By the second day there are actually 135 participants-almost 180 of us altogether. The ones who didn’t come to the opening are present and others from the waiting list have found a way. There are thirteen in most of our small groups.
One of the remarkable things about our trainings is how often people who at first seem utterly closed down—walled off with indifference and suspicion, sunken beneath sorrow—suddenly come alive, sharing what they have not spoken of before; discovering new worlds of feelings, possibilities, hope.
The soft belly meditation invites calm and acceptance. The drawings play to the imagination, sometimes revealing solutions to problems that have seemed intractable. Shaking and dancing loosens most of us up. And the experiences that follow in the large and small groups provoke wonder.
Regine tells me about one of the leaders of the regional police. He came to early morning yoga and scoffed, “I thought we were talking about taking care of people. This is sports.” The drawings seemed, at first, ridiculous. “This is child’s play.” He stays and later in the day she sees him sitting quietly in meditation, laughing as he shakes and dances. He’s back the next day and the day after.
The drawings of a young woman whose face is filled with rage evolve from cramped stick figures–she is fighting with her parents–to a full bodied woman standing apart from them looking at the horizon. When she does the safe place imagery she sees herself “playing hide and seek with my friends having fun as I did when I was a girl.” And then–and a smile cracks her stern face–“flying free.”
I do Mindful Eating in the large group: a third of a banana for each participant. Almost two hundred people feel, smell, taste, and slowly chew. A fit man in his 50’s comes to the front of the room. “I have tended banana trees since I was a child. I know everything about the fruit and the tree and the soil and the bugs that come around. I sell bananas and give them away to the poor and have done so for many years. I eat them every day. And yet, I have to tell you, this is the first time I have truly eaten a banana.” The room swells with laughter as everyone gets the message: It really is possible to come to any experience, including eating an everyday banana, with an open mind and an open heart, as if for the first time.
James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine with Saybrook University.
Because our training in Mind-Body Medicine was interrupted by election riots in December, we scheduled half day workshops for our December trainees on January 11th, 2011. It was a place for us to share feelings just before the anniversary of the earthquake, a refresher course, a time for questions and guidance, the opportunity to gather and sit and eat together in our new CMBM Port-au-Prince office. What a treat to have space for people to come- 60 or 80 at a time if we need it – windows that shed light, and a kitchen to cook in.
At the end of our time together we sit silently for a few minutes, morning and afternoon, remembering losses, allowing tears to wet our cheeks and spot our clothes. And then we hear about the help that these men and women are already offering others — in hospitals, schools, churches and tent camps. We make plans for how we will work together with Haitian people everywhere, and the ways we will continue to share ourselves and what we are learning.
As the anniversary of Haiti’s catastrophic January 12, 2010, earthquake approaches, physical and emotional symptoms that were ebbing or had disappeared, are rising. We hear it everywhere as we– Linda Metayer, our Haiti program director, and I–move through a day of visits and talks with staff at the General Hospital and the Ministry of Health, as well as with kids and adults in tent camps in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince that is a city of half a million.
Headaches have intensified, and sleep is ever more disturbed by sudden awakenings and half remembered nightmares. Irritability and anger sweep people away in rage at children, who are themselves agitated by neighbors who are too close and too ever-present, too troubled and helpless, too painfully mirroring their own suffering.
Everyone knows in their bodies, as well as from the calendar, that the anniversary is coming, but there is little plan for public ceremony that might make remembrance and mourning easier, and bring hope for a happier future. The program that Linda Metayer and Rene Domercant (a Ministry of Health official who attended our first training in December) have organized at the General Hospital is a happy exception.
After an introduction by Dr Jocelyn Pierre-Louis, one of the Ministry of Health’s leaders and a strong supporter of CMBM’s program, Linda, Rene and I speak. Our talks are nicely paired: Linda and I discuss the extent of psychological trauma and the practical steps people can take to heal themselves and their communities psychologically, and I teach slow, relaxing soft belly breathing and get everyone to move their body. A number of these professionals appreciate the immediate effectiveness and ease of the techniques – “I feel so calm,” says one; “So calm I went to sleep,” adds another, and everyone laughs, recognizing the tension that keeps them awake and the need for rest. “I felt tears come,” another woman adds – all the emotion that needs to be released, I suggest, and she nods.
Afterwards Rene, who is an engineer as well as a psychologist, shows slides from a manual for safe rebuilding: foundations propped and buttressed so they are no longer unbalanced and unstable, second stories supported by first floors that have sustaining walls. Each slide is paired a “Don’t” in red which can lead to collapse in a future earthquake, a “Do” in green – the safe way to sustain a dwelling and save lives. These slides will be shown everywhere in Haiti and distributed in booklets, Rene tells us.
