Guideposts to Happiness Little tidbits of wisdom and knowledge, helping you find your way to happiness and happy, by Will Meecham. 2017-01-23T22:16:13Z Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[Do Auras Exist?]]> 2015-12-31T17:51:20Z 2015-12-31T14:54:23Z V838,_Hubble_images-2My MindfulBiology project grew out of a desire to reconcile my understandings of science and spirituality, a yearning that began in adolescence. During a solo John Muir Trail hike at age sixteen, I felt dwarfed by granite spires looming above meadows sparkling with wildflowers. Geology, biology, and mysticism appeared inseparable. My upbringing and education had taught me to reify science and ridicule spirituality, but in the mountains it felt wrong to divide the two, and even more wrong to value them differently.

Another time I’ll write out more of MindfulBiology’s history. Today I want to focus on one problem faced by those who honor both scientific and spiritual worldviews. How to respond when they seem to contradict one another?

People of strong mystical sensibility feel convinced of phenomena science rejects as imaginary or delusional. Consider auras. New age enthusiasts feel comfortable talking about them as if they are objectively real, but skeptics will tell you there is no evidence for their existence.

From a scientific standpoint, data consistent with the physical existence of auras are scanty. Faint electrical signals coming from the heart can be detected around a human body, but it seems doubtful that these account for the play of colors described by those who see auras. For one thing, human eyes lack detectors for electromagnetic waves in the frequency range of those emanating from the heart.

At the same time, it seems clear that people who describe auras truly see something. Some weeks ago my friend Richard Bernstein read my aura. Although he has written a book entitled, The Language of the Aura Richard is cautious and has only rarely done formal readings. After watching me walk away from him and back again a few times, he used pastel chalk to demonstrate the hues he saw. As he offered interpretations, I was struck by how he picked up trends in my current situation that went beyond our verbal exchanges: the colors seemed to reveal core shifts we hadn’t discussed. Since Richard is one of the most honest and sincere people I know, this demanded more more than a skeptic’s assumption that I was being manipulated.

One could declare that auras are supernatural, beyond the reach of measurement and rational explanation. But if that’s the case, there’s little more to say about them, since nothing can be proven, and skeptics can hardly be blamed for doubting their existence.

What seems more promising is to recognize that the problem isn’t that auras can’t be measured, but that they can’t be seen except by those who see them. In other words, they are subjective, not objective. Science can work with subjective states; psychologists do so all the time. They employ many methods but generally begin by using first-person reports to develop testable hypotheses.

Such a hypothesis occurred to me after my time with Richard. What if people who see auras have a form of synesthesia, so that what they sense emotionally appears to them visually? A Google search showed me this isn’t a new idea; it has even been investigated in a scientific article, though one of limited scope and method.

People with synesthesia experience crosstalk between senses. For example, there have been musicians for whom specific notes evoked specific colors, and mathematicians for whom different numbers appeared in different hues. Synesthesia has had the sort of history you’d expect of a rare form of perception that strikes ‘ordinary’ people as impossible. Early on, psychologists felt fascinated by it, but for much of the twentieth century its occurrence was doubted because it seemed to contradict neurology. Nowadays, even the most sober scientists acknowledge that some people experience synesthesia, and functional brain imaging has demonstrated atypical firing patterns when it occurs.

If some people perceive colors in association with numbers or musical tones, why couldn’t others see them in association with affective states?  Facial expressions, body postures, vocal intonations, and so on are all detectable by emotional regions of the brain and could—in synesthetes of this type—generate characteristic hues. The hypothesis is both plausible and testable: it could be assessed with functional brain imaging.

It seems to me that auras have many of the same characteristics as the colors seen by synesthetes, in particular the way they enrich experience: Richard Bernstein doesn’t just see auras, he feels informed by them. He seems able to make productive use of the hues he sees, as have many of the famous synesthetes throughout history.

Here’s what I believe to be the key point: if auras were proven to be synesthetic, their power would not be diminished. The intuitions of those who perceive them would lose none of their accuracy.

The value of scientific hypotheses when applied to mystical experiences isn’t that they make understandable what was once mysterious. Since mystery fuels awe, it is one of our main sources of meaning, and programs to eradicate it are unhealthy. (Fortunately, after every explanation a new mystery appears, so such programs are also doomed.) The value of hypotheses is that they help bring spiritual and scientific perspectives into closer alignment and begin to heal the rift between the two.

This should be our guiding light as we try to reconcile spiritual experience with scientific understanding. Mystically inclined people need not fear rational explanations, and rationalists need not fear mystical experience. Both ways of knowing are important human capacities. They can be brought into healthful coherence only to the extent we respect them equally. Our aim should be to seek explanations while appreciating that reality is—at heart—mysterious and awe-inspiring.

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[The Body, In Relationship]]> 2015-12-19T22:34:51Z 2015-12-19T22:34:51Z FamilyThe body is relational. This is true on every level. In an era of social media, we might be lulled into believing that relationships can be built between minds alone, without involvement of vulnerable, sensate bodies. But this would be a delusion. Electronic devices do not—so far—jack directly into our nervous systems; they connect with our thoughts through biological eyes, ears, and hands. And, lest we forget, online friends do not exist solely online; they enjoy flesh and blood lives in the real world.

Despite our fascination with networked communications, there is a richness in body-to-body contact that instant messages, online profiles, and even video calls cannot match. Nothing electronic rivals the feel of one organism near another.

