THANKSGIVING-2006

The most American of holidays, it avoids the usual religious connotations of nearly all the others.  It is the holiday most energetically embraced by immigrants from all cultures since the inception of this country.  Strangely, it did not become a holiday until so declared by Abraham Lincoln and only arrived at its present location on the calendar by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Of course it is about being grateful.  But do we truly ponder the power of gratitude to affect changes in how we view our lives?  It seems to be more natural to see problems and difficulties in our day to day lives.  Whether these are connected to our jobs, our families, our friends, our careers, our self-image, the insanity of the world:  it is usually negative and rather painful thoughts that swirl around the caverns of our minds.

Perhaps evolutionary biology is to blame. [We do enjoy blaming everything outside of ourselves for our feelings.] Our ancestors, the ones that worried the most, were likely to have survived a variety of enviornmental insults.  Perhaps the worrier within made certain that they have enough food, clothing, protection before they ventured out of the cave. Perhaps they worried more about marauding saber-tooths and unsavory tribes and were, thefore, extra cautious.  It made sense to see the darkness rather than the light.  It may have helped our ancestors to see the glass [or clay bowl] half empty.

Seeking that to which we are grateful requires an active choice. It may not be in our nature, but we are not creatures driven by nature alone. Our greatest source for transformation is our ability to make choices. To chose to be grateful brings an astonishing array of gifts.

We find that we all have much to be grateful for–including the ability to make choices. I turn once again to Victor Frankl’s remarkable study of fellow Holocaust survivors–MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. Finding beauty, wonder, meaning in the slightest glint of light or budding branch was enough motivation for some to push on and survive.

Our own journey in this incarnation should be regarded with much gratitude. We are all the product of courageous souls. They entered sacred contracts, chose to incarnate in order to face the extraordinary challenges of daily living. The goal was to seek to learn and grow from such encounters with reality. The choice to confront the pain of living with the response of love and equanimity is to leap ahead in their spiritual evolution.

No soul learn unless the lesson is challenging. We are rarely aware of this deep truth. We recoil from the pain of living and fail to realize how much suffering we can reduce by our responses.

So, not only should we seek the beauty and love that surrounds us and acknowledge it, but embrace the pain as well.  It, too, is a gift for which we should be grateful.

Out of Our Mind–

Of what significance is ‘the mind?’ We normally inhabit a mental space which surges with incessant thoughts and feelings.  It is a battleground upon which the events of our daily lives play themselves out. We seem to jump from event to event, thought to thought, feeling to feeling often without any sense of coherence or direction.  We desperately cling to the familiar–the patterns we have established upon which to hang the flow of our consciousness.

Often these are habitual ways of living, eating, thinking.  Our minds are untrained, uninhibited, out of control.  This chaos in itself is a source of anxiety.  The harder we try to exert our will, the more illusive is the coherence, the equanimity.  Perhaps we are trying the wrong approach.

Meditation may be the solution to the contemporary dis-ease of the chaotic mind.  As old as human consciousness, it is a haven of peace in a sea of trouble. Although there are many forms of meditation, it seems to me that MINDFULNESS or Vipasana meditation from the Buddhist tradition may be of most help.

There are many contemporary practitioners of this approach but Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D. head of Stress Reduction Clinic in Massachusetts is one of most articulate.  He describes the method which centers on an awareness and focus on the in and out flow of the breath.  Ideas and feelings which are the residue of the restless mind are allowed to float into consciousness and then to leave the same way.  When one becomes aware that they have been entertaining a thought or emotion, they can then redirect their awareness to their breath. All this is done with a sense of peace and calm. One is infinitely patient with one’s own inability to maintain the concentration on the breath.  Practice improves the performance and the state of calm that ensues.

The attitude is one in which the meditator is the witness of these disparate thoughts and emotions.  One does not attach to any of them.  Merely observe them as one would a series of floating clouds.  The metaphysical implications of such action is profound.

