Meditation with a Chronic Illness

Emma Corcoran

This is the first in a series of four short articles about starting a meditation practice if you have a chronic illness. This first article is about establishing a simple meditation practice, and finding a meditation posture. The next three articles will focus on:

  • Mindfulness practice in everyday life
  • Loving Kindness meditation
  • Meditation resources: books, CD’s, websites, podcasts etc.

I have CFS and use meditation as a way to help manage my condition. Meditation certainly isn’t a magic ‘cure-all’ for every disease – but I think it can be an invaluable tool in dealing with the many challenges chronic illness presents.

Finding A Meditation Posture

Sitting cross-legged on the floor to meditate is often too painful or exhausting for people with a physical illness – but, don’t despair! Just because you can’t sit in the lotus position doesn’t mean you can’t meditate. You just need a meditation posture that works for you.

Don’t have legs like spaghetti? Don’t worry – you can still meditate. (Source: Wikimedia)

The purpose of any meditation posture is to ensure your body is stable and alert. You can use any posture – sitting in a chair, lying down, standing, or walking – as long as you feel stable and comfortable (but not so comfortable you will immediately fall asleep!)

As an example of an alternative posture, here is a lying down posture from the book Turning Suffering Inside Out (A Zen approach to living with physical and emotional pain), by Darlene Cohen.

“Lie on your back with your knees bent and lightly touching each other, your feet firmly on the floor, and the insides of your feet lightly touching each other. The tension in this posture is just this – keeping the knees and feet together. If you start to drift, the knees will part. … Feel free to place a small pillow (not one so soft it would encourage dozing) under your head or neck…”

Photo of the Buddha in a traditional lying-down posture (which doesn’t look very comfortable)!

For more information on postures here’s an excellent article on sitting in a chair to meditate, and I’ve written a blog post on lying down to meditate.

Two Meditations

Once you’ve found a posture that suits you, try to set aside some time every day to meditate. If your illness prevents you from meditating every day, just do the best you can. Even setting aside 5 or 10 minutes can be very helpful.

Simple breath meditation

The purpose of this meditation is to help you focus on one sensation in your body – in this case, your breath. Inevitably you will lose concentration, but that’s fine, just gently bring your focus back to the breath again. When this happens, it can be helpful to be aware of the words and tone of voice you use to bring yourself back to the breath. Aim for something along the lines of a soft voice saying, ‘OK, no problem…back to the breath.’ (Try to give the ‘fascist dictator’ voice a rest during meditation!)

Bring your attention to your breath, in the belly.
Start to count your breaths.
Count ‘1’ on the in breath, and ‘1’ on the out breath.
Your counting ‘voice’ is calm and slow.
Your focus is on the breath, with the counting in the background.
Keep counting on each in-breath and out-breath until you get to 10.
Then start again from 1.
You are just allowing the breath to come naturally.
Not forcing the breath, just allowing each breath to be as it is – some deep, some shallow.
When you lose concentration, gently bring your attention back to the breath.

Pain Meditation

Begin by doing the simple breath meditation for 10 minutes or so, then…
Slowly move your attention away from the breath
Move your attention, gently and slowly, towards some feeling of physical pain or discomfort.
If you can choose between a smaller pain and a larger pain- chose the smaller one to begin with.
As you approach the pain, allow your attention to fall gently around it.
How do you perceive the pain?
Is it a certain shape?
Is it like a solid mass, or is it vibrating and moving?
Does it feel heavy or light?
Warm or cold?
Does it have a colour, or image associated with it?
Notice any thoughts you have around this pain.
Whenever a thought appears, no matter what it is, whisper ‘yes, OK’ or ‘yes, that’s how it is’ to yourself.
Notice any emotions or feelings you have. Whisper the same to them, no matter what they are.
Any emotions are OK – anger, sadness, bitterness, judgement, acceptance, peace…
If there are many thoughts and emotions and sensations – don’t worry – just be with whatever is most prominent.
If you get confused or overwhelmed, just return to the breath again, and relax, before gently coming back to the physical pain, thoughts, and feelings.
End by going back to the breath and counting it to ten.

This pain meditation is a short version of a meditation by the writer and teacher Stephen Levine. Here’s the longer version, and more information about Stephen Levine.

This pain meditation can be very powerful, and bring up many difficult emotions – particularly if, like me, you’ve spent a long time denying or resisting your pain. If this meditation is difficult, just take it easy, and only do it for a few minutes at a time. The point is not to change your pain, or your thoughts or emotions, but to be aware of them and to treat them all gently.