Physical contact bonds us in ways mere words and images cannot, and it begins before birth; in fact, that is when it is most profound. Even “test tube babies” develop within the warm, moist, vibrant interior of human females. Soon after, the mother-infant bond depends critically on touch. In adulthood, our most intimate relationships are usually with our sexual partners; the act of lovemaking is the surest way to cement two humans in affectionate partnership.

Social contact is important, but the body relates in many other ways. Within our tissues, there is never-ending communication. Nerve cells chatter constantly; hormones levels synchronize body systems with cycles of life (as day moves into night, child grows into adult, or fertility rises and falls); immune cells coordinate attacks against threats with more signaling than a modern army. On the smallest scales, deep within cells, a complex web of chemical pathways responds to changing needs.

Meanwhile, in the larger ecosphere, the body relates to other lifeforms with every breath and every meal. We need plants to convert the sun’s power into energy-rich biomolecules. We rely on bacteria that decompose dead life and provide fertilizer to plants. The body depends upon the entire world, which is another way of saying it relates with that world.

Buddhist teachings insist that it is delusional to view ourselves or our bodies as isolated, independent agents, and biology agrees.  The body is no more independent from the rest of life than a leaf is independent of the rest of the tree.

There is yet one more way in which the body is relational: it relates to the mind. This brings up the mind-body question. Earlier philosophers (most famously, Descartes) looked at mind and body as fundamentally different, with the former inhabiting the latter. But today’s thinkers, influenced by neuroscience, consider mind to be a product of brain and body, not an inhabitant of them. And many Eastern traditions, such as yoga, talk about mind-body unity.

Regardless of the ‘correct’ answer to the mind-body question, we feel a separation. We see and sense our bodies as if from a slight remove, and we experience our minds within them. Mind attends body, and body contains mind. This is the basis for a mind-body relationship, which in modern humans is often very dysfunctional.

Improving the quality of mind-body interactions is a central aim of my MindfulBiology project (as it is in yoga, Vajrayana Buddhism, and many other traditions). The first step in healing our relationship with our bodies is recognizing that one exists. Then, as we pay attention to how we interact with our bodies, we can begin to offer them more gentleness and appreciation. As we relate less aggressively toward our own organic natures, we will find ourselves treating other people and the ecosphere more wisely.

In social, biological, ecological, and philosophical terms, the body is a relational being, and all these layers of relationship influence each other. Human life is about relating, and health is about relating with affection and care.

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[The Sensitive Human Animal]]> 2015-12-09T15:57:46Z 2015-12-09T15:57:46Z 299x450_q95We humans can’t see our bodies clearly. Think of the lovely young woman, already slender, who looks in a mirror and sees ugliness and fat. Or think of the poorly conditioned middle-aged man who acts like a swaggering college kid. Or think of religious traditions that once dismissed the notion that humans are related to so-called lower animals, even though such kinship looks pretty obvious.

Why we delude ourselves is a topic for another time. Today, I’d like to focus on one tactic that helps repair understanding. Most of us have cherished domestic animals at some point in our lives. Whether cat or dog, horse or hamster, we find it easy to bond with our mammalian kin. Birds, equally warm and wise, also make good friends. For that matter, some people grow attached to reptiles or fish. So most of us have a familiarity with the ways animals live, and how their lives differ from our own. We feel protective of these beings because they seem more innocent, less conflicted, and more trustworthy than humans.

We can use our understanding of non-human animals to better understand human ones. We can penetrate the fog that surrounds us when we look at our own bodies by considering the bodies of our domestic companions.

Let’s focus on one obvious fact: animals are sensitive. My wife and I live with an eleven pound dachshund-chihuahua mix. Our little Emily is generally adventuresome, but she frightens easily. Fireworks, alarms, and loud vehicles all trigger fear reactions: she trembles and seems unable to settle down.

Think of the noises the typical urban dweller experiences regularly: sirens, jackhammers, automotive roaring and honking, angry screaming, and so on. These days I dwell on the fringes of a major urban area, so I’m a little more protected. But in years past I lived in the midst of all that jarring sound, yet I never trembled from it.

Was that because I’m smarter than my little dog, who would feel debilitated by such clamor? Or was it because I tuned out my own animal reactions? On an unconscious level, was my body responding with muscle tension, heightened stress hormones, and so on? I believe it was.

Our bodies are profoundly attuned to their environments. They register every sight, sound, odor, and texture. They know, innately and immediately, when danger threatens.

You might wonder: isn’t the body often mistaken? Imagine you’re standing beneath an airport’s flight path: when a jet roars overhead, your bodily tension rises. Isn’t this a needless response? The chance of the aircraft crashing is remote.

Growing up I spent many weekends with my father measuring sound levels around Los Angeles International Airport. With decibel meters in hand, we visited playgrounds and classrooms, driveways and living rooms. My dad then ran statistical analyses that showed strong correlation between noise intensity and stress-related deaths, such as from heart attack and stroke. Noise pollution damaged local residents even though most of them took the thunderous clamor in stride, barely noticing the jets passing overhead every ninety seconds.

In this scenario, we could either say the body is reacting with needless stress, or that the mind is denying the impact of intense noise. It seems to me the latter interpretation is more plausible. That was always my dad’s position when opponents quibbled about details of study design. He acknowledged the work had limitations, but he pointed out that anyone who spent time under the flight path would feel disturbed by the awesome, bone-rattling racket. If visitors can’t wait to leave, how could residents stay without ill effect?

