Meditation and Mindfulness Applied to Chronic Illness

Kevin, 39, is a meditating friend of mine who has been handicapped with Reiter’s Syndrome and Multiple Schlerosis for many years. He participated in the Des Moines Meditation and Mindfulness group before moving to the East Coast. With his permission, I’m sharing excepts from our email exchanges about how meditation and mindfulness practices have helped him deal with the increasing pains and problems associated with his chronic illnesses, as well as the role of medication in facilitating such practices. We hope such sharing may benefit others with chronic illnesses.

Kevin has had: (1) Reiter’s Syndrome for 20 years, with its digestive problems; rheumatoid arthritis in virtually every join of the body, and the spine fused through the neck; intermittent inflammation of the eyes with permanent damage in one eye; and various urinary problems. (2) Multiple Sclerosis for nine years with increasing muscle weakness throughout the trunk of the body and muscle spasms in both legs and the left arm when used after 15 minutes of rest. He says, “I just happen to have a gene that reacted badly to a venereal disease that I contracted when I was 18 in 1988. The two together combined to cause all kinds of changes in the body. The first stages of Reiter’s Syndrome developed very soon afterwords and MS popped up in roughly the year 2000." Following are excerpts from email exchanges.

KEVIN: It's really fascinating to watch your body waste away. Scary, weird, strange, eye opening, and the list goes on and on. To see/watch the effect it has on your own thoughts/mind and the effects that it has on others is just unbelievable. I can see how people go "mad" during these episodes. When those close to you suffer and try to help in any way possible, it can be a really stressful thing for the sick person. For example, if the sick person doesn't get well despite the efforts of others it can be very easy to blame yourself or feel guilty for not getting better. If you have doubts or self-sabotage moments, you can feel guilty for "wasting" the good will put forth by others. After all, they are doing what they can to help, and there you go throwing it all down the drain. Utterly fascinating to see how your mind works in these situations creating scenarios with all sorts of feelings coming in right on the heels of a completed scenario.

As if to say that we knew enough about the ways of the world to be able to judge each scenario in order to have an "appropriate" reaction. So I'm trying to maintain a stable peaceful way of existing despite the wild and desperate thoughts/feelings that rage through this body/mind. Fear is paramount, and hopelessness seems to be at every corner. Anxiety is constantly showing up and anger/rage burn in the pit of the stomach. Kind of toxic don't you think? The only things really saving me are the knowledge that everything changes, and that none of this is permanent. My mind definitely wants to see all of this as being permanent, but I've seen and experienced too much, and I know that what is happening is not permanent!

CHARLIE: It’s good to hear you’re able to keep a realistic perspective on the pains happening in your body and your mind’s reactions to them, and to the reactions of others and your reactions to them. You seem to have a good grasp of letting all the varied painful and negative feelings just rise and pass away with minimal judgement, commentary, and decision making (a high level of mindfulness). The only "appropriate" reactions you refer to are the ones you actually experience, and you appear to be mindfully accepting them as "what is is" with a good degree of objectivity and equanimity. One way of looking at your reactions, Kevin, is that they reflect the transcendence of the illusory sense of an independent self/ego that thinks it can control its destiny, that thinks it can somehow forever rid itself of pain and illness. Stated another way, you appear able to surrender to the reality that everything is the interconnected result of multiple causes and events interacting with the internal body/mind and external circumstances of each new moment to produce the next moment. All is impermanent, which as you wisely observe, can often be a blessing.

KEVIN: You talk about how I seem to have a good grasp of letting emotions/feelings come and just observe them. Yes, this is true, especially when compared to what I USED to be like! However, the mind keeps nagging me by saying, “You wouldn't be so good at this if you were not on certain drugs that dull the pain/experience (anti-depressants, narcotics, anti-inflammatories).” Taking drugs of any kind (medicines, street drugs, caffeine, etc) alter your perceptions and body chemistry. Obviously, taking medicine with the intent of healing your mind/body is one thing while abusing medicine in order to just get "high" or avoid reality is another.

I get the impression in general that when meditating, we try to experience reality as it is, not altered in any way. I realize that I am able to better deal with reality because of drugs, but do they invalidate the whole experience? I don't think so since drugs ARE a part of reality with causes and effects, and one can observe them just as easily as anything else in this wonderful world. Do some forms of meditation say otherwise...that you are hiding or running away from reality by taking the drugs?

CHARLIE: Teachers have pointed out that research shows appropriately prescribed medication can correct underlying chemical and neurological imbalances that interfere with the benefits of meditation. Medications that reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit without producing substantial negative side effects can enhance the benefits of meditation, namely clarity of thinking, mindfulness, and the ability to recognize and let go of the cognitive and affective distractions that interfere with relaxing. Buddha’s teachings were all about how to reduce suffering and enhance the quality of life, and you get to experiment with how medicine can help you do that.

As you point out, Kevin, abusing “medicine” to get high or avoid reality is not a good idea. Alcohol, over-the-counter meditations, and other psychotropic mind-altering drugs can reduce suffering and occasionally produce spiritual insights and highs. But except for appropriate use of over-the-counter medications, their use as you know is strongly discouraged because they too often cloud consciousness; impair mindfulness; lead to careless, inappropriate, and abusive behaviors; result in frightening psychological experiences; and lead to psychological and physiological additions. Also, any artificially, drug-induced spiritual insights and positive feelings are usually temporary and may suppress the underlying natural desire to recognize and realize one's already enlightened nature through meditation, mindfulness, and other spiritual practices. Quick fixes are quite rare in comparison with the suffering and real problems that are risked in using drugs to “get high” or attain spiritual insights. Your mindfulness and meditation practices appear to be serving you well, Kevin. I applaud your courage and commitment, your Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Understanding, and appreciate your willingness to share your experiences with others.

TO READERS: Send an email to me at if you wish to communicate with Kevin, and I’ll forward it to him.