Zen medicine – part 2

During a mindfulness retreat at the end of 2000, I caught a stomach flu and began to develop grave symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s colitis). I could not sleep more than two hours at night because I woke up throughout the night to pain in my side, telling me it was time to go to the bathroom. I ate only small amounts of the blandest of foods and I was running to the bathroom all day and all night. I managed to get back to my aunt’s house in Connecticut and the symptoms continued to worsen.

My step-mother called me and told me that she and my Dad wanted to help me get to Indianapolis, where they lived, so I could be under the care of their friend, a gastroenterologist. So she set up a flight within just two days.

I had hoped for a good night’s sleep the night before I traveled but it did not happen. I slept only about two hours and started yet another day feeling exhausted. I knew it would be a particularly long day. The whole trip would last ten hours from door to door. But I knew I would only survive if I focused on my sense of peacefulness. I could carry nothing but that peacefulness. I also knew that I would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get through the day. More

Depression, rumination and compassion

I recently read an article in the New York Times about depression. The author, Johan Lehrer, discussed a new theory in which depression is thought to have an evolutionary purpose, gaining insight. The crux of the theory is that people who are depressed ruminate and rumination involves highly tuned analytical thinking. So even though some depressed people have a hard time functioning within society, they are hyper-focused on working something out, at least according to this theory. And eventually, they may come to some understanding about their situation or about themselves.

In 1973, the year I was born, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave a talk in which he talked about the energy of depression:

“Well, try to relate to the texture of the energy in the depression situation. Depression is not just a blank, it has all kinds of intelligent things happening within it. I mean, basically depression is extraordinarily interesting and a highly intelligent state of being. That is why you are depressed. Depression is an unsatisfied state of mind in which you feel that you have no outlet. So work with the dissatisfaction of that depression. Whatever is in it is extraordinarily powerful. It has all kinds of answers in it, but the answers are hidden. So, in fact I think depression is one of the most powerful of all energies. It is extraordinarily awake energy, although you might feel sleepy.” More

Every moment is so precious

A few weeks ago, Sally Massagee told CNN’s Anderson Cooper about how it was for her during the time in which she was had a mysterious disease. For four years, she did not know what was wrong with her body or if she would ever recover from the disease. Sally sought treatment from many doctors at Duke University Medical Center before she was accepted at the National Institutes of Health Unexplained Disease Program. She went through yet another week of testing, but this time it was not in vain. The doctors found that there were abnormal proteins in her body that were triggering her muscles grow uncontrollably. Sally’s tremendous overgrowth of muscle made it extremely difficult for her to even move her arms. Dr. Sanjay Gupta added that the muscle overgrowth could have eventually crushed her ribcage and organs. More

Water – source of life

Blog Action Day 2010 is today!!

I remember thirst well. It is hard to forget something that gripped me for weeks of my life. During three hospitalizations for severe Crohn’s colitis flares, the doctors gave me orders not to drink or eat anything for several weeks. They were worried that even a small bit of food or water could cause my severely inflamed colon to burst, which would have been life-threatening. Nurses had hooked me up to bags filled with intravenous fluids to help me avoid dehydration. But these fluids never quenched my thirst. My disease was severe and I always felt dehydrated during those hospitalizations. If I was lucky, the doctors had also allowed me to receive parenteral nutrition, which was a nutrient mix delivered to my body intravenously. Usually, the doctors allowed me to receive parenteral nutrition after one week of not eating anything. The only water I was allowed to drink was a tiny sip with my medicines. More

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. More

Watershed

I wrote this piece about 1 1/2 years ago, on the 7th anniversary of my colectomy surgery. I have been free from Crohn’s colitis flares for over 5 years, though almost 10 years ago, the disease threatened my life.

Seven years ago I was preparing for major abdominal surgery. Friends of mine gathered on two occasions in the few days before the surgery to wish me well with my surgery through song, music, and cheers (literally). They helped me to prepare for the challenges ahead.

It is strange to me that it was seven years ago. Seven years is one-fifth of my life! Indeed, so much has changed since that era of my life. At that time, my health hung on a tenuous brink and every day was difficult…and pain, exhaustion, and debilitation were my constant companions. I was physically spent.

Parts of the day of my surgery I can remember as if they happened yesterday. Parts of that day are a complete blur. And a good chunk of that day is completely absent from my memory and my consciousness; I was under general anesthesia.

