There was a great article I saw from a physician describing his feelings towards prayer being important in his medical practice. He shares two stories about situations in which through praying, there was guidance in advancing the medical help. I was particularly taken by his candidness in acknowledging that his prayer was just a “simple plea for help.” I would offer that prayer is just that. Prayer can be beautiful and poetic. But prayer from the depths, from the heart, is often plain, ugly and brutish. It is the simple musings we feel.
As a physician I am often reminded of two things for which I am grateful. First, the great honor it is to care for people who are in a time of great need in their lives. Second, the many mentors in my life who have patiently taught and trained me in the arts of medicine.
Recently, I have thought a lot about one mentor, the late Dr. Blayne Hirsche. Dr. Hirsche was a gifted plastic and hand surgeon. He trained in surgery at Harvard and the Mayo Clinic. He founded the Hirsche Smiles foundation, which has performed thousands of reconstructive surgeries on children in Mexico and Guatemala. His legacy of compassionate care and service lives on through this foundation.
A Young Surgeon’s Prayer
Before medical school, I had the pleasure of working with Hirsche to gain experience as he performed surgeries. I cannot recall the details of why, but one day we talked about lessons he had learned during his training. One story he told has stuck with me ever since. He talked about a difficult surgery he was performing as a resident physician at Harvard. The head surgeon was world-renowned for the procedure being performed. Unfortunately, severe abdominal bleeding complicated the surgery.
At one point, it became apparent to Hirsche that the patient was going to bleed to death. Blood would rapidly fill the open abdomen as quickly as the surgical team could evacuate it, making it impossible for them to find the bleeding source. Suddenly the room became quiet and all eyes were directed toward the lead surgeon, who had stopped talking and working. A few moments later the surgeon reached into the abdomen and the bleeding stopped. His fingers had found the bleeding source, and with pressure the bleeding stopped. With the bleeding source identified, the surgeons quickly sutured the area, and the patient lived.
After the surgery, Hirsche asked the lead surgeon what had happened and why had he stopped. The lead surgeon said he stopped when he realized they were going to lose the patient, and he prayed for help. The surgeon did not say anything more. This was a profound experience for Hirsche as this surgeon was not known as a spiritual person. In fact, this was the one and only spiritual statement this surgeon ever made to Hirsche.
A Young Mother’s Difficult Heart Procedure
Most physicians are very aware of the limitations of medicine and medical procedures. Despite our best intentions, we often lose the battle to diseases. Every patient is unique, and even routine procedures can be challenging. All physicians who treat life-threatening diseases and have been in situations where they know they’re doing all they can for a patient and yet the patient’s life is slowly slipping away.
Hirsche shared his story with me nearly 20 years ago. His message found its way into my practice recently. A young mother of four children came to the hospital in severe heart failure. Four weeks earlier she had delivered a healthy baby. Now her heart was failing as 90 percent of the pumping function was no longer working.
As her heart failed, her lower heart chambers dilated and stretched, causing abnormally fast heart rhythms to develop. This further worsened her heart failure. Strong intravenous medications were started to support her blood pressure and fight impending kidney and respiratory failure. Despite our strongest intravenous medications to make the heart beat normally, as well as multiple electrical shocks to her heart, her abnormal heart rhythms continued.
It was clear she was close to dying, but we had a few options. One was to replace the heart with an artificial heart until she could get a heart transplant. Another option was to do open heart surgery to place heart pumps, called ventricular assist devices, to support her failing heart. The third was to go into her heart through her blood vessels, find the source of the abnormal heart rhythm, and destroy it. This could allow the heart to slow down and hopefully recover. Due to potential challenges with placing a heart pump, the third option was felt to be the best. For that reason, I became involved.
A Simple Plea for Help
When she arrived in our cardiac catheterization room, she was placed on a breathing machine. The room buzzed with physicians specializing in high-risk anesthesia, critical-care medicine, heart failure, and surgery. The cardiac surgery team was on standby to perform an emergency procedure, if needed, to transition her to a transplant. As we prepared for the cath procedure, her blood pressure continued to fall, requiring more medications to support it. Her blood oxygen level also started to fall, despite respiratory support. I quickly gained access to her blood vessels. In the setting of severe heart failure, these ablation procedures to treat abnormal heart rhythms often take four to six hours. I knew she didn’t have that much time.
Before I advanced the tool into her heart, I prayed silently. My prayers are not graceful and eloquent. I would characterize them as a simple plea for help. A few seconds after my prayer, I advanced a tool into her heart to the area I thought was most likely causing the abnormal rhythm. As the tool touched this area, the abnormal heart rhythm stopped. We delivered heat energy to the site to destroy the short circuit. Her blood pressure and blood oxygen began to rise. And her heart rate — once at 150 to 160 beats per minute — now beat normally at 100 beats per minute.
I have treated hundreds of these abnormal heart rhythms, but I have never seen such a quick response. Within five minutes of starting the procedure, her heart was normal. That night I was able to talk with her. She held my hand and said “Thank you.” There was not a lot more to say. It was humbling for me because I realized that a few hours earlier we both had pleaded for help. I am happy to report she is on her way to recovery. Her heart is getting stronger each day.
Faith and Hope Among Physicians
I have had many mentors who draw great strength from spiritual sources. Some have been Christians like me, while others were Jewish, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. That is one of the great aspects of medicine: A tremendous diversity of backgrounds come together for a common goal. I have heard some people say that physician spirituality is a sign of weakness, but I have found the opposite to be true. These mentors of mine are world leaders in their fields and draw from all means to treat and care for people in a field that does not have all the answers. They use their faith to find inner strength and peace. To a believer of spiritual things these stories can make believing easier.
