Trying out Zen medicine

In December 1997, I was a graduate student in a doctoral community psychology program at Georgia State University. After the end of my first semester I became quite ill and I was bedridden during the whole winter break of three weeks. I was going to the bathroom upwards of 15 times a day and seeing blood in my stools. I had fevers every day. That was when the doctors first diagnosed me with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). At the time, they said that I had ulcerative colitis, but this diagnosis was later changed to Crohn’s colitis.

Corticosteroid medicines, which suppress the immune system, and “Asacol,” a medicine for IBD, helped me to achieve remission temporarily. But the corticosteroids had a down side; they made me feel restless. I felt wired 24/7 from these medicines. My mind was often racing and it was particularly difficult for me to fall asleep and stay asleep.

In early 1998, the disease returned and attacked my colon for several months before letting up for a few months. Then the disease was active again for a few months and quiet for a few months, but the cycle seemed never ending. At that time, the doctors only found the disease in my sigmoid colon and the use of corticosteroid medicines was always effective at putting the disease into remission. During each episode I went for months eating a diet of bland, simple foods that rarely included vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, or seeds. My staples were plain rice, plain pasta, eggs, tofu, fish, and bananas. I often awoke with the feeling “I gotta go!” and so I ran to the bathroom in the early hours each morning. I experienced pain and urgency in my bowels throughout the day and night.

The cycles continued—a few months of illness and weight loss followed by a few months of recovered health and weight gain—for several years. I actually credit corticosteroid therapy with helping me to complete my Masters thesis as the steroids caused insomnia that allowed me to work late into the night.

A few months after defending my Masters thesis in November 1999, I decided that graduate school was too stressful for me and that I needed a break. My boyfriend at the time was French and so I chose to move to France with him. One week after I arrived, the disease flared up again while we were on a trip to Tunisia in the north of Africa. When we returned to France, a French doctor determined that it was indeed an episode of ulcerative colitis and he put me back on corticosteroids. Usually the steroids worked fast and I felt better within a few weeks of starting to take them, but this time, they did not seem to be helping much at all.

My sister, Liza, was living in Brussels. I visited her a few times and during one visit she said, “Ulcerative colitis, that sounds terrible. We need to rename your disease something else, like ‘Kitten Snickers.’” The name stuck. Friends and family have referred to the disease as Kitten Snickers ever since then.

My days in France consisted of rest, yoga, e-mail and an occasional outing to the post office or the store, if I had the energy to leave the apartment. It was a very difficult period of time for me as I did not know if I would ever get better and most of my family and friends seemed so far away. I felt lonely and scared. Every day I experienced the same symptoms. Every day I ate the same bland foods. Every day the stress on my French boyfriend and his family increased a little more. They were clearly worried that I was not recovering.

In early April 2000, I decided that a week of meditation might be healing for me and my sister thought she could benefit from it as well. So Liza and I made our way south towards Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery and meditation practice center where Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master, lives and teaches. Plum Village is nestled amongst the vineyards and rolling hills of the splendid French countryside east of Bordeaux.

Upon arriving at Plum Village, I instantly felt a wave of peacefulness. I felt the support and harmony of the nuns of the Lower Hamlet. They were welcoming and calm. I remember watching the sunset that night as we sat on stones overlooking the orchard. I thought to myself, “How happy this piece of earth is—the birds and animals and trees seem to love this place!”

Frankly, I was a little scared that I would not be able to hack it at Plum Village. I was worried that I would not be able to concentrate and spend so much time every day meditating. It was a bit of a culture shock at first. Every time a bell rang or a phone rang or a clock chimed, everyone at Plum Village stopped and mindfully observed three breaths. It took a few days for Liza and I to get used to stopping and observing our breaths whenever we heard a bell ring. Initially, it was also hard for us to follow the monastics’ schedule. We woke up at 5 a.m., practiced sitting meditation at 5:30 am, ate breakfast at 7:30 am, did working meditation at 8:30 am, practiced walking meditation at 11 am, ate lunch at 12 pm, did sitting meditation at 5:30 pm, and ate dinner at 6:30 pm. Noble silence started at 9:30 pm each evening and continued through breakfast the following day. Noble silence was a time in which we were not to speak at all, which was not easy for Liza and I, especially with our Italian and Jewish heritage. We were also prone to random fits of hysteric laughter.

