Two years ago this Easter I was deeply concerned about my health. Now two years later, I can look back and see that this was a turning point in not only my health, but also in how I approached some of my biggest life questions. One of the signs of my vastly improved health was that I was able to co-lead a trip to India this year – eight years after I had led a service trip to Kolkata in which my health was a major liability.
“But if body and soul are not separate, then to heal the body at the deepest level is a work of the soul, and to listen to and learn from the body is to become closer to one’s Self.” – Charles Eisenstein, The Yoga of Eating, p. 10.
Two years ago during the Easter holiday I found myself in a rising panic. I had been sick since mid-January with a relentless, queasy-feeling stomach ailment that would run up from my gut and progress into my chest and head; then, some days later when I thought it had run its course, the queasiness would begin again. Despite seeing an array of Western and alternative practitioners, my chronic sickness seemed to be the culmination of ten years of frequent colds, flus and general poor health. Beneath the panic was a deep-seated fear that I might develop some serious disease that would lead to a shortened life. A second less pressing, but more long-term fear had to do with even bigger questions. At the end of May I would be traveling to Assisi, Italy to hear Christian author and mystic, Cynthia Bourgeault, speak about the spiritual life. Cynthia had captured my attention in a way that few had, but I feared I would be too sick to go, or maybe only through a rush of adrenalin would I manage to make the journey, like so many other service trips over the last decade.
In desperation, I googled “strengthen immune system,” hoping for answers. To my surprise, one of the top responses was a recommendation for meditation. This seemed a curious coincidence, since at the heart of Cynthia’s message was the practice of Centering Prayer. For more than fifteen years since hearing Father Basil Pennington teach about this ancient Christian practice, I had been attracted to meditation, but I had never managed a regular commitment beyond a few days. Here was the convergence I needed to motivate myself: an urgent search for physical health combined with an upcoming retreat in five weeks’ time with my most important spiritual guide. I committed myself to meditating on a daily basis until at least the Assisi experience.
Two weeks later my chiropractor, to whom I had complained all spring about my chronic health problems, handed me a business card for a new alternative health care clinic in Hong Kong called Waveworks. “Check this out and see if they can help,” he advised. Desperate for any insight into my failing health, I needed no coaxing. I immediately booked an appointment for that afternoon. Soon after the electro-magnetic examination, Pelle (pictured on the far right), the health practitioner, told me that my issues were actually quite easy to diagnose. First, I had allergic sensitivities to wheat, gluten and milk that over many years had badly compromised my immune system. Secondly, as a result of these allergies, I had developed a fungal overgrowth in my body called candida, and this also contributed to my chronic sickness. Thirdly, thirty years after having mercury fillings put into my teeth, I had high levels of heavy metals throughout my body. Still struggling to digest a rich Indian lunch complete with things I wasn’t supposed to eat – white rice, nan bread, and beer – my body assured me that Pelle’s diagnosis was onto something.
I would regain my health in time, Pelle claimed, if I followed a three-fold treatment. First, I needed to come to Waveworks for regular bioresonance treatments to build up my immune system and reverse the damage to my body. Second, I needed to change my diet in fundamental ways: wheat, milk, sugar and other empty or harmful calories needed to be eliminated and replaced with nutrient-dense foods. Third, I needed to add in a number of key nutritional supplements to my diet. To my amazement, within the next days and weeks I could sense a number of changes. A rash that I had had for nearly two years seemed to just disappear. In addition, for the first time in memory, my constitution started to behave “normally.” And finally, I had some peace of mind, for I finally had an explanation of what was causing my health woes and had some clear direction about what to do.[i]
On Retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault in Assisi
A few weeks later, then, and with a great sense of expectation, I flew to Italy to attend the Assisi spiritual retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault. Having completed my dissertation on social conscience education two years before, Cynthia’s message of seeking for self-knowledge beyond a narrow band of analytical reasoning came as totally eye-opening.[ii] While I was very pleased with the results of my research and how I could implement what I had learned in the classroom, much of it shared in this blog, I still had uncertainty about some of life’s biggest questions, many of which had been postponed during the full-out drive to finish my dissertation.
As a religion teacher who had taught for years about the historical Jesus and whose example had motivated my service work, my explorations into the biblical call for social justice had proven to be hugely beneficial. Yet when I was really honest with myself, deeper still were unresolved questions that gnawed at me. Although I had been a lifelong Christian and a religion teacher for more than twenty years, my biggest questions were still at the most fundamental level: does a spiritual world exist; and if so, how can I access that world? Despite my belief in such a world, there was also some sense of existential dread.
My time with Cynthia in Assisi subtly shifted something within me. I realized that while fighting for social justice is a noble goal, there is much more to the Christian life than only or even primarily pursuing this end. The non-negotiable method towards “inner aliveness,” as Cynthia called it, was a seemingly hidden path within my particular tradition: the discipline of spiritual practice. The retreat proved to be revelatory, even if the changes at first were no more noticeable than a deep, barely registered tremor. Whereas before I seemed to struggle trying to believe in the reality of a spiritual life in the midst of a relentless modern questioning of its existence, after the Assisi experience I realized that there was some oasis, in terms of people and practices, to turn to in the journey towards spiritual grounding.