It is harder when prayers and best intentions fail. Believers will often say that when this occurs it is part of a greater plan or design. To a nonbeliever of spiritual things, perceived failures make it easier not to believe.
I am grateful for my patients who have told me that they, their family, or pastor have prayed for me and they believe everything will be all right. These gestures are filled with great faith and hope. Hope and optimism, regardless of belief, are associated with better outcomes and longevity. I once had a Catholic patient who came in for a very small routine procedure. He also took my hand and said, “It will be alright, I had my last rites read to me.” I am not sure if that was a vote of confidence. I told him thank you, but I was not planning on letting him die just yet.
I have a close friend who is an atheist. He told me one day, “You know all of this is not going to matter in the end, as we all die and aren’t coming back.”
I told him that is what makes it even more meaningful. Because when we do die, it is important to have hope in a better tomorrow.
For many, the idea of cultivating one’s spiritual/emotional side can be a challenging task. Whether it is finding time to focus on one’s inner self or relation to a higher power, or being able to ignore the naysayers outside ourselves (or the internal naysayer we all possess), spiritual growth is often neglected. In the piece below, we see 5 reasons to develop and grow spiritually, a good reminder to each of us the underlying value that a spiritual life can bring.
Five Reasons to Develop and Grow Your Spirituality
By JOE WILNER
When it comes to self-care and being at our best, dedicating time to spirituality is equally important, if not more important, as other areas of life.
Spirituality has a different meaning to different people, but from a positive psychology perspective it can be defined as, “a deep sense of belonging, of wholeness, of connectedness, and of openness to the infinite (Easvaradoss, 2013).”
Developing our spirituality can help us deal with life’s challenges and grow into a better, more whole and happy person.
So, here are five benefits to developing your spiritual nature.
If there is one thing that spirituality can add to our life it is a sense of hope and optimism. Spirituality strengthens our outlook for a better future.
We will always encounter challenges in life, but if we stay hopeful during these trying times we will persevere. Spiritual growth enhances our ability to deal with life’s ups and downs and bounce back from those difficult experiences.
2. Compassion and Understanding
It is easy to look at others with judgment and criticism, but when we start to grow spiritually we realize how much healthier it is to cultivate compassion and understanding for others instead.
“Spirituality is meant to take us beyond our tribal identity into a domain of awareness that is more universal.” – Deepak Chopra
It not only provides us the wherewithal to serve and help others but also improves our personal well-being. When look at life through a compassionate lens we can grow a sense of connection to others and begin to recognize the positive impact we can have.
3. Sense of purpose and meaning
A feeling that our life is worthwhile and that we aren’t just here by some random mistake can make a major difference in the trajectory of our life. We are alive for a reason and are meant to contribute something to the world.
According to an editorial in the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, “In a modern world that is consumed with materialism, which moves at a frantic pace, and which is frayed by cultural, racial and religious divisiveness, the yearning of the human spirit to connect and find meaning is sometimes overlooked.”
Without a sense of spirituality we can lose sight of what is really most important and meaningful.
“Most importantly, the meaning of spirituality lays the seeds for our destiny and the path we must follow.” -Dennis Banks
4. Inspiration and appreciation
Life is full of inspiration when we are looking for it. There is also much to be grateful for despite the struggles and challenges we face.
Through spiritual growth we can learn to see the beauty and wonder in our day to day life. The things we often take from granted can start to offer us greater inspiration and joy.
5. Peace of mind
Part of spirituality is connecting to a higher power. Whatever name or label we give to this spiritual source is irrelevant in my opinion.
The important thing is the sense that there is something greater than ourselves, and that we don’t have to carry the entire burden alone. When we learn how to “let go” of the emotional baggage we carry it really adds to peace of mind.
These are just a few benefits of spiritual growth. What would you add to this list?
Easvaradoss, V. & RajanIndian, R. (2013). Positive psychology spirituality and well-being: An overview. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(2), 321-325.
Souza, M. (2009). Editorial. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 14(2), 181–184.
Joe is a life-transition coach and a Licensed Master Level Psychologist (LMLP) in the state of Kansas. He is the creator and editor of the personal development blog Shake off the Grind which provides digital content, coaching, and products to help people with personal growth, emotional wellness, and spiritual development. He is also an advisory board member for the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP) and is a certified meditation instructor.
This blog avoids political conversation for a variety of reasons. And so while the piece I am sharing below is tied into the current events in the Middle East, my purpose for sharing it here is not to get into a discussion about Israel or the goings on at the moment. Rather, the article below is a well thought out piece on how social media can be a platform that foments the violent rhetoric we desperately need to avoid with each other. As I often focus my posts on the uses of technology for spiritual growth and overall well-being, this reflection is an important contribution.
Conflicts exist, but hiding behind one’s computer to express words of hurt is only exacerbates the problems at hand. In the following article, Yehuda Kurtzer, President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a Fellow of The Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project, and the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Brandeis, 2012), presents a compelling idea about how to make the upcoming Jewish fast day of the 17th of Tammuz into a true day of introspection and change. I found it compelling as a spiritual practice for a fast day as well as an deep reflection on the dangers social media can present when mishandled.
As sad as the situation in Israel has been over the past month – the kidnapping and brutal murder of the three teenagers, the revenge lynching and subsequent rioting, the barrage of rockets from Gaza and the retaliatory bombing of Gaza – the climate that has emerged on social media has made the experience of living through all of these traumas substantially worse.
