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.
Visiting Leogane the day after the inauguration, we are plunged into the canyon between the promise and its fulfillment. The city, which was the epicenter of the earthquake, is desolate, a combination of “the hour before the shootout” in the Westerns, and a scene from after the Apocalypse. There are empty lots where once there were buildings; rubbish is thrown on top of rubble; motorcycles buzz around, but their riders are solemn.
We stop to buy Haitian CD’s and talk with a 30-ish man whose face looks frozen, who is standing near the rack. “Is this your store?” I ask, of the tiny cabin.
“It is not mine,” he says, “but I built it.”
“What about your house?” I ask.
“My house was destroyed,” he replies.
“Did you lose family?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, and slowly, deliberately, names them. “My brother, my other brother, my sister, my mother.”
Around us, other young men stand like statues. Only when the music from the CD begins does anyone move. The young man who actually owns the store shuffles his feet and smiles a little. A couple of the other guys sing along with Belo.
We know we will be coming back to Leogane and working there.
To be continued tomorrow . . .
I’m not quite sure when or even how it happened but Haiti is starting to feel like home. Not in the sense that I have my family with me, or know where to do grocery shopping, or can lay my hands on the books I love most.
It’s something else, an ease with people, a sense of words and actions contributing to something really good – right now and for the future — a welcome, even an embrace that keeps expanding. It swells from the team around me, and from the 120 people — doctors, psychologists, nurses, midwives, teachers, priests and nuns and voudoun healers — who come to our training with great fidelity and teach the techniques they are learning from us to friends, family, and patients as soon as it is humanly possible. “In order to keep the training inside me always, I have to share it with others,” one young teacher announced this morning.
In the days after Yehlie’s first communion we complete the training we began in December. My ‘small group’ of participants, gathered together again, begins as always with a few minutes of soft belly meditation – slow deep breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth, with the belly soft and relaxed — quieting our nervous systems, our minds and bodies. And then we “check in”, tell each other what has happened since we last saw each other and share what we are feeling “right now.” Already it is becoming a commonplace for us, a way to regularly connect with those around us, outside as well as within the training. “Check in,” laughs one priest, “is almost now a second religion.”
There are still major problems and issues – almost half of our group is still not living in their homes, and there is abiding sadness for those who have died, but there is more energy for understanding and meeting current challenges.
We discuss the short term memory loss that bedevils several people and makes them apprehensive, even in their thirties or forties, about Alzheimer’s disease. I say it is highly unlikely, that trauma has long been known to obscure memory. And one of the other doctors in the group assures us that her memory – devastated amidst the loss of her brother and her husband — has begun slowly to return: “Sharing my emotions, accepting help from others, permitting my own tears – it as if the memory flows back with them.”
This doctor’s face is no longer constricted in pain as on our last visit, but open, changeable, easy with laughter as well as tears. Many of the faces I see are equally changed. James, who is head of psychology for the National Police, scrupulously kind, but painfully thin and equally serious in December, is ten pounds heavier, relaxed, expansive. And the woman I think of as “the Teacher,” as immobile and expressionless as mahogany in devastated grief at the loss of husband and home two months ago, is now a river of feeling and words.
One participant says, “The earthquake brought us so much pain, but also we are seeing it brings good things to the people who survive. Psychology [i.e. traditional therapy] was useless to me and my community – no one could go because it meant you were crazy. Now with CMBM approach I am helping myself and others too.”
Says another, “On January 12th, the anniversary, when everyone in my church was so tense, I taught them the breathing. And as I relaxed I let myself cry, and found my strength, and then we cried together, my children and my friends. And then I sang a song – I have never led a song any time – and I asked everyone to sing with me and praise god. And we did, three songs, and then we all felt more calm.”
It is so encouraging to see the positive changes in our trainees, and to hear that our participants are taking the techniques back to their homes, churches, workplaces. Giving the people of Haiti practical tools for their own emotional healing, and empowering them to teach these tools to everyone they meet, will, we hope, help the Haitian people heal themselves.
I am honored to be at Linda’s daughter Yehlie’s first communion – surprised at first, quickly engaged, and soon moved.
The church turns out to be a metal shed, spacious, vaulted, open on one side, doing duty on other days as classroom, auditorium and gymnasium. There are permanent concrete bleachers against the long wall, and for today worn wooden pews imported, in stately rows facing the altar and lectern that are even now being carried in. The communicants’ chairs are arranged in several rows of nested crescents. Yellow flowers overflow the basketball hoops at either end of the floor.
