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Isabel Adon
Social Worker
The Bronx

As she commutes to work in the Bronx, ninety minutes a day each way on public transit, Isabel Adon meditates and listens to mindfulness talks on her iPad. “What I have now that I didn’t have before on the bus and the trains is the ability to be in stillness even when surrounded by craziness,” she says. “To not be reactive, but really take a look at the feelings that come up in me. It’s a whole new way of being that I didn’t have before meditating.”

A decade ago, she was a mental health counselor at a school in Harlem, helping kids who were under severe stress from problems at home and elsewhere. One day her supervisor invited her to a meditation retreat. “I trusted her fully, knew the kind of life she was leading—that was my gateway into my meditation, and I haven’t turned back.”

Her first experience was a four-day silent retreat for people of color at the Garrison Institute, north of New York City. She was apprehensive but once there, Adon says, “It just felt so right, like I always belonged, like there was something I always knew about but didn’t know how to access. We all have buddhanature, we just have to let it unfold.”

Now a social worker in an inpatient children’s psychiatric hospital, Adon never knows when her world will be rocked. The hospital, like most, is understaffed and the workers strive to do the impossible. It’s her daily meditation practice that keeps burnout at bay by helping her stay in the moment. Most children are there for six months or more. Many have been victims of physical or sexual trauma and have many agencies involved in their care. Besides their psychiatric problems, Adon says, they may be dealing with multiple other stresses in their lives, including the court system, guardian agencies, and their families. One of the things she finds helpful is using mindfulness to calm herself before taking action. “When I deal with the kids, I pause first,” she says, “because they can become assaultive and dangerous.” Substance abusers, people with HIV, homeless adolescents, and victims of sexual and domestic assault are some of the vulnerable populations Adon has worked with. She volunteers as a rape crisis advocate, working in emergency rooms to support women by helping them negotiate the system, explaining their rights and what might happen. Most of all, she lets them know they’re not alone.

“Meditation practice has been a transformative experience— expanding into my work, my life with my partner, my life in all aspects,” Adon says.

Now she goes on retreat regularly, belongs to a people of color sangha that meets twice a month, and participates in a C2D (commitment to dharma) in-depth study group led by senior teachers.

 

Tim Parks
Author
Milan, Italy

“Every illness is a narrative,” says prolific British author Tim Parks, a dedicated skeptic who was stricken with mysterious chronic pain in his forties. “What matters is the version you tell yourself.”

Raised in a strict evangelical Anglican household where the only permitted reading material was the Bible, and his mother and minister father sometimes spoke in tongues, Parks and his siblings were expected to be discreet, ambitious, and successful. So when he rejected religion in his teens and declared he was going to study literature, it created conflict within his family and fodder for his novels, one of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As it happened, it also created fodder for the chronic illness that was to come.

When the pains began in his pelvic area, Parks was not only a successful author, translator, and professor at Universita IULM in Milan, Italy, he was a husband, father of three, and an expert whitewater kayaker. He was busy, big time busy. So he ignored the pains, hoping they would go away. They got worse.

“I was really afraid of all the joy going out of life,” he says. Western medicine yielded little insight and no relief. Then, “just when the medical profession had given up on me and I on it, just when I seemed to be walled up in a life sentence of chronic pain,” Parks says, he heard of breathing exercises designed to reduce tension in the muscles of the pelvic floor. The practical yet paradoxical instruction to breathe into the tension didn’t make sense to him, but “there was a huge relief.” Relief, but not a cure. The suffering continued.

In India on business, skeptical mind fully engaged, he happened across an ayurvedic doctor who said he could help with the symptoms. But Parks would have to face his inner conflicts and make profound changes before his pain would go away. “This new experience of my body,” he says, “and of the relationship of body and mind, was suddenly much more interesting than my illness, to which my mind had become very attached.”

Intrigued, Parks went on a five-day vipassana meditation retreat. He sat with his pain and emotional turmoil. He developed a daily meditation practice, attended longer retreats, gained greater insight—and, astonishingly, his pain gradually disappeared.

In his latest book, his twenty-first, Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic’s Search for Health and Healing, he recounts the journey that took him far beyond his imaginings as he ferreted out the root of his suffering, a journey he says has had a profound effect on his life. He says the greatest change is an increased sense of calm. The experience “proved so exciting, so transforming, physically and mentally, that I began to think my illness had been a stroke of luck,” he says.

Parks’ next book is a novel “about the struggle of egos seeking drama versus a desire to dissolve the self and the story in silence,” set in a vipassana meditation retreat.

“I think many people’s interest in meditation is a need to escape the tyranny of a life narrative that has become destructive,” he says. But escape, or transformation, only comes through making changes in one’s life. “It can be a slow, disturbing experience. It’s a mistake to worry about this. I go on, observing.”

 

Julie Ferganchick
Plane Crash Survivor
Tucson, Arizona

“Looking on it now,” Julia Ferganchick says, “it’s like the plane crash was a beautiful gift. It enabled me to say my priority is my spiritual practice.”

It was 1999 when the plane she was on crashed, split in two, and burst into flames. She got out through a gash in the roof and fell the equivalent of two stories to the ground. Ferganchick’s physical injuries included brain damage and a herniated disc. But it was the psychological aftermath— post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, blackouts—that caused the greatest suffering. She saw doctors and therapists, lots of them, year after year. They couldn’t seem to help her.

Before the crash, Ferganchick says, she was “worldly and successful.” Just thirty-one, she was fast-tracked for tenure at the University of Arkansas, where she was a professor of writing and rhetoric, and owned a popular bookstore café near the campus. After the crash, Ferganchick lost it all. She couldn’t function, even after a yearlong leave of absence. She was forced to accept permanent disability.

Ferganchick had the support of loving parents, both devout Christians, but she was having a crisis of faith. She’d been suffering—“really suffering”— for five years. It was unrelenting.

Then, in January 2004, Ferganchick heard Geshe Michael Roach, founder of the Asian Classics Institute (ACI), talk about Tibetan Buddhist logic and overcoming the pain of suffering. It was up to the individual, he said. If there were a compassionate higher being who could take away your suffering, you wouldn’t be suffering. “That logic struck me powerfully,” Ferganchick says. “I realized that I had to help myself."

Ferganchick began meditating and studying, completing in a single year what normally took many. The eighteen Asian Classics Institute courses were prerequisites to advanced studies. And she was determined to join advanced students at Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center near Bowie, Arizona. “I am driven,” she laughs, “but now I’m driven to peacefulness, how’s that?”

In 2009, the tenth anniversary of the plane crash, Ferganchick set out, with her mother hanging on behind her, on a coast-tocoast motorcycle journey. It also was the year after her son, her only child, had died at age twenty. The forty-day trip was to celebrate her survival and her spirit, and their love. As she writes on her blog “Prajnaja: Wisdom, Happiness, Peace,” the trip, with its obstacles and challenges, became a form of practice too—and it was on this journey that she was able to let go of her sorrow.

Her parents are still dedicated Christians. “Most religions teach morality and compassion. I’m happy to see they get so much from theirs,” she says. “Our religions are compatible from that point of view.” Ferganchick’s mother, now on number fifteen of the eighteen preliminary courses of ACI, is her star pupil. “She challenges me. I can’t tell you how much joy I experience from my mother coming to class.”

From a disabled former professor seeking a panacea for her pain to a devoted Buddhist practitioner, scholar, and meditation teacher, “My whole life has been transformed,” Ferganchick says.


First published in the March 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.






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