The political polarization that already exists in our community has been further entrenched by the cult of instant interpretation of the news in spite of the often-total absence of facts. The need to prevent a cognitive dissonance between our ideologies and the latest traumatic news has turned us against each other, resulting in vicious acts of demonization and de-legitimization against individuals who hold different views.
Statements that respond to the current anxiety by encouraging the use of force are reduced to accusations of fascism; statements encouraging moderation are mocked as naive self-hatred. And perhaps most perversely, many of those attempting to model something different on social media – prayer rallies, lofty interpretations, detached ethical proclamations – come across as preachy, paternalistic, and astonishingly self-aggrandizing. Encouraging people to pray may be the responsibility of a religious leader, but posting “selfies” of oneself praying is something quite different.
It is understandable why we look to these technologies for solace in moments like this. We have bought into the promises that these media permit us to bridge the gaps between us, hear competing viewpoints, and empathize with those far away that are suffering. Nobody mistakes Facebook friendships for actual friendships, but the technology assures us that a global conversation never before imagined is not only possible but also real. And needless to say, we should be grateful that these media allow us to check in with loved ones in these anxious times.
And yet, the failure of social media to improve public discourse in a moment of crisis should not be surprising. Though we pretend that social media encourage an open marketplace of ideas and provide a reasonable context for social discourse, in reality they are at best a pale substitute for real human contact – or worse, a masking or avoidance of it.
Our tradition encourages the values of productive disagreement and the responsibility to rebuke those we think are wrong, but those ideals and obligations stem from an understanding that all people are created in the image of God; more critically, they emerge from the assumption that we actually see one another when we attempt to engage in this thorny work. And democratic society needs healthy debate about political decision-making even, or especially, at the moments when the society is being tested.
But social media fail on both fronts. They provide an opportunity to rebuke without consequence, to impress our ideas on others without a real framework for meaningful response, and to present our lives, ethics, and choices as superior to others, without the mirror provided by others that should rightly make us self-conscious about how we present ourselves.
There is a long-standing critique of social media that many of us self-style our personal “brands” and images in ways that are far different (and look better) than the more complex realities of our lives; in crisis, and in moments of profound anxiety, this narcissism quickly transforms from being harmless to being destructive. Coupled with the built-in nature of the media – which reward speed and wit more than long-developed substance – the pitfalls of instant commentary and vitriolic response emerge easily, and the usefulness of the media for public discourse are undercut by their own limitations.
Perhaps the Jewish liturgical year offers us the opportunity for a moment of respite and reflection. Tuesday, July 15, is the fast day of 17 Tammuz, a unique day of mourning which commemorates not the destruction of the Temple itself but the breaching of the walls of the city that – in retrospect – signaled the inevitability of the cataclysm which ensued. It is therefore a day to mark the anticipation of destruction, to take stock of the behaviors and degradations that inevitably signal the breakdown of the social order. In our mythical-ethical narrative, which intertwines the collapse of Jewish sovereignty with the failures of social and communal behavior, this particular day of penitence and fasting is meant to be jarring: What looms on the horizon, and what awaits us in our failure to correct our wrongs?
So, I want to publicly propose an idea developed together with my colleague Rabbi Joanna Samuels: that as the deterioration of Jewish civil discourse is so visible in our social media, we use the day of 17 Tammuz for a widespread ta’anit dibur – a silent fast – in which we commit to keep quiet on these platforms, and strain ourselves to choose introspection over their corrosive capabilities.
As befitting a public fast, those who would pray, should pray – but should refrain from advertising their prayers. We should study, but we need not broadcast our ideas to others to convey how meritorious our own learning is. We should continue to follow the news – whether from the comfort of our living rooms or in the bleak fluorescence of our protected rooms – but we should mute the urge to interpret the news for others or judge the political opinions of those with whom we disagree.
One of the legacies of the prophets was their insistence that even when the people were actually being obedient to the tradition – such as offering up the right sacrifices at the right times – they were missing the point of the tradition itself, wrapping themselves in self-righteous cloaks of piety and self-pity, instead of fulfilling our mission of spreading justice and righteousness.
There could be no greater hypocrisy than a fast day in these dark times spent lamenting our fate in synagogue, while demonizing others on Twitter, or making claims of repentance via grandiose displays to others of the magnitude of our religiosity. On this upcoming fast day, there is so much on which we can quietly reflect: so much brokenness, sadness, and anxiety. In this moment, a little social silence – replacing those familiar buzzes with real human contact and conversation, real prayer and study, and restraint not just from food and drink but also from toxic (virtual) discourse – could do all of us some good.
Meditation is seen as a universally based method of spiritual growth. And while this is clearly the case for most people, even something seemingly as important and powerful has a dark side. The article below was an eye opener to me, not so much about the dark side but as a reminder that spiritual practice needs guidance. Practicing without safeguards can be a precursor to emotional and psychological danger. In Jewish tradition, we have an ancient idea from the book Ethics of Our Fathers that a good practice is to “make a rabbi for yourself.” I have always thought this was something beyond finding someone to direct you in what to do. It is also a warning to have someone to bounce one’s experiences off of who is potentially more experienced.
Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the second floor. The real sanctuary, however, is on the third floor, where people come from all over to rent rooms, work with Britton, and rest. But they’re not there to restore themselves with meditation—they’re recovering from it.
“I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror,” says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. “I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”
Michael, 25, was a certified yoga teacher when he made his way to Cheetah House. He explains that during the course of his meditation practice his “body stopped digesting food. I had no idea what was happening.” For three years he believed he was “permanently ruined” by meditation.
“Recovery,” “permanently ruined”—these are not words one typically encounters when discussing a contemplative practice.
