Floating in the Hormonal Sea

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 2 min read

Meyers_b1_s0268bOur body chemistry changes, moment by moment. We feel this indirectly as energy levels rise and fall, fullness gives way to hunger, and arousal alternates with sleepiness. Many of these internal shifts are due to hormones.

The pituitary gland, connected directly to the hypothalamus in the brain, drives many of the body’s other glands, and so plays a big part in this hormonal drama. It is a primary means by which the nervous system influences somatic states. At the same time, hormones flow back into the brain, allowing the body’s responses to affect our minds.

Thus, as hormonal profiles change, so does inner experience. As a striking example, remember how attitudes toward sexuality and relationships transform during adolescence. While young children are curious about sex, teenagers feel driven by it. While in grade school kids ignore or mock the opposite gender, in high school they have trouble thinking of anything else. So much depends on hormones!

Hormones function as a bidirectional communication system. Since they are carried by blood, which has some similarity to sea water, we can imagine an ocean that flows between the brain on one shore and the body on the other. In this ocean are suspended the hormones that enable the two continents to converse in a fluid, organic way. It’s as if each coast marinates in wines from the opposite shore.

Hormonal fluctuations are especially striking during sexual maturation, but they influence daily experience throughout life. The sleepiness we feel at end of day, the edginess that floods us while rushing to work, and the warmth that arises as we spend time with loved ones all emerge, to an extent, from the body’s chemical ocean.

Take a moment, here and now, to sense your own inner state. Detect the qualities swimming in your sea of life. Are you anticipating your next meal? Your stomach may be secreting grehlin, a hormone that influences the brain and leads to sensations of hunger. Are you feeling alert and energetic? Your thyroid gland may be at work. Do you feel as if tension has been mounting for hours? There’s a good chance your pituitary has been stimulating your adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones.

You might even try closing your eyes while resting in a comfortable position. Imagine your body suspended in warm tropical waters, where currents are washing you with all the chemicals that influence your inner state. As if you are a delicate sea creature, imagine how slight changes in the ocean’s composition affect you in subtle ways. Feel the momentary surges of energy, agitation, sleepiness, hunger, or lust, as they flow through you. Appreciate how your body reacts to hormonal eddies that are sometimes ripples and other times maelstroms. Feel some compassion for your responsive organism, alert to each shift in chemistry, whether it’s a major sea change or a simple ebb and flow. Before returning to your day, take a moment to honor your body’s sensitivity to the living ocean within.

This is the essence of MindfulBiology.org, a new project I’ve recently launched. It’s devoted to combining brief explanations of biology with guided meditations, with the aim of increasing our affection for this amazing human body. The website needs a lot of work, but I plan to gradually fill it with text and videos. I hope to encourage us all to remember how hard our bodies work, and how dearly they crave affection and care.

The Soft Animal of the Body

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 5 min read


Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. — Mary Oliver

Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, reminds me of how strongly both my physical and mental condition have been shaped by trauma. Spinal arthritis, abdominal pain, chronic muscle aches, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and many other problems combine to form an inner ledger of the abuse, bereavement, and neglect of my childhood and the uproar, frustration, and terror of my adult experience.

Why should this be? Why should trauma have such profound effects on body and mind?

It’s useful to remember what it means to live as a human organism. There are many ways to explore this, but let’s try an outside-in approach.

