Opening Pandora’s Box

The role of a physician is to help nature heal.

-Hippocrates

The best plastic surgeon in the world can’t heal a paper cut. No amount of skill, prestige, and money can fix our most superficial injury. Only the body can heal itself.

Dr. Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk and translator for the Dalai Lama, pronounced these words as part of his Dharma teaching at the School of Ancient Wisdom in Bangalore.

I traveled to Bangalore to take part in his multi-day workshop on the “The Power of the Focused Mind.” This is only one of the many interesting points he brought up, but I want to share two amazing stories with you that illustrate the power of healing contained in our own body and mind.

So, back to the question of the paper cut: why do we think things will change when we move from our smallest injury to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or anxiety and depression? The body’s healing capacity doesn’t change.

The simple logic becomes lost in increasing complexity, but in fact, the body is still the only one capable of healing. Not to be confused, symptoms are a different matter – yes, taking ibuprofen will alleviate a headache. But why did the headache arise in the first place? The problem’s root remains untouched.

If you have ever tried to fend off invading dandelions from your garden, you’ll realize pulling the leaves and flower off might help temporarily, but unless you remove the root, the problem will come back!

I think our health is much the same way. Treating symptoms has its place. I am not an opponent of judiciously used antibiotics, by any means. But I think we need to think deeper: why was our immune system weakened to begin with? Why did our natural line of defense fail against these microscopic invaders at this particular time?

During one of our workshops, Dr. Wallace told us a story about going into a 6-month solitary retreat. One of his students, an elderly woman, offered to host him on her California property for this time, and being retired herself she also decided to practice meditation for a few hours each day.

She was relatively new to the practice, so lying supine, she would simply practice observing her breath and body each day.

As the months went by, she noticed that at certain times feelings of pain would arise in her body during the meditation. She would notice them, follow the movement of the pain, and then watch it dissipate.

In daily life, she noticed that the aches and pains of joints and her back began to recede. These chronic problems had come to resolve themselves parallel to her practice of breath-focused meditation.

Focused meditation, Dr. Wallace explained, could be likened to dreamless sleep where the body (and mind) could truly relax and recharge, an optimal time for the body and mind to heal itself from accumulated injuries.

The California woman’s story amazed me, reminding me of how powerful the body is and how capable of healing it is if we allow it to do so.

The mind, in dynamic unity with the body, can likewise achieve this process of self healing. This is when we open Pandora’s box.

Dr. Wallace shared a second story with us about the depth of wounds carried by the mind. A young boy was constantly criticized by his father, told by him that he wouldn’t ever be good enough for anything.

It came time for the science fair at school, and one teacher encouraged her student to submit a project. “Why?” thought the boy, he’d never be good enough to compete with the others. But, with the encouragement of his teacher, he decided to give it a try.

To his great astonishment, the boy won first place. At the awards ceremony, he was beaming with joy. But his father approached him and said, “you didn’t win that. I won that. Without me, you’re nothing.”

In that moment, the boy’s fragile spirit was crushed. That mental wound, whether inflicted knowingly or unknowingly by his father, stayed in this mind, festering for many years.

As he retold this story an innumerable time, tears came forward to his wrinkled eyes. The old man now felt the pain as freshly as the day his father crushed his spirit at the science fair. He had relived this story so many times, and the wound had never healed.

We all have this within us; we carry mental wounds as well as chronic physical illnesses. To heal these mental wounds, we must open the heavy lid of our Pandora’s box: our mind.

Tie a snake into many knots, and it will be able to loosen itself, given time and space. To loosen the knots of our mind, we need to give our mind time and space to work them out.

To do so, we can begin by “watching the cinema of our mind,” in the words of Dr. Wallace. This means objectively observing our emotions and desires without getting caught by them.

This is a type of meditation that moves beyond watching the breath. We sit openly, receptive to whatever might come up from our subconscious: pleasant or unpleasant.

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Of course, it won’t happen in one 30-minute sitting. Just as the California woman’s body took time to heal itself – several hours of meditation each day for a few months (and continuing) – unraveling the knots of the mind will take time. Sometimes things might surface, sometimes they might not.

Once the emotion or desire rises up, call it by its name. If you observe it neutrally, it won’t find anything to cling to, and risen long enough from the sub-conscious, it will be forced to dissipate like early morning dew on blades of grass met by the rising sun.

