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Taking a Zen Approach to Diabetes

by Glenn M. Callaghan, PhD

Stop. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be aware. Do.

This process may be a key ingredient to help you manage stress and even help you successfully manage your diabetes. At least that might be what one would say from a Zen perspective.

All right, we should back up. First, what is Zen? One way to understand it is as an approach for experiencing the present moment with the help of meditation. Zen, and more generally Buddhist practice, is not a prescribed religion, but more a method to help ease suffering. One of the central paths to relieving pain is to become mindful of the present and let go of the impermanent things that we cling to.

The discomfort, pain, frustration, and anger that can occur with being diagnosed and then managing diabetes are perfectly understandable. How could you not feel these things? But hanging on to that pain, being distracted by it, or even using it as a reason for not effectively managing your diabetes causes even more suffering. Zen practice may be a useful strategy that could help you live a full, rich, and present life.

We probably need to back up one more step again. There are several unique forms of Zen. These strategies, or even ways of being, probably are as varied as the people who practice them. Said differently, there is not a right or wrong understanding of these ideas; there is really only what works for you.

I have studied and practiced Zen for the past several years, but I am an academic professor of psychology by trade, not a Zen scholar. I get paid to teach and instruct, but I would not tell you what to do with your struggles with diabetes. In fact, most Zen practitioners do not tell others what to do. The approach many take, and that I take here, is to invite you to consider another way of engaging whatever challenges you may have with managing your diabetes. Still, I cannot tell you what to do — you need to come to this from where you are. Consider this the briefest of invitations.

East meets West
For many of us, Zen is a very foreign idea. It can be difficult to grasp and is often shrouded in New Age mysticism. Still, this Eastern tradition dating to nearly 1500 years ago has been finding its way into Western teaching and psychology more and more in the past few decades.

I have tried in my psychology and psychotherapy to find similarities between Western and Zen practices and places where these traditions can come together. One approach to combining these two frameworks is a psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Many people find ACT to be a very useful bridge for understanding some of these Eastern concepts from a more Western or American perspective. My wife, Jennifer A. Gregg, and I, together with the founder of ACT, Steven Hayes, wrote a book called The Diabetes Lifestyle Book: Facing Your Fears & Making Changes for a Long & Healthy Life that uses some of the concepts in this article together with some innovative strategies to manage diabetes more effectively.

With Zen practice, one of the challenges of understanding these ideas lies in our own Western framework, one dominated by its focus on consumption. This emphasis has benefits, but sometimes it creates difficulties in our lives. For example, we sometimes confuse wanting something with needing something. We become attached to our things and even can confuse the value of an experience with the object we purchase to remind ourselves of that experience. The snow globe we purchased at the amusement park becomes the fun day at the park, instead of the experience of that day.

This same attachment can carry over into our attachment or need for things to be a certain way, to reject our current experience of the world and grasp for what we wish it could be. In fact, we may cling to our own pain and suffering in a way that makes it very hard for that pain to leave us. This attachment, what we do, may actually be the cause of our own suffering.

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