Intense noise is an extreme case, but it highlights the body’s sensitivity. The human organism feels stressed by circumstances the mind ignores. I believe this may be happening on a global scale, as we see rapidly rising rates of chronic illness, which is clearly stress-related. Rather than openly discussing the root causes of obesity, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, and cancer (such as economic disparity, employment insecurity, over-burdened families, health care dysfunction, environmental pollution, and so on), policy makers view the medical consequences in isolation. They deny what the body knows: modern society is toxic to life.

My little dog, if she could speak, would tell us that the hubbub of modernity is unhealthy. But we have trouble seeing (or, more accurately, <em>feeling</em>) the obvious, because we don’t listen to our biology.

We can’t encourage the entire culture to honor the wisdom of the body, but we can encourage ourselves. The first step is recognizing the organism’s responsiveness, the way it resonates with its environment. We can begin by remembering the sensitivity of non-human animals, using that insight to find the same sensitivity in our own bodies. By listening, mindfully, to bodily reactions, we can gradually determine what is healthy and what isn’t. We can begin to restructure our lives to limit the damage caused by modern life. We can adopt relaxation practices; we can choose livelihoods that bolster rather than betray our values; we can seek out like-minded souls for mutual support and validation.

The sensitive human animal knows what’s best. If we all learned to listen to it, the world would change. The wealthy and powerful would <em>feel</em> the suffering caused by unjust and ecologically irresponsible policies. The underclasses would band together, finding strength in non-violent action. Humanity would consume less and savor more.

Is this utopian? Perhaps. But it is what our bodies want. Don’t take my word for it: the next time you feel settled, calm, and unhurried, listen deeply to your own animal nature. A healing wisdom will be heard, murmuring in your sinews.

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[Suicide: A Symptom of Global Spiritual Malaise?]]> 2015-05-30T16:21:35Z 2015-05-29T21:01:02Z Recently my cousin wrote a brave letter to her local newspaper in response to two suicides that affected her children. Her message picked up a lot of attention because it addresses mental health issues with great open-heartedness and honesty. I felt moved to comment on her website, where she also posted the letter. Because my response looks at mental illness from the perspective I now consider most important, I am posting a slightly modified version of it here. I encourage readers to visit my cousin’s site (Rock, Paper, Write) to read the piece that led me to write what I’ve published below.

Dear Carrie–

It seems clear your post makes reference to me in its first paragraph, since I am both your cousin and someone who has attempted suicide. Although I am sorry to have added to your burden of exposure to such a frightening and tragic fact of modern life, I am happy to know that you care enough to feel affected by my story. One of the lies depression tells the sufferer is that he or she is not loved. It is nice to be reminded that I am.

I no longer suffer much from my former mental health issues. I have occasional dark periods that can be quite intense, but they are rare enough and brief enough that they don’t leave much lingering effect on me or those around me. Although there are many things I could say here in response to your beautiful essay, I want to concentrate on what it took for me to overcome my psychiatric conditions. We all wish that everyone who suffers with such problems could transcend them. How can it be done?

In my opinion, true healing demands spiritual growth. Such maturation derives from two key practices: meditation and devotion. Both are very helpful to those with psychiatric problems, but many people can improve a great deal by pursuing just one or the other.

Beginning meditation instruction (these days, most commonly focusing on mindfulness) often calms the psyche rather quickly. As one meditates over time, the practice fosters acceptance, so that outer life circumstances and inner mental states no longer cause such painful resistance and suffering (there may be brief episodes during this stage when psychic pain actually intensifies, due to more capacity to allow emergence of deeply buried conflicts). As meditative skills deepen, one feels begins to feel profoundly connected with other people, and indeed all living beings. Calm, acceptance, and feelings of connectedness all go a long way toward healing depression and other psychiatric afflictions. There are now mindfulness-based mental health interventions, such as DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) that can help those suffering from psychiatric disorders learn mindfulness techniques in safe, measured ways.

Devotional practices, by which I mean the best features of the theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, help in a different way. They encourage the sufferer to locate that energy within the heart that feels mysterious, eternal, and loving. They remind us that the entire world operates with this deep, creative principle at its core. Whether we call this quality Yaweh, Christ, Allah, Brahman, or (as I prefer) Life, is immaterial. What matters is recognizing that love does not depend on other people; it is available to anyone who opens to it. And what does such opening require? A calm, accepting, and connected spirit. In other words, devotional awareness is facilitated by the fruits of meditation, which is why all religions include elements of peaceful, contemplative practice.

Listing the benefits that accrue, it seems obvious that meditation and devotion can serve as powerful antidotes to depression, anxiety, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, addictions, and so on. Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out some eighty years ago, with its emphasis on prayer and meditation (stated explicitly in the Eleventh Step). I believe much faith-healing throughout the ages has been based on the same principles.

The point is, many problems of mental health can be looked at as problems of spiritual health (a few may be primarily due to brain chemistry, but even here meditation and devotion may help). It is this insight, which seems ever more obvious to me as my own wellbeing improves, that recently prompted me to apply to a training program for Spiritual Directors. I briefly considered psychotherapy programs, but I soon realized it makes more sense to work on the problem’s source rather than its downstream effects.

