Covid, the flu, the ‘long cold’ – I don’t know a staff team or student class that’s not currently decimated by bugs. It feels like a good time to think about how we pace ourselves when we are unwell, and how to find a sense of comfort alongside.
- Go to bed.
- Stay in bed.
- When you feel better, get out of bed, but don’t leave your flat just yet.
- If you remain feeling better, you can leave your flat and go round the corner and then come home again.
- If that’s ok too, your next step is to go back to work.
- If that’s too much, go back a step.
- In the event of catastrophic failure, reset to 1.
- Bed is home base.
Finding Comfort When You Are Sick
There is an established evidence-base for using mindfulness to work with physical pain and illness. Early trials of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction in the 1970s focused on chronic pain and psoriasis, and the programme continues to show good results for chronic pain and other long-term health conditions. Indeed, many people first discover meditation as they look for a way to live in the face of new diagnoses – seeking forms of reflection and attention that honour the shifting terrain of their bodies.
But what about acute sickness? The breath is usually one of our strongest allies in mindfulness practice. We pay attention to sensations of the breath to give the mind a place of respite, to train it to focus, and to attend with interest and a beginner’s mind to what is familiar, invisible, and ever-present. When we are in fight/flight mode, with the mind attempting to fix and problem-solve, the fact that the breath breathes itself – whether it’s short or long, shallow or deep – opens us to the possibility that wisdom may lie in allowing life to breathe in its own way. The breath can therefore be a source of great steadiness in times of hardship; we can use it in meditation with sensations of pain, tension, and illness, knowing that these are not wrong, but an inevitable part of being human.
But if you have a respiratory bug, the breath may be short, constricted, rattly or phlegmy. Rather than being an anchor for a spiralling mind, it may trigger only fear, anxiety or irritation. The fearful mind will hoover up everything that seems relevant in order to get your attention. Things that you’ve read on Twitter or in the news; previous experiences of breathlessness and illness; and, if you have underlying health conditions, acute memories of previous health crises, will flicker through your mind at lightning speed. As they say to parents with small children, trust your instincts: if you think you need medical help, ask for it. There are ways of using your attention to work with fear and worry, but these are by no means a substitute for medical advice if you are unwell.
With medical advice in hand, awareness itself may be flitty, sleepy, unfocused, and fragmented if you have a fever, and it may be difficult to work with fragments of thought and feeling directly. At times like this, it can also be helpful to attend directly to sources of steadiness, grounding, and comfort in sensory experience.
Here are three places for your attention, that may bring comfort if you are ill right now.
1. The feet
The contact of the feet against the floor – the texture of sock or carpet; the sense of the body’s weight through the soles – can be a very grounding place to settle the attention. Unlike the breath, the feet cannot be anxious, or afraid. When awareness is fevered or fearful, you can have the sense almost of ‘pooling’ the attention in the feet, allowing gravity to bring the attention to rest. The attention may flit away again, and this is perfectly normal – just gently bring it back. You can do this lying down, as well, sensing whatever parts of the feet are in contact with the bed or sofa.
2. The ‘envelope’ of the whole body
When there are intense physical symptoms in one part of the body, or strong emotions, attention will typically zoom tightly in upon them. By contrast, when awareness is fevered, it may be so dispersed and loose that the body feels slightly unreal. Bringing the awareness to the whole of the body can help concretise back to the here and now. If you are lying down, you can sense the body’s contact points along the feet, legs, back, arms and head. You can sense the whole envelope of the skin – contact with duvet, blanket, pillow, clothing. As best you can, allow this attending to be soft, almost as if you were cradling the body in gentle awareness.
3. Notice where feels pleasant or neutral
If you feel unwell, and there are all kinds of unpleasant body sensations pulling for your attention, notice if there is anywhere in the body that feels pleasant, or neutral. This could be just the sensations of lying down; a comforting warmth, or coolness, in some part of the body; it could even be the contact between the eyelids. See what it’s like to rest the attention in this place, allowing yourself to really dwell in it. Once you have spent some time here, see if you notice anywhere else in the body that has a similar quality of comfort, pleasantness, or just neutrality. The attention will be automatically drawn towards what is unpleasant, so it may be helpful to sense that other places are here, too, to which you can return.
The feet, and the ‘envelope’ of the whole body, are less likely than the breath to feel saturated with difficulty if you have a respiratory illness. Orienting your attention towards whatever feels pleasant can also give you a sense of respite, and comfort. When you drop into sensory experience in this way, allow your body to tell you what it needs: perhaps rest, water, warmth, or the assistance of other bodies.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘if you need to sleep, for goodness’ sake sleep, don’t meditate.’ But if you feel well enough to practice something a little more formal, you might like to try this shorter version of the body scan. At just fifteen minutes, this may feel more helpful and suited to a drained or sleepy awareness than a long practice.
Wishing you all a week of safety and good health, in which this guidance is thoroughly unnecessary – but here it is, should you find it helpful.
Mindfulness lunchtime drop-in sessions run Tuesdays and Fridays, 1.10 to 1.50pm.
For staff and PGR students, the five-week Mindfulness and Compassion course begins on Monday 6 November.
Photography: Sam Ingram-Sills, Whitedog Photography; and Getty Images/Ridofranz.