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Four Ways to Meditate When You're Really, Really Sick

I’ve been very sick all week with an upper respiratory infection, which made practicing the way I normally do -- seated upright on a cushion with my hands joined just under my navel -- nearly impossible.

It’s hard to follow your breath when you can’t breathe fully and when you’re coughing every minute or two. It’s difficult to sit upright when your body aches and it’s all you can do to just get yourself out of bed. So for the past five days I had to adapt my practice to my situation.

Here are some ways I managed to practice with certain aspects of my experience:

1. BREATH - Although the simple act of breathing became quite challenging, there was still breath happening underneath all that sickness, so I worked it with as best as I could, even though I was lying down in bed most of the time. Whenever I could manage to get through even a few cycles of breath I noticed how each one seemed to have a unique and unpredictable quality. So in some ways it was easier to work with since it was all happening in such an atypical fashion. Some of my breaths were shallow, and when I attempted to breathe deeply I noticed how my lungs wouldn’t allow me to inhale any more than I was.

2. VOMIT – Whenever I had to puke I got really into it, noticing very closely every sensation and thought involved with this highly unsettling process. Fortunately, this is something most of us don’t have to do very often, so when it happens the practice opportunity here is huge.  First I worked with the initially vague, uneasy feelings in my stomach that gradually transformed into a sensation that can only be likened to how it must feel if a baby alien were about burst out. At this point I could feel the perspiration building on my face and an overall bodily discomfort that couldn’t be appeased whether I’d stand up or sit down or lay in bed. When I started to hurl into the toilet, there was no escaping from that moment or from my body — the intensity of the experienced chained me to the reality of what was happening. No wimping out and no escape possible: it was completely, intensely, fucking awesome. I could feel blood vessels in my head straining under the pressure so much that I thought they might burst. I heard sounds coming from my mouth that I didn’t realize I was even capable of producing. My body was really, really alive throughout all of that and there was no opportunity for spacing out or ignoring what was going on. Wow.

3. THOUGHTS  & FEELINGS – One time when it became apparent that I was about to throw up, I felt a deep sense of wonder and gratitude at my body’s intelligence — it was attempting to rid itself of something it didn’t need at the moment (the Japanese food I’d ordered for lunch wasn’t a wise choice in retrospect) and even while puking I could tell that I was about to feel much better as soon as I was done. And I did. I also noticed my thoughts about being sick and being alone and the stories I was creating around an otherwise innocuous experience. The practice here was being aware of the thoughts and feelings without buying into them the way I would have at some other point in my life. Doing this lessened their hold over me tremendously.

4. GRATITUDE – When someone would text, email, or call to see how I was doing, I felt a tremendous amount of gratitude that someone would take the time to do so. It made me consider how important human relationships are and how there are people in the world who are in much worse situations, often without anyone around to help them and all to often without any form of adequate healthcare. As I’m feeling better now I’m amazed at my body’s ability to heal itself and how driven it is to always return to level of homeostasis so that I can move around and function in the world the way I need to.  I also realize there will be a day when I may not be able to, and that there are many other people whose daily experience is much more challenging than my very temporary and relatively minor illness, and this makes me grateful for the health that I’m privileged enough to enjoy while it lasts. 

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I didn't expect I could learn about mindfulness from the act of vomiting, but I was giggling and nodding my head in assent as I read that part. I feel that. Thanks for sharing and may you recover soon.

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