What a pleasantly surprising symmetry and pairing: principles and building blocks for new safe houses, and for emotional and physical self-care–a hopeful beginning for the new year.
To be continued tomorrow–the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake . . .
We move during the rest of our week in Haiti from one group of health professionals and community leaders to another. It is a slow progress through the traffic jams in Port-Au-Prince’s rubble-narrowed streets, and sometimes even slower over the gorged-out, flooded dirt roads that take us to Bishop Pierre Andre Dumas’ diocese in Anse-a-Veau, three hours outside the city.
We use a variety of techniques in our workshops, including explanation of the fight-or-flight and stress responses, meditations, guided imagery, and shaking and dancing. We also do a drawing exercise that has been enormously helpful to children and adults in war, post-war, and post-disaster situations, in Kosovo, Gaza, Israel, and New Orleans, and with US military. For a while, everyone—bent over paper, crayons in hand—becomes young, earnest, playful, surprised.
The drawings allow people to tap into their intuition and imagination without effort. As a series of pictures unfolds, they find themselves creating images they’d never imagined, sketching solutions to problems that seemed insoluble.
In Haiti, we guide our groups through three drawings. The first picture is of “yourself,” the second, “you and your greatest problem,” and the third calls for “the solution to that problem.” (We modify the exercise when we use it with children: read my post about using the drawing exercise with Haitian children in the General Hospital.) Afterwards, participants share their drawings in groups of two or three, telling what they see in what they’ve created and how it makes them feel. Then they have the opportunity to share with the entire group.
As you will see, the results are often touching, and almost always surprising.
Here are a few examples and snapshots of the workshops in which they are created:
For L’Institut Haïtien pour la Doctrine Sociale Chrétienne (Haitian Institute for the Christian Social Doctrine)
Such wonderful, accomplished people: 100 of them—physicians, architects, lawyers, police officials, business men and women. All, in this time of crisis, are renewing their commitment to the welfare of those who have suffered even more than they have. They tell us about the terrible sadness—their own, and others—and about unaccustomed irritation that surfaces at home and at work, as if, somehow, angry will could restore what has been lost.
An obstetrician/gynecologist, tall, broad-shouldered, powerful and handsome in a bright, tailored shirt, has come “for rest and peace—I have not slept since January 12th.” He says he works “always” to forget the loss of his house, the deaths in his family—his sister, nieces, nephews—as well as to care for his patients. In his second drawing (a picture of his biggest problem), he is inside a tunnel, tiny as an ant, lost, unable to touch the equally tiny figures outside. In the third (a picture of his problem’s solution), the figures are larger, recognizably human. They are dancing together and he is laughing, “for the first time since the quake.”
For Anse-a-Veau diocese—nuns, priest, lay brothers
Out in the countryside a couple days later, we are meeting with priests, nuns, and lay brothers in Bishop Dumas’ diocese. It’s like rural Africa out here: lush, green and very still, faded pastel cottages with tiny yards in which seeds, sown or thrown, produce a few vegetables and fruits. We begin and end our visit with Bishop Dumas’ blessing and simple ceremonial meals: tiny, boned, tender white fish, rice, beans, greens, fresh lemonade and thick coffee.
The religious, in straight-backed chairs, are as still and elegant as the statues in the porticos of Chartres. They are so attentive, so sweet tempered amidst the flood of suffering, homeless, city people that the earthquake has forced back to the countryside. One priest draws a scene of despair—“The Cross of Death—Good Friday without Easter Sunday,”—and then, in his third picture, much to his amazement, produces a sun that covers the page with radiant yellow. “It’s the sun of freedom. Together we can overcome.”
They dance, too—nuns, brothers, and priests together—as freely and as happily as children. Before we finish in mid-afternoon, another, older priest calls the Bishop from the next diocese. It turns out he would like us to come there.
More soon about another workshop, this time with the Haitian Red Cross staff and volunteers . . .
We keep our sessions as simple and clear as we can: an introduction to fight-or-flight, stress, and trauma, answers to their questions, and three lessons.
Here they are:
1. Slow deep breathing with the belly soft. This, we explain, is the antidote to the flight or flight and stress response that the earthquake has inscribed in the kids’ minds and bodies. Soft belly will quiet their physiology, slow their racing thoughts, give them a little perspective on the flashbacks of dead bodies, the horror of loss and the ambush of fearful anticipation. Knowing—feeling—that they can breathe deeply and relax, they will have a small but important sense of control in world where so much—whether or not they can concentrate or sleep, where they live and how they will make a living—is, or feels, beyond their power to affect.