  • Skin: Our bodies are covered with a protective surface that is highly sensitive and easily injured. The skin registers both loving caress and brutal blows. It is multilayered, with a relatively dry outer layer and a most inner layer, rich with blood vessels and nerves. It’s an exquisite interface, but also the one that suffers much under the hardship of life. And every message the skin receives travels throughout the human form, like ripples on a pond. Affectionate touch can build confidence, while violation instills shame.
  • Sense organs: Eyes, ears, nose, and tongue provide animals with vital information about the environment. The eyes register facial expression; they narrow slightly when we laugh among amusing friends, and they broaden in terror when a fist swings toward the face, or a car spins on a freeway, or a loved one suffers a bad fall, or an abuser stares at us with sadistic contempt. The ears are sensitive to volume, pitch, and cadence. The coo of a lover’s voice softens the heart, while the threats and insults of a cruel caregiver freeze us in states of lonely shame. Many animals can smell rage and fear, and perhaps we can too. The nostrils flare when we feel unsafe. What’s more, the scents associated with a terrible history remain imprinted forever. Long after we’re adults, the smell of alcohol on a person’s breath might transport us instantly back to the awful past.
  • Muscles: Think of how much tension gets stored in the muscles of the face, jaw, neck, upper back, lumbar region, and pelvis. Wilhelm Reich called the layer of tight musculature “armor,” and the word fits. In a vain attempt to protect itself, the body builds a wall. The safety the armor promises is an illusion, but the way it cuts us off from feeling spontaneous and affectionate is all-too-real.
  • Bone: The bone is our innermost strength. It stores some of the deepest physical scars as thickened areas where fractures have healed. It gradually thins with age, as hormonal shifts change the balance of buildup and breakdown. It also holds the imprint of our habitual posture. How many of us develop chronic slumps in the shoulders and upper backs, the stamp of chronic defensiveness and lack of confidence? How many of us feel ready to stand tall every moment of our lives? In this age of epidemic trauma, it doesn’t help that our lifestyles encourage collapse, as we hunch over LED screens. Our skeletons become maps of withdrawal and insecurity.
  • Lungs: In Chinese Medicine, the lungs are viewed as the reservoirs of sorrow. Depression and grief are reflected in breathing patterns, which become shallow and choppy. The lungs connect us most intimately, and also most vulnerably, with our environment. They open a vast surface to the atmosphere (about the size of a basketball court in every person), so that each breath is as intimate as lovemaking. How sad that our atmosphere is so often polluted, or that we feel so stressed we find comfort in inhaling the toxic fumes of cigarettes and vaporizers.
  • Digestive Organs: We are what we eat. We know this, and yet in the aftermath of a harrowing upbringing, or after a stressful day in a difficult job, we find ourselves swallowing oily, salty, sugary, and ugly junk food. Our stomach and intestines dutifully break down whatever we ingest, but potato chips and candy bars send shock waves through the blood stream, so that many of us suffer with high cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes. How much healthier to fill the inner channel with what it craves: good, wholesome food that isn’t laced with pesticides, preservatives, and empty calories. Yet how difficult that can be!
  • Nervous System: The brain sits at the top of the spinal cord, like a king surveying his realm. Nerves come in from every inch of the skin, from the matrix of bone, the airway linings, the digestive organs, and everything else. It registers and remembers the sensations and–most importantly–their associations. Does a touch on the arm evoke the caress of a gentle mother or the groping of a drunk molester? Does the scent of detergent remind us of laundry drying in the sun or institutional cruelties? The nervous system can remain on high alert for decades, storms ever gathering on the mental horizon. Or, it can slowly settle down, it can find ease and safety despite the uncertainty of life. The nervous system elaborates our consciousness in all of its complexity, and it can create either a hell or a heaven, depending on our experiences and our responses.
  • Reproductive Organs: How confused our feelings become around these structures we all possess! Pathways of passion and ecstasy can so easily become coils of confusion. Does sex feel safe or threatening? Do others desire our bodies or ignore them? Does desire come with affection or is it nothing but narcissistic lust? Do our memories of early sexual awareness feel pleasantly nostalgic or sickeningly shameful? These sweet systems that carry life through time have become such hotbeds of unhappiness, it is truly sad. But we can imagine a better way, we can work to build a culture that celebrates sexuality without obsessing about it. One that views sex and reproduction with curious awe, rather than prurience and contempt.
  • The Heart: She is the queen of the body, sitting in her palace in the body’s core. The first organ to become functional, and the one that pulses with vitality from a few weeks after conception until the moment of death. She is hopeful but can become discouraged, radiant with affection at baseline but cold with terror or indifference when overwhelmed. The heart truly keeps the score, but in a way that remains optimistic. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for us to reawaken the heart to its natural state of wonder. We just need to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. Of course, to do that we have to learn what our bodies feel, to quit turning away from the discomfort within. This is a key task of trauma recovery, and in The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk points out that yoga, for instance, is a great way of moving through resistance to meet the body where it stands.

We tend to look at the body as a dumb beast or worse, as a machine. Modern medicine has convinced us it’s a mere mechanism. True, we can now replace hip bones with metal contraptions, and this is a boon to many. But that doesn’t mean the body is no different from the artifacts with which we repair it. The body is alive in every one of its cells. Each is a life form in its own right, just as every honeybee is an individual even as the hive is the unit that reproduces. The body is a society, with its cells, tissues, and organs each playing important roles in the drama of human life.

