Note – This post discusses gardening and tai chi as part of my mental health story from 2018 to 2020 and may trigger unwanted thoughts or emotions in those that have suffered traumas. This post is part of a story told chronologically.
During my walks around the work parking lot at lunch, I sometimes spoke on the phone with my friend and spiritual director named Padre. In early March 2019, he advised me to focus on others, and so I sought various volunteering opportunities. He told a humorous story of working with nuns during his priestly career, then asked if there was a convent nearby so I could visit them. I found a convent about thirty minutes away. I emailed asking if I could volunteer or visit on a weekly basis. The Sister responded,
“Michael, you are a city person. Find your inner strength by serving those around you…it would be costly to travel across Hwy 64….service is everywhere! Blessings as you search for healing and health!”
When I read her response, I laughed with faint notes of scorn as thoughts of rejection came to mind. Even a nun rejected me. I moved on quickly to other volunteering opportunities, however. Many organizations didn’t respond to my requests. At these rejections, bitterness welled within me. I’m offering free labor, I thought, and organizations asking for help weren’t responding.
After additional searching, I found two alternate methods of healing: gardening and tai chi. I didn’t have a yard, but I thought working with the soil would help to heal my mind. I loved participating in retreats growing up, and so I looked for a retreat center nearby. The Avila Retreat Center in Durham offered volunteering opportunities.
I worked on the grounds nearly every Saturday for a few months and took direction from the monk who ran the center. I maintained the grounds and built benches for people to use when praying the Stations of the Cross in the woods. Despite the continual bombardment of evil thoughts, particularly when using tools, working in the soil grounded me. The monk provided wisdom, shared his experiences with mental illness, and shared the knowledge he had learned over the years working in a medical library. Equally as important, the silence of the space mentored me and grounded me in the dirt. As I left the center, I slowly read and absorbed the message from Jeremiah 29:11 that was posted on the door.
During this time, I also practiced tai chi. I first saw tai chi on a visit to China in December 2018. When I returned to Raleigh, I mentioned this story to my massage therapist, a woman who became a healer and therapist in many ways too. She mentioned different tai chi groups in Raleigh. After online research, I instead chose a yoga group that specialized in body and brain healing. I had done yoga for years, on and off, as an organized practice to stretch, but I hadn’t pursued yoga to connect my body with my mind.
The focus on lower stomach exercises to increase serotonin and dopamine naturally, and the slow and mindful practices of tai chi, relaxed me. On the nights I practiced tai chi, I saw a connection with sleeping better. Nevertheless, this practice didn’t stop the homicidal thoughts, nor help to resolve root cause issues. I didn’t have the energy to exercise, but I could slowly and deliberately move my body during tai chi.
Gardening and tai chi moderated the intensity and duration of my bodily and mental pains. Acupuncture sessions throughout the summer likewise softened the pains in my body. However, like gardening and tai chi, these measures were temporary reliefs. Digging into root causes by unraveling many layers took time, but I became impatient as the spirit of agitation kept pushing me. Next week, I’ll share the story about an accident with a knife.