Gareth Walker, in northern England, works as a police officer and has progressive multiple sclerosis. His daily practice of mindfulness meditation enables him to navigate the physical and emotional difficulties of living with a chronic health condition.
Walker was first introduced to a mindfulness practice when reading Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Walker is featured in Jo Marchant’s 2016 best-selling book, Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body.
To learn more about Gareth Walker and his practice, visit his website, Everyday Mindfulness.
Last year I read a book called Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body. It’s written by a woman named Jo Marchant who lives in London, has a PhD in genetics and microbiology and works as a science journalist. In the book, she explores several healing modalities that are more alternative than western medical treatment and pharmaceuticals. Each chapter is a dive into an area such as hypnotism, virtual reality, aromatherapy, or mindfulness meditation.
I loved the book. The author approaches these subjects skeptically and seems to walk away perhaps not a convert but somewhat enlightened. My guest for this podcast episode is someone she interviewed for the book but before I introduce our conversation I want to tell you my small world story associated with this book.
For the last couple of years each time I visited my neurologist at Stanford University I noticed his office was opposite The Center for Integrative Medicine. I asked my doctor about the Center and he knew nothing about their work so I went inside their offices to investigate. Apparently, most of their work is with cancer patients. I talked with the receptionist about my rare disease, how I experience chronic muscle pain, and after securing a referral from my neurologist I could get an appointment with one of the doctors. I think there was a 3 or 4 month wait. When we met, there was a discussion about my condition and what they offer which was mostly acupuncture. Since it takes an hour to get to Stanford, and there are good acupuncture clinics in my community, I declined. But, he did suggest I make an appointment with another doctor at the Center who specializes in hypnosis. So, I did. The wait was a few more months.
I know nothing about hypnosis other than what we see depicted in popular culture. I was intrigued – and as many of you probably share – I’m always open to non-invasive ways to cope with pain and discomfort. The appointment was last year, during the time I was reading the Cure book.
And I bet you thought I was going off on a wild tangent here…?
Turns out the doctor I was waiting to see – Daniel Spiegel – is in the book and is a world-renowned expert on hypnosis. I was psyched…but…unfortunately, it just so happens I’m part of the 10% of people that can’t be hypnotized. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. Okay, now back to this podcast episode.
Gareth Walker lives in northern England and has multiple sclerosis. Jo Marchant – the book’s author – contacted the Multiple Sclerosis Society in England and asked if they knew of anyone practicing meditation and they all knew of Gareth. And now you will too.
I was diagnosed 8 years ago. I got blurry vision in my left eye so went to the doctors and several tests were done. At first they thought it was conjunctivitis. Opticians couldn’t find anything wrong. I went for an MRI scan. Damage to my optic nerve and could be a precursor to multiple sclerosis. About 6 years ago the symptoms started to accumulate and they’ve been going on; I have progressive multiple sclerosis. I don’t have relapses. I’m in a wheelchair now. [I ask about work] a desk job has been found; I do detective work but it’s all computer-based. How did you first try to mitigate the symptoms? I got myself in a fog, really down about the diagnosis. I remember my mom gave me a book…a self-help book…got me thinking this is life and you have to start doing something about it. I went away and did research and eventually I came across a website from an Australian doctor who got MS and he recommended a series of life style changes to give yourself the best possible chance with the disease. They were diet, exercise, one of the aspects was meditation. But I had no clue what meditation was about. Someone gave me a recommendation…the book is called Wherever you go, there you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He’s the pioneer of secular mindfulness in the west. He’s a Buddhist and studied it from a Buddhist view. He realized there was a lot in it to be good for the west. He stripped a lot of the religion out and started mindfulness-based stress reduction. This book rang very true with me.
I think everybody that starts meditating goes…what happens if I get an itch? I’m a bad meditator, I can’t think my mind still. Over time the benefits set in. mindfulness itself is a way of life. Meditation it just brings about more mindfulness. We can all do mindfulness. If you’re at a beach and there’s a beautiful sunset; the problem is sustaining mindfulness. Do you drive Leslie? I do…have you ever been on a journey…because your mind is elsewhere….the mind is such a restless place. It always wants to go here, there, and everywhere. Meditation helps you use the mind for what it is. [you started with a 5-minute daily practice?] at first I used to try and get myself…[can you do it in a room with other people?] you can be mindful anywhere…listen to the distractions. There was a really good meditation early on in my practice…my son burst into the bedroom…at first I started to become irritated…I pulled myself back…my son is the meditation, he is the moment right now. instead of meditating on my breath, I meditated on him.
Can you tell me about changes since you started your practice? Not sure if there have bene physical changes. Emotionally…mindfulness allows you to ride the roller coaster of emotions. I can see anger from within; I just allow it to come. I don’t get sucked in. I allow it to come, allow it to go. I respond rather than react to the emotion.
At the time I was off work due to the multiple sclerosis and I was thinking that website design would be a career I could do without the use of my legs…providing for my family and had to be retired from the police. I bought a domain name and started messing around, started a twitter feed. I just started tweeting my daily observations and getting a lot of repeats and the account was growing. I added a forum. The website has grown organically. Mindfulness has me in a good place so I can return to my old job. I’m able to deal with physical…multiple sclerosis provides a lot of physical difficulties. Mindfulness allows me to navigate them much better. One time at my old house I was starting to have mobility difficulties…when mindfulness was just starting to kick in. my mind was saying…
It is a hard thing for a lot of people…it’s always hopeful…are you aware of influencing other people to try mindfulness? By the forum I tweet out links to the forum, I give people advice. I don’t think you can make someone meditate; they have to want it for themselves. A certain amount of meditation required at the start; you need to meditate every day.
I’m curious how this has been in your work place? Have you had an impact on your colleagues? I don’t advertise that I’m into mindfulness. There’s still a stigma; they think you’re a caftan wearing hippy. It has an effect all through my life.
You should try meditation…savasana at the end is a meditation. I’ve explored creative visualization…I like sound bath…consistency is important, I think. There was a period in my early practice. I was lackadaisical. I was on a holiday in Spain. My mind had become untidy…I need to do it every day. I increased my practice. I talk about monkey mind…some days I sit and it’s chaos up there. And some days I sit and it’s a much calmer place. the only constant is change…you don’t meditate to breathe. I’m a big sound freak. My normal method is with headphones listening to music…ambient stuff…nothing too vigorous. Sound is powerful for me. I talk about essential oil…can help me deepen and relax my body and transition into a quieter mind. You can meditate on smell too. Come on my website and have a look…