Which begs the question: Why are so many people so spiritually ill? I’m sure we all can imagine some possibilities: ecological deterioration, never-ending wars and violence, diminishing opportunities, intense competition, rampant consumerism, endemic injustice, disconnected communities, religious fanaticism, etc. What better recipe could there be for spiritual malaise?

These stressors are hard on everyone, but they hit those who have been traumatized or raised without affection even harder. Which explains why the frequency of psychiatric disorders shows such strong statistical association with childhood adversity. But sensitive people, even if raised with love, may still suffer in the face of the modern world’s madness.

In fact, it is a wonder that all people aren’t mentally ill. Or maybe the term has been too narrowly defined. The documentary “I Am” makes the point that in indigenous cultures selfishness is considered a kind of mental disorder. If we added tendencies like excessive greed and lack of regard for others to the list of psychiatric afflictions, we’d probably find that psychological morbidity affects a majority of the population.

And I suppose–in considering the remainder of the populace that seems to be doing pretty well–we could remember Krishnamurti’s saying: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Perhaps those who feel no ill effects are just not paying close attention.

Well, we can’t fix our culture so easily as we can strengthen our minds and deepen our love.  Not that meditative and devotional practices don’t take a lot of work, but they do yield fairly rapid results when pursued with vigor. My own healing is testimony to that.

I know you understand the power of spiritual growth. I just want to emphasize that as we seek solutions to this epidemic of depression, suicide, and other psychiatric afflictions, it is important to identify the directions most likely to lead to healing.

Psychotherapy, support for those who’ve been traumatized, exercise and nutrition, plus–in some cases–judicious use of medications, are all important. Of all the interventions, however, I place the greatest store in spiritual practice.

But above all, it is absolutely essential that we start to open up about this subject, as you have done so beautifully. Without honest, nonjudgmental conversation, too many people will suffer in isolation, and too many of those will take their own lives.

With Love and Admiration,

Man meditating photo available from Shutterstock

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[Befriending the Body Intelligent]]> 2015-03-27T05:06:58Z 2015-03-27T03:57:21Z Thoracic_anatomyLast year awakened me to my life’s purpose. A series of disappointments forced me to abandon paths that had seemed interesting but were not leading to my center. More clearly than ever, I saw how biology has always guided me. Every time life has grown supportive, meaningful, and healing, it’s been because I leaned deeper into my love of life science.

It isn’t a big leap from love of life science to love of life itself. As this realization hit home lat last year, I accepted biology as my wisdom path. Thus was a new project born, after gestating during all the previous decades of my life. I call it Mindful Biology.

Here’s the idea: if biology can guide me toward wisdom, then it can do the same for others. Note that I’m not talking about simple knowledge. By reading a textbook we gain concepts, but not insight. Wisdom and insight are used here in their more rarefied senses. They don’t refer only to the ability to make sensible choices and see situations clearly. In addition, they point to a deeply rooted knowing. Reality is embraced as an a evolving process that tumbles forward, one circumstance into the next, with humans and other beings spinning as transient swirls in an unbanked river that stretches from unremembered mountains toward an infinitely distant sea.

Really? Is that what biology offers as wisdom? How can something that abstract help any of us?

It’s hard not to draw on Buddhism for answers. The First Noble Truth tells us that life (as lived on conventional terms) is inherently unsatisfying, a conundrum due to the reality just described. In these ever-spinning currents without shore or bed, there is nothing to grab that offers stability or lasting satisfaction. Our companions and artefacts are too transient and our biology too reactive. The problem of transience seems obvious (lasting comfort can’t be found in what doesn’t last), but reactivity? What’s the difficulty there? Each pleasure stirs a frisson, a wave of excitement. But just as waves, by nature, rise and fall, so does sensual gratification lead to emotional pitch and roll. Yes, a new love affair feels electric, but as the sparks settle we find the lack of static somehow disappointing, as the reward circuits in the brain clamor for more. We can’t settle cravings by indulging them, no matter how lucky we are in romance or finance. Feed the system as much worldly gain as you can; it always demands more.

Living by indulging only roils the waters, and yet the system feels such hunger! How can we find our way to ease?

Biology can help. If we truly understand and–importantly–listen to our bodies, the turmoil lessens.

Think of the graying and wrinkling some of see when we look in the mirror. Our culture conditions us to feel embarrassed and deprived as youth recedes. But what of the larger biological picture? Living forms are born, develop, mature, involute, and die. This is the way of the world. Sure, a little nostalgia may be unavoidable. But embarrassment and deprivation? Doesn’t it seem unfair to confront our organic processes with such negative resistance when they’re only proceeding naturally? In other words, when impermanence is accepted as a necessary biological fact, it ceases to feel so personal.

Then think what happens when we see some object or person we desire. Dopamine circuits in the brain spark that thrill of anticipation. In an instant, we’re on alert, our attention riveted to this object of fascination. Yet the frisson falters soon if we win our prize, and generates rank frustration if we don’t. Well, break this down. How can our unceasing urges lead us toward lasting peace when they result from temporary squirts of brain chemicals? Understanding how cravings are generated, and how they lead to dissatisfaction whether consummated or not, can free us from feeling enslaved by them.

