Letter from the Brink of Sanity

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 4 min read

497px-Statue_of_Saint_Paul,_Damascus-1How to tell a story that has no beginning and no end? A tale that was ongoing before you were born and continues to this day?

Choose an episode that pressed your first footprints on some new path. Like the time you landed in a mental hospital. Not the first time, when you were bent on squeezing the life out of your sad, broken body, but the second. The time you saw God, or thought you did. Start there.

In the first hospital the fence around the roof-terrace garden rose four feet above your head. Like an inmate, you were led into this pen each day, where you felt the moist San Francisco breeze and the warmth of a sweet pale sun shining through chain link. It might have been pleasant, but you didn’t experience it that way. Demoralized, you were battling a long-checked rage, decades old, now turned against your own body in the desolate dark between thirty-minute bed checks. At night you wrapped your head in cellophane (your sister unknowingly smuggled it in to you) and jammed plastic down your throat, hoping to choke. Each time you reached for death the pain grew too intense, and you broke free to fall backward gasping, frustrated and ashamed. You sensed raving demons in your stark gray room; they loomed over your narrow bed, clinging with curved nails from the steel grate that saved you from jumping out the tenth story window.

No. Don’t mention that hospitalization. Talk about the next one.

Where to begin? How about in the emergency room a week after discharge from the suicide watch? Or earlier, when you were descending the stairs toward the kitchen. The air conditioning was running full-blast, even though it was only March. You were sweating, flushed, blood pressure climbing. Your wife was chilling the house to slow the rivulets flowing off your forehead, the wet patches soaking through your tee shirt, and your incessant pacing. She convinced you to lie down, but you jumped up within minutes. As you descended the stairs you knew. Or thought you knew. You became the chosen one, the prophet called to speak of science in spiritual terms. You saw a shaft of white light, a radiant knife rising up (or plunging down?) through a field of vision that had gone red and floated with stars. You must have been close to passing out; maybe you stood up too fast. But you saw that luminous, righteous blade and you were opened by it. You felt splayed before the truth: you had a destiny, and not the one you expected. You knew, or thought you knew, that glorious, shining column to be the body of God.

After a decade spent in medical and surgical training and seven years more, you had a profession. Maybe not a calling, but a good job: impressive, honorable, and lucrative. Yes, you had walked away from it, defeated by unbearable neck pain, but you hoped for another career just as promising, something to reestablish stature and reassure you of worth. You never thought of becoming a prophet until that moment on the stairs, but you saw later how the idea made sense to a broken psyche. What better way to prove yourself than to become God’s appointed one? The fact you thought this appointing sensible proves, to most people, that you were delusional. Grandiose is the technical term. And yet here you are, writing out loud about it. Admitting insanity, even if temporary. To what end?

Because that luminous blade and all that followed changed you forever. Vivid experience forced you to reappraise your education and your assumptions, until you had no choice but to reject the consensus moderns live by, to admit you don’t know anything for sure any more. Worse, you don’t even want to be sure. For you, faith has become a matter of loving curiosity, not surety, so you choose to live in peace with ambiguity rather than in hell with conviction. If it takes a measure of craziness to force change on a personality, you welcome it.

Your insanity was of a particular sort. You didn’t hear voices, at least not as if there was someone actually speaking to you. Your elevation to rank of ‘prophet’ was revealed through wordless gnosis, not by a disembodied messenger. But even absent commanding hallucinatory voices, whatever understanding you’ve gained sprouted (initially) out of the remnants of a shattered psyche. Out of an unsound mind working to break free of disaster.

But unsound isn’t the same as wrong. Consider what happened next. The red cloudiness had cleared by the time you reached the refrigerator. Before you could open the door a crimson spark caught your attention. It hovered two feet in front of your face and attracted you the way light draws in moths. As you stared at this tiny, potent presence, it exploded in a burst of blood-tinted light, replaying in a moment the full sweep of time, space, and matter. Your body, mind, and soul felt immersed in a replica of the Big Bang. Without questioning why or how you were granted the privilege, you witnessed creation arising from subatomic scales to fill the entire span of the modern universe in a sweeping vision that unfolded in a realm beyond normal sight. From quark to quasar scales the cosmos evolved as a single form before your mind’s eye. Awed, you inhaled an atmosphere of omnipresent love and rightness. Living energy animated and united all. A chorus of celestial voices sang, sounding both distant and near at hand, resonating with the pulse of manifestation. You felt flooded with bliss and basked in divine affection. Every lingering doubt about God was erased and you knew that life has meaning and the universe is filled with purpose. The power of these truths radiated outward and felt as warm and welcoming as an open hearth. At the same time, you understood your own usefulness to causes greater than you had ever dared imagine.