Parents, siblings and friends fill the pews and bleachers, smiles breaking out in greetings, cameras at hand. Sweet music pours from surprisingly faithful speakers. Nine and ten year old girls in strawberry jumpers sit opposite me, close to the altar – the choir – looking expectantly toward where the younger children will enter as they take their place in the church and with their God. Such gentle order in the midst of Haiti’s general chaos.
100 or 120 little girls in white dresses with wide fluttering skirts and white crowns of linen flowers enter -walking, skipping a little, so pleased and proud. During the course of the morning’s service I notice that each one has a different hairstyle, curls and braids, straight and natural, falling in cascades or caught up in geysers, billowing toward every point of Nature’s compass, saying, I imagine: “This is how I like it” or “This is how my mom and I like it”. Some are obvious leaders, engaged from moment one, with the girls in the next chairs, or eyes bright with ones across the way. Others are more internal, sitting with some poise or fidgeting for a comfortable place.
I count only a few boys, heads shaved, in white dress shirts and grey pants, bow ties like red blossoms under their chins.
Linda’s family and friends make sure I am comfortable, out of direct sunlight, able to follow the service. I am bathed in their kindness, the little girls’ pleasure and anticipation, the sweet yearning of the choir’s voices and the words of the hymns calling, crooning, praising: “Ton amour nous appelle” (Your love calls us); “Merci mon dieu pour ton amour, pour le don de la vie.” (Thank you god for your love, for the gift of life.”) My heart cracks and I cry with appreciation for these girls and their parents and the priest, and the joy and hope they – and now I – feel.
When it is time for the “kiss of peace” everyone is thrilled to share and receive the love. I am too.
This weekend I’ll be headed back to Haiti with my team of international faculty, to continue training Haitian caregivers in Mind-Body Skills that they can bring to their traumatized families, the more than 1 million who still live in tent camps, colleagues, patients, and students at their workplaces. This is the next step as we create a nation-wide program of psychological self-care for Haiti. I can’t wait to be back in Port-au-Prince with our faculty, and the wonderful, caring group of Haitian professionals we’re gathering together and training to be the nucleus of society-wide change.
You may remember our first training in December 2010, which was cut short by election riots. Here are a couple of moving testimonials from attendees who are practicing what they learned . . . Saint-Juste Desir, Teacher at the Public school in Raymond and at the Family Care Program for Better Future International, in Cayes-Jacmel, Haiti, writes:
At the end of December, I lost one of my cousins who was about 30. I was really shocked because she was not sick. So hearing the news shocked me very hard. After that I could not sleep at night, I also had headache. By chance, I recalled the CMBM training and I decided to try it so I could sleep. I tried the “soft belly technique” and I slept all night. Since then, I use it every night before going to bed.
As I am a teacher, after the training in December, I was teaching math to my students. I realized that they were tired and could not concentrate. I asked them if they would like to experience some relaxation techniques. They agreed. I put music, I asked them to stand up and we did some “shaking and dancing” for about 5 to 10 minutes. After that we continued working with no problem. They were relaxed and they asked me why I didn’t do that with them before. They loved it.
I expect to know more techniques during the Advanced Training so I can help myself better and also help my students.
Jacques Africot, Project director, Better Future International, from Jacmel, Haiti, writes:
The technique I use the most is the “soft belly”. It can be practiced anywhere, any moment. It is the easiest technique for me to calm down my nerves, reduce my stress. Any time, I feel stressed or depressed I use it.
An Experience that surprised me: I was talking to a friend and she was suffering in her breast. I asked her if she wanted to make an experience. She said yes. I put a soft music and I asked her to close her eyes. After some deep breathing, I started to guide her slowly with the “body scan technique.” After finishing, she was smiling: Her pain was completely gone. I was myself surprised.
I practiced different CMBM techniques with my children: soft belly, shake and dance, drawing, imagery. I realized that after practicing those techniques they sleep better. Less nightmares, no headache if someone had one before we practiced it. And they sometimes ask me to practice with them.
I expect that the advanced training will give me more techniques to guide others.
By the time our training is finished—the end of February– these Haitian caregivers will all be taking the CMBM model out into the wider world and leading “small groups.” Each person will begin helping others manage their own stress and anxiety (still lingering from the January 12th 2010 earthquake, cholera outbreaks, and continued hardship and displacement). If each caregiver leads 1 group of 10 Haitians, that means the 120 caregivers we’re training will immediately be able to reach a minimum of 1200 Haitians in rural areas as well as cities; and that number will grow as our trainees continue to use these skills with the individuals and in classrooms and with additional small groups.
Making Haiti a community of healers—that is our goal. “This program,” as our Haitian Program Director Linda Métayer has said, “is a gift to the Haitian people.”
If you’d like to support us as we bring this gift to the Haitian people, please click here.
