The Religion of Mindfulness

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Cruzeiro_do_Rio_ParaibaMore than once I’ve found that critiquing the mindfulness movement–even very gently–prompts some readers to voice objection. Few of my other topics spark disagreement so predictably.

The title of this post responds to a book about mindfulness written by vocal atheist Sam Harris: Spirituality without Religion. Harris and many others believe the practice will satisfy our desire for spiritual connection while avoiding religion’s dogmatism, hypocrisy, and intolerance. Neither of these conclusions strikes me as justified. The remainder of this post will only address the second issue: the mindfulness movement’s capacity for dogmatic and intolerant beliefs. The question of spiritual satisfaction will be considered some other time.

Let’s begin with two definitions from Merriam-Webster:

Religion (noun)
1. the belief in a god or in a group of gods
2 a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Mindfulness requires no belief in god(s), so we can reject the first definition. But the passionate comments spurred by mindfulness critiques suggest we should be cautious about discarding the second.

It seems clear that some practitioners believe ardently in the power and potential of mindfulness. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with strongly advocating the technique, since it is indeed a potent tool for healing. Ardor seems appropriate, especially for those who have found salvation–peace of mind–through their practice.

But what about faith? Is there any hint of faith in the mindfulness movement? Let’s again sample the dictionary:

Faith (noun)
1. strong belief or trust in someone or something
2. belief in the existence of God
3. firm belief in something for which there is no proof

We can ignore the second definition, but not the first, since we’ve already established that while mindfulness demands no belief in God, many people (including me) strongly believe in it.

But what about the third definition? Promoters of mindfulness cite abundant research that demonstrates how the practice improves objective measures of wellbeing. Cardiovascular indices, patterns of brain activation, and responses to medical treatment have all been empirically demonstrated to benefit.

So where does faith come in? It’s due to the fact that most people aren’t seeking better blood pressure or brain scans. What they want is peace of mind. And while studies suggest many people do feel better with mindfulness practice, it’s important to remember that such investigations depend–by necessity–on subjective report, not objective measurement. We know people feel better after practicing mindfulness only because they tell us so (often by answering the questions of some psychological instrument, like the Hamilton Depression Scale). This is evidence, yes, but it isn’t the sort of proof that would satisfy a physicist, since how good someone feels is not directly measurable.

Obviously, there is a difference between believing something about the nature of reality (like that it was designed by a patriarchal deity) and believing something about the effect of a practice (like that mindfulness will lead to ease of mind). For one thing, notions of the latter type are easier to achieve consensus around than the former. Indeed, there is ample evidence for the subjective value of religious practice (as opposed to any objective veracity of religious beliefs).

The point is, we must rely on the reports of others to conclude anything about mindfulness (or religion) that we haven’t experienced for ourselves.

Our first few attempts at mindfulness practice will likely dredge up fears, desires, agitation, pains, fatigue, and many other states that feel unpleasant. Mindfulness requires us to give up our habitual practice of evading, denying, and rationalizing such discomforts. In other words, we must abandon our defenses and open ourselves to displeasures we formerly pushed away.

Why do we persist in the face of this inevitable distress? Because we have faith that mindfulness will help us gain ease of mind, despite initial experiences to the contrary. And where does this faith come from? Partly from scientific research, perhaps, but mainly from the testimony of those more practiced in the technique, those who’ve found mindfulness helpful.

So what brings people into mindfulness? The testimony of others. And what brings people into religion? The exact same thing.

People engage in mindfulness because of the ardor with which others speak of it, and this fact demonstrates at least one key quality common to both the mindfulness movement and religion. Let me be clear: that mindfulness shares some features with religion means it serves some of the same needs that keep religions in business. This is hardly controversial. In fact, the same point is made by Sam Harris, though through different means. Suggesting the mindfulness movement might bear comparison with religion will only alarm those who view religion as purely negative, but such a stance is mere dogmatism and intolerance.

Criticizing religion is easy: people of fundamentalist persuasion believe nonsensical things; some have committed murder to defend their beliefs against the contrary notions of others.

But one can criticize other social systems in the same way. Consider capitalism. It exalts the dubious idea that cupidity is a sound basis upon which to construct society. Capitalist states have waged war (committed murder) in order to shield this delusion from contrary viewpoints like socialism.

Do we reject the market economy because, taken to the extreme, it leads to war and ruin? No. A wise society would work to support the healthy aspects of commerce (e.g., the ways it spurs initiative) while simultaneously rooting out toxic aspects (e.g., the ways it promotes disparity).

Nor should we dismiss religion (or reject any comparison between it and mindfulness) because it displays some negative aspects. Rather, we should recognize its positive qualities while countering its negative ones.

Sam Harris sees religion and mindfulness as completely different from one another. In his formulation, one promotes silly mythology and the other healthfulness of mind. Harris believes that any positive benefit of religion is obtainable via a secular route using mindfulness, and that this route will avoid religion’s pitfalls. But this analysis overlooks both important positive aspects of religion that aren’t duplicated by mindfulness and the ways in which the mindfulness movement could become just another dogmatic force, another cure-all fad.

As stated at the outset, I’ll address what religion provides that mindfulness doesn’t another time. For now, let’s focus on how intolerance creeps into a movement that advances an otherwise healthy practice.

When mindfulness gets placed on a pedestal as a principle cloaked with scientific evidence and crowned with popularity, I feel queasy, as if hearing once again a familiar but doomed project: humans grasping for the ONE TRUE ANSWER. It would be a shame if the mindfulness movement were to succumb to the temptations of overzealous promotion and intolerant defense.

Imagine a futuristic novel about a society dominated by secular mindfulness experts. In this brave new world, those who believe in mythology or suggest that reality might have a purpose beyond human conception are discredited, imprisoned, tortured, or killed. The plot could be developed plausibly: history is littered with examples of initially good ideas morphing into toxic, authoritarian dogmas. And if you don’t believe mindfulness could ever be used to promote its opposite, consider the fate of Jesus’s message of unconditional love.