Can a moment outside normal time that reveals meaning and elegance beyond prior experience be considered an error? A mere paroxysm of diseased brain tissue? Or should it be taken seriously, accepted reverently like a gift from God? Might it, in fact, have been such a gift?

You don’t know the answer even now, more than a decade later. But you have made your choice to honor the experience, to learn from it, to use it as a beacon while building a new life and a new identity.

Maybe you could have discounted it. Maybe you could have dismissed it as nothing but manic psychosis or temporal lobe seizure, the way your doctors inclined, if so many other dramatic experiences hadn’t unfolded over the next forty-eight hours and, in less chaotic form, over the many years since.

In those early days a parade of visions, realizations, and interventions came your way, leaving you dazed but elated, broken but glad. Think back…

The Shocking Truth of Suicide?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 1 min read

784px-Leonardo_AlenzaYou publish something online about feeling suicidal, and you quickly realize the topic upsets people. After the last essay, posted both here and on my personal site (WillSpirit!) I received many kind emails and comments, which was sweet and gratifying. But I also heard some expressions of alarm.

Since suicidal depression has haunted my life since my mother died in a psychiatric hospital when I was six, it hardly shocks me. But the average person doesn’t share my lifelong relationship with oppressive sorrow and the insistent urge for relief, and so feels uncomfortable with the topic. On the other hand, the sentiments expressed in many of the responses show that some readers suffer with similar darkness.

Although I do feel a bit exposed after the last essay, it’s hard for me to feel shame about suicidal thoughts. Partly because they feel familiar, and partly because they seem predictable. Who wouldn’t feel suicidal after an upbringing like mine?

Who indeed? The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study demonstrated that the risk of suicide attempts is strongly linked with formative adversity. Compared to a person with an ACE Score of zero, a person with a score of seven or higher is 31 times more likely to attempt suicide as an adult. What this means, in practical terms, is that 35% of adults with very high ACE Scores have already attempted to end their own lives. Since my own score is at least seven, I see no reason to apologize for my despair.

(The ACE Score, by the way, is a rough instrument: it counts the number of categories of adversity without regard for severity or repetition of incidents, and certain kinds of trauma may be missed completely. For instance, loss of a parent to suicide or murder counts the same as loss to divorce, but few of us would view those situations as equivalent. Thus a low score doesn’t mean that childhood was easy or without damaging effects. There is also doubtless an interplay between individual susceptibility and trauma severity. This brings up the issue of “dandelion” versus “orchid” children, which is worth reading about–see David Dobbs’s 2009 article in The Atlantic.)

What about the 65% of adults with ACE scores in the seven-or-above range who haven’t (yet) attempted suicide? Are they all thriving? Stable and well-adjusted? Sadly, I doubt it. Take the example of my sister. She certainly had an adverse upbringing, but she never once mentioned feeling suicidal. She suffered from depression but seemed disinclined to actively take her life. And yet she died at age 58 of alcoholism. She killed herself without ever voicing a desire for self-elimination. In fact, even as death approached she insisted she would keep on living; she never faced the reality of declining health. Despite her life-affirming proclamations, she drank right up to the end.

Adversity in early years spurs a variety of coping mechanisms, most of which are unhealthy when continued over the long run. Substance abuse, suicidality, cutting, over-eating, sexual promiscuity, overwork, and many others can damage one’s body, one’s mind, and one’s relationships. But although they look isolating, life-denying, and/or nonsensical to uninformed observers, seen through the lens of intense emotional pain they make perfect sense. In a 2010 article, Vincent Felitti and colleagues explained that seemingly self destructive behaviors represent “unconsciously attempted solutions to problems dating back to the earliest years but hidden by time, by shame, by secrecy, and by social taboos against exploring certain areas of life experience.

