Zen and the art of Parkinson’s self-management
How to sit with what is happening without being hijacked by it
First off, let me say I am not a Zen monk, nor have I been formally trained in Zen practices. It’s a lifestyle that started during my undergraduate college days with the reading of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Since then, I’ve been studying and practicing regularly, but not fervently.
I’ve heard that if one writes about Zen, then it’s not Zen. This idea could make it difficult to do a column on how extremely helpful the practice is for living better with Parkinson’s disease.
Many of my columns talk about meditation and being mindful. For a starting point in exploring the Zen mind, I strongly recommend the book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki.
Zen is an alert state of awareness in which one experiences the mind as it presents itself in the moment. It often produces a state of ordinary calmness that is present without doing. “Without doing” means that one has the experience without the effort to create it. It cannot be made to happen. It just is.
In his book “Become What You Are,” Alan W. Watts quotes Chuang-tzu: ‘‘The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror; it grasps nothing; it refuses nothing; it receives but does not keep.”
My experience with Zen is a variation of the quiet mind unlike any other mental state. Sitting with Zen is one of my best Parkinson’s management tools. I’m making this declaration after writing my first Parkinson’s book, “Possibilities with Parkinson’s: A Fresh Look,” and then a second, “Possibilities with Parkinson’s: Developing a Self-Management Toolkit,” to be released in April. These books cover a wide range of Parkinson’s management strategies.
Some folks might think, “Oh, Zen, that’s about being neutral or not thinking at all.” It’s not about being neutral, despite such appearances to the outside observer. Our brains are not designed to be neutral. We need to be attentive, not neutral, to most things, like threats to our survival. Zen sitting is a natural state of brain listening. Ordinary calmness is its natural outcome — not forced, but allowed. Every emotion, every sensation is still experienced. Sometimes this may feel neutral and sometimes not.
Although sitting with Zen is a natural state of the human brain, it is not something we normally practice. The practice of Zen is learning how to sit with whatever is happening without being hijacked by it. When one has Parkinson’s, this is quite difficult because disease-related brain malfunctions can force events to get out of control — hijacked. An example of this is the “go, no-go” reaction that is common with Parkinson’s.
The practice of self-regulation
Parkinson’s is a brain disease affecting the midbrain, the attention gatekeeper for emotions and sensations. Due to the disease, both emotions and sensations can be exaggerated or attenuated. Additionally, this midbrain area is responsible for monitoring how we regulate our responses to things like stress and pleasure. Parkinson’s also affects this regulatory system.
Fortunately, the midbrain has connections to higher cortical functions that we can call upon to help self-regulate. The practice of Zen sitting strengthens my ability to self-regulate by maximizing my skill to shift attention. With the practice of Zen, I can hear my brain before the disease hijacks it.
A study published this year in Brain Sciences indicated that nonmedication disease-modifying therapy is helpful for Parkinson’s.
“Several non-pharmacological approaches have been proposed to improve … PD patients’ quality of life. Among these, promising results were disclosed by mindfulness training,” the authors wrote.
Mindfulness is a practice that “specifically aims to increase the personal awareness of the moment, fully focusing on internal and external experiences as they occur in the actual present, with the suspension of personal judgments and openness to these current experiences,” they added.
But the practice is counterintuitive to the drives and desires that are often abnormally loud due to Parkinson’s. We often feel forced to pay more attention to this Parkinson’s brain noise. The practice of Zen mindfulness clarifies my mental insight, allowing me to hear the noise while it’s still a whisper, giving me time to shift my mental focus.
My personal goal is to use Zen — not just during meditation, but as a way of living every day. TBM — which stands for “threshold management, brain rewiring and mindful movement” — is the practical application of Zen throughout the day and a step toward that goal.
The practice of sitting in Zen offers me moments of ordinary calmness amid the chaos. When I practice, and it’s not possible to do so all the time, the Parkinson’s symptoms lessen. I am grateful for those moments.
Sitting honestly and seeing one’s mind clearly is the path to living better.
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.
Please put me on the mailing list for when you announce the publication of your new book.
That Parkinson’s is a mid-brain disease is very significant. My challenge is to do every thing Intentionally which uses less Dopamine.
Dopamine is what my brain struggles to produce. When I use the serenity prayer as my guide accepting my Parkinson’s diagnosis is less of an issue. TBM is a great guide for daily living exercising, thinking differently and excepting the battle versus our condition. Dr. C. you really provide a foundation for newer thinking. Blessings, Mike
I also have a PD in Last year. I think it is just starting for me. I have feeling movement s are slow and speaking is difficult. Could you please tell me how can I cure that diseases.
Thanks for the Zen article. I can also vouch for the benefits of mindfulness in dealing with Parkinson's.
Where will your books be made available?
I use the rosary in Latin as a mantra although quite different than Zen but it still works. Still I would greatly appreciate it if you would put me on your mailing list. Thank you for your refreshing ideas on new ways of making this journey with PD more palatable. Your articles show a great deal of self-reflection and discipline. Thank you.