By Erica Shane Hamilton Sometimes, I don't know how I managed to survive those few months in the north of France. At times, I thought death might be better. Every morning around five, I woke up to intense pain in my side. I had to go to the bathroom, where I experienced more pain with the passing of digested food through my ulcerated intestines. I would try and focus on the power of my body to heal as I felt the pain. But inevitably, I would cry as I saw that I was losing more and more blood. I would try and go back to sleep, but often I woke to go to the bathroom six times in one morning.
It was so difficult to eat or enjoy my food during that time. Food symbolized pain and the less I ate, the less pain I would feel. I started to feel like a ghost of my former self. Three years ago, I could bench-press 90 pounds, climb rocks, and run five miles a day. During each episode of ulcerative colitis, I lost a little more weight, and in France, I found myself weighing less than 48 kilograms, 106 pounds, atrophied and weak, with barely enough energy to get out of bed. A French doctor prescribed steroids to avoid hospitalizing me. They were a mixed blessing. They kept me from wasting away, but had awful side effects, causing insomnia and exacerbating my emotions to the point that I felt manic-depressive. The day I left for Plum Village, I started to feel better. The e-mails I wrote during the past 5 months chronicle my recovery in France and how mindfulness helped me maintain my health and enjoy my life. Here is a sampling.
24 March 2000
I would love to eat vegetables and legumes right now, but I can only crave them. Sometimes I cry when I see lots of veggies at the store that I can't eat; especially today because I found a great health food store that had beautiful, fresh, organic veggies. It was so nice tonight just to be able to cut them and cook them up, and savor their taste in the broth. So, in my honor, and in honor of the long-awaited spring we are welcoming, please go out some time this week and savor some veggies and fruits. You know, my favorite meal of the day is breakfast because I get to eat a banana. The rest of the day it's plain rice, plain pasta, eggs, soy milk, tofu, fish, a slice of bread (at least that is the best in the world here). I can't even have that much salt because it makes the meds harder on my kidneys. And its been two months like this.... Enjoy your veggies!
28 April 2000
I am doing GREAT as far as my health. Plum Village was the medicine my soul needed! In fact, I will return on May 3 for another few weeks. The healing energy at Plum Village is absolutely wonderful. Immediately, we felt a sense of peace. I remember watching the sunset that night, through the orchard, thinking, how happy this piece of earth is—the birds and animals and trees love this place! Frankly, I was a little scared that I would not be able to hack it—the mindfulness and so much time meditating. But as the days continued, I started to really groove with it.
At first, the reaction of people to the sound of the bell or the clock or the kitchen phone was funny to me because everyone stopped. It was like "freeze frame." But I began to look forward to those bells because they gave me the opportunity to return "home" and to feel a deep sense of relaxation. Even today, in Brussels, when a bell rings, Liza and I stop and breathe. I was heading in this direction already, before Plum Village. But it accelerated my love of life one hundred fold. I have experienced so many beautiful moments in the last three weeks and now feel ready to experience beautiful moments and lots of love—for myself and for others—for the rest of my life!!!
Sure, occasionally, the weather changes, so to speak, and I get a little down or I get stuck in my head. But I gently witness these emotions and try and understand what is underneath, that is the teaching of mindfulness. And I go back into my body and see how it feels with the emotions. It is all part of caring for myself and I have not felt this centered in years, or perhaps ever. I am going back to really practice mindfulness more, so that when I do start work or school once again, I will enjoy my life and take things in stride and pay attention to my body and health. I recommend this sort of retreat for everyone, it is not really religious, even though there are monks and nuns (the most beautiful, joyous, warm people), but it's kind of like a summer camp for learning how to enjoy life.
25 May 2000
I am writing from San Sebastian, Spain! Yes, I know, I lead a rough life these days, at la playa! It is so gorgeous here. I love the combo of mountains and sea! When last I wrote, I was in Brussels, getting ready to go back to Plum Village for a few more weeks. When I returned, I learned that Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) would be staying in our hamlet for the month of May. I was incredibly fortunate to have experienced his teachings firsthand morning, noon, and night as he attended our sitting meditations, walking meditations, and many meals. I would like to share some of my experiences with all of you ... in the short time I have left at this Internet cafe.
One morning, after we sat and did a brief walking meditation, Thay gathered us around family style and spoke softly. "You are a star," he said, raising his eyes on the word star."... and no less than that. When you walk mindfully, you are all stars circulating in harmony. How beautiful you are. You can celebrate life by walking in this way." And I thought to myself, "I am a star— hee, hee."
Another morning, we had a lot of guests from Christian backgrounds and Thay tried to gear his teaching towards them. "The Kingdom of God is now or never. You can touch the Kingdom of God with each step you take." Even though I did not quite jive with the lingo (I probably would use Universe of Love instead of Kingdom of God), it was a turning point of sorts for me, as the rest of the day I reminded myself, "Now or never. I have the opportunity to experience the love in this moment right now, the love all around me and within me."
I think of it kind of like being at a good show, whether performing or in the audience. Say you have to go to the bathroom during the show, but you don't want to get up because you might miss something. Well, that show is your life and going to the bathroom is getting lost in your thoughts. Reminding myself of this has helped me feel so much joy, feel so lucky to be alive, and feel healthy in a simple, single moment.
My birthday was incredible, perhaps the most blissful day of my life!!! I ate veggies and dessert all day to ensure a healthy and sweet year (and to enjoy them). It was also the Buddha's birthday and day of ordination in which twelve sisters and brothers became monks and nuns. The ordination ceremony was amazing and touching; seeing twelve souls so committed was like watching a marriage to the Sangha (community). It was a truly wonderful birthday. Thanks again for all of the prayers, blessings, and birthday cards, they have been a sure part of my healing process.
