4 Tips for Improving Self-Esteem

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

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. 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

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

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

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

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.

An Atlas of Angst

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Diego-homem-black-sea-ancient-map-1559Continuing the theme of societal expectations and my failure to satisfy them, I write today from a more detached perspective. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to me like everything ‘they’ tell us is wrong, but I do believe society hands out a map for life that is supposed to lead us to contentment but instead points us toward angst.

We’re told to work hard and prove ourselves better than others, so that feeling superior will fulfill us. We’re told to find the ideal partner, move into the ideal house, and send our kids to ideal schools, so that we’ll be rewarded with parental pride and progeny who will sustain us in later years.

The problem is, not everyone succeeds by such demanding measures. Come middle age, few of us have achieved what we expected when young.

Perhaps we never reached the pinnacle of our field of endeavor or suspect we chose the wrong field. Perhaps our marriages failed, or we never raised a family, or we started a family but it fell apart.

And even for those who did manage to follow the map’s guidelines, how gratifying does success feel? Does worldly attainment outweigh a lifetime of unrealistic expectations layered on by family, associates, and the community at large? Or does there remain an undercurrent of insecurity, a deep-seated sense of unworthiness?

Where is the problem? Is it with the individual who doesn’t feel like he or she measures up to society’s standards? Or is it with the standards themselves? How healthy is a culture that rewards only the ‘best’ and regards the merely ordinary as failures?

More and more, I’m realizing the answer is: NOT VERY HEALTHY.

I didn’t choose my personality. I didn’t decide to become someone who is skeptical of experts, who isolates, and who jumps from project to project. These tendencies were perhaps partly inborn, but they also resulted from the tenor of my upbringing: from arbitrary household rules, repeated separations from friends and family, and a lack of positive regard. In compensation I learned to mistrust authority, to resist forming connections, and to seek recognition by trying one gambit after another. The very behaviors about which I long felt ashamed were conditioned into me. How fair is it for me to blame myself for having been raised in an inconsistent, rootless, and dismissive way? Isn’t how I turned out exactly what you’d expect from a temperamental introvert brought up in such an environment? And yet it takes a conscious effort for me to resist judging myself by merciless standards that don’t take my formative experiences into account.

Each of us was formed by genetics and environs. We didn’t create ourselves, yet we take the consequences to heart. Where we fall short, we could look to all the conditioning that led to our falling. Where we rise high, we could feel gratitude for whatever advantages made our attainments possible. Instead, we lay claim to it all: blame and fame become ours alone.

This leads to shame on the one hand and egotism on the other. In twelve step programs, people sometimes express this by saying they “feel like the turd the world revolves around.” This is hardly is a recipe for fulfillment, yet it is a predictable result of cultural standards that insist we look better than others while feeling inadequate in ourselves, standards especially toxic for those who experienced significant adversity during childhood.

How much healthier it would be to remain true to our inner natures, to judge ourselves according to our own values and circumstances while allowing others the same freedom. But society makes this difficult.

In other words, our culture handed us a flawed map. We need feel no shame about losing our way.

For post image credit, click on graphic.

Could Everything ‘They’ Tell Us Be Wrong?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Bonneville_Salt_Flats_001Why should I let others define what’s important for my life? Do they know better? Or if they know better, does what they know apply to me?

More and more, I’m thinking not. I’m thinking that what society values is not what I value. I’m thinking that what our culture considers a successful life doesn’t apply to my own trajectory, which I still believe–or want to believe–has been a valuable one.

Consider a child raised to feel unwanted. A child who began forming memories in a household rife with discord and sexual misconduct. A child who was hospitalized for weeks at age three, lost his father to divorce at age four, and watched his mother spiral into ever-worsening depression for the next two years. When his mother’s mental illness finally took her life, as the boy was grappling with his first year of formal schooling, he was then shipped back to his father, and to a stepmother who treated him viciously. A few years later his older sister succumbed to a psychotic illness, and it became the child’s job to protect her from self-harm. Throughout all this there were frequent relocations, including annual trips across country to spend half of each summer with relatives (four weeks here, two weeks there) and the other half at camp.

The child became an adolescent who, like his parents and sister before him, turned to chemicals for relief. He was arrested four times while still in high school. And yet, miraculously, a change came over him. Falling in love revived him. He fell in love twice: once with Nature, and then again with his high school sweetheart. Soon he was living what felt like a dream. He moved away from his family of origin in Los Angeles to live with the girl and her father in Berkeley. He began studying Life Science at the University. He earned good grades and lots of praise. Life seemed filled with promise.