In our usual state of consciousness, we believe ourselves TO BE our thoughts and emotions.  We find it difficult if not absurd to comprehend any other state of awareness.  If we can, however, assume the position that mindfulness meditation calls for, we can open ourselves to a new and deeper state of equanimity and peace.

If we are not our thoughts or emotions–then who are we ?  Buddhists would insist that our Higher Self, our higher consciousness is beyond description in terms of thoughts or feelings. It is a pure, incarnating, evolving Self.  Buddhists deny the existence of the Soul.  Although this may be more based on their assumption, through their Hindu heritage, that the soul was somehow fixed and inflexible.

A more open, spiritually enlightened understanding of the Soul allows for an ever evolving, conscious and intelligent entity which manifests in the physical body during incarnations and persists between lives.

How does the Mind and Soul differ?  This is a profoundly metaphysical question which defies easy answer or understanding. My friend and medium Artie, upon deep insight and communication from a Higher Intelligence told me, ‘the Soul manifests and observes, the Mind creates and reacts. 

You have to know Artie to realize that this is not his usual mode of expression.  There is something profoundly true about this statement. The Soul manifests in human form and observes the actions of the Mind.  The Mind is the active participant in the consciousness of the living being.  It is creative.  It exhibits free will.  It chooses. It reacts.

All these are the characteristics of our personality, thoughts and feelings in this lifetime.  It is a gift as well as a burden for us.  We are given the opportunity in any lifetime to face our challenges, to create and heaven and hell for ourselves and to react to our environment.

To understand this metaphysical truth if a tremendous gift to us. It allows us to take control of our lives, or at least mollify our reactivity to the events in our lives.  Meditation may be a valuable tool for transformation and ultimately healing.

Hard-Wired for Bliss–

Heard and saw Candace Pert PhD speak to a full house last night in NYC at the Lighthouse. She is the queen of psychoneuroimmunology [PNI] a mouthful of terms which is essentially the scientific ‘proof’ of the mind/body connection.

Her basic science research in the 70’s were instrumental in demonstrating the presence of endorphin receptors in the brain. This was a tremendous breakthrough in the understanding of human emotions, human behavior, how emotions effect our immune system, our response to drugs and the nature of reality itself.  It demonstrated with compelling force that we evolved with the ability to be ‘high’ or essentially that our brains were ‘hard-wired for bliss’.

Personally Pert writes about her own frustrations and disappointments [actually anger] at the way her contribution to this field was not fully recognized by her male colleagues.  This may have led her to gradually enter the arena of popular writing and speaking regarding these ‘New Age’ subjects.  Still, her scientific background places her in a position in which her opinions deserve listening to.

It is clear to me that homo sapiens evolved with the innate physical/chemical structure to be happy. The enormous and expanding use of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant pharmaceuticals to alter our emotional states merely mimic our own endogenous [internal] peptides which are part of our physical being.  Pert noted that these same receptor sites occur on all cells of our body as well as the cells of single-celled creatures!  It is extremely important for our fellow humans to understand that we capable of altering our states of feeling, of consciousness–of finding bliss– and often without the use of external, synthetic compounds which merely mimic our internal peptides. Exercise, meditation, cognitive therapy, prayer, sex–these are all ‘natural’ means of realizing our potential to be happy. This is not to diminish the utility of drugs for specific people under specific circumstances.  It is just that we usually seek the quick and simple solution of popping a pill before doing the hard work of seeking alternative solutions. But regardless, it does seem as if God/Universe wants  us to experience heaven on earth.

The metaphysical implications are fascinating.  We need not feel guilty for seeking pleasure. It is in our nature. Those of us with spiritual leanings should regard this arrangement as a ‘gift from God’.  This is a rather prominent Kabbalistic perspective. One Hasidic tale speaks of a man who dies and meets God [Jews don’t meet Saint Peter]. It turned out that during his life the man was plagued by feelings of guilt over his desires to embrace his physical nature: food, drink, sex.  He prided himself in his vigilance and ability to live a nearly ascetic life. When he approached God he was rather proud of these efforts. He proudly [not the best way to approach Divinity] proclaimed how he struggled to be ‘good’.  Rather disappointed, God replied, ‘That is a shame. Why didn’t you partake of these pleasures that I provided for you?’  After all, you are my taste buds in the world.’

