The teenage years are one’s for exploration of self and one’s place in the world. It is the formidable period when children start to ascend the ladder to adulthood. It is a complicated time of change and increased autonomy while still remaining in need of parental support. It is also a time of “rebellion” from the values of one’s parents. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal, The Teenage Spiritual Crisis, there is discussion of why teenagers show increased struggle with the religion of their youth, while also beginning to see their faith in a more sophisticated way, One point which I find in need of more discussion is how teenage rejection is less about denial of Gd and more about religion not always being in the forefront of their lives. The rejection is more in ritual and outward showing of faith than in underlying belief.
The Teenage Spiritual Crisis
As adolescents form values and ideals based on personal experiences, many question their religious beliefs more intensely
By Clare Ansberry
Updated June 13, 2017 11:07 a.m. ET
Thomas Ramey quit praying a few years ago when he was 16 years old because it didn’t seem to matter.
The 18-year-old, who was baptized and confirmed as a Methodist, doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but still believes in a God. He goes to church regularly because he likes playing in the youth band, volunteering and listening to people who have different opinions. “I doubt everything,” says Thomas, who plans to study engineering.
That is true of many teens, who grew up praying, going to houses of worship, and studying religious texts. As 6-year-olds, they were convinced there was a God and heaven and that everything in the Bible was true, for example. Now they aren’t so sure.
The teen brain grows rapidly, and with it the ability to think more abstractly and critically. In early adolescence, teens begin to establish their own ideals and recognize hypocrisy in people and institutions around them. They deal with heartbreak and social cliques, see suffering in the world and wonder if there is a God who cares. They are trying to figure out their place and how and if something like religion belongs.
Exploring such questions is the most important work a teen can do, says Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Spiritual Child.” Research shows that adolescents with a strong personal spirituality are found to be 60% less likely to be severely depressed as teenagers, she says.
Andrew Zirschky, academic director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training in Brentwood, Tenn., says some children start doubting faith in middle school, when many of them begin preparing for confirmation and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.
“Right when kids are having the most doubts, we ask them to affirm their faith,” says Dr. Zirschky. Many plow ahead despite misgivings because they feel pressured to do so, he says, and because churches do a poor job of allowing faith and doubt to coexist. He asks sixth-graders to draw the image of God they had in first grade. It is often a white bearded figure sitting in the cloud. When he asks them to draw the image now, they draw hearts, and use words like “loving” or “All-knowing.”
“At some point, you have to doubt your previous understanding of who God is and replace it with a better one,” he tells them.
While teens doubt, they aren’t ready to give up on the idea of God and the importance of religion. A significant majority—84% of 13- to 17-year-olds believe in God, according to a National Study of Youth and Religion, a longitudinal survey of more than 3,000 teens conducted in 2002 and led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Notre Dame. Three years later, belief among the same teens, then 16- to 21-years-old, slipped to 78%.
Teens often see God as a cosmic therapist, solving problems and generally making people happier, but distant, says sociologist Patricia Snell Herzog, who worked on the study. A large majority believe religion is important, but many become less actively involved as they age through adolescence. “Religion is just there in the background,” says Dr. Herzog. “We describe it as the furniture of their life.”
Thomas Ramey was born and raised in Decatur Ala., part of the U.S. known as the Bible Belt. He went to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church three times a week, twice on Sunday and every Wednesday. His mother, Lisa, taught Sunday school.
When he was 8 years old, and able to read, he received his first Bible, which he and his mother read together. “He always asked lots of questions,” says Mrs. Ramey. At 11, after weeks of studying, he was confirmed, and was a Chaplain aid for his Boy Scout troop, leading prayers before meals and at campouts. At that time, he says he believed in God and what the Bible said.
His views started changing in his midteens. His youth group had cliques. He was in the social outcasts group, he says, and he encountered some hostility from certain church leadership against some of his friends who were gay.
“When you see people behave in wrongful, hurtful, hypocritical ways, it’s kind of hard to believe that God cares,” he says.
