Friday, March 3, 2017

On Crohn's Disease and Mindfulness Retreats

Like so many Ashkenazic Jews, including several in my immediate and extended family, I suffer from (a relatively mild form of) Crohn's Disease.  Explanations for the disease remain elusive, with explanations and research suggesting a variety of genetic and environmental factors resulting in this autoimmune disorder (an overactive immune system attacks the body it's supposed to serve).  But whatever the cause, the symptoms are quite real; chronic inflammation of the digestive tract (often but not always in the Terminal Ileum at the end of the Small Intestine) leads to abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea and frequent bowel movements, bleeding, weight loss, fatigue, and more. Pleasant.

Psychologically, it can be challenging.  Frequent trips to the bathroom and fear of the same transform simple activities into stressful ones.  Commuting to work - where are the bathrooms on the way? Speaking in public - perhaps I shouldn't eat all day so I don't have to suddenly use the bathroom? You get the drift.  Performing the simple tasks of life can become quite complex and emotionally draining, aside from the physical symptoms themselves.

In the summer of 2016, I signed up for a four (4) part mindfulness retreat series with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, heading into the retreat in the midst of a flare up.  The retreats, located at serene centers in coastal California and rural Maryland, respectively, were calm and isolated.  Surrounded by beautiful natural settings, wildlife, expansive skies, and relative quiet, I watched to see how my body would react, with both worry and curiosity.

As the days wore on, I noticed that Crohn's flares and inflammation died down, despite a steady diet of chickpeas and legumes, foods I normally find problematic.  While stress isn't the only factor, being on a mindfulness meditation retreat allowed me to really notice, in more than a passing way, the stress I had been carrying in my kishkes, as they say.  This same quality has repeated itself on each of the two subsequent retreats (I still have one to go), and I'd like to share the combination of factors that seems to have worked for me:

1)  Disconnecting
For these retreats, I lacked virtually all cell service (use of cellular phones was proscribed and discouraged in any event) and did not sign on to e-mail.  Without the possibility of communicating, I dropped awareness of pending/ought to be/should have already been communications from my mind. That fight I was having about a misinterpreted e-mail . . . no possibility of dealing with it now.  The form I forgot to send to the car people to correct the errant tax bill . . . next week.  What if someone needs to get in touch . . . they'll deal.  This served both to teach a powerful lesson of humility - if I drop off communication for a week, the world keeps spinning just fine - but also to remove a constant white noise of anxiety that permeates my life, and probably yours too.

2)  Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness can be described as a compassionate and full awareness of the present moment. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't mean ignoring the past or turning a blind-eye to present problems.  It's about turning fully to those emotions, thoughts, memories, and moods, as they arise, and cultivating a full awareness of what they are and are not.  It's about learning that analytical thoughts and passing emotions don't have to become our identity, and that we can cultivate another way of being, an aware, awake state.  It's about becoming masters over our own lives, and recognizing, in our increasingly hectic world, that the literally millions of stimuli that enter our orbit each day don't have to control our emotions and moods; we're not puppets in someone else's show.  We can choose to turn toward our thoughts and emotions, with intention, and we can chose to be present fully elsewhere too.  It's about enjoying the taste of food, fully, when we're eating, and listening lovingly when we're with family.  In this way, our responses in each moment change to become more appropriate, and we learn to reclaim presence and enjoyment in our lives.  The formal meditation training on the retreats I went on included classic breathing meditation (becoming aware of the breath, and gently noticing when awareness drifted to other thoughts or sensations, noticing that moment, and returning to awareness of the breath, again and again, as a way of anchoring in the ever-dynamic present).  It consisted of walking meditation as well (noticing the sensation of, well, walking, while walking).  But the practice pervaded the whole retreat, whereby we were encouraged to maintain a general state of awareness and mindfulness.

3)  Silence
The quiet solitude, punctuated usually by sounds of chirping birds or raindrops (okay, sometimes food delivery trucks too), certainly helped. Silent meals, too, allowed me to stop worrying about engaging others around me.  The quiet simply allowed me to settle in to a calm place that brought about an ease of being and an ease of digestion.

4)  Yoga
Rather than merely engaging in fitness, a mindful body practice allowed for increased sensation in different parts of the body, and allowed me to work through the physical stress and tightness that comes from having a chronic autoimmune disorder.  Thoughts, emotions, memories, moods, and physical sensations exist in a dynamic loop.  We're prone to forget, in the west, that we're physical creatures living in bodies.  A Crohn's flare and the resulting worry/social anxiety, I learned empirically, can easily cause me to go down a memory-lane field trip of the most anxious moments of early childhood, or worse, middle school.  This can then lead to physical stress in other places. Before I knew it, I was a bona fide crab, and an insecure one too.  Oy.  Not necessary.  Breath into the pose, bring awareness to it, and let tension release.

5)  Nature
Urbanization is again a trend.  We see more concrete than trees on a daily basis.  But for whatever reasons, the science is showing that spending time in nature (see here, for example) reduces stress and inflammation, improves memory and energy, and is restorative to human vitality.

For me, then, an ongoing practice to help treat my Crohn's has included:
a) Finding times to leave technology off/at home
b) and be in nature
c) a regular formal and informal practice of mindfulness
d) more work with body awareness and the interplay between the body, spirit, and mind (not that they're so distinct)
e) and to welcome rather than fill voids of silence

Crohn's is just one example; so many of us are in need of all the above for so many different reasons. Since I've been benefiting so much personally, I'm therefore proud to share that Thrive-RI will be offering it's first full-day retreat (well, 9 - 4) on March 19, 2017.  The theme of the day is Simplify-RI, but for me, it takes on another dimension. Vitality is such an important part of living the kind of life I want to live.  And I'm only here now.  Going on retreats allows me the needed space to step back, however briefly, in a place with great nutritious food, unusually talented teachers, natural beauty, and the present moment, and to take back inspiration and techniques to become more like the kind of person I hope to be.


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