Tagged self-care

The Hungry Brain

Are you concerned about your memory?  Do you feel irritable much of the time?  Is your stomach tied up in knots from chronic worry?  Or are you just “stuck” and don’t know which way to turn?

What you may not realize is that your brain is a “hungry” organ and depends on a constant supply of nutrients that influence your mind, mood, energy and vitality! Your emotional and mental health is closely linked to your nutritional status.  Food is a carrier of energy  or “prana” that delivers unique substances that influence the health of your brain and consequently, your mind and mood.

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In Haiti, Faces of Change: Mercedes’ Transformation

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.”

by Mark Silverberg for CMBM

“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.



Great Profile of CMBM Gaza Program!

Hello friends,

I have wonderful news to share with you today, an amazing article on our work in Gaza from this morning’s New York Times.  It gives such an accurate feeling for the touching , powerful, and effective work The Center for Mind-Body Medicine is doing in Gaza and for the spirit of healing, community and hope that I believe pervades everything that we do.

Please read this testament—so amazing to have it so well and feelingly presented in The New York Times—to the possibility of transformational change

Finding a Steadier Path in Gaza

We’re delighted that this Gaza program, which is nurtured and sustained by so many dedicated and generous people (health and mental health professionals, teachers, community and religious leaders, and our funder, the Atlantic Philanthropies) is being so positively recognized. I hope you’ll take the time to read this beautifully crafted piece and share it with friends.

I also wanted to share a few stories I’ve been saving for you from a visit to our program there in August, (the second visit within three weeks). We were moved on both visits by the ways our Gaza team is helping children and other folks—every kind of person—to relax in the midst of poverty, danger and chaos. And it was so touching and such fun to be with our dedicated, passionate, raucous, talented and tender Gaza team (you hear some of their voices in The Times article) and with Jamil, who leads them.

During our time in Gaza, we visited with some of our recent trainees –there are about 130 new ones this year. Throughout his training with us, one counselor—I’ll call him Abed—was so skeptical, so cantankerous: no question was too obscure to ask, no objection too small to raise.  A couple of weeks ago, we watched him sit on the floor—sweet and solicitous and playful –with the most troubled five year old boys from the kindergarten with which he was consulting. The boys—cute, squirmy, solemn and giggly—showed us how to do “soft belly breathing” and told us how they have brought relaxation into their families — “and guided imagery too.” And, an excited five-year-old added, “I taught my brothers and sisters and my parents about the genogram.”

We saw two groups for women with breast and lung cancer. Cancer, we were told, is regarded in Gaza as a disgrace as well as a disease, a kind of plague which provokes shunning. “No one wants to know you,” we were told, “except in this group.” “I felt worthless…dead already,” said another woman.  “The mind-body group relaxed me and brought me back to life.” Another woman, stout and older, proudly showed us “chaotic breathing”—flapping her arms up and down, breathing deep and fast. “I do it every day. It makes me feel so strong,” she said with a grin.

Then there was a group for kids with Down Syndrome, the boys lying on mats, imagining safe places “at a beach,” “in the garden,” or “at a sister’s beautiful wedding.” We now have 160 mind-body groups in Gaza. They meet for ten weeks and then 150 to 160 more begin. The film of all this and more will be ready soon, and we will share it with you as soon as it is. (I’ll be sure to post a link here.)

We’re growing—in many ways.

More soon. In the meantime, lots of love to all of you.



CMBM’s Drawing Exercise Resonates in Haiti

We 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 . . . .

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At School in Haiti: Andre’s Story

At the end of the third class, a quiet, solemn boy asks if he can speak with me. “What,” he had wondered during class, “about memories of the lost person that come back again and again?”

Andre says that he has great difficulty falling asleep, and when he finally does, nightmares always come. “I feel so helpless. I cannot talk to anyone.” He grabs his throat with every other sentence. When I mention the gesture, he tells me that his “words are stuck in my throat. And I am afraid to cry. It is not manly.”

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Depression’s Upside: A One-Sided View

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.