On a cold November night last fall, I drove to Cheetah House. A former student of Britton’s, I joined the group in time for a Shabbat dinner. We blessed the challah, then the wine; recited prayers in English and Hebrew; and began eating.
Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, works at the Brown University Medical School. She receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called “The Dark Night Project,” is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.
The morning after our Shabbat dinner, in Britton’s kitchen, David outlines the history of his own contemplative path. His first retreat was “very non-normal,” he says, “and very good … divine. There was stuff dropping away … [and] electric shocks through my body. [My] core sense of self, a persistent consciousness, the thoughts and stuff, were not me.” He tells me it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, an “orgasm of the soul, felt throughout my internal world.”
David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn’t last.
Still high off his retreat, he declined an offer to attend law school, aggravating his parents. His best friends didn’t understand him, or his “insane” stories of life on retreat.
“I had a fear of being thought of as crazy,” he says, “I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked.”
Not knowing what to do with himself, David moved to Korea to teach English, got bored, dropped out of the program, and moved back in with his parents. Eventually, life lost its meaning. Colors began to fade. Spiritually dry, David didn’t care about anything anymore. Everything he had found pleasurable before the retreat—hanging out with friends, playing music, drinking—all of that “turned to dirt,” he says, “a plate of beautiful food turned to dirt.”
He traveled back and forth from Asia to home seeking guidance, but found only a deep, persistent dissatisfaction in himself. After “bumming around Thailand for a bit,” he moved to San Francisco, got a job, and sat through several more two- and 10-week meditation retreats. Then, in 2012, David sold his car to pay for a retreat at the Cloud Mountain Center that torments him still.
“Psychological hell,” is how he describes it. “It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn’t want to think about, every feeling I didn’t want to feel.” David felt “pebble-sized” spasms emerge from inside a “dense knot” in his belly.
He panicked. Increasingly vivid pornographic fantasies and repressed memories from his childhood began to surface.
“I just started freaking out,” he says, “and at some point, I just surrendered to the onslaught of unwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo.” As soon as he did, however, “there was some goodness to it.” After years of pushing away his emotional, instinctual drives, something inside David was “reattached,” he says.
Toward the end of his time at the Cloud Mountain Center, David shared his ongoing experiences with the retreat leaders, who assured him it was probably just his “ego’s defenses” acting up. “They were really comforting,” he says, “even though I thought I was going to become schizophrenic.”
According to a survey by the National Institutes of Health, 10 percent of respondents—representing more than 20 million adult Americans—tried meditating between 2006 and 2007, a 1.8 percent increase from a similar survey in 2002. At that rate, by 2017, there may be more than 27 million American adults with a recent meditation experience.
In late January this year, Time magazine featured acover story on “the mindful revolution,” an account of the extent to which mindfulness meditation has diffused into the largest sectors of modern society. Used by “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs, and more,” mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, eat mindfully, parent mindfully, teach mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, spend money mindfully, and go to war mindfully. What the cover story did not address are what might be called the revolution’s “dirty laundry.”
“We’re not being thorough or honest in our study of contemplative practice,” says Britton, a critique she extends to the entire field of researchers studying meditation, including herself.
I’m sitting on a pillow in Britton’s meditation room. She tells me that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s website includes an interesting choice of words in its entry on meditation. Under “side effects and risks,” it reads:
Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched.
By modern scientific standards, the aforementioned research may not yet be comprehensive—a fact Britton wants to change—but according to Britton and her colleagues, descriptions of meditation’s adverse effects have been collecting dust on bookshelves for centuries.
The phrase “dark night of the soul,” can be traced back to a 16th-century Spanish poem by the Roman Catholic mystic San Juan de la Cruz, or Saint John of the Cross. It is most commonly used within certain Christian traditions to refer to an individual’s spiritual crisis in the course of their union with God.
The divine experiences reported by Saint John describe a method, or protocol, “followed by the soul in its journey upon the spiritual road to the attainment of the perfect union of love with God, to the extent that it is possible in this life.” The poem, however, is linked to a much longer text, also written by Saint John, which describes the hardships faced by those who seek to purify the senses—and the spirit—in their quest for mystical love.
According to Britton, the texts of many major contemplative traditions offer similar maps of spiritual development. One of her team’s preliminary tasks—a sort of archeological literature review—was to pore through the written canons of Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism, as well as texts within Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism. “Not every text makes clear reference to a period of difficulty on the contemplative path,” Britton says, “but many did.”
“There is a sutta,” a canonical discourse attributed to the Buddha or one of his close disciples, “where monks go crazy and commit suicide after doing contemplation on death,” says Chris Kaplan, a visiting scholar at the Mind & Life Institute who also works with Britton on the Dark Night Project.
Nathan Fisher, the study’s manager, condenses a famous parable by the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement. Says Fisher, “[the story] is about how the oscillations of spiritual life parallel the experience of learning to walk, very similar to the metaphor Saint John of the Cross uses in terms of a mother weaning a child … first you are held up by a parent and it is exhilarating and wonderful, and then they take their hands away and it is terrifying and the child feels abandoned.”
Kaplan and Fisher dislike the term “dark night” because, in their view, it can imply that difficult contemplative experiences are “one and the same thing” across different religions and contemplative traditions.
Fisher also emphasizes two categories that may cause dark nights to surface. The first results from “incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided,” while the second includes “those [experiences] which were necessary and expected stages of practices.” In other words, while meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development. Distinguishing between the two, however, remains a challenge.
