When did you begin meditating and why?
Which meditation practice(s) did you choose?
How has meditation affected your life?
I began meditating in 1974 right after medical school.
I was a psychology major in college and deeply influenced by Albert Schweitzer, who had doctorates in music and theology when he went to medical school as a path to lifelong service in Africa.
So, with this mind-body-spirit perspective, I was thrilled to read two groundbreaking articles that Herbert Benson and Keith Wallace published when I was in medical school. In both studies, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM), silently repeating their word (‘mantra’), demonstrated physiological changes of deep rest while awake. Those changes were often even greater than those found during sleep. Benson called these changes the Relaxation Response, which has formed the basis for his work ever since.
Not long afterwards, I discovered that one of the pathology faculty members was meditating behind his closed door for 20 minutes each afternoon. He referred me to his TM teacher and I learned to meditate.
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As a frequent meditator, armed with new skills of awareness, I was recently struck by how noisy my Washington, DC surroundings actually are. Noticing my own internal reactions, I started to wonder if pervasive noise in the environment could cause me harm. Research is now saying that I am right to question.
To paraphrase a CMBM alum, “When I heard The Center for Mind-Body Medicine would be offering a seminar called ‘Mind, Mood & Food’ at Kripalu, I felt like the heavens were bringing all my favorite things together.” The “trifecta”, as I like to call it, was a beautiful blend of relevant material taught by engaging faculty in a setting where what was being taught could be practiced. Imagine learning about foods that support brain health and then going to Kripalu’s dining hall where those foods are waiting for you on an abundant buffet. Picture completing a moving meditation with Jim Gordon and then going to Yoga Dance during a seminar break. Kathie Swift spoke about the benefits of being in nature for brain health, and I’m convinced Mother Nature was a seminar participant as the weather was perfect for walks to the lake. It was seventy degrees in mid-March in the Berkshires!
Mark Pettus, Jay Lomard and Chuck Parker offered a wealth of knowledge and fantastic synergy as they fed off each other’s energy and complemented each other’s work. A big round of applause goes to the hard-working staff at Kripalu. They were wonderful to work with and jumped right in to run the program like a well-oiled machine. Mind, Mood & Food at Kripalu is definitely worth a repeat!
Hot off the presses: Center Founder and Director James S. Gordon, MD’s new Sounds True audiobook, Freedom from Depression: a Practical Guide for the Journey launches today!
Based on Dr Gordon’s enormously popular book Unstuck: Your 7 Stage Journey Out of Depression, the audiobook contains new experiential and didactic material. Quoting the Sounds True website:
The true source of healing from depression comes from within—not from doctors or medications. Yet when depression drains away our vitality and will, how can we find the energy to help ourselves? With Freedom from Depression, Dr. James S. Gordon reveals a new and empowering approach for dealing with this misunderstood condition—a way out of the darkness that helps you restore balance and joy to your life.
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.
This is the pre-program staff meeting yesterday in Jacmel, Haiti, where the Center is training 120 care providers in our Initial Mind-Body Medicine program. Initial and advanced trainings have been held previously in Port-au-Prince, and some of those trained are now part of a Haiti Leadership Team serving as interns in this training. Dr. Gordon and Center faculty are guiding the deep process of learning that begins today. The trainees will learn the science and practice of self-care, in a supportive small-group setting. They need this support themselves, and will learn to share it with their families and their communities in Jacmel.
Blessings on the work!
We spend the morning at the Cardinal Leger Hospital, destroyed in the earthquake and quickly rebuilt. Haiti’s lepers come here, older people without legs , or with fingers and toes amputated by the disease; brothers 8 and 12 years old whose noses have collapsed and whose faces and hands already bear the scars of the condition.
The kindly and concerned Sisters and lay nurses who are in charge have been overwhelmed by the suffering around them—staff, friends and family killed in the earthquake, as well as by the weight of sadness their patients bring. Out in the country, living with people whose illness has wasted them, meeting acute care needs, they are clearly stretched thin.
Little by little, they brighten during our workshop, appreciating the relaxation of Soft Belly, laughing with the shaking and dancing—“The first time laughing since last January 12th,” notes one sister.
Here’s a quick video we took of participants dancing at a Port-au-Prince workshop—
Sharing their drawings, One sister notes how rigid her body is in the drawing of her “biggest problem”, and how the flower that she draws in the third picture (“the solution to the problem”), bending gracefully toward the sun, is a “lesson to remember.” Before we close, JJ teaches us all to stretch in our chairs.
Afterwards, outside, the Sisters show us the bushes blooming red, yellow, white, and orange, and reach up with a net to fetch us mangos for the road. “We will use what you have taught us, ourselves,” says Sister Yolande, the Director, “and we will teach our patients too.”
Yesterday I told you about James (from the National Police), Ty Rose (an anesthesiologist and teacher), and Marilyn (a pediatrician). (Here is the link, if you missed it.) Now, here is Mercedes’ story.