Trauma disrupts the body by obstructing the smooth communication and subtle rhythms that characterize life. We become disconnected and irregular, robbed of our birthright of intimacy and resonance.

And yet, the body’s reactions are its best effort to keep life moving. Armor is designed to shield us. Flashbacks are meant to keep us vigilant. Disconnection is meant to isolate us from danger. The intelligence of the body is doing its best, moment-by-moment. Trauma recovery depends on reeducating the organism, so it can respond to our situation as it is now and not as it was then. With slow and careful work, we can grow more accepting of our bodies. We can become more vibrant: appropriately protective when necessary and beautifully permeable when appropriate.

The Most Important Key to Healthy Aging

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 1 min read

In my recent post, 4 Ways to Embrace Aging, I offered five hints but should have offered a sixth. What’s most important when growing older, I believe, is to treat the body with compassion.

There is a temptation to micro-manage our physical forms as they age. Cosmetic surgery, anti-aging creams, hair-growth formulas, erectile drugs, and innumerable other interventions promise to halt, reverse, or compensate for deterioration. Their massive market success is testament to how we resist growing older, how we struggle to hold time at bay.

From one perspective, steps to slow the aging process make sense. It is surely a good idea to eat well, exercise regularly, stretch out the muscles, and maintain sleep hygiene. In later years we do well to eliminate destructive habits and reduce stress. The wise person lives as healthfully as possible.

But from another perspective, striving to stay young sets us in opposition to Nature. The battle against aging must be lost sooner or later, so why battle at all? Why not just treat our bodies with kindness, support them as best we can, but grant them the freedom to follow their inevitable trajectories without criticizing or feeling ashamed of them?

Compassion is key to feeling satisfied during later years: compassion for our companions and their struggles, compassion for our own foibles and difficulties, but most of all compassion for our physical forms. This organism that is the human body deserves affection and appreciation for the way it tries so hard, the way it does so much to support our personalities on this journey of Life. Such gratitude for our own biology nurtures feelings of rootedness in the world, feelings of belonging to an ecosphere that is vast, ancient, and luminous.

4 Ways to Embrace Aging

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 2 min read

Our bodies age. As members of the kingdom of animals, we inherit a biology that grows less efficient with time. Glitches and injuries accumulate. Our youthful form is lost, and our aged one is gained.

By dint of fear of change, the innate sexual attractiveness of younger bodies, and massive exploitation of both by marketing forces, we feel embarrassed and deprived as our bodies slowly deteriorate.

Not all cultures view aging so negatively. So the bias could be overcome. But how?

  1. Don’t take aging personally. After all, aging happens to everyone, from the beginning of life until its end. And like they say, Growing old beats the alternative! Every person who has ever lived beyond early adulthood has grappled with the changes the years impose. Granted, some people age more slowly than others, but every one of us looks and feels older as time passes. You are not alone.
  2. See aging as Natural. We live in an era when ‘organic,’ ‘all-natural,’ ‘non-GMO,’ ‘cage-free,’ and other eco-marketing catchphrases are used to sell products. Moderns want the growth and harvesting of foodstuffs to proceed naturally. Well, aging is no less aligned with Nature than vegetables cultivated without pesticides; why not embrace growing older the way we embrace organic foods?
  3. Appreciate the gifts of aging. As we grow older, we grow wiser. This isn’t folk mythology; it’s fact. We learn from experience. We find more acceptance in our hearts. We assess our strengths and weakness with more humility and self-compassion. We begin to view circumstances in shades of gray rather than black-and-white. Youthful hunger wanes until we find ourselves valuing what matters over the long run above what feels pleasant in the short run. We care less about personal goals and more about collective ones. To my mind, at least, the gain of gentleness, nuance, and altruism more than compensate for the lessening of passion and militance.
  4. Embrace the big picture. If you listed the names of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, at the rate of one per second, it would take 3,400 years. And the entire human saga has unfolded over just the last 0.005% of the time since life began on this planet. Does it make sense to feel affronted by a body’s aging when so many people (and countless other lifeforms) have endured the same fate, and when the span of even the longest human life barely measures as a single tick on the cosmic clock? Each of us is a unique product of history, but we delude ourselves if we believe our own lives more important than those of all the others. If we identify with Life as it has grown on this planet for billions of years, rather than our personal speck of biology, we gain freedom from the constrictions of daily concerns. We feel opened to a larger world, a larger sense of Self, and the great, beautiful mystery that is Living.
  5. Nurture a sense of humor. It helps to take aging less seriously. Early in 2014 I underwent major surgery. Postoperatively, I was horrified to see how the abdominal muscles I’d been strengthening for years ended up looking scarred and distorted. It helped lessen the sense of grief when I joked about losing my ‘last bastion of sexiness.’ The use of humor has a long history of helping the aged feel less burdened by wrinkles, sags, dribbles, creaks, and farts. Join the fun!