But he couldn’t sustain the dream. Rage burned inside and threatened to destroy his relationship. Alcoholism worked against career aspirations. In due time he moved into a studio apartment, in part to protect his lover from his demons. Then he grew depressed.

Said depression never fully lifted, but he found a therapist who supported him through it. This clinician encouraged the youth to apply to medical school, which he did. He entered medical training saddled with marijuana addiction and alcoholism, but he managed to brush up his act, so by internship he was clean and sober. He pursued residency in a surgical subspecialty and eventually landed a good position in Marin County, one of the loveliest and most affluent regions of California. He felt proud and enthusiastic.

As before, however, he could not sustain the dream. After a few years neck disease–born of chronic tension, poor workplace ergonomics, and an old injury–made operating a torment. After only six years of surgical practice, the man–now middle-aged–was forced to abandon his career. Depression worsened, crushing him like a brick home shattered by an earthquake. Suicidal thoughts hounded him into a mental ward. After discharge, surges of ecstasy dazzled him until he saw–or thought he saw–the face of God.

When the mania finally settled, a year or so later, he found his life in shambles. His reputation had been ruined; his health had grown poor. He was fortunate to have a wife willing to nurse him through a decade of major mental illness, until he found his way.

Nowadays, fifteen years since leaving his surgical profession, he is not very productive in ordinary terms. He lectures about biology at a yoga institute, but only occasionally. He writes a blog or two, but only sporadically. If he were brought before judges schooled in our culture’s standards, he would be dismissed as having failed at the Game of Life.

But has he?

Nowadays, he enjoys long hours of ease. He savors the simple act of breathing. Often in pain and unable to sleep, he frequently meditates through the night, appreciating Life as it pulses within. He is more affectionate and tender toward his spouse than in earlier years. He laughs more, and cries more, too. He no longer strives to impress people. Yet he is easily impressed by those around him. Not just the obvious winners, but also the so-called losers. The ones who struggle, whether with grace or in resistance. The ones who grapple with emotional and/or physical pain. The ones who live day by day, uncertainly but inevitably. He is impressed by every person that lives or has ever lived, even those distorted into what seem like monstrosities. Thus, he finds tenderness in his heart for his departed stepmother, and for all those driven to cruelty by the howl of an unfulfilled soul.

He is grateful to be drifting, at last, through quieter days. He hears and sees more clearly than he ever imagined possible. And with that clarity he negotiates a trackless continent of freedom. He no longer looks for paths that lead to nirvana. He no longer looks for comfort in this herd or that, huddled together for comfort while migrating over an infinite land. Life itself has become his companion and guide.

How could he let others tell him what’s important, now that he feels so free? Wouldn’t that be giving up the very freedom for which he has always groped and has–at last–stumbled into?

His values are not society’s values. He would feel lonely, and would question his sanity, were it not for the sages he meets, or reads about, who have found similar liberation. Sages both living and dead who have rejected conventional mores for values higher, or deeper, or perhaps just simpler. Sages who have embraced the ethic of living as Life invites, of responding to this moment only, of not judging self or companions, of doing one’s best to help others and avoid harm.

To feel rooted in this pure ground of Life seems near to success for this man, coming as he did from the house of ruin.

Here is a poem written two-and-a-half years ago, when my eyes were just beginning to open to the possibilities. It seems even more true now than it did back then:

It does not start raining
Until the sky clears
The fire doesn’t ignite
Before the match is blown out

We think we know the way
But there is none
Just a limitless plain
Shining in all directions

Note: For post photo attribution, click on image.

The Problem Isn’t Neural, It’s Spiritual

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

VariousPills“You’re taking a lot of garbage.” Those words, spoken to me by a psychiatrist newly evaluating my case, changed my life.

At the time I was on two antidepressants, two mood stabilizers, and an atypical antipsychotic. I had also been prescribed Oxycontin for the neck disease and chronic pain that had ended my surgical career. Between 2000 and 2006 I had deteriorated from fully functioning physician to obese, pre-diabetic, mentally dulled psychiatric patient and opiate addict.

And yet, when this good doctor stated the obvious, that this enormous load of medication was destroying me, my response was furious and immediate. How dare she question the drugs that were keeping me alive? I ran back to the psychiatrist who was prescribing most of that medication, and she comforted me. Of course I needed my pills, she crooned.

