Written by Aisling Quigley, a mindfulness, meditation and yoga teacher based in Melbourne. Aisling worked in a fast-paced career in media and marketing, before following her passion into teaching the benefits of wellbeing to others.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Have you ever wondered about introducing mindfulness and meditation into your lifestyle? Aisling explains how this practice may improve your mental and physical health, and the challenges that often arise along the way.
The benefits of mindfulness and meditation on those living with chronic illness are both extensive and well documented. Over the past few decades, a wealth of evidence-based research has emerged on the clinical effects of incorporating mindfulness and meditation in the treatment of CF, including reducing stress, anxiety, depression and pain, and enhancing mood and self-esteem.
When it comes to meditation and mindfulness, it can be extremely confusing to even know where to start. We’ve collated the following content to give you a little more understanding about what it is and why people do it. Whether you’re right at the beginning of your meditation journey, or more experienced, we will be sharing practical, useful and accessible tools that are suitable for all levels that you can begin your journey.
How meditation and mindfulness can help with CF
Stress is inevitable in all our lives, and particularly when chronic pain, demanding treatment schedules, and other mental and physical challenges are so apparent. By learning to recognise stress, we can start to affect our relationship with it, and keep it in balance. Learning to control full-on fight-or-flight mode can be a matter of understanding perceptions of challenges. How challenges are really presenting themselves, compared to how we perceive they are presenting.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Victor Frankl –
The first step to working with challenges is to become aware of what is actually happening. With training, we don’t automatically go straight into a fight-or-flight stress response. Instead, we learn to respond with less alarm and more awareness. With practice, you will break old habits and change the way you respond to stressful situations, thus reduces the power of negative stressors. By having more awareness of stressful situations, you put yourself back in the driver’s seat and control how you approach situations rather than allowing emotional responses to overtake.
Meditation won’t stop normal responses such as anger, grief, or fear, but it will teach you how to accept and work with those emotions, so we’re less controlled by them and able to respond more effectively.
What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
While mindfulness and meditation are interrelated, they are not the same thing. Below are some key differences to help dispel any confusion you may have.
While there are many definitions of each concept, meditation is a practice, and through this practice, we can develop different qualities, including mindfulness.
Mindfulness simply means noticing what is happening within us and around us at any given moment. It is simple and ordinary.
It’s the direct opposite of being on autopilot or being lost in cycles of thought because when we’re being mindful, we are present. When we are present, we can choose how we wish to respond versus getting caught up in a cycle of reactivity that so often happens.
How mindfulness and meditation work
A recent discovery in mindfulness research has been a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is when the brain literally changes its neural structure via ‘brain training’. Just like building muscles at the gym, through practice, we can start to strengthen the parts of our brain that help with self-awareness, clarity, decision making, emotion regulation, and creativity. A landmark study led by Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts found that as little as eight weeks of meditation not only helped people experience decreased anxiety and greater feelings of calm; it also produced growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.
Formal versus informal practice
Despite common beliefs, it’s not all just meditation. In fact, we generally speak about two forms of practice, being formal and informal.
Formal practice is setting aside time for meditation practice specifically, seated or lying down.
Informal practice is keeping our mind focused on a selected activity -tuning in rather than tuning out- as many times as we can throughout the day.
Tips for formal practice
- Have no expectations. Sometimes the mind is too active to settle down and sometimes it settles down immediately. Anything can happen.
- Be easy with yourself. Meditation isn’t about getting it right or wrong. It’s about your experience in this practice.
- If you are finding working with sensations, thoughts, and emotions too much, simply follow the in and out of your breathing, not paying attention to your thoughts at all. Give it a chance by letting go.
- Make sure you are alone in a quiet place to meditate. Unplug the phone. Make sure no one is going to disturb you.
- Really be there. If your attention is somewhere else, thinking about your next appointment, errand or meal, of course, you won’t be giving yourself fully to the practice.