4 Tips for Improving Self-Esteem

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 1 min read

shutterstock_113619055Low self-esteem, which is just another term for shame, is very common in our culture. It especially afflicts those who grew up abused, neglected, or bereaved. Here are some simple tips for building confidence.

1. Be Fair

Everyone suffers from flaws. It’s not fair to focus on our own personal defects without acknowledging the messiness of every personality.

If we only notice our own shortcomings, we feel insecure. If we remember that falling short is part of the human condition, we gain compassion for ourselves and others.

2. Be Honest

We all possess strengths, and we all display weaknesses. Identifying vulnerabilities is healthy, provided we also identify areas of resilience, perseverance, effectiveness, and so on. Thorough self-honesty provides a balanced view, a good remedy for low self-esteem.

3. Be Humble

Humility is not a four letter word. Our culture celebrates the brash narcissist, but wiser minds see blustery self-promotion as immature. We can let our works speak for themselves.

4. Be Proud

It’s odd that we see so much egotism but so little pride. Long ago I spent a short time in Jamaica. I was struck by the upright bearing and unspoken confidence displayed by people with so little material wealth and such a long history of oppression. They did not seem to question their right to exist the way I did.

Sometime later, I read these words in The Desiderata:

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.

Pride is knowing one belongs on this earth. Egotism is believing one better and more deserving than others. The former is healthy, the latter toxic.

Fairness, Honesty, Humility, and Pride will go a long way toward eliminating shame and improving self-esteem.

Image of woman on bench available from Shutterstock.

5 Tips for Healing after Childhood Adversity

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 1 min read

1. Reframe Vulnerabilities

Those of us who experienced abuse, grief, or neglect during childhood feel different from those who didn’t. We are more easily hurt, which leads to withdrawal or rage. We feel less confident in ourselves, which leads to under- or over-achievement. We have problems with attention, suffering either hyper-vigilance or dreaminess.

But what looks like a vulnerability from one perspective can be a strength from another. To be easily hurt is to be sensitive. To lack confidence is to possess humility. The hyper-vigilant are detail-oriented, whereas dreamers are imaginative. The italicized words are all positive human qualities–claim them!

2. Credit the Past

Do you believe you failed to reach your potential? Do you blame yourself?

Imagine your childhood happened to someone else. Would a person who endured your upbringing be highly likely to succeed across the board? Or would such a history be expected to cause problems in later life?

We are products of our conditioning. If we were raised to believe that we don’t count, that those we trust will hurt us, or that we will never measure up, we shouldn’t blame ourselves for struggling in adulthood. Codependence, mistrust, and insecurity make careers and relationships difficult.

3. Feel Special

Rather than feeling like an oddball, celebrate your uniqueness. Throughout history the most interesting figures have been those who deviated from the mainstream. They were not conformists. Consider yourself different in a good way.

4. Reject Societal Standards

This one’s a corollary to Number 3. In order to feel unique rather than defective, we must reject much of what our culture tells us. Is it really true that status, wealth, and popularity are what make a person valuable? Are outward signs of success more impressive than wisdom, compassion, and perseverance? I personally doubt it. So should all of us who grew up in difficult circumstances.

5. Lower Expectations

Life is under no obligation to satisfy our desires. Every wisdom tradition attempts, in one way or another, to help us reign in our demands. These days, I find satisfaction in appreciating natural beauty, feeling warmed by human kindness, and breathing deeply. It doesn’t take much to feel contented in life, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we heal.

Success Is an Inside Job

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 3 min read

Mohandas_K._Gandhi_statue,_San_Francisco_(2013)_-_3One of the things I find delightful about writing is the way it helps me shape my views. In a recent email exchange with my friend, Larry Berkelhammer, PhD, I began by offering advice but ended up changing my opinion. Much of the text that follows is excerpted from that conversation. (Larry, by the way, has recently started a new blog on PsychCentral.com: In Your Own Hands. He has given me permission to share the details of our conversation.)

