Every year the month of October sees several national campaigns designated to bringing awareness to the widespread problem of depression: National Depression Screening Day (October 8th), World Mental Health Day (October 10th), Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 4-10th), and Depression and Mental Health Awareness Month (October).
Depression is costly to society. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 1 in 4 adults suffer from a mental health disorder in a given year. In 2004, this figure translated to 57.7 million people. Approximately 19 million adults suffer from depression alone, and major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. Up to one-half of all visits to primary care physicians are due to conditions that are caused or exacerbated by mental or emotional problems. Studies indicate that the cost of clinical depression exceeds $47.3 billion annually. Of which $24 billion is comprised of lost productivity and worker absenteeism on the job.
With so many Americans suffering from mental health disorders, the FDA estimates that sales of antidepressant drugs, such as Prozac and Zoloft reached over $10 billion in 2005. About half the people who seek treatment for depression are not helped by psychotherapy and medication or withdraw from treatment too early. Of those who recover, more than one third relapse within eighteen months. In a study of 2,318 patients conducted by the University of Colorado, only 20 percent of the patients taking medication were found to improve as a result. This suggests that alternative treatment may be very helpful for people who suffer from depression.
To help alleviate depression, more and more Americans are turning to age-old holistic modalities such as Chinese medicine. “Chinese medicine,which includes acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine, is a very popular way to help individuals relax and re-energize. It can help with conditions such as anxiousness, depression, insomnia, tense muscles, headaches and pain; all things many of us experience”, said licensed acupuncturist and American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic dean, John Kolenda. The College’s low-cost Community Clinics have treated patients with mental illness since the 1980’s, and see upwards of 17,000 patient treatments each year.
According to Kolenda, many patients report an enhanced sense of well-being and a deep feeling of relaxation after an acupuncture or massage treatment. These modalities alleviate stress and depression symptoms by releasing endorphins, the body’s own natural painkillers, and improving the circulation of blood and lymphatic fluids which bring fresh oxygen to body tissues. This increased oxygen flow eliminates waste products from inside the body and enhances recovery from diseases. Acupuncture and massage also decrease the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, reduce the heart rate, and relax muscle tissue. “One of the reasons acupuncture and massage are so popular is because they provide health benefits that are also free of side effects when performed by a licensed professional”, Kolenda said.
This 3,000-year-old gentle modality provides a safe, effective alternative to controversial antidepressants and treats the symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as the root or underlying cause of imbalances of the body. Depression is most commonly caused by a blockage of Qi (or, vital energy) in the body. It is Qi that regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance. Blockages of Qi can be caused by many factors such as physical trauma, emotional trauma, inherited weakness of Qi, poor diet, or chemical, physical and emotional stress. Acupuncture keeps the flow of this energy unblocked, and because Chinese medical practitioners treat patients as individuals, they consequently treat the true source of the depression instead of just prescribing pills.
According to recent studies, acupuncture is a valuable adjunct therapy for those suffering from mental health disorders. A study conducted at the
University of Arizona examined the responses of 34 depressed women to acupuncture, generalized acupuncture that didn’t use specific points, and no treatment at all. Of the women who received acupuncture specifically for depression, 43 percent experienced a reduction in their symptoms, compared with 22 percent who received general acupuncture and 14 percent who received no treatment. After eight weeks, over half of the women who received specific acupuncture were no longer depressed.
Other studies verify these findings. Holly Middlekauff, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA, and a team of investigators presented their research at the American Heart Association’s 2001 Scientific Sessions conference, which showed that acupuncture can block sympathetic nerve activity. Twenty-two advanced heart failure patients (both men and women, average age 43) were used in the study. Blood pressure, heart rate and
sympathetic nerve activity – which regulate a person’s heartbeat and is also responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response – were measured in each patient immediately after subjecting them to four minutes of anxiety-producing situations. Results showed that sympathetic nervous system activity increased approximately 25 percent as a result of the mental stress.
After the test, the researchers divided the patients into three groups. The patients received either authentic acupuncture delivered for 20 minutes at established acupuncture points; sham acupuncture delivered at non-acupuncture points; or no-needle acupuncture, in which the patients were told they’d receive acupuncture, but were in fact only tapped by a needle holder on the back of the neck. The mental stress test was repeated after the acupuncture treatments, with the same measurements taken at the conclusion of the second test. While patients in the sham and no-needle group experienced the same increases in heart rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system activity after taking the second test as they had after taking the test the first time, patients in the authentic acupuncture group showed no increase in sympathetic nervous system activity.
