Achieving a Calm State of Mind With the Gentle Observer

How to stay settled despite Parkinson's while you're out in the world

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by Dr. C |

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Finding moments of calm during the chaotic brainstorm of Parkinson’s disease is crucial to my self-management. Before I was diagnosed, my best stretch of continuous calm was 14 days. Now, I get excited if I can maintain 14 minutes. I see getting to the calm state of mind in the middle of the Parkinson’s storm as a sacred miracle.

The process of shifting from chaos to calm feels sacred and more mystical art than science. Being able to quiet the storm while sitting in my meditation space is a wonderful thing, but I cannot live my life from that spot. I need to find calm while walking in the grocery store or riding in the car. This is how the practice of being a gentle observer originated for me.

When I’m home and the Parkinson’s brain noise storm hits, I can retreat to my calm place. I can’t do that when I’m out in the world. I’m using gentle observer for that, and so far, it’s surprisingly effective.

Here’s how I see Parkinson’s. Firstly, it’s a brain disease. Secondly, it’s a transient experience. And lastly, it’s the understanding of that transient experience that helps me steer the course and consequences of the disease.

To do this, I need to be the gentle observer. That’s my term for when I can mindfully observe the transient experience, the way I transition into a bad day and a good day, and learn how I’m living with the illness.

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If I ask you, “How are you feeling today?,” you might instinctively respond, “I’m fine.” Instead, stop for a moment and check in on yourself. Are you really doing fine, or are there warning signs of panic? Are your muscles feeling like you’re moving through mud? Do you know what your triggers do to make all this worse? If possible, do you know how to mitigate the escalation?

This is how the practice of being a gentle observer starts. It’s a conscious decision to check in with myself, to ask how things are going.

I have specific times when I try to always check in. One of my triggers occurs when I’m nearing the limit of my outdoor exercise. As much as I’d like to do otherwise, most days I must limit myself to 90 minutes. Going over that limit pushes me to cross the threshold of being able to self-manage. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t finished. What gardener really feels like a garden is ever finished?

Another trigger is having too much on our schedule in one day. For instance, we must plan our excursions to limit the number of stops. For longer shopping trips — the big box stores are 35 miles from us — that usually means two stores with a maximum of three stops.

In-town errands can be more frequent and with fewer stops each time. If I’m just managing to get through a bad day, but want to accompany Mrs. Dr. C, I’ll elect to stay in the car while she does whatever is on the to-do list. But I must check in to know what I can handle at that moment.

It’s a conscious decision to check in with myself to see how things are going. It’s a ritual now to practice checking in multiple times a day. Although it’s hard to do because of the Parkinson’s brain noise, the intent is just to observe and store in memory how I’m doing or feeling. Later, one can shift from observer to conductor, which can moderate the signals coming into the brain. If I first gently observe, then meditate, and then contemplate on doing, I’m then ready to engage the conductor.

When I use the conductor properly, I can shift from chaos to calm and avoid the pitfalls of “go/no-go,” which is an urgency to move, a severe restlessness, followed by a severe resistance to moving. This shift to calm can be done almost anytime, provided I’m not approaching the threshold. I’ve had success even on bad days, if it’s not a very bad day.

The technique is also used to help me shift out of pain to sideways viewing, as long as I’m not over the threshold. Threshold management, part of the self-management toolkit, keeps me in the practice of being a gentle observer.

Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.


Maida Follini avatar

Maida Follini

Although I do not have Parkinson's ( my late husband did, and my son-in-law has it) I do have severe arthritis, atrial fibulation, and am hard-of-hearing. And I am 92 yrs old. I found this current article especially helpful to me, because I, too, have to limit my activities, and observe myself to make sure I do not engage in too many activities. I need a full night's sleep - 8 or 9 hours -- to feel "Okay" and energetic the next day. I find one activity, in or out of the home, may tire me out; and make my thinking not up to par. So this was a very helpful column about how to calm down. Also, shows us not to expect others (with or without Parkinson's) to"keep up with scheduled activiies" all the time. Thank you.


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