When Blood Sugars Go Up, We Need to Go Down

Tibetan Buddhists have a meditation practice called tonglen. It is one of the most beautiful ideas you’ll ever encounter, and a very simple concept. Here’s the idea in a nutshell (with apologies to Tibetan Buddhists everywhere — this is the CliffsNotes version and there is much more to the practice than what I’m about to present):

On each in-breath, you “breath in your own suffering, and other beings’ suffering.” You take in what is negative or sad or difficult. You can focus this in one particular area, or on one particular person, or expand it to encompass all suffering of all beings. The scope can change. Then, on the out-breath, you send compassion, or healing, or joy, to those beings. You send calm, acceptance, love, or whatever name you might give. But this out-breath intention is always one based on a sense of “expansive compassion.”

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And that’s it. You just do that for a half hour, or an hour, or five minutes. That’s the whole practice. Like I said, it’s a simple idea. But as with all meditative practices, the point is to cultivate a habitual pattern within the self that continues when one is AWAY from the cushion. As one teacher said to me, “the practice should become a habitual, almost physical response — when you are in traffic, and someone cuts you off, that’s when you want tonglen to come forward automatically. Instead of instantly blasting OUT negativity in the form of anger and blame, you want to breathe IN right away, and breathe OUT compassion — both for yourself and for the person who cut you off. That’s how you know it’s really working its way in deep.” As you can imagine, getting this response to a point of being “automatic” isn’t easy. Anger is easy. Blame is easy. Entraining compassion and calm is not.

So what does all this have to do with diabetes? It’s the calm response that’s so important for us. This is where a deeply spiritual, meditative practice based on expansive ideas of compassion becomes highly practical. It’s useful because diabetes really demands a kind of paradoxical response to stressful triggers. Put another way, “when our sugars go up, we need to go down.” By that I mean that we need to respond with MORE calm and MORE equanimity precisely when circumstances are providing us with excuses for anger. Nothing is more maddening than an unexplained high blood sugar, and it’s very much like that example of being cut off in traffic. The automatic response is anger, a “rushing forward” and pushing out of negative energy, in this case directed at “blood sugar” (which really means we’re directing it toward ourselves, not a healthy psychological practice…).

This automatic response of anger is really the LEAST useful response we could have, of course. What is most helpful in that situation is the ability to calmly accept what is happening in the moment, and the equanimity to let go and move forward intelligently. Good decisions are seldom made in anger. Furthermore, anger hinders clear thinking. This isn’t just psychobabble, this is study-backed empirical truth. When we become angry, our ability to think clearly recedes. When we become calm, peaceful, compassionate, and detached, our ability to think clearly is enhanced. Studies have shown this to be true.

So if you’re finding yourself struggling to manage your own angry responses to the many unpleasant little “surprises” diabetes throws your way (and always will — it’s just part of living with this condition, I’m afraid), try some tonglen. It won’t do you any good without consistency, but you might be surprised what 10–20 minutes a day can do for you over time. As a practice, it is entirely non-religious. Anyone can practice it within whatever faith you practice. It was borne out of Tibetan Buddhism, but the practice itself has no dogmatic beliefs attached to it. And it is really a remarkable tool for us Diabetians. So just breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in…

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