Philip Galyon, the current youth minister, says teens in high school identify fallacies and hypocrisies. “They push back,” he says, and ask, “Why do people who say they are Christian treat other people poorly?” He remembers struggling when he was age 17 and his parents divorced. His father was a minister. “I thought why should I still believe this?” He wondered what good their faith did.
Thomas hit another hard stretch when he was about age 16 and three people close to him died, including a friend of the family who had dementia. Thomas and his mother visited often, helping the man’s wife care for him. “For weeks I prayed for God to kill this man so his wife wouldn’t have to see him in pain anymore,” he says. “He suffered and died in a terrible way.”
“Thomas is very compassionate,” says Mrs. Ramey. He stops in twice a week to help an elderly neighbor empty her trash and works in a soup kitchen.
Sometime after that, he quit praying. “If something bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen,” he says. “Deal with it head on. I am not going to sit there and say to God ‘Don’t let this happen and don’t let that happen.’”
Thomas still believes in God. The earth and solar system are too complex and fragile not to have something influencing and connecting everything, he says. “Whether whatever created us, loves us, is a different matter,” he says. He doubts there is an afterlife and isn’t troubled by that.
His strongest belief these days is in “the equality of all humans from birth to death, and that the only meaning we have in this world is that which we inject into it.”
I find death reflection to be a very honest look at living. While it is only a microcosm of the mindset of the dying, reflecting on what it means to have limits to life is a valuable exercise. The following is one person’s death reflection looking at meaning in life after experiencing multiple deaths in the first week of 2015.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have always imagined.” — Henry David Thoreau
“No, there have been four deaths,” my mom’s husband corrected me. “Your cousin’s mom died yesterday.” Talk about a grim way to start off the New Year. The man who lived across the street from my mom, the elderly lady my mom cared for years ago, my brother’s friend’s wife — she was only 32, four years younger than I am — and now my aunt. How is that for the first week of 2015?
The interesting thing about death is that if we’re not “old” or in poor health, it isn’t something that is at the forefront of our mind. Meaning, we think we have plenty of time. It’s this false sense of time that keeps us in jobs we’re unhappy with for a decade or in passionless relationships or from chasing our dreams.
Five years ago my brother’s friend Jona found out he had a rare form of cancer and within a few weeks he passed away. Jona documented his last six weeks in a blog — prepare to shed some tears. He was only 27. What would you do if you knew you only have six weeks left to live?
To have four people within my extended circle of family and friends die within the same week, made death feel not only inevitable, but closer to home. Regardless of how much or little time we have left, here are four things death teaches us about life.
“It often takes suffering and lost in order to remind us of how precious life is.” — Rob Bell
1. Our time is limited. Whether we live to be 27 years old like Jona or we live to be 107 years old, until science is able to figure out a way to make us live forever, one day our life on this planet will come to an end. Meaning, that we don’t have time to wait to take that trip to Italy we’ve been dreaming about the last few years or to start a business or to spend more time with our family because, like it or not, the clock is ticking. So how do you want to spend your precious days or weeks, or even minutes?
Six months ago while in France, I had a brush with death when a motorcycle nearly ran me over. That was enough to make me speed up the changes I was considering making at the end of the year. I’ll just give it a few more months and see, I kept thinking, when in fact I already knew what needed to happen and was basically procrastinating.
2. Follow our heart. As Steve Jobs so famously said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” I know it can be scary chasing after our dreams, ask anyone who has tried, myself included. Following your heart, following your passion, dreaming big is not easy, because if it were everyone would be doing it. But, here’s the thing, would you rather live a life of What ifs? or a life of I’m going for it!
“You are never too old or too broken. It is never too late to begin, or to start all over again.” — Bikram Choudhury
3. Second chances. Life is all about second chances. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga said “You are never too old or too broken. It is never too late to begin, or to start all over again.” Each day, each breath, each moment is an opportunity for us to try again, a chance to create the life we truly want and to go after our dreams. When was the last time you asked yourself, Am I living the life I really want? If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to figure out what you can do to change it.