For all the high points of Assisi, there was one consequential health setback. Being in Italy for a few days, I could not help but indulge in some of my old eating habits: a daily cappuccino, a small amount of red wine, and (as pictured below) a nip of ice cream. Upon returning to Hong Kong and continuing these habits, my health rebound slipped, a process that continued as I enjoyed these pleasures throughout the summer holidays – without realizing that the re-institution of seemingly harmless treats were a threat to my health gains. It was only near the end of summer holidays when I had a 10-day, low-grade sore throat that I finally identified the problem.
New Resolutions in Hong Kong
Returning to Hong Kong in August, I made two resolutions: a return to zero-tolerance of unhealthy food, and, after a July hiatus, a re-commitment to a regular practice of Centering Prayer. In terms of health, Pelle predicted that a strict diet would result in a distinct turnaround in my health by Christmas. Similar to other predictions made by my Waveworks health practitioners, this one was spot-on. By Christmas my health was more stable than it had been in a decade, and I had the confidence that I wasn’t simply “lucky;” I had figured out how to eat a healthy diet. Fresh fruits, organic vegetables, a daily smoothie, brown rice and less meat were in, and wheat, sugar, gluten, white rice, noodles, milk, and beer were out.
Around February Pelle noted how color had suddenly returned to my countenance, and despite one of my most stressful years at HKIS, it was clear that I was making substantial health gains. My candida problem was under control, which allowed me to resume my drinking indulgences of coffee, red wine, and even the occasional beer. It was with a fitting sense of closure that on the last day of school, June 11th, 2013, Pelle found that I had no more heavy metals in my body – drags on my system that I had been carrying around since high school. This year I have had only a couple of brief, one-or-two-day bouts with flu-like symptoms during first semester, and one week-long cold so far in second semester, none of which required me to miss any school days. I was also able to lead a school trip to India in March, which contrasted with my 2006 trip to Kolkata during which I was very sick before, during, and after the experience. Another positive sign is that my cholesterol count, which had risen to 222 in 2010, has fallen to 184. Finally, after years of confusion, uncertainty, and fear, I now understand what caused my years of poor health, and what I need to do to maintain a strong immune system for years to come.
Centering Prayer and the Spiritual Life
The other part of my journey in the last two years is no less significant, but is also far less complete. For the next 15 months after my initial Google search, I did a fairly regular regimen of Centering Prayer. I cannot claim that I have had a transformative life change, but in subtle ways I have been moving towards something new. First, I have become humbly aware of my inability to focus my attention, which religious teachers affirm is necessary for progress in the spiritual life:
“The cornerstone [of the desert fathers’ attempt to ‘pray without ceasing’] was the practice of attention. In daily life, where a monk earned his keep through simple chores such as plaiting rope, the goal was to learn to keep one’s mind entirely on what one was doing, without the intrusion of fantasy, daydreaming, or inner commentaries . . . . [This is the message] of all great spiritual teachers and masters of the art of presence” (Bourgeault, Centering Prayer, 61-62).
Secondly, spiritual practices have begun to permeate nearly all of my humanities and religion classes. I’ve come to believe, as Cynthia says, that exhorting Christians to “love like Jesus” is impossible without disciplining the body, mind, and soul with spiritual practices. As Cynthia writes, “In my own efforts to live the gospel I have found that it is virtually impossible to reach and sustain that level of ‘perfect love’ without a practice of contemplative prayer. Ordinary awareness always eventually betrays itself and returns to its usual postures of self-defense and self-justification” (Bourgeault, Centering Prayer, 17).
Finally, I have come to believe that the core goal of mature spiritual traditions around the world is to overcome the dualism of the ordinary mind (e.g., good vs. evil, Palestinians vs. Israelis, Republicans vs. Democrats) with the non-dualism of spiritual awareness. Spiritual practice allows a person to gain a more inclusive, creative, open-minded perspective than the consciousness formed at the ordinary level of awareness. As a consequence, I feel I have become less angry and self-righteous in my service learning and teaching for social justice. Instead, I find myself feeling a greater mix of compassion and at times sadness towards people and situations. Yet I realize that these important, but subtle shifts are far from being fully realized in my consciousness in comparison to the more obvious physical health gains. After a full year of Centering Prayer last school year, I have not had the time (or perhaps the discipline) to maintain this practice this year. I am planning, then, to re-commit myself to a daily habit of Centering Prayer and other practices in hopes of better training my attention as well as purifying my intention. I am taking Cynthia’s challenge of seeing the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost as a time to “deepen our capacity to receive the intense spiritual energy available to us during this sacred season as a catapult to our own transformation” (Bourgeault, Wisdom Jesus, 126).[iii]
I look back to Easter two years ago and see it as a hinge point in my life, as much for my health as for my spiritual life. These new perspectives are relevant to social conscience education, which, as I’ve written, combines the yang of service learning with the yin of inner awakening. My research on service learning completed in 2009 helped me to better understand the yang portion of this dynamic. Since that time I have found myself increasingly drawn to the yin of spiritual practice. My journey to improved physical health, which had confounded me for many years, has given me a quiet joy, and will hopefully serve as a harbinger of a future wholeness. I understand that the body was created for health, and when given the proper conditions, naturally results in a thriving and harmonious bodily energy. By analogy, I am hoping that by committing myself to spiritual practices I can find, too, that the soul was created for mental, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment. By applying spiritual practices to my life, I am looking to find the same kind of attunement in all dimensions of my being. Such a discovery would lead to a far richer understanding of what it means to truly live the life we were meant for.
