Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Surviving the Burmese Monsoon

The American monk Bhikkhu Obhasa has submitted the following essay, giving some suggestions for fellow monastics and yogis as to how to best survive Burma's monsoon season in full health. 

After the extreme heat of hot season, the coming of the rains is often a welcomed relief. Rainy season, however, can come with its own set of challenges. At the onset of rainy season, the body is trying to adjust from hot dry conditions to suddenly cool damp conditions, and it is common to experience a loss of energy, especially during the initial transition period. While dukkha cannot be totally avoided, excessive unhealthiness of the body is considered a difficult condition for practice.

There are two common causes for difficulty during the rains, slower digestion and increased chance of infection.

According to the Buddha Dhamma, the continually arising body has four sources of nutriment: kamma, mind, food, and temperature. According to the ancient health practice of Ayurveda, the body uses the element of fire (pali tejo) in the form of heat to digest food and the sudden drastic shift in the external environment from hot and dry to cool and damp inhibits the body's ability to do so. The more one can do to prevent the body from further imbalance by avoiding getting cold and wet, the better ones digestion, energy, and overall health will be during monsoon season. Here are some simple tips to follow:

Eat hot food. For one who depends on alms for food, sometimes almsfood cools down considerably between receiving and eating it. If this is the case, reheating the food, which is allowed by Vinaya, can be helpful. One can use the kitchen at the monastery, acquire a small gas stove, or make a small fire to reheat the food. In case of the latter, it is advisable to gather a stockpile of wood before the onset of the rains.

Eat less. In order to assist the body's digestion, don't eat more than the body can easily digest. The digestive stress on the body and the amount one will have to adjust will vary from person to person. For most the amount will be less than it was during hot season. Examining bowel movements, besides being a helpful asubha practice, is one of the best ways to assess the quality of digestion. If the faeces are more loose and less well formed than normal, this is a sign of incomplete digestion. Help the body out and experiment with eating less.

Eat spicy. Food eaten with hotter spices such as chillies, garlic, onion, and ginger make any meal easier to digest. Some even soak these same ingredients with turmeric root in vinegar for a couple of weeks and add both the spicy vinegar and the pickled ingredients to the meal. Considered as medicine, these ingredients may directly requested.

Avoid raw food. Besides the higher risk of contamination during monsoon (see below), raw food takes more energy to digest and is more cooling, the opposite of what is helpful to a weakened digestive system. If the body is weak and digestion poor, it is advisable to eat only simple, well cooked food that is easy to digest.

Drink hot fluids. Drinking cold fluids around mealtime hinders the digestive strength of the body. Some health systems even go so far as to say not to drink at all around mealtime because the cooling effect of any fluid in the stomach inhibits digestion. During monsoon season it is advisable to keep the body warm and so drinking hot fluids throughout the day is advisable. Again, a gas stove or wood fire will come in handy as well as a thermos or insulated flask to keep it hot. One can add ginger root or ginger powder with a little palm sugar to hot water as well for a little extra heat.

Drink less. During cool damp conditions, the body loses less water through processes like sweating, therefore, less water is needed daily by the body compared to hot season. Stay hydrated as always and also understand that extra water during monsoon is not only unneeded, it only serves to exacerbate the already damp conditions.

Bathe before eating. Deluging the outside of the body with water after eating while trying to digest is also believed to hinder digestion. It doesn't matter whether the water is hot or cold but the effects are even more so when cold. Therefore bathing before meals and then allowing the body to warm up is advisable.

Keep feet warm and dry. When allowed by Vinaya, it is advisable to wear footwear to insulate the feet from the cold wet ground thereby retaining more heat in the body. When barefoot, try to avoid standing for long periods on cold, hard, and/or wet surfaces. Dry and warm the feet as soon as it is possible.

Stay warm and dry. Keep the body and robes dry if at all possible. If the robes get wet, it is advisable to change into dry robes and dry the body as soon as possible. Try to keep the body warmer rather than cooler by wearing extra layers as needed.

The dampness of monsoon season is a condition for greater risk of infections. As the ground floods with water, the filth that lies on the ground can spread more easily into both our bodies and onto our food sources. There are two main areas of concern, feet and food.

Wear footwear. When Vinaya allows, it is advisable to wear footwear. The water on the ground has a higher likelihood of contamination from things like faeces and dead animals and these contaminants can enter the body via the skin of the feet.

Scrub feet daily. After alms round, scrub feet soon after with soap and a brush. Take extra care to clean any open wounds regularly and thoroughly. Consider regularly applying turmeric in water to any wounds to prevent or stop infection.

Remove callouses. When callouses, especially on the heels, become cracked, they can split to form an open wound, thus providing a higher risk of infection. Prevent this by regularly removing the dead skin with a pumous or other rough stone or by rubbing heels vigorously on wet rough concrete.

Avoid raw vegetables. Many areas flood during rainy season including vegetable crops and the possibility of food contamination is considerably higher. When food is well cooked there us no need for concern as high heat is the most effective way to remove bacteria and parasites, the main causes of intestinal infection. However, raw food presents a significantly greater risk and is best avoided during monsoon.

Turmeric. Turmeric, amongst its many other healthy properties, is known to prevent and fight infection. Turmeric root, powder, and/or pills can be found widely in south and southeast Asia and is highly recommended to take internally regularly. The anti-infection properties are especially helpful during rainy season. As mentioned above, turmeric mixed in water and applied to open wounds externally can prevent or stop infection. If the wound is not healing or becomes more red, itchy, or swollen, it is likely to be infected. Clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water and apply turmeric water or paste immediately. Turmeric can be applied to itchy rashes as well, especially in the most moist areas of the body where bacteria are likely to grow, namely the armpits, belt-line, and crotch areas. For lay people wearing shoes, the feet as well.

Papaya seeds. Papaya seeds are believed to act as an antibiotic effective against parasites, and especially against parasitic worms. Worms start out as microscopic parasites that can enter into the body in a number of ways, one of them being through the feet. They attach themselves to the lining of the digestive tract and papaya seeds are believed to shed such parasites from the lining so they may pass through the body. Whether or not one has worms, a large spoonful of fresh papaya seeds may be taken daily anytime they are available or seek them out if one has any suspicion. Taking a spoonful regularly during monsoon season is recommended.

These are tips I've come across so far. If anyone has more, please do share.

I wish everyone health, happiness, and freedom from all suffering.

Bhikkhu Obhasa

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