4. The present moment. Now is the only guarantee we have. Now is what matters most in life. In the Power of NOW, Eckhart Tolles says, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.” Although some things take time and cannot be created overnight, the now is where the miracles happen. Now is when we have the opportunity to experience the intricate details of life. However, to fully experience the joys of watching your child take their first step or the majestic Na Pali coast, it is important for us to be fully present, to live in that space of wonderment where life is currently happening.
Being a caregiver is often one of the most taxing and emotionally draining tasks someone can take upon him/herself. I have been witness time and again to the burnout that occurs to the best of people, to people who’s hearts are in the right place but eventually wear down because of the details needing attending to. I came across a list of 5 ways to practice mindfulness as a caregiver which can combat feelings of being overwhelmed.
Here are five ways you can bring mindfulness into your caregiving.
Photograph by Corey Kohn
By Nell Lake
Many of us find ourselves caring for loved ones braving old age, decline, and dying. Caregiving is demanding—at times overwhelming. Yet it can also cultivate intimacy, wisdom, and insight. For my book, The Caregivers: A Support Group’s Stories of Slow Loss, Courage, and Love, I chronicled the experiences of the members of a caregivers support group for more than a year. Here are some things I learned about mindful caregiving:
1. Be where you are
It’s a central principle of mindfulness: trying to do one thing at a time, and knowing that you’re doing it, and doing it with kindness toward yourself.
Caregiving often requires responding to seemingly countless needs, appointments, tasks. Studies show caregivers face higher rates of stress and illness than non-caregivers. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, lonely, frequently angry and irritable or guilty, and/or crying a lot, you’re likely at risk of burnout. Some suggestions for easing your stress:
• speak with your doctor. He or she should be able to help you find resources that help.
• call your local senior center to ask about sources of support such as senior day care and/or respite programs and support groups.
• make a list of activities that nourish you, and try to build one or more of these into your days: journaling, say, or taking walks outside, calling a supportive friend, taking some time to do yoga, meditating—whatever helps you come back to yourself and the moment you’re in.
It’s so easy to adopt the habit of mind that another person’s needs matter more than yours, but one of the most important things you can do to prevent burnout over the long haul is to value your own well-being.
2. Be gently aware of loss and change
Much caregiving is for people with dementia or other long-term chronic illness. Your family member is changing, going through decline—very slowly. Your mother might be losing her ability to communicate; your father’s personality might be changing. It can feel as if your family member is “gone but not gone.” Caregivers often experience long-term uncertainty—and this can be very stressful.
It helps to be aware of slow loss and its particular challenges—and to give yourself permission to feel grief and the other feelings that arise along the way. Letting the feelings simply exist, seeing that they change, can help you gain more clarity, control, and a sense of space.
Mindful awareness doesn’t mean ruminating on loss in a negative way. Thoughts such as “this shouldn’t be this way; this isn’t my mother!” will mostly feed stress. Yet taking time to see the stressful thoughts and storylines that form in your mind can help you not get completely caught up or identify with them. You may even find more acceptance of what’s happening—to see it as natural, a part of life, rather than an aberration.
3. Meet your family member where he or she is
Try to accept the effects of your family member’s aging and illness, the way their mind and body work at this point in their lives. With people with dementia in particular, it’s really helpful to try to create good feelings in as many moments as possible. Studies show that, even for someone who doesn’t remember something you said five minutes before, good feelings last for quite a while. A person with dementia might have a good laugh or hear a song they love or watch a wonderful scene from a movie—and hours later they’ll still be feeling the effects of these. Arguing with their perceptions—saying, “it’s Tuesday, not Thursday” or “you already said that six times today”—is not just futile; it creates stress for both of you.
“Meeting them where they are” is a good principle no matter your family member’s particular illness or impairment. Maybe he or she can’t walk up the stairs anymore and feels cranky about losing mobility. If you can let go of the story “this shouldn’t be this way,” you’ll likely save yourself a lot of suffering. Instead of all this happening to you, it just is. It happens to everybody.