We go around the circle to “check in” about our emotions and what’s happening right now, this moment. It is Mercedes’ time to ‘partager,’ or share. “Most of you,” she begins, “have seen how I was last time,” and I remember – and imagine that all the others remember as well – how at the very first training, in December, she sat erect in clothes that hung like armor, her face as immobile and solemn as the great statues on Easter Island, speaking occasionally and telegraphically about the death of her husband and her daughters, and her own despair.
Mercedes now opens her hands and, amazingly, grins. “I have found calm,” she begins, “doing the deep breathing and the shaking and dancing every day,” (she is emphasizing now). “And I have found much more as well.”
“On the anniversary, January 12th, my daughter and I and our whole community were in Church. And everyone was so sad, but tense also and unable to express the sadness. And I let myself cry. And then my daughter was able to cry too. And in my crying I found strength. And I asked myself ‘what have I learned in the Mind-Body program and how can I use it to help everyone in this Church?’ And I began to sing a song – I have never done this before. And my voice grew stronger, and I asked everyone to lift their arms and glorify God. And they all began to sing and lift their arms, and cry. And I sang three songs and then we opened our eyes and we were all calm.”
She concludes, “you know I work as a teacher. But my students no longer call me teacher,” she says, wagging her finger and pausing with what I cannot help but think is a mischievous grin. “now,” she goes on, “they call me ‘mommy’.”
Thank you for reading my accounts of CMBM’s trainings in Haiti, and these stories from our trainees. I hope you are finding the people as amazing and their stories as touching as I do.
Now that the first 120 Haitian professionals have completed our Initial and Advanced Trainings in Mind-Body Medicine, they will begin to offer Mind-Body Skills Groups to their family, friends, community, and at their institutions, and I will be sharing more of their stories here as they teach and share with others, and learn and grow themselves.
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 . . .
CMBM Training in Port-au-Prince
Our team has been gathering for the last two days, long flights and sometimes long delays as well.
Jamil Atti is in from Gaza, Afrim Blyta and Jusuf Ulaj from Kosovo, and Naftali Halberstadt from Jerusalem- psychiatrists and psychologists who have lived through war and terrorism themselves, leaders of our program in their country, friends and brothers. From the US, Amy Shinal (our Clinical Director) Lynda Richtsmeier Cyr, Kathy Farah, Lora Matz and Jerrol Kimmel, physicians and psychotherapists–long time friends of 10 to 15 years, talented, adventurous, deeply committed to this international work.
Linda Metayer is our Haitian Program Coordinator, a psychologist with a degree in public health, as brave and courteous as she is smart and competent. Lee-Ann Gallarano, who organizes all of our work with trauma around the world, was working with Linda before we arrived with Jesse Harding, our newest staff member, who several years before worked with Lee-Ann when they were Peace Corps Volunteers in Mali. Tod and “B”, gifted documentarians, are filming us, and Mark, who has volunteered his time, is taking most of the still photos you’ll see on this blog.
We spend this first day “checking-in”, hugging, laughing, sometimes crying, as we tell the stories of our first meetings, recalling the power of soft belly breathing to help us relax in the middle of fire fights, of Afrim informing us in Gaza City that the 3AM earth shaking noises were in fact sonic booms. And everyone is speaking of the realization, growing over the years that, “You are my people,” “This is the work I want to do,” “I am at home.”
In the early evening Linda, Amy, Jesse and I walk with our camera crews into the sprawling tent camp across from our hotel- 10,000 people in the Champs de Mars. We had been told that “from the outside things look better.” There were fewer tents, less crowding. Up close the opposite turns out to be true- some people have indeed left, clearing out in terror of cholera, but everyone doubts they have found places much better. Meanwhile, moving from one clump of canvas, plywood, plastic and corrugated metal– one collection of shelters to another — we hear similar disturbing, dispirited stories: there is actually less food and water than there was four months ago and far more violence. Women, and muscular men as well, tell us that if and when they are able to sleep, it is with one eye open, alert to robbers who are often armed, and to rapists. The jobs cleaning rubble that once helped sustain these encampments have moved on, though no one knows exactly where.
Though some people are shy and wary, virtually everyone is gracious and within a few moments, eager to talk to us. Mothers tell us that so many of the children are “hyper” since the earthquake. We see them shuffling from foot to foot, eyes shifting with their bodies. The mothers say they have lost weight. When I ask about emotional problems everyone- men, women, teenagers- says they are angry. “What do you do?” I say. “I pray to God,” several say. “I take this medicine,” says a man raising a small bottle of homebrew. A woman says, troubled, but resigned, “I beat my children.” Several others nod.
As we move from one section of the camp to the other, two teenagers run past and jostle Linda. A moment later we see that her necklace is gone. She is a bit shaken, but philosophical, “They do it to eat,” she says. Other camps are likely to be somewhat better, but some are not and there are 10,000 people here. Walking back to our hotel I feel the weight of life here in Haiti, people stretched and pushed beyond breaking. I think of how much our work is needed, and I feel frustration along with everyone else. “Where is the organization?” I ask rhetorically, “The benefits of all the money the international community has committed?”