Phakyab Rinpoche shook his head when I finished telling my story. He looked sad.
He’d asked me if we’d met the previous time he’d taught and I’d just explained that we hadn’t. I’d told him that I hadn’t gone to the Buddhist center much at all in the past few years because I’d been too busy trying to recover from the pharmaceutically induced brain injury I sustained in 2014.
Phakyab Rinpoche is a lama in the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. In 2003, after surviving torture in a Chinese prison, he came to the United States for treatment of the injuries he’d sustained during his imprisonment. In Bellevue Hospital in New York City, doctors with the Program for Survivors of Torture diagnosed him with gangrene in his right ankle. After four months of antibiotic treatment for the gangrene, he began to experience profound exhaustion. After a series of x-rays, he was diagnosed with pleurisy, as well as tuberculosis of the spine.
Rinpoche faced the government backed coercion which, as many of us know, is the most powerful instrument Western medicine has. In order for his application for asylum to be successful, he had to submit to Western treatment designed to eradicate the tuberculosis. The physicians he saw also insisted he should have his leg amputated to eliminate the gangrene. The doctors maintained he would die a painful death from sepsis if he refused amputation, but on this point, Rinpoche pushed back. A voice inside him told him not to amputate—that cutting isn’t curing.
He chose instead to pursue intensive meditation for three years, and in the fall of 2006, he emerged completely recovered from the gangrene, the tuberculosis, and the pleurisy. X-rays showed that bone that had once been destroyed had completely regenerated. Despite this amazing feat, Western physicians still treated him with condescension and dismissal.
This story, as conveyed in Rinpoche’s book, Meditation Saved My Life, made me curious. While I’ve experienced firsthand the power of meditation to transform bad habits of mind, I wasn’t sure that in and of itself it would be adequate to heal the average person of life threatening conditions. I read deeper to sort out what other factors may have facilitated Rinpoche’s healing.
Despite their wisdom and their mastery of ancient spiritual practices, Tibetan monks can be incredibly naïve and almost completely sheltered from the most intense abuses humans perpetrate against one another. I’d hoped that as a torture survivor, Rinpoche would be a bit less naïve than most, and I think in certain realms he is. But the fact remains the despite a short period of undoubtedly horrific torture, he’s still lived an incredibly sheltered life, first with a loving family, and later with caring and attentive teachers in a monastery.
When he came to the US, the Americans with whom he had most intimate interactions were the among the most privileged and educated among us, which is unsurprising given that the core demographic of Western Buddhists is middle-class or affluent and white. While financially comfortable people who are also members of the majority ethnic group face obstacles that are very real and valid, those obstacles are often of a different character than the obstacles faced by people who live in poverty and people of color.
When Rinpoche taught at that center I attend, he stated that he believes the reason that Americans have so much illness and cancer is that our lives are too fast-paced. He assured us that if we slowed down and became more mindful, we’d find ourselves in a much healthier state.
I shook my head a bit at that comment. Imagine your average American wage slave telling the boss that they had to slow down production for the sake of their spiritual and physical health. I doubt they’d have much time for mindfulness when they found themselves unemployed and on the streets after making such a demand. And even if it was feasible for many of us to take control of our time in the context of our work driven society, that would only address part of the issue. The fact is, not only are the pressures to maintain an unsustainable pace of production toxic, our food if toxic. Our environment is toxic. And as Rinpoche discovered, our health care system is toxic.
So, to heal ourselves, we have to do more than just tap into our inner mental powers. We have to mitigate, to the greatest extent possible, years of damage done to our bodies by intensive exposure to toxins and inadequate sustenance for our bodies.
My first thoughts when reading Meditation Saved My Life, were, “Wow, Rinpoche started out with a phenomenally robust microbiome!” As a child, Rinpoche lived a semi-nomadic life, surrounded by his nurturing family. While their staple food was roasted barley, called tsampa, he and his family also had access to fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, and meat and dairy products from local shepherds. He and his family were constantly outdoors, accompanied by the yaks on which they travelled. He was unglyphosated and unmedicated. His immune system was unaltered. He was loved and untouched by trauma.
Even the most rural American farm kid could never approximate the microbial diversity conferred by such an upbringing. So, while I view Rinpoche’s amazing feat of healing as an inspiration, I know that it would be unattainable for most Westerners unless we pair it with a regimen designed to restore the microbial and cellular health we’ve been deprived of due to generations of poor dietary habits and the enormous chemical burdens our bodies carry.