When I describe suicidal thoughts online, I’m attempting to serve both personal and collective purposes. First, I’m exploring my own life experience and working to resolve my difficulties. Second, I’m doing my tiny part to break down the social taboos that keep us trapped in an unhealed past. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

My goal isn’t to shock or alarm. It isn’t to garner support, either, though I do appreciate all the loving concern. Instead, I want to stare my demons down and understand how they operate, while challenging our culture to acknowledge both the prevalence of despair and the reality that mistreated children often grow into tormented adults. Rather than compounding low self-esteem by accusing those who came from difficult backgrounds of weakness, perhaps we should honor them for doing the best they can in a competitive society after an unsupportive upbringing.

Dying to Stay Alive

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • Less than a min read

599px-The_Blue_MarbleStanding in the morgue, looking down at the chill steel slab, I see my own face. It looks exactly like me, the way my sister’s looked exactly like her when I viewed her body eighteen months ago. Exactly the same, but utterly alien too. Not her, not me at all.

Lest anyone believe me fully healed, beyond the reach of misery, know that a week ago I felt closer to suicide than at anytime in the past three years. Thoughts of ending my life pass through my mind often, but on this occasion they felt compelling, insistent. That’s when I flashed forward and saw myself as my own murder victim.

The sorrow I felt was crushing. “Will is dead!” Oh God. Tears raining down my face. And this is what surprised me. How much grief I felt at my own passing. Not the relief I expected.

How did I sink so low? I can’t say. My doctors would call it bipolar disorder. I don’t dispute that, but it felt more like demonic possession. All color trickled out of the world, leaving only a gray, sticky cloud of complaints. I felt haunted by every mistake and trapped by every circumstance. I felt driven to escape, and there was only one door.

The new element in this mood crisis, as opposed to all the others that currently afflict me on a biweekly basis, was a sense of urgency. Death no longer beckoned like a distant siren; I felt propelled toward it, bayonet at my back.

Because of my periodic depressions, my psychiatrist had suggested I try taking one of my old antidepressants on an as-needed basis. I don’t need one all the time, because I usually feel fine. So I had started the pills as my mood began its familiar forty-eight hour collapse. I believe, but can’t be sure, that it was the medication that dialed up the volume of suicide’s call. It’s well known that antidepressants can increase suicidality when first started.

I felt held to the earth only by my ties to my wife, by my knowledge of how much my death would upset her. It was hard staying grounded with so few tethers. And as I watched myself withdraw ever further into darkness, further from connection and marriage, I began to wonder if maybe she wouldn’t be better off…

I know the sequence. First suicide is a whisper, then a shout. Then a decision to act is made, and the howling inside quiets. Relief reigns. From then on one’s actions play out as in a dream. Not quite a nightmare, but not reverie, either. Like sleep-walking while awake. Like a zombie. I was a good ways through this process before ending up in the psychiatric ward back in 2000, shortly after the end of my surgical career.

Luckily, during this recent episode I held on without harming myself or needing institutionalization. The next morning I called around to get help, and I tried to keep active. I met with a close friend, my therapist, and my psychiatrist. I attended two meditation groups, leading one of them. I taught a yoga class at a homeless shelter.

I learned that my connections to Earth are more robust than I usually think. My friend told me how hard my death would hit him. My therapist said the same, with different language. Even my psychiatrist, whose training promotes a more objective posture, told me she truly cares. Other friends who heard the story chimed in too. And I caught glimpses of myself making a difference in the yoga and meditation settings.

This post isn’t the place to detail the historical reasons for my trouble feeling connected with others. Let’s just stipulate that it’s hard, nearly impossible, for me to believe in my heart that anyone cares about me. I can feel it with my dogs, and I see evidence for it in my wife’s behavior, but the idea that I might actually matter to others is hard to grasp. It feels presumptuous. Preposterous and undeserved.

And terrifying. To feel loved is to feel so very vulnerable.

But the irony is that to exclude love from one’s consciousness leaves one feeling vulnerable too. Only now it’s combined with loneliness and isolation.

Life has ever been hard for me. Perhaps that comes across here? But it’s also been electrifying, fascinating, remarkable. And I’ve tried really, really hard to make it work for me.

