Special Considerations for Meditation and Parkinson’s Disease
I was just two years out from my Parkinson’s diagnosis when I read in 2016 that researchers had identified a Parkinson’s patient whose symptoms, 12 years post-diagnosis, had “almost completely remitted, and he has been off all pharmacotherapy for that time.” The case suggested “the possibility of remission of symptoms in some patients,” and researchers posited that “the patient’s long history of meditation practice may have been one contributing factor of this improvement as meditation has been shown to release dopamine in the striatum.”
It was the first indication I could find in Parkinson’s research that acknowledged that perhaps Parkinson’s need not be such a destructive force in my life. The identification of meditation as a self-management technique that could make a difference in Parkinson’s progression and symptom severity seemed a new concept to the researchers. Fast-forward almost seven years, and one can find meditation discussed on innumerable websites about Parkinson’s management.
Ideal conditions for meditation
Parkinson’s is not just one type of experience. There are good days with lucid times. There are also tough times that I refer to as the “beast days.” Meditation is not possible for me during the bad days, but it’s successful and rewarding when practiced during my lucid moments. I’ve come to understand this difference. In addition to self-management, I must manage the days and times when meditation is helpful and possible.
I cannot meditate, for example, in my garden sanctuary when it is 100 degrees. I’m successful when the breeze drifts through an ambient temperature that doesn’t set off my profuse sweating. There are other conditions that help to improve my practice of meditation as well.
In his groundbreaking book from 1975 titled “The Relaxation Response,” Herbert Benson, MD, wrote that the four basic elements of the “relaxation response” are environment; a repeated sound, word, or prayer or an object to focus on; not worrying about how well you are doing; and a comfortable position. For me, it’s about getting ready to transition from stress to calmness.
When I was doing clinical work, I practiced shifting to calmness before seeing each client. This helped me share an empathic space. Empathy involves connecting with the suffering of another and living it with them in that moment. When I shared the sacred empathic healing space with someone, it almost always revealed what was blocking the healing. Now I am discovering this for myself.
Navigating with sacred intention
I’ve had to relearn how to meditate. It’s easy to lose sight of this sacred calmness when living through the barrage of Parkinson’s mind and body noise. Sacred intention helps steer my meditation practice.
Before the Parkinson’s diagnosis, when I’d meditate, it was like sitting on a mountaintop — I was well-grounded with an expansive view. The morning fog nestled in the valley, obscuring the small towns and villages, and I could see only the distant mountains. As sacred calmness washed over me, the fog would slowly dissipate, and I could gain clarity about my life.
With Parkinson’s, my new metaphor is standing in a rowboat — I’m unstable, not well-grounded, and waves are crashing wildly about me. I can’t see ahead of me, and I’m frightened. The focus of my meditation is on reducing the height and impact of the waves of Parkinson’s pain and chaos. My head and body are directed to be calmer. Eventually, the waves quiet to a slow rocking.
It’s a practice of sustained, self-directed attention focused on calmness that makes meditation successful with Parkinson’s.
Using the self-management toolkit
With a chronic illness, it makes no sense to fight or flee, as Parkinson’s envelops us every day. There are many therapeutic approaches, and meditation is one to add. I work to calm Parkinson’s effects using a self-management toolkit. To successfully use the toolkit, I need to be able to focus and self-direct my attention. The more skilled I am at this, the more successful I’ll be in managing my Parkinson’s.
Simply put, I want my meditation practice to help me live a more sacred, calm life, regardless of my chronic disease.
After years of trial and failure, I’ve discovered that the intention of sacred calm works better to promote healing — whether by helping others in an empathic relationship or trying to help myself with a self-management toolkit. It’s the foundation behind the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm.”
I set out to calm the Parkinson’s symptoms, stay engaged with my life, and manage my reactions to external and internal stress. I can take a deep breath and take on the day and my life with Parkinson’s.
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.