What’s needed to prevent hubris from corrupting a valuable method for healing? We must remain on guard against our human tendency to make good ideas–even ones that advocate flexibility–into rigid doctrines.

Why bring all this up in a blog devoted to recovery from childhood trauma? Because those of us raised under harsh conditions need all the help we can get. Some will heal with secular mindfulness. Others will find comfort within the community, mythology, and ritual of an established religion. Some will pursue both these options, plus others.

When a few promoters begin to act as if mindfulness holds all the answers and as if their approach is superior to every other, I can’t help but voice concern. I can’t resist pointing out that these attitudes make mindfulness sound a lot like a religion. My intent isn’t to undermine the practice (how could I?) but to encourage clarity and caution.

If the mindfulness movement can offer some of religion’s benefits, it can also succumb to some of religion’s faults. To believe otherwise is to assert its immunity from problems that have plagued just about every popular project throughout history. To fall prey to such a delusion would be a failure of mindfulness.

Mindfulness Instruction: A Trigger for Flashbacks of Abuse?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Mindfulness-present-moment-here-now-awareness-symbol-logoWhy can’t mindfulness and I just get along? It’s perverse: here’s this healthy practice endorsed by scientists and mystics alike. Since I respect both, you’d think I’d find it easy to join the fad. But I balk. I find myself returning to a theme explored in an earlier essay on a different blog: Where Mindfulness Fails.

It isn’t that I don’t practice mindfulness–I work on it every single day, sometimes for hours. And it isn’t that I don’t benefit from it–learning to observe my thoughts, feelings, and sensations with nonjudgmental awareness has helped me recover from the effects of early adversity. But still I resist…

My unease drove me to draft an essay of some 2600 words after a friend recently sent me a link to Sam Harris’s new book: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I wrote all that after reading just the first chapter! And I did so despite agreeing with most of what Harris says about mindfulness: it’s healthy for the mind, supported by research, and conducive to highly refined states of consciousness. After slogging away on the piece for hours, I realized it wasn’t worthy of posting. The writing sounded too detached, too dispassionate, and too cerebral.

Oddly, those adjectives (detached, dispassionate, cerebral) applied to mindfulness itself, would sum up my discomfort. In writing about my objections, I demonstrated them.

Mindfulness in the West grew out of Buddhist meditation and the yoga tradition. My sense is that in Asia the teachings are not so dispassionate, etc., so my resistance is directed at the way things get explained here. In order to make mindfulness attractive to moderns, proponents in the West have reduced the practice to its most rational terms.

The very word ‘mindfulness,’ has already lost something in translation. Here in the West ‘mind’ colloquially refers to the logical apparatus that situates us in a world of language, whereas ‘heart’ denotes the intuitive process that connects us to an ecology of sensitive organisms. In Asia, I’ve been told, what we call mindfulness is taught with much more emphasis on heart-qualities than is usual in California. Rather than being presented solely as a method of mind-training, it’s also offered as a means for heart-opening.

Since I am not a scholar of Eastern traditions, I can’t speak to these distinctions with any authority. But what I can say, with certainty, is that the way mindfulness is often presented works its way under my skin. The problem comes down to this: it triggers memories of child abuse.

Think about it: a boy is savagely mistreated by a enraged, intoxicated, narcissistic adult. How does he respond? He withdraws into his mind and views the blows and contempt from a distance. From that remove, the abuse doesn’t seem so terrifying and humiliating. It looks as if it’s happening to someone else. The child tells himself he doesn’t care.

Obviously, he does care. But he views his feelings abstractly, as if the physical and verbal assault isn’t skewering his heart, but merely flowing past it. Do you see the parallel? Doesn’t this sound like conventional mindfulness instruction, where we’re taught to observe our feelings without getting swept away by them?

Granted, mindfulness is a good tool for overcoming dissociation. By monitoring feelings from a distance, even as they rage, we begin to feel less overwhelmed and so remain more in touch with the experience. So it isn’t mindfulness, per se, that’s the problem.

Instead, it’s the subtle bias that underlies mindfulness instruction, one that comes out of our culture’s fear of emotions. There is a long history in the West of distrusting the passions. Viewed in opposition to reason, emotions have traditionally been seen as corrupting, primitive forces that drive us to act in irrational ways. They shatter our precious illusion of being in control. Emotions, by definition, are not determined by reason (though they may be influenced by it); they thus undermine our self-constructed identities as beings who make decisions by weighing pros and cons.

When mindfulness is taught in a way that downgrades emotion until it is merely an object of awareness, and not the very climate of it, I experience a creepy feeling. It’s as if I’m facing my stepmother again, as she accuses me of “acting like a baby girl” if I start crying, even though the abuse never ends unless the tears begin to flow. I feel as if the instruction is forcing me back into that state of frozen detachment, where life feels neither real nor valuable.

This isn’t to say that an emotional climate can’t be experienced with a sense of inner stability; the adult is not the child, and intense feelings aren’t inevitably followed by disintegration. Just as a heavy rain leaves one feeling drenched but not dissolved, an emotional storm can be deeply felt while the personality remains intact. Indeed, this is exactly the lesson on must learn: that feelings roil the waters but have no lasting effect on the ocean. The only way to grasp this is to allow emotions to penetrate. Detachment is a defense; engagement is the practice.

Although mindfulness experts often try to highlight this crucial fact, it remains shadowed by conflicting influences. No matter how helpful it might be to allow emotions their sway, both our broader culture and our personal discomfort lead us to hope we can dampen them. Even some very skilled meditation instructors seem mesmerized–in subtle ways–by this dream of freedom from passions and their pain, and it taints their approach.

Modern psychology is changing its attitude toward emotion. The “cognitive revolution” is on the ebb. Researchers now recognize the vital role feelings play in helping us make choices. Emotions are what makes our lives feel important, after all. Yet this respect for the passions has yet to percolate into the core of mindfulness instruction, which continues to elevate what I see as “cool detachment” over its opposite: “warm engagement.”

