By Adrian Chang
I woke up in pain; tossed and turned till sleep overtook me once more. Dreams came one after another… My mind was restless and the slightest sound or movement roused me… It had been twenty years since my last night of undisturbed rest.
I Once Lost Hope
Over the years, I’d tried many kinds of sleeping pills, but they didn’t work. Each time, I woke up in the morning to a crippling migraine – a familiar and terrible visitor. Unfortunately, sleeping pills or no, the migraines were constant, even in spite of doctors’ prescriptions. As time passed, they had grown steadily worse.
When my condition was at its most severe, I suffered from two outbreaks a week. I’d take one or two strong painkillers and shut myself inside a completely darkened room. There, I’d just lie in bed – literally in agony – waiting for it to end. With my kids all grown up, I started thinking my time might be done: there seemed to be no point in continuing with the pain.
During one mild migraine episode, I was still able to read, and flipped through a copy of Meditation & Health magazine that I’d picked up a few days before: for obvious reasons, the stories of people overcoming illness spoke to me strongly. Also, an article featuring a meditation master, JinBodhi, raised my curiosity; there was an unnamable quality that radiated from his image – a beauty in his gentle expression. The article claimed that his teachings had helped many people. Quite suddenly, I became excited at the possibility of a new therapy.
Still, a moment of improbable hope can’t erase years of frustration – I reined in my thoughts and asked myself, “What good would meditation do me, when even the most advanced medicine offers no cure?” My doctor once said that mine was one of the worst migraine cases he’d ever encountered.
My father is a famous doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, often invited to give lectures in the US, but he was unable to cure me either. In his opinion, though not fatal, my migraines were unlikely to ever allow for a normal life. It may seem ironic that a famous doctor couldn’t cure his own daughter; nor could my Western-trained brother, a doctor of conventional medicine, who recommended new medications all the time. I appreciated his help, and yet it saddened me too, feeling I was a burden to so many people.
During a particularly bad episode, I thought again of the meditation master I’d read about and made up my mind to try his style of meditation. “This is my last chance,” I told myself – I was jaded and lost. So much time had passed, and it was the last hope I could muster: my horizon had darkened.
The Sunlight was Beautiful
I registered for the February, 2006 Bodhi Meditation and Fitness Retreat.
On the second day of the Retreat, I stopped taking my preventive medication. I’d tried abstaining before, but the results had always been horrible migraine recurrences of greater strength, frequency and longer duration.
The first and second days passed successfully, as did the third, but on the fourth day things look a bad turn: the pain started at 5am.
At first, I didn’t want to go to class; then, I decided that since I was there to meditate, maybe that was the best thing for me – maybe it would help. I went to the class.
While the students were practicing, I covered my eyes with a cloth to protect them from the light, and lay on the floor. Even so, it was torture – so much so that I had to fight the impulse to strike my head against the wall.
I was taken to a separate room, where I was treated with a form of meditative therapy. To this day, I’m unsure of how it worked, but the migraine eased during the treatment.
Just before the end of morning class, I was encouraged to remove the cloth from my head. I hesitated, knowing that the pain was likely to last another twenty-four hours, and that exposure to light would only add fuel to the flames. Nonetheless, I committed fully to this new possibility, and uncovered my head.
The moment I opened my eyes, I started to cry. For the first time light did not worsen the pain. The sunlight was beautiful!
From that moment to the last day of the twelve-day Retreat, I was filled with feelings of happiness that were new to me. Everyone commented on my easy laughter – after twenty years of struggle, I was laughing out loud.
Though a migraine hit on the tenth day of class, I was sure I could defeat it. I did, too – unexpectedly, the migraine was gone by noon without any special therapy or meditation. I had taken a pill-and-a-half of preventive medicine on the very first morning, and nothing more.
My Life is Bright Again
After the February Retreat, I took another risk – I decided to visit Hong Kong for family reasons.
I love it and I have a home there; however, because of the migraines, I was afraid to go – the hot and humid weather can instigate horrible episodes. Though my health had improved greatly by the end of the Bodhi Retreat, I was still worried about what might happen – I brought all the medicine I could in case things went badly.
During the month I spent there, I didn’t take a single pill. Well aware of how miserable migraines had made my life, my husband was highly sensitive to my state. He was amazed to see me so healthy, particularly without any medicine. It was very difficult for him to accept how much I credited my recovery to meditation, which is understandable – it is incredible that a twelve-day meditation retreat can make a crippling illness of twenty years suddenly manageable. Had I not lived this experience myself, I wouldn’t take it at face value. I am fully aware of how unbelievable it sounds.
My husband encouraged me to continue learning and practicing Bodhi Meditation, and I signed up for an April Retreat in Hong Kong. During the Retreat, I dealt with one migraine episode, but it resolved itself quickly.
I was told that outbreaks may still occur every once in a while: “Don’t worry about the occasional recurrence. As long as you keep practicing meditation, you will get healthier and healthier,” the meditation instructors said.
My life is now full of sunlight. Day and night, there’s a brilliance inside me. Everything has changed! I used to fear the light and was unable to stay in it for long; if I did, a migraine would strike. Even during the occasional episode, light simply isn’t my enemy anymore.
After witnessing the extent of my recovery, my brother invited me to Hawaii for a vacation in July of 2006, where I enjoyed sun and sand without worry for the first time in ages. In my mid-fifties then, it was as though I was returning to the health and energy of my youth, both physically and mentally.
For that, I will always be grateful.
Two years after Winnie embarked on her Bodhi path at Vancouver Center, she moved to Hong Kong. In November of 2008, she started to organize public drop-in meditation sessions. Many of the attending students also took Bodhi classes in Taiwan.
By July of 2009, the number of students was increasing monthly. Winnie was a key member of the team that facilitated the development of Hong Kong Center.
The inaugural Bodhi Meditation and Fitness Retreat was held in March of 2010. As one of the meditation instructors, Winnie has witnessed the rapid growth of the Center. The first class had less than twenty students, and now a class accommodates over two hundred.
In April of 2011, Winnie was interviewed during a visit to Vancouver and joyfully shared countless stories of students who have reaped radical benefits from the Bodhi path.
“The Retreats have brought so much health and happiness to students. It’s amazing to see it through an instructor’s eyes.”
Many of the Hong Kong Center’s students are from out of town, and Winnie and the other teachers make sure to meet them at the train or bus station and escort them to the Center. She not only teaches classes but also takes care of visiting meditators outside of class. She loves every student and expresses that love in the details of daily contact. Indeed, her students have all become her good friends as evidenced by the holiday greetings and constant outpouring of gratitude that she receives.
“I’ve learned a lot as a Bodhi student, however I’ve learnt more as a Bodhi instructor. From my students, I’ve learned sincerity and respect, and their faith strengthens mine,” she said, smiling.
A new Center is set to open this year in Hong Kong, and it’s keeping Winnie busy with joyous purpose.