- Keep practicing and keep leaning into what it is you are uncovering about yourself. It may not feel like it at first, but spending some time with yourself in this way without judgment is one of the most simple and profound acts of kindness we can make towards ourselves
Daily mindfulness practice can be helpful for people living with chronic illness or pain because sometimes there are negative or worrisome thoughts about illness or pain, which is completely natural and normal. When we are in pain, we usually ruminate on it and want it to go away. We judge the pain, which often only makes it worse.
As these thoughts continue over long periods of time, they can affect mood and increase pain. Being able to focus on relaxing the body, noticing the breath and body sensations as being there just as they are, can help manage pain, as well as reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.
Mindfulness can help manage expectations with pain. When you expect something will ease your pain and it doesn’t, your mind goes into alarm or panic mode.
With mindfulness, we learn to engage with pain as it is. We do not try to minimise it, but learn to relate to it differently. Then the grip it has over us loosens. Below is an example of how to do this:
Changing your relationship to pain
- Scan your body.
- Pay attention, with a sense of curiosity, making no judgments as best as you can.
- If you notice discomfort or pain in a particular part of your body, pay attention to understand what is happening as precisely as possible.
- Ask yourself: What is the sensation here right now? What is the actual feeling in my knee, my back, my leg? Exactly where is it? What quality does it have? Is it burning? Pulsating? Changing from moment to moment?
- Become more open to what is present, trying to meet each experience with acceptance of what ‘is’ in this moment, not rejecting or holding onto anything.
- Use the breath by imagining you are breathing into the area of intensity.
- If you need to move, allow yourself to take a few more moments of exploration, and then move your position mindfully as a response rather than a reaction.
Meditation is difficult
Truth: One reason why meditation may seem difficult is that we try too hard to concentrate, we’re overly attached to results, or we’re not sure we are doing it right. The right experience of meditation is simply the one you’re having.
You have to quieten your mind in order to have a successful meditation practice
Truth: This may be the number one myth about meditation and is the cause of many people giving up in frustration. Meditation isn’t about stopping our thoughts or trying to empty our minds – both these approaches only create stress and more noisy internal chatter. Then we end up stressing about stressing! Despite what we may think, we can’t actually stop or control our thoughts, but we can decide how much attention to give them.
Instead, by having a single point of focus like your breath, sensations, or sounds, when thoughts do wander, gently turn your attention back to your focal point. As you do this, with practice, you strengthen neural pathways impacting your thought processes.
It takes years of dedicated practice to receive any benefits from meditation
Truth: The benefits of meditation are both immediate and long term. You can begin to experience benefits the first time you sit down to meditate and in the first few days of daily practice. Many scientific studies provide evidence that meditation has profound effects on mind-body physiology within just weeks of practice.
I commonly hear from new meditators who are able to sleep soundly for the first time in years after just a few days of daily meditation practice. Other common benefits of meditation include improved concentration, decreased blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety, and enhanced immune function.
Meditation is escapism or only about relaxing
Truth: The real purpose of meditation isn’t to tune out and get away from it all, but to tune in and become more awake to your life. In meditation, you dive below the mind’s churning surface, which tends to be filled with repetitive thoughts about the past and worries about the future, into the here and now. When we’re totally present with where we are and what’s here, we can let go of all the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about who we are, what is limiting us, and where we fall short.
I don’t have enough time to meditate
Truth: CF is demanding and time-consuming, and this may seem like another task to fit in. If you feel you don’t have time, remember that even just a few minutes of meditation is better than none.
I’m supposed to have transcendent experiences in meditation
Truth: Although we can have a variety of wonderful experiences when we meditate, including feelings of bliss, these aren’t the purpose of the practice. The real benefits of meditation are what happens in the other hours of the day when we’re going about our daily lives. When we emerge from our meditation session, we carry some of the stillness and silence of our practice with us, allowing us to be more creative, compassionate, centered, and loving to ourselves and everyone we encounter.
As we’ve explored, the practice of mindfulness and meditation has been proven to offer the potential for so many benefits when it comes to living with chronic illness and stress. I hope you have found some information useful and consider starting and maintaining your own personal practice now and long into the future – Aisling.
Bonadonna, R., 2003. Meditationʼs Impact on Chronic Illness. Holistic Nursing Practice, 17(6), pp.309-319.