The point of the story is to portray the Universe/God  as offering us gifts of joy in the face of the obvious pain and suffering of existence in this world. Spiritualize them. They are not the Devil’s tool to lead us into sin or damnation–unless we choose to regard them as such.

The nature of bliss and joy can become an enormously powerful lesson for us.  We understand that the pain and suffering in this world and within each of our lives is a universal, unavoidable law of existence. We can not avoid pain.  We fear, we love and we will lose what we love.  We will be disappointed, we will fail at times.  This is a universal truth. How we handle the pain will determine the extent of our suffering. How well we can confront our natural feelings of fear, anger, despair will determine the quality of our lives as well.

The presence of evil in the world is a necessary challenge to all sentient beings.  Without evil, the choice of good would have no meaning.  Even the possibility of evil is a gift.  It imbues our lives with mealing and the possibility of spiritual growth.

Bliss and joy, too, are spiritual gifts to us. They challenge us to appreciate and use them in the right way.  By this I mean–appreciate them, be grateful to them, thank God for them and see them exactly as you choose to see them–as spiritual gifts.

Can they be perverted? Clearly they can and often are. The Universe tells us that we need to always seek a balance between forces. Sex can be an offering of love or a weapon of violence and degradation.  Our taste for food and drink can be balanced, nuanced and appreciated, or can become the object of obsession and damage our health as well as our self-image.

So being hard-wired for bliss is just one aspect of the human experience. It is a part of our lives, offered, I believe as a counterbalance to the pain and suffering. Like Yin and Yang it is a necessary gift.  How we choose to understand bliss, how we choose to utilize it in our lives is up to us.

A Course in Becoming a Healer-

This  Monday night November 6th was my first class in Healing at Brookdale College in Lincroft, NJ.  It was fascinating for me to step away from the actual presentation, almost as an out-of-body traveler would,  and examine how I had come to be in that place and delivering those thoughts and concepts.

I explained how my traditional medical education, residency and fellowship had prepared me to approach the sick patient as an organic ‘machine’ whose parts were malfunctioning. Make the diagnosis or at least consider a list of possible diagnoses. Order the appropriate tests, acquire information as well as the opinions of other physicians, perform further tests, prescribe medication and follow all of these parameters carefully.

Both the patient and the physician understood each other’s roles to be not dissimilar from that of the customer who brings his or her’s defective automobile into the repair shop.  ‘Fix my car’ or ‘fix my body’.  There was little difference in the attitude or approach on the part of doctor or patient.

It is not difficult to understand how this relationship developed. In the long and painful pre-scientific history of healing it was clear to all that a human being was much more than their physical body.  Emotions, attitude, disposition, spiritual connection were understood intuitively to play crucial if not primary roles the illness or recovery of any one individual. Shamans were the first healers.

The advent and success of science which followed Western Europe’s paradigm shift away from the control of the Church led to the presumption that the physical, chemical, biochemical aspects of the human body, those factors that were successfully described and analyzed by science, were paramount.

And to a large extent, they were. The cause of the vast majority of human deaths had always been as a result of starvation, infectious agents, accidents, dehydration from diarrheal diseases.  Sadly, there are large parts of the world today which still exhibit this truth.  Science and technology was and is extremely successful in avoiding much of these ‘premature’ deaths. [Of course, war,killing, rape and murder seem as prevalent as ever].

I believe that the demonstrated successes of medical science and technology seduced physicians away from a path of healing. Language itself is a powerful indicator of attitudes. I was trained to be a doctor, a physician but not a healer. I was directed to diagnose, treat, seek to cure but not to heal. It was assumed that the body would respond as a machine. Any failure to recover, or worse to die was regarded as a failure on the part of the physician. The impermanence of this life, the inevitability of death, the concept of an immortal soul were rejected as irrelevant or even contrary to scientific thought.