This take on things is my own, and it is based on my peculiar vulnerabilities. I’m well aware that countless people have found salvation in mindfulness exactly as it is taught by many wise proponents. My problem is my background: it makes me sensitive to any cultural bias that emphasizes rationality over emotionality. In my opinion, true healing requires us to grasp at neither but accept both as symbionts in the ecology of mental life.

Note: Clicking on the post image will take you to its source and attribution; all images used on this blog are in the public domain.

The Art of Healing

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned_edit-2We all enter times when mind, body, and spirit feel aligned. Today is like that for me, and I’m finding it instructive to look at what lends me peace. It comes down to this: right now I am able to embrace myself exactly as I find myself. My scars no longer repulse me; my skills no longer impress me. Suffering neither deflation nor inflation, I see myself as a human being like all others, at once ill and well, simultaneously wounded and healed.

My current sense of ease grew out of a retreat provided for the staff of the yoga institute where I teach human biology, from which I returned some nights ago. To spend time with people I respect and love, and to feel their support in return, felt restorative. In such a safe context I found the freedom to release–at least for a time–attempts to improve my personality. My inner critic settled down, so that rather than standing on a soapbox and screaming through a megaphone every time I ‘said the wrong thing’ or ‘talked too much’ or ‘acted like a know-it-all,’ it merely squatted in the background, clucking under its breath.

It isn’t that I believed my behavior flawless. There were indeed times I acted in clumsy, self-involved, and overbearing ways. But I felt ready to accept my edgy quirks, to see them as imperfections that–taken together with my softer qualities–create the weave of my character. It helped to recognize that impulsive remarks, nervous volubility, and intellectual posturing are all drawn from the same skein: my sense of insecurity in the world. Having been conditioned in childhood to feel threatened, my default is to behave defensively. In complex social environments, my practiced strategies deploy. I rely on well-developed verbal and analytical skills; stories and opinions pour out of my mouth.

But for once I also was able to see the opposite: there were times I offered insights, ideas, and levity that seemed useful to the gathering. Further, as I interacted with those around me, I viewed their less-than-perfect behaviors through a rosier lens than usual. Rather than finding maladroitness in my companions frustrating, I found it endearing. I realized that all of us have been traumatized, in one way or another, and that we’re all doing the best we can with what life has handed us. Yes, past injuries have led to current neuroses, but the result is strangely beautiful–in the same way that a weathered monument is more appealing than one unscathed.

The trials we’ve endured make us who and what we are: lovely in our imperfection, artful in our ineptitude. Noticing this in others makes it easier for me to find it in myself.

Two years ago, after hospitalization for a dangerous illness, I wrote a post entitled It’s All Broken and None of It Needs To Be Fixed. Near the end I penned these words: “A necessary event in the universe’s formation was what’s called symmetry breaking. I have only a vague notion of what that means, but it shows that we live in a fundamentally fractured world.”

In mathematical terms, an entity is symmetrical with regard to an operation if it appears the same afterward as before. For instance, a circle can be rotated on its axis any number of degrees without looking different. A square can be turned ninety degrees (or any multiple thereof) with no shift in appearance, but spin it by some other amount and you will detect the change. So a circle displays more rotational symmetry than a square.

The nascent universe is believed to have displayed a high degree of symmetry: not only in its form, but also in its forces. As the cosmos emerged in the earliest fractions of a second after the Big Bang, uniformity was lost as single forces became multiple. As a consequence, cosmic structure also gave up regularity, changing from an expanding mass of featureless high-energy plasma to one possessed of increasingly clumpy forms: first subatomic particles, then atoms, then stars and galaxies, and so on.

That early loss of symmetry can be seen as a kind of wound. Perfection was shattered and became brokenness. The subsequent evolution, which might be akin to healing, led to the stunning spectacle we encounter today.

Although some degree of symmetry is usually necessary in a successful work of art, absolute symmetry is boring. A perfect sphere of marble fascinates far less than Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Cathedral. A mix of formal elegance with its opposite is what we find most pleasing.

Seen in this light, both our wounds and our healing generate beauty. Soon after major hardships (and especially after adverse upbringings) we may feel like masses of chaos, but we gradually cohere. We discover islands of compassion and nuance in the hot energies of grief and rage, until we emerge from our trials textured, strengthened, and rich with experience. We end up more extraordinary and wise than if we had never been injured at all.

During the staff retreat we participated in a free-writing exercise. These words popped out on my page as pen moved across paper: I am the wound and the life that heals it. I do feel wounded, deeply and thoroughly, especially at the present time: six months after a major surgical procedure and following some painful setbacks. But I also feel the vibrations of life repairing, renewing, and expanding me. Many of my old habits and expectations are dissolving. Rather than taking the gaffes of others personally, I can enjoy with curiosity the oddity and majesty of those around me. Understanding my friends as mixtures of rough and smooth, made more wondrous by their injuries and fortitude, I can begin to believe the same about myself.

All of us are products of great wounding, but also great healing. Life, never satisfied with a blank canvas, splatters us with trauma and then refines us with her gentler brush.

Old Age: A Remedy for Early Trauma?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Old_ageAs many of us understand too well, adversity during childhood leads to later problems with identity, concentration, reactivity, and relationships. Yet although I’m far from the person who might have emerged had I been raised with love, in recent years I’ve been feeling healthier in each of these domains. Some of that improvement can be credited to my longstanding efforts to recover, but the rest is due to something that happens by itself: growing old.

Maturing is a task done twice. First in the crib of childhood and then, much later, on the rocky path toward deterioration and death. Between these two generators of wisdom toils the body of young adulthood. The pressures of early adult life, its promises and obstacles, keep maturation at bay. One is too busy to gain much clarity.

The youth grows understanding organically, just as the body expands–without effort–into potency. In later years maturity also emerges inexorably but more intentionally, as the mind grapples with the body’s decay.

