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Calm, cool, collected: a meditation primer.

Working as a nurse at St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton, California, back in the 1970s had its pressures for Toni Vidal. While ministering to the medical needs of the community, Vidal began to experience unexplainable symptoms: weakness on the left side of her body, double vision, and a weakened and clumsy grasp. Then she became pregnant with her second child. Things were becoming overwhelming and a solution had to be found.

"I was so stressed. I already had a 10-month-old daughter at home, and I had to do something just to function, to think more clearly and get things done," she said.

Vidal started meditating.

In 1986, Toni Vidal was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS. That same year, she resigned to care for her family--and herself. But Vidal continues to use meditation as a tool for improving her life. "When my symptoms flare up and I'm stressed, my symptoms seem even worse. When I meditate, I'm better able to cope."

Dr. Patricia Norris, clinical director of the Life Sciences Institute of Mind-Body Health in Topeka, Kansas, has been working with people who have MS for 15 years.

"Meditation brings the mind more under conscious volition, so it diminishes obsessive thoughts, worry, and anxiety. Meditation has the potential to harness the mind in the service of well-being," Norris said.

Norris breaks down meditation into two categories: concentrative and mindfulness. In concentrative meditation, you try to focus on one thing with the idea that your mind will become completely quiet. Focusing on breathing, you become absorbed in the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. Breathing becomes slower and deeper, and you soon feel both more aware and more tranquil.

Mindfulness meditation has the same goal, but you get there using a different technique. While looking at something you allow your eyes to go into soft focus, paying equal attention to everything in your field of vision. The goal is the same state of heightened awareness and greater tranquility.

Medical researchers have been looking at the benefits of meditation since the 1960s. The National Library of Medicine's "Gateway" Web site <http://gate way.nlm.nih.gov/gw/Cmd> lists 779 clinical trials and studies involving meditation from 1965 up to the present. While none of these clinical trials involved populations of people with MS, meditation has been shown to have generally positive if modest physiological effects, including the relief of some chronic pain, lowered blood pressure, stress reduction, mood stabilization, and lowered levels of fatigue, depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion.

Donn C. Irving of Downey, California, was diagnosed with progressive MS in 1986, although he said that his symptoms first appeared 20 years earlier. He meditates about an hour each day.

"I come from a medical family," said Irving, "and part of my athletic regimen when I was a kid was focused attention, which we called self-hypnosis. So, if you will, I've been meditating pretty much all my life."

Irving, a wheelchair user, believes that meditation has calmed him and helped him come to grips with the situation of living with MS. Able to connect to a sense of peacefulness, he said that he no longer has to worry about control.

"I don't get angry as much anymore," he said.

It has been 13 years since Maya Devi of Whittier, California, began teaching meditation to people with MS. While stressing that a person should not make any demands or expectations of themselves in the process of meditating, she does say that a 100% effort to concentrate and focus should be made, because focusing is in itself a form of meditation.

"My feeling," Devi said, "is that you connect with a part of yourself that has no MS. It's your physical body that gets the MS. Your you is intact. Meditation connects you to that part of yourself."

Practical reasons to consider meditation abound.

Sue Smith of California has been living with relapsing-remitting MS since the mid-1970s. It has affected her eyes and her balance, and causes extreme fatigue.

"A lot of people say there's no pain in MS," Sue said. "I'm afraid there is. I don't say meditation gets rid of pain, but it helps you deal with it. Not that it solves anything permanently, but it's a calming thing. It very much is."

"I really think I'm able to handle more because I meditate," said Toni Vidal. "Little things that might otherwise irritate me don't. Some form of relaxation is beneficial for everyone with MS. Meditation is one form."

Meditation Basics

Many people find that meditation greatly decreases the stress in their lives. It takes about 15 minutes once or twice a day. Try to meditate at the same times each day.

1 Sit in a quiet place, free from distractions. Unplug the phone and close the door. Tell everyone you are going to be busy for 15 minutes.

2 Loosen tight clothing, remove your shoes, and sit in a position that is comfortable.

3 Inhale through your nose slowly and deeply. Let your belly expand. Draw in as much air as you can. Then, hold your breath for a few seconds--four or five is fine. Begin to exhale. Shape your lips as if you were going to whistle, and slowly breathe out between your lips. When you feel your lungs empty, sit quietly for a moment and then repeat the inhale/exhale cycle two or three times.

4 Pick a word or phrase that makes you feel calm. Many people find that words that end in an m or n sound are most helpful--words like "calm", "home", "noon", or "one".

5 Close your eyes and repeat the word or phrase over and over either in your mind or out loud. Concentrate on the way the word sounds inside your head. If you have trouble relaxing or concentrating on the word, stop, do a cycle of deep breathing, and try again.

End the exercise by gently stretching and exhaling.

--from Taming Stress in Multiple Sclerosis, by Frederick Foley, PhD, with Jane Sarnoff. Call your local chapter for a copy.

Al Tainsky was diagnosed with MS in 1989. He wrote about redefining productivity in the Summer 2001 issue of InsideMS.
COPYRIGHT 2002 National Multiple Sclerosis Society
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Author:Tainsky, Al
Publication:Inside MS
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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