Britton shows me a 2010 paper written by University of Colorado-Boulder psychologist Sona Dimidjian that was published in American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association. The study examines some dramatic instances where psychotherapy has caused serious harm to a patient. It also highlights the value of creating standards for defining and identifying when and how harm can occur at different points in the psychotherapeutic process.
One of the central questions of Dimidjian’s article is this: After 100 years of research into psychotherapy, it’s obvious that scientists and clinicians have learned a lot about the benefits of therapy, but what do we know about the harms? According to Britton, a parallel process is happening in the field of meditation research.
“We have a lot of positive data [on meditation],” she says, “but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically,” Britton adds, “the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism.”
As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.
For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, “because that’s what Americans value”—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.
“Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?” asks Britton, referencing these more lucrative questions. Because studies have shown that meditation does satisfy such interests, the results, she says, are vigorously reported to the public. “But,” she cautions, “what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?”
Given the juggernaut—economic and otherwise—behind the mindfulness movement, there is a lot at stake in exploring a shadow side of meditation. Upton Sinclair once observed how difficult it is to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Britton has experienced that difficulty herself. In part because university administrators and research funders prefer simple and less controversial titles, she has chosen to rename the Dark Night Project the “Varieties of Contemplative Experience.”
Britton also questions what might be considered the mindfulness movement’s limited scope. She explains that the Theravadin Buddhist tradition influences how a large portion of Americans practice meditation, but in it, mindfulness is “about vipassana, a specific type of insight … into the three characteristics of experience.” These are also known as the three marks of existence: anicca, or impermanence; dukkha, or dissatisfaction; and anatta, or no-self.
In this context, mindfulness is not about being able to stare comfortably at your computer for hours on end, or get “in the zone” to climb the corporate ladder. Rather, says Britton, it’s about the often painstaking process of “realizing and processing those three specific insights.”
Shinzen Young, a Buddhist meditation teacher popular with young scientists, has summarized his familiarity with dark night experiences. In a 2011 email exchange between himself and a student, which he then posted on his blog, Young presents an explanation of what he means by a “dark night” within the context of Buddhist experience:
Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation. …The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as ‘dark night.’ I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as ‘falling into the Pit of the Void.’ It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it’s Enlightenment’s Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.
Britton’s findings corroborate many of Young’s claims. Among the nearly 40 dark night subjects her team has formally interviewed over the past few years, she says most were “fairly out of commission, fairly impaired for between six months [and] more than 20 years.”
The identities of Britton’s subjects are kept secret and coded anonymously. To find interviewees, however, her team contacted well-known and highly esteemed teachers, such as Jack Kornfield at California’s Spirit Rock and Joseph Goldstein at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. Like many other experienced teachers they spoke to, Goldstein and Kornfield recalled instances during past meditation retreats where students became psychologically incapacitated. Some were hospitalized. Says Britton, “there was one person Jack told me about [who] never recovered.”
The Dark Night Project is young, and still very much in progress. Researchers in the field are just beginning to carefully collect and sort through the narratives of difficult meditation-related experiences. Britton has presented her findings at major Buddhist and scientific conferences, prominent retreat centers, and even to the Dalai Lama at the 24th Mind and Life Dialogue in 2012.
“Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help,” Britton says. “They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it.”
In response, Britton conceived of Cheetah House as a public resource. “We’re still in the process of developing our services,” she says. “Lots of people just come live here, and work on the study. Because they’re part of the research team, they get to stay here and listen to other people’s experiences, and that’s been incredibly healing.”
As a trained clinician, it can be hard for Britton to reconcile the visible benefits of contemplative practices with data unearthed through the Dark Night Project. More than half of her patients reported positive “life-altering experiences” after a recent eight-week meditation program, for example. But, she says, “while I have appreciation and love for the practices, and for my patients … I have all of these other people that have struggled, who are struggling.”
“I understand the resistance,” says Britton, in response to critics who have attempted to silence or dismiss her work. “There are parts of me that just want meditation to be all good. I find myself in denial sometimes, where I just want to forget all that I’ve learned and go back to being happy about mindfulness and promoting it, but then I get another phone call and meet someone who’s in distress, and I see the devastation in their eyes, and I can’t deny that this is happening. As much as I want to investigate and promote contemplative practices and contribute to the well-being of humanity through that, I feel a deeper commitment to what’s actually true.”
TOMAS ROCHA is a research associate at the Mind & Life Institute and a doctoral student at Columbia University.
Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living, Franklin
Jewish holidays have always included the idea that celebration goes beyond the immediate household to include all of society. The Book of Deuteronomy delineates that the celebration should include “you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, the convert, the orphan and the widow who are in your cities” (Deuteronomy 16:14). True rejoicing occurs when everyone has a place in the societal enjoyment of the festivals.
In today’s Jewish communities, inter-relational celebration is especially experienced during the upcoming holiday of Purim. The holiday celebrates the Jewish survival described in the book of Esther. The particulars of how to celebrate are clearly laid out.
The Book of Esther states, “Mordechai recorded these events and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the near ones and the distant ones; they are to observe annually the 14th day of the month of Adar and its 15th day as days on which the Jews found relief from their enemies and the month which had been turned about for them from one of sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festival. They are to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, sending food to one another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:20-22).
Celebrating holidays in a societal way is an expression of a fundamental principle of happiness and joy. An adage in “Ethics of our Fathers” notes that a person who is rich is someone who is content with his portion. I recently read an article on parenting that described how in order to teach children the value of money and objects, a parent needs to work hard on not actively pursuing the newest and the best things. Rather, one should work toward being satisfied with what one already has, not always running out immediately to buy the latest gadget or item even if one has the financial means to make those purchases.
