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

Discipline is Freedom

This excerpt is from my latest post on Elephant Journal:

In January 2001 I almost died from a severe flare of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s colitis). While I was in the hospital, my father brought me a book about qigong. He showed me how to do a standing meditation pose and I tried to do it every day for 30 seconds.

When I was well enough to live on my own again, I lived in Washington, DC, where two dharma teachers at the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax encouraged me to practice qigong. One of them gave me a book and a video and suggested that I try to practice qigong every day for 100 days. So on March 9, 2001 I committed to practicing qigong every day for 100 days.

As of today, I have practiced qigong every day for more than 3,650 days…

Read the whole post here: Discipline is Freedom.

Getting through the “why me?” days

I think we all experience moments of wondering why we have to deal with a particular health challenge — what is the purpose of it? We might see ourselves as “abnormal” and wish to just be more “normal.” We might look with envy on others who seem to have it “so easy” and wish that we could have some of that ease. When I did my dissertation research, “Why me?” was a commonly reported thought among women with chronic pelvic pain. Some even wondered why God had given them such debilitating pain and illness.

Sometimes we just reach a threshold of not wanting to deal with chronic illness or chronic pain anymore. All of our excellent coping strategies fall by the wayside because we’re just too tired to apply them. We feel mentally defeated in those moments. And we can’t seem to just talk ourselves out of them. The sense of defeat and demoralization is too strong.

When we are absorbed in the “why me?” of coping with a health challenge, it just seems awful. Suffering isn’t rational! The “why me” comes from the feeling of being sucked into a “me bubble” of despair.

So how do we get through the days in which despair seems overwhelming? Here is what I do: More

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

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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