Bourgeault, Cynthia (2004). Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD, USA: Cowley.
Bourgeault, Cynthia (2008). The wisdom Jesus: Transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and his message. London: Shambala.
“In Pursuit of Wholeness:” Sojourners magazine interview with Cynthia Bourgeault (February, 2014).
[i]Here is Pelle’s general health advice in a nutshell: “I recommend focusing in his gut health and reducing inflammation in the body, which is the key for the whole immune system. Take a good quality probiotics and curcumin supplement (BCM-95), avoid eating pro-inflammatory foods for a while especially gluten, dairy, red meat, sugar and alcohol. Boost his PH levels by drinking good quality still water (at least 2,5-3 liters daily), eat more vegetables and less animal protein, avoid all soft drinks, sparkling water and minimize coffee intake.”
A comment I wrote in 2013 for Waveworks: “I expect that in years to come I will look back and see coming to Waveworks as a turning point in my life. For more than ten years my health had been in serious decline to the point that I had become chronically sick, and feared that I might live a shorter life than I had expected. In the midst of anxiety and near panic, I was given a tip about visiting Waveworks. From the first appointment, I could feel my body responding to something that it was desperately searching for. In time, I came to understand that a combination of nutritional deficiency, allergies and heavy metal poisoning had lowered my immune system to a threadbare point. The Waveworks team gave me just the right combination of bioresonance treatment, nutritional supplements, and practical advice to revive my health. Now a little more than a year after my first visit, I eat a very healthy and balanced diet, my allergies have disappeared, and the mercury and lead are completely out of my system. For the first time in many years, I can start my school year as a teacher feeling that my health is an asset rather than a liability as I seek to serve my students. I’m very grateful to Waveworks for not only a return of my health, but also for a much better understanding of what is needed to maintain one’s health under the stresses and strains of modern day life.”
[ii] Cynthia writes in The Wisdom Jesus: “The heart picks up reality in a much deeper and more integral way than our poor, Cartesian minds even begin to imagine. The contemporary Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski offers the following definition, which encapsulates in a wonderfully precise way what universal wisdom has always known about the heart: ‘We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. Beyond the limited analytical intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative faculties; and image-forming and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification, because they are operating best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection with the cosmic mind, the total mind we call “heart“‘ (p. 36).
[iii] Excerpts about this challenge from The Wisdom Jesus: “The Great Easter Fast . . . . The window of opportunity is fairly narrow, but the opportunity itself is boundless . . . . A fast is really training – exactly like athletic training – so that our whole embodied being can be tuned up to support a spiritual aim we wish to achieve. In the case of Eastertide, what’s at stake – the aim we are striving for – is our physical capacity to be available to truth at a subtle and much more intense level . . . . To deepen our capacity to receive the intense spiritual energy available to us during this sacred season as a catapult to our own transformation . . . The wisdom walk with Jesus is at every step of the way a recognition drama . . . . [Jesus] has to take them through this drama of recognition yet one more time so that they will know beyond a shadow of doubt how to find him from the inside, how to recognize him hereafter and in all times and places when his fleshly appearance becomes yet more subtle . . . . During the 40 days until his ascension, Jesus is relentlessly pushing and prodding his troops toward a new level of subtlety, like a mother bird pushing his fledglings out of the next . . . . He keep gently returning Peter to the deep, mutual indwelling of kenotic love, which is the heart of the Jesus path and through which his presence among them will always make itself known . . . . Which brings us to the question of praxis . . . . The wager is this: that Jesus, the living master, is real, alive, intimately and vibrantly enfolding you right now. He is more present, in fact, than even your breath and your heartbeat. But to really know this presence you need to tune in on a different wavelength: to shift from your usual binary operating system to the heart frequency where this Jesus connection broadcasts. Wisdom Christianity is practice-driven. When you do the practices that nurture the heart, you will sense this connection as a living bond. Your being becomes receptive to the higher meaning. When the practices that sustain this encounter begin to drop out, you revert back to your usual operating system, and the connection fades . . . . But one last clarification. You may have the impression when I talk about “going deeper into your heart to discover the living Christ” that I mean a subjective experience. I don’t. The wisdom tradition has always taught that the subjective (what we call “subjective” anyway) is really introduced by your personality, sustained by the binary operating system. When you go deeper than that, when you tunnel beneath it to the still waters, you are actually able to mirror a truth that is in a final sense objective, hence recognizable as truth to all hearts that are open at that same level (Wisdom Jesus, 126, 129, 131, 134, 136-137).