To be very honest, both of these practices take patience…and practice. I have yet to progress beyond dabbling, but the stories give great motivation, I think!

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Ayurveda Adventures: exploring an ancient art of healing in South India

Lotus

Lotus

I’ve recently returned from my journey to the city of Kottakkal, where I spent several days observing the work of the Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala – one of Kerala’s famous Ayurveda clinics.

Coming to this Ayurvedic Hospital and Research Center, my aim was to understand how Ayurveda philosophy approaches mind-body healing: how does psychology impact physiology, and vice versa?

I spoke to several interesting physicians and researchers during my time in Kottakkal, and I’ll share here about my experiences and insights.

The Arya Vaidya Sala is a very large complex: there is a factory which produces Ayurvedic herbal medicines, a hospital with inpatient and outpatient departments, a charitable hospital which provides both allopathic and Ayurvedic services to patients free of charge, a botanical teaching garden and research institute, and a teaching college.

Main hospital building

Main hospital building

I met with two doctors at the teaching college – Dr. Kirathamoorthy and his student, Dr. Vipina. I spoke with Dr. Kirathamoorthy about the idea of patient agency and mindset. A lot of agitation can come from feeling overwhelmed and at the mercy of your illness. Mindset is important: “it’s ok, I’m ok” is somewhat of a mantra we can repeat to ourselves in order to reset the fatalistic direction of thought we might drift to when faced with pain and illness.

Dr. Vipina was a post-graduate student who had completed the standard 5-year program at the college, and had become a certified Ayurveda physican. She was overseeing a yoga course for an “obesity camp” program run through the Arya Vaidya Sala. The women who attended (I didn’t see any male patients participating) were brought together for this course which ran for a period of a few weeks.

Dr. Vipina explained that the group support was the most important part of the program – yes, the women came together to learn and practice gentle yoga techniques, but it was the solidarity they found in one another that gave them encouragement and motivation to keep practicing and striving to achieve a better state of health.

This approach to health was amazing in several ways, I found: 1) there was a focus on prevention, rather than treatment. Prevent diseases associated with excess weight rather than treat them later. 2) The prevention didn’t focus exclusively on exercise. In fact, the yoga practice focused on breathing techniques rather than physical movement and exercise. The sequence was gentle and focused on reducing stress rather than achieving direct fitness, emphasizing the importance of psychological well-being in addition to physical well-being. 3) The practice emphasized the healing potential that group support and community can have. These women found support and encouragement in one another, which helped them reclaim lost agency as they worked to improve their general health and well-being.

Like the general hospital itself, the psychiatric hospital also treated its patients exclusively with Ayurveda medications. Of course, there were certain cases in which allopathic medicines had to be continued on with, but the Ayurveda program complemented these medicines, the two coming together to create a truly integrative approach.

Observing at the psychiatric ward, I spoke to Dr. Brinu, the hospital’s director. In our conversation, Dr. Brinu explained that Ayurveda views the body and mind as one dynamic system: what affects the mind, affects the body. The opposite is likewise true.

He explained that in Ayurveda psychiatry, three elements are essential:

  • Training of the mind. People fall naturally into three general categories: low, medium, and high capacity. Those with high capacity will have very low susceptibility to anxiety/stress and will be less likely to become mentally ill. Those at low ranges of capacity will be highly prone to being shaken enough by life events to develop problems with their mental health. The mind can be trained to transition to higher stages, however, and thus mental training is one element of Ayurveda’s approach to psychiatry.
  • Belief. Not necessarily a belief in any particular faith, but rather some sort of grounding belief. I took his explanation to be referring to spirituality. According to Dr. Brinu (and I agree), the faith is but a means of achieving something greater, something that’s difficult to explain in simple words. For a person walking across a narrow bridge, the faith is acting as but a guiding rope. The person themselves is actually walking across the bridge (reassured by the presence of said rope).
  • A set example for how to cope with difficult situations/anxiety/etc. This one made me think of mindfulness training and how it can teach us to shift our perspective, first in our meditation practice, and ultimately in application to daily life situations.

While mental training would be a great way to prevent mental health issues from cropping up in the first place, understandably this can’t always be applied to those who are deep in the midst of mental distress. This is where Ayurveda shifts its focus to herbal remedies and massage.

As another physician at the clinic – Dr. Manzoor – explained, “treating the body, we treat the mind.” To treat only the body or the mind would be ineffective, as both are inextricably woven together. To illustrate this, he shared a patient’s story with me.