In recent essays on this site, I’ve attacked our culture’s obsession with productivity. In an email, I offered to Larry the ideas I’ve been exploring, since he was struggling with feelings of inadequacy. But his responses helped me see that my rejection of the productivity ethic was motivated, in part, by frustration. Since I find it hard to make a difference in the world, I feel tempted to reject the need to try.

By citing the example Gandhi, who worked tirelessly to evolve spiritually but also remained committed to societal change, Larry reminded me that it isn’t enough to simply attain peace of mind. One feels an obligation to help others do the same.

Our email exchange coincided with my hearing a talk by Karen Armstrong, wherein she emphasized the need for engagement, for assisting others out of compassion. She cited the legend of the Buddha, who after enlightenment wanted to withdraw and simply bask in a state of Nirvana. According to Buddhist mythology, the god of gods implored the newly awakened one to be compassionate, to help others move beyond suffering. In response, the Buddha devoted the remaining four decades of his life to the effort.

Lately I’ve been grappling with the contrast between how liberated from my prior neurosis I feel, and how difficult it is for me to spread the message of this freedom. I feel tempted to give up, yet both Armstrong’s words and Larry’s reaction make that seem like the wrong choice.

Perhaps the solution to my dilemma can be found in the Hindu concept of karma yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita we are charged to do our best without concern about success or failure. We are responsible only for the effort, not the results.

The more disciplined and energetic among us will appear more successful from the outside. Fatigue, pain, and ill health will make external success more difficult. But by the metric of karma yoga, what matters isn’t outside; rather, it’s within.

My task is to do my best as I teach and write. I work hard on the human biology lectures I deliver at a yoga institute. I hope teaching young people about their bodies will help them become good yoga instructors and to lead lives of greater clarity. In my blogging, I try to offer inspiration to others; it’s been gratifying when on a few occasions readers have credited me with helping them gain insight. But all I can do is present my lectures and essays to the world. Whether they have any good effect or not is outside my control.

I wish I could do more. I hope to build up capacity, or at least to find ways to make the amount of work I do have a greater impact. But in the recent email exchange I realized that it’s vital for me to avoid feeling too frustrated. It is  therefore essential that I not judge myself by the the splash I make in the world. Rather,  the emphasis must be on my progress in personal development, my intention to help others, and my sincerity in teaching and writing. The key is to focus not on what others see from the outside, but on what I know to be true on the inside.

The externals offer only flimsy support for a personality. If one depends on outward show for inward stability, one remains insecure. No success feels quite good enough, or leads to feelings that last long enough. One must always grasp for more. During my years of training at a major medical center, I knew many highly successful doctors who—despite widespread acclaim—still appeared desperate to justify their worth. On the other hand, we all have known people who are very helpful to others but almost invisibly so. They aren’t writing books or going on speaking tours, just doing what they can without being obvious about it. Yet they seem satisfied with their personalities and activities.

I’ve felt like rejecting our culture’s ethic of productivity because of all the toxicity it generates. But the email conversation with Larry helped me see that the culture is right insofar as it encourages helping others. The danger is in believing productivity best measured by outward criteria. It isn’t. It’s best measured by inward sincerity, compassion, dedication, and so on.

The problem is that this culture conditions us to measure worth by external metrics that are nearly impossible to satisfy. Is it really true that only those who become best-selling authors count as valuable human beings? Given the rarity of that level of acclaim, I hope not…

Note: Click on post image for attribution.

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice…

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 3 min read

UntitledEarlier this year I watched two swallows feeding their chicks. When mom or dad returned to the nest, the hatchlings jostled for attention, pushing each other aside, their bright yellow throats agape. Sometimes I think we humans are no different in our clamor for recognition.

In my writings I’ve sometimes advanced philosophical notions. To be honest, I hoped readers would be impressed (though there was never any evidence that they were). What I didn’t understand was that my musings were mere sketches of sophisticated philosophies worked out long ago by others. Since my education was in the sciences, not the humanities, as a youth I never studied the history of ideas. Having now dabbled in the subject, I feel a bit chagrined but also–oddly–less alone.

Why did old ideas arise as if newly conceived? I can think of several possibilities, including:

  1. Sometime in my life I heard them stated, and they later occurred to me without my remembering the earlier exposure.
  2. They have so influenced our culture that they’re bound to occur to any modern who ponders the nature of reality.
  3. The ideas reflects truths that exist in nature itself, and so are destined to be discovered by sincere seekers.