You can experience a relaxing guided Soft Belly meditation here, at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s website.
2. Later we do some shaking and dancing so they can let go of fixed patterns of physical tension and mental preoccupation; can feel their bodies moving freely; can raise their energy, lift their mood, and lower their anxiety. They clap and laugh and shout and afterwards, flop happily onto their hard seats.
3. We also explain the value of sharing here in the classroom, at home, or with a friend, the pain they feel and the fears and concerns that arise.
Many of the kids would like us to do more, to tell them where they can go to practice the techniques and talk to others. For now, I say, “you have each other and your families. We are giving you these techniques, written in French. Practice them at home and we will come back to your school. Soon we will be training many people, including some of your teachers, to do this with you.”
The story of how CMBM’s model helped Andre, a Haitian boy, overcome feelings of grief and guilt, coming soon . . .
Some thoughts on Jonah Lehrer’s article from The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2010.
In his article on the possible evolutionary purpose of sadness, Jonah Lehrer, a talented writer and knowledgeable scientists confuses an adaptive mechanism –the capacity for greater focus that the rumination of depression may afford – with a therapeutic one. Even more important, he does not address the causes of depression and, in accordance with his emphasis on enhanced problem solving, limits his discussion of therapeutic efforts to cognitive change.
Work with many hundreds of depressed people in my psychiatric practice and tens of thousands more in war, post-war and disaster situations around the world gives me a very different perspective and leads me to different conclusions. So many of us are depressed because we are living at variance with both our genetic programming and our need for meaning and purpose. We are affected so dramatically by losses of relationships, jobs, etc. because we are not sustained by the adequate social support that is a hallmark of traditional societies. We are subject to an unprecedented level of stress and overstimulation in our environment, to toxic food, and sedentary ways of living that are anathema to our evolutionary development and detrimental to our mood. Many of us lack a sense of purpose in our lives, a connection to something greater than ourselves that gives human life meaning, and can give us hope in difficult times.
The symptoms of depression – both the rumination on what went wrong and why that Lehrer focuses on, and the lethargy, hopelessness, decreased interest in sex and food that go along with it – are best understood and responded to not as an evolutionary advantage but as a wake-up call. They let us know that it is time to address the conditions that are creating the imbalances in our lives; to use food and exercise, meditation and imagination to improve our biology and enlarge our perspective, and to reach out to others—therapists, clergy, family and friends—who can help us. The true purpose and challenge of our depression is to wake us up to what is wrong in the way we live, to point us toward ways to become more fully human.
Barth Green stands easily in the middle of the dusty yard in front of two small administrative tents, just inside the gate of the University of Miami’s Global Institute field hospital at the Port-au-Prince airport. His blue shirt is clean and crisp, cream colored pants still pressed, his grey hair combed straight back. There is a storm of activity around him, squalls of need coming from every corner of the encampment.
Men and women in scrubs, some with IV bottles in hand, rush up to ask questions. Military commanders and visiting dignitaries stand in a small circle around him. Barth Green responds thoughtfully, unhurriedly, sometimes with humor, to each person in turn. He is the director of the hospital and of the entire facility – the huge tent which contains the operating room and the acute wards for children which are attached to it, the other large one for adults, the small tents for convalescence and isolation, the tent-barracks where hundreds of volunteers lie on cots just like the ones the patients have.
Barth Green is chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Miami Medical School. Since 1994 he and his colleague, family physician Michael Fournier, have been leading Project Medishare in Haiti, helping (along with the US based Partners in Health and the Haitian Ministry) to bring good primary care to the Haitian countryside. When the earthquake hit on January 12, he and his colleagues moved quickly; volunteers arrived. Some were skilled as physicians, surgeons, OR techs and nurses; others were simply, surprisingly even to them. moved to help: “at least I’m another pair of hands,” more than one says. Since then the “barely controlled chaos” as several doctors describe it, has been providing treatment for thousands, saving lives. And a surprising life enhancing life changing experience of selfless service for many who have come to provide that treatment and save those lives. “For me,” a tired looking fifty-ish U of M ER doc confides, “this has been the most important experience of my professional life. Maybe,” he adds after a moment, ” of my whole life.”
In Barth Green the surgeon’s calm amidst crisis and attention to present, necessary detail is coupled with an understanding of long term needs. He knows that the deepest despair and the greatest distress may arise only when the immediate crisis is over; and he recognizes the importance of CMBM’s commitment to helping caregivers deal with their own stress and trauma and to teaching them to help the Haitian people to help themselves. He reads over our annual report and our tentative Haitian work plan, and shares them with Carl Eisdorfer, the former chair of Miami’s department of psychiatry, and present director of its program of aging, who has just arrived.