Our first wisdom is gained in excitement. The teenager yearns for a driver’s license and steers enthusiastically toward the crowded byways of sex and romance, career and family. The onramp to adulthood is approached eagerly, and after a few collisions the youngster gains competence.

Our second wisdom is gained with reluctance. How discouraging to watch the body sag and weaken, as pains accumulate and sexiness wanes! The mind must stake its claim on some new ground, beyond the sinking landscape of skin, muscle, and bone. In searching for its new mother lode, the personality gets a chance to shuck its chains.

The bonds that tether us to the world of striving do not feel confining to the younger adult; they feel sustaining. The human in youthful stature centers identity in career, possessions, and connections. But the older we become the less we feel supported by entanglement with the world. Newer, hungrier generations rise up through the ranks. Our homes and talismans show the wear of age. Our relationships fail as loved ones die, move away, or shine their attentions elsewhere. Whereas the bubble of life first expanded and rose, it now shrinks and falls. Social standards that once seemed to hold us up now drag us down.

This is all well known. What concerns me today is how approaching senescence affects the adult who was oppressed during childhood. I can’t speak to how aging feels to those brought up with affection, but I’m beginning to learn–firsthand–how it feels to one raised with parental selfishness, indifference, and contempt.

Are you expecting discouraging news at this point? Does it seem like I’m preparing to declare the second phase of maturation more difficult for those whose first unfurled in a storm of adversity? Then I’m happy to surprise you. I believe growing old may feel more welcome to the wounded than the well. Why? Because aging can lighten the burden of formative trauma in each of the categories listed at the outset.

Identity: Growing old erases many of the surface features that our culture uses to judge people. If we don’t resist the changes too much, we can learn to focus on what is essential in ourselves. In the best case, we discover that our fundamental value doesn’t come from desirable bodies, impressive accomplishments, financial resources, or family relationships. It comes from our simple existence as living, breathing organisms. We find our identities merely by opening our eyes on another day, without planning, without justifying, without competing.

For those who were brought up to prove themselves at every turn, for whom unconditional love seemed as distant as the moon, there is comfort in relinquishing the trials of young adulthood. At last we can simply be, without striving to be good, or better, or best.

Concentration: As children we needed to please adults in order to survive. This required intense focus on nuances of gesture and voice. At the same time, we learned to distance ourselves from reality as we surrendered our bodies to the sickening power of cruel adults and sacrificed our vitality to the spiritual vacuum in our guardians. Having exhausted our powers of concentration on threat detection, and having settled for a refuge of dissociation, we became adults who suffer difficulty sustaining attention.

As we grow older, however, we discover less call for vigilance. We’re no longer climbing toward career pinnacles, so we don’t need to scan the terrain for competitors. And we’ve lost currency as sexual beings, so although we still feel calls of desire, we know there is less point in following them, less point in focusing on the game. These shifts feel like losses, but they are also gains. They free us from needing to concentrate so much. Our problems paying attention no longer seem like problems at all. In fact, the soft focus of dissociation makes easier the task of finding meaning amidst the hard edges of the world.

Reactivity: When younger, I battled constantly. I fought for my opinions, for my status, for my survival. The slightest offense against me elicited fury and attack or despair and withdrawal. Now, aged and tired, I feel less call for war. Growing older has diminished my energy for battle, and it has increased my desire to understand and forgive. When others hurt or disappoint me, I’m more able to tolerate it. I may still feel angry or betrayed, but I react less strongly and recover more quickly.

Relationships: Our social networks change with age. Friends and family members move away or die. Forming new connections becomes difficult as we engage less with the workaday world. Although retirement offers plenty of leisure time, new companionships form with difficulty for reasons of illness, fatigue, and preoccupation. On the other hand, those of us who as young adults had difficulty relating to others may find it easier to form attachments as we grow older. We’re less demanding and more secure. We expect less, so we feel satisfied more. Crucially, we learn to nourish the relationships that matter most: our connections with our own inner being and, on the deepest level, with the Source of Life itself.

Aging makes obvious the limits of our human journey and so makes moments of simple living seem more valuable. Humanity is capable of many great works, but its greatest is the careful observation of life, which generates appreciation for the miracle that surrounds us. Yes, we can explore, build, express, nurture, and assist as we move through the world. But as we age we learn that what’s most important is to notice all that motion, to appreciate the rise and fall of creation’s waves as we drift from one shore to another. We finally get the point of life, which is only to live.

Medical problems forced me into early retirement and made me feel older than my years. That my body failed is not surprising, given the intense and repeated traumas of my childhood, and the well-established links between early adversity and later poor health. For nearly a decade I mourned the loss of my adult roles and the trappings of success. Now, however, I see that accelerated aging led to accelerated healing.

Perhaps this is the most important lesson of later life: we realize that we can’t judge any difficulty by how it feels at first; we must wait until we’ve learned all its lessons and found its hidden benefits. Aging is a hardship most people will face in due time. Luckily, it offers much of value, especially to those for whom the flowering of childhood understanding was stunted by trauma, bereavement, and neglect. Here, toward the end of life, we gain for having lost at the beginning.

What? Success Doesn’t Ensure Happiness?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

140620111747-napa-valley-robin-williams-estate-00013501-1024x576The self-inflicted death of Robin Williams is pushing my buttons. And while I’ve read many commentaries, I have yet to come across one that speaks to the issue I find most affecting, so I feel prompted to chime in.

My take on this tragedy is narcissistic. I realize it’s unseemly to speak personally at such times, but I’m going to do it anyway. I detect an important lesson behind this highly publicized suicide, and the best way for me to articulate it is to speak from my heart.

For over three decades I’ve suffered regular bouts of depression. At times the agony has been nearly unremitting; between 2002 and 2006 I hungered (and sometimes plotted) for death almost daily. More recently the melancholia has been episodic, lasting one to three days but striking with predictable regularity. Thankfully, the frequency has been diminishing, but when I’m in the midst of darkness, annihilation beckons with an ugly but irresistible leer. It’s scary, especially for my wife and others who care about me.