Probably all these factors have been at play, to varying degrees.

The problem of unoriginality was driven home when a reader informed me that in 1928 John Maynard Keynes predicted that someday everyone would work only part time–the same idea I floated in my last entry.

Which brings me back to the subject of that last essay: our obsession with productivity. Moderns feel driven to accomplish. I doubt, however, that many of us want to produce anonymously. We demand credit for our work. But in the realm of ideas, how rational is this expectation? Do ideas belong to individuals? Or might they better be viewed as collective expressions or universal patterns?

And what is the point of mental exploration? Is it to gain fame and fortune? Or is it to advance civilization?

A quarter-century ago, my research career ended when I uncovered a crucial relationship but was robbed of credit. During a study of how particle-beam radiation for ocular melanoma promotes cataract, I collected data that demonstrated the cause of post-treatment glaucoma. This severe complication causes pain, blindness, and sometimes loss of the eye. For years investigators at our institution had attempted, without success, to find the reason for this adverse outcome. My data solved the problem but proved embarrassing to the center, since if it had been collected and analyzed earlier, many eyes would have been saved. The Director delayed my work’s publication.

A few years later I was shown a manuscript others had written based on my efforts, but my name wasn’t on it. I managed to get myself listed as an author, though only as fifth out of seven. For those not familiar with how the system works, such billing suggests a trivial role.

This wasn’t my first disappointment as a researcher, but I decided it would be my last. I devoted myself to clinical rather than experimental work. What took years for me to notice, however, was that my investigation benefitted patients even though I didn’t receive credit for it. Improving outcomes should have mattered more to me than gaining recognition, but in my egotism I lost sight of the true reason for the effort.

When the reader sent me the information about Keynes, he and I exchanged messages about intellectual property. These days people claim authorship of ideas, but ideas get built by communities, not individuals. Plus, it appears that many are discovered, not created. Does Einstein, for all his accomplishment, deserve credit for the relationship between mass and energy? No. Only for being the first to identify it. Yet in today’s environment, it would hardly surprise us if a theorist submitted a patent application.

Citations make sense when conclusions depend on empirical findings. But concepts arise from the interplay between observation, language, and culture. They often occur to multiple people, either simultaneously or repeatedly. We lay claim to them only out of our desire to be noticed, to feel superior, to gain materially.

Yesterday I listened to a recording of Alan Watts discussing Taoist philosophy. He translated the term wu wei as ‘non-striving.’ I had heard it translated before as ‘non-doing,’ but Watts probably captures the original meaning better. One finds greater ease–and may even contribute more–by responding to a call rather than leading a charge.

This may mean relinquishing claims; it may require recognizing oneself as a mere droplet in the wide waters of humanity. For in our movements we embody the larger currents, even when we imagine we are charting our own course. We lose the pride of feeling superior, but we gain the reassurance of belonging to the whole.

Unproductive, and Proud of It

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 2 min read

slash_and_burn_childrenAs the days shorten, I’ve been working to keep my head above water. Although my spirits often feel liberated and expansive, the state of mind is unstable. My psyche is over-ballasted, and foundering comes easily.

It doesn’t help to live in such a grinding materialist culture, with its competitive measures of worth, in which every human quality is ledgered as asset or liability in the global economy.

As the beneficiary of disability income left over from my work as a surgeon at a major HMO, I’m fortunate. Yet being able to survive without paid employment doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Instead, I compare myself with others my age who have spent decades in their careers, who’ve made names for themselves. I feel unproductive and ashamed.

In moments of clarity I derail these feelings by challenging our civilization’s value structures. The idea that a lack of productivity is shameful is one of those toxic messages few question. Yet for at least 100,000 years humans lived peaceably with nature. Although life was no doubt arduous–and often brief–many generations must have enjoyed afternoons in the sun. After the day’s meals had been procured they rested easily, without guilt. At some point, ambitious striving became vaunted as the mark of a worthy being. The result? Our species, like a fungal overgrowth, is now digesting the planet’s surface to the detriment of many other life forms and its own future prospects.

Not that startling invention hasn’t been accomplished along the way, like poetics, architecture, and thermonuclear weaponry. But haven’t we seen enough to feel uneasy about the way society exalts productivity? Doesn’t ceaseless industry degrade the biosphere? Doesn’t this appear unwise?