“We have been on a journey,” says the psychologist who is leading the final session of Mohammed’s group. She sits comfortably cross-legged on the floor, in her long coat and headscarf, next to the young man who is her partner on this last day. “We have come to know each other in a way that is not usual here in Gaza,” she goes on. “men and women speaking together from their hearts, all of us finding new friends.”
This is our last group and, as we check-in, and while my translator summons up her English, I find myself pondering old mysteries and contemplating new wonders. The dress of the woman’s co-leader: He is wearing a sport jacket and slacks, neatly pressed, and a tie, secured with a Windsor knot, a professional code of dress that many of the men favor. How much effort, I wonder, does it take to maintain such self-respect amid Gaza’s crushing, demoralizing constraints? And how does he do it with the dearth of dry cleaning facilities and the scarcity of solvents? I am impressed once again by the intelligence, dignity and, yes, elegance of a woman who, except for a tiny slit for her eyes is completely covered. Her assessment of herself this last day is so open, unsparing, witty – “I want to thank all of you,” she begins, “I realize now I have been too rigid, and often wrong, in my judgments; and I have been unnecessarily covering my feelings, not just my body.” I too realize once again – what a grace of these groups – that I have much to learn about my own preconceptions and judgments.
In this session we do drawings similar to the ones we do on the first day of the first training, pictures that often show us how much – sometimes how stunningly, satisfyingly much – we have changed since that opening group. The wires of a cage that contained an irritable, frustrated physician have turned into steps on a ladder which will bring him to a place of peace, among trees in his yard and within himself; a psychologist’s family members scattered across the landscape by misunderstanding in day one’s picture are now gathered in a comforting circle in which they are, like members of the mind-body group she is addressing, “sharing their feelings.”
Our leader has brought us candies wrapped in red foil, to celebrate our time together, and to mark its end. “I Love You” is written across them in silver. Another woman has brought us all pens “to remember this group when you write.” A third has baked a cheesecake, its top speckled with many colored candied glitter, with a single candle. “This is,” she announces, “to celebrate our journey and also,” she adds, “the Prophet Mohammed’s hijra,” his journey from Mecca to Medina in 622, “whose anniversary falls on this day.”
It was in Medina, I remember, that Mohammed created the umma, the spiritual community that is the model for Islamic society. It provides Muslims with the opportunity to gratefully practice the prayers and manifest the precepts and the code of conduct that Mohammed brought to them.
As our leader carefully divides the cake in squares I hear, as clearly as if he were once again standing in front of me, the closing comment of a young psychologist in our previous training nine months before. A tough, pale, earnest, bearded young man, he had spoken with some formality: “I did not know what to expect when I came; these techniques, it seemed to me, were foreign to Gaza. But as I have been here these days I have been so impressed. You and your faculty are so knowledgeable and such good teachers, and I have learned so much about myself as well as psychology. But even more important” – I can hear again his voice lowering, more intimate now – “you have all been so kind to me and all the participants, have made us feel so much at ease. I believe,” – I knew he was getting ready to conclude, but never could have imagined what he would say – “that this is what it must have been like in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.”
Our leader hands us plates, and we eat our cake and savor each other’s company. There is general sadness at “concluding this blessed vacation with ourselves,” as one woman observes, to general agreement. But there are also commitments to “meditate daily” and “shake and dance with my children when we are feeling overwhelmed, or stressed.” Everyone expects to “start mind-body groups for patients on the first of the year.” There are promises all around to be in touch in the months ahead – in the supervision groups that Mohammed and the rest of our faculty will be leading every week throughout Gaza, and less formally too. Phone numbers are exchanged and a paper passed around for email addresses.
And then our leader in her long coat and head scarf reaches over and turns on the CD player and stands and claps, and sways a little, while her young colleague in the sports coat, his collar open and tie now loosened, rises and steps to his right toward Mohammed and the other men, and begins the steps that will take them and me too, our arms on each others’ shoulders, in a small happy circle, around our room.
Here’s the video I promised from Day 3 of the training. I think it gives you a good feel for what life in Gaza and our training is all about.
You’ll see the training participants practicing the “shaking and dancing” technique at minute :50–and then check out all the smiles.
Gaza City, December 13, 2009
Our faculty gathers in a circle in high backed chairs in the ballroom of the Commodore Hotel – physicians, psychologists, a couple of social workers – 15 in all. Many of the men, who are mostly in their forties, are in suits and ties. The women, young and middle aged, all wear scarves, their heads covered as are those of ninety-five percent of adult females in Gaza; most are also in the long shape-shielding coats they wear even in the summer heat. The feelings of all of them, for one another and for us, are, however, easily visible, even palpable; the room warms with affection, hums with connection, as each one of us, in turn, “checks in.”
