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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Throwing away my ideas about saving the world

There was a question that kept surfacing in my consciousness earlier today. It happened in the morning when I took my son into the bathroom so that I could take care of some things. My son is almost 16 months old and he is getting his second molar, along with two other teeth. My dear boy is in a lot of pain.

I lay him on the diaper changing pad. Oh, he did not like that one bit, and he voiced his discontentment. I tried to empathize with him as I was taking off his pants and diaper, and this question came to mind.

“When did I give up on saving the world?”

But my mind had no time to reflect on this question. The next task was giving my son a Tylenol suppository so that he had a chance of getting a nap despite the teething pain. I went to the sink and washed my hands after giving him the suppository, and he started whining and whining. So I started singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” But he was actually playing with his penis, so I sang, “If you’re happy and you know it, play with your penis…” He looked a bit puzzled for about two seconds, then continued whining.

“When did I give up on saving the world?” I asked myself in a half of an instant, and then went back to tending to my son. I put on a new diaper and clean pants, picked him up and hugged him, and then we looked in the bathroom mirror together.

“Are you ready to take a nap?” I asked him. In the mirror there were two smiling faces. He was shaking his head “no” and I was nodding my head “yes.” I saw my cheeks in his cheeks. He lifted his shirt up so he could see his belly in the mirror. So precious, this little boy.

“It was a long time ago,” I heard my mind say, “When I threw away the idea of saving the world.” Yep, it was. More

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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Birthing the unknown

The day finally came. After over 280 days of nourishing the growing baby in my belly, the time came for the inception of his passage into the world.

The beginning of my baby’s passage into the world was marked by the trickle of amniotic fluid out of my body and onto my bed. My water broke shortly after 11pm on Monday, March 12. I was not having regular contractions, only weak Braxton Hicks-type contractions.

We called the delivery ward and a nurse invited us to come in to check on the baby’s status. We gathered the bags we packed for the hospital, just in case, and we headed for the hospital. I continued to lose amniotic fluid, but I noticed it was stained with meconium, the baby’s first bowel movement. At one point I stood up in the examination room and a contraction pushed a gush of amniotic fluid out of me and onto my socks and the floor. I pointed out the greenish color and the doctor in the room said we would be staying at the hospital, instead of going home and coming back in the morning, which would have been the case if meconium was not staining the amniotic fluid.

At around 2am, the hospital personnel showed us to our room in the delivery ward. We were exhausted, and yet it was very difficult for us to sleep in a hospital room. I’m a light sleeper. The clock made really loud sounds, the bed was uncomfortable, and then there were the blood-curdling screams coming from a woman in the throes of labor next door. I slept about 20 minutes in total. My partner slept perhaps an hour or two. I was not hooked up to any equipment to monitor the baby. There was essentially no reason for us to be there.
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Fear is a guest

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Jalal al-din Rumi

My grandfather used to cite a Yiddish proverb about guests. The English translation was something like, “Fish and guests begin to stink up the house after two weeks.” I’d like to be able to openly welcome the guest of fear whenever it appears on my doorstep, but sometimes it seems like it takes over the “house” of my mind and I feel paralyzed by its power.
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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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