On the Path: Physical and Mental Healing

As the practice begins, my mind settles and I sit in a calm state of mind, slowly bringing to my consciousness images of Vajrasattva and the purification practice he communicated to Nagarjuna.  I’d be lying if I said the practice was easy or that I am so engrained in it that the whole process goes smoothly.  I practice in fits and starts, with children asking for homework help, the demand for food or other support pulls me off the cushion.  I am literally jerked into and out of my practice over and over again.  With young children and the demands of work life, setting aside an hour or more for practice is a luxury.

Further, as a recovering heart patient, I am doing my best to improve my chances at survival: specifically, exercising four to five days per week, intensely, as a way to make my physical life better as well as transforming my diet to a plant-based approach to eating.  These things, physical and mental health, are so intimately connected.  Without physical well-being, the Vajrasattva practice is less effective.  It’s easy for us to take for granted the act of just being able to sit and breathe.  Many in the world cannot accomplish that one task.  Sitting is painful or breathing is labored.  As Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye has said repeatedly, we have little time to accomplish what we want to accomplish in our lives.

My physical practice is managed by a heart rehab clinic.  I walk into the clinic, a building filled with a variety of exercise equipment, a room filled with people on the same path I am on.  Most, actually almost everyone, is much older that I am.  When I first started working out at this gym, hooked to machines that measured my VO2 max, my heart rate, my heart rhythm, I noticed immediately that I was not among the typical participants at the clinic.  During my first exam that set my workout model, I exceeded all the benchmarks.  The staff told me that I was on the upper end of the curve of people who faced these kinds of heart conditions.  My heart was stronger, my body more fit.  As a way of explanation, I was told I have a genetic abnormality, a unique and unusual form of heart condition that was manageable, and possibility, correctable by exercise and diet.

At the same time, I cannot help but notice the change in my mental health; I felt/feel damaged.  I drew the genetic wild card and that, as a result, my life had to change, dramatically.  Here’s the bizarre part: I lived with this problem for years and years not knowing of the problem in my coronary artery.  That ignorance led me to make all kinds of bad food and exercise choices.  Sure I still had the problem but I didn’t know.  Ignorance was, in a sense, bliss.

The bliss I felt ended with a hospital visit.  After that visit, I pulled myself together and started on a path of healing.  Central to that path is Vajrasattva practice and the daily physical activity that transforms my body.

Since I left the hospital (a mere 36 hour stay), my motivation to change is all consuming.  I am determined to make a serious change in my physical and mental health in a way I have never, ever faced before.  Facing death can be a real motivator.  I eat a plant-based diet almost entirely; I have gradually moved to a vegan diet based on the information I gathered from a variety of sources including Dr. Dean Ornish and the authors of The China Study including Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.  These studies led me to the practice of purification through food….one that fits neatly within the practice of Vajrasattva.

While I imagine that Vajrasattva wasn’t specifically teaching about a diet when he talked about purification of our minds, he lived in a time when a plant-based diet was common and accepted by the community of followers.  As a result, he didn’t really have to tell people to eat plants instead of animals!

The synergy between the diet, exercise, and Vajrasattva practice is remarkable.  It’s as if I  am practicing as I eat, exercise, or meditate.  I have felt uplifted by the connections between these various approaches to health and wellbeing.

Very specifically,  I have lost 25 pounds, have experienced mental clarity, and have had setbacks and fears all along the way.  I have felt transformed and stuck, have felt a sense of dread and doom as I wonder at the next heart event.  Through it all, I have tried, desperately, to live in the moment and not grasp after fears, thoughts, and emotions.  Sometimes my success is breathtaking (like the consistent weight loss) and sometimes my fears can feel overwhelming.  Through it all, I fall back on my internal motivation to change for my childcare, family, and for anyone I can help along the way.

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