In December 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told his Atlanta congregation:
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…
Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent upon most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning and that is poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese person … before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.
This is the way our universe is structured. It is its interrelated quality.”
He goes on to say, “We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”
In meditation practice, we take this a step further — we aren’t going to have peace in our life until we recognize this basic fact of its interrelated nature. Even further, those of us with Diabetes can’t be at peace until we really see, really recognize, the interrelated nature of Diabetes.
Imagine one evening you have a conflict with a friend or a partner. Your blood sugar rises. You might be able to handle that smoothly, but then you’re tossing and turning ruminating on what happened, and by the time morning comes you’ve only slept a few hours. Your body isn’t responding as well to insulin because of the lack of sleep, and you don’t have the energy to work out because you’re tired. Since you’re stressed, you might eat a little more, or you might eat something more comforting or decadent, to feel a little better. After recovering from the resulting high, you might miss lunch because work is busy that day, and …. See where this is going? By the end of such a day, you’re lucky if you haven’t been on the blood sugar rollercoaster for most of the day. It’s really an awful feeling.
On such a day, where does Diabetes stop and start? Diabetes isn’t separate from your relationships, your sleep, your overall health, or your work life. Diabetes is part of everything. But, Diabetes is not unique in that. All of these things are all a part of each other, too; relationships are not separate from sleep, which is not separate from any part of your health. Nothing stands alone.
On a tough day, it would be silly (though, all too normal!) to “fault” ourselves at any point along the way; we, like all people, are just reacting moment after moment to try to make things better. Sometimes, the things we do aren’t very wise. But at no point along the way were we trying to mess up, or trying to be thoughtless in our decisions. If we look closely at each step along the way, we were trying to make things better, even when we acted in ways we later regret.
The lesson from a day like this is not that we did a bad job, or need to do better; it’s that we’re not able to control everything that happens to us, and that even our own reactions are often out of our control. And that’s completely normal. It’s what it is to be human.
Much like confronting the idea of change as an undeniable force in our lives, the reality of interconnection can be immense — even scary — to face. The fact that our blood sugar tomorrow might be impacted by something a friend says to us today is hard to take in for me, now, writing this. But it’s also my experience, and I feel confident it’s a shared experience by all of those living with Diabetes. So how is this supposed to help us be at peace, knowing we have even less control than we thought?!
Perhaps it’s not so much that we have LESS control, but that we have a DIFFERENT kind of control than what we normally think. On this wonderful blog (Think Like a Pancreas), we’re reminded that the more we can mimic what a pancreas would do, the easier time we’ll likely have managing our blood sugars. If we’ve mastered that, great, it’s time for the next step: feel like a pancreas.
As we all know, our blood sugars can be impacted by sleep, stress, movement, food intake, heat, elevation, insulin, and other drugs or medication, to list some of the biggest factors. While we can often navigate life well enough to get a pretty good time in range for our blood sugars,, there are far too many variables to get right every time. Our pancreas would never endeavor to try to control all of those things! Instead, it just sees a changing blood sugar and adjusts, without fear, frustration, complaint, or even uncertainty. We should do all of the things we can to make our job of thinking like a pancreas easier — taking care of our sleep, engaging in healthy exercise and eating, staying aware of stress and life circumstances, being prepared with insulin and snacks. But beyond that – what is it like to feel like a pancreas — that is, objective and caring. Of course, a pancreas doesn’t experience “care” the way a mind does; that would be silly! It just knows its core functions, and executes these functions when needed. No more, and no less. Truly thinking like a pancreas means learning to set aside our own mind for a time, in order to see clearly and take caring actions for our body. However, setting aside our mind — even for a brief time — is not always an easy task.
This is what meditation is, at its deepest roots, aiming towards. With practice, when we are lucid enough, with just enough calm and presence of mind, we can pause to set aside our surface level thoughts and immediate reactions to a situation, and choose the most caring course for our body, the way a healthy pancreas might. When we realize this interconnection between us, Diabetes, and everything else in our lives, we can actually do a better job of this, as we can be free of some of the self-judgment (one Zen teacher once called this, “the burdensome practice of judging”) which so often leads to more outcomes that strain our blood sugars and feel bad in general (think rumination, bad moods, stress eating, being short with others, and all of the other unhealthy coping that we all engage in).
But the key words here are not, “freedom,” or “calm” or even “interconnectedness” — they’re “with practice.” With practice, we can learn to see our thinking mind without collapsing into it, we can become familiar with a calmer space in our awareness, and we can even learn to really feel the beautiful, comforting side of how interconnected our lives are. With practice, we can feel these things at an embodied level rather than just accepting them as cognitive beliefs, beliefs which, without the backing of experience, always crumble when the going gets tough.
This calm space within is available to you at any time, if you learn to find it. And when you do, it can’t help but transform the way you take care of yourself, both in Diabetes management and in the larger context of your life. I hope you’ll consider joining me and some of my dear friends at the DiabetesSangha as we continue to explore ways to find and develop a friendship with the deep end of our minds, and learn how to not only think, but feel like a pancreas.
Sam Tullman is one of the facilitators in the Being with Diabetes: Meditation as Medicine course, which begins January 15th @ 7:30 pm ET.
Advanced registration is required, please enjoy a special 20% discount for the IDS community.
About Sam Tullman, MPH Sam Tullman, MPH, is one of the facilitators and co-founders of DiabetesSangha. He was diagnosed with T1D at eight years old, and has been on a long arc of trying to understand the human experience and learn how to support meaningful and helpful experiences ever since, through the lenses of both science and meditative practice. He is a dedicated student of Rinzai Zen, but draws heavily in his practice from other Buddhist traditions, as well as modern Western psychology and Neuroscience. In his professional life, he is a researcher and consultant working primarily in the topics of emergence (“spiritual” or “altered” experiences) and contemplation, with a focus on EEG (electrical activity of the brain) and other brain-computer interfaces.