A woman came to the clinic with her husband complaining of anxiety, heart palpitations, hypertension, poor sleep, and generally not feeling well. She explained that her husband shared little of his attention with her. She felt jealous, because he spoke with other women, but not with her.

To me this appears the ideal demonstration of how mind and body are connected. Due to her anxiety and depression, the woman was experiencing a host of physical symptoms. Cynical of me to say, but had she come to a GP in the US, she would have been sent home with some antidepressants and some medication for the heart palpitations. Unfortunately, the root of the problem wouldn’t have been cured – creating dependence for medication won’t solve her psychological OR physical problems.

Dr. Manzoor explained the solution: the woman had to change her perspective. Instead of constantly ruminating on her husband’s actions and attitude, she should stop taking things closely to heart and learn to distance herself from these stress-inducing thoughts. As a friend once told me, there are three options for how to deal with difficult situations: love it, leave it, or change it. Changing another person is difficult, if not impossible without their own intention, so in her case, she would have two options: love it or leave it. That’s where mental training comes in.

The response I’ve just described above falls neatly into the category of mindfulness stress reduction training. However, Ayurveda goes beyond this to complement the mental training with physical treatments – the woman would take herbal medicines and receive massage treatments with medicated ghee. I think this approach of treating both body and mind is one of Ayurveda’s great strengths in terms of holistic treatment.

Apart from speaking to these physicians, it was also fascinating to follow a post-graduate medical student on her psychiatric ward rounds. Here, the facilities were very different from the comfortable apartment-like rooms in the inpatient wing of the main hospital. Cold metal bar-frame beds became each patient’s home for a period of 1-1.5 months, as each separate Ayurvedic treatment would take up to a week.

Separated by sex, each ward was a single room containing around 12 beds. Usually, there would be a family member with the ill patient, though not in all cases. The diagnoses were familiar: OCD, suicidal ideation, bipolar disorder, delusions of grandeur, etc. Another constant was the importance of empathy: I was a bit struck by how the student led me from one patient to the next, reading off their chart to me, sometimes without so much as acknowledging the patient themselves. Across all cultures, some things remain the same.

Prior to leaving the Arya Vaidya Sala, I also visited the research department. This gave me a great perspective into how complete the whole Ayurvedic complex was – from research to manufacturing to treatment to teaching – really, a fully self-sustainable system!

At the research center, I spoke to several people who explained the nature of their work to me. Their center’s first priority was to identify contamination of the raw herbal materials the factory complex was receiving from across all of India. This was done via DNA barcoding, and utilizing several chemical/biochemical assays to test for purity and identity of a specific plant or prepared powder.

A second effort was aimed at curtailing the shortage of certain medicinal plants. Dr. Indra Ramachandran explained a very interesting initiative to me: the Arya Vaidya Sala wanted to provide free seeds of certain medicinal plants to farmers, who would then grow them. Once ready for harvest, the factory would purchase the crops from each farmer. This way, the shortage would be offset and income generated for farmers. Other efforts also included cell culture – propagating rare plants in ideal growing conditions within a petri dish.

Lastly, a Ph.D. student shared the topic of her dissertation with me: she sought to identify new medicinal herbs not yet in use by mainstream Ayurvedic treatments by speaking to tribal healers from different parts of India. She was able to identify more than 10 plants through her efforts, which goes to show how much we have to learn from old pre-modern wisdom.

As I wasn’t allowed to observe the Ayurveda massage treatments for privacy reasons, I considered staying for longer as a patient myself. However, I ultimately decided against it since the minimum stay for patients is 14 days. A friend I met had already been coming for 10 years (from Germany) and stayed 28 days each time. Ayurveda treatment takes time, it is certainly very different from allopathic symptom-concealing “magic bullet” treatments (and better too, I think, since Ayurveda seeks to treat the root of the problem, not merely symptoms).

I’ve learned that Ayurveda is a paradigm for true mind-body healing and integrative approaches to health. Its mission is to strengthen the body so that it can heal itself, which makes it very compatible with other treatments (such as allopathic medicine). In the future, I hope that Western medicine realizes this more and more and comes to learn from the wisdom of Ayurveda.

Venturing into the world of Indian train travel

Venturing into the world of Indian train travel

Kerala countryside

Kerala countryside

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A Land of Colors, Smiles, and Spices

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Today is my second day in India, and I thought it timely to share a post about my first impressions of this incredible country.