We pin our hopes on the material world, but impermanence and neural responses doom us to angst and turmoil. As an alternative, we can seek peace of mind by looking inward rather than outward. We can find ease, and even rapture, by investigating the inner self. Here’s a suggestion for how to proceed:

Feel the body from the inside. Feel its throbbing, its heat, its comforts and discomforts. Offer your organism compassion for all it has endured in this chaotic world: all the stress, disappointment, and trauma. With time and practice, subtle compassion will begin to echo back from soma toward psyche. The body, with its ailing parts burdened by history, offers us its concern. It knows better than anyone how much we suffer. And in the intimacy of this mutual regard, we can recognize that the body has always done its best to adapt to circumstances. Granted, it has operated by its own principles, which are often contrary to the mind’s preferences. We might bemoan how quickly we react, how edgy we often feel, but the soma is only trying to protect us. When it generates pain, the body is calling us inward, asking us to focus on our physicality. In falling ill, it offers us a break from our own intensity. Even as it dies our organism serves us, as it brings into focus the splendid miracle of mortal life, and the imperative of yielding to new growth on this earth. The mind initially rejects such logic, of course, but the body remains faithful to its own intelligence, and as we settle inward, its powers of adaptation begin to seem obvious.

The more we dwell in inner communion with the body, the more we understand its responses as oddly fitting, and the more we begin to trust our own physiology. As the mind makes peace with the body’s way of reacting, the body begins to align with the mind’s way of understanding. On the one hand, as pains and limitations are viewed as messages from body to mind, health problems cease feeling like lonely and dumb afflictions. On the other, pains gradually lessen and limitations decrease as soma and psyche heal one another. We feel more vital and grounded, more ready to pursue our callings, with body and mind unified in higher purpose.

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[Married to Life]]> 2014-02-09T23:06:40Z 2014-02-09T23:05:33Z BW_Embrace-2When do we commit to life? And how?

We commit when we see our situation in context and when, seeing all the treasures and terrors life promises, we embrace the whole of it.

Easy to say, but gaining such clarity can be a challenge. For decades I resisted the simple act of acceptance, and for decades I endured needless torment. Part of me knew my own attitudes rooted me in my suffering, but it seemed impossible to change my patterns.

Looking back on those struggles from my current perspective, it’s not clear what made the difference. Why did I finally transform? Partly, it was the guidance of a wise counselor trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Partly, it took spiritual practice which, for me, meant dabbling in Buddhism, Vedanta, Yoga, Quakerism, Catholicism, Taoism, and so on. Simple aging also played a role. I gave up my youthful dreams, or at least the ones that demanded release, in favor of wiser, quieter intentions.

From my own experience and that of others, I’ve come to believe the decision to try suffices. If we choose to pursue health, even when we have only vague notions about what health truly means, we eventually find it. Resources appear (or we begin to notice them). Fellow seekers enter our lives (or we find them). We gradually blaze a path through the shadows and discover light.

So if the key is making a choice and committing to growth, perhaps we can find some guidance by looking at another type of commitment: marriage.

My wife and I have lived together for twenty-three years, and have been married eighteen. A man my age can’t claim this to be a particularly long time, but it’s enough for me to have learned something about the wedded state. Lately I’ve been looking at the ways committing to life and committing to a spouse seem similar.

In marriage, there are moments of bliss. The wedding day. The tender, intimate cuddling. The mind-blowing copulations. These ecstatic times serve to strengthen the bond between partners. They are analogous to peak moments, those times when we feel the grandeur of being alive. I think here of potent transcendent experiences, such as I recently experienced during a meditation retreat (read this piece for a description).

In marriage and in life, there are also milder flavors of bliss: the shared meals and quiet walks, or the lovely sunsets and the enthusiasm of dogs. These subtler highlights are more numerous and play an equal role in binding us to lovers and life itself.

Of course, there are hard times, too. Married couples disappoint one another, hurt one another, and sometimes even betray one another. Likewise, life serves up loss, illness, and ruin. Some marriages are more troubled than others. Some lives are more arduous, some less.

A partner can let us down by forgetting an important anniversary, by never looking up from the computer, by speaking cruelly, or by choosing the arms of another. There’s a spectrum of severity. Longstanding marriages survive not because lapses don’t occur, or even because the lapses remain small. They survive because of forgiveness and, most of all, because of commitment. Sure, divorce is an option. But if the partners honor their vows, they work things out. Even great wounds have been healed in this way.

Life disappoints us when we have to wait a long time at a red light while feeling rushed, when we lose the career to which we devoted our youth, when we contract a  painful, disabling illness, and when those closest to us die. All of us confront a range of adversity that spreads from mild irritation to devastating grief. Given this, how do we remain appreciative of life? By committing to the journey.

We can and do reject life. Some commit suicide, of course, but many more get lost in substance abuse, obsessive thought, empty entertainments, and sullen refusal to enjoy whatever blessings fate does provide. For instance, we might find ourselves in a town we don’t like, separated from the city we adored. Rather than noticing the peaceful beauty of the new location, we mourn the excitement of the old. We keep ourselves locked in regret, wishing things were different.

We criticize continually, when we could just as easily praise. We reject when we could embrace.

What keeps us trapped in misery? Go back to the marriage analogy. One can divorce, but one can also withdraw. A couple can live together and interact only in the most superficial or (worse) hurtful ways. Each withholds affection and admiration from the other. The marriage continues, but its heart withers.

Only when the couple learns to fully commit to the process of marriage does the relationship blossom to its full, miraculous extent. With total commitment, small annoyances seem humorous and big failures seem forgivable. We cease trying to change our partners and instead honor them for who they are. We see them as startling wholes, at once heroic and fallible.