Now that the crisis is past, I can see how the hardship opened me to new understanding, as always. I can see how more love surrounds me than I admitted before. I can see how much effort I’ve put into resolving my many psychiatric quirks, and how in spite of occasional embarrassing meltdowns, I’m more solid than before. The fact that I’ve made some progress might even count as a major accomplishment.

It’s a difficult world, and the human mind presents a varied and hazardous landscape. At least mine does: sickening gorges of depression, vertiginous peaks of ecstasy, boring salt flats spreading to the horizon, lush jungles, and meadows ringing with wildflowers and bees. And here I am, stumbling like a drunkard from nation to nation, only dimly aware that it’s all one country, one globe. The divisions, the changes, are but marks of nature’s artistry. It can all feel so blessed, and so dammed.

More and more, between brief bouts of agony, I can see this vast panorama spreading before me, behind me, above and below. It surrounds us all, embraces us all, sweeps us into the future, pulsing with ruin and promise. It’s this vision of creation as a seamless, roiling whole, that motivates me to delay, as long as naturally possible, the moment I meet myself in death.

I Think, therefore I Feel?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 4 min read

405px-Mr_Pipo_Brain_Gears_by_Love.svgWe suffer for our ideas. Here are some of the concepts that can make me miserable: “I haven’t lived up to my potential;” “I don’t have enough friends;” “I’ll be alone in old age;” “No one takes me seriously.”

These thoughts are prompted by my personal history and situation, but they amount to vague and ungrounded fears. (How is potential defined? How many friends equals enough? Can I be sure about the future? How would I know if I were taken seriously?) It surprises me that I care so much about thoughts with so little solidity.

Why do mere ideas carry such weight? It’s a question worth asking from time to time. In answering, my first impulse is to turn to neuroscience. What might a basic understanding of the brain suggest about why beliefs feel important?

In simplest terms, we have emotional centers deep in the cerebral cortex that color our attitudes. The amygdala is a prime emotion generator responsible many negative feelings (and a few positive ones). It recognizes threats and primes us to react. It drives our rage and our terror.

Emotion centers are often considered more primitive than brain regions responsible for rational thought, because they evolved earlier. But emotions are vital even to logical decision making. It’s been shown that when people suffer damage to these ‘lower’ brain regions, they sometimes lose the ability to make choices. Despite being able to list the pros and cons of competing options, they can’t choose among them. Why not? Probably because they lack the feeling that choices matter. Without an emotional sense of better vs worse, the result is indifference or paralysis.

Emotions are valuable. They aren’t infantile, rudimentary surges that overwhelm higher thought. They’re the engines that propel us toward what matters in life. Still, although feelings are vital and necessary, they get us in trouble. Why is that?

Consider how emotions evolved. We share the amygdala and related emotion structures with other mammals. One of the reasons we bond better with dogs than with lizards is that mammals display emotional depth but reptiles don’t. Dogs can appear happy, downcast, hopeful, loving, and angry. Lizards can’t. As mammals became less lizard-like and more dog-like, something important was gained: feeling.

Emotions serve as a strong motivators for life-preserving action. Mammals respond to feelings as if they matter because, in fact, emotions weigh in on life or death decisions. A twinge of fear might warn of a lurking predator. A burst of lust might signal a chance to procreate. Craving might lead to a nutritious meal. Each of these cases makes a difference to survival, to reproduction, to life. Emotions are what motivate the vital choices that keep a species propagating through time. The animal that feels fear knows to hide, or flee, or fight. It does so with passion, driven by strong inner signals. In like fashion, an animal that feels love defends its young or its social group, and so preserves its progeny and kin.

In the wild, emotions drive behaviors that promote life: feeding, defense, reproduction. Feelings aren’t arbitrary preferences without import; they’re symbols of survival, death, and birth.

For humans, however, emotions no longer arise only in biologically meaningful situations. They pop up around concepts and beliefs. We can feel threatened by assaults on status, or hopes, or ideas. Think of wars fought over religion or ideology. Think of teenagers shooting neighbors who wear the ‘wrong’ colors. Think of children arguing over the TV remote.

We still have strong feelings, but they no longer relate to basic necessities of life like feeding, sex, and foiling predators. Instead, they’re attached to ideas, to abstract concepts that grow out of culture and history. But despite this disconnect, we respond as if our very lives are on the line. Why? Because that’s how it feels.