But the question had been raised. Were these drugs helping or harming me? In time, I came to admit they’d destroyed my health and undermined my capacity to engage life. My denial broke down. I returned to the new provider and worked with her over the next five years to taper off all the medications.

It wasn’t easy. At times, as moods roared and pain burned, I yearned for the soothing numbness of the pills. When that happened, I slowed the taper and sometimes reversed it. I also listened to my new psychiatrist, who told me she thought my only hope was some kind of spiritual solution. Since I knew her to be an addiction specialist, and given my long history in Alcoholics Anonymous, I understood what she was suggesting. Easier said than done, I thought.

After all, I’d experienced intense religious visions in 2000. Those so-called psychotic states had led to my second psychiatric hospitalization and, ultimately, to my brain’s marination in psychopharmaceuticals. Yet those visions hadn’t transformed me into a more accepting, tender-hearted person. If anything, they’d merely amplified my grandiosity and then, when I found myself reduced to a dull-witted mental case, fueled my shame.

But I trusted the doctor and did my best. I attended Buddhist meditation groups and embarked on long silent retreats. I renewed my commitment to Quakerism. Having been converted to Catholicism in the aftermath of my visions, I even went in for the occasional mass. I immersed myself in a strain of Hinduism offered at a meditation center a mile from my house. I studied Chinese medicine and learned to administer acupuncture, which I viewed as a powerful tool for recruiting the placebo effect; in other words, as a means of awakening the healing qualities we all harbor within. In time, I took up yoga and began teaching anatomy to aspiring yoga instructors, work that led me to find ways of merging Western science with Eastern non dual philosophies.

The accumulated effect of all this exploration has been profound. I find myself so deeply accepting of my sorrow, pain, and misfortune, that I actually believe they have served me. They have softened my heart and opened me to reality so thoroughly that I no longer make demands on the world. I don’t hope it will protect me or care for me in ordinary terms, but I am convinced it participates with me in extraordinary ones. (If you want a more detailed explanation of how I see this working, read this recent essay.)

What does all this mean for me as someone who blogs about mental illness? I no longer see myself as speaking to the mentally ill. Rather, I believe my audience–such as it is–to be suffering spiritual rather than neural malaise. I began exploring this idea some time ago, in a post that attracted more attention than most of my pieces. But my thinking has progressed since then.

It’s not that I don’t believe in psychiatric distress. Of course I do. It’s not even that I reject the use of medication. After a year or so off all the pills, I decided that life goes easier for me when buffered by low doses of mood stabilizers.

What I do question, strongly, is the possibility of true mental health without wholesale transformation of one’s relationship with the world. As long as we judge ourselves by conventional standards of success and failure, those of us who suffer with mood instability, anxiety, dissociation, and the like, will see ourselves as inferior to the seemingly strong folk who buckle down and muddle through.

But if we view the past’s catastrophes as formative rather than merely ruinous, we can begin to reframe our understanding of life and of ourselves. We can find peace in the midst of chronic pain, persistent sorrow, and all the other aftereffects of trauma. And with that peace we become healed, even as we remain more sensitive and wounded than the larger world.

With that qualified form of recovery, healing with a small “h”, we recognize that what’s really sick isn’t the mind that admits pain; it’s the culture that insists on rejecting rather than learning from it.

Will Mindfulness Replace Religion? Don’t Count on It.

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein

Will people someday discard beliefs about a caring universe? Will mindfulness meditation take the place of religion?

Like my last two, this post was prompted by the recent book by Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris dreams of a religion-free world, one in which mindfulness helps us adjust to life in a universe he believes indifferent and meaningless.

Can we expect the masses to trade intuitions about a cosmos possessed of heart for philosophies that insist we’re adrift in an unfeeling mechanism spinning randomly through time? I suspect that only those for whom the latter vision feels comforting would accept the trade.

Atheists consider belief in a caring universe an atavistic weakness born of fear. They declare the mystically inclined muddle-headed, besotted with wishes for a parent-in-the-sky. Faith, according to this view, is a neurotic throwback to subconscious memories of infancy, when caregivers seemed like omniscient sustainers.

It’s a reasonable hypothesis, but one can think of parallel explanations for the beliefs of those who see themselves as accidental products of an indifferent universe. Couldn’t such attitudes grow out of an infant’s preverbal frustration with distracted parenting? If so, they might represent a species of attachment disorder, a failure to trust in the environment.