During my flight from Zurich to Delhi, I decided to watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as the next best substitute for a crash course introduction to life in India, in place of a Lonely Planet: India guide book (I limited myself to spending a good hour pouring through the pages of one in an outdoors shop in Munich earlier since the book weighs a good 3 pounds).

It was a great movie about encountering a completely new culture (they traveled to India) and embracing the circumstances, be what may. My favorite part was the overall message of the movie: the challenges we face may be great, but our dreams won’t be realized if we don’t persevere through difficult times (very typical Protestant work-ethic message, and typical American film happy ending, but I like the theme anyway!!)

Said by the young and wildly-optimistic owner of the crumbling Marigold hotel, this was my favorite quote:

“Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”
Marigold hotel picture

I also think that two other quotes put this message more into context:

“Most things don’t work out as expected, but what happens instead often turns out to be the good stuff.”

Marigold hotel quote

I like to think that 95% of the time we really don’t know what is best for us. We seem to want what we don’t have and fail to be grateful for what we do have! Things have a way of working out for the best, although what’s actually best for us is often different from what we think is best for us.

The ultimate message then is to act, to take chances, try new things, and to embrace change. It is in this way that we create opportunities for good things come to us (whether disguised, or in plain sight).

That’s a message I hope to keep in my mind as I inevitably run into situations that will be challenging for me. So, starting my journey in India on a positive note, here are my first impressions so far:

Arriving in Delhi, I took the last leg of my flight to Cochin, a city located on India’s Western coast, in the Southern state of Kerala. Flying into Cochin, we passed green forested mountains bathed in mist, with silver rivers winding through the valleys.

Arriving in Cochin’s small airport, I took a taxi to reach the place where I would be staying for my first week in India, acclimating to the culture, climate, and life while planning out the next few stages of my project work.

I spent my first day battling a fierce case of jet lag (read: falling asleep upon entering room for a few hours and again in the evening, this time face-down, hands on keyboard, light on, while attempting to write emails at 7:30 pm). It’s a battle I think I’ve lost for now…

During the afternoon, when I managed to exit hibernation for a few hours, I walked around my new neighborhood, taking in life that felt so completely different to anything I’ve experienced before.

On one of the busier streets, the road was full: cars, motorcycles, scooters, tuk-tuks (a small 3-wheeled motorized vehicle), pedestrians, and goats filled this space. Traffic was based more on the principle of weaving in and out of oncoming traffic (at very close proximity!) and beeping when behind another car/motorbike/tuk-tuk/person/goat to let them know of your presence (read: there was very much beeping).

Little shops, restaurants, cafes, and houses lined the street. On other streets with stalls, vendors invited you to buy a vast array of goods – sweets, bangles, carved figures of wood and stone, ice creams (I’ve heard not to eat this in hot tropical climates…bacteria like ice cream too!!) Right by the shore, Cochin has delicious seafood cuisine, so I’ve tried wonderful coconut fish curry here so far.

Meandering towards the beach, I found this hazy view (not sure if it’s the season, but the sky appears to be in a haze – it’s still bright and sunny, but not quite a clear blue sky).

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I wandered to one of Fort Kochi’s (the area of Cochin I’m living in) tourist attractions – the Chinese fishing nets:

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Nearby, stalls were open where local fishermen sold the fish they had caught in their nets. Also nearby, I found a coconut stand. Here, you could find a fresh green coconut that caught your eye and give it to the wizened old man, who effortlessly made a small opening in the coconut and gave it to you with a straw. Enjoy! I wish I had taken a photo, but that’s one of the downsides of traveling alone – you don’t have an automatic photographer all the time…

I also regret not asking to take a picture of the coconut man, who smiled with understanding (me being outlandish and completely new to this whole coconut thing) when I took 2 sips of my coconut and decided I wasn’t really so keen on this after all (are they supposed to taste a bit bitter??) Leaving my coconut behind, I trudged on, wandering along a street, not knowing where it was taking me.

I wandered the street, seeing other tourists from India, a handful of white tourists (some of whom didn’t respond to smiles, while friendly Indian women and children on the other hand smiled back and nodded to me!)