I did not think I would be able to handle the rigor of the daily schedule with my illness, but I started to feel better as I followed it. My face started to brighten with color and my symptoms began to subside. I found more and more comfort just in following my breaths. It was so simple and yet it seemed to help so much. And it was comforting to be part of a larger body, the “Sangha,” a community of people practicing mindfulness. Liza and I decided that one week was not enough, so we stayed another week. Then I decided that I needed to stay longer and, with the consent of the Plum Village community, I stayed almost six weeks total.

I learned at Plum Village to savor my food and to eat mindfully. We ate meals in silence for the first fifteen minutes so that we could really focus on our food. We said five contemplations before each meal:

This food is the gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky, and much hard work.
May we eat mindfully so as to be worthy to receive this food.
May we transform our unskillful states of mind and eat in moderation.
May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.
We accept this food to realize the path of understanding and of love.

Before taking my first bite, I tried to see the original source of the food on my plate. If I was eating bread, I thought of the wheat fields swaying to and fro in the sunlight. If the food was eggs, I saw the chickens, their nests, and their feed. I saw the rain, sunlight, and soil in each morsel of my food.

The nuns at Plum Village practiced mindful eating in a way that helped me maintain my mindfulness while eating. They also saw that I didn’t take so many foods from their serving table. “Why can’t you eat vegetables?” they would ask me.

“Veggies are too rough for my system,” I explained. “I can eat only the simplest of foods.”

At one point, some of the nuns found out that I could eat bananas, and just about every time I saw a nun, I would receive another banana. Several of the nuns even broke “noble silence” so they could ask me if I wanted another banana. In one 24-hour period I received six bananas from the nuns. Their compassion warmed my heart.

One day, I made the mistake of sitting at the nuns’ table. I saw a German woman sitting at the table, so I sat down too. One of the head nuns whispered to me that the table was reserved for nuns. Then another head nun said, “It is okay, maybe she become a nun someday.”

After lunch this nun walked up to me and said, “Erica, you better watch your hair.”

“Watch my hair?” I asked.

“Yes, if you sit at the nuns’ table a lot you might lose it!” She was making reference to the monastics’ tradition of shaving their heads. Then she laughed. “I am just teasing you,” she said.

The warmth and care of the monastics and lay people at Plum Village was a sure part of my healing process. Every day I felt more energy and more joy.

Liza was also integral to my healing process. She knew that my 27th birthday would be in just a few weeks, on May 18th. One day, after the first 15 minutes of silence at dinner, she asked me, “Erica, what do you want for your birthday?”

“I want to eat vegetables,” I said. “That’s all.”

One of the nuns, Sister Tenzin, heard my response to Liza’s question and every few days she would ask me, “Are you closer to eating vegetables?”

“Yes, I think so,” I would tell her. And I really hoped it was true. I missed eating vegetables.

The first time I ate a cooked carrot at Plum Village, I felt like I was in heaven. It was the first vegetable I had eaten in months and I was cautious, I tried just a small piece. It had soaked up the savory Vietnamese spiced broth the nuns had cooked. I felt a jolt of flavor in my mouth–wow! It was an amazing sensation. My senses were highly tuned from so much meditation, and I could really focus on that little carrot. I enjoyed its texture and tasted every spice. It melted in my mouth.

As I started to feel better and better, I ate more and more vegetables and fruits. By May 18th, I was indeed able to eat vegetables and even chocolate. I spread the wealth by handing out bits of chocolate to many people at Plum Village. It was such a delight to savor the tastes I once had to deny myself. I had recovered my health and I realized that it was time to head back to the United States to try to find a position with a non-profit organization…(to be continued in Zen medicine – part 2).

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Tweets that mention Trying out Zen medicine « Determined To Heal --
  2. Michele
    Oct 08, 2010 @ 23:41:26

    Thank you for sharing, truly moving, even to one that does not have IBD.


  3. Mariela
    Oct 10, 2010 @ 07:22:45

    Thanks Erica for sharing! It is very inspiring to be part of your life now and try to understand how it was before your healed. Thanks!


  4. Trackback: Befriending anxiety « Determined To Heal
  5. tiramit
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 23:24:01

    Thanks for sharing this.
    I had a similar experience, surgery and intense bouts of pain and found tremendous support from the monastics at Wat Pah Nanchat in Thailand. Your sister’s idea, Kitten Snickers, is brilliant…


  6. Trackback: More than mindfulness | Determined To Heal

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