Why Mindfulness is a Critical Tool for Living with MS

This week we have a special guest post by Gareth Walker, creator of www.everyday-mindfulness.org and The Everyday Mindfulness Forum, practitioner, blogger and all around inspiration. In this article, Gareth embodies true acceptance; letting things be as they are whilst doing all you can to improve them. Here is Gareth without further ado:

“I have MS; it is now fairly obvious that it is of the progressive variety. I have had symptoms on and off since 2006, but in 2009 the symptoms came back and have gradually been getting worse ever since. Being diagnosed with MS is, as you’d imagine, a traumatic and hyper-stressful experience. I am still a relatively young man, but all of a sudden the future that I had imagined for myself was taken away from me. I was pretty much a wreck: anxious, stressed out, prone to long periods of melancholy, generally living life as a victim. Somehow, I managed to snap myself out of that, and I undertook a series of lifestyle changes that were recommended to me. One of these recommendations was meditation, meant to help with stress relief. I didn’t even know what meditation was, so I picked up a book called “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn to assist me. Kabat-Zinn first introduced me to this concept of mindfulness. The rest, as they say is history.

The idea behind mindfulness is that you train yourself in living in the present through a persistent daily practice; this practice is identical to the ancient practice of meditation. I began meditation, which wasn’t an unpleasant process, although completely alien to me. My practice was short and ad-hoc at first, but it did begin to make me feel a bit better about myself, in a way that was difficult to put my finger on. I decided to lengthen my practice and make it every day. From that point on, the benefits became simply extraordinary.

Mindfulness has effected a complete and utter transformation in my life. One that is difficult to comprehend for something that is completely free and bewilderingly simple. Mindfulness is something and it is nothing at the same time; it simply meanspaying attention. Paying attention to the five senses that most human beings have. All you have to do is listen to the music or feel your breathing to be mindful. In fact, any human being has the ability to be mindful, and does it everyday. If it is this easy, then what is the problem?

Because there is a flipside to this coin. The opposite of mindfulness ismindlessness. Mindlessness is just as easy as mindfulness – if not easier. Mindlessness means not paying attention to your senses and being lost in thought. You all must have had those journeys where you get to the destination and you can’t recall any of the journey whatsoever. That’s because you were lost in thought for the whole journey, and you weren’t paying attention to the messages sent to you by your senses. Mindlessness is quite dangerous, it is responsible for those dark places that you often go. It is responsible for crippling anxiety. It is responsible for the majority of unhappiness.

In mindfulness meditation, we spend a little time each day practising being in the present moment and just paying attention to the five senses. Whenever thoughts creep in (they undoubtedly will), we simply acknowledge them and escort the attention back to the object of our focus. Unfortunately, I think that mindfulness drains away as quickly as you cultivate it, and a regular practice is therefore needed. There is something about modern life that makes it difficult to live in the moment. I believe that you need to practise this on a regular if not daily basis to maintain a mindful outlook on life. This simple practice has slowly but surely had a profound effect on my life.

The benefits of greater mindfulness are not limited to the ones I mention here, but there are some which I think are particularly crucial in living with severe, chronic health problems. I will try and outline them here:

Having progressive MS means that my future is a dark and barren place; it really is best to spend as little time there as possible. During my meditations, I spend a whole lot of time noticing thoughts and letting them go. Because I practise this a lot, it means that I really am getting quite good at it. On countless occasions, I notice my mind starting to tell me the wheelchair or the blindness story. I just notice that thought and let it go, coming back to whatever it is that I am doing. In the past, I have dwelt in these dark places for far too long. Not going to these places has had an enormous positive effect on my wellbeing.I am still here after all, and there are so many positive things in my life that it is better to focus on.

In the same way that mindfulness allows me to go to the future on my own terms, the same applies to the past. I remember a wedding that I went to in 2010, people were dancing. I was starting to have mobility problems at this stage, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get up and dance. I started telling myself stories about how things were better in the past when I could enjoy dancing at weddings. I entered a deep melancholy which lasted most of the night. This simply wouldn’t happen any more. If I were to notice my mind going into these melancholy places, then I would simply bring myself back to the present moment. This is such an effective tool in managing your own feelings and emotions.

Could mindfulness be having an effect on the physical progression of this disease? I have been asking myself that for a while now. All I can say is that I have only ever read that stress is a very bad thing for MS, and I honestly live now with a life that is almost stress-free. I am also anxiety-free, I sleep much better and I have a profound sense of wellbeing that nothing seems to shake. Experts have shown that mindfulness training can make a physical difference to the brain. Why not the body? Who knows?

In my opinion, this should be the first thing that the NHS teaches to somebody who is diagnosed with MS – any chronic illness for that matter. This can make much more of a difference to people’s lives than the expensive, imperfect drugs that they currently pay for. The difference in me before and after mindfulness is like night and day. If I can benefit this much from mindfulness practice, then surely other people can benefit too. My body is broken in several fundamental ways, but I don’t think that I have ever been happier or more at peace in my whole life.”

2 Responses to Why Mindfulness is a Critical Tool for Living with MS

  1. Jon Wilde says March 16, 2013

    Such a beautiful piece of writing. Enormously moving.

  2. Jay says March 17, 2013

    Gareth I read your blog on mindfulness with great interest. I have tried (& mostly failed) to practice being mindful for quite some time in order to shake off anxiety & live for now. Your blog has somehow hit home & to say mindfulness has turned your life around is amazing. I am in total agreement re. people diagnosed with chronic illnesses being offered ways of adjusting their thinking & how their mind works, alongside the conventional drugs. Sadly though, doctors don’t seem to work that way. Another reason I read your blog with interest, my Dad had progressive MS for 30 years & you should know, he never went blind ;-) & he had a natural optimism & hopefulness (plus lots of love from family) maybe thats why he lived for such a long time with the MS so, for those of us struggling without natural optimism it seems mindfulness could change that!! Best wishes Jay

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