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Lions Roar : March 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2012 53 Julia Ferganchick Plane crash survivor TUCSON, ARIZONA “LOOKING ON IT NOW,” Julia Ferganchick says, “it’s like the plane crash was a beautiful gift. It enabled me to say my priority is my spiritual practice.” It was 1999 when the plane she was on crashed, split in two, and burst into flames. She got out through a gash in the roof and fell the equivalent of two stories to the ground. Ferganchick’s physical injuries included brain damage and a herniated disc. But it was the psychological aftermath— post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, blackouts—that caused the greatest suffering. She saw doctors and therapists, lots of them, year after year. They couldn’t seem to help her. Before the crash, Ferganchick says, she was “worldly and successful.” Just thirty-one, she was fast-tracked for tenure at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she was a professor of writing and rhetoric, and owned a popular bookstore café near the cam- pus. After the crash, Ferganchick lost it all. She couldn’t function, even after a yearlong leave of absence. She was forced to accept permanent disability. Ferganchick had the support of lov- ing parents, both devout Christians, but she was having a crisis of faith. She’d been suffering—“really suffer- ing”—for five years. It was unrelenting. Then, in January 2004, Ferganchick heard Geshe Michael Roach, founder of the Asian Classics Institute (ACI), talk about Tibetan Buddhist logic and overcoming the pain of suffering. It was up to the individual, he said. If there were a compassionate higher being who could take away your suffering, you wouldn’t be suf- fering. “That logic struck me powerfully,” Ferganchick says. “I realized that I had to help myself.” Ferganchick began meditating and studying, completing in a single year what normally took many. The eighteen Asian Classics Institute courses were prerequisites to advanced studies. And she was determined to join advanced students at Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center near Bowie, Arizona. “I am driven,” she laughs, “but now I’m driven to peacefulness, how’s that?” In 2009, the tenth anniversary of the plane crash, Ferganchick set out, with her mother hanging on behind her, on a coast-to- coast motorcycle journey. It also was the year after her son, her only child, had died at age twenty. The forty-day trip was to cel- ebrate her survival and her spirit, and their love. As she writes on her blog “Prajnaja: Wisdom, Happiness, Peace,” the trip, with its obstacles and challenges, became a form of practice too—and it was on this journey that she was able to let go of her sorrow. Her parents are still dedicated Christians. “Most religions teach morality and compassion. I’m happy to see they get so much from theirs,” she says. “Our religions are compatible from that point of view.” Ferganchick’s mother, now on number fif- teen of the eighteen preliminary courses of ACI, is her star pupil. “She challenges me. I can’t tell you how much joy I experience from my mother coming to class.” From a disabled former professor seeking a panacea for her pain to a devoted Buddhist practitioner, scholar, and meditation teacher, “My whole life has been transformed,” Ferganchick says. ♦ PHOTOBYROSAVANGRIEKEN