Gaza 2009 Blog, Day 1

Gaza City, December 12, 2009

Hello Friends, Many of you have asked and many more wondered, what goes on when you guys are over there in the Middle East, in Israel, and especially in Gaza, a strip of land that most of the world, including those parts of it that are closest, ignore or misunderstand, a shabby, beleaguered, always surprising territory where we have been working for more than seven years. What’s it really like? So here goes, with the first of what I hope will be communications every day or two until just before Christmas.

My room in Gaza City’s Commodore Hotel looks out on the Mediterranean, its small waves, falling coolly, brightly, and predictably this early morning. On the spit of land that points toward the open sea where Israeli Navy, vigilant for errant or desperate Palestinian boats, patrol, a dozen Hamas security men, are drilling – lining up in formation, jogging. Tomorrow our Gaza leadership team – sixteen health and mental health professionals of considerable, hard earned skill, sweet dispositions, wry humor and luminous goodwill – will gather downstairs for the faculty preparation that precedes the “Advanced Training” in Mind-Body Medicine of 150 more clinicians.

It’s our first day in Gaza after one in Israel – for me and our US team a long evening filled with meetings with Naftali Halberstadt the psychologist who directs our program there, Rhonda Adessky, the Hadassah Hospital researcher who is our clinical director, Smadar Shmuel our administrator, Danny Grossman the retired Israeli fighter pilot who supports all our healing efforts in the region, and the rest of our Israeli Board.

We’ve trained 300 clinicians, educators and community leaders in Israel – from heads of departments of psychiatry and leading academic psychologists to family physicians, police and the Zaka, the stalwart Orthodox men who gather the body parts of victims of violence for burial, and inform their families of their deaths. The mental health and health professionals use our model – of self-awareness and self-care, of mind-body skills like meditation, guided imagery and biofeedback; of self-expression in words, drawings and movement; and small group support – in hospitals, clinics and universities. The Zaka now bring our meditation techniques and our teachings of awareness and acceptance to the scenes of bombings and car accidents and into the living rooms of overwhelmed, suddenly bereaved families.

Over 120 Israeli school psychologists and school counselors have graduated from our program. They are using our model in schools everywhere, but especially with kids traumatized by shelling in and around Sderot in the South and in the North where Hezbollah’s missiles fell. A third of our Israeli trainees are Arabs, many of whom identify themselves as “Palestinians.” At our meetings in Jerusalem we discuss expanding our work in the South, developing more joint programs for Israeli Jews and Arabs (co-led by our Arab and Jewish graduates) and working with disabled military veterans. We’ll continue the planning when we return from Gaza.

Right now we’re “checking in “in my room at the Commodore, catching up on the time since we and our Palestinian colleagues began, last March, to train this committed and enthusiastic cohort of Gaza clinicians, sharing our feelings of gratitude for the opportunity to be here in Gaza, once again, in what its inhabitants call “the world’s largest open air prison.”

We are enjoying being in Gaza. You may wonder about that word “enjoy.” Actually, the feeling is much rounder and more robust, and, of course, more complex as well. Gaza is, in spite of some much needed UN sponsored cleanup of rubble from the Israeli attacks of last winter, a bleak place, terribly diminished by the severe restrictions on material coming in and exports (chiefly food and flowers) leaving, by overwhelming population density and pervasive poverty, and by the widespread – and still unrepaired – destruction of farms, fields and factories, of mosques, public buildings, and private homes. And yet Gaza is to me and to our team a place that is at least as blessed by its people as it is cursed by conflict.

As we sit in a circle each of us recalls, along with the terror of times past – days training our Palestinian colleagues in 2007 while Hamas and Fatah fought in the streets not far from our hotel, nights of Israeli planes’ building shaking, glass breaking sonic booms, the bodies of children lying in the streets – a sense of satisfaction, and, yes, love, that far outweighs it and draws us back over and over. Amy Shinal our clinical director, Afrim Blyta and Yusuf Ulaj, Kosovo psychiatrists I began to work with ten years ago during the war there, Dan Sterenchuk and Lee-Ann Gallarano, our administrative team, and I all feel it and say it each in his or her own accents: Our Gaza team feel like our family, instantly recognizable and available, and accepting and caring in a way that recalls the embrace of those bound to us by biology. We are there to teach them – about mind-body skills, and being aware of the thoughts and feelings that arise each moment, and the uses of the imagination, and about skillfully leading groups – and they inevitable teach us so much more, about generosity arising in the midst of the greatest tragedy, openheartedness to strangers, the power of community and of love for one another, the possibility of hope in the darkest of times, endurance, patience, tolerance, humor.