Well, I’m not an activist and have no power to reshape society. But I can revise my own thinking, and often these days I’m able to feel grateful for having time to care for the body, nurture the mind, and elevate the soul. Yes, during oppressive hours I wonder what led me so far from the beaten path. But more often I recognize the vitality of a restful life.

What if no one worked more than twenty hours a week? What if those with sufficient resources worked without pay? There’d be jobs and leisure enough for all. People might learn to consume less and appreciate more. They might begin to treat themselves and others with care. They might find, as I have, that free time enables one to work on emotional maturation.

Could we imagine a future society that valued the soul’s growth more than the economy’s? Frankly, I have a hard time picturing history going that direction. It’s easier to imagine civilization staggering along in the same mode, even as its lights grow dim.

Still, recognizing the corruption at modernity’s core helps me forgive myself for failing to measure up. After all, ‘measuring up’ is a function of the metric used. By criteria of works, wealth, and fame I’ve fallen short. But if I look at how my mood fluctuations no longer uproot me, how I feel more appreciative of others, how I’ve discovered a clarity that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago, I can claim authenticity, if not attainment. I have probed my deepest conflicts; I have done my best to resolve them.

If my career hadn’t collapsed, if I hadn’t ended up in psychiatric wards, I might still be an anxious narcissist trying to prove himself better than others. Would looking impressive on the outside make up for feeling empty on the inside?

I doubt it. And that doubt may reveal something about civilization itself. In fact, I’d go further and suggest it tells us something about the entire human project. Satisfaction grows not in in the sand of outward gains, but in the loam of inward ones. There isn’t anything wrong with wanting to succeed in the world, but we must recognize that Life asks more of us, and also less: more affirmation and less ambition, more presence and less productivity.

Note: Click on image for attribution.

Doubt Is Healthier for the Mind than Faith

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 5 min read

This post’s title may sound like a call to skepticism, but it’s not. In my experience, skepticism gets exercised when I critique someone else’s beliefs, but seldom when I consider my own. Doubt, on the other hand, is indiscriminate; I’m as likely to doubt myself as anyone else. Although this can become excessive, to the right degree it’s helpful to mental life.

I don’t say doubt is healthier for the mind than faith because it’s more rational, though it is. Nor do I say so because it’s less dangerous, though it may be. I say doubt is healthier because it comes to us more organically. To resist doubt is to resist reality.

For instance, belief that the universe feels invested in our experience, while based on plausible considerations (as I argued in another essay), sometimes proves difficult to sustain:

Eight months ago I awoke from major abdominal surgery while tended by recovery staff who believed spinal anesthesia was in place to minimize my pain. But I emerged into consciousness ablaze with agony, because the epidural catheter wasn’t working (as they figured out over an hour later). As the doctors and nurses pinned me down so I wouldn’t rip open the wound with my thrashing, I tried to detect the embrace of universal love, but reason rejected the very thought of it.

We’ve all felt abandoned at times, alone in our misery. During such moments, faith in the ordinary sense seems impossible. But there also come times when faith in absolute randomness seems equally so:

After a lifetime of complaining about childhood adversity and adult misfortune, a week ago I found myself announcing–in an AA meeting–that I’d hesitate to change even a particle of my history for fear of undoing my current equanimity. To say this, and mean it, was a milestone for me. Afterward I drove to the YMCA to stretch in the sauna and then work out. The moment I’d settled myself atop a cedar bench in the hot room, an Indian man whom I’d never seen before said this to the gentleman by his side: “I wouldn’t want to change anything about my past, because it brought me to where I am today.” The perfect timing struck rationality dumb; I simply could not write it off as mere coincidence.

Given the complex waters of experience, doubt is the only reliable craft, and thus the only healthy one. Yes, there are times when wordless faith feels important, when one surrenders to cosmic compassion and softens the heart in the midst of hardship. On the other hand, sometimes believing the remark you overheard merely random unhooks the lure of divine favoritism, and so prevents spiritual pride. The point is, as the sails of contemplation fill, they fill with uncertainties blowing from all directions.

Is there truly cosmic mercy? There’s no way to be sure. Was the remark utterly without import? How could I ever know?

Always, things might be other than they seem. As I grappled with pain after surgery, there might have been the equivalent of an angel nearby, my seeming aloneness notwithstanding. The Indian man’s comment, spoken on another day, could have gone unnoticed, so perhaps the feeling of serendipity was nothing more than over-active imagining.

