The Center for Mind-Body Medicine

Ordinary people making extraordinary differences in Southeastern Louisiana

by Linda Sechrist

“After Katrina, I received mops and buckets from disaster relief. From the Mind-Body Center for Medicine, I got my life back.” Mindy Milam, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

 

Jim in the 9th wardIn the midst of the chaos experienced during post-Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Haiti’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake, the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, and the Gaza, Syrian and Kosovo wars, who among us could believe that it is possible for people traumatized and beleaguered by such dire circumstances to find comfort, calm and hope? It’s even more challenging to envision that it could be found in something as simple as a deep breathing exercise or a guided imagery meditation. However, Dr. James Gordon, founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington DC, never doubts that such practical and scientifically grounded mind-body techniques can do just that.

 

The Mind-Body Medicine Center of Louisiana

Gordon, a world-renowned expert in the use of mind-body medicine to heal depression, anxiety and psychological trauma, along with his team of health and mental health professionals arrived in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and Rita. With compassionate hearts, they taught Gordon’s model of proven skills for self-care and wellness to 80 health and mental health professionals in the Gulf Coast Region. This evidence-based, culturally sensitive model is still in use at the Mind-Body Center of Louisiana (MBCLA), located in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The non-profit educational organization formed in 2009 and is dedicated to addressing the health and mental health needs of Louisiana residents. MBCLA’s faculty of 10 experienced, licensed health care and mental health providers, case managers and nursing professionals are certified as mind-body medicine practitioners through CMBM.

 

“MBCLA is the only non-profit organization in this area systematically and consistently applying, teaching, studying, and integrating a mind-body approach that complements traditional biomedical and psychological models of care,” says Toni Bankston, MBCLA Director. Additionally, it is deeply committed and has a proven track record of making the services available and accessible to people who ordinarily have challenges with access due to economic disadvantage or living in remote areas of the state,” says Bankston, who has also served as a member of Gordon’s international team.

 

By 2005, Bankston was a veteran psychotherapist of 25 years, who had already been significantly involved in working with trauma and disadvantaged populations. However, nothing prepared her for the personal mind-body trauma she experienced or what she witnessed post-Katrina. When Gordon and his team arrived Bankston was more than ready to leap into the opportunity to learn the CMBM model that includes Gordon’s “soft belly” breathing meditation.

 

Self-empowering “Soft Belly”

“Anyone can close their eyes and breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth,” says Gordon, whose soothing voice makes it easy to follow his slowly delivered instructions to let the belly be soft and take oxygen into the lungs. In “soft belly,” breathing deepens and the muscles relax naturally without effort. Thoughts are allowed to come and go without intellectual pursuit. When the eyes are opened and the individual’s attention returns to the outer environment there are noticeable differences. Sometimes the shoulders are lowered, the heart is beating a little slower, and there is a lessening of tension in the body. “Soft belly shows people that they have the capacity to do something to help themselves—to create a state of relaxation that slows their breath, relieves their tension, changes their mind’s focus, slows their mental chatter and produces a more relaxed state within. Just one experience can produce a very self-empowering insight—they are capable and can learn things that help them reduce and control their stress levels,” advises Gordon, who notes that many of the simple techniques he teaches are in his Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression. “I use dozens of them. One is not better than the other.”

 

The Rippling Effect of Self-Empowering Education

To make clear the rippling effect that these techniques have, Gordon describes a recent experience in Gaza. “The worst badly behaved 5-year olds sat enthralled like angels, did soft belly, noticed the changes, and then went home to teach their parents. Kids love to experiment because they haven’t been told that they aren’t capable of doing it, programming that is too frequently part of an adult’s belief system,” he says.

 

Self-Care is at the Heart of Health Care

According to Bankston, CMBM team members were entrenched in New Orleans’ communities off and on for two years and offered approximately 10 weeks of training as well as ongoing supervision, whereas other organizations came for a weekend and left.  “It was obvious to me that CMBM’s work and actions were totally aligned with their motto—“Self care is the heart of health care”,” notes Bankston. While her impetus for attending the trainings, was the universal appeal to her clients, she quickly understood that practicing self-care came first. “You can’t teach people what you are not doing yourself and in this case, I had to live the practice from the inside out,” remarks Bankston, who along with several other individuals identified as leaders by CMBM received ongoing phone supervision. “While implementing what I learned within the community, I didn’t just have a how-to manual collecting dust on my shelf. I had an expert on the phone helping me troubleshoot while I was sitting in a FEMA village trying to apply what I learned and discern what came next. That’s priceless,” she enthuses.

 

CMBM’s Holistic Model

CMBM’s holistic model, developed over a period of 20 years, is unique for several reasons. It emphasizes small groups in which people can learn, share their stories without analysis or interpretation, and bond in close relationships. A primary focus of “we’re here to work on ourselves and not fix others” is supported by the introduction of many traditions and numerous techniques that work with cognition, the body, and the social environment, as well as spiritual dimensions that add meaning and purpose. The model is playful, fun, and provides ongoing supervision for leaders and teachers. “While there is tragedy, and at times people are sad and serious, when they are willing to be present without judgment and interpretation, it opens the door to the surprise of the joy and celebration beneath the sorrow,” says Gordon, who notes that another primary focus of the model is creating an ongoing community of support. “Toni is doing this in numerous Louisiana parishes because a sense of community is profoundly healing for whatever we suffer from—a chronic physical illness, a psychological trauma, or the sense of loneliness and isolation that is endemic in our society. By our very nature, we are communal animals created to be in relationship,” emphasizes Gordon

 

CMBM Training is Open to Everyone

While CMBM’s model is documented with scientific evidence, taught and practiced largely by health care professionals, training sessions, such as the upcoming October 5- 9 training in Redwood City, California, are open to anyone interested in sharing it within their community. “Community organizers, administrators, and church members are often at training sessions,” says Gordon, who expresses concern for the lost arts of medicine, intuition and human connection. “We are so impressed by technology that we have lost the art of trusting a sense of connection to something powerful within ourselves. The perennial journey to this invisible part of us, that allows us to call out the most appropriate response, is one we read about in spiritual traditions. It’s a sense of connection to our own wisdom and something greater than ourselves. Relearning this is critical to our survival,” he advises.

 

Positive Outcomes

Bankston is in agreement with Gordon because she knows how her life has been impacted. “Practicing what I learned helped me overcome burnout, gave me staying power and helped me fall in love with my work again. I felt empowered and fearless as opposed to helpless in the face of so much trauma and massive destruction,” says the self-admitted traditional “Louisiana Girl”, who became emboldened enough to take her knowledge and experience of what was working in her own backyard to Haiti and Gaza. “The beauty of seeing people in remote places with scarce resources find joy and ways to make life worth living was not only inspirational and put everything else in perspective, it also taught me how to work in my own Louisiana community.  Fortunately, I think my four children have vicariously learned these lessons through me and are now feeling more self-empowered. The other exciting rippling effect is that our mind-body medicine model is now used local universities, primary care clinics and schools in Southeastern Louisiana.

 

Dr. James Gordon is the keynote speaker for the NOLA Healthy Living & Sustainability Expo on October 12 at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner. For info on the expo call 504-330-2157 or email expo@nolahealthyliving.com. For more information on The Mind Body Center of Louisiana, call 225-678-9950 or visit MindBodyLA.org.