By James Keolker,
Certified Master Meditation Teacher
I am a retired professor standing in front of my class of some 75 seniors at a senior education center. And until recently, I have tried to hide the fact that I have essential tremor in both my hands. I can’t put my hands in my pocket as I once did for it makes my trousers shake and I appear nervous, which I am not. Nor can I hold a chart or even a pencil without calling attention to my quivering. What to do? Well, what is hopeful is, I teach meditation, a mental practice that can enormously help folks like me with progressive tremors.
I no longer hide my shaking but instead use it as a lesson. Foremost, to let others know there are many of us with tremors, not only of the hands, but also the legs and heads, and not to be socially afraid or shy to admit it. The secondary lesson is how much meditation can help us physically, mentally and emotionally.
My tremors are interesting, for some days I cannot hold a pen and write my name, while other days I maintain the flourish of my signature that I’ve unthinkingly used for year. Likewise, some days I can drink easily from a glass or spoon soup or enjoy pasta on a fork. While on other days, my hands are a quaking disaster; I can’t ready anything I’ve written and the table is a mess.
I have consulted with doctors, of course, and their suggestions of weighted pens and eating implements have been helpful. So are the explanations of my neurologist that my brain is sending out signals to my hands that now have a slower oscillation of upward and downward pulses causing my trembling. And the resulting anxiety, tension and mental stress often add to my difficulty.
And that is where medication comes in as a wonderful skill to have. Meditation is a very old practice, some say as old as 2,000 to 3,000 years. And it is called a practice for it is something that you do over and over again. And like any other skills such as learning to swim or riding a bicycle as many of us once did, the more often you practice the better at it you will become. Meditation is also cost-effective, for it requires no special equipment or gym membership, only your time. And it is portable, for you can meditate almost everywhere.
We don’t sit on mats in yogic lotus positions in my class to meditate. (Sitting is not the problem, it is the arising that takes the strength and patience of others to help us get up!) Rather, we sit in comfortable chairs with arms to help support us, just as we can do at home. And we begin with mild stretching movements, such as reaching up and reaching out and holding those positions for a while. We also mentally center ourselves by putting aside any negative or intrusive thoughts of the past or anticipation of the future. Rather, we just sit quietly focusing on taking three deep breaths. We then gently close our eyes and maintain our focus on our in-breath and our out-breath for the next 10 or 15 minutes. Thoughts will come, of course, but the skill is to gently put those thoughts aside and return to the breath-focus.
Now, there is much more to meditation than just sitting with our eyes close and breathing. For while we may not be conscious of it, many of our nerve centers are relaxing due to our deep breathing while triggering neural chemicals that help us reduce our blood pressure, our pulse rate, and refresh us mentally. This likewise has an effect upon our brains and our tremors.
For instance, I am much calmer after meditation and in a more relaxed state of mind, which helps accept difficult days. I also have more patience with myself after meditating, remaining more peaceful longer, my anxiety greatly diminished. This naturally leads to more self-confidence, more self-approval, and greater joy with life.
Will meditation cure our tremors? No. But the accumulative calm will allow us to manage our shaking better, to replace any tension, stress and embarrassment we have with relaxation, serenity and gentle acceptance. And that in itself can be of great help.
The International Essential Tremor Foundation (IETF) is a fine source of information on tremors. More can be learned about meditation online, at the library, through seminars or most local youth and senior centers.
James Keolker is a certified master meditation teacher in Napa, California, who has taught at several meditation retreat centers and has been a meditator for the past 40 years. He now volunteers his teaching to help others.