It is further incumbent upon the parent to verbalize a commitment to being satisfied in the face of pressure to keep up with society. Similarly, when we work to include others at our table and make the effort to ensure that everyone is able to partake, we are able to exemplify the idea that what we have is not just for our own use.
The Book of Esther also challenges the reader in the same manner when Mordechai persuades Queen Esther that she must confront her husband, King Ahasuerus, about Haman’s evil decree to wipe out all the Jews of the Persian Empire. Esther expresses doubt as to whether she should approach the king to rescind the decree. In responding to this doubt, Mordechai states, “and who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position?” (4:14)
We are not always privy to the whys of life. The mandate of celebration with all of society is perhaps meant to remind people, “it was just for such a time” that we have the means and the ability to uplift those who otherwise do not have the means to celebrate. As we celebrate Purim, may we remember that true celebration comes from a place of giving, and may we find joy in bringing joy to others.
In discussing spiritual growth, much of the literature discusses how daily repetition is the best way of growth and change. The below article describes a study on how repetition is more effective in making change.
Even in this modern age of science, people are likely to find logic in supernatural rituals that require a high degree of time and effort, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.
The study, published in the June issue of Cognition, is the first psychological analysis of how people of various cultures evaluate the efficacy of ritual beliefs. The findings provide new insight into cognitive reasoning processes – and how people intuitively make sense out of the unknown.
“One of the most remarkable characteristics of human cognition is the capacity to use supernatural reasoning to explain the world around us,” said Cristine Legare, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. “We argue that the characteristics of ritual are the product of an evolved cognitive system.”
Cause-and-effect thinking is critical to human survival, Legare said. So it’s natural for people to find logic in supernatural rituals that emphasize repetition and procedural steps. If doing something once has some effect, then repeating it must have a greater effect. For example, if a mechanic says he inspected something five times, the frequency of his actions leads the customer to overestimate the effectiveness of his work.
To find out how people rate the effectiveness of magical rituals, Legare and graduate student André Souza conducted a study in Brazil, a country suffused with rituals called simpatias. Used for solving problems as varied as quitting smoking, curing asthma and warding off bad luck, simpatias are formulaic rituals that involve various steps and repetition.
The psychologists presented 162 Brazilian respondents several versions of these rituals. Each was modified with different characteristics, such as repetition of procedures, number of steps, number of items used, and the presence of religious icons.
As part of the study, Legare asked the respondents to rate the effectiveness of each ritual. According to the findings, three elements of the simpatias had the biggest influence: number of steps, repetition of procedures and a specified time.
To see how magical rituals are perceived across cultures, the researchers conducted the same study with 68 U.S. respondents of various religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. As the researchers expected, the majority of respondents didn’t believe in simpatias. Yet similar to the Brazilians, they were more inclined to believe in rituals involving numerous repetitions and steps. For example, they gave a higher rating for this sadness-curing ritual, which involves numerous steps and repetitions.
In a metal container, put the leaves of a white rose. After that, set fire to the leaves. Get the remaining ash from the leaves and put it in a small plastic bag. Take the small plastic bag and leave it at a crossroad. Repeat the procedure for seven days in a row.
Though simpatias are primarily practiced in Brazil, magical rituals and other superstitions are widely accepted in the United States. Findings from the study provide further insight into how people find logic in the supernatural, regardless of concrete evidence.
Training in mindfulness meditation or exercise is linked to a decrease in the severity and duration of acute respiratory infections (ARIs) in adults, according to a study published in the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.
To assess the preventive effects of meditation or exercise on incidence, duration, and severity of ARI illness, Bruce Barrett, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and associates conducted a randomized trial involving 149 adults (82 percent female; 94 percent white; mean age, 59.3 years). Participants underwent eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation (51 participants) or moderate-intensity sustained exercise (47 participants), or were part of an observational control (51 participants).
The researchers identified 27 ARI episodes and 257 days of ARI illness in the meditation group, 26 episodes and 241 illness days in the exercise group, and 40 episodes and 453 days in the control group. Data showed that the mean global severity was 144, 248, and 358 for meditation, exercise, and control, respectively, with severity significantly lower for meditation versus control. There was a trend toward lower severity in the exercise versus control group and for lower duration in the exercise and meditation groups versus control. There were significantly fewer ARI-related days of work missed for the exercise and meditation groups versus the control group (32, 16, and 67, respectively).
“If these results are confirmed in future studies, there will be important implications for public and private health-related policy and practice, as well as for scientific research regarding mechanisms of health maintenance and disease prevention,” the authors write.
The study was funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Within good comes potential for harm. When it comes to meditation, it is not for all people, especially if one considers the possibility that meditation might prevent confronting one’s emotional turmoil. As seen in the article below, it might be dangerous to use spirituality and spiritual techniques in certain situations. One must be careful and have the right guidance to know when to use those methods and when not to.
Here is a post I wrote a couple years ago that I wanted to revive as it’s increasingly important in the context of the fervor that is surrounding mindfulness as a wonderful antidote to stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma chronic illness or as the seed of empathy, compassion, happiness and just a better life.
The following story shows us how even with the best intentions, it’s easy to fall into a trap of using meditation in a way that keeps us stuck in the perpetual cycles we’re wanting to heal.
In his recent article, Enlightenment Therapy, Chip Brown writes about a real life story that conveys the pitfalls of meditation, the importance of therapy and personal narrative and the potential benefits of a combined approach. The story is of Zen master, professor, poet, and essayist, Louis Nordstrom.
For the purposes of this blog I’m not going to get into the differences between the various different approaches to meditation (e.g., Zen, Vipassana, etc..), but explore Brown’s illustration of the importance in being aware of the subtle motives we may have to engage in meditation and how we might be using as a form of escaping our pain.