Every idea that we care about possesses taproots that draw sustenance from the emotional centers of the brain. If you mock my beliefs, I feel anger and want to attack. My fury would be appropriate if you threatened physical injury, but does it make sense if you just disagree with my ideas? Should verbal conflict escalate to rage? To violence? Probably not, but it often does.

Why? Because on an emotional level we are fighting for our lives. This is what our physiology remembers from the evolutionary past. Our emotion centers can’t distinguish between a fight over the only gazelle killed in a month on the savannah and an argument over which TV program to watch (the brain as a whole can, of course, but only if we exercise rational oversight sufficient to suppress emotional reactivity).

Nor do feelings readily distinguish between protecting a living, breathing parent versus defending a mythical concept of God, or a conviction that “God” is a dangerous delusion. I’ve lost both religious and atheist friends by challenging such beliefs.

We care about ideas more than we should because feelings evolved to aid decisions about life and death, not abstractions. This has implications on many levels; it explains a lot of political and social discord. But let’s keep it personal. Sometimes I feel badly about myself because I don’t measure up to society’s standards. To my amygdala, this doesn’t feel like mere failure to satisfy arbitrary criteria: it feels like I might be cast out of the tribe, an exile that would ensure death. No wonder I get upset!

Imagine what a relief it would be to separate the conceptual from the emotional. Imagine if I could recognize standards as contingent and historical rather than internalizing them as requirements for tribal support and survival. Imagine if my thoughts and feelings were less tightly linked.

What we know about neuroscience implies the possibility of disconnecting abstract ideas from strong feelings, because the two are generated by different brain regions that act at least somewhat independently. Interestingly, centuries before we knew anything useful about the brain, yogic and Buddhist philosophies were teaching that feelings and thoughts are separable. Working to recognize and increase the distance between emotion and cognition was one of the key steps toward achieving mature, enlightened peace of mind.

Am I reaching my full potential? Have I sufficient friends? Will I be isolated in twenty years? Does anyone think my blog worthwhile? With a bit of practice, I can ask these questions out of curiosity without surges of regret, insecurity, dread, or despair. The lexical and emotional gears don’t need to interlock, one driving the other as if my life depended on it.

Let’s close by remembering that sometimes ideas do matter. A belief that says unbelievers are dangerous can cause problems. But why? Because emotional turmoil might escalate and drive desperate, aggressive action aimed at defending the belief (as if it were life or limb). It’s hard to imagine fanatics attacking others if they didn’t feel strongly about their ideas. So the issue is partly with the logical content of thought, but it has more to do with emotional response to thought.

The prescription remains the same: separate ideas from feelings. If children were taught this skill, there would be fewer adults driven to insane acts by mere concepts.

Where Mindfulness Fails

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 4 min read

Over cups of coffee a few days ago, my friend Larry Berkelhammer and I discussed mindfulness meditation. For some reason, I felt moved to criticize Western mindfulness instruction as “derivative.” Larry served as a good foil to my rant, since as explained in the ‘About Dr. Berkelhammer‘ section of his website, he has a long, distinguished history of practicing mindful meditation and teaching it to those with chronic illness.

Let me admit up front that I was tossing out an ill-formed opinion that stands contrary to truth. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the well-known advocate of mindfulness in clinical settings, hardly deserves scorn. Nor do Buddhist meditation teachers, many of whom have helped me advance on my path toward greater acceptance and less neurosis. I could chalk my comments up to a momentary breakdown of reason.

But after considering the matter for several days, I wonder if there isn’t some vein of truth hidden amidst the sediments of useless argument. If so, we can consider this essay a mining expedition, a search for the valid nugget of concern that motivated my remarks.

Since I kept labeling Western mindfulness derivative, it makes sense to start there. Meditation as taught in medical centers, as popularized by Kabat-Zinn, comes stripped of the Eastern metaphysical context from which it emerged long ago. Teachers emphasize technique and downplay interpretation. There is no discussion of the nature of reality. The origins of mind might be considered from a neuroscience perspective, but not from a mystical one. Students learn body scanning, mindful eating, walking meditation, and nonjudgmental awareness, but they are not encouraged to question modernity’s basic assumptions about the universe. Non-duality and cosmic consciousness are off the table.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Larry Berkelhammer, and others who have introduced the power of mindfulness to the suffering would never have succeeded had they insisted on philosophical stances contrary to what moderns consider realism. Medical institutions are both cautious and conventional. Even devoid of metaphysics, mindfulness faced resistance at first.

