Setting the Stage for Insight Meditation With Parkinson’s Disease
The process requires sanctuary and solitude, explains columnist Dr. C
Life in our hectic world is very noisy. To get the most benefit from the practice of insight meditation, we need our Parkinson’s life to be quiet. We must reduce the external noise so we can hear those subtle ripples in our brain’s undercurrent, the precursors to problems. Preventing the issues that lead to crises makes living with a chronic illness easier.
To aid with this, Mrs. Dr. C and I built — one brick at a time — a sanctuary garden.
The process of building our sanctuary is, as every gardener knows, a work in progress. It offers opportunities to vary exercise, depending on where I am that day in my Parkinson’s cycle. This disease can easily hijack my brain. It does so with every broken morning. I need a serene place in the forest where I can commune with nature. Sanctuary sets the conditions for solitude.
The midbrain, damaged by Parkinson’s, acts as our Grand Central Station for sensory input. When I had to stop taking my Parkinson’s medications because of side effects, I got to see this malfunctioning sensory gatekeeper very clearly. “Up close and personal” only begins to describe the sensory flooding experience.
Mrs. Dr. C and I don’t usually attend theater shows, but we recently made an exception for our granddaughter’s community theater production. As we joined the crowded ticket line, I realized that I was somehow inches away from an attractive woman in a skintight minidress. She was definitely dressed to impress. I was shocked by the power of my internal, unexpected sexual tension. I worked on deep breathing and paid attention to the emotions stirred up by my reaction.
It was very unsettling but also educational. The episode clearly showed that my Parkinson’s midbrain can get hijacked by sensory input. I needed to change that.
Improving my self-awareness
This is where solitude comes into play when setting the stage to practice insight meditation. It must be a setting where the external sensory input is minimal so I can hear the internal noise when it’s just beginning.
The idea of using sensory deprivation to help tune into subconscious midbrain processes is not new. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, psychologists explored using sensory deprivation chambers to facilitate “hearing” the language of the midbrain.
Gil Thelen, a fellow Parkinson’s patient and author, reintroduced me to the concept of interoception. Interoception involves two-way communication between the brain’s subconscious awareness of internal physiological states and our higher-level cognitive processing centers. These messages support physical and emotional well-being by creating effective responses to stressful input. Stress is a big problem for people with Parkinson’s. But to handle it successfully, we need self-awareness and emotion regulation.
Effective emotion self-regulation comes from our ability to accurately detect and evaluate cues from our reactions to stressful events. There is compelling evidence that links poor or disrupted awareness of sensory information (poor interoception) and emotional dysregulation.
In an article published in 2018 in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers explore how interoceptive awareness facilitates emotion regulation and how an integrated sense of self contributes to overall health and well-being:
“The explanatory model is that the development of these key interoceptive capacities improves sensory (physical and emotional) awareness, reduces distress, and improves regulation. … At a deeper level, emotion regulation involves a coherent relationship with the self, specifically effective communication between body, thoughts, and feelings. … Optimally, emotional regulation confers benefits in terms of health, well-being, social connection, and competence with life tasks.”
Because of Parkinson’s I’ve had to relearn how to listen to tiny body cues. Thanks to my broken brain, it’s difficult to predict and regulate physical and emotional responses. I had to retrain my brain to focus on the cues, and I needed solitude to do this retraining.
Because I want to find a way to self-manage Parkinson’s, I explore the functioning of the midbrain. I cannot stop its signals. A rule I used when designing brain rehab programs was never to ask the brain to stop what it’s designed to do. Instead, find ways to work around the damaged, malfunctioning region.
For Parkinson’s patients, I believe this can be done using sanctuary and solitude along with insight meditation to counteract the malfunctioning surges from the damaged midbrain. I’ve learned to manage my Parkinson’s brain, just a little, by tuning in to my body and altering my perception of my brain’s exaggerated signals. It was a huge challenge standing in a crowded theater line next to a femme fatale dressed to impress.
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.
Thinking of the mind as the physical brain, (I Corinthians 9:27) "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway."
Fascinating piece. I have found my sanctuary on my deck in Arizona that we have set up for exercise for both me and my wife. Of late I have begun using my stationary bike recommended by my Movement Disorder Specialist. In our garden we have a new Nectarine tree to go with our Plum tree. I find trees are productive and easy to tend just letting the fruit ripen is my challenge. We have also planted flowers for some color. We just have to watch for the Javilina’s who like our back yard. The challenge of managing midbrain damage is tough. For me the best I can hope for is symptom modification, Exercise, Accupuncture, Diet, Neuralli, Medication and responding to your ideas and others is how I cope best. Blessings, Mike
Hi Mike ~ Glad to hear that your sanctuary in Arizona holds forth fruit and enjoyment. Always good to hear from you.