My plan is to emulate some of Rinpoche’s meditative practices, while also eating according to The Wahls Protocol. Another wellspring of self-healing wisdom, Dr. Terrie Wahls developed The Wahls Protocol in an effort to heal her multiple sclerosis. As a recipient of a traditional Western medical education, she first turned to pharmaceuticals upon receiving her MS diagnosis. The drugs came with nasty side effects, and were powerless against the advancement of the MS.
When Dr. Wahls reached the point where her fatigue necessitated the use of a wheelchair, she realized that conventional medicine wasn’t likely to offer her relief from the progression of her disease. She scoured the medical literature searching for information and solutions. She started by experimenting with vitamins and supplements and was encouraged when she realized they helped her a bit. One night she found a page online for the Institute of Functional Medicine. In her book, The Wahls Protocol, she writes, “Its [Functional Medicine’s] goal was to provide clinicians like myself with a better way to care for people with complex chronic disease by looking at how the interaction between genetics, diet, hormone balance, toxin exposures, infections, and psychological factors contribute to the development of disease or the improvement of one’s health and vitality.” (Wahls 2014)
With the knowledge she acquired from intensive readings on nutrition, she designed The Wahls Protocol. Her first case study was herself; and adherence to the nutritional, exercise, and psychological strategies it prescribes allowed her to leave her wheelchair behind and achieve a better quality of life. She still has MS, but she is far less disabled than she once was.
I’ve always rejected fatalistic assertions that most medical conditions are exclusively genetic, completely inevitable, or absolutely incurable. Everything arises from multiple causes and conditions, many of which we can change with the right efforts, and under the right circumstances.
I believe that by applying the methods used by these two healers to myself may offer a greater degree of healing. I’ve already observed positive changes in my life in response to dietary changes, meditation, and supplements. When I transitioned from a vegetarian diet to a Paleo inspired low-histamine diet, my IBS and other GI challenges became far less severe. In the time since I started taking turmeric with black pepper supplements in 2016, my hyperacusis gradually dropped from a ten to about a three. When I discovered milk thistle seed extract I was able to achieve even more clarity of thought and fewer meltdowns. The L. rhamnosus I’ve been taking since September of 2017 has made me less fearful and less anxious. On good days, I can now do “simple” things like ask a clerk in a store for help finding an item, which would have been impossible for me in the past. The more time I spend in meditation, the more I learn about my patterns of thought and how to change them.
But I’m far from well. I still have Mast Cell Activation flares. I still have Auditory Processing disorder that interferes with my ability to get meaning from speech in places with poor acoustics, multiple speakers, or background noise. Too much exposure to sound can leave me so confused and disoriented that I’m unable to form speech sounds myself. My ability to read long texts is still not fully restored. Before 2014 I read two to four books a week, in 2017 I read four books for the entire year. I have dozens of books with markers placed around page fifteen that I just can’t find the concentration to finish.
I have constant dysautonomia that can be absolutely debilitating during flares. I have joint pain and meet the clinical guidelines for Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. If I eat the wrong food or smell the wrong smell, my GI symptoms come raging back with a vengeance, sometimes accompanied by bladder dysfunction. Nighttime often brings what seems to be a kind of autistic ‘sundowning’ where I can become incredibly detached from anything resembling coherence. I clearly have a long way to go in my healing journey.
I’m going to spend the next three months immersed in meditation, nutritional nurturing, gentle exercise, and mindfulness. I recognize that I’m in an incredibly privileged position to be able to pursue changes to my health using these strategies, and if I achieve more healing, which I fully believe I will, I’ll continue to strive to figure out ways to help others heal as well. I know the regimen I’m about to undertake isn’t a fit for everyone. I’ll always be the first to reject any one size fits all lifestyle, medical or nutritional recommendation. But my past experience tells me I’m on the right path to the type of healing that’s suitable for me.
During the time I make pursue this healing, I won’t be on social media, and I’m not sure if I’ll write any new blogs. I need to dive in with as complete dedication as possible.
Thanks for reading! I can’t wait to see how this goes. I’ll be sure to share the outcome. Since I can’t commit to regular blog posts during this time, I’ve turned off my Pattern account for the duration of my retreat. If you find yourself moved to support my healing journey financially, donations can be made to my PayPal account using my PayPal email of email@example.com.
Below are Amazon Associate links for the books I’ve discussed here. If you choose to buy them using the link I earn a tiny portion of the sale, while you don’t pay a penny more.