4. Seek out support. Ask for help. Share your story.
Caregiving is isolating; it usually happens in private homes, behind closed doors. Yet connection is vital to us as human beings. The support-group meetings I followed gave the caregivers a chance to connect with others who understood. The members felt trust with one another and usually said whatever they needed to—even shared thoughts and feelings that they didn’t share with others outside the group. Mutual support helped them to be resilient in the midst of their challenges.
Meanwhile they gave one another very little advice. Probably no one likes unsolicited advice, but to caregivers, being told how to handle unique, personal, and challenging situations can be particularly frustrating. The group understood this, and mostly just told stories and listened. They did, however, learn practical things through their listening: They heard about ways others had solved problems, and about available resources. A person caring for someone in the early stages of a disease often learned by listening to another person caring for someone in later stages.
I saw enormous value in the group that I followed, and think a good group can be a profound source of support. But support groups are not for everyone, of course, nor do I think all groups are equal. You may join one, decide it’s not helpful at all, and go looking for a different one. You may find other ways to receive connection and support. This is the central point: to recognize when you need support and seek it out.
5. Be kind but don’t try to be a saint
One of the caregivers I followed, Penny, was upset one evening. She’d brought home two cannoli to share with her mother—a rare treat in their household. Before Penny had had a chance to offer them, her mother had found them and scarfed them both down. Penny discovered this and felt like yelling. Instead she went into another room and wrote “wrathful emails” to her sister. She vented, in other words, which helped. A few days later, she laughed about the incident in her support group.
Being kind doesn’t always mean feeling kind. It does mean doing the right thing in a particular moment. Of course, trying to feel compassion, having that as an intention, is good—but of course one isn’t going to feel compassion in every moment.
Again, it’s important to direct kindness inward. There’s a teaching: when you’re being generous, know that you’re being generous. When you have good qualities of mind, being aware of them can help to further cultivate them. In your caregiving, acknowledge that you’re being caring. You’re helping someone. Even when caregiving feels hard, it can be sustaining to recognize your generosity. You’re helping someone to have a good end to her or his life.
People search for different modes of coping with the emotional upheavals related to grief. For some, it is finding comfort in a spiritual practice, such as Yoga. Here is a short piece explaining how Yoga can help in grieving loss.
Abby Saloma was physically and mentally crushed from caring for her mother, who was dying fromovarian cancer. To make things worse, the then 27-year-old was hours away from the District of Columbia yoga studio that had helped her cope with her mom’s diagnosis.
So Saloma did the only thing she could think to do: She called the one yoga teacher in her hometown near Reading, Pennsylvania, she knew of – and begged. “I am desperate for a yoga practice,” Saloma told the woman, who led her in a private session in the loft of a barn. “It was just such a powerful, powerful experience,” Saloma says.
Now, more than 10 years after that session and the death of her mom, Saloma has become a certified yoga instructor and has led a yoga workshop specifically for people who are dealing with grief. Another “healing workshop” is in the works for March.
“The premise of it is, in our society, we really push death under the rug – we’re terrified to talk about it,” says Saloma, whose workshops include journaling, guided meditation and poses aimed at opening the heart and hips. “Yoga allows us to be present with it, and I believe that being present with it allows us to live a fuller, more awakened life.”
New Thinking on Grief
Research has shown that mind-body practices including yoga and meditation can help reduce symptoms of various conditions such as depression, anxiety, negative mood, fatigue and stress.
But mental health experts are beginning to recognize the power the practices can also have on people coping with grief, which used to be viewed as a largely psychological experience, says Kait Philbin, a psychologist and a certified yoga teacher in Redwood City, California.
“It used to be that [therapists] just thought that all you had to do was look at the mind, but they’re realizing that there’s a complicated relationship going on between the body and mind,” Philbin says. Her research has shown that a six-week yoga therapy program for grief and bereavement significantly improved participants’ vitality (a measure of appetite, energy level, sleep, relaxation and body stiffness) and positive states (the ability to get good rest, concentrate and be intimate).