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.
Already at 9am, the air is hot and heavy in the workshop tent. Fifty or sixty people are present, most of them quite young, taking notes, wonderfully attentive and responsive. They are a bit shy at first, but as we all introduce ourselves, they offer stories of trembling bodies, panicked hearts, of sights beyond endurance—watching family members crushed under falling concrete.
We teach them slow breathing to quiet the mind and body and relieve stress. They participate with eagerness and enthusiasm. Afterwards they clamor eager to “partager,” to share: “A feeling of calm for the first time since January 12th;” “a letting go in the shoulders;” “this is the first time also,” one adds, “that we’ve had an opportunity to learn about our own psychology, to share our feelings, to look at what stress causes in the body and to feel relief from it.”
After a mid-morning break, 30 or 40 more people join. “We have spread the word,” one of the young men says with a grin. After we do drawings (of “yourself,” “your greatest problem,” and “the solution to that problem”), the HRC staff and volunteers share them in animated groups of three. “There is hope here,” say several, of their third drawings.
They are filled with sunlight after darkness of the second drawing; with music—drums and guitar—and dance and movement, after “the biggest problem” of buried and walled off emotions, broken bodies and silence: “It gives me direction,” says one young woman, and others agree. Several stand to show their drawings to the whole group; many more want to.
Then we push back the chairs and stand together, shaking our bodies and releasing tension. When the music changes, the young people sing together, clapping their hands. Afterwards, no one seems to want to leave. Little groups form around each of our faculty and staff.
Twenty-five or thirty of the Red Cross volunteers and staff write notes of appreciation. Most are translated from Creole and French by our interpreters, and a couple are in English. Here, in English, are a few:
“Today I have found the means to comfort myself when I have a problem, to change my way of thinking and looking at things in other people and in myself.” Jeanty
“I feel so good. If everywhere they could have someone learn these exercises and teach them in their neighborhood, everything would be okay for everybody, and accept life as it is. Thank you so much to teach us. May God bless you and protect you.” Myrka
Many of the young people say spontaneously that the experience, has, in the words of one, “taught me how to face the dangers that present themselves to me instead of flying from them.” Another adds, “I’m very happy with the information that I learned today. Now I know how to confront my fears. I would like to be a part of another one of your workshops. Thanks a lot. I’ll never forget you. We needed it.”
“I’m Elder,” writes a third, “I’d like to say I’m very happy and I say to you a big thanks to you for that. You’ve made me a messenger to a lot of people in the world. Thank you so much for your encouragement and the hope of living you bring to me. I love you very much.”
Many, many of the HRC volunteers and staff tell us how much they appreciated the copies of the exercises that we gave them, as well as the workshop, and that they plan to share what they have learned with others. But still, “we want to learn more.” A number invite us to come to visit with them, to bring “workshops of healing” to family members and friends in schools, tent camps, and churches in Port-Au-Prince and beyond.
These idealistic, committed, bright young people (some Red Cross staff, most volunteering), are such an important resource for Haiti’s future. They have a tremendous appetite for learning about themselves and the world, and for helping others. I would very much like to do a full professional training for them.
I’m back in Haiti, with Lee Ann, who manages our programs for population-wide psychological healing and Star who translated for us last time; Rosemary is in DC taking care of business. We are exploring partnerships, doing workshops for kids and caregivers. In Port-au-Prince there are no fewer people living in tents or on the streets, but more of them seem out and about, vertical even animated – selling and shopping, crowding toward tanks to fill bottles of drinking water (lots of small kids have been designated for this job) talking and moving with volume and even grace.
Last night and today we spend time at the University Hospital, where we are received with great courtesy by the Director Dr. Alix Lassegue and Marlaine Thompson, the nurse who acts as his deputy. Everyone there is working heroically, at and beyond maximum capacity: only 30% of the physicians have returned to work and 50% of the nurses: “Some, Dr. Lassegue says, have died, some have left the country, and some….” His voice trails off. Most of the work of the hospital, which is Haiti’s largest and most important, is still conducted in the tents which fill its grounds. This is slowly changing, Dr. Lassegue tells us, as engineers ensure, department by department, that the structure is safe; soon the emergency room will once again be indoors.
Today we do a mini-workshop for kids at the Hospital, gathering them from the tents where they have been staying, and from the line outside the pediatric out-patient department. A sweet shadow-thin teenage girl, Vania, has insulin dependent diabetes; Ruth a tiny six-year old girl and seven-year old Roberto have infections that resist all antibiotic assaults; Ruth’s mother walks beside her holding her IV bottle. Almost every child, we learn, has lost a family member or someone close to them.
To be continued tomorrow . . . .