Day 19 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge
There’s a lot of sickness going on at the moment, this being cold and flu season, so the question arises, what should you do about your meditation practice if you’re sick?
It’s tempting to “take the day off.” After all, that’s what we often do with work when we’re feeling under the weather.
But that’s not the approach that the Tibetans take. When they’re sick they do more, not less, meditation. The reason is that they assume, rightly or wrongly, that the illness is the result of previous bad karma, and they want to offset that with karmically healthy activities. So they meditate more. And actually meditating has been shown to boost the immune system, so it’s a wise move, even if you doubt the story about karma.
And it’s possible to meditate while sick. We can meditate lying down. Lying on the back tends to lead to a rather sleepy experience, but it’s better than nothing. However, you can also lie on your side, which is a very traditional, although little-used, meditation posture.
And even when you are sick, you’re still breathing, so there’s no reason you can’t focus on that. There may be a degree to which you’re doing mindfulness of sniffing or mindfulness of coughing, but it can still be done.
However, you might want to do lovingkindness meditation rather than focus on your breathing, because we tend to get into self-pity when we’re sick, and focusing on your labored breathing can exacerbate the wallowing. You can do metta bhavana, or even turn it into a compassion meditation practice. The only real difference between the two is that in lovingkindness we wish that beings we happy, while in compassion practice we are aware that beings are suffering and wish that they be free from suffering. Compassion is lovingkindness meeting an awareness of suffering.
And since you’re suffering when you’re sick, the first stage of self metta can easily become a self-compassion meditation. This doesn’t mean we wallow! Self-compassion is not self-pity. In self-pity we’re caught up in the story that says “I’m sick! This is horrible! Poor me!” In self-compassion there’s just a recognition of physical or emotional discomfort, which are observed impartially and from a slight distance, and we wish ourselves well. So if your throat is sore, wish it well. If your lungs are full of mucus, wish them well. If you feel tired and achey, wish yourself well.
And in the other stages of the practice, a compassionate recognition that others are suffering too, and often much worse than we are, is a good way of feeling better about our own situation. You have the flu: someone else has just learned they have cancer and have months to live. Someone else has just lost a child. Your own suffering is real, but it’s less catastrophic than we tend to imagine.