“My colleagues,” says Naima, a dark skinned Bedouin from Rafah at the southernmost tip of Gaza’s twenty-five mile long strip, “are not just friends but family. When the international team is here, the family is complete.” She really means it; she has returned early from her honeymoon to be with us for the training. Others have made sacrifices too. Mohammed the psychiatrist who heads up public mental health services in Gaza, made the “difficult decision” not to go to a meeting in the West Bank: “I want” as does everyone of Gaza’s penned up one and a half million people, “to get out of this prison, but I prefer to be with all of you. You are,” he adds, lightening the mood, “the best antidepressant.”
And there is more humor, as always in Gaza a crucial ingredient of the savor that makes life more than survival: A spontaneous, slightly exaggerated romantic song for Shaher who is celebrating his twentieth wedding anniversary, Abdel Hamid’s confession that “even with two wives” he is “well”, gentle teasing in untranslated Arabic of Naima about her interrupted honeymoon.
Four and a half years ago when we began the “mind-body medicine training” of 90 Gaza clinicians, most of these people didn’t know each other at all. In the time since then these “leaders,” whom Jamil has chosen, have conducted hundreds of ten week long mind body groups themselves and supervised colleagues who have led many hundreds more. Altogether 7000 children and adults of every age and social class have participated in these intensive groups and our Gaza team has worked individually, in families, and in brief groups and classroom sessions with at least 15,000 more Gazans. The research we’ve done (on 500 kids and 500 adults) shows very significant decreases in symptoms of post-traumatic stress (up to 80% in those most traumatized) improvements in mood, decreases in anger. Amidst massive Israeli attacks and civil war, in the face of pervasive, indiscriminate and violent death, poverty, isolation and confinement, we have found in those who have participated in our groups an enduring (at six months follow-up) enhancement of hope and optimism about the future.
Our team and the people they have worked with, and the changes that are so obvious to and in them, are the magnets that have drawn participants to the training that begins the next day. Eight months ago 150 of them (chosen from some 500 applicants) learned the basic techniques of our approach, and the science of stress and its reduction, and experienced the surprising comfort and intimacy of our small groups – “the one place in Gaza where everyone can take off their masks, relax and be themselves,” is the way Mohammed, who has led similar groups for professional colleagues, old men with chronic illness, war-traumatized children and patients on the psychiatric ward, describes these utterly confidential, tenderly led gatherings of 8 to 10 people.
When they check in their first small group our participants recall the experience of the first training: “I was so happy’” “It was like a vacation to me,” “It changed my personality, my life 180 degrees – I am no longer sick with colds and stomach upset. My doctor asked me what medicine I took”. During and after those five days many have begun to act differently – more assertive toward overbearing and arbitrary bosses; more sensitive to other people and, indeed to their own emotions:“it is not unmanly to cry when one witnesses the horrible suffering of our people”; more willing, even when it conflicts with cultural norms, to trust their own intuition: several young people whom I hear personally (I wonder how many more there are) have told their well-meaning parents that the bridegroom or bride selected for them was not a good match, and calm, sincere, and convinced, have prevailed.
During the intervening months they have met every four weeks with their group leaders – “strengthening our family” – to practice the meditations and the guided imagery, to do the drawings that express their feelings and summon up imaginative solutions to daily stress, to share the losses and frustrations that shadow the lives of every Gazan and to celebrate the joys – of jobs well done, and birthdays arriving and weddings to come – that persist. Still, so many of them say they have been “missing” (a word that I hear so often and that seems so apropos in locked in Gaza) us and waiting anxiously for the training.
In the lectures they bend over notebooks, eager to record information that will help them successfully lead, with our faculty’s supervision, small groups – the major task of this training. After they have finished they will offer these groups and use our model with individuals and families in the Ministries of Health, Education and Social Welfare, in the UN health and education programs, at the Red Crescent, and in hospitals, clinics, universities, and community based organizations from the Erez crossing into Israel in the North to Rafah, abutting Egypt in the South.
Lunch is grilled chicken and chicken curry, rice with almonds and raisins, the mix of mezzes – appetizers like hummus, babbaganoush, and spicy “Gaza salad” that are traditional – with fruit for dessert, a wonderful improvement over the GI challenging food of five years before. The participants – university professors and physicians who have taught some of our faculty and just graduated psychologists and social workers who are young enough to be any of our children – are clamorous with the good feelings and high spirits of reunion, old jokes and new intellectual challenges.