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Some street stalls, but alas, no coconut man

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There is an adorable child hiding behind the rainbow umbrella…

Continuing to wander, I continued on, tuk-tuks and bicycles whizzing past. Walking on, I came to a point where I realized I was the only woman and only tourist in the entire street, and decided it was time to head back. Although I saw many tourists walking along with their DSLR cameras hanging carefree by the shoulder strap, I somehow felt shy to take either my city map or smartphone out to googlemap my way home. Instead I took a tuk-tuk. This was a thrilling adventure.

We zoomed along the narrow streets, catching fast glimpses into the daily life within the city: women chatting together in beautiful saris, a family showing off a small baby, children playing, men talking, outdoor vegetable shops with their owners sitting on the pavement. We zoomed in and out of oncoming traffic, which was exhilarating considering how fast we were going (and how closely we shaved by the oncoming stream).

Many streets are not clean, and a river we passed oozed by, the color of molasses, and of a smell I can’t describe. Some homes crumbled, others were being patched up. Many hotels and homestays advertised their available rooms. Goats, cats, stray dogs roamed the streets. Coming from Switzerland, life here seemed to me chaotic.

But the people here are kind, friendly, and open. Children call my attention to wave to say hello, people I smile at give friendly and genuine smiles back, warming my heart. The hosts I’m subletting a room from offer to help me plan activities and give suggestions for anything and everything in their hometown, sharing their morning meal with me. When the taxi driver taking me from the airport got lost, a crowd in this neighborhood almost immediately gathered around offering their input. People greet each other and walk along the streets with leisure.

Amidst the crowds and chaos, my first impression of India is that of an amazing country (and I haven’t even seen any landmarks yet really, or other cities/states for that matter). I’m open and curious to where my journey will take me next. For now, I continue to plan my project work of visiting clinics for Ayurveda – traditional Indian Medicine, and yoga centers.

In the meantime, a monsoon passes outside my window. Rain slows from an outright downpour to raindrops pattering on the tin roofs of neighboring houses. I look forward to what the next day holds for me. I think I’ll also give the green coconut another try…

Seeking spirituality, finding solace

In the last few days before my departure to South India, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences exploring contemplative practices in Germany and France. As I think back on my time spent at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism and the three Christian monasteries I recently visited (read about this in my last post), I find one common theme that interlaces these spaces of spirituality: solace.

Setting out to explore Western and Eastern practices of contemplation, I was interested most in finding commonalities between the two. Is the element that draws people to seek contemplative practices shared by Buddhism and Christianity?

I am writing this from a personal perspective, simply wanting to share some of my own realizations and thoughts on the topic. I recognize that not everyone will share my point of view, and I respect those differences. As I’ve learned from my previous experience at the Russian Orthodox monastery, intolerance and a lack of understanding for other perspectives is a terrible thing to encounter in any of its forms.

When I was at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB), I was reminded of a very simple, yet very powerful practice: taking refuge in your breath. I had first learned about this idea at the Blue Cliff Monastery in upstate New York, when a sister (with a spirit pure as a child’s shining through her kind eyes) earnestly spoke to us about taking refuge in our breath.

Taking refuge in your breath simply means this: no matter how stressed you are, how difficult the situation you are facing is, how uncertain the future, and how much fear you shelter in your being, you can just remember that you’re breathing. No matter what, you’re breathing.

It sounds very obvious: of course I’m breathing!! I am also stressed!!! That means you’re doing it wrong. I think a good analogy is this: look at the following picture:

For 16.10.2015 post - Jesus word optical illusion

At first, you just see the gray figures, the meaningless shapes. But then, something shifts in your mind, and you’re able to see the message written in white. The most interesting thing is that both the gray and white messages are present simultaneously. They are both reality, yet they have very different meanings. It is a matter of perspective which reality we will choose (whether willingly or unwillingly) to live.

It is similar with the practice of returning to feel the safety of our breath. We can remember to return to notice our breathing (just seeing the gray shapes) and we can return to our breath in difficult times with the realization of profound safety (seeing the message written in white). In the second reality, we find a deep feeling of solace – solace whose source lies at our core.

Yet this transition is as elusive as the optical illusion the gray and white image plays on our mind. Sometimes, you see the white letters right away. Other times, no matter how hard you try, your brain stubbornly refuses to see anything other than the gray shapes.

When the sister at Blue Cliff first introduced us to the practice of taking refuge in our breath, I saw the white letters, almost immediately feeling the sense of solace and warm comfort radiating through me. I haven’t found a good way to describe this feeling, but “wholeness” is the best I can come up with. Another way to describe it perhaps may be to use the term “sacred respect” – this feeling of connection to something that’s part of us, yet also ancient, much greater than us.

