Mindfulness and Stroke Recovery

Many people are talking about mindfulness these days, and through careful investigation researchers are showing the potential for mindfulness to help a whole series of health and wellness challenges.  Could mindfulness be applied to stroke recovery?  Yes, it could, and practicing mindfulness as we work with stroke recovery can be very helpful.

What is mindfulness and how would it be helpful?  The simple definition of mindfulness is the capacity to pay relaxed, openhearted, non-judgmental attention to what is happening right now, in this present moment. It is a practice that teaches us to turn towards ourselves with kindness and a steady willingness to explore our experience.  Turning towards ourselves supports our recoveries.

To explain more about mindfulness, it helps to understand that thinking and paying attention are not the same thing.  Because of the way we are taught, many people confuse the two. The capacity to think is only one of the things we do.  We may or may not pay attention while we think.

Thinking is wonderfully useful.  We need thinking for all sorts of things.  But thinking can be so compelling that we can easily forget it’s only one activity of the many capacities our brains have.   The stories we tell ourselves when we are thinking, happy stories or sad and scary stories, can carry us away.  We start to do something, get caught up in our stories and hours later notice we didn’t pay attention to what we wanted to accomplish.   Thinking can get in the way of attention.

Our capacity to think, like all our capacities to know, rests in a much deeper and broader, receptive awareness.  That awareness, sometimes called “loving awareness” is a bigger way of knowing ourselves and our world.  Can you notice yourself being aware of the fact that you are thinking?  Awareness holds that knowing.  Thinking fits inside awareness.

As you notice yourself thinking, can you simultaneously be aware of the fact that you are breathing, or sitting, or hot, or cold, or feeling yourself resting in a chair, or hearing the noises around you, or seeing, or maybe still tasting the coffee or tea you just drank, or feeling your stomach gurgle or feeling your heart beat, whether you are sad or happy, or something else about yourself?  All those sensations and ways of knowing are held in our awareness, not in our thinking.  Mindfulness teaches us to train and stabilize our attention so we can cultivate our capacity to rest in our loving awareness and gently, kindly learn much more about ourselves.

Mindfulness is a practice that strengthens our capacity to pay attention to what is happening without trying to change it.   This is important.  We will continue to work hard on our recoveries.  We don’t just notice our injuries and then give up.  We will continue to heal and grow. What does it mean, then, to pay attention to something without trying to change it?   To take skillful action, first we have to know what we are working with.  First we have to bring something into our awareness, pay attention to it and know it as deeply as we can.

Whatever we are paying attention to cannot really be known if the moment we notice it, we determine it should be something else and try to change it.   If we do that we are just pushing the experience away.  With mindfulness we turn towards ourselves and what we are experiencing and discover ourselves just as we are.  Later we can take what we have learned with us as we work on our rehabilitation.

One of my beloved teachers, Ange Stevens, says “When we reject anything, it cannot be healed.”  We are working to reconnect our injured brains and our bodies.  To heal ourselves, our brains need all the information that they can get about how things are and our growing capacity to pay attention.

When we pay attention through mindfulness we also see that everything is changing all the time. We know our brains are constantly changing.  Neuroplasticity, this constant rewiring process, is what gives us the capacity to recover function.   Our brains are changing and so is everything else.  Sadness stays a while and then another emotion comes.  Cold changes to warm. Loud sounds change to quiet ones.  Understanding that things are always changing gives us hope that we can heal.

Mindfulness also helps us relax.  When we are willing to be in the present moment just as it is and just as we are, we stop fighting ourselves.   This doesn’t mean we become passive. What it means is that we work with ourselves rather than against ourselves.  Fighting ourselves produces stress.  Stress injures us and stress interferes with the process of healing in our brains.  Stress gets in our way.

Mindfulness can be a great asset in stroke recovery.  I used and use it throughout my own recovery and my daily life.  Without it I would not be as well as I am.  I teach mindfulness to stroke survivors because I know it makes a difference.