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Meditation and the Art of Diabetes Management

by Joseph B. Nelson, MA, LP

Mindfulness meditation
Several years ago I attended a conference where Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a mind–body medicine specialist and Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, spoke about the research he had conducted using a program called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. I quickly realized that this was the type of meditation I had learned some 25 years earlier. This time, however, there was research backing what most of us who practice meditation know from experience: that meditation helps you to live in a more relaxed manner. I eventually took a weeklong class from Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli, EdD, the director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center. After completing this program, I joined with others and started a program at the medical facility where I worked. I have been teaching mindfulness-based meditation ever since.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of working with concentrated awareness to live each moment fully. In other words, the point of this type of meditation is to learn to live your life more fully, not to sit in the lotus position for hours a day. It can also help you live with diabetes more fully. By developing an accepting attitude and fuller awareness of how your life and the management of your diabetes interact, you can learn to respond thoughtfully, rather than just react, when challenging situations arise.

The formal practice of mindfulness meditation is usually done sitting with your back straight, either in a chair or on the floor using a cushion called a zafu for support. (It can also be done lying on the floor with a technique called the body scan, in which a person moves his focus throughout his body, concentrating on any areas that cause him pain or suffering.) No matter which position you choose, you begin the process of meditation by focusing on your breathing. As you try to focus, however, you may become distracted by thoughts, sounds, or even odors. It is helpful to treat these distractions as though you were an objective observer. Normally, you might think, “I hate that sound; it’s really disturbing me. Can’t they be quiet? That makes me so mad.” As an objective observer, however, you might say to yourself, “That is the sound of someone’s voice,” then return your awareness to your breathing. Being an objective observer means that you can notice things without becoming upset, so you stay calm and in the present moment.

Does this sound too simple or boring? Stop reading and give it a try right now. See how long you are able to focus your awareness on your breath. This is the task and challenge of beginning mindfulness meditation. After working on this task, you will come to understand that meditation is not just about paying attention to your breath (which can’t be done for long, anyway). Rather, it is about maintaining your awareness of the present moment so that you recognize when your thoughts have drifted and are able to come back to the present again by focusing on your breathing. Your breathing acts as an anchor to the present moment and helps you maintain a peaceful state of mind.

Being in the present moment
Being in the present moment is important because it is the only time we can do anything about. In caring for your diabetes, the future is important, too, in that you need to plan and anticipate what you will do later in the day. However, now is the only time you can do that planning and preparation. Thinking too much about the future can create worry or anxiety over what might happen — worry that may keep you from experiencing the present fully. In meditation, focusing on the present moment is practice for living in the present. It is through this practice at not getting caught up in future anxieties that we can learn to maintain a sense of calm.

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