Many of us have experienced much wounding in our lives and some of us have even cultivated defensive coping styles as children to disengage or disassociate from these feelings in order to not be overwhelmed by them. Nordstrom experienced his own trauma and abandonment as a child and said:
“The Zen experience of forgetting the self was very natural to me,” he told me last fall. “I had already been engaged in forgetting and abandoning the self in my childhood, which was filled with the fear of how unreal things seemed.”
For Nordstrom, meditation felt like a natural fit as there was a familiarity and calmness that came from detaching from thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It was attractive. However, his own depression and challenges continually arose throughout his life. He decided to go back to therapy.
In therapy he came to understand a subtle, yet subversive motive he had to engage in meditation. In one way he was using meditation to cover up the pain he felt from the past, and by detaching from his thoughts, feelings, and emotions, so there was no self, he was saving himself from the possibility of his “self” ever getting abandoned again as he had by his mother in childhood.
In other words, by using meditation to abandon himself, he saved himself from feeling the overwhelming pain of being abandoned by another in relationship. In doing this, he remained walled off and alone even in his relationships, which can be an instigator for depression.
In returning to therapy he recognized something vital to his healing:
“One of the most important insights I got from therapy with Jeffrey [the therapist] is that subconsciously I want the depth of my suffering to be witnessed by someone.”
So many of us, deep down, just want to be seen and acknowledged. Therapy and authentic friendships (which can be hard to come by since so many of us are unaware of our emotional triggers), can be a great source of having our pain understood, validated and accepted.
Practicing mindfulness meditation is not about detaching and forgetting ourselves. It is about “being with” whatever is arising in the moment. We are attempting to pay attention to ourselves, on purpose, and when judgments arise (e.g., this is good/bad, right/wrong, fair/unfair), seeing if we can notice those, let them be and just bring ourselves back to the experience of connecting with ourselves, not disconnecting.
Practicing mindfulness meditation in service of connection can be a wonderful source of healing.
From a mindfulness psychotherapeutic perspective, we are not trying disconnect from ourselves, but instead, become aware of all the history and experience that influences us today, remembering our life so we can cultivate insight into how it affects us intrapersonally and interpersonally in our relationships. We can learn to hold our past wounds in a nonjudgmental way, cultivating compassion and love for ourselves.
In the end, Louis Nordstrom was able to integrate the insights from therapy with his Zen practice. His journey of insight through his practice and therapy can be a great teacher to us all as we continue on our own paths through mindfulness and mental health.
As always, please take time to interact below. Your thoughts and comments provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
This week, I had my first experience of shmira, guarding or watching over someone who has died. The Jewish tradition is not to leave a person alone from the time of his or her death until the time of their burial. A shomer (male) or shomeret (female) is the person who stays with the dead person during this time.
This case was a bit unusual. Because of the circumstances of his death, an autopsy had to be performed. Also, the person’s family said the deceased would not have wanted anyone to lose sleep watching over him. As a result, we only had people sit with him from the time he was placed in his coffin after the autopsy until the time I left to go home to bed that evening. We had three people do the shmira, in shifts.
I arrived early, so I had time to walk around the mausoleum. It is a large building, that appears to have been expanded over the years. Most of the dates on the markers showed they were for people who died in the 1900’s, but a couple were from the 1800’s. I imagine those may be for people whose remains were moved, because I don’t think the building is that old.
I was surprised to see that some people’s ashes were stored in containers in glass cases, which also contained other personal items, such as photographs, eyeglasses, and, in one case, a CD of the person’s memorial service.
At one end of the mausoleum are a couple of small chapels. The person with the shift before me was in one of them, with the met (the body of the deceased), who was in a plain wooden coffin with a Jewish star on it.
I let the person with the shift before me know I was there, and I allowed her a moment to say goodbye to the met. After she left, I greeted the met, and introduced myself. I thought it would be creepy to be in a big mausoleum by myself at night, but it wasn’t creepy at all.
The only thing even mildly creepy was the music playing in the background. It was like bad elevator music on Quaaludes – the very worst of what stereotypical funeral home music can be. The person with the shift before me said they tried to find a way to turn it off, but couldn’t, and decided against trying to disconnect the speaker.
Traditionally, people doing shmira read Psalms. The good news is that once I started reading the Psalms out loud, I could barely hear the awful music. I soon realized I should have brought a bottle of water. After only 20 or 30 minutes of reading out loud, my mouth started to dry out.
Other than that, the evening was uneventful. When it came time to leave, I felt bad about leaving the met there all alone, especially with that awful music playing all night. If I were him, that music would be driving me crazy – if dead people get crazed by things like that.
On the way home, I began to wonder why it wasn’t creepy at all being there. Maybe it’s just because of my experience with taharah and the time I spent in the adjoining morgue helped the surroundings to be more familiar and comfortable to me. Certainly, once you have washed and dressed a dead person, just sitting in a room with one you can’t even see is less of a formidable experience. But when you’re doing taharah, it isn’t in the dark of night, and you’re with other people, which helps to cut down on any potential creepiness.
I thought maybe it wasn’t creepy that night because the place isn’t haunted because all the spirits were long since chased away by that awful music.
It also occurred to me that if I had just been sitting there, and not reading out loud, it would have been easier for me to hear odd noises and to start to think about them. Also, by concentrating on my reading, I didn’t have time to dwell on the possible source of any odd noises, even when I did hear them.
