Treating Ebola with Mindfulness in Liberia

Treating Ebola with Mindfulness in Liberia

By Cynthia Jurs with Harper Karmon and Christian Bethelson

The Ebola epidemic has reached unprecedented proportions in Liberia and the entire region is in a state of emergency. Many people are using the language of war to fight this battle, but in this volatile part of the world where violence can erupt quickly, it may be wise to take a deep breath and cultivate as much calm as possible in order to respond intelligently in the face of this crisis.

The threat of death is very real and people are scared. They are still recovering from war. Misinformation and mistrust in the beginning of the crisis combined with the lack of infrastructure in Liberia means that the country is struggling to meet the needs of the situation. The United Nations, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders are doing what they can, but many communities are being ignored and are relying on the grassroots efforts of small groups and heroic individuals to help them through this time.

Harper Karmon and Christian Bethelson are two such individuals. I first met them when I went to Liberia in 2009 to bring a little clay pot called an earth treasure vase filled with prayers and symbolic offerings for peace to be planted in that land. I had been given thirty of these little sacred vessels by an old wise man living in a cave in Nepal – the 106 year old Charok Rinpoche – who told me to take them all over the world to bring healing and protection to the Earth in places of need.

Liberia was just recovering from a brutal civil war when I was invited to meet with elders and activists in Lofa County, Liberia, the worst fought region of the war near Sierra Leone and Guinea – the same region hit hard by Ebola now. People gathered, including representatives from all these countries, to add their prayers for peace into the earth treasure vase. The elders selected a location to bury the vase and we planted it in the ground.

The following year in response to the wishes of the community, Alliance for the Earth (a nonprofit organization I founded)  helped support the building of a Palaver Peace Hut as a place to go to remember their prayers for peace, resolve conflict and heal the lingering wounds of war.

Harper Karmon, a skilled peacebuilder, Christian Bethelson, a former rebel General along with Annie Nushen, a powerful leader in the Women in Peacebuilding Network, have all worked closely with Alliance for the Earth and now direct the Peace Hut Alliance for Conflict Transformation. This team has successfully overseen the construction of two more Peace Huts in conflict-prone regions of Liberia, dug a well that is bringing life back to the land in Lofa County, and they run ongoing programs inside the Peace Huts to empower women, former child soldiers and ex-combatants in peacebuilding skills inspired by the practice of mindfulness.

Christian Bethelson served in the military for many years under President Samuel Doe and became one of his personal bodyguards. When Doe was assassinated, Bethelson narrowly escaped with his life and joined the rebel forces in northern Liberia to fight against Charles Taylor under the name General Leopard. When the war ended, through a chance encounter with the peacebuilding group, everyday gandhis, he was invited to join their group. He met Harper Karmon at that time and his life turned around.

Bethelson’s interest in becoming a man of peace deepened when he held the earth treasure vase in his hands and asked me to teach him to meditate. The simple practice of focusing attention on his breath in mindfulness has facilitated a deep transformation, allowing him to touch the seeds of peace inside and around him. After four years of training and a scholarship to attend a three-month retreat at Thich Nhat Hanh’s center, Plum Village, in France – Bethelson is now working with other ex-combatants to heal and transform. (See photo - Bethelson in Plum Village, image by Anthony Carlson)

When Ebola began to spread through the country, Bethelson’s work with Harper and Annie inside the Peace Huts came to a halt. Military imposed curfews and quarantines now make travel upcountry to meet inside the Peace Huts virtually impossible but their work has continued in other ways. With what little funds they have, they purchased Ebola prevention supplies – buckets and other hand washing materials such as soap, chloride and chlorine.

Harper has courageously taken it upon himself to make the arduous journey upcountry by motorbike dressed in protective gear, to bring these much-needed supplies to the communities around the Peace Huts. Thirty buckets with hand-washing materials have so far been delivered.

The women of Margibi County where a 4th Peace Hut is planned, have called for assistance, saying that to date, no official efforts have been made towards disease prevention in that area, even though it is one of the hardest hit.  

Bethelson and Harper are also using the power of radio to reach the public with their message of peace and nonviolence in the face of this deadly disease. They are hosting a weekly national radio program; “Conversations Under the Peace Hut” on ELBC FM 99.9, which reaches nearly all parts of the country. With Bethelson’s knowledge of 12 languages, the program will be able to address a very large national audience.  

They will educate people in ways to reduce and prevent the spread of illness and cultivate effective behaviors for peaceful coexistence, remembering that everyone’s responses to the disease and each other will be wiser and more effective when they are calm.

To help Bethelson and Harper continue to reach the people of Liberia and save lives in these struggling communities click here and chose Liberia Peacebuilding in the drop down menu.

By letting them know we are with them and the people of Liberia is to breathe new life into their efforts. May all beings benefit!

Cynthia Jurs, founder of Alliance for the Earth, a nonprofit dedicated to global healing and collective awakening, is a dharmacharya in the Order of Interbeing of Thich Nhat Hanh and directs the Open Way Sangha in Santa Fe, NM. Her life was transformed when she met an old wise man living in a cave and asked him, “What can we do to bring healing and protection to the Earth?” Thirty Earth Treasure Vases (ETVs) and 24 years later, in collaboration with indigenous elders, young activists and regular folks in communities around the world, a global healing mandala for the Earth has been established. Through her practice of sacred activism with the ETVs, she has witnessed miraculous and creative solutions to the planet’s problems arise in response to prayers that have been made. She continues to travel and teach wherever she can and looks forward to telling her story in a book and documentary film sometime soon.