We can do the same with life. A recurring theme in my writing has been how we do well to expand our perspective. We can see the hardship life inflicts alongside the pleasure it provides. We can see evil alongside good. Decay next to growth. Death balanced by birth. We admire the drama of evolution playing out over millions of years and the turmoil of human culture unfolding over thousands. We open to the big picture and we become less sure of our opinions. Are we really qualified to criticize this ancient, chaotic, self-correcting whole? We begin to wonder, in both senses of the word. We wonder if our judgments are reliable. We wonder at the complexity and beauty of this surging process we call a universe.

To commit to wonder is all it takes. To remain curious, appreciative, and open-minded is to remain married, whether to another person or an entire cosmos. The longer one engages in a committed fashion, the easier and more remarkable such marriage seems.

We don’t need to feel alone when we are married to life. We have a partner who will remain with us to our last moment, without fail. We can watch it with fascination and affection. We can embrace it with tenderness and care, and occasionally with passion and ecstasy.

What does this mean, in practice? It means tending the body, mind, heart, and soul. Not just our own aggregation of these properties, but that of our partner which, if our partner is life itself, means caring for the people and organisms all around us and the biosphere itself. We commit to doing our best to treat others and ourselves with gentleness when possible and firmness when necessary. We recognize that we will fail, as all fails, from time to time, but we commit to forgiving ourselves and everything else for not living up to our expectations. We begin to accept the world and all it contains as a startling whole. We no longer wish this universe were different; we admire what it is.

At which point, we realize life always knew best. As if reconciling with a spouse who made the right choice despite our vigorous objection, we admit that the cosmos was wiser all along.

Was that career really right for us? Did the old neighborhood provide the resources needed for personal growth? Do we really know what’s best? We begin to wonder. And in wonder, we find love.

And it all begins with a choice: the choice to commit wholeheartedly to living, come what may.

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[Forgiving the Unforgivable]]> 2016-08-22T00:09:18Z 2013-12-16T17:13:17Z UntitledThe weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
–Mahatma Ghandi

Forgiveness. Few topics evoke stronger responses from victims. Should we forgive? If so, why, when, and how?

These are complex questions, and this essay highlights but a few principles I gleaned from forgiving the adults who raised me. I suggest visiting The Forgiveness Project for more comprehensive guidance.

My mother cared for me from my birth until her death when I was six. She suffered from worsening depression during that period and finally took her own life. I remember her as occasionally playful and loving but often tearful and distant.

At first I resisted blaming her. How could I direct anger toward such a frail soul? But in young adulthood I started feeling bitter: her depression and suicide cast long shadows. Why didn’t she work out her difficulties and stick around to raise me? By my forties, after years of depression and suicide attempts of my own, I understood better. I’d experienced firsthand how despair deludes people into thinking suicide the only option. Feeling kinship with my mother made forgiveness easier.

My father had left the household when I was four, but took over my upbringing following my mom’s death. He was an alcoholic, and like most men of his generation did not express much affection, though he seemed to care about me. Unfortunately, he failed to protect me from mistreatment, despite ample evidence of its occurrence.

His alcoholism angered me, especially when I watched his drinking as a sober adult. I saw him belittle family and friends. I observed how alcohol enabled him to ignore problems, and it was clear he’d used it to wash away the signs of child abuse. But I still loved him, and to my regret I didn’t forgive him until after his death. Forgiveness only became possible when I woke up to how easy it is to screw up in adulthood. This lesson of middle age wasn’t available earlier on.

My stepmother, Della, was my most difficult forgiveness problem. She never wanted children and married my dad thinking his kids would stay far away. She harbored deep resentment about being forced to raise another woman’s offspring and took it out on my sister and me with calculated cruelty.

Desperate to keep her from hurting me, and because I needed mothering, as a child I tried hard to please Della. I became like a kidnap victim: cringing and subservient. I wanted to believe she loved me, so from the start I forgave the abuse.

But this was premature, based on childhood wishing, not mature resolution. Before I could legitimately forgive, I needed to consciously blame. Years of raging followed, starting in late adolescence. I confronted Della and my father and told everyone who would listen about her brutality. Predictably, this caused a rift in our family. Only after my anguish was spent could I return to the possibility of forgiveness.

Around this time I found out more about my stepmother’s own childhood. I’d known for years that Della had been severely abused by her uncle. But at my dad’s memorial service I learned that the uncle had been coerced into raising my stepmother (and three siblings) after her parents died. Encountering this startling parallel allowed me to place my stepmother’s actions in their larger historical context.

Appreciating the bigger picture is what makes forgiveness possible. Recognizing shared human frailties and the flow of toxicity through generations enables us to feel compassion toward those who abused or failed us. We don’t minimize or excuse wrongs, but we view them from a more healing, communal perspective.

Our reward is greater openness of heart: forgiveness leads to freedom.

© 2013, Will Meecham, MD

Note: The foregoing essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where all fourteen can be found (look in the News & Views section). The CPTW site was only started earlier this year and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I have posted seven essays of the series here. Today’s entry concludes the set.

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[Finding Pearls in the Muck of Trauma]]> 2016-04-23T14:05:21Z 2013-11-09T16:56:04Z 800px-Revelation_SculptureThe wound is the place where the Light enters you. ― Rumi

A reliable means for transcending hardship is to endow it with meaning. Biblical faiths point to the will of a loving but mysterious God. Eastern traditions invoke karma, viewing misfortunes as correctives for misdeeds in past lives.  Such explanations have comforted millions over centuries.