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Being a woman in Zen was problematic from the start. My first teacher found me physically attractive and seemed unable to keep himself from letting me know this.
As a woman studying Zen, I had heard Buddhist teachings that females were less able than males to practice the dharma and recognize their awakened nature. This belief was not surprising. Having grown up in the U.S. in the 1950s, the assumed inferiority of women was the air I breathed. And though the feminism that emerged in the 1960s helped me see through these assumptions, I continued to struggle with them. It was hard for me to challenge the patriarchal culture that surrounded me; in some part of my deep unconscious mind, I carried the idea that I was less than a man. Still, I was determined to practice feminism and live a life of equality between men and women.
At one point early in my Zen studies, I witnessed a public conversation between a female student and her male Asian teacher that startled and challenged many of the assumptions I had been carrying. The student asked, “Can a woman attain awakening?” The teacher said, “No.” After the gasps subsided, he said, “And a man can’t either. No man, no woman, no attaining.” As I continued my journey into the heart of Zen practice, I held this story close. Wanting to be a good Zen student, I did my best to ignore the differences in gender that were so obvious and strong in my life. I worked hard to view gender as empty, but as time went on, I had to admit this view was limited and not really useful in helping me solve the koan of being a woman in the world of Zen.
How do I understand my gender within the context of Zen teachings? Am I a woman? Am I not a woman? Could there be some way to embrace my gender without it getting in the way of my Zen practice? I’ve found myself circumambulating these questions for the last thirty-five years of my Zen training and teaching.
Being a woman in Zen was problematic from the start. My first teacher found me physically attractive and seemed unable to keep himself from letting me know this—a betrayal of trust that came on gradually and eventually ended with my leaving him. I was a slow learner in this area, confused by his insistence on our potential sexual connection. Not only were both of us married but my husband was also one of his students! I found myself flattered by his attention, but I knew deep in my bones that the sort of relationship he wanted was not about the dharma. My sangha brothers and gay sisters were free to be themselves with this teacher, but I felt trapped in my woman’s body, limited to being an object of desire rather than a whole person.
Often, when I acted strongly and clearly, I was criticized for not being feminine enough. I was told to be softer. This advice was never directed toward my male sangha brothers
Of course, this particular issue is not unique to Zen. And it’s not new. We see this old story of the objectification of women by the male patriarchy everywhere in history and in modern Western culture. I was enacting a stereotype: the vulnerable young female student of a powerful older male teacher. I felt betrayed, confused, angry, and sad for many years.
For me, retreating into the emptiness of gender was strongly appealing. In my life, this view became a lifeline I could use to help free me from the attention of my teacher’s sexual predation. Sadly, other women in our sangha were not so lucky. And, as I came to understand later, seeing into the emptiness of everything is only half of the path of awakening.
While trying to work out these issues, I continued my life as a straight woman in modern America. I married and had a child. I worked as a therapist and as a mindfulness teacher and trainer, helping people live fully in the midst of grief and despair. While striving in my Zen life to be simply a neutral person of the way, in my everyday life, I was definitely a woman.
As I became a senior student, I struggled to own my power. Often, when I acted strongly and clearly, I was criticized for not being feminine enough. I was told to be softer, to not be so sure of things. This advice was never directed toward my male sangha brothers. I encountered the same dilemma in my professional life.
This struggle began to resolve when I met my second Zen teacher, James Ford. He combined dharma clarity with tenderness and kindness and also demonstrated a scrupulous respect for boundaries, managing to keep his desires from inappropriately overshadowing his teaching. And even though, by the time I met him, I had made a habit of hiding my own strength, he quickly recognized similar leadership qualities in me. His no-nonsense unwillingness to buy into my lack of self-confidence helped me develop my capacity to become a teacher, eventually enabling me to receive transmission from him. Even then, it has taken years for me to integrate my gender, my personality, and my dharma understanding.
I have been inspired by the examples of other women Zen teachers, and I have learned a great deal from many of them about how to be a woman of the way. But the help I received from these wise and compassionate women was always tempered by the fact that many of them were dealing with similar issues, such as being disrespected for their strength and power or recovering from (or denying) their own histories of abuse by their male teachers. Other women sangha members have also been helpful. Through candid conversations with sangha sisters and female teachers, experiences that once seemed personal have been revealed as all too common.
