What is conscious activism? My article on Elephant

My debut article on Elephant Journal is about conscious activism. In the post, I described a question that I asked Thich Nhat Hanh during a time in which I suffered from a flare of IBD. At the time, I wanted to “save the world.” I was actively involved in many projects and I knew that stress was exacerbating my illness, but I didn’t know how to slow down. Thich Nhat Hanh’s response helped me to gain insight into my situation. You can read the article at: What is conscious activism?.

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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

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

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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