The theory of grief, too, as a five-stage process including denial, anger and acceptance, is also shifting. Today, professionals are more likely to endorse the perspective that everyone experiences grief differently, says Heather Stang, a yoga therapist and meditation instructor in Frederick, Maryland, and author of “Mindfulness & Grief.” “There’s no right or wrong way for grieving, [and] there’s no right or wrong way to practice yoga for grief,” she says.
In her eight-week yoga for grief course, Stang first leads breathing exercises to help participants relax, since “the bereaved body is so wound up and so stressed out,” she says. Stang then guides students through protective poses like child’s pose, as well as lengthening movements, and gives them time to journal and share their experiences with one another.
She also uses her background in thanatology – the scientific study of death, dying and bereavement – to educate participants about death and normalize their experiences. “We have to not make grief a disease – it’s not a disease,” she says. “It’s as natural as birth and death itself.”
Why Does It Work?
When Antonio Sausys’s mother died from a stroke when he was 20, the physical manifestation of grief was striking: After two and a half years of ignoring his pain, he discovered his breastbone had popped out.
“What my mind could hide, my body showed with pristine clarity: I had a broken heart,” says Sausys, a yoga instructor in San Anselmo, California, who went on to earn a master’s degree in body-oriented psychotherapy and to publish “Yoga for Grief Relief.”
“If the body is left out [of grief treatment], it becomes a very important source of expression of the pain, and it easily falls in deep dysfunction,” Sausys says.
Indeed, grief often presents itself physically – in stomach pain and fatigue for Saloma, in headaches and a loss of appetite in others. “We hold grief, we hold pain, we hold stress – we hold that in our bodies,” Saloma says.
That’s one of the reasons why yoga and its myriad physical benefits – from lowered blood pressure to improved strength and balance – can be an effective way to manage the pain of grief.
“When you’re grieving, there’s a defense mechanism that kicks in to protect yourself – you kind of go into survival mode,” Saloma says. “And by really opening your heart, you’re able to express some of that vulnerability and let some of that out and be more present with it.”
Some of yoga’s benefits for people coping with grief might also be achieved through other forms of physical activity like running, says Robert Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis and editor of the journal Death Studies. In one of his studies comparing the effects of yoga, running and group therapy on people with depression – some of whom were grieving – he and colleagues found that both yoga and running had superior long-term benefits compared to group therapy.
His more recent research tested an intervention for grief that encourages people to reflect on the idea that nothing is permanent and to create a new “self-narrative” in light of their loss. He and a colleague found that the intervention – which included poetry reading and storytelling, as well as meditation and slow physical movement – was effective in reducing grief-related pain. It’s not a stretch to see why yoga, especially types that foster mindfulness through meditation, might do the same, Neimeyer says.
“This [intervention] is not a panacea,” he says, “but it can be perhaps a less anguished perspective that helps us find some meaning or sense in our suffering.”
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.
I wanted to share the following words from Rabbi Marc Angel pertaining to this week’s Torah portion. I found his thoughts powerful and meaningful and wanted to share them. I find we need strong, caring relationships to help navigate us through the loss of other relationships in our lives.
“And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebeccah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother (Bereishith 24:67).”
The great medieval Bible commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi (known popularly as Radak), noted: “Although three years had passed between Sarah’s death and Isaac’s marriage to Rebeccah, yet he was mourning her [Sarah], and was comforted in that [Rebeccah] was good as his mother was.”
It appears, then, that Isaac mourned his mother inconsolably for three years. But once Rebeccah entered his life, “he was comforted for his mother.” Rebeccah had those qualities and virtues which characterized Sarah, and Isaac finally found consolation from the loss of his mother.
What is consolation?
Let us first state what consolation does not accomplish: it does not bring back the dead. It does not change reality. The beloved person has died and cannot be replaced.