However, I forgot the message quickly. Even when I first came to the EIAB, and a special bell reminded us to stop all we were doing and return to our breath, I just saw the gray shapes. I noticed my breath, but I didn’t connect with that feeling of solace. Only a few days later did my perception shift to remind me of truly taking refuge in my breath. Suddenly, I saw the white letters once more.

In the Christian monasteries in Germany and France, I encountered the same idea of solace, but in a different light. Here, the solace came from the knowledge that no matter what situation we might find ourselves in, what difficulties we might be facing, the troubles we encounter, God has a plan for us and we must trust in the wisdom of this plan. We can plan for tomorrow, yet we do not actually know what each new day holds for us. We cannot see the plan in its entirety, only the present moment. Yet a force is there, guiding us through challenges, and we must learn to see it, connect with it, and appreciate it. In doing so, we find solace and the feeling of “wholeness” or “sacred respect.”

Based on my own experience, it feels that letting go of the idea that we are alone responsible for what happens in our lives and trusting in a guiding force can be a source of great encouragement and solace. Rather than questioning why something happens (or doesn’t happen) at a particular time, and instead simply watching events life events unfold, I have come to trust that there’s a greater force leading me than just my own decisions which are based merely on a limited knowledge (in the grand scheme of things) of the world around me.

This message is represented equally well by the gray and white image I’ve spoken about earlier. In fact, it was shown to us by a brother during a bible study meeting at Taize monastery, and the message is the same, it seems to me. Our perception (again, willingly or unwillingly) sometimes allows us to see just the gray shapes, and we can come to believe that we are alone responsible for what happens to us in life. However, its also possible for our perception to shift, revealing the message in white, letting us know that we do not carry the burden of our fate alone – greater forces than we can understand are involved.

Although the traditions I’ve explored may be different from one another in many ways, both have a way of evoking the feeling of “wholeness” or “sacred respect” that I write about. I’m very glad to see this connection, because for me it reaffirms my innate belief in the wisdom of all religions, irrespective of their different teachings. I am glad that I can use the same picture to illustrate one idea: that our perception plays a central role in achieving “wholeness” or “sacred respect,” and the same realization may be encountered through the teachings of two different religions.

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A cloistered life

The past few weeks, I’ve been exploring practices of contemplation, ritual, and prayer in several traditions of the Christian Faith. This journey has taken me to three monasteries in Germany and France.

Christianity has traditions of contemplation reaching far into the past, and my motivations for this exploration were to encounter new philosophies towards life and health, which I could compare with what I learn about mind-body healing from Buddhism, Shamanism, and other spiritual traditions.

The first step of this journey took me to a small monastery just outside of Munich. It was a Russian Orthodox women’s monastery founded in the name of the martyr St. Elizabeth. It was unusual to find a Russian Orthodox monastery in Bavaria, and I stumbled upon it by chance while searching for Cistercian or Benedictine monasteries in the South of Germany.

The monastery welcomed pilgrims, who would come to spend a few days, weeks, or months living with the rhythm of monastic life and working to sustain the monastery.

I knew that this experience would be different from the practices of meditation and mindfulness I had been exploring earlier, but I also didn’t know exactly what to expect. The first sister I spoke with upon arrival warned me not to ask the monastics directly about their experiences with “spiritual healing,” as I had proposed to do while cautiously explaining the purpose of my project. That wasn’t allowed, she told me, and suggested I focus instead on my own experience. It seemed strange to me to have a ban on questions, but fair enough, I thought.

And so began my week of monastic life. I lived in a simple cell, following the daily pattern of monastic life. The wake-up call was a rhythmic sound created by the pounding of a wooden mallet on a wooden board, held by a sister who walked along the hallways at 3:30 am. At 4 am, the daily prayers began, including the Divine Liturgy, and lasted until 8 am. After a fast breakfast, it was time to begin work, which would go until noon. From noon until 1:45 pm, there was a period of rest, and after quick tea, we went back to work – until 6 pm, when the evening prayer would take place. Following dinner, there was once again a prayer service.