Meanwhile, teachers at Buddhist centers have long brought contemporary values and outlooks to task. They point out the destructive power of greed and selfish competition. They emphasize the delusions that underlie unhealthy behavior. If the situation demands it, they don’t shrink from questioning cherished Western notions.

So I have to ask myself, what makes me resist acquiescence to the status quo? What important ingredient is missing from mindfulness training?

Mindful meditation remains powerful as a stand-alone technique. And the Buddha himself cautioned against obsessing about unanswerable metaphysical questions; he advised us to focus on healing our tormented minds. So if isolated mindfulness instruction is deficient in some way, the flaw is far from fatal.

Still, some nugget of valid concern drove me to criticize this demonstrably useful training.

Twenty-five years ago I began my spiritual quest after Alcoholics Anonymous challenged me to believe in a “higher power.” Since I’d been raised as an atheist, this seemed like an impossible demand. But I valued my sobriety and felt it important to seek something like God.

Visitors to this site have read some of the results. During my search for a higher power, I’ve experienced profound religious visions and felt “something like God” burn its presence into my consciousness. I’ve entered deep meditative states and seen cosmic unity as not only true but obvious, brimming with love and rightness. My entire worldview has been transformed. I can’t say anything too specific about reality’s underpinnings, but my heart is flooded with affection whenever I contemplate this fertile world. I don’t believe in a God separate from creation, but I wonder if the Cosmos itself isn’t something like the great deity religions speak of: timeless, creative, powerful, and embracing.

I imagine that anyone reading the previous paragraph can see how it goes beyond everyday mindfulness. To be precise, it opens to the Sacred. Numinosity, I now understand, is what’s missing from clinical mindfulness training. Sadly, because of prejudice against mysticism, Buddhist Vipassana meditation centers emphasize it less than they might. There is reverence, yes, but not much awe.

I would argue that one big problem in the modern world is exactly our refusal to feel dumbstruck by Creation. We believe that because we can explain its mechanistic details, we have bridled Nature. This leaves us feeling powerful, but alone. Deluded into thinking we can control chaotic and complex forces, we destroy the very world that nurtures us.

Religions, for all their faults, encourage us to crumble to our knees before powers too vast and mysterious to be comprehended. This is the essential ingredient that contemporary mindfulness instruction lacks. Even some “spiritual” teachings, like those in many urban Buddhist centers, constrain their demands in deference to a widely accepted but devotionally bereft worldview.

Materialist atheism is no more provable than traditional deism. And ultimate truth likely lies somewhere in between. I am by no means advocating belief in improbable doctrine or literal interpretation of primitive myths. But let’s also be realistic in our valuation of human reason, which easily dissects processes but cannot nail down absolute reality. The appropriate stance is therefore humility, not certainty. Humanity would do well to nourish feelings of awe in place of arrogance.

Meditative techniques were developed in India, millennia ago, in order to guide seekers to union with the great mystery, with Brahmin, or God (take your pick of terminology). Nowadays intellectuals dismiss most theologies, and Buddhism moved away from asking about ultimate reality in order to confront the more immediate problem of day-to-day insanity. But the human spirit seems driven to worship something, and there is great danger if it chooses to worship itself rather than the inscrutable forces that created it.

While evolving as hunter-gatherers, humans recognized their smallness relative to the biosphere and their intimate dependence upon Nature. This would have felt frightening, but also embracing. Our society now acts as if it stands separate from global ecology. The traditional Gods of civilization appear inorganic and detached. Scientific materialism appeals to the intellect but not the heart. The human psyche feels ever more disconnected and bored in this stark conceptual landscape.

Because conventional mindfulness training fails to encourage bowing before ineffable forces, it is not the most effective cure for feelings of isolation and alienation. Admittedly, in its full expression mindfulness triggers the non-dual state, which opens one’s eyes to the lack of distinction between the witness and the Witnessed. But resonant awareness comes late in the game, and not everyone experiences it. Mindfulness is a derived technique of great value, but recovering the abandoned Sacred is at least as vital to a healthy future.

