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Meditation and the Art of Diabetes Management

by Joseph B. Nelson, MA, LP

In our fast-paced society, the idea of taking 20 minutes a day to sit quietly and focus on your breathing may sound like a novel concept. In fact, the practice of meditation is thousands of years old and is still practiced today by people of many cultures all around the world. Recent research studies have shown that meditation not only has the ability to calm and focus the mind, but that it benefits the body as well. For example, meditation has been shown to reduce such risk factors for cardiovascular disease as high blood pressure.

Many people turn to meditation to help deal with a specific health problem such as chronic pain or to get through a time of personal crisis. Others are simply looking for a better way to deal with regular life stresses. You may find yourself interested in trying meditation for one of these reasons, but you may be worried that you won’t have the time or drive to commit to practicing it regularly. I have been practicing meditation for the past 34 years and been teaching it for the past nine years — a long time. While attending a conference on Buddhism and psychotherapy last year, though, I was reminded all over again that the value of meditation is not dependent on how much you do or how committed you are. Rather, the value is measured in how you are able to use it and if it makes a difference in your life. As you learn about meditation, don’t be frightened off by thinking you must commit yourself to a whole new lifestyle. Meditation is just another good tool you can use to help manage your life and your diabetes.

Forms of meditation
There are several forms of meditation, each of which is performed a little differently. In mindfulness meditation, for instance, you focus on your breathing as a means of achieving moment-to-moment awareness. I learned this form of meditation in a class at a junior college in 1970, mostly as a means of relaxing. My teacher also helped me understand that the practice of psychotherapy begins with being mindfully present with each patient.

The following year, I was introduced to transcendental meditation, which is the most common form of meditation practiced in the Western world. This form of meditation involves a mantra, which is a word or phrase that a person repeats in his mind to help himself focus. When learning this technique I was told I had to commit myself to not revealing my mantra to anyone else, ever. In case my teacher is reading this article, to this day I have never told anyone.

I have also tried focused awareness meditation, staring with half-open eyes at a candle or some other object while tuning in to my breathing. I have done meditation while walking, eating, lying down, on a cushion, on the floor, in a chair, standing, outside, inside, in a group, alone, in public, and with squirrels. (The latter is not a form of meditation; the squirrels just showed up while I was sitting outside.)

In other words, meditation is not just a technique practiced formally in a temple or a church. Instead, it is a practice that can be done in many ways and in many settings to help your mind and body relax. It can also help you develop more personal insight or, in some cases, help you develop your spiritual life.

Some people are reluctant to try meditation because they believe it is always religious or think that a person is not in control of himself while meditating. There are indeed religious practices that use meditation as a means of enhancing the practitioner’s spirituality; Zen Buddhism, for instance, has a tradition of meditation that plays a central role in spiritual growth. Some Christian practices also use meditation as a means of bringing one closer to God, and it is used in the mystical Jewish tradition of Cabala. Any practice of calming and focusing the mind with the intention of seeking a relationship with a higher being or enhancing one’s consciousness is a form of meditation. However, meditation can be, and often is, performed to enhance physical health and well-being outside the context of religion. In addition, all meditation is engaged in intentionally and is not something that can be done to a person. It cannot be used to brainwash or secretly manipulate someone into changing their beliefs or doing something outside their value system; in other words, meditation is entirely within the control of the person practicing it.

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