More than mindfulness

I have practiced mindfulness meditation for almost 20 years. I started practicing mindfulness meditation way back in 1994, after reading the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Being Peace.

Between 1994 and 2000, my sister and I gave each other Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and we tried to apply his teachings on mindfulness to our lives. In 2000, my sister and I went on a retreat at Plum Village, the monastery where Thich Nhat Hanh lives and teaches. We were there for several weeks, and our experiences there were life-changing. I’ve written about the retreat in my post: Trying out Zen medicine.

I credit mindfulness meditation with helping me to become healthy again after years of struggling with debilitating flares of inflammatory bowel disease. With mindfulness, I learned to listen to my body and to my intuition in ways that supported my physical and mental health. I also learned how to relate to strong emotions, even if they still take me for a roller-coaster ride at times. Importantly, during some of the most difficult times of my life, I felt the support of the Sangha, the community of mindfulness practitioners.

I am something of a poster-child for how mindfulness can help people to experience less stress, less illness and more joy and freedom in life. But I want to be clear — especially with the upsurge of mindfulness as a panacea for just about every ailment in modern life — it wasn’t just mindfulness that helped me. More

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Ten years later

Almost exactly ten years ago, I was in the hospital for a flare of Crohn’s colitis. On May 4th I will celebrate ten years of being Crohn’s-hospitalization free.

When I think back on that time of my life and see images of the past, my eyes well up with tears. My life seemed to be in pieces so much of the time. But paradoxically, those years were also rich with love, joy and compassion. People were there for me in amazing ways. I was there for me in ways I never thought I could be.

I took nothing for granted. Every morsel of food that I ate was a treasure. Sleeping through the night was a gift. Just feeling the energy to do what healthy people did would make my day.

I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be a person with a disability. I haven’t forgotten the mortal fear of death or writhing in pain with no hope of relief. I haven’t forgotten the debilitation nor the emaciation that I experienced. There were weeks of being starved by doctors, months of eating baby food, and years of not knowing if I could plan anything in my life without a whisper of fear in the back of my mind saying, “But you could get sick again.”

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The meaning of pain

The other night I started to have extreme pain in my abdomen. I couldn’t find a comfortable sitting or lying position and walking was out of the question. I knew that I was not having labor contractions because those are short-lived and I was experiencing near-constant pain. I started to wonder if the pain meant something terrible was happening in my uterus, for example, if my placenta was becoming detached. And then I decided to clear my mind of what the pain could “mean” and to really focus on my body.

With mindful attention, I felt that the pain was not in my uterus, it seemed to be behind my uterus. I decided to experiment with more positions, including some Yoga poses. When I went on my hands and knees, I felt immediate relief, and then the cause of the pain was clear to me. A lot of gas was caught in my squished and shortened intestines (my colon was surgically removed in 2002). I remembered that I’ve felt similar pain during colonoscopy procedures in which air is pumped into the intestines (to ensure the scope does not puncture them). (I usually choose not to be sedated during these procedures.)

I had to temporarily let go of my drive to make meaning of the pain in order to discover the actual cause of my pain, and subsequent relief.
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Befriending anxiety

Before I had a chronic illness the situations in my life that triggered the most anxiety were going on dates, difficulties in relationships, and taking academic exams. Back in those days, one of my closest friends in college used to call me “the Big Easy” (and no, I was not promiscuous!). I was really easygoing and it took a lot to unnerve me.  Starting at the age of 24, chronic illness and pain altered my nervous system in a way that made me much more susceptible to chronic anxiety.

The first time chronic anxiety hit me hard was in 1999, about a year after I had first been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). I re-washed dishes after they had been through the dishwasher because I was scared that there might be some bacteria left on the dishes that would trigger another flare. I knew that my fears were irrational and yet it was so difficult to stop my behaviors. So I sought help from a counselor.

The counselor helped me see that I was trying desperately to control my circumstances. The flares of IBD that I had experienced scared me and I wanted to prevent them in any way possible. But my mind had made the error of thinking that doing things like rewashing dishes would somehow protect me from future flares of IBD. The corticosteroids that I took during that time did not help as they exacerbated every emotion I felt and made me jumpy.

In 2000, I visited Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery and meditation practice center in the south of France. You can read about my experience here. It was there that I experienced a deep sense of inner peace and learned some wonderful techniques for coping with my anxiety. The practice of mindfulness meditation helped me to see my fears more clearly. I saw how much I feared losing control, and one day I wrote the following in my journal:

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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

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

Tips for IBD patients

Someone newly diagnosed with IBD asked me for tips on dealing with it today. Here was my response. These are things I did that helped me to cope and to heal from Crohn’s colitis. I have been in remission for over 5 years. These suggestions may not help everyone with IBD.

1-Practice mindfulness. It can help you to relax your nervous system and to develop more self-awareness. It can also help you to cope with difficult emotions. You could try at least 20 minutes of deep relaxation and meditation every day; it made a difference for me. Our nervous systems can easily become imbalanced through stress, which may worsen IBD. Stress doesn’t cause IBD, but it can exacerbate it. See: Psychological Stress in IBD: New Insights into Pathogenic and Therapeutic Implications, The Impact of Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction on IBD and Effects of Mind-Body Therapy on Quality of Life and Neuroendocrine and Cellular Immune Functions in Patients with Ulcerative Colitis. Know your stress triggers. Managing my stress meant making lifestyle changes to reduce stresses in my life. Stressful jobs always exacerbated my symptoms. In the past five years or so, I have effectively managed my stress and doing so has also helped me feel overall improved well-being. Another blogger, Bob, healed from Crohn’s colitis and credits meditation as being key in his healing process. Bob’s blog: I healed my Crohn’s colitis. Mindfulness meditation and relaxation are not quick fixes and they may not help everyone with IBD to reduce the suffering that goes with living with IBD. More

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