To heal means to make whole.  If the whole is regarded as the physical body, if Descartes was correct in his presumption of dualism [that the body and mind were unrelated substances] and if science regarded the mind as an illusion, then it was appropriate to treat the body as a machine.

To see oneself as a healer forces one to explore what it means to be whole. This is the beginning of transitional medicine. It does not disregard the achievements of science. It does not reject new technologies, new pharmaceuticals [yes, big drug companies are not by definition the source of all evil].  But it can no longer disregard the emotional, personal, intellectual and spiritual state of being of the patient. It body/mind/spirit healing.

But please understand–there have always been wonderful physicians who were healers without defining themselves as such.  By their own intuitive sense of truth, they realized that they could not treat a patient’s body in isolation from the rest of the being.  Yet they were regarded as ‘dinosaurs’.  The medical system made it difficult for them to function that way. HMO’s, government regs, insurance companies dictates, the greed of personal injury attorneys, malpractice claims…..the litany goes on.

Physicians need to reclaim the title of healer. They are losing this to the world of alternative medicine. I will address thoughts about homeopathic, naturopathic, chiropractic approaches in later postings.  Each of these practitioners contribute their part to the healing of the population.

I would like to believe that medicine is entering a period of transformation in which issues of body/mind and spirit will be acknowledged.  My own journey as a human being and physician is showing me this path.  There is no reason why all forms of knowledge cannot be integrated into a Rx for healing. The wisdom of Hippocrates seems more relevant than ever, I would rather know the patient who has the disease, than the disease the patient has. 

I would humbly amend that statement. There is no reason why we cannot know everything possible about the disease and everything possible about the patient at the same time. I believe that it is only path to true healing.

Seeking Shalom

Shalom is the Hebrew for peace.  It’s Arabic cousin is Salaam.  The shared Semitic roots of these words only illuminate the tragedy of familial conflict.  This, however, is a sad and not infrequent human experience.

Shalom, however, has taken on a more subtle and powerful meaning for me as I continue my metaphyscial journey.  What do any of us seek during this lifetime? What catch phrase or expression best encapsulates our goals?  Perhaps ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is a reasonable expression of this desire.  Others may find that money, power, health, longevity, joy–just knowing that our baby will not starve the next day–is enough.

Philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists, movie characters, spiritual leaders have offered these insights and more. The Dalia Lama writes of ‘happiness’, Freud sought to liberate our unconscious conflicts and fears, Neitzche believed that ‘power’ was all, Frankl, man’s search for ‘meaning’.  The movie’s Gordon Gecko found ‘greed’ man’s greatest motivation.

But I find that what most of us are seeking is Shalom, a peaceful state of consciousness.   Often amidst a swirling malestrom of discontent and angst it appears, miraculously. It is an island of hope.  It is a gift of grace.

Shalom has acknowledged all suffering, tragedy, worry– and still, for a quantum instant, basks in the warm rays of a brilliant red/gold setting sun. It is not neutral, however.  It is the smile on the lips of resting Buddha–or the Mona Lisa.  It is the sudden, unbidden jolt of love for another. For that moment, time is an illusion. The Universe acknowledges us.  We are not insignificant.  Our journey is not without meaning.

Shalom is equanimity, the balancing point along a specturm of constant flux.  It is the boundary between Yin and Yang, always in dynamic equilibrium with its opposite.  Yet quantum theory states that reality is composed of finite moments.  Even the feeling of flow is an illusion. Reality is like a movie.  Each quantum moment is like an individual frame.  Each is discrete and timeless.

Shalom is ultimately what heals us–it makes us whole in body, mind and spirit. Yet it is only given to us in brief tastes. It tells us that our life is about learning and growing and neither can be accomplished easily.  This place we inhabit is not for the easily discouraged or weak-willed. But we should not forget that Shalom does exist–we have all been there.