Consolation does not deny reality. Rather, it attempts to cope with death by providing hope for the future. Death is a fact of human existence. It is distressing to lose a loved one. It is possible to sink into a deep depression when grieving. Consolation attempts to redirect mourning into a positive, future-oriented direction. Yes, a loved one has died; yes, the pain is real. No, the deceased loved one cannot be brought back to life.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a lecture in memory of his father, stated: “…It seems to me as if my father were yet alive, although four years have come and gone since his death. It is in a qualitative sense that I experience his nearness and spirit tonight…Our sages have said…the righteous are exalted in death more than in life. If time be measured qualitatively, we may understand how their influence lingers on after their death and why the past is eternally bound with the present.”
With the passage of time, the mourner comes to experience the presence of the deceased loved one with a “qualitative time-awareness.” The focus is shifted from daily interactions that used to take place with the deceased. Instead, the mourner gains a deeper sense of the qualities and virtues of the deceased. With the passage of time, the mourning mellows into a calmer, wiser appreciation of the life of the one who has passed on. The bitter pain of mourning is softened. Consolation sets in.
Apparently, Isaac was so distraught at the passing of his mother that he had trouble developing this “qualitative time-awareness.” Her death traumatized him, and he could not shake off his feelings of grief.
Let us remember the nature of the relationship between Sarah and her son, Isaac. She gave birth to him when she was already quite elderly. To her, Isaac was a miraculous gift from God. She must surely have doted over him and enjoyed every moment with him. When she perceived that Ishmael was taking advantage of Isaac, she compelled Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household. Only Isaac was to be Abraham’s true heir and successor.
Sarah loved Isaac with a total love. Indeed, Isaac could not fail to realize that the only person in the world he could fully trust was his mother Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael were certainly not to be relied upon. After the Akeidah, Isaac must surely have had misgivings about trusting his father Abraham, who had raised a knife to his throat.
When Sarah died, Isaac felt very alone in the universe. There was no one who loved him with an unqualified love. There was no one who understood him fully. There was no one to whom he could turn for genuine consolation. So he mourned for three years. He felt lost and abandoned.
But even more painful than being unloved by anyone, Isaac had no one whom he himself loved with a full love. A loveless life is a tragic life, a life of perpetual mourning.
And then Rebeccah enters the scene. “And Rebeccah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she alighted from the camel…and she took her veil and covered herself (24:65).” Abraham’s servant explained to Isaac that Rebeccah had been chosen to become Isaac’s wife.
Instead of hesitating nervously, Isaac suddenly came to life. He was immediately impressed with Rebeccah’s modest and respectful behavior. This was a dramatic instance of love at first sight. Lonely Isaac now had love in his life again. Lonely Rebeccah—and she must have been lonely coming to a new land to start a new life among people she did not know—saw in Isaac a meditative, sensitive man—a man worthy of her love.
Isaac was consoled on the loss of his mother. He saw in Rebeccah those special qualities that had characterized Sarah. More than that, he found in Rebeccah the love which had been absent from his life since Sarah’s death. He was now able to deal with Sarah’s death because he now had a future with Rebeccah. He could redirect his thoughts to moving his life forward instead of grieving for an irretrievable past.
I have often told mourners: You never get over the death of a loved one; but you learn to get through it. The deceased loved ones remain with us “qualitatively” as long as we live. We treasure our memories of their lives, and we carry those memories with us as we forge our ways into the future. We find consolation not by forgetting them, but by bringing them along with us every day of our lives.
We find consolation through the power of love, the blessing of loving and being loved.
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.
The following is one man’s written reflection on dying. It is worth reflecting on his words to garner a more intimate perspective on ideas of hope and growth when faced with the reality of terminal illness.
Just so you understand: I am dying. I am in the end stage of metastatic prostate cancer, and after six-and-a-half years of close association with the disease, I have another six months to two years to live. That probably sounds exhibitionistic, but I don’t mean it to. Nor am I fishing for pity. Truth is, I’d sooner have your laughter.
Man says, “I’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but I am going to fight it with everything I’ve got.” “My money’s on the cancer,” his friend says. Find me that friend.