We can also make peace with adversity more prosaically. Anyone who watches human progress knows that challenges often spur growth. Resilience converts problems into opportunities; setbacks may thus appear beneficial in retrospect.

When I lost my surgical career due to neck disease, my psyche shattered. I nearly killed myself and for a time lost my grip on ordinary reality. For almost ten years I felt crushed, isolated, anxious, and depressed. Early on, it would have been impossible to imagine feeling strengthened by the loss.

Yet here I am, writing with some surety about recovery from trauma. Absent the turmoil of that difficult decade, there might never have been impetus for me to battle my way to clarity. Prior to reversal, professional success had compensated for the vulnerability bequeathed by childhood adversity. Career loss triggered disintegration, which forced me to rebuild myself as a more mature person.

To find meaning requires enlarging one’s perspective. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s masterwork, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes how concentration camp horror offered an opportunity to serve. The decisive moment came when Frankl bypassed a chance at escape in order to remain with his patients in the makeshift medical ward.  By expanding his circle of concern beyond the personal, he discovered meaning in an otherwise dreadful situation.

Gaining peace of mind after my collapse demanded that I acknowledge the pervasiveness of loss. Each year countless people lose jobs, health, homes, and loved ones. Seen in perspective, my meltdown appeared out of proportion to my circumstances. This prompted a deeper search. Soon I confronted coping mechanisms that hadn’t improved since adolescence, driven by self-centered attitudes and surrender to despair. It felt shocking to admit how much of my behavior was dictated by narcissism and emotional reactivity. I knew it was trauma that had retarded my development, but it was time to grow up.

Studies of post-traumatic growth highlight strategies that help people enlarge beyond victimhood to find new meaning and purpose. These include positive reframing, writing and discussion, social and therapeutic support, education, healing narratives, empowerment, and spiritual exploration. During my struggle to recover from adult hardship and childhood trauma, mentors encouraged me to try some of these tactics, and I stumbled upon others on my own.

My relationships with others improved as the lessons learned from breakdown helped reawaken my loving nature. My sister and I had not been close for many years, largely because I disapproved of her drinking. In 2010, just ten months before Janice died of liver disease, I looked at her choices anew. My feelings of anger and terror around alcoholism yielded to empathic understanding: drinking was the only comfort my sister trusted. I saw that although she was dying tragically, she had lived heroically. No matter what she endured, Janice always sounded upbeat and interested in others. It was just possible that alcohol enabled her sturdy optimism.

One of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Agreements is: “don’t take anything personally.” We can learn to support others instead of condemning behavior that makes us uncomfortable. For many years Janice’s drinking had felt like a personal affront, when in fact it had nothing to do with me. My sister’s final gift was this lesson in nonjudgmental, nonreactive affection. Like so many painful experiences, losing her cut deeply but also opened me to a more expansive understanding.

At their best, religions discourage myopic outlooks. If there’s a loving God, then there’s a bigger picture even if we can’t see it. And if our circumstances connect with countless prior lives, then excessive concern about temporal difficulties seems misplaced.

But meaning can be found simply by opening our eyes and hearts, which reveals how tragedy affects us all. We can make peace with suffering by helping others, by embracing their concerns as our own. Life isn’t personal; it’s collective. Accepting this truth is both a mandate and a blessing of maturity.

© 2013, Will Meecham, MD

Note: The foregoing essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where most of the pieces are already online. The CPTW site is new and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I am gradually posting portions of the series here.


Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[Is Suicide Painless?]]> 2013-09-27T15:57:29Z 2013-09-27T15:16:29Z 693px-Edouard_Manet_059-1A recent comment on an earlier post–The Shocking Truth of Suicide–sets me thinking. The reader’s thoughts are quoted below, followed by my response:

“Unfortunately, our society still doesn’t get it that suicide is a gift, it’s a balsam of peace, it’s a right, a human right exclusively. No other animal has the intelligence to say “rien ne va plus.” We can stop suffering all sort of circumstances that life forces us to live. Committing suicide in a psychotic episode is another thing, or while intoxicated. I am talking about the last resort, euthanasia. Too bad that people judge the different so harshly.

“It’s the religious bias: killing yourself is a sin. … Suicide is a precious gem, to be used only one time, if we must. It’s a gift from whoever gave us a big brain. No other creature can do it, and doing it to somebody else is murder. It’s a basis human right. Face it.”

These statements present a viewpoint opposite to our standard thinking, where we look at suicide as tragic. The author makes valid points. But there are some wrinkles to consider:

First, when a person commits suicide, they take permanent action against transient mental conditions. Every time I’ve neared suicide and managed to live past the impulse, I’ve been glad to still be alive. Grateful I was spared. This despite the fact that while in the depths I wanted nothing but death. So one reason to discourage suicide is that the urge usually passes, but death doesn’t.

And by the way, people who survive the jump from the Golden Gate Bridge often say that the moment they started falling, they knew they’d made a mistake.

Second, when a person kills him- or her- self, others suffer. The pain of losing a loved one to suicide differs from the pain of bereavement due to old age, illness, or accident. It feels like a judgment on the worth of the relationship. When my mother took her own life (I was six) it scarred me for life. It takes a long time to heal from a loved one’s suicide.