The only certain truth is that truth is uncertain. Everything is open to interpretation, and multiple interpretations at that. Among possibilities, doubt plays no favorites; yet it is ever playful in its refusal to let any valid possibility remain pinned down for long.

But scientific truths aren’t so malleable, are they? Yes, in fact they are. Empirical findings can always be explained by multiple theories, and the scientific project is one of using evidence to narrow the field of competing hypotheses. So while experiments may eliminate some ideas, they never eliminate them all.

What’s more, there will always remain important questions about reality that observational science cannot address. A classic one is: why is there something rather than nothing? And while theology, philosophy, and other fields of inquiry offer us answers, none finds refuge outside the ambit of dispute.

We’ve been taught to view doubt negatively, perhaps because it stands in opposition to Christianity’s version of faith. Doubting by Thomas is not considered the rational response of a careful man, but the ungrateful act of a faithless one. Yet doubt is not inherently bad, any more than faith is inherently good.

There are many things we take for granted that would be better doubted. Cultural measures of success have seemed to me like suitable targets of late. But expert opinion, accepted wisdom, and common sense are all less securely founded than we tend to think. All can, and should, be questioned.

But what’s more important to doubt, indeed vital and healthy to doubt, is certainty itself. The moment I’m sure of anything, I’m at risk.

If I’m sure humanity has gone off track, that nothing good can come of our situation, I make myself miserable. But how reliable is that surety? Not very.

The moment I know my position is right and yours wrong, I cut off conversation. Yet, when considered from your perspective, how secure is my opinion? In most cases, not very.

The instant I become convinced the universe is unaware–and so incapable of caring–I feel disconnected. But how certain can I be that sentience isn’t all around me? Not very.

As soon as I have faith, beyond all doubt, in the watchful eye of a beneficent God, I’m reminded of innocent suffering, grievous injury, and dangerous disease. How solid does this make my conviction feel? The trend continues…

Certainty–the mind’s idea of faith–is dangerous to happiness because it is an unreliable basis for it. Doubt is ever creeping in. But doubt isn’t a demon opposed to contentment; it is an honest understanding of the limits of understanding. Doubt is a call to humility.

Doubt is healthier for the mind than faith. But notice that for the heart, it is faith that sustains and doubt that corrodes. One can–indeed must–feel life’s throb of value in the midst of all its trials. To lose such heartfelt faith is to lose what makes this world endurable.

A sustaining faith in life’s worth isn’t conceptual and held by the mind; it is wordless and embraced by the heart. It is shy, not outspoken. It invites sharing but demands no agreement. For me, the heart’s graceful faith is the very anchor of wellbeing.

Yet for the mind doubt is healthier, because genuine faith is foreign to it. Instead, the intellect defends concepts as articles of faith. It views the heart’s silent affection for life’s currents as dumb, not in the sense of mute, but in the sense of stupid. Rationality dismisses the famous words of Lao Tse:

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”

Fortunately, mind and heart can find common ground. Even in the midst of postoperative agony, I remained curious, convinced of the value of the ordeal, of vitality however painful. I felt alone but fascinated by my circumstance. I had faith that the torment was something unique and powerful. Thankfully, my heart has gained the capacity to honor all facets of life, and it convinced my mind to look toward the experience rather than away from it.

Did the man in the sauna happen to say the right words at the right time because of cosmic resonance or simple accident? There is no way to be sure, but his voice echoed, and still echoes, because my heart feels warmed by such coincidence.

It’s so interesting to be alive, isn’t it? And to be interested, after all, is to be open to time’s unfolding. Which means not assuming we comprehend life so thoroughly we need hardly live through it. Which means, I suspect, holding doubt to be of highest good, central to finding the universe startling rather than predictable, mysterious rather than plain.

Note: Click on image for attribution.


Subscribe to this Blog:

Or Get a Single, Daily Email (enter email address):

via FeedBurner

Recent Comments
  • Will Meecham, MD, MA: Dear Sherry– Thank you for your kind words. They help. Many physicians are products of...
  • Sherry Thompson: Thank you so much for your blog. I look forward to reading every entry. I’m so sorry for the...
  • Duane Sherry: Your writings are a joy to read!
  • Duane Sherry: Will, What a great piece… again! As someone who is in late 50s, I appreciate what you wrote. Like...
  • Will Meecham, MD, MA: Kivag– The Medicare situation is awful. So is the low regard in which elders are held by...
Find a Therapist
Enter ZIP or postal code

Users Online: 12240
Join Us Now!