was forcing my way into a superficial stillness instead of gently finding my way toward interior stillness.
Eventually I gave up on the “ideal” posture and learned to sit in a kneeling position, with a cushion under my bottom (the “seiza” position, in Japanese). I also spent a lot of time meditating in a chair, which I still use as an alternate position during meditation retreats. But I never gave up on my intention to establish and deepen a meditation practice. And over the years, I’ve come to see that that’s the most important ingredient.
Mindfulness of the tremor
Coming back to the issue of tremors, the great thing about mindfulness meditation is that not only can you do it with a tremor, you can do it to the tremor! People often mistake mindfulness to mean a state of bliss or total calm. But mindfulness is best thought of not as a state but as an action: the action of putting your attention on something that’s happening in the present moment, without trying to interfere with it. If your arm or leg is tremoring, try putting your attention on it. That doesn’t mean thinking about the tremor, but actually feeling it in an immediate, non-conceptual way. If self-consciousness, embarrassment, anger, or other feelings come up, put your attention on them! Where do you feel these sensations or feelings in your body? Can you notice them, just for a moment, without trying to resist or change them? Can you feel the tremor in the broader field of your bodily awareness, which includes all sorts of other activity as well?
This is the territory of mindfulness. As counterintuitive as it may seem, open acceptance of things, just the way they are, often proves an effective way to improve our experience. Anecdotally, a number of people with Parkinson’s have let me know that their tremors tend to decrease or disappear while they meditate. But this doesn’t happen from trying to stop them; it happens by entering the field of mindful attention, without expectation.