Why? Because thinking too deeply raises uncomfortable questions about religion, ethics, morality and mortality. And for me, at least, there are no concrete answers. Those of you with a particular faith or belief will perhaps disagree. But I would argue that no-one knows for sure, that’s the nature of faith.
If you are still reading you might like to come a little closer and take some time out with me. My intention is to share my thoughts about spirituality and relate those to how having a spiritual outlook can help people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
The dictionary definition of spirituality is the search for meaning in existence. You don’t need to be religious to experience spirituality, you just need to yearn to find the answer to the question “what’s it all about?”
So who am I? I’m Stephen, age 67 and my darling wife, Michelle, is the OMSer in our partnership. We’ve both followed the OMS 7 step program for about four years. It’s our Silver Wedding in April and as Michelle was diagnosed in 2000, MS has been part of our life together for all but the first 5 years. 20 years living with the condition has afforded us certain insights. The main one is that we value our life together and we are grateful for sharing a (mostly) harmonious relationship.
Spirituality isn’t a specific part of the 7 step programme (although stress reduction and mindfulness are). Looking at OMSers’ various posts on Facebook, blogs etc there are plenty of comments / questions about the OMS diet, exercise, medication and far fewer about meditation. Look beneath the surface however, especially in the “stories of hope” and you will find descriptions / moments of spiritual insight.
The diagnosis of MS is a shocker; it certainly was for us. A period of emotional numbness was followed by fear of the future and for Michelle the question, “why me?”
It’s often times of great stress or sadness that directs one’s thoughts to ponder “what’s it all about?” Loss of a loved one in particular is a potent stimulus. My first experience of such loss was when my 17 year old sister died and I was 12. Since then I’ve lost my dad, mum, two father and mother-in-laws, three dogs and three cats. And I’m obviously not alone in suffering loss.
There are 7.7 billion people on the planet and in 150 years time we will all be gone. That’s a fact. That might spur you on to do something positive with your life, for example make a mark or leave a legacy.
For me, I’m sometimes left thinking “what’s the point then?” I haven’t found a definitive answer but through reading, listening to others I consider more spiritually developed than me and through meditation in particular, I’ve reached some conclusions that help me stay sane.
Since meditation is a fundamental part of the OMS programme I would like to focus on how that’s helped us. I’ve meditated sporadically throughout my adult life. For the last four years it’s become a significant part of my daily life. This repetition has offered me some clarity about who “I” really am.
As I completely relax the body and take my time scanning through from my feet to my head, I get the feeling that I’m not part of the body but observing it; this feeling is amplified when I follow the breath. I realise that breathing along with digestion, heartbeat, circulation, nervous system and many other bodily functions are all taking place without “me” needing to do anything. In fact even my thoughts are not generated by me, they just pop right in there! It’s like a CD playing. Yes “I” recorded the tracks as I responded to life’s experiences. While I meditate I see that the thoughts come unbidden. I can dispassionately watch them from afar.
An analogy for how I experience meditation is that the body is a hotel, the mind is the hotel’s manager and I am a guest. Like all good guests, I pay respect to my accommodation and the manager who runs it. If the manager gets angry, fearful or frustrated when things don’t work in the accommodation or there’s a perceived threat in the surrounding environment, I tell the manager that I’m truly grateful for their concern which I know is aimed at protecting me. I also say, however, that I can look after myself. Not least because I’m following a programme that offers me the best chance of being well.
I also try to bring this separation of “I” the mind and the body into my life when I’m not meditating. “Meditation truly begins when one leaves the meditation hall.”
Still, how does this answer the “what’s it all about?” question. The accommodation and its manager will age and eventually become a place incapable of having me as a guest. When shutdown happens, my guest self leaves and looks for other suitable accommodation. Yes, reincarnation. I have personal experience suggesting that life goes on after death, what I’m unsure about is how that new accommodation is found and accessed. My conclusion is that each life is a learning lesson. And that I need to ask myself is what is the experience teaching me.
I’m nearly at the end of our navel gazing adventure. I want to finish with something I think is important to people with MS (PwMS) and their carers / supporters. You may have heard of the vagus nerve. This is the largest nerve in the body and via the parasympathetic nervous system it interacts with the heart, lungs and digestive tract. It also regulates the TH1 & TH2 inflammatory responses. You may know that these responses being in proper balance are crucial for PwMS.
The hormone Oxytocin helps to regulate the action of the vagus nerve and assist with its proper function. It’s present in nursing mothers as it helps to build the bond between mother and child. The easiest way to create your own supply of Oxytocin is to engender a “loving feeling” during meditation. Once the body is completely calm and relaxed, bring a picture or thought to mind of someone or something that you dearly love. Let that feeling bring a smile to your face and let your heart feel warm and content.
Craig Hassed describes meditation as performing “genetic engineering” while sitting quietly in a chair. Now you can see that you are also helping your heart and vagus nerve to function in ways that benefit your wellbeing.
I said someone or something that you dearly love. Why is it so difficult for the “someone” to be oneself? Albert Ellis, an eminent American psychologist and the founder of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) argues that unconditional self-love can help to eradicate most of what makes us suffer depression, anxiety and self loathing. It doesn’t mean you have to admire your gorgeous looks. It just means not saying things like “I would love myself more if …I was thinner, had more hair, had a smaller nose etc. Self-acceptance is a decent halfway house but unconditional self-love is the goal. The very nature of existence is that we all can and do make mistakes. Get over it and move on.
Michelle has MS, I have MS in my life with her. So far I learned to be patient, tolerant and that loving one’s way through difficulties is the best way to manage day-to-day. I try my best not to cast the present moment into a possible future. I much prefer to let the future unfold and see what happens. My other default is commonly called a positive mental attitude (PMA). This is also categorised as having a “can do” attitude; a winner’s outlook. Someone with PMA sees a challenge and winks at it. That’s a good way to live one’s life. I’d like to add, to always act with kindness, compassion and gratitude makes the winning all the sweeter.
I hope you enjoyed our navel gazing. If it prompts discussion, argument or dissent all the better. You, me, everyone is either secretly or openly trying to make sense of what it means to be alive. I certainly haven’t cracked it, I’d love to know what you think.