Monday, June 22, 2009

Meditation and Crohn's Disease

What Is Meditation?

Meditation is the process of training your mind to be calm and focused on a single thing. That's it! I bet you were expecting something exotic and complicated. Actually, meditation doesn't have to involve chanting or bowing or any kinds of rituals or anything like that. In fact all you need is yourself and a comfortable place to sit. During meditation, we are learning how to prevent the random, often unhelpful chatter that goes on in our minds: memories, day-dreams, opinions, criticisms, worries, ideas, complaints, etc. A mind that has been training in Mindfulness Meditation for a while is able to remain focused on a single task or thought without becoming distracted, or lost in thought. This helps us to be more effective in our daily lives, less distracted, and more mindful and present in each moment. Just like an athlete trains his or her body to get very good at given activity, we have to exercise our minds to be clear and focused.

How Does Meditation Help With Crohn's Disease?

As we know, many physical conditions are aggravated by stress, anxiety and worry. Digestive tract ailments are even more sensitive to these mental states. In addition, suffering with a chronic illness can wreak havoc on our thoughts and emotions. We can begin to start falling into unhealthy and unrealistic thoughts such as worrying that we will never feel better, fearing the unknown future, and even sinking into a woe-is-me pattern. In addition, we can sometimes lose focus on what's positive in our lives- our blessings, and sometime we might not notice that we are taking out our frustrations and fears on those around us- maybe being critical, snippy or jealous. Practising meditation can help us increase our awareness of our own thoughts and behaviour at any given moment, and train ourselves to think logically and positively. We can also help ourselves to avoid thinking about our illness constantly- and to be aware of all the beauty and joy around us.

How To Start Practising Mindfulness Meditation

Just like learning any new skill (like how to play piano), meditation takes practise. Be prepared to to practise regularly and to have trouble at the beginning. That said, meditating is very easy- especially if you don't put any pressure on yourself. Try to dedicate a minimum of 15 minutes per day. If you can't find that much time, even every-other day or just whatever time you can find, will be helpful.

Find a comfortable place to sit. Some people may find sitting cross-legged on the floor or on a cushion to be hard on their back or knees, so try sitting either on the floor with your back against the couch, on the couch with your legs crossed, or on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. The key is to be comfortable so that you are not waging a war against physical aches and pains- but not so comfortable that you feel sleepy. The goal of meditation is to remain alert and aware- so sit up straight with your back and neck aligned vertically- use back support if you need to, but do not sink your whole weight back into a sofa-chair or you may get sleepy. If you feel sleepy during meditation, try meditating during a more alert time of day, or this may be a sign that you need more sleep.

For the purposes of this tutorial we will use one of the most common objects to meditate on. Your breathing. The in and out of your breath is a natural and rhythmic thing to focus on. Don't try to control your breathing or to breathe in any kind of purposeful or special way. Just breathe naturally and follow it with your mind. As your breath goes in and out you might focus on various aspects of it- the sound, the feeling in your chest, the breeze at your nose- it doesn't matter- focus on what ever aspect of the breath is most noticeable for you. Beginners might also find it easier to stay focused if you count the breaths. Count to 10 then start back over at 1. We aren't keeping score here.

Here's how it goes. Turn off all sources of noise like TV or radio. Find a quiet room. You take your seat, close your eyes, and say to yourself (silently if you want) that you are going to meditate now. Mentally put all other worries, thoughts and tasks aside for later. Take a few deep calming breaths and physically relax your body - especially points of tension like neck, jaw, back, shoulders and stomach. But don't get so relaxed that you aren't sitting up straight.

Now that you're ready, allow your breathing to return to it's normal pattern. Place your mind gently but firmly onto the breath. This means you are focusing on the breathing and not thinking about anything else. You aren't even thinking about meditating or wondering if you are doing it right. Your only thought is the in and out of your breath. Completely clear of all other thoughts or emotions. Keep your mind there firmly but without force. This isn't a wrestling match with your mind.

Since you're a beginner, the first thing you'll notice is that your mind is a spoiled child. It absolutely does not want to remain in one spot. Other thoughts are going to sneak in as subtle thoughts behind the breath, or even full blown distractions where you totally forget about the breath. What am I going to make for dinner? Did I check the mail? Am I doing this right? My leg is itchy, my butt is sore, my throat is dry. Tomorrow I'm going to the movies and that will be fun. Did I pay the phone bill? Remember that time we went to the beach? I like the beach. etc, etc, etc.

Your child-like mind will try to convince you that all these thoughts are suddenly so very important. Your mind is tricky. It will do anything to avoid sitting still. It will even try to snooze if all else fails. The untrained mind does not like to be held in one place on one single mundane, uninteresting thought. But that is the whole point!! Shouldn't we be able to expect our mind to do what we tell it to do? Aren't we in control? What's with all this spoiled-brat chatter? Part of Mindfulness Meditation is training our mind to do what we tell it to do.

Each time you realize your mind has wondered, don't chastise yourself or be disappointed. You haven't failed. The mere act of catching your mind wandering is what we are going for here. Catching your mind wandering means that some tiny corner of your mind was disciplined enough to notice the wandering. That corner is what we want to build on. So when you catch yourself wandering- be happy that you have succeeded in noticing the chatter. Then, gently let go of the current thought, put it on a shelf for later, then place the mind back on the breath. In and out. Clear. Focused. Wandering...... hey! Let go of the chatter. Re-focus. In and out. And so on!

Each time we catch our minds wandering, we make that tiny mindful corner of our mind stronger and more aware of what's going on. Over time, with regular meditation practise we get better and better at staying on the breath. The length of time that we are distracted shortens. The amount of subtle background thoughts lessens. We learn that holding too tight or too loose to the breath causes the mind to slip out like a wet bar of soap. Our ability to remain focused and mindful strengthens.

As we continue to practise we see benefits in our daily lives. We can remain more focused on a task, activity or project. We become less easily distracted. We are more mindful of what's going on around us and what we are thinking. We catch ourselves being too critical or depressed. We notice when we have been thinking about our Crohn's Disease too much and need to let go of those thoughts and have some fun. We develop a more realistic outlook on life and our stress is reduced as we find solutions to our problems or realize that our troubles are not as insurmountable as we thought. We become more compassionate because we realize that just like us, all of our fellow human beings are suffering with their own troubles and worries that we probably can't even see- just like our invisible IBD.

Meditation is used by millions of people around the world. Us westerners are late to the realization of what a powerful tool it can be. Even science has begun quantifying proof of the benefits of meditation. Practise your meditation regularly for the best results, and be patient with yourself. Just like learning piano, it will take time to see results- but it's more than worth it!

Further Resources


  1. BrightSide,

    How long have you practiced meditation? Do you do yoga or anything else as well?

    It sounds very appealing, but I'm one of those people who take an hour to get to bed because I can't stop thinking!!

    Thanks for the post.


  2. Hi Kathryn,

    I've been [trying] to have a regular meditation routine for a few years now since I started practising Buddhism. I'm also the mile-a-minute thinking type- especially at night! I find that's one of the big things that meditation helps with- it gives me control over "turning off" my mind when I just really need to relax/sleep/work on something etc.

    It doesn't hurt to just try it. Start with 15 minutes a day and give it a few weeks. You might notice a big benefit!

    Nope- I've never done yoga, but I've always been interested in trying. :)

  3. Will do! It's something I was always curious about. Thanks for the inspiration, and I'll keep you updated!