Sunday, March 8, 2015

Meditate or Medicate? Part 1

The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals. William Osler

If you’re like me, you find that with every new candle that lands on your birthday cake another pill bottle shows up in your medicine cabinet. It has actually reached the point where when traveling the major worry is not “Did I leave the iron on?” it’s “Did I pack my meds?”

We are both blessed and cursed to live in an age where there is a pill for almost every malady brought about by the entropic process we know as getting old. The blessing of course is that for many of us modern medicine means surviving illnesses that would have otherwise put an end to birthday cakes. As a cancer survivor, I know that I’m walking proof (unless I’m laying down, which I seem to do a lot of as I get older) of the miracle of medical science. Additionally, as a survivor of chemotherapy, I know that all man-made miracles come with a price. I dare anyone to read the complete list of “Side effects may include . . .” and not experience Stephen King-like shivers at the potential disasters awaiting you should you decide to try and put an end to something as simple as post nasal drip. The ultimate expression of the hazards of living in the medication age is introduction of medicines whose sole purpose is to counteract the effects of other medications.

Given the fact that we have yet to create a medication that removes the need to take all medications (let that rattle around in your head for a while) and that there are those who would rather find natural means for dealing with the ailments of growing older, it is no wonder that the push toward holistic health is alive and well. As the one time New Agers become Old Agers, there is something nostalgic about returning to our roots (to include the ingesting of roots themselves) when wellness and healing came not in the form of a foreign synthetic substance but from nature and, in the best case, from within.

The latest of these self-healing traditions that has made national and international headlines is meditation. From the cover of Time magazine to the halls of some of the world’s largest companies, mindfulness and the meditative arts have made a comeback that would make the Eagles jealous (for those under the age of 30 Google the band the Eagles and this reference will make perfect sense.)

Meditation/mindfulness has been moved from the black light lit rooms of our youth into the board rooms of our middle age. It seems just about everyone is getting their OM on and you knew it was only time before the anti-aging crowd got their patchouli scented hands on it. It seems every day a new article shows up describing the neuroscientific proof that meditation slows the aging process; cha ching!

In honor of full disclosure, I am a long-time student of mindfulness practices and currently teach meditation at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. I have experienced first-hand the healing benefits of the meditative arts. As a psychotherapist, I will often recommend meditation to clients even before such tried-and-true therapeutic assignments like journaling, pillow punching, or finding a new therapist who will tell them what to do.

That being said, I often find myself at odds with the current views of meditative practices. The one that gives me the most angst is the idea meditation is the secret to prolonging life, the veritable Fountain of Youth that was hidden in plain sight. Sure, I love the research that suggests that meditation can increase brain size and improve synaptic firing. Obviously, it’s good to hear that aging meditators seem to sleep better, have better memories, and can still run a four-minute mile. (I made up that last one to make sure you were still with me.)

The problem is that it often feels like dangling a juicy steak in front of a professed vegan, or a Cronut in front of a diabetic. Many of the people I see will tell me they can’t meditate, or that for them it’s associated with mysticism, spiritualism or some other ism that makes them recoil with reflexive fear of the unknown. How deflating is it to be told that the answer to all of your problems is actually locked up inside of you but that the key to that door is buried is some secret place that only some guru, yogi, or enlightened master can lead you to; sometimes for ten easy payments of $99.99?

The question remains how to tell the hype from the hope? Do we medicate or meditate? Is mindfulness a true method of another mindless attempt to cheat the Grim Reaper? It’s enough to send one to the pill box trying to find that "just in case" Valium that was left over from the medical procedure where a stranger did unspeakable things to your unmentionables.

If Dr. Osler was correct and the desire to take meds is, in fact, what makes us human, where does that leave those of us who desire means of healing that often fall into the category of naturopathic, holistic, or voodoo? As a quick aside, it was none other than Dr. Osler that advocated for the euthanasia of anyone over the age of 60 because, as he put it "...the effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty." He actually envisioned a day where at the age of 67 a person would be "peacefully extinguished by chloroform." Put that in you hookah and smoke it!

Back to those of us who still believe that there is something to be said for the wisdom of the ages.  Wisdom that has, throughout all known cultures, professed that there exists a higher level of consciousness than we currently experience and that meditation is a vehicle for moving to that level. 

What is the true purpose of meditation? Are the proclaimed benefits the peak of our climb to a higher self?  Or are they merely the foothills, that, while pleasant and appreciated, can actually lead us astray as we blindly follow that sinister Sherpa that is our ego?
Stay tuned . . .

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