Mindfulness in Action: Aaron Deemer and Glow Fund


Engaged Mindfulness

This year I’ve challenged everyone to care. Not only to care, but to learn about the world and those that need our compassion and do what we can do. I believe this stems from Thich Nhat Hanh’s truth, or what I believe to be the truth, that ‘mindfulness must be engaged. Once we see something needs to be done, we must take action. Seeing and acting go together. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” For me, there is a direct link between the self-compassion developed through contemplative practices and outward-looking compassionate engagement and activism. Aaron Deemer, founder and director of the Glow Fund, gives us a personal example of this link.
The Glow Fund’s mission focuses on organising and funding surgeries in China for children with severe orthopaedic disabilities. Over the past 12 years, they have been fortunate to work with leading orthopaedic surgeons from Stanford University’s Lucile Packard Children’s hospital. The Glow Fund bring these doctors to China to perform life-changing operations on children with conditions ranging from severe scoliosis to brittle bone disease, cerebral palsy, club foot and dislocated hips. Since their work began, they have offered life-changing surgeries to over 150 children. The majority of the children come from orphanages and foster homes throughout China, as well as remote areas of Western Sichuan. The kids from this region of Sichuan are ethnically Tibetan. For unknown reasons, there is a high incidence of severe scoliosis within this population group.  

Here’s my chat with Aaron.

Describe your current practice

As an acupuncturist, I spend my days working with an elusive concept called qi, or life energy. Working with this branch of Chinese medicine can bring about profound yet often nuanced levels of healing. This ancient practice is best approached by cultivating simplicity, quiet and ease in my own body as well as in my interaction with patients. I feel privileged to spend my time working in this capacity and offering this method of healing work to others, but the effects are often subtle. Conditions treated with acupuncture usually take time to shift, and the benefits of accrue over weeks, months or even years. While I will always appreciate this arena of medicine, this gradual process often makes me miss the more immediate, visible physical shifts that I see in my volunteer work with the Glow Fund.  

Can mindfulness be socially engaged?

The work with these children in China is also the most visceral practice of mindfulness I do. When I am engaged in this work, I feel 100% focused. I am sure of my intentions. There is no dilemma in my mind or heart that this work is the right work to be doing. With this clarity comes a dissolving of the usual mental chatter.  
I know my work with the Glow Fund is clean and conflict-free. The purpose is straightforward: I do what I can to help these children who have been given a really shitty lot. By helping them, they have a better chance at life.  Not only are most of these kids brought up in rough conditions of living in state-run orphanages or growing up in family situations that are themselves heartbreaking. They are also disabled. 

When I think about working with these kids, there are no quandaries for me.  There’s no indecision of should I or shouldn’t I do this work. It’s simple. These kids need help. I have the contacts and connections to give them help.  That’s what needs to be done. It’s clear.   

How did you begin the Glow Fund?

My Glow Fund work began in 2003, At the time, I was working in China as a photographer. While there, I met a woman who ran a charity that helped provide surgeries to children with extreme orthopaedic disabilities. Most of these children were found in orphanages.  While photographing in remote areas of Western Sichuan, I came across a young girl with a severe case of scoliosis that threatened to cut her lifespan and limit her chances at education and work. Something about her condition compelled me to help her. With support from family and friends, I raised funds to bring her to Tianjin, where a team of American doctors was offering free surgeries through my friend’s charity. The young girl I helped, Dolma, received a successful operation to straighten her spine. She is now a beautiful young woman who has a normal chance at life. The immediate result of this operation not only changed her life, but it also opened up the possibilities of what I might be able to do to help others like her. 

What have you been able to do?

What started with helping one of two children a year between 2003 – 2015 has now grown to 15 – 20 children a year.  In 2016, I decided to take over organising the operations each year. I began bringing surgeons from Stanford’s Lucile Packards Children’s Hospital and Physiotherapists from the UK to fly to China. During these missions, the doctors and specialists spend a week operating on children with scoliosis, club feet, brittle bones, and a whole host of other orthopaedic disabilities.  

For me, the Glow Fund is like the yang balance to my acupuncture’s yin. I couldn’t imagine doing one without the other. The subtle, gradual, and quiet work of supporting my patients’ health contrasts with the more immediate, structural operations that these disadvantaged and disabled children receive. After a few hours of surgery, I can see the changes that I know will positively impact the course of their lives.   

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What is planned for your 2018 mission and what do you need to do to make it happen?

Our next mission will be in March 2018. We plan to bring four surgeons and a team of physical therapists to China, and estimate that the costs we will need to ensure a smooth mission (and incidental and/or unforeseen costs) is £80k.  

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