Which of these two perspectives is more infantile is thus open to debate. Obviously, much hinges on the answer to one basic question: does the universe care?

“NO!” You can imagine the materialists objecting. But we shouldn’t take their word for it. We must look to the science they claim as their authority.

A caring universe would first of all need to be a feeling one. So the central line of inquiry is this: Are organisms like ourselves alone in sentience? Is it the case that only animals with advanced nervous systems experience reality in the subjective sense of the world?

If only humans and higher mammals can feel, then either we are alone in our subjectivity, or we must imagine that whatever else marks the flow of events exists separate from reality as we know it. Many religions take this view, of course. They believe God resides beyond matter, space, and time, and thus outside the reach of science, which traffics only in the tangible world.

But imagine, for the moment, that matter itself possesses inner experience. The fabric of the cosmos is now history’s participant, not merely its substrate. Matter and energy accompany us through time, which flows as a series of pervasively felt events.

The notion that subjective experience might not be restricted to nervous systems isn’t a supernatural proposition; rather, it’s a material hypothesis that can be evaluated on its own merits. “HOW ABSURD!” retort the atheists, red-faced with frustration. Science, they insist, has proven that matter consists of elementary particles incapable of experiencing anything. But science hasn’t proven this at all.

For well over a century experiments have illuminated the subatomic phenomena that underpin what we experience as matter. But demonstrating the existence of these processes does not prove them insentient. We might think the possibility that matter possesses an inner life, however rudimentary, too bizarre for sober consideration, but time and again the universe has shown itself capable of surprising us. To fully explore this hypothesis would take a book, or perhaps a think tank, but allow me to highlight some relevant facts.

First, consider how a respected interpretation of quantum physics posits that subatomic vibrations respond to observation, which serves to collapse a cloud of possibilities into a discrete reality. Although what ‘observation’ means in this context has been hotly debated, the fact that many physicists believe quantum phenomena react to subtle cues should tell us that science has not proven matter incapable of sensing its environment.

Or consider the average neuroscientist’s belief that inner experience emerges from neuronal complexity. As a graduate student in the field, I never questioned this widespread assumption, even though how material intricacy might lead to inner awareness has never been explained. This descriptive gap was emphasized by philosopher Karl Popper, who called it “promissory materialism … a prophecy about the future results of brain research…” A plausible alternate possibility is that some extremely limited sentience has resided within matter since its creation, and that as nervous systems evolved through natural selection this baseline subjective state grew more structured and sophisticated.

Or watch a video showing an ameba engulfing paramecia. Ask yourself: don’t the microbes under attack exhibit something akin to panic, just like a human would? Then go further and view an animation showing how cells function on the inside. Doesn’t it appear, just a bit, like intracellular macromolecules might be purposeful in their own right?

Given the observations listed above, is it truly absurd to entertain the possibility that atoms feel something internally? If we were to answer objectively, we’d admit that our resistance to the idea comes from a cultural prejudice few dare question. The idea that even so-called inanimate matter might be aware is referred to as panpsychism. It sounds ludicrous to moderns, but do we have any proof one way or the other? We do not.

There is a longstanding philosophical conundrum surrounding our native assumption that other people possess inner experience. Yes, they respond as if they feel, but how can we be sure they aren’t mere automatons? This is not a problem that can be deductively solved. We rely on instinct and the preponderance of evidence. But notice that while we can’t prove subjectivity exists within others, we also can’t disprove it.

The same principle holds with regard to matter. An atom might possess inner experience, or it might not. Whatever the answer, at this point science is incapable of providing it.

As we’ve said, to most educated people in our culture the idea that atoms could feel in any subjective sense sounds silly. But it wouldn’t sound so to aboriginals. Is this because we’ve learned something they never did? Or is it because we live so far from nature, so dependent on human artifacts, that we reject rather than embrace any ‘aware’ quality in the biosphere?

For a long time science proceeded well without bothering much with the question of interiority. Indeed, experimenters viewed subjectivity as dangerous to their empirical project and so had little reason to look for it in nature. Strongly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its doctrine that only humans possess souls, scientists also considered panpsychism no more plausible than ectoplasm, and assumed its opposite.