Then I thought, maybe there is something to reading all those Psalms about “God will protect me” and “God’s love is steadfast.” Maybe reading Psalms actually does provide mental strength and comfort. Maybe it helped me. I hope the Psalms, and/or my presence, helped the met.
In this article, RabbiShmuel Herzfeld argues for the power of prayer in the healing process. Prayer has “power” as a spiritual practice can bring one a greater sense of peace. Where I potentially disagree is on the issue of others praying for us. While Jewish law indicates that a person is obligated to pray when visiting the sick, this is different from praying for others outside of their presence. In a person’s presence, we are at the very least offering our belief in prayer’s effectiveness and how we believe that G-d is able to bring healing. Outside of the patient’s presence, however, it is a tougher sell because there is little to suggest scientific proof for the power of communal prayer. Perhaps I would suggest that the person who is ill might have greater internal peace if they believe others are praying for them. Overall, this piece is one that give us pause to remember that healing is more than just medical treatment (which is also necessary).
In 1988 a doctor named Randolph Byrd conducted a study to determine whether or not intercessory prayers on behalf of other people were effective.
The findings were amazing. The patients who were not prayed for were nearly twice as likely to suffer complications than patients who were prayed for (Dale A. Matthews, M.D., and Connie Clark, “The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer,” New York: Penguin, 1999, p.199-200). The study seems to indicate that prayers, even by a stranger for a stranger, can help in fighting disease.
This study has spawned a great deal of criticism by academic scientists who argue that it is not sufficiently rigorous or reliable. But I am more interested in the spiritual question. From a spiritual perspective, are prayers really that powerful? Is this how prayer works?
In Leviticus, the Torah talks about a disease: tzara’at, which is a skin disease. While many commentators choose to allegorize this disease, the simple reading of the Torah is that it is a physical disease. The Torah refers to this disease as fasah hanega (Leviticus 13:5), the disease is malignant. It is a malignant tumor that appears on the body.
Even though it is a physical disease, the response is a spiritual one. The person with tzara’at comes to the priest (kohein). The kohein decides on the proper treatment. He might decide that the patient needs to be quarantined or that the patient is physically fine, or that the patient is tamei and is therefore in need of a healing.
The Sefer ha-Chinukh (a work published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century) offers the following commentary: This commandment is teaching us that the reason the person with this disease is commanded to come to the kohein is that perhaps if he stands in the presence of the kohein — a spiritual man — the kohein will inspire him to meditate introspectively. This is also the concept behind the quarantine; it will allow the patient to examine his affairs unhurriedly and examine his deeds.
The Sefer ha-Chinukh is not saying that all illness comes from sin. The most righteous people in the world can be afflicted with the most terrible illnesses. Instead, he is suggesting that one way to treat illness is through spiritual reflection. The patient comes to the kohein, who can guide him on a spiritual path to health. Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that the best way to treat sickness is with spirituality.
When I was in rabbinical school, we had classes on pastoral counseling. One time we had a class and the rabbi teaching the class gave us a situation. You walk into a hospital room and discover that the person has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. What do you tell the person? The rabbi then went on to say, “I’ll tell you what you don’t say. Don’t say, ‘Now is the time for tehillim (psalms). You have to pray, get all your friends to pray.'”
I understood my teacher’s words to mean that he was suggesting that prayers don’t work to change a situation. He was arguing that from a medical and psychological perspective, the prayers won’t heal you. Instead patients would do better to focus their energy on other areas.
I have come to disagree with this teacher’s approach. With the affliction of tzara’at the Torah is telling us that prayers can and do work. Spirituality can provide mental and physical health. Spirituality can be a legitimate response to illness. This is what the medical, scientific community is slowly beginning to realize. Study after study shows how increased religiosity directly correlates to increased physical health.
A study of 2,754 men and women in Tecumseh, Mich., found that men and women who attend church more frequently live longer than those who attend less frequently. A study in Georgia shows that those who attend church more often have lower blood pressure — even if they are smokers — than those who attend less often. A study of 91,000 people in Maryland shows that people who attend church at least once a week had significantly lower risk for coronary disease (Matthews and Clark, “The Faith Factor,” p.20). All of these studies — and there are many more studies — look at how frequently people attend worship services to pray. The more often one attends worship service, the healthier you are likely to be.
There are scientific reasons for this. Prayer relaxes us. It reduces stress by reminding us to care for our bodies and to constantly seek renewal, by giving us a purpose in life, and by providing us with a sense of being loved.
But let’s not ignore the spiritual possibilities as well. Let’s not ignore the possibility that prayers simply work — that they actually heal the disease. When facing illness we should encourage a spiritual response, as well as a medical response. A spiritual response embraces the physical touch. A spiritual response will encourage holding the patient’s hand, hugging the patient, kissing the patient gently on the forehead.
I will not bore you with miraculous stories about people who have been cured through faith and prayer. There are too many to tell. There are also too many stories of people who had tremendous faith and prayed incessantly and yet were not healed from their ailment. That’s not the point. The point is that just like a medical approach does not always work, and yet we try it anyway. So too, a spiritual approach does not always work and yet it should be tried.
A spiritual approach to our health uses the words of our prayers in order to ground us, strengthen us and heal us. This is what faith is about. It should be something we embrace at all times in our life. God forbid, if one falls ill, the words of our prayers would offer comfort and healing as well.
Miriam the prophetess was stricken with tzara’at. When her brother Moses saw this, he cried out, “O God, please heal her” (Numbers 12:13). When seeing illness, we too have that power. We too can together cry out, “O God, heal the wounded.”
Excerpted from ‘Fifty Four Pick-Up: Fifteen Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons’ (Gefen, 2012).