What is the experience of having Diabetes? – Sam Tullman, MPH
This is a question I often ask myself, my T1D friends, and audiences when giving a presentation. If you feel called, I invite you to put one minute on the clock and write whatever pops in your mind.
For most people, it’s …. (Drum roll, please!) …. really hard! Common words I see from others are “chaotic,” “unpredictable,” “unfair,” “defeating,” “uncomfortable.” I know these experiences. I’ve lived them too. I’m living them everyday.
If we consider it a little further, we might realize that these words are ways even people without Diabetes describe life sometimes. Each of us, Diabetes or not, seems to have some pretty significant struggles just by virtue of being alive. How could it be that humans have been around for at least 200,000 years, with all sorts of uncomfortable conditions to live with, and nobody has come up with a solution for the difficulties of this human experience?
Enter meditation. People have actually been trying to solve for the difficulty of being alive for a long, long time. One of the best tools to deal with suffering that we humans have developed over these thousands of years is a variety of meditation practices. And for those science nerds like me, we know and are continuing to learn about the effectiveness of many of these meditation practices using modern, Western, scientific methods. The scientific results are clear; these practices can have a huge impact on our quality of life, behavior, and even change the structures in our brain.
Of the many different kinds of meditation, there’s one which you’ve absolutely heard about, which was actually developed to help people face the difficulties of life. Today, we know it as mindfulness. An important part of mindfulness practice is that it particularly asks us to look at the three things all people, but especially those of us with Diabetes, struggle with the most: dissatisfaction/discomfort, the constancy of change, and our inability to control our environment and often, even ourselves.
So, we sit down, maybe beginning by counting our breath, and start to keep an eye out for these things in our experience. And what do we do when we see them? In short, we just see them. Just seeing them, just feeling them fully, without judgment, without commentary of any kind, and importantly, without trying to change anything immediately (though we might discover something that we want to change outside of practice, which we certainly should do). Just spending a few minutes each day — 5, even — most of us feel a tremendous relief from the burden of our judgments about life and ourselves. And over time, we learn to be patient and kind in the midst of difficult experiences, in a way that we ourselves might even find surprising.
It’s not a linear process. It’s common to pass through difficult periods in practice and life, and we have to be realistic about that at the outset. But thousands of years of practitioners — undoubtedly countless millions of people, at this point — tell us that these practices DO help us over time (and in the moment!) to be calmer, kinder, more patient, and frankly wiser individuals going about our lives. And, as I mentioned, Western science is quite clear that this practice does indeed help us with stress and the other harsher elements of life. We trust science to give us stable, functional insulin, and devices that accurately measure our blood sugar; will we trust it to suggest to us a way our emotional lives can be better?
Life is already hard enough — we don’t need a low blood sugar in the middle of an argument with a partner, or a high that lasts hours we had hoped to enjoy in order to make things tough. And yet, this is the walk we have ahead of us. Really, it’s my belief that those of us with Diabetes already have a leg up in the practice of mindfulness, because we regularly confront our discomfort, the constantly changing nature of life, and the unpredictability of our minds. With even a little bit of regular practice, we can learn to shape this natural advantage into a real asset to help us in our lives. If you’re curious to try it yourself, come find me and the rest of this amazing community of people exploring these practices at DiabetesSangha.com.
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.