When life is stressful or traumatic or you are suffering in some way, it may seem easier to focus your attention anywhere but on the painful situation at hand. So you distract yourself. Distractions can include focusing on the future, working too hard, running away (mentally or physically), compulsively eating or exercising, indulging in alcohol or drugs, spacing out, or scattering your attention from one thing to the next.
It’s natural to want to avoid feeling sensations you deem unpleasant or difficult, but whether you like it or not, whether you plan for them or not, they do come up. Just as the good ones do.
When Painful Sensations Arise...
Some people, especially if they experience a tragedy or heartache, believe that if they start crying they’ll never stop. They believe that if they truly feel their emotions, they will lose control and something bad will happen.
When painful physical sensations arise and you don’t fully allow yourself to experience them, it can cause stress. When you feel pain, fear, or anger, practice locating and feeling the sensations in your body without resisting them, bracing against them, or trying to change them. Experience them — you don’t have to act on them.
When you fully experience what is going on inside, your attention has an effect on the sensations that arise, and you will notice that they eventually shift or come to a natural end. The practice of meditation is the best way to gently dissolve the residue of past trauma and physical pains we all carry with us.
The Challenge of an Illness or a Serious Diagnosis
One of the most challenging times to focus on the present moment is when you are ill or receive a serious diagnosis. Yet this is the time when such awareness is the most valuable.
This reminds me of one of my meditation students who sent me a newspaper article about her friend, a 51-year-old woman with cancer. This friend was a type A personality who knew success in everything she did, including running and completing several long-distance marathons. My student sent this note along with the article:
My friend just found out she has a life-threatening, rare cancer — only about 300 people a year are diagnosed with it. She’s focusing on the specialized surgery, which she will follow with radiation treatments. Do you have any advice for her?
I did. It was the same advice I’d been offering for years. I wrote:
In addition to getting the surgery and the radiation, I recommend your friend learn to meditate and practice it at least once a day, every day, now and after the surgery. Meditation will help alleviate the stress she faces — mentally, emotionally, and physically. Stress has been shown to suppress the immune system, and when the immune system is compromised, it can’t fight off the cancer cells as efficiently. Stress can also inhibit the body’s natural healing process once the surgery and treatments are over.
While waiting for her surgery and treatments, I encourage your friend to bring her attention back to the present moment. The tendency is for most of us to focus on the future: When my cancer is gone, then I’ll get on with my life, but this way of thinking can keep her from experiencing the life she is living now.
Of course, she needs to spend time planning and thinking about the future — to round up funds, look for answers, take care of her family’s future needs. But does she give herself time to slow down and enjoy the life she already has? Does she give herself permission to feel all her feelings? Experience the world she lives in now?
I suggest she enjoy each day: leisurely meals, mindful walks, time in nature, and the company of family and good friends. Those little things create a precious life, whether you have cancer or not. This moment, this very moment, is all we can be sure of.
I gave my student some simple mindfulness anchors to pass on to her friend, such as paying attention to the body and the breath. These practices would help her, even if the cancer didn’t go away.
It’s important to be present for our lives, whether we are healthy or not, happy with our job or not, in love or not, feeling good about ourselves or not . . . because we never know what is going to happen next. And being present is the best way to be prepared for anything.
©2012 by Sarah McLean.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Hay House Inc. www.hayhouse.com. All Rights Reserved.
Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation
by Sarah McLean.
Inspired by and based on Sarah McLean's 20-plus year spiritual journey, Soul-Centered presents a contemporary, mainstream view of meditation in an 8-week program that delivers time-tested techniques to cultivate an effective daily meditation practice. This easy to follow program inspires you to confidently practice meditation and develop a new perspective. In the process, you'll become more-self-aware, more peaceful, and more compassionate: a way of life that can truly be called soul-centered.
About the Author
Sarah McLean, an inspiring contemporary meditation teacher, makes meditation accessible to everyone. She's spent much of her life exploring the world's spiritual and mystic traditions. She's lived and studied in a Zen Buddhist monastery, meditated in ashrams and temples throughout India and the Far East, spent time in Afghan refugee camps, bicycled the Silk Route from Pakistan to China, trekked the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, and taught English to Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Dharamsala. Sarah is the founding director of The McLean Meditation Institute, an educational company offering meditation training, self-discovery retreats, and teacher training certification programs that have transformed thousands of lives, and have earned her the praise of her peers and students.