Bringing Zen to the Chaos, and Getting Some Back.
On arrival at the airport in Port Au Prince, we were met by a driver from St. Damien’s. Jumping into the back of the flat-bed truck we slowly made our way along the crowded one-lane street of the dense city. People everywhere were selling goods from improvised shelters, tents still housed millions displaced by the earthquake, and half-built cinder-block buildings were left untended.
Passing the United Nations headquarters in Haiti, we saw barbed-wire encased compounds of occupying forces from around the world. The United States Embassy stood out, majestic in comparison to the surroundings. Arriving at the hospital, we noted throngs of people outside the gates fortified by a cadre of heavily armed soldiers.
We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
Much support was offered to the Haitian people after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010. Organizations from around the world came forth with cash and established plans to bring these beleaguered people hope for a new tomorrow—that out of the rubble and despair, this positive infusion of support might make up for the centuries when this potentially rich land was exploited by despotic regimes rife with corruption.
These initial efforts have, in many cases, stalled, and what had been started has since been abandoned to silently decay. The infrastructure never developed properly and has resulted in clogged roads where drivers and cyclists take their lives in hand traversing the narrow byways.
Yet despite these indignities and generational poverty, the souls of the Haitian people continue to glow, evidenced even amidst the filth, danger and overcrowding of Port au Prince.
Along the streets one immediately notices the straight-arrow posture of this people, sometimes carrying baskets of fruit or goods balanced perfectly on their heads. Beautiful, soulful and trapped, one is humbled and cannot just stand back without offering whatever in the way of support is possible.
I traveled to Haiti as one of a leadership team for the Urban Zen Foundation.
As trained integrative therapists (UZITs) our objective was to ascertain whether the techniques that we continue to study and hone would provide some respite, particularly to workers, administration, and volunteers at St. Damien’s Hospital, the largest and free pediatric hospital in the country.
Our destination reached, we were led to the tents built by the Italian military that would be our home for the stay. After putting our bags away, we were directed to the second floor of the hospital where we would hold our sessions. Our classes were scheduled in the conference room. A beautiful light-filled facility, it looks out on the mountains of Haiti.
Spotless, and with plentiful space, it was far more giving than many cramped yoga studios stateside. Led by our on-site point person, a tall handsome hospital administrator with the formidable task of scheduling at the hospital and making sure the facility is running well, we walked past patients sitting in the sunshine and heard the cries of newborns being birthed or fighting conditions that might compromise their very existence.
Two UZIT practitioners had previously made a scouting trip to the hospital so our host had already experienced the program. They had made such a positive impression that the hospital administrator was totally supportive and built full classes for each session, making sure that what we had to offer was experienced by every level of worker at the hospital.
Our first class included a group of women whose job was washing diapers, some, for over 25 years.
Leaning over a bucket, hour after hour they labored with seemingly beatific continence. Haitians know the privilege of labor and the ramifications of unemployment.
These women quietly took their seats for a chair yoga session. Behind the chairs, fellow UZITs applied reiki and lavender oils. Later, we were told that these sessions were the first time our participants had ever been given a break during what was a very long and labor intensive workday.
Session after session filled with people of all ages and a variety of backgrounds. Men who were responsible for maintenance sat next to pediatricians and oncologists.
The tools we learned through careful study and practice in the UZIT program applied seamlessly to all. Simple yoga moves relaxed and focused the body. The healing touch of reiki, along with awareness of the gift of breath, provided a universe of healing. The simplicity was transcendent.
Toward the end of the each session, time was given for integration and meditation. Each participant left revived, relaxed, and ready to go back to the ever-present bustle and atmosphere of the unexpected that exists in hospitals.
Our sessions complete, we walked through the corridors of the hospital back to the common area near the tents where we slept.
It was immensely rewarding to sit and talk with both the Haitian hospital workers and international volunteers. Many of the workers and physicians came from Italy, which has had a long-standing relationship with Haiti.
Particularly impressive was a midwife from Milan who had come to stay for a year. This robust smiling woman was about my age, in her late 60s, and had delivered thousands of babies. Her zeal remained, along with a face that was marked with lines of enduring love. She modeled the possibility of volunteering after retirement or integrating service into one’s work life.
Along with Urban Zen and our work as UZITs, I had the opportunity to meet representatives of Artists for Peace and Justice, an amazing and dedicated group of volunteers and benefactors committed to Haiti for the long-term future. Our group was privileged to visit a school manifested through donations from this organization and built with local labor. This project gave children the opportunity to attend beautiful modular classrooms in bright blue colors that virtually glisten in the sun.
Small efforts, in terms of the bigger blight and needs of the long-beleaguered Haitian people, make a difference.
The profound gratitude and courage of the Haitian people, coupled with their resilient nature, is indescribable. I am eager to return to Haiti in February, and the comments from fellow groups of Urban Zen Integrative Therapists that have followed our leadership trip reconfirm how meaningful the experience is. Personally, I am so grateful to the amazing Donna Karan, founder of Urban Zen, for making this possible and having a heart that wraps around the world, contributing to humanity in life-affirming ways.
As for myself, I am in for the long haul — have backpack and will travel.
Prepared by Lorin Arnold/Editor: Kate Bartolotta.