Whenever I get struck low, the same set of thoughts runs through my mind:

“I didn’t live up to my potential. My career plans have all gone bust due to poor choices and worse follow-through. I’ve ended up nearly alone in the world, with no children and few friends. My financial future looks tenuous, and I live in a modest, uninteresting suburb.”

Why share my particular species of negativity? Because when depressed I believe my urge for terminal release—-a desire traceable to mistreatment and maternal suicide during childhood—-would have been dispelled had I proven myself a success, built a reputation, fathered children, attracted friends and admirers, accumulated a fortune, and purchased a villa.

But then Robin Williams hung himself, and I had to look at my assumptions anew. If a man with his gifts could feel so unhappy that death seemed the best option, then I must be wrong about how much talent, family, fame, fortune, and lifestyle can do for a personality.

The notion that success in these terms would lead to happiness was installed in me during childhood, encouraged in countless ways. In particular I remember a popular board game called ‘Life’ that my family played when I was only four-years-old. The objective was to secure a good profession (becoming a doctor was best) and a maximal income. Even before grade school, I was already accustomed to the idea that a successful life is one of material attainment.

Formal education reinforced my competitiveness by making it obvious that some people are destined to be winners and others losers. The grading system lets kids know where they stand in this great winnowing of the better from the worse. For a child who didn’t seem to matter at home, good marks offered an illusion of importance in the world.

Not everyone pursues high grades as a youngster, but in our culture we all try to prove ourselves somehow. Many stake their claim academically (the nerds), but others become class clowns, rebels, teacher’s pets, group leaders, or outcasts. Even the kid who is widely hated achieves a kind of notoriety, a success of sorts. Society raises its young to crave winning at something.

Perhaps this tendency is built into human nature, but it’s hard to deny that our academic and cultural institutions fuel the expression of it. Sadly, the idea that outer achievement leads to inner happiness is misleading, if not an outright lie, as the suicide of Robin Williams proves.

It’s impossible for me to know what the man was thinking as he hung himself, but it seems clear that material success failed to provide lasting protection from despair. Maybe he believed himself a fraud, or maybe he recognized his talents and attainments but found them empty of comfort. Perhaps he was experiencing domestic dissatisfaction, or perhaps he knew he was loved but didn’t find that love sustaining. We don’t know what went wrong in his mind, but we do know that what appeared to be a high degree of accomplishment did not dispel the demons of mental suffering.

We are led to believe that material accumulation will make us happy, but it doesn’t. I am sure a person trapped in one of America’s urban ghettoes–pinned down by discrimination and poor education–might imagine my suburban lifestyle sufficient for happiness, yet it has never been enough to keep the darkness at bay.

If we live in comfortable surroundings we might be contented, but that contentment doesn’t derive from the comfort. And while desperate circumstances make satisfaction harder, occasional souls manage to remain joyful despite appalling conditions.

External success never suffices by itself. Robin Williams and countless other brilliant but self-destructive artists have proven this. On the other hand, internal peace of mind can make even difficult situations tolerable. Think of Nelson Mandela.

In other words, our society raises its children to develop the wrong abilities. Rather than encouraging mental skills supportive of equanimity, it promotes technical skills supportive of industry. This has the effect of keeping most of us preoccupied with endless striving and competition, in the vain hope that if we accumulate enough winnings, we will be free of suffering. And while it isn’t a conscious conspiracy, it also has the effect of making the average person insecure and so less likely to express outrage at a culture built on misery.

The great spiritual paths have always taught that relief does not come from rising above others. Rather, it comes from transcending the concerns of ego, the very concerns exalted by our schools, our leaders, our technologies, and our communities.

It isn’t possible to know what discouraged Robin Williams, or what might have saved him. I don’t know how much childhood adversity the man endured; nor do I know how much effort he exerted toward learning meditative and other mental skills. And depression does have a neurochemical element, so it may be that he would have succumbed to his illness no matter what.

But it seems obvious that if outer success were sufficient to make a person happy, the great comedian would not have killed himself. It seems equally obvious that if he had been able to find inner peace, he would still be with us.

Could our society ever reject the modern formula? Could we encourage inner quality of life instead of outer quantity of achievement?

Robin Williams accomplished as much as anyone can in life, and yet he still found living intolerable at the end. I think he has taught us a lesson worth considering as we admire the man’s genius and mourn his passing.

Those Absolutely Essential Truths I Can’t Remember

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Ralphy and WillMy dog fell ill, and I forgot every healthy lesson life has taught me. Ralphy, an eleven pound mass of gray white fur and–I believe–the most affectionate companion in the world, has been one of my steadiest supporters for seven years. Saturday morning, after seeming tremulous and weak the night before, he showed no interest in breakfast. My pal stood unsteadily with lowered tail, made no move toward his food bowl, and gazed up at me in askance.

What else to do but assume the worst? My field narrowed to a poodle-sized circle of sorrow. Waiting for hours in the pet emergency hospital, to which my wife and I drove through sparse weekend traffic at 7:00 a.m., I used my imperfect knowledge of the human body to diagnose my dog with fatal illness.

Having concluded that my canine friend was dying, it felt natural to review the setbacks of 2014, which now seemed like preludes to this final disaster. Sitting in a rectangular waiting room  as large as a convenience store, decorated in a palate of burgundies and browns, complete with a black and chrome machine that made cappuccinos for free, I recalled the major surgery in March that left me with a chronically uncomfortable belly. I rued how my poetry teacher had informed me, in a private lesson for which I paid good money, that my verse is unschooled and unpublishable. I revisited exciting plans to train as a meditation leader that had collapsed in a matter of hours. Eyes pooling with self-pity, I moved back in time, replaying insults I’d borne in childhood: losing my first dog just weeks before losing my mom; being pulled away from relatives who handled me with love to be raised by a stepmother who showered me with hate. The list of hurtful memories, lengthy even when I’m feeling well, grew longer.