Only with the quantum revolution did the assumption of insensate matter begin to show the cracks in its foundation. But by then so much seemed to depend on it that mainstream scientists refused to consider other options. But if they could quell the fear that their entire edifice would collapse if the notion of sensate matter were taken seriously, and consider the merits of the hypothesis, materialists would discover that it wouldn’t undermine any major theories. Nothing would change in our understanding about the birth of the universe, the means of biological evolution, or the functional architecture of brains.

Of course, material interiority would be difficult to establish empirically, given that it’s tough to pin down even in humans. But my intent isn’t to make a claim that matter is definitely vital. Rather, I just want to point out that science hasn’t settled the issue by its own methods, but only on the basis of assumptions that would sound ignorant to our pre-technological ancestors.

Given that feeling matter remains a possibility, however remote, let’s return to our thought experiment: consider the further implications of sensate matter. All of a sudden we aren’t lonely accidents of inert mechanics, but instead embedded in a chaotic and unplanned but pervasively sentient unfoldment. We could be forgiven for feeling something like affection toward this universe. We might even be forgiven for suspecting that the universe feels something toward us in return.

This brings us back to the Harris’s dream of a future where everyone settles for a philosophy that sees us as cogs in a mindless machine, and for a spiritual practice restricted to observing consciousness from within, while understanding it only as the accidental byproduct of a random biological mechanism. If the question about cosmic sensibility remains unanswered, confidence in this prophecy seems premature, at best. And religions, although they remain burdened by literalist interpretations of ancient legends, no longer seem so hopelessly out-of-touch with reality.

True, many religions declare the existence of omnipotent, anthropomorphic Gods, whereas the suggestion here is merely that the fabric of the universe might possess an inner quality of experience. This sensate quality wouldn’t imply that the universe is planning our fates, and the nature of that inner experience is probably nothing like our own. But knowing the cosmos might be alive rather than dead can’t help but bolster the cause of religions. If they could reign in literalist interpretations of myths, they could offer what people truly want: a profound sense of connection with the world.

And let’s admit that many of us crave feeling connected. If you doubt this, just watch people in an airport prior to boarding their plane. Few sit in stillness, mindfully meditating; most fiddle with their smartphones, tablets, or laptops. They plug themselves in precisely in order to avoid feeling alone. Religion will never disappear while humans remain so hungry for constant companionship. Not everyone will seek a relationship with the universe itself, but many will. And this quest for cosmic connection is perfectly reasonable so long as a feeling cosmos remains possible. It is at least as rational as the opposite project of adjusting to a universe assumed indifferent.

Perhaps it really does come down to preverbal memory. Those who once believed (or hoped) that their parents cared dream of an embracing cosmos, one invested in their journey. Those who yearned for independence from unreliable caregivers imagine an indifferent universe, one that leaves them alone.

If the question of cosmic sensibility remains unanswered, the possibility of universal love (so to speak) remains viable. Those who yearn to feel embraced by the cosmos can choose to see things one way; those who neither need nor want to feel connected with something deep inside reality can choose to see them the other. In an ideal world, our responses would not be judged; there would be no dogmatists condemning or ridiculing dissenters. Sadly, lack of empirical evidence restrains neither the religious nor the atheists from attempting to impose their guesses about reality onto the rest of the world.

Freedom to answer the question of cosmic sentience as we see fit seems central to the goal of recovery from childhood adversity. Many of us have spent decades feeling unwanted and isolated; we find it difficult to connect with others. What better remedy for this sense of alienation than to remain open to the possibility that the universe–like us–experiences history. Wouldn’t this help us feel less alone? Wouldn’t it warm the heart more than the atheist’s view that our cosmos is a dead mechanism? Some of us could benefit from such warming. Others might feel no need for it. Let us each relate to the universe in the way that best serves our needs.

Although we each build a picture of reality, none of us can be sure of its accuracy. Mindfulness meditation, in pure form, teaches us to feel comfortable with brains that crave finality while situated in a world built on uncertainty. This power of mindfulness to reconcile us with paradox is its most vital feature. Unfortunately, it often gets undermined by secularists who insist on provisional interpretations of nature. This is the basis of my objection to Sam Harris’s recent offering. Harris believes mindfulness will satisfy our call to spirituality, but his is a crippled form of mindfulness. It aims not to help us accept deep uncertainty, but to help us resign to a stark and unproven material hypothesis.

Although mindfulness always helps, it will never take the place of religion so long as its instruction comes freighted with implicit secular assumptions that reject the possibility of a caring cosmos.


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