When it is incurable, as mine is, cancer always wins in the end, but no one—I mean, no one—wants to hear any such thing. The preferred message in our culture is the sentimental one of hope. Hope is not, however, what the terminal cancer patient needs. Even if you believe in miracles, you cannot hope for one—not the way you hope the car’s skid comes to a stop before the cliff’s edge.
“By definition,” C. S. Lewis writes, “miracles must of course interrupt the usual course of Nature,” but if they were as common as mosquitoes in summer they wouldn’t be interruptions of the usual.
What cancer patients need more than anything is to take responsibility for their disease. From their doctors, from their family and friends, and especially from themselves, they need simple honesty about their condition, their treatment options, their chances. They require exactly what the psychological theorist Karen Horney said the neurotic requires if he is to grow as a human creature: the “square recognition of his being as he is, without minimizing or exaggerating.”
A cure may not be possible, but even in the face of death, moral and intellectual growth is. Susan Sontag was right, in Illness As Metaphor (1978), to object to the Victorian attitude toward consumption—that it was a narrowing of life to a focus upon what is good. There is nothing good about dying of cancer, especially when, as I do, you have four children under the age of eleven and a wife whom you lust after and adore.
But how then do I account for the fact that, every Shabbes after the Shemoneh Esrei, I feel compelled to thank the Creator of the Universe for my cancer? How do I explain the reaction of Bruce Pearson, the uneducated third-string catcher in Mark Harris’sBang the Drum Slowly (1956) who is diagnosed with Hodgkins’s lymphoma at a time when it was incurable? “I am doomeded,” Bruce tells his roommate:
But the world is all rosy. It never looked better. The bad things never looked so little, and the good never looked so big. Food tastes better. Things do not matter too much any more.
Except for the taste of food—chemotherapy makes everything taste metallic, when it does not taste like wet cotton mush—I know what Bruce is saying. The music I listen to, the literature I read when I can barely summon the will to lift a hand, never spoke to me with such finality as it does now.
Is cancer ever a blessing?
No, but only because no human experience, not even marriage, not even the birth of a child, is a sign of God’s favor and a promise of unbroken happiness. Cancer may be a death sentence, but there are many ways to read the sentence. Resignation is only one of them, and a particularly arrogant one at that, because it presumes to know, as it cannot, the outcome in every detail.
But if you are ignorant of the suffering that awaits you when you are first diagnosed, you are equally ignorant of the changes that cancer will work in your thinking and emotional life, some of which may even be improvements in old habits of thought and feeling.
You may, for instance, become more conscious of time. What once might have seemed like wastes of time—a solitaire game, a television show you would never have admitted to watching, the idle poking around for useless information—may become unexpected sources of joy, the low-key celebrations of being alive. The difference is that when you are conscious of choosing how to spend your time, and when you discover that you enjoy your choices, they take on a meaning they could never have had before.
You no longer waste or mark time. You fill it, because now you can see the brim from where you are lying.
“In a sense,” Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend about the lupus that would kill her at thirty-nine,
sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.
How could it possibly be merciful of God to reduce you to the hyperawareness, every second of your waking life, that death is relentlessly approaching? Even if it is a knowledge that most other men and women do not have, regardless of what they may like to say, is it knowledge worth having?
You find yourself on a distant planet, alone, with only your own inner resources to fall back upon. No amount of magical thinking or denial will alter your circumstances. You either accept what you have become, and rise above yourself to attend to the others who still need your attention, or you spend your last months in the confinement of self-pity.
In either case, death will come when it comes. The mercy, perhaps even the goodness, is in recognizing the gulf that separates life, which may include terminal illness, and death, which is inevitable, but not quite yet. Whatever your condition, you may always choose life, although you may also choose not to. As Hamlet says, “The readiness is all.”
D. G. Myers is a critic and literary historian who taught for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities. He is the author of The Elephants Teach and ex-fiction critic for Commentary. He has also written for the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, Jewish Ideas Daily, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals.
Image Used: Tropic of Cancer (2010), by Bill Claps, acrylic on canvas, 63 × 43 in.