Every tool in my kit of remedies stayed in the box. I did not center myself in my body. I neither stilled my thoughts nor explored my mental state with curiosity. I did not remember all the good things in life that help balance out the bad. I barely inhaled. Instead, I slouched on the tasteful furniture, rigid with pessimism, taking in just enough air to support my negative thinking.

What went wrong? Why did my pet’s listlessness and poor appetite (which turned out to be due to back pain–a diagnosis that cost what you’d expect in a facility with complimentary espresso drinks) shatter my defenses?

How easy it would be to move from self-punishment to self-criticism, from bothering every wound to blaming myself for deepening the scars.  I’m trying to avoid that.

Instead, I’m reminding myself how life works. Loved ones get sick; they even die. Cherished plans and imagined futures crumble as if made merely of dreams, which–of course–they are. How do body and mind respond? They wind themselves up until each moment becomes a knot of suffering. Hell visits earth.

As unwanted as this tightening can be, it is a natural reaction to stress. Perhaps those from happier backgrounds can remember, while feeling the jackboot press of grief, that circumstances are always changing. Pain crushes us for a time, then sooner or later it eases. Yet we who grew up abused, neglected, and bereaved are prone to forget. We fumble the lessons of adulthood, and retain only those of childhood. Life becomes a study in helplessness, where emotions as big as bears loom over us, and we know no escape.

Despair in the face of uncertainty is a conditioned reaction, a learned response. It was, for many of us, one of life’s earliest teachings. When we didn’t know what to expect, we grew to expect the worst.

For me, the habit of defeatism has proven hard to break. The most I could manage in my exhaustion Saturday afternoon, with my aging, beloved dog in my lap, was to reach out to others. At first, reaching out resembled complaining. As hours passed, however, the insights received in return began to unlink the chains, permitting some wiggles of freedom. Good friends reminded me that others have problems, too, and that there are means of coping. My wife pointed out the ways my mind cycles with negativity when under duress, and how she’d seen me spiral with this exact same vortex many times.

Sleep helped, too. I awoke Sunday feeling raw but restored, ready–more or less–to enter the drama of the next day.

Sometimes, coping after childhood adversity isn’t about remaining upright and centered. It’s about recovering after falling, about gravitating back to one’s axis after the centrifugal forces of fate and conditioning have spun the system to its edge. It’s about breaking apart and then recollecting one’s better understanding.

Trauma: Vitamin ‘T’ for the Soul

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Vitamin (‘vītǝmĭn; noun): Any of various … substances essential in minute amounts for normal growth and activity.Untitled

Imagine a supplement that could increase human compassion and sensitivity. Would you add it to your diet?

If it meant enduring discomfort, as experiences that spur empathy often do, many of us would decline. Our culture places a premium on pleasure and assumes pain is mere punishment, without redeeming features. Yet isn’t it the case that those with the greatest capacity to understand the suffering of others are those who have suffered themselves? Isn’t it the case that the heart opens not through fate’s balms, but through its lacerations?

As someone who sees value in Buddhism, I’ve come to understand that afflictions are unavoidable. But as someone who also sees value in Christianity, I’ve learned that human ordeals can be redemptive. They can rescue us from narrow concerns and encourage tender appreciation of our shared predicament as living beings. Acknowledging this benefit of hardship does not require any particular spiritual or moral belief system; it simply requires us to look at our companions and identify those most capable of compassion, those most generous and wise. Usually, these are people who have grown through significant trials.

In medicine, many vitamins are known to be vital in small doses but toxic in large ones. Trauma, what I’m calling Vitamin T, is similar. Humans can be overwhelmed by it; they can be devastated, even destroyed. Probably, we’d all do best with just enough turmoil during childhood to prevent smugness, to alert us to the needs of others.

Would we could all receive ideal doses of Vitamin T early on, but fate doesn’t work that way. Some get too little, becoming grownups who first disregard the pain of others and later feel bewildered when they encounter their own tribulations in life. Others get too much and enter adulthood feeling insecure, angry, and alone.

Children facing abuse, loss, and neglect must struggle to find safety. Defenses such as dissociation, distrust, dissembling, defiance, and defeatism are tried until some combination serves–more or less–to aid survival. Then, after dangerous upbringings, new challenges arise as early coping strategies now impede adult development of relationships, careers, and identities. Vitamin T has been administered in near-lethal dosage. The organism ends up crippled with various combinations of self-loathing, grandiosity, fearfulness, hostility, numbness, hypersensitivity, withdrawal, and/or dependency.

Luckily, the system can detoxify. It takes time, but the effects of a Vitamin T overdose can transform from liabilities to assets. The adult who transcends the legacy of formative adversity grows into a person who understands human unhappiness, who neither pities nor condemns those still mired in misery. The one who has overcome trauma is the one who sees recovery as a difficult but rewarding process, as harrowing and beautiful as Life itself.

Although they begin battered, once recovered the traumatized possess legitimacy when explaining to the rest of the world that life isn’t only about seeking comfort; it’s also about learning to accept, with grace, the opposite. Pursuit of material success and domestic security doesn’t abolish suffering; it merely obscures it. Those who have healed after punishing childhoods know that contentment flows in more profound currents, beneath the bobbing toys of modern life.

Here’s another definition: Stress Inoculation: in clinical psychology, an approach intended to provide patients with cognitive and attitudinal skills that they can use to cope with stress.

Childhood adversity, once overcome, yields robust stress inoculation. It convinces us that life is ever challenging, but also that we can adapt our styles of thinking and relating to maximize effectiveness. What’s more, we understand that being effective doesn’t mean accumulating conventional rewards. It means opening the heart and mind until we see ourselves as small parts of a large, roiling whole. It means appreciating how past weaknesses have evolved into strengths, and how we can offer the world a needed perspective about growing through suffering. Very often, it also means helping others cope with past trauma.