Ritual was essential. In addition to the structure of the day itself, each prayer time also had its own structure and ritual. Before entering or leaving the church, one had to make a sign of the cross across their body and bow deeply, touching the ground with the right hand. There was a certain order to how one should walk around the church, bow before and kiss the icons. There were certain times one had to ask for the blessing of the head monastic, also in a certain way. One could not step on the rug of the head monastic’s chair, I quickly learned from stepping on the rug.

I made a lot of mistakes. So much of this was so new to me, and I simply didn’t know how to do many things properly. What must have seemed so obvious to the sisters who had spent years in this daily rhythm was novelty to me, and was not at all obvious when, where, and what I should be doing during prayer. It was mortifying to make these mistakes, especially because the reaction I encountered (especially from the head monastic) made it seem like my actions were completely unacceptable. I understand where her perspective might be coming from, but altogether, this made for a high-strung experience on my end.

I think that ritual can be very important. Perhaps it is our belief in ritual that allows healing to take place when one asks for healing. Two other pilgrims I spoke to had shared their stories that the rituals of the monastic life or of praying to certain icons had helped them navigate and recover from physical illnesses, which were often chronic and severe.

However, I wasn’t able to experience this power of ritual, because for the most part I just felt terrified of making further mistakes, which made it difficult for me to be present in my actions of bowing deeply or making prostrations, honoring the icons, and partaking in other parts of the ritual. Due in part to my lack of knowledge and familiarity with each practice, I felt mostly like an outsider – participating, but with a hollow feeling of inadequacy that was summarized by a feeling of being unqualified to participate.

There were some times, especially when I called my mind to be truly present together with my actions, that I felt a little bit of the same wholesome feeling I’d encountered when meditating, making prostrations to honor the earth, and practicing energy techniques (Qi Gong, Tai Chi, etc.). I think that had I felt safer, more welcome, and familiarized with the faith tradition of this monastic environment I might have experienced similar beneficial outcomes that I do with the ones I’ve mentioned above.

Unfortunately, towards the end of my stay, I also encountered very severe and intolerant views towards other faiths, including towards other branches of Christianity. I still feel traumatized by a conversation that took place shortly before I left, and to be really honest, I am even afraid to write about it here on my own blog. It will suffice to say that my project plans (even the very self-censored account that I made the mistake of sharing) were heavily disapproved of and I was advised to refrain from further travel and any involvement whatsoever with any faiths other than Russian Orthodoxy.

After leaving a place where I felt trapped, I had doubts about continuing on to my next planned project site. After all, I had been forced to lie at the previous monastery to say I would change my plans and refrain from visiting Taize. However, I ultimately decided I shouldn’t let one bad experience stop me from trying once again.

Arriving in Taize, an ecumenical Christian community in the South of France, I was glad I persevered. The atmosphere here felt entirely different – open and welcoming. Each year, around 100,000 pilgrims visit Taize, most of them young adults. The founder of Taize, Brother Roger, had a vision of uniting the divided branches of Christianity and returning to the core values of this faith.

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Life in Taize was simple. People who came lived in tents and dormitories, eating outdoors, and praying three times each day together in the monastery’s church. The prayers at Taize were beautiful – we sang songs as one large community, together with the brothers. Some of the songs can be found here. This one is one of my favorites.

We sang songs in a variety of languages – French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, English, German, Polish, and several others. Each song was typically repeated many times, and became in itself a singing meditation. At each prayer, there was also a time of silence, typically following a reading from the bible. This was a time for reflection and prayer.

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Prayer at Taize

What I enjoyed most was meeting with a larger Bible study group to listen to a brother speak about excerpts from the Bible, and later to meet with a smaller Bible study group, where we would speak about our own questions, doubts, and experiences.

My Bible study group + some honorary members :)

My Bible study group + some honorary members 🙂

Once again, this was an experience quite different from what I know about mindfulness and meditation, but addressed something very essential: community life. Below is a quote by Brother Roger, which best summarizes the importance of community life:

“Since my youth, I think that I have never lost the intuition that community life could be a sign that God is love, and love alone. Gradually the conviction took shape in me that it was essential to create a community with men determined to give their whole life and who would always try to understand one another and be reconciled, a community where kindness of heart and simplicity would be at the centre of everything.”

Brother Roger: “God is love alone”

Relating this idea back to our modern world beyond monastery walls, I think many people now lack this essential element of community. The nuclear family unit alone, I think, is not sufficient and it is difficult for people to be without a sense of community. I believe it has already been shown by scientific research that loneliness and isolation can contribute to poor health in humans.