Third, usually only one part of the total self wants to die. If the entire self were on board with the concept, suicide wouldn’t be so difficult. The heart and lungs battle for life even as the ego tries to end it. The hallmark of a good suicide plan is that the act is committed without chance of reversal. A person jumps off a high bridge, pulls a trigger, or takes pills that sedate before the body starts to feel pain. It’s obvious the organism wants life even if the mind doesn’t. In that sense, suicide is indeed homicide. It’s a murder of a living, breathing body.

Fourth, a failed suicide attempt can lead to grievous injury. Back when I was a physician who operated on eyes and faces, I saw a number such cases. One man destroyed his entire face and both eyes with a shotgun, but the pellets missed his brain so he lived. No matter what problems he faced before his suicide attempt, he faced much worse problems afterward.

Most of these objections evaporate in the case of a person facing imminent death from terminal illness. The chance of recovery and an easier life no longer exists. The condition is not reversible. Loved ones will soon confront bereavement no matter what. The body will die anyway.

But except in cases of impending death from disease, attempting suicide seems like a tragic, destructive, dangerous act aimed at ending pain that’s likely transient. It’s not judgment that makes suicide prevention a good idea; it’s compassion.

And yet, I do understand suicide’s call. I’ve attempted it twice myself and contemplated it many times. Ending life can seem like the best choice. But the allure is a dangerous fraud perpetrated by a suffering ego that craves relieve regardless the cost to future, family, friends, body, and health.

It’s not suicide I judge harshly, it’s the lie that makes it seem like a good option.

With all that said, it’s worth keeping in mind the point of the post that prompted the comment quoted above: suicidality most often grows out of adverse childhood experience, out of early bereavement, abuse, chaos, and neglect. So there is an answer: heal the past to secure the future.

Will Meecham, MD, MA <![CDATA[How Childhood Trauma Fuels Enlightenment]]> 2013-09-25T16:19:07Z 2013-09-25T14:55:30Z Katie_Walking_Labyrinth_2-1Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
–Mathew 5:3

Writing about childhood adversity, often a depressing topic, appeals to me because I know recovery is possible. What’s more, I believe those of us from traumatic backgrounds are well positioned to approach what spiritual disciplines call enlightenment (or realization, awakening, etc). This may sound surprising, but I’ve seen evidence for it in myself and others.

My younger years felt poisoned with dissatisfaction, rage, and confusion. Looking back, it’s clear I struggled with many of the difficulties known to stem from adverse home life. Here is my breakdown of the common problems, derived from multiple sources and framed by personal experience: poor self-concept, emotional reactivity, social unease, feelings of emptiness, problems with focus, and stress-induced bodily symptoms.

During the years of my recovery, each of these qualities changed from feeling wholly negative to seeming at least partially positive. Taken together, in their new form they help me appreciate life’s majesty even in the face of pain, loss, and illness. To feel privileged to be alive regardless of circumstance is, I suspect, near to realization. There is room for much greater maturity, but most of the time I feel contented and unafraid. What more does a person require?

Here’s how each affliction can be retooled to favor spiritual growth:

Poor self-concept can transform into secure humility. Whereas the well-adjusted person feels solidly established as a personality, we who were mistreated when young grew up feeling fragmented and hollow. Thus, even after we gain confidence, we remember our vulnerability. All wisdom traditions place a premium on humility, and the wounded enjoy a head start.

Emotional reactivity, properly harnessed, fosters attunement to others. What I once saw as excessive sensitivity I now recognize as the foundation of empathy.

Social unease comes from fear of embarrassment and betrayal. Scratch its surface and you’ll find a demand for acceptance and trustworthiness. Interpersonal anxiety can be reconfigured into a barometer for authenticity.

Feelings of emptiness sound bad, but consider that “emptiness” is also a catchword in Eastern meditative traditions. The connotations are different, but related. The emptiness we feel when discouraged is tainted by meaninglessness. Life appears beset by hazard and doomed to death. But if we discover beauty in life’s uncertainty and transience, then that same emptiness feels, paradoxically, full. This deep concept, best approached through meditation, tells us emptiness is the flipside of plenitude. Post-traumatic despair might be closer to post-recovery bliss than we normally think.

Problems with focus are problems of dissociation. While suffering abuse as a child, I would escape to an alternate mental world that felt distant and safe. Detaching when stressed has caused problems in adulthood, but the ability to alter consciousness offers a surprising benefit: it facilitates entry into the heightened states valued by spiritual seekers. In the extreme, shifts of consciousness can impair reality testing, so they shouldn’t be pursued without responsible preparation and guidance. But while remaining mindful and grounded, I’ve been blessed to experience transcendent awareness with greater than average ease.

Finally, the somatic symptoms that follow stress and trauma can serve as guides to bodily state. Attending to them has helped me better inhabit my body. Embodiment, in turn, promotes mindfulness and relaxation.

Humility, empathy, authenticity, plenitude, transcendence, and embodiment: not a bad starting point for enlightened growth. Every limiting quality can thus be reshaped into something advantageous. In future posts I plan to describe some strategies that enable these transformations.

The road to wellness presents challenges; in particular, emotions may feel overwhelming at the outset. I hope knowing trauma’s legacy can be reborn as spiritual maturity will embolden those just starting out.

© 2013, Will Meecham, MD

Note: The foregoing essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where most of the pieces are already online. The CPTW site is new and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I am gradually posting portions of the series here.