If these meditations don’t connect in any way with you – don’t worry, you aren’t doing them wrong, they just aren’t for you! There are many, many different types of meditations. Sometimes it can take some experimentation to find a style that suits you.

I hope this information has been helpful. The next in this series of short articles will be on mindfulness in everyday life.

Resources

Steven Levine – books and his personal website which sells CD’s of his guided meditations.

Shinzen Young – books, CD’s and a website specialising in meditation for pain management.

Meditation Oasis – free meditation podcasts and written meditation guide.

Bodhipaksa – meditation teacher with a very friendly and informative website with free on-line tutorials. He will answer e-mail questions about meditation and also has an excellent CD called Guided Meditation: for Calmness, Awareness, and Love.

About me: My name is Emma Corcoran, I live in rural Australia. I’m not a meditation teacher, or any kind of expert on meditation, but I have a strong interest in it. I’d love to hear what you thought of this article! Please feel free to e-mail questions, comments, or feedback. Or, contact me through my blog, The Chronic Meditator.

Photo credits to Emma Corcoran and Wikimedia. The last photo credit is unknown. If you know of the copyright holder, please let us know!

If you are going to buy anything from Amazon.com, please consider using these links in this article. If you do, I'll get a commission - a small percentage of the sale price. It won't cost you anything and it will help to support me and Four Walls No Limits.

Save Or Share This Item

  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • MySpace
  • LinkedIn

5 responses to “Meditation with a Chronic Illness”

  1. Ricky Buchanan

    Emma, thanks for the great article!

    I do my meditation lying down but not with any specific pose becasue anything that requires muscle tension will be too tiring and wear out those muscles. I just lie flat on my back and I guess organising myself to be straight and centered in the bed is my mental “signal” that I’m meditating… nothing more complicated than that.

  2. Emma Corcoran

    Thanks for putting these up Ricky – they look good, you’ve done a great job. :)

  3. Karen

    I found your great article because I follow @rickybuchanan on Twitter. I do not have a chronic illness, but I have experienced many benefits from meditation. I know someone with a chronic illness who I truly believe would benefit from meditation – just to learn better breathing techniques and “stress down”. I am called “an old hippie” for suggesting this! “It’s fine for you, but not for me”, is the attitude. I do not want to be pushy, but I wish this person would give it a try. Any ideas about a gentle sell?

    1. Corcoran

      Thanks Karen – glad you liked the article. Hmmm…that is really a tricky problem you have. I have the same issue with a very anxious person in my life at the moment. You might really relate to this blog post, ‘Just Relax!’, that I did a few weeks ago, there are some helpful comments at the bottom too. It’s at http://chronicmeditator.blogspot.com/2010/01/just-relax.html

      One of the issues for your friend may be that they are getting a lot of advice from people about how to deal with their condition. Sometimes the advice can be useful, but, it can also seem disempowering. Personally, I wish I had $1 for every person who asked ‘what are you doing to treat your illness?’ rather than ‘have you tried X?’ or ‘you should really try Y!’ It seemed particularly amazing to me that people I hardly knew felt they knew me well enough to give me medical advice. (Obviously this isn’t the situation with your friend, who seems to be someone you know well.)

      Some random ideas are: would your friend be open to going to a meditation/relaxation class with you? (So that it’s something you’re doing together, rather than something she thinks you think she should do!) Is there a relaxing, enjoyable activity that has some meditative qualities to it (ie working with clay, singing in a choir, jogging), that you could do together which she might get some benefit from?

      You could even ask your friend, ‘how do you feel when I suggest you might benefit from meditation?’ and give her space to articulate an answer. Beneath the statement ‘you’re an old hippy’ might be a lot of feelings of confusion, being misunderstood, being treated as less than equal because she is sick etc etc. (They’re some of the things I felt. Until I got sick no-one gave me advice, but once I got sick it was like a free-for-all! I resented being treated like I was stupid – not physically ill.)

      One final idea is to get some kind of written resource, like Ricky’s Open Letter – which explain what it feels like to have an illness. Read it, and discuss it with your friend. In this way, you’re looking at things from her perspective, and you’re learning from her experience (rather than the other way around). If your friend feels very understood, and very respected for what a difficult time she’s going through, she might be more open to listening to suggestions.

      I really hope some of that information is helpful, and relevent to your situation. You can be sure you’re not the first person to have dealt with this difficult problem.

      best,
      Emma

    2. Corcoran

      ps I forgot to say – good on your for being such a good friend!! You go girl!

Leave a Reply

Your comment may be held up by our moderation or anti-spam software: please be patient if your comment does not immediately appear. You can include some HTML in comments, but including links or web addresses makes it more likely your comment will be delayed by moderation. Please stick to the comment policy.