At lunch we eat a meal of seafood on the terrace – it is late spring warm, if breezy on this December day- of the Lighthouse restaurant with our Gaza coordinator psychologist Jamil Abdel Atti. We toast – with lemonade in dry Gaza – Chuck Feeney the Chairman of The Atlantic Philanthropies who has funded our work for five years and Don de Laski my always generous US Board member: The sufferings of Gazans, and first the promise and later the effectiveness of our work have touched them deeply. On the coast road cars and motorbikes flying green flags chug by celebrating Hamas’ birthday. We have coffee and ready ourselves for the training to come.


(Film to follow in days ahead.)


Woodstock Wisdom

Festival Crowd

Hey, I know I’m a little late, but I was a little late to Woodstock too.  I hadn’t planned on going, but then another doctor as young as I was then called me up, desperate–actually, crazed. “You’ve got to get up here, man. They’ve got hundreds of thousands of people coming, and there’s no food, no place to stay, nobody to take care of them.”

“I saw on television that the roads were jammed.”

“Forget about it, man—we’ll send a helicopter.”

And he did.

And that’s how my girlfriend Sharon and I–veterans of the civil rights and anti-war movements, former residents of the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley, and passionately committed to “health care for all”–found ourselves on the way to Bethel, New York.

Looking back this week on Woodstock, forty years later, wondering if there was anything I had to add to everything that everyone who was or wasn’t there has had to say, I realized I had actually learned a lot in those three days and that the lessons might be worth sharing.

Woodstock was a triumph of peace and love. It was a terrible mess.

Here they are, in the order they came to me.

* Always be ready to help. When someone asks with real need, you have to pay attention. Inconvenience–dicey travel plans, the loss of a precious few days of a psychiatric resident’s vacation—is really a small deal. Utter lack of knowledge about the conditions we were walking into or the support available to us once we got there—let it be, see what happens. Bottom line: if it feels right and necessary, do it.

* If you’re meant to do something, it’s likely, in spite of all improbabilities, that it will happen. I know, I know, this sounds hopelessly hippie-ish and “New Age,” but what am I going to do? Jung gave this acausal connection between internal intention and external events the more dignified name of “synchronicity.” Let’s call it that.

A helicopter did indeed take us from LaGuardia to a field near Bethel. It landed to pick up some performers. Questions were raised about whether we should be debarked so that Joan Baez’s mother could accompany her. “We can all go,” Sharon said cheerfully, but highly insistently. “We’re all needed.” And indeed, we did—Joan, her mother, and the two of us.

* Be patient, if it’s necessary, even when you really don’t want to be. This, I have to admit, is a lesson I’ve had to keep re-learning many times these last forty years, but Woodstock gave me a clear, undeniable glimpse of its usefulness.

Everyone was helpful, but no one actually knew how to find our friend, the doc who called. “He’s here” . . . “there” . . . “behind the stage” . . . “over by those tents.” Hopelessly lost half a dozen times, we picked our way among hundreds of thousands of bodies and got righteously irritated that no one seemed to know our friend or where we should go or where supplies could be found, or who else might be in charge—“Listen, you guys flew us up here to do this job. There are already kids all over the place with cut feet, sore throats, and bad trips. It’s starting to rain, and it’s gonna get worse.”

“Oh, wow, man,” they said. “That’s far out. Would you like some food, booze, hash, acid? Would you like a hug?” We had to laugh.

* If you build it—and they really need it—lots of people will come. Without supplies or shelter, we set up at the edge of the huge bowl where the bands were playing, Our spot was marked only by a sign, “First Aid.”

