Mindfulness: Seeing Diabetes As It Is


We’re inundated with messaging about “mindfulness” in our culture. Sometimes it seems to refer to sitting with your eyes closed and chilling out. Other times it’s used as a filler word to describe paying more attention to something. It generally seems like a good thing, something we want. It often seems like something we don’t have—some way that we aren’t already. 

Mindfulness isn’t what you think. Literally—it’s not what you’re thinking. That’s probably the best place to start. If you can let your “thinking mind,” especially your inner monologue, take a back seat as you try to delve into what mindfulness is then you’ll be halfway there. 

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is both taking a step back and taking a step forward. 

First, taking a step back: mindfulness is our innate human ability to experience things as they are. This means we sense without jumping to conclusions, without adding or subtracting, without trying to figure out. Just sensing. Just experiencing

That’s one thing mindfulness is. It’s the space that happens before, underneath and around the judgments we inevitably end up making as living, healthy human beings. It can be felt sitting down quietly, on a brisk walk or even in the middle of a heated argument. And it’s something your incredible human brain has a unique capacity for. 

Things mindfulness isn’t: joy, bliss, relaxation, laser-sharp attention, impeccable memory or the mystical air you get from people who tout themselves as spiritual people. 

Mindfulness + type 1 diabetes

If you had to make a decision that could have an immediate and possibly substantial impact on your wellbeing, what kind of mind would you want to make that decision with? Most people want a clear mind that sees how things are and isn’t reacting emotionally. 

People with type 1 diabetes (T1D) make these kinds of wellbeing decisions all the time. Interestingly enough, mindfulness training allows us to get better at finding this clear mindset more of the time. 

In fact, mindfulness training is, at its core, about learning how to find that mind over and over again. That’s the objective of a seated meditation practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice of remembering. The word root for mindfulness is the same as the word root for “memory” or “remembering” in Sanskrit and Pali—the first languages this concept was defined in.

We’ve known from the start that mindfulness is actually about coming back after we get lost, rather than never getting lost in the first place.

Find your mind. Regain your presence of mind. 

That’s the “step forward” in mindfulness practice: even though how your practice and your life unfolds is not always up to you, it asks for your full participation. It asks for your best shot—nothing more, and nothing less. Over time, we start to continuously regain our presence of mind, moment after moment. We strengthen the mental muscle. 

Benefits of mindfulness

Research has shown that people with T1D who undergo just a few weeks of mindfulness training consistently reduce their diabetes distress. Other research has shown that mindfulness and related meditation practices help those with T1D make less impulsive treatment decisions and improve A1Cs. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Research in the broader population shows that mindfulness training can reduce anxiety and depression, slow the process of biological aging, and improve sleep quality. Other core elements of mindfulness trainings such as lovingkindness and self-compassion can improve our connection with others, improve our ability to take care of ourselves, and serve as a protective factors against stress. 

Practicing in community, or being in community in general, provides additional support. That’s why organizations like the DiabetesSangha exist—to make it easier for people with T1D to come together in practicing mindfulness and other meditation practices. 

Practicing mindfulness

Let’s see mindfulness in action. When you prick your finger to test your blood sugar levels, mindfulness is feeling the smooth, plastic surface of the pricker touch your skin. It’s hearing the familiar cock back of the spring inside it, sensing your heart rate speed up just slightly and your breath stop for a moment—despite the familiarity with what’s about to happen. 

It’s the immediate sense of bright, sharp stimulus as the lancet breaks your skin. It even includes noticing the preemptive thoughts you might be having about what your blood sugar levels will be, or your judgments of yourself and the all-too-common assumption that it’s on nobody but you if it’s out of range. 

Some things mindfulness isn’t in that situation: 

  • Your judgment or labeling of the experience of the prick as “sharp.” 
  • Strategizing about what the best thing to do in response to your blood sugar levels. 
  • Feeling “at peace” with whatever your blood sugar levels are or with the experience of the testing itself. In other words, not reacting to the results of the test.  

Remember, mindfulness is your capacity to sense before, around and underneath judgements—not a lack of making any judgments at all. If you couldn’t make any judgments, you’d be in big trouble when it came time to decide how to treat a low or high blood sugar level! 

But opening up to something broader and more open than our judgements helps us stop fighting with reality. This opens up the opportunity to truly care for ourselves. 

In the words of one of the great meditation teachers of our time, Pema Chödrön: “The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite… There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. Cutting our expectations for a cure [for hot and cold] is a gift we can give ourselves. After we have died, the ebb and flow will still continue. Like the tides of the sea, like day and night—this is the nature of things. Being able to appreciate, being able to look closely, being able to open our minds—this is the core of [practice].” 

Tips to get started

Want to start practicing mindfulness today? Join the Beyond Type 1 community app to access a new, free meditation and mindfulness course designed specifically for people living with T1D in collaboration with DiabetesSangha. This five-week course offers tips and easy 10-15 minutes guided meditation exercises designed to support your health as a person with T1D. 

DiabetesSangha also offers free, live guided meditation practices for people with diabetes almost every day of the week if you’re just looking to dip your toe in the water. There are great beginning mindfulness resources on a number of apps like Headspace, Calm, 10% Happier or Waking Up. 

Whatever you do, if your interest is piqued, give it a try. Give it a few tries. It’s said of mindfulness that diving in and experiencing it for yourself is really the only way to really understand it. While there’s lots of ways to bring mindfulness to your entire life, there’s no better way to learn how to do that than to start by sitting and getting a fuller experience of it.

WRITTEN BY Sam Tullman, POSTED 10/30/23, UPDATED 10/30/23

Sam is one of the facilitators and co-founders of the DiabetesSangha. He was diagnosed with T1D at eight years old, and has since been on a long arc of trying to understand these wild human minds we have, and learn how to support meaningful, helpful experiences for them. He uses both modern scientific and ancient contemplative lenses in his professional and interpersonal work. Specifically, he is a dedicated student of Rinzai Zen, but draws heavily in his practice from other Buddhist traditions, as well as current foundational theories in Neuroscience and Psychology. In his professional life, he works at the intersection of behavior and technology as the Head of Clinical research for Quilt Technologies.