With everything said above, my conclusion still must be that I was wrong to criticize mindfulness. It is an invaluable tool that has brought relief to many suffering souls, including mine.

Still, no single tonic is capable of healing all disease. The human collective needs mindfulness, but it also needs devotion to something greater than itself.

What Goes Around Comes Around

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 4 min read

Feelings spread through groups of people, right? Not long ago I was riding in the car with my wife when another driver behaved aggressively as we sped down the freeway. It was frightening and maddening. As the other car cut her off, my spouse reacted irritably. In hopes of calming her I pointed out that the dangerous driver must have been feeling pretty crummy to act as he did. His rage threatened to infect us, almost like a psychic virus. I suggested we build up immunity and try to keep his poison out of our minds. It isn’t often that a husband can change his wife’s thinking, but on this occasion my words helped a little.

So I’ve been thinking about this ever since. Consider the classic story of the boss yelling at the manager, the manager punishing a worker, the worker going home and insulting his wife, the wife scolding the child, and the child kicking the cat. The angst that drove the boss to act out gets propagated and ends up hurting the hapless family pet.

We see variations on this all the time. In every stock market crash negativity spreads so rapidly that securities can lose half their value in a day. Terrorist attacks are intended to inject paranoia and despair into a population, and they often succeed. Arguably, the massive US debt that now weighs down our economy resulted from the (second) Iraq war, which never could have been launched save for 9/11. Psychic toxins spread swiftly and do great harm.

I’m reminded of Richard Dawkin’s concept of a meme: “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins used the example of religion, which transmits highly specific ideas about God and morality. He proposed that as they are passed from person to person, concepts replicate with occasional modification; over time the most ‘successful’ (i.e., most adopted) memes come to dominate group thought.

Perhaps the phenomena I’m discussing here could be referred to as affemes, or ‘affective memes.’ The propagated tendencies aren’t ideas that can be modified over time (like memes). Instead, we see transmission of mood or emotional tone. And affemes aren’t replicated mental constructs like memes, because all that’s diffusing is strong feeling, not a specific idea. Thus, a raging parent will affect the child, but the child may become fearful rather than rageful.

An affeme doesn’t have to be negative. Kindness spreads too. And again, it doesn’t replicate in the strict sense of the word. If one child offers another a chance to play kickball during recess, the included youngster will be more inclined to share cookies at lunchtime. What’s transmitted is the uplifting emotion, not the specific act.

Perhaps we can distinguish a total of just two affeme types: negative and positive, or malignant and beneficial. We could call these malaffemes and benaffemes, respectively. Nearly every time we interact with another person, we unconsciously broadcast affemes of one sort or another. The task for anyone devoted to personal and world peace, then, would be to build immunity against malaffemes while learning to generate and appreciate benaffemes.

OK. I’ll admit introducing all this terminology probably just clouds the issue. Sayings like, “don’t fight fire with fire” and “turn the other cheek” have long guided the wise to resist absorbing negativity from others. There is nothing new here.

Still, I like viewing the widespread social toxicity we experience today as a contagion. That way I am able to see those who offend me as ill and suffering rather than mean and subhuman. If I feel a negative affeme penetrating, I can quickly recognize the incipient infection and mount my mental immune system. On several occasions I’ve found this strategy effective.

When we don’t resist malaffemes, they spread until we encounter irritable, hostile people at every turn. Not only do others become more unpleasant as the negativity diffuses through the population; we are also more likely to view them that way. On the other hand, if we resist the contagion and broadcast counterbalancing benaffemes, we generate kindness in the world and are more inclined to see small instances of it.

Personally, I don’t buy into the Judeo-Christian belief (or meme) that Good and Evil exist as personified forces battling for human souls. But there is a sense in which negativity and positivity are locked in an ongoing struggle for ascendance. If we can see how moods spread through populations, and how we internalize both the pain and happiness of others, we can begin to make choices about which influences to absorb and encourage, and which to reject. The world might become a bit friendlier as a result.

