It’s been a long while since the last post as this year amidst the trials of the global pandemic, I have found myself struggling with my lifelong issues relating to sensory processing disorder. You may be wondering what sensory processing disorder is and also what on earth it has to do with mindfulness. If so, read on.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder [SPD] , also known as Sensory Integration [SI], is a disorder where one is over or under-sensitive to sensory inputs. This may affect one or all of the seven (yes seven!) senses: visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), touch, interoception (noticing what is going on inside the body), and proprioception (movement/body position). It is commonly experienced in conjuction with autism and ADHD. In my own case, I have standalone SPD. I am over/hyper-sensitive to visuals, sounds, smells, touch and have problems assessing my body position as I move, making me appear very clumsy at times.
Whilst most of life up until this point has been a learning curve with regards to how I work with SPD, I had generally been getting on with my life in spite of these issues and protests from others that I was overly sensitive as I chronically coughed in the perfume sections of department stores or heard the sounds of electricity charging through the house that no one else seemed to hear. I also am uncoordinated – very poor at sports and always walking into doorframes or the edge of coffee tables. It was only this past year that I even learnt that my problems had names – SPD and dyspraxia – after experiencing heightened sensory issues.
How SPD changed my experience of mindfulness meditation
Being a mindfulness practitioner and teacher, the heightened SPD presented new issues in my practice. With mindfulness meditation aiding in increasing our sensitivity, this can end up a somewhat torturous experience to those who already have extreme hypersensitivity. Where I used to be able to use those items I was sensitive to almost like a focal point (such as the breath often is utilised within meditation), the heightened issues this year meant that attempting the same approach and allowing an increased focus of my present moment experience and sensations was overwhelming and conducive to meltdowns. What had been a safe space suddenly became unsafe.
What can you do if you have hypersensitive SPD to safely practise mindfulness?
After being concerned about my practice and the new issues I faced, I first sought support from my own mindfulness teacher. He suggested I switch to mindful movement instead or to mindful walking. In doing so, I found I was better able to centre and ground myself compared to my usual sitting practice. Whilst I hope one day to enjoy a lengthy sitting practice, doing more body and movement-based practices has increased my connection with my body and also benefited proprioception issues through engaging with practices such as balance-boarding (brilliant for building core muscles and increasing focus), tai chi and qigong. In doing so, this has also aided me to feel more embodied when I do sit for shorter periods. However, my number one advice of what one can do is simply listen to themselves. There are many ways to practice mindfulness and be mindful without sitting for long periods of time, so we can be playful and find a way that works for us. After all, mindfulness is simply being about being aware of our present moment experience in an open and non-judgmental manner. We don’t need to meditate to practice mindfulness.
Why this post is important
I write this post not only to potentially aid those practitioners who also face hypersensitive SPD issues and would like to work with mindfulness meditation, but also for those teaching or espousing meditative practices. There certainly is a lot of benefit to meditation, but it’s always important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all; as trauma-sensitive-mindfulness specialist David Treleaven points out in his works, treating mindfulness meditation as a one size fits all can be damaging to some individuals. I feel it is important for each of us to look to teachers more as guides and to ourselves for what is the most suitable step forward in our given experience and situation.