I think it’s interesting to think about this notion of community from the perspective of healing. One of my original project questions was “how can mindfulness achieve healing not only for individuals, but also for communities?” I want to reformulate and try to answer this question with what I’ve learned by observing and participating in life at Taize.

The new question would sound something more along the lines of “how can awareness of community and solidarity with others be a healing force in itself?” Community is created by shared interests and values, a sense of belonging and solidarity with this community, and working cooperatively toward a mutual goal. All of these elements I think can help give people a sense of purpose in life. This purpose and shared energy with others can in itself be a force of healing, I think, which adds another dimension to the already-present power of healing that is present with a belief in healing (whether it is through God, one’s attitude of mindfulness, perhaps both…).

This importance of community is something that I take away from my experience at Taize. I think this new perspective will be essential when moving on to explore other communities of contemplation across the world. As for ritual, I think I will need some time to work with this in order to better understand it and its potential for healing power. I think that in the future, I will specifically be interested in learning more about rituals of healing – both spiritual and physical. Both, I hope to find through my explorations of Shamanism in Peru.

Making communal work fun!

Making communal work fun!

The final monastery I visited was the famous Abbey of Cluny, a former Benedictine monastery. I learned that this used to be the center of a vast network of monasteries across Europe and was once quite wealthy and powerful. The day of a Clunaic monk was very strict – eight times during the course of the day and night the monks would gather for communal prayers. They lived in silence and spent other portions of the day in private prayer, reading, and work. One person, the Abbot, made all executive decisions for Cluny.

While it seems to be the same way at the Monastery of St. Elizabeth and at Taize, I’m not sure that I find this way of decision-making conducive to fostering community spirit, but that’s a discussion for another time…

Beautiful French countryside

Beautiful French countryside

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Hitting the ground running and…still running: 2 months of learning, challenges, and growth

I’m sheepish to say that its now the second month of my world journey and I’ve yet to write a deep, thoughtful, substantial blog post. Better said, I’ve written a few (including one about the first month of my Watson year) but they sit unfinished, gathering dust on my hard drive. It’s time to try, or at least to make a start – no need for perfectionism, just a start!

The truth is that I’ve found writing while traveling difficult. The journey itself and its joys and demands have absorbed me, as each day something novel happens, new impressions are made, and more planning must take place. Routine has left my life for these past months and with it the sense of having a time and space to work on writing about the learning experiences I’ve encountered on my journey of studying mind-body practices.

I’ve learned that this writer’s block also comes down to making choices – for one, choosing to overcome a feeling of needing to convey my thoughts and impressions perfectly (“is that even possible? just an unnecessary mindset!” I say as I proceed to even now seriously consider if what I write now is worthwhile…easier to say than to do, indeed!)

The second decision is choosing to travel sustainably. In my case, time set aside for processing and reflection on what I’ve encountered and learned is essential to the ultimate success of my project in terms of long-terms learning. For now, I’ve been able to reflect and pull some general conclusions from my experiences, but I recognize the need to create a space for myself to regularly work on this not only abstractly in my mind, but more concretely through writing.

I now also begin to see that how I’ve been living for the past two months is also not entirely sustainable, and has left me feeling low on energy. While in Germany for my project work, I’ve chosen to travel with Servas – an incredible and unique organization that connects travelers with hosts interested in cultural exchanges across many countries. In these two months I’ve lived with more than 10 families (Servas, non-Servas, and some friends). With each host, I stay only a few days at a time (according to Servas guidelines) and at most a week.

Being a social person, meeting so many new people has been incredibly exciting and rewarding, but as an introvert, it also pulls on my energy reserves quite a bit, since having my own space and being alone helps me rest and recharge.

Moving forward with my project work and my Watson year of global travel, I think it will be best for me to choose to stay longer in one place, working harder to also create a space for myself in order to create the possibility for more thorough reflection and analysis after each experience of exploring mind-body healing dynamics. I hope this will also give me a chance to better share the experiences with you, which I always think of doing before encountering the two obstacles I describe above.

I hope that with a new mindset like this, I’ll be able to write more often and better share my experiences with you. I’ll begin by writing the next few posts about the encounters I’ve had in Germany, where I have been exploring practices of mind-body healing in different settings – ranging from monastic contemplative practices to hospitals with clinical programs developed for integrative and mind-body medicine. Stay tuned, and thanks for being patient with me. 🙂

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