8 June 2000
I am back in the U.S., how strange indeed. I'm going through a bit of reverse culture shock. But I enjoy being back, especially to better communicate with those of you here. And now, I'm in D.C.—yoooohooooo— staying with my wonderful friend, Cleary, whom I have known a dozen years. But, I don't want this e-mail circuit to end. You are my sounding board and you helped me through a really rough time of my life.
So, let me tell you all about "ze hussukt de munkt." Last week, while I was visiting family, my aunt, a Jew-for-Jesus Baptist, was wearing a T-shirt that said "I LOVE JESUS" real big. My grandfather, an atheist, did not really like her wearing the shirt in the primarily Jewish condo that they live in. He thought it cheapened her religion but she said it was her right to clothe herself as she saw fit (both good points). Well, a few days later, she brought it up again and my Grandfather said, "Ze hussukt de munkt," which means in Yiddish, roughly, that she reminded herself of something that happened in the recent past. It is something we all do, yet sometimes it is tough to come back and be present. Sometimes, I find myself thinking about conversations I had earlier in the day or the day before, replaying them, and wondering if I said the "right" thing (as if there is a right thing). But when I catch myself in "ze hussukt de munkt," I go back to my breath and, if possible, try and find the "smiling, caring, loving energy." (I know that sounds hippie/New Age, but it is what I feel when I am real focused on the present). And then I feel how wonderful that energy is in comparison to whatever silly thought I had. But, if I can't go back fully to that energy with my breath, I know that something in the conversation either provoked an uncomfortable feeling or an uncomfortable question (like, "what if s/he is perceiving something that is true for me too?"). And then I use the Dharma tools.
"J'embrasse ma colere avec beaucoup de tendresse, comme un bebe." During the Francophone retreat at Plum Village, Thay made this statement. It means, "I embrace my anger with lots of tenderness, like a baby." You can substitute your emotional flavor of the day into that sentence. It ain't easy, I know. But the process helps me to be honest with myself and to know more of who I am. So, when I do breathe, and go back to myself, I am going back to a solid force full of love and joy. Like I said, sometimes joy is part of other things. I will leave you with a sparkler poem I wrote at Plum Village.
Yesterday A butterfly waved her wings beside me. Gleaming from her flight she flashed me with orange, reminding me of fire as something cracked deep within. I felt a buzzing with this element. I thought was lost in times of uncertainty and sadness Pop! it went in my belly. A sparkler, like I used to wave on the 4th of July. Pop! and the glitter streamed through my blood with euphoria, giggling. "See, you remember me. I am your sparkle. You light me again with each fully belly laugh, each gaze of wonder at the cosmos, each shimmer of passion for yourself. I am here, always ready to be ignited.
7 July 2000
This week's e-mail is about freedom, something I strive to have and something we just celebrated here in the U.S. It has been a rough week for me as a friend and I drove to Atlanta and back with a Ryder rental truck full of my stuff over the holiday weekend. I don't think I have recovered from the twelve-hour drive back on Tuesday. And it has been very difficult to practice being mindful, even though the Still Water Sangha of Takoma Park helped rejuvenate me for a spell. As they taught at the day of mindfulness in Oakton, Virginia a few weeks ago, it is very difficult to be mindful when you are physically exhausted. And I know that is not healthy....
"Am I taking on too much?" I ask myself. First, moving back to the States, then to D.C., finding an apartment, searching for a job with benefits (so I am covered for my ulcerative colitis—welcome back to the U.S.), trying to heal dynamics within my family, meeting people, dating ... Is taking on too much my habit energy creeping up on me?
I told the Still Water Sangha about how I see the Dharma (teachings of mindfulness) as a sort of mindfulness bell that allows me to stop and decide whether I want to continue my present course of action or change it. And so I look to Thay's teachings as this bell, to remind me that I have a choice, that I am as free as I want to be.
Attachment to things around us and within our consciousness. "It is important to look deeply to get the freedom you deserve. We cling to our suffering, we are afraid of losing our suffering." said Thich Nhat Hanh. And so I ask myself, what suffering am I holding on to? What wrong perceptions do I have that are keeping me from being free?
Do I perceive myself as more alone, or needing to be more alone, or disconnected from what I know? Or falling out of the practice? It is actually the Sangha, being connected to others practicing mindfulness, that helps me be free, including all of you, and your support.
At Plum Village, I often felt really full. I was so joyous and happy so much of the time and I told one of the nuns about this once and I said, "But I'm supposed to be empty, right?" And I can still hear the echoes of her voice as she said, "When I completely hear the birds singing and smell the scent of the flowers and feel the wind and melt into it, that is when I truly feel empty."
As I was walking to the subway this morning, I saw the rays of the sun beaming through the clouds and I felt empty of the suffering and free again as I sank into the feeling of myself connecting to everything around me.
And so I end my story by acknowledging the wonderful gift of practicing mindfulness. Every day I embrace the sky and everything it contains— the clouds, the rain, the sun, and the oxygen I take into my lungs with each breath. And everyday I wake up and smile, thankful for everything that I am able to experience in each day. The biggest changes for me since those first few months in France are that I am healthy now and I have fallen in love ... with my life.
Erica Shane Hamilton works as a Conservation Associate for the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. She practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community, the Still Water Sangha of Takoma Park, Maryland, and the Virginia Mindfulness Center in Fairfax, Virginia.