And so I looked to the koan stories that have inspired my heart since I first began practicing Zen. When I first engaged in koan practice as a young student, there were very few examples of women teachers in the traditional collections. More recently, some helpful guides in this area have been published, including Grace Schireson’s Zen Women, which offers stories about the scattering of women whose stories were recorded in Zen histories. Many of these women are merely unnamed background characters, “old grannies,” as one male teacher describes them, or women who sell tea by the side of the road. Often, they seem to exist solely in relationship to men, valued for their capacity to challenge male teachers. The Hidden Lamp, a collection of stories edited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon, gathers many more examples of women teachers from the last two and half millennia, with commentaries by contemporary women teachers.
Wanting to be a good Zen student, I worked hard to view gender as empty, but as time went on, I had to admit this view was limited.
Iron Grindstone Liu was the first named Zen woman I came across in my studies, decades before these two books were published. I found her fascinating right from the start. Born in 871, her full name was Liu Tiemo, and she was a student of Guishan, the other character in this koan. It appears she had her own temple and was considered an equal to the male teachers she met. In one encounter, Zen master Zihu asks, “I have heard of Iron Grindstone Liu. They say you’re not easy to contend with. Is that so?” And she replies, “Where do you hear that?” He continues, “It’s conveyed from the left and right.” She replies, “Don’t fall down, Master.” The dialogue ends with Zihu driving her out of the room, beating her with a stick.
Here is a little hint of Liu’s capacity to blend the relative world (not easy to contend with, and heard about from left and right) with the absolute, as she tells Zihu not to fall down among these sorts of unhelpful comparisons and judgments.
I so much wanted to be like her—an Iron Woman, as Grace Schireson describes her, tough and more like a man than a woman. She was so far from who I—a young, small, and timid woman—could ever dream of being. In studying koans, though, it’s important to look beneath appearances. Perhaps Liu had found a way to solve the koan of being a woman in Zen.
Liu’s teacher was Guishan, who was a student of Baizhang. In one of my favorite Zen stories, which takes place when Guishan was still a student, his teacher asked him to see if there was any fire left in the stove. Guishan searched the ashes and was unable to find anything, at which point Baizhang himself poked in the ashes and found an ember. Showing it to Guishan, he said, “You said you didn’t see anything—but what about this?” As students, we lose faith in the teachings on a regular basis. A true teacher helps the student find the glowing ember of the awakened heart, alive in the ashes of whatever is presently acting as an obstruction.
After this, Guishan became the cook at Baizhang’s monastery. In another famous koan, Baizhang was looking for someone to be the teacher at a new monastery on Mount Gui. He put a water bottle on the floor and asked his gathered students, “You can’t call this a water bottle—what do you call it?” The head monk answered, “You can’t call it a wooden sandal!” Guishan, however, simply kicked the bottle over and walked away. Baizhang named Guishan head of the new monastery. On Mount Gui, Guishan built himself a hut and continued his practice. After about eight years, students began to gather around him. Their number eventually reached fifteen hundred. Guishan, notable for his calmness, patience, and skill at teaching, produced forty-one successors, including Liu Tiemo.
Looking at the famous dialogue between Guishan and Liu—“Old cow, you’ve come!”—the two of them appear to have had quite an unusual relationship for the times they lived in. Even for the present time, it’s refreshing to see two people as playful as they are in this case, both embracing and disregarding gender. Pat Enkyo O’Hara, in her commentary on this koan in The Hidden Lamp, calls the exchange “a perfect pas de deux…satisfyingly complete and heartbreakingly intimate.”
Yuanwu comments: “Might as well gather together, touching the difficult. Playing her part, this experienced old woman does not play by the rules.” Here is the first clue to Liu’s freedom, a woman who is not trapped by gender but is most certainly a woman. Guishan calls her “Old cow!” In English, calling a woman a cow is an insult, but in this relationship, it functions as a recognition of sameness and differentiation. Guishan himself identified with being a water buffalo, saying that was the form in which he would be reborn. Here, the male buffalo and the female cow meet, ready to engage.
Yuanwu compares the encounter to searching for something in the shadows of the grass with a pole. It can’t yet be seen, but it can be touched, remotely at first. It’s an invitation. Guishan is asking, “What will you do, my old friend, with this moment?”
Liu invites him to a feast—a simple and direct response from the world of consensus reality. There is nothing complicated. Yuanwu comments on this directness, comparing Liu’s words to an arrow that doesn’t miss its target: “In Tang Dynasty, beat a drum; in Korea, dance.” Be appropriate to the place and the situation you’re in. She is like the arrow, suddenly releasing itself into the air with no hesitation.
And now the story takes a turn. Guishan doesn’t answer from the binary, dualistic world. He simply lies down. Yuanwu approves. As he comments, Guishan has made an accurate hit himself. Two arrows have met in midair. The mist is dissipated—any confusion is set aside.