More

Being in nature, being at peace

Below are a few examples of research findings that suggest that being in nature often has a healing effect on humans. Having encountered a black bear in a park in Colorado, I can say firsthand that it is not always so tranquil to be in nature! That experience was exhilarating, to say the least. But in general, I think that nature does have a healing effect on my psyche. When I am in nature by myself, I breathe deeper and notice more of my surroundings. I explore my curiosity and follow the sounds of trees rustling, the trails of animal tracks and the scents of flowers and earth. Even just being in my garden for an hour is often incredibly therapeutic. I feel the texture of the earth underneath my feet, examine the leaves and fruits of my plants and smile to my brightly colored nasturtiums and gladiolas. I enjoy a sublime serenity when it is quiet (when the rugby team is playing in the nearby field, it is not so quiet!). More

Reflections on pain

I wrote this piece almost exactly four years ago, when I was experiencing severe back pain.

We were born from pain. Every mother who has ever given birth to a child has undergone some kind of severe pain, even if she had an epidural or a Caesarian section. Her body knew the pain.

Our heartbeats, our breaths, our eyes first lit up in the earthly realm as our mothers’ bodies opened to physical labor and the tearing of tissues. Somewhere in the depths of physical pain there is an umbilical cord that links us to all of humanity. In every sensation of pain this cord tethers us, whether we recognize it or not.

All sentient beings experience physical and mental pain at one time or another. The forms of this pain vary widely. Sometimes we forget that we all share the experience of pain. Sometimes we get lost in thoughts that propel us into behaviors to escape the pain. Of course we want relief! Of course we want ease!

In the relatively short time I have been alive, I have experienced severe pains, both physical and mental, from heart procedures, Crohn’s disease, major abdominal surgery, car accidents, migraines, pelvic pain, various biopsy procedures, and now sciatica. More

Going from surviving to thriving

At the age of 24, an intestinal illness hit me hard while I was in the midst of my graduate studies in the field of community psychology. The diagnosis at the time was ulcerative colitis. My doctor prescribed corticosteroid medicines when I had flares of the illness. The medicines helped though they also made me feel more vulnerable to the effects of stress.

A few years later I moved to France. I was quite ill with a colitis flare for the first few months that I lived there and then I visited Plum Village near Bordeaux. Plum Village is a meditation practice center and home to the Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. I arrived pale, emaciated, and debilitated. By the time I left six weeks later, I had recovered my health. I do not believe that a miracle occurred, but rather that Plum Village was the right environment for my nervous system to become more balanced. I learned how to relax deeply at Plum Village through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness helped me to generate awareness and compassion, which were potent medicines for my psyche.

After I returned from France, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C. when my illness became severe and even life-threatening. I spent weeks in the hospital and months eating only the blandest of foods. The physicians decided that the disease was not ulcerative colitis, rather, it was Crohn’s colitis. Between 2001 and 2003, I was hospitalized for Crohn’s colitis seven times. Each hospitalization in 2001 involved weeks of starvation and intravenous corticosteroids that made sleep difficult. The fourth hospitalization was for major abdominal surgery.

My sixth hospitalization took place in 2003. It was around that time that something shifted in me. I was tired of the hospitalizations. I was tired of eating bland foods for months at a time. And I was tired of feeling tired.  I had been gathering information about Crohn’s colitis treatments on the internet and after considering the information carefully, I decided to ask my doctor to put me on a long-term immunosuppressant medicine called Mercaptopurine.

Mercaptopurine helped me to stabilize and then I found a regimen that worked for me: taking probiotics, avoiding certain foods (including gluten and lactose), getting adequate sleep and rest, practicing qi gong daily, and making time for daily relaxation, including mindfulness practice. Of course, my support network of family members and friends was also crucial to my recovery. I also danced, wrote songs and poetry, and made art to express my emotions. But perhaps most importantly, I changed my lifestyle and my mental frame of mind. Instead of operating in a “survival” mode of living, I switched to operating in a “thriving” mode of living. That meant rooting myself in a place of self-love and self-care. I listened to signals of stress in my body. And I chose to reduce the stresses in my life and increase the time I spent in daily relaxation, meditation, and awareness-generating practices.

Since 2006, my physicians have found no evidence of Crohn’s colitis and no signs of inflammation in my body. I have been off of immunosuppressant medicines without any flares whatsoever. But my healing process is one that goes beyond the conventional definition of healing. Crohn’s colitis was my greatest teacher. It taught me that I am always whole, no matter what happens to my body. Living with it helped me to learn about what it means to be compassionate. And through all the years of living with the illness, I learned how to really care for and love myself.

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