People started lining up immediately. An hour or so later, miraculously, antiseptics and bandages, sutures, and antibiotics started arriving, Wavy Gravy, the prince of hippie self-help, sent some guys with a tent.

* Opposition will come your way. The line is from reggae musician Jimmy Cliff (he wasn’t at Woodstock) but the truth is universal. By the second evening of the festival, more than 100 people were regularly in line outside our little tent. Some needed sutures—Sharon reminded me the other day how impressed she was with my one-hand surgical ties, and I am too, though I honestly don’t remember them. Others had respiratory infections and were working on pneumonias. And a very large number, quite young even to my 27-year-old eyes, had taken improbable quantities of unnamed and perhaps unnameable substances, and were deeply distressed. I went down the line triaging, and discovered about fifty of them.

“We need a bigger tent,” I told a guy who’d shown up with a two-way radio, “a real big one for 50-100 people.” The big tent arrived and I invited all the mentally, emotionally and psychically challenged to come inside. I spent time going from one to the other and realized the mission was truly impossible. There were simply too many, and despite Sharon’s best efforts the line outside our little tent was growing long.

* Self-care and mutual help are fundamental tools of all healing. This is a lesson I’ve been learning ever since my first days as a student on hospital wards, and it’s one that I’ve devoted much of my professional life to exploring and teaching to others. The couple of days in the big tent at Woodstock highlighted it luminously. Absolutely unable to care for all these people myself, and with only a couple of untutored volunteers available, I came up with a game plan. I asked all those who had taken too many ‘uppers’—amphetamines, cocaine, and the like—and were fidgety, agitated, and utterly at a loss to know what to do—to walk around vigorously, insistently holding, leading, urging on all those who had overdosed on ‘downers’ like heroin, barbiturates, quaaludes, and liquor. I asked the remaining kids, who were lost in the dark forests of psychedelia to sit on the floor of the tent in pairs or threesomes or fours. “Hold each other,” I instructed, “listen to each other. Take care of your brothers and sisters.” I told the volunteers to keep their eyes open and to get me in case of crisis. Every half hour or so I checked in.

The walking, holding, and hugging went on all night. The next morning, some of the young people, happy and calm enough, dropped by to thank me; others simply sat listening to the music.

* Nothing is perfect. Woodstock was a triumph of peace, love, and community, says just about everybody who was there. Millions of people now regard it as a touchstone, an example of what’s possible when you set aside fear and prejudice and promote love and peace. Yes. Woodstock was a self-indulgent mess, say some others, skeptical and cynical perhaps, and maybe scared of the unleashed id of the experience. And there’s some truth there too.

But there were other issues. I was, amidst the pleasure of the celebration, the impressive kindness and sharing, troubled by something else I saw and felt, a certain kind of dislocation and sadness in some of the young people.

They said they were disoriented by the crowds and uneasy being away from the cities and suburbs which were their homes. These feelings, of course, had been amplified by quantities of drugs consumed, but we heard and felt it in others who seemed more or less sober—an uneasiness and loneliness that camaraderie and crowds could not assuage. I heard it, too, in the months after Woodstock, from people who felt let down by the lack of fellow feeling in the world they returned to, by the absence of the indomitable hope that seemed to them to suffuse Bethel.

* You never know who your friends and teachers will be. I was already learning this during several years of psychotherapy and meditation and from time spent ministering to the so-called “mentally ill“—as well as hippies. It was possible, I was finding, to find solace, friendship, and even wisdom in unlikely places and with unexpected people. Woodstock reinforced this mightily.

During the three days of the festival I met apparently hapless kids with remarkable skills in erecting shelters, scrounging and preparing food, and tending to the ill and crazed. I was impressed over and over again by the exuberant effectiveness of Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm tribe, the courtesy of celebrities like Joan Baez who really did believe in “power to the people,” the kindness and good sense of those who volunteered to help out.

It all came home to me, appropriately enough, on the way back home, in a small plane that Sharon and I shared with the chief of police of Beverly Hills, who had come to supervise security. “Great kids,” he said. “Great festival. Great view,” he added as he gestured toward the Manhattan skyscrapers over which we were flying. “People will be talking about this for a long time.”