As an aside: Equally vital, but usually requiring political rather than personal action (except in cases of direct witness and/or professional involvement), is working to curtail exploitation and abuse of children and adults. Yet in protecting others from mistreatment, those who have endured harsh realities know that aggressive punishment serves only to perpetuate cycles of aggression; they recognize that victimizers are usually former victims who have failed–so far–to mature beyond their misery. Those who have transcended early wounds insist on safeguarding the vulnerable but also on offering opportunities for healing to offenders. Unfortunately, some abusive persons present such narcissistic and predatory personalities, with such limited capacities for remorse, that they reject or manipulate sincere efforts to help them abandon harmful behaviors. It still makes sense to see each one as potentially capable of reform, but anybody who has suffered under intentional cruelty will appreciate the need for caution. This unflinching clarity about extending support while defending against character pathology can be seen as yet another boon of traumatic experience.

With so much compassion, acceptance, and insight to be gained, can we begin to consider trauma a vital supplement? Sooner or later it touches every one of us; perhaps the time has come to honor the ways it enlarges the soul. Perhaps the time has come to recognize Vitamin T as the essential nutrient that facilitates a heartfelt, meaningful life.

There’s No Such Thing as an Adverse Childhood

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Adverse (ad’vərs,’advərs; adjective): preventing success or development; harmful; unfavorable.


Definitions matter, because the words we apply to our lives influence whether we feel hopeful or discouraged.

Can a childhood be adverse? Events during childhood can certainly be harmful and unfavorable. And yes, painful formative experiences often limit success and development along conventional avenues. In my own case early loss, trauma, and neglect contributed to unsustainable career choices, nervous breakdowns, conflicted relationships, substance abuse issues, medical problems, and so on.

But let’s look at this another way. What if we define success as overcoming obstacles? What if we define development as adapting to circumstances? Then any childhood that is survived provides an exemplar of success and development.

It’s vital to think in terms of early adversity, because it explains so many of the problems faced by those who experienced it. But we should avoid clinging to the notion of having come from an adverse childhood, from one that prevents success.

It’s tricky. On the one hand, knowing that childhood hardship correlates with later addiction, mental illness, health problems, domestic uproar, etc., can relieve us of shame about adult difficulties. On the other, it can drain us of hope. Doesn’t scientific research (the ACE study, for instance) prove that we’re doomed?

No. It proves we’re at high risk. It proves we have work to do. But statistical risk is not the same as unalterable fate. It’s vital to remember we can learn to cope with the vulnerabilities handed to us by our past. After all, in making it to adulthood we learned tactics that helped ensure survival. We might have grown hypersensitive–the better to detect threats. We might have begun to distrust others–the better to avoid predation. We might have become withdrawn–the better to protect ourselves from hazards.

The ability to shape response to circumstance remains with us. True, habits of behavior that saved the child often fail the adult, and habits can be difficult to break. But both neuroscientific research and effective psychological treatments (such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–CBT and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy–ACT) demonstrate our lifelong capacity for growth and maturation.

When I was a young adult in the 1980′s, the thinking was different. Back then, no one talked (or knew) about neuroplasticity–the ability of the nervous system to repair and reshape itself. As a neuroscience graduate student, I was under the impression that the brain was a biological computer with an architecture determined by genetics and upbringing, neither of which could be changed. I sought therapy to cope with what the past had done to me but did not expect to correct the damage.

From a psychological standpoint, we live in a much more hopeful era. We now know that our nervous systems continually update their pathways in response to behavior and experience. We can heal and we can grow. Yes, some deeply conditioned responses may prove difficult to fully overcome. But progress is not only possible: it’s inevitable, provided we apply ourselves.

Stroke and accident victims must work hard to rehabilitate after brain insults, but they are much less likely now than formerly to require longterm institutional care. Neural restructuring follows proper therapy, leading to functional gains.

Similarly, survivors of childhood adversity must work hard to build skillful behavior patterns, but they are much less likely now than formerly to remain bound by unhealthy and constricted lifestyles. Behavioral restructuring follows proper therapy, leading to psychological gains. We can learn to dampen emotional reactivity, develop mindfulness, and act in ways that promote physical, emotional, and social well-being. Most importantly, we can gain the courage and discernment needed to protect ourselves when necessary, and to open ourselves when desirable.

Let us define success as growing and maturing, as recognizing that all humans are vulnerable, that all face challenges, and that all can learn. Let us define it, in other words, as becoming more insightful and compassionate versions of our adaptable, capable selves. With such a definition no childhood,  no matter how punishing, can prevent us from succeeding. No childhood, in other words, is truly adverse.



Child Abuse: Just My Imagination?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Are memories of childhood adversity nothing but self-defeating stories we tell ourselves? William_Blake_003

It’s easy to question the way childhood hardship lingers on the mind. Does thinking about the past do more harm than good?

A few years ago, after a book and a meditation retreat  raised these issues around the same time but in different ways, I wrote an essay on my private site: WillSpirit. What follows is a revised version of that posting.

In Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach encourages us to accept our bodies and personalities. She begins by describing how the Abrahamic story of Eden and the Fall sets us up for core feelings of deficiency and sinfulness, and how this seminal tale is just one of myriad cultural messages that teach us to feel flawed and undeserving, that lock us into lifelong struggles to redeem ourselves. Inflexible religious teachings and unforgiving social mores condition us to criticize our bodies, question our accomplishments, and reject our emotions. Brach offers meditative exercises that encourage feelings of worthiness, and she relates how she and others have transcended negative conditioning and grown more accepting.

Brach also highlights the problem of childhood trauma, which complicates the picture. Those of us who suffered formative adversity were taught self-doubt by our own families, and this primed us to suffer even more insecurity in the face of cultural shaming. For us, self-acceptance requires countering both toxic societal attitudes and destructive family dynamics. And while we must learn to recognize old insults to our psyche, we must avoid feeling trapped by them. Brach negotiates these waters well, showing how one can remain realistic about early injuries and yet transcend the victim role.

Not all teachers possess such skill. Because Buddhism cautions against believing the many narratives we construct about our lives, it occasionally happens that those who’ve suffered child abuse end up being told that their unhappiness results from clinging to old stories. This is exactly what occurred during that retreat I mentioned above, which offered meditation instruction for overcoming depression and anxiety.

