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Taking a Zen Approach to Diabetes

by Glenn M. Callaghan, PhD

In the case of diabetes, it could be that a person’s desire to not think about how hard it is to manage this disease — to wish it away, to be frustrated when his blood glucose is not well controlled, to be angry at his family, at his doctors, at himself — all may be part of why he struggles even more. It may be that his desperate need for this to be different, for the moment he is in right now to be a different or better moment, is actually part of the problem that he is having. These feelings are all perfectly understandable. They are all perfectly natural. How else could a person feel but how he feels? However, as a person clings to those feelings, those wishes for a different moment, he may actually be making his problems bigger.

Instead of checking his blood glucose, he remains frustrated. Instead of exercising, he remains too sad to move. Instead of making more healthy choices in his diet, he remains angry at his body. These feelings, which are all part of who a person is, become things that are held onto so strongly that he cannot move in the direction of health and happiness.

A brief invitation
In no way would I argue that a person should become radically different from who he is. If he is Western in his tradition, so be it. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. It may be the case, though, that some of what a person does as a result of these cultural practices does not always work as well as a different approach might.

In the case of diabetes, it is essential to take care of yourself on a daily basis. This can get annoying, time-consuming, and frustrating. Still, as long as you manage your diabetes, you can live a healthy, happy, and long life. Zen practice may offer some unique strategies to help you in this process. The greatest appeal to these practices is that they can be incorporated by anyone at any time. They are also free. That’s right. I said it. You don’t need to buy expensive equipment. You don’t need to join a pricey or exclusive club. You can do these incredibly helpful things for your own benefit without cost or compromise to your values, spiritual beliefs, or your wallet. More than that, they are actually ridiculously simple.

The art of simplicity
Stop. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be aware. Do.

This, for some of us who practice Zen meditation, is what much of it boils down to. Simple, isn’t it? In some ways, the principles of Zen practice lie in opposition to the way we live our lives. The main idea basically is to calm our minds. We get so harried and so bogged down with our daily struggles that life feels complicated, even chaotic.

One of the principles of Zen practice may be understood as simplifying our experience. This can take many forms. Some people find it helpful to reduce their consumption of material possessions; others find it helpful to focus on arranging their life in a way such that they are pulled in fewer directions at the same time. By no means does one have to give up everything he owns, dress in robes, and wander the earth to achieve this. It is actually more about changing the way we approach our lives and calming the mind.

A strategy that some people find useful here is to determine what is important in their lives, what they deeply value, and try to just focus on those things. For example, if you value a life with less stress, you may look for those activities you are doing, those commitments you take on, and determine which need to be done and which you choose because you want to or feel obliged to do but which actually can be left not done, at least not done by you. By reducing your activities to those that you need to do (like work) and those you choose to do for yourself (such as spend time with loved ones, read a book, or take a walk), you may find that life feels less chaotic.

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