Liu responds by leaving. There’s nothing more to say. Yuanwu approves of this, too, and calls it a celebration. The line “meeting the pivot and acting” refers to the capacity to quickly transform from oneness to differentiation at the moment the situation pivots. Everything balances on a fine point, ready to change in a heartbeat. If we have learned to live in both the worlds of oneness and form, we can perform this dance together.
The last two lines of this new translation—“Iron Grindstone Liu! / Nun—yes!” are not usually found in modern koan collections; Dosho Port told me he discovered them in the Chinese characters. He and I were mutually delighted with them. For me, they are the affirmation of a strong woman who can play in the fields of emptiness and form, as required.
There is a practice in Zen of saying yes to everything we encounter. When something happens that is hurtful, when something is joyful, we just say yes. After all, saying no is a form of objecting to reality. We can certainly spend our lives doing this, but ultimately we have to bow to what is real. (And sometimes this includes saying yes to the mind that rejects.)
Here, Xuedou and Yuanwu say yes to Iron Grindstone Liu. As I reflect on what I have learned in my life as a woman in Zen, I can remember so many times when I said no to who I am, letting myself be defined by what others thought I should be. Now I see my work in the world as being fully myself. I am a woman. And I am not a woman. Ultimately, I am both a woman and not a woman. When I get up in the morning at a sesshin, I put on my women’s underwear, comb my hair, and don my priest’s robes. On other days, I put on my women’s underwear, comb my hair, and don jewelry. All of these clothes and markers of form are made of emptiness.
In the current political climate, it’s harder to ignore the misogyny behind blatant criticisms of strong women and the denial of our value as full human beings. We encounter sexism every day—sometimes like a shadow and sometimes unavoidably in the news, in relationships, in our families. Is it possible, without falling into overreaction or ignoring, to meet each instance directly? There is an emotional cost to being present in this way. Sometimes we feel the pain and injustice of objectification more strongly, sometimes less. But either way, through the practice of widening our view of reality, of bringing together the worlds of sameness and differentiation, we can learn to feel them fully. Our duty, as practitioners of any gender, is to say yes to whatever arises and then to act from the balanced place of response rather than reactivity.
My intention is to be like Iron Grindstone Liu—to find a way to be direct and playful in my encounters with what has so often been confusing and frustrating. Woman! No woman! Woman Zen teacher—yes!
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Soup is a wonderful way to fast track your way back to a state of bodily stasis. It's easy to make, perfect for packing to the brim with vegetables, and the recipes are almost always forgiving—feel free to sub in whatever you have lying around (we're looking at you, leftovers). Because they're cooked, soups are also a bit easier on your digestion than smoothies or salads, making them a gentle way to help your system bounce back. Whip up your favorite, go for a walk outside, drink a ton of water, and you'll be feeling better in no time.
Power Green Soup
This power green soup is packed full of herbs, Swiss chard, and kale, with liver-supporting lemon. The gremolata on top adds a super-satisfying crunch. Get the full recipe here.
Leek, Fennel & Celery Soup with Lentils
According to the creator of this soup, "the vegetables in this soup have diuretic properties that help eliminate excess water in the body, or "damp," as Chinese medicine aptly describes it." Get the full recipe here.
This probiotic-rich miso soup will help your gut heal and couldn't be easier to make. Get the full recipe here.
Moroccan Carrot Soup
If your skin is feeling meh after a little too much sugar, this vitamin-A-loaded soup will help replenish cells and help you get back your glow. Get the full recipe here.
Herbed Green Soup
This herb-packed green soup has tons of phytonutrients and antiviral benefits, if you're feeling a little under the weather from traveling. Swap out the vegetable stock for bone broth for even more gut-healing benefits. Get the full recipe here.
Rev. angel Kyodo williams notes, "Love and Justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters."
ANGEL KYODO WILLIAMS is an author, activist, founder of the Center for Transformative Change, and one of three black women Zen "Senseis" or teachers. She has been bridging the worlds of transformation and justice since her critically acclaimed book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace. She applies wisdom teachings and embodied practice to intractable social issues at the intersections of climate change, and racial and economic justice. Her 27 Days of Change online program and 3rd Way Leadership supports changemakers in inner meets outer change worldwide. Her work has been widely covered, including in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Ms., and Essence. Her newest book collaboration, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation has just been released. angelkyodowilliams.com This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.
Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx
M.Om., Dipl. Acu (NCCAOM) L.Ac.
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