While participating in a discussion session, I asked about a visualization practice I’d been exploring. Back then, I would sometimes picture myself as a child in a loving home, receiving affectionate support from my parents. In other words, I’d imagine scenarios opposite to my actual experiences growing up. I found it a surprisingly comforting exercise, and the meditation teacher endorsed the technique. The mind, she said, doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination. So long as I remained clear about what I was doing and didn’t get lost in denial or idle fantasy, she thought it a skillful means for building up feelings of safety.

But then she opined that my memory of a traumatic childhood was itself “just another story.” This comment triggered strong reactions that left me in a cloud of confusion for the rest of the day. It seemed to me that by downgrading early mistreatment to “just another story” she risked reenacting the plight of the abused youngster, who often is accused of making things up. Since I was barely familiar with Buddhism at the time, if I hadn’t just read Brach’s book I might have believed the tradition incompatible with healthy recovery after childhood adversity.

Armed with lessons from Radical Acceptance, however, I knew there were more healing ways of interpreting Buddhist teachings, just as there are more healing versions of the Abrahamic religions that don’t fuel guilt and shame. So I emailed the retreat leader to ask whether she truly meant to equate remembrance of child abuse with narrative born of imagination. Did she really believe traumatic memories carry no more weight than fictional daydreams?

When the teacher called to explain her position, she pointed out how we tend to fall into habitual patterns when remembering our lives, and these fixed ways of framing the past can become boxes from which we have a hard time escaping. She acknowledged that she may have erred in referring to the memory of abuse as mere story and emphasized she had not intended to discount the damage caused by childhood loss, trauma, and neglect. Once I understood her stance, I agreed with it.

On top of factual events there is an overlay of interpretation. One example is the belief that childhood mistreatment dooms us to misery forever. Such accretion is not Truth, and it is not helpful. The overlay must be recognized as false and constricting; it must be challenged. The goal is to distinguish between historical fact, which healing demands we acknowledge (while recognizing the limits of memory), and the myths we accumulate around past events.

Childhood adversity injures the nervous system, and those of us who suffered early hardship must identify its effects. But we should avoid compounding our difficulties with self-defeating mythology. We can remember the past but reject the corrosive messages imprinted by our culture and our families. We can honor the suffering of our childhood selves while building confidence in our worth and our potential. In a more public sense, we can publicize the problem of childhood adversity and its many untoward consequences, while combating tendencies to blame, stigmatize, or pity those who survived development trauma.

We all possess the capacity to transcend our early conditioning and develop into strong, compassionate, and mature adults. We can identify problems and work toward solutions. Traumatic histories cannot be denied, but they can be reinterpreted as hardships we have survived, and their legacies as vulnerabilities we can manage or even–in due time–transform into strengths. Such reframing leads to healing and growth. Remembering the past with wisdom and clarity is not self-defeating; it’s self-empowering.

My Childhood Made Me Do It!

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

The good thing about having been raised badly is that it provides an excuse for the embarrassments of later years.
Have you succumbed to addiction? The Adverse Childhood Experience Study demonstrates how susceptibility to alcoholism and drug abuse rises in near-lockstep with one’s burden of early hardships. Has sustaining relationships proved difficult? Data support a similar connection between numbers of romantic partners and formative adversity. Have you struggled to take care of your health and suffered from medical and psychiatric problems more often than others? Rates of heart disease, respiratory illness, obesity, anxiety, depression, and many other serious conditions correlate with childhood trauma, loss, and neglect.

Explaining present difficulties in terms of past mistreatment can lighten our burden of shame and self-reproach. We can see that we have been conditioned to feel insecure and to make unwise choices. Children raised as if they are unloved, deserving of punishment, or bound to the demands and urges of caretakers cannot be expected to grow into adults who treat themselves gently. So we can jettison self-blame.

We who were brought up with burdens of hardship enter the world with a handicap that can be used to excuse conflicts, failures, and nervous breakdowns. It’s really a kind of ‘get out of jail free card,’ an explanation for the sorry state of our inner and/or outer lives.

On one level I’m joking, of course, but on another I’m serious. Deadly serious, because the consequences of early adversity lead to premature mortality in all-too-many cases. A person with an ACE Score of six or more may suffer a two-decade loss of life expectancy. Formative hardship explains so much, it’s a tragedy we don’t talk about it more.

But why concentrate on such depressing facts? Isn’t childhood behind us? What can we possibly do about it now?

The notion that the pain of formative years lies in the past, and should remain there, probably explains why people hesitate to discuss it openly. Society resounds with admonitions to “move on” in life, to not dwell on discouraging memories. Those of us from damaging childhoods can ill afford such progressiveness. We must look back, or we will live in the shadow of early mistreatment forever.

Nowadays there are trauma remedies and psychotherapies that work well to help us heal after childhood adversity. I recommend pursuing as many of these as you can find and can afford. But, in the end, we must construct our own recovery; we must rebuild ourselves from the ground up. Said differently, we must reinterpret ourselves in order to break free of corrosive childhood and societal messages that lurk behind the unskilful things we do and the distressing ways we feel.

Developmental trauma is a study in adverse conditioning. How does an organism fare after being raised to squelch its yearnings, put itself second, and question its right to exist? The answer–as everyday observations and clinical studies demonstrate–is not very well. 

Luckily, what can be learned can be unlearned. True, we can’t expect to undo every bit of negative training, but we can undo a lot of it. What’s more, we can learn to reframe our remaining vulnerabilities until they serve us as strengths. How this can be done is a long story, the one I plan to tell as this writing project proceeds.

As a first step, I’ve found it helpful to acknowledge the problem: my upbringing conditioned me to react strongly to stimuli, to mistrust others, and to doubt myself. This entrainment then led to conflict, withdrawal, and confusion. The point is, I never chose my early lessons; they were imposed on me. Blaming myself for the downstream effects of childhood adversity is not only unhelpful, it’s unfair!


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