Opinion: Adapting Meditation


The following article was written by volunteer and member Ricky Buchanan. In the process of learning to meditate, Ricky ran into some complications in terms of instructions geared towards an able-bodied audience and wanted to share the lessons learned in the process of adapting those instructions.

Guided meditation tapes often have directions that can be hard for some people with disabilities to follow. Does this mean you can’t use those tapes, or can they be adapted?

Mostly the only thing that matters in meditation, honestly, is your state of mind. All the rest – physical position, breathing, and most of the things you’re asked to imagine in a guided meditation – is all there to set up an environment that encourages your mind to be meditative.

Here’s some suggestions for adapting guided meditations:

Most guided meditation tapes want you to sit on a straight backed chair with your feet on the floor. This is completely optional – you can sit or lie in whatever way feels best for you, regardless of what the tapes say. It can help your brain if you have a specific position that’s just for meditation because your mind will get used to “I’m in this position so I should feel meditative now” but you don’t have to. If you have a tendency to fall asleep during meditation then sitting up might be easier for you because it’s a lot harder to fall asleep sitting up, but that’s the only advantage to sitting rather than lying down.

If the tape says to pay attention to how a body part feels, or to move it a little, and you don’t have that body part or you can’t feel or move it, then just pick a different part of your body. Something close by will probably work, depending on the guided meditation. Alternatively, try just *imagining* what it might feel like, if you prefer. This might mean slightly moving your knee joint instead of wiggling your toes, or paying attention to the muscles in your shoulders instead of feeling your fingers tingle. Or it could mean imagining your toes relaxing, even though you can’t actually feel them.

If the guidance says to take deep breaths and you can’t control your breathing or it’s inadvisable to take deep breaths then you can just pay attention to your regular breathing. Similarly, any instructions on breathing in or out a certain way, such as “in through your nose and out through your mouth” can just be ignored or you can just breathe more slowly or deeply. You’ll find out what works for you fairly soon.

Instead of paying attention to, say, your tummy rising and falling for breathing you can pay attention to any different place in your body where you can perceive your breath moving – whether it’s your nose, your throat, your chest. Or you can even just put your attention on the synchronised sounds your vent makes, if that works for you.

If the guidance says to pay attention to your whole body, for example to feel yourself sinking into the mattress as you relax, again you can just pick a part of your body that works for you or you can imagine in. You could pay attention to your neck relaxing and your head sinking into the mattress, or you could just imagine your whole body sinking into the mattress and what it might feel like.

One guided meditation series that I’m following started asking me to look at something for the first minute or two of the session, so I’m just “being aware” instead of actually using my vision. This wouldn’t work for a guided meditation that was specifically focussed on looking at things but for one like mine where it’s just a passing section of the introduction it works well.

If you have a lot of pain in a particular part of your body then you might just include that in your meditation or you may want to ignore that part of your body and work around it as described above. Or you might use some combination of these techniques – there are specific meditations which are great for those with chronic pain but it’s also fine to just adapt any other meditation.

If the guided meditation is asking you to imagine a scene and that doesn’t work for you then just adapt it. Most specific things in most guided meditations don’t have to be exactly-as-described to work – if your guided meditation includes a scene of you walking down the beach but you’ve been a long-term wheelchair user it might work better if you imagine wheeling down the accessible promenade right beside the beach. If your guided meditation says to watch the sunset but you’re blind then by all means imagine the setting sun warm on your skin.

You’ll know by the end of the first time you listen to that meditation whether your adaptions worked OK and if there was any issues you can imagine differently. I once mentally “changed” a guided meditation that asked me to imagine carrying a heavy ball by imagining the ball was very light, but the meditation went on to say the heaviness of the ball represented something important. So the next time through I just imagined a heavy ball and a trolley to transport it – imaginations is wonderful like that!!

Most importantly, don’t stress about it! You pretty much can’t do guided meditations “wrongly” no matter how your movements and thoughts do or don’t match what’s on the tape. If something doesn’t work for you then change it around or find a different guided meditation tape, that’s cool too.