Page 2 of 2
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
practice has been a transformative experience— expanding into my work,
my life with my partner, my life in all aspects,” Adon says.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Plane Crash Survivor
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?”
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.
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.”
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.