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that both so-called positive and negative emotions can be constructive or destructive. Depending on the context, a painful emotional state may actually be a benaffeme. During a recent weekend workshop devoted to grieving, we all expressed a lot of painful feelings, but these were in the service of healing. For that reason, I would consider the emoting beneficial, despite the pain felt by participants. If someone had laughed out loud while another was sobbing about loss, the lightening of tension might have felt positive to the person laughing, but it would have hurt the person grieving. Thus, I’d have considered the laughter a malaffeme.

The central issue is constructive (healing) versus destructive (harming) behavior. Anger could be a benaffeme if employed to stop child abuse. One needs to look at the big picture; the perpetrator might feel humiliated but the youngster would be saved, which certainly outweighs the objections of the former. (And eventually even the abuser might feel grateful, if prevented from harming an innocent.)

We can all watch the affemes we project as well the ones we internalize. What we send out into society should be chosen with care: most often we do well to act kindly, but sometimes forceful words are needed. Wise behavior and strong immunity serve both collective and personal wellbeing.

It’s All Broken, and None of It Needs to Be Fixed

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 3 min read

The last post explored the futility of seeking lasting satisfaction through work, love, and other worldly pursuits. Recognizing this dilemma, we might ask: If satisfaction is evanescent, why do anything at all? Why not just refuse to participate?

But even stasis leaves an imprint, so we need to be sure of ourselves before rejecting society and its activities. We cannot avoid marking the world; our freedom lies in selecting how. We are destined to work and to love, but our decisions direct our efforts and affection. Some strive toward selfish ends and love narrowly. Others behave generously and adore the entire biosphere.

All of which raises another question: How do we optimize our choices?

Continue reading… »

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 4 min read

Until recently, I seldom felt satisfied. Even during those rare periods when life was going smoothly, without uproar or mood disorder, it always seemed lacking. No career, relationship, home, hobby, or vacation escaped this critique.

I knew mine was not a healthy attitude and harbored no doubt that my personality was flawed. But I could not fix the problem.

Although I don’t call myself a Buddhist, there is little doubt that the Buddha saw our human situation clearly. One of his “Four Noble Truths” states that life is inherently unsatisfying. This comforts me, because it situates the root problem in the world rather than my character.

Not that I don’t need to change, but the issue isn’t one of learning to feel fulfilled in the common sense of the word. Adjusting my personality won’t alter the fact that life disappoints.

According to Buddhist nosology, afflictions of the human spirit derive from three delusions about reality. We habitually seek permanence, satisfaction, and individuality, but impermanence is the rule, dissatisfaction is unavoidable, and individuality is an illusion.

A recent series of posts on my primary site, WillSpirit.com, attempted to tackle the last of these three, which I believe to be the most challenging. Today’s essay deals mainly with the second and a little with the first, both of which are easier to accept.

Continue reading… »

The Rules That Rule Our Lives

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 5 min read

Both here and on my primary site, I’ve covered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) several times. The ACT method has helped me find peace of mind that exceeds what I was able to achieve using other therapies.

It seems like a worthy topic for that reason, but I should emphasize that my perspective is that of an informed layperson, not a psychotherapist. Consider this a disclaimer: these blog posts cannot be used as guides to adopting ACT behavioral techniques. My goal is merely to advertise the power of the therapy. Interested readers should consult authoritative books and professionals.

With that out of the way, I’d like to return to my last post, which attempted to illustrate some ACT concepts through the vehicle of my own hangups following my mother’s death.

As I look back at that essay, I see it covers a lot of ground. Single sentences gloss over topics that take up entire chapters in ACT texts. For the sake of clarity, it’s worth dissecting the key points a bit further.

Continue reading… »

A Giant Leap of Faith

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 3 min read

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been very helpful to me in grieving important losses, including those that still haunt me from childhood. In this context, ACT’s working hypothesis is that the questions and recriminations with which we torment ourselves after the death of a loved one are products of language and can be addressed by adjusting our relationship with verbal thought.

ACT emphasizes how thinking can interact with feelings to obstruct our pursuit of values. Let’s take my mother’s death as an example and see how this works.

As mentioned last time, my mother died in a psychiatric hospital after battling depression for years. That much is factual. But my mind has never been satisfied with the documented information.

Continue reading… »


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