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Meditation: What? Why? How?

Jessica Rowshandel, M.S.W.
Amy Caron
Project Director
Lupus Research Institute

Meditation has come up a few times in recent support groups here at the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation. As a lupus patient myself, I’ve experienced the benefits of meditation in relieving stress and pain and improving overall quality of life. So I’ve been happy to hear other patients willing to give it a try.

What is meditation?
Definitions of meditation vary, but let’s start with what it’s not. It is not a form of worship. It is not about any one religion or belief system or doctrine. In fact, meditation has its place among all spiritual traditions. So no matter your faith, you can incorporate meditation into your life.

Meditation is a way of getting into that space between your thoughts to reach true consciousness. That means finding, and relishing in, the peace that lies amidst the scattered moments of a busy mind. It’s reaching awareness of our lives in the bigger picture, where things we allow to weigh us down in the day to day become lighter and mean less.

More simply stated meditation is a mental exercise to quiet the mind and reach a calm state of awareness. It could be awareness of sounds around you, or awareness of the work you’re doing, all while in a state of peace.  Meditation practice allows you to learn and understand the patterns of behavior and habits of your mind. With that knowledge, you can be better prepared to deal with the inevitabilities of life in a more positive, constructive way.  

Why meditate?
A small but growing body of evidence suggests that meditation programs help reduce anxiety, depression and pain in some clinical populations. One study in Thailand even showed that meditation may improve quality of life and lower disease activity for patients with lupus nephritis. While more clinical data from well-designed studies is needed, many clinicians have said that there’s enough evidence available to get scientists thinking about meditation more seriously. For instance, the Lupus Research Institute funded a study at Hospital for Special Surgery by Dr. Jane Salmon to look at whether stimulating the nervous system with activities like meditation may help protect from organ damage.

Most recently, you may have seen news about a neuroscientist at Harvard whose studies have shown that meditation can not only help reduce stress, but can actually increase grey matter in your brain- which is good. Grey matter includes regions of the brain in charge with seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, decision making and muscle control.  

There’s also an abundance of anecdotal evidence, for instance from people like me sharing the positive changes it has made in my life. There are countless people on blogs or practicing in yoga studios and community centers praising the benefits from regular meditation. Many people have found the practice to be life changing, especially those with a chronic illness. It can be inexpensive or free, and there is very little risk.

How to start meditating?
There are many- I mean many- types of meditation. And just like with physical activity, mental activity may take some trial and error to find out what works.  It will definitely take time, practice and patience to make meditation a routine. Here are 2 common forms:

  1. Focused Attention Meditation uses an object or phrase that the practitioner focuses on for the duration of the meditation, which can be done seated or laying down. The object may be a part of the body or a charm or a gemstone. Or you might focus on a mantra. Mantra Meditation uses a word or phrase that is repeated for the purposes of focusing your mind. The phrase usually has no meaning and is more so about vibration and sound. The term “Om” is a familiar example.  Many of the common mantras are based in the Hindu traditions (but remember, this is not a form of worship). Usually this meditation is done with a set of beads used for counting as the mantra is traditionally said 108 or 1008 times. 

Give it a try: Sit comfortably on a chair with your spine erect, feet firmly on the floor and close your eyes. Take 5 long deep breaths, counting to 5 on the inhalation, and 5 on the exhalation. Start saying the word Om (pronounced Oh-m or Aum) long and slowly in your mind and repeat it like a song to yourself.

  1. Open Monitoring Meditation involves keeping open to all aspects of our experience, without judgement or attachment. All perceptions, internal – like memories or thoughts, and external- like the sound of passing cars, are recognized and seen for what they are. An example is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) which uses both breath awareness and body scan. First you focus on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath; then you put attention on the physical body starting at the toes and moving upward. You can do this seated, laying down, even walking. Mindfulness Meditation is simply about taking in the thoughts, sensations, sounds and everything around us in the present moment.

Give it a try: Sit comfortably with your spine erect on a chair or cushion on the floor. Pay close attention to the movements of your body and how it feels to breathe in and out. Hear the sounds around you, let thoughts come and go, but don’t engage with them, just let them pass. Use the breath to guide you back to a sense of stillness as the distractions come.

Make Meditation Part of Daily Life
Mindfulness as a general practice is something we can all do. It can be done during activities of daily living, like walking or talking with someone. Think about how many times you’ve driven or rode the subway and have no recollection of the time spent getting home? Simply being aware of what you’re doing in each present moment can have a positive impact on how you cope in times of stress.

A good goal in meditation practice is 20 minutes a day 4 times a week, and again, it will take some time in getting there. Start with 5 minutes of practice each time. Here’s a free online timer to help get you going, or you can use your phone.  Also, try different times of the day to find out what will work best. Maybe it’s after an evening walk or before breakfast.  Sooner than later, you’ll find meditation will become a part of your routine.

About Resources
There are many resources available online to help get started, like this meditation video that you can do at home. There’s also the free Meditation Podcast, which I really like, and countless free meditation apps for your phone. When you’re ready, you can check your local hospital, community center, yoga studio, even your local church or place of worship for free or low cost meditation groups. A sense of community can help build your practice and motivate you to keep going.

Final Thoughts
Meditation can help relieve stress, which is a known lupus trigger, as well as help improve pain and decrease depression and anxiety that come from life with a chronic illness. Meditation, like anything, is not a magic bullet- it can’t solve everything.  But it’s a safe and powerful tool we can put in our self-management toolkits. I’m only one of the millions that have realized benefits from the practice. So why not give it a try?

Lupus Coping Corner

Disclaimer: The information provided by the S.L.E Lupus Foundation is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosing or treating a medical or mental illness, nor be a substitute for professional care. Consult your healthcare provider if you have or suspect you may have a medical or mental health problem.

Amy Caron, MPH is a lupus patient and Project Director of the Lupus Research Institute provider education initiative.  She is not a physician or counselor.  The suggestions shared in this column are strictly opinions from the perspective of a lay person with lupus. Lupus is a very individualized illness; consult a healthcare professional before making any decisions about your care.

The S.L.E. Lupus Foundation does not provide any direct medical or psychological services nor recommend or endorse any particular treatment or therapy. The S.L.E. Lupus Foundation employees, consultants, and agents shall not be liable for any claims or damages, and expressly disclaim all liability of any nature for any action or non-action taken as a result of the information generated by the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation programs and its website, as well as the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation Facebook and Twitter pages.