A prescription for living well from a Harvard physician

You don’t need to spend more than five minutes flipping through TV channels or news articles to see that way too many amygdalas (the fear center in our brains) are on overdrive these days.

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Valentine’s Day is when we think about love. What is love? What cultivates an overwhelming experience of love in our lives? As the poets know, love sees what can only be seen with the eyes of the heart, and it may be for this reason that no matter whether you are married, dating or single, we all look for love. Love reminds us of what is most true. It sees possibilities and potential where others see failure and defeat. It sees the real you, beneath appearances, and this is true not only for your partner but especially for you.

If I’ve learned anything from those with remarkable recoveries and from patients, it’s among the following. Try out these five ways to both nourish your heart and your love life at the same time:

1. Do what causes you to come alive: it’s easy to forget what we love in the press of daily life. When you are doing what you love, you attract love, whether from the one you love or from someone new.

2. Accept that love is like a bank account: if you take care of others to the exclusion of your own deepest longings and desires for too long, you will eventually end up spiritually or emotionally bankrupt, feeling like you need something from others that is not theirs to give. If you make regular deposits into the manifestation of your deep desires and longings, you will develop a surplus of love and joy in your life that will flow out from you towards others. The one you love will be attracted to your infectious joy and you will be free to simply and thoroughly enjoy him or her.

3. Reserve at least one night every week as date night: No matter whether you’ve known each other for 4 months or 40 years, it’s life-saving and relationship-saving to keep doing the things that caused you to fall in love with each other as the roles expand from lovers to include parenting, bread-winning, home-management, etc.

4. Make a project of eliminating self-defeating thoughts from your life: You cannot give to another what you have not first given to yourself. It may seem easier to love other unconditionally than yourself, but the truth is that you need to start with compassion and respect for yourself and then you will be able to extend that to others.

5. Find time to feed and nurture your higher and best self: when you fill what is missing in your life with the highest and best part of you, you are much less likely to need an addiction to food, alcohol, cigarettes, or work that gets in the way of genuine contact with yourself and your partner.

“If it is bread that you seek, you will have bread.

If it is the soul you seek, you will find the soul.

If you understand this secret,

you know you are that which you seek.”

~ Rumi

What does self-love look like to you?

For the last number of years, I have been listening to the stories of those who have medical evidence for recovery from incurable illness. I find these interviews to be both inspiring and thought-provoking. They are changing the way I think about many things, both for individuals and at a different level, in regards to our ideas about health and healing.

The scientific method is brilliant and has created a world of unparalleled physical comfort. But when it comes to modern medicine, science has almost exclusively studied only external remedies, or solutions to illness such as medicines or procedures. Yet we all know at some level that genuine healing often requires more than taking a medicine.

I will use this blog to tell stories of remarkable recoveries from incurable medical illness, based on clear medical evidence of accurate diagnosis and recovery, and then consider what it takes to create a vital, flourishing and happy life. I am less interested in physical health than in clarifying mental principles that are true and by which one can create a meaningful life – a sort of empirical theology. After all, we all die at some point. My question has to do with what it takes to live a life that is true. If the principle is true enough to heal physical bodies, then I take that as a possible clue to a universal truth that is less tainted by opinion, prejudice or tradition. Yes, one could only start such a strenuous venture if one began as a sceptic and had a deep need to know what is true.

Claire is a good example. Diagnosed by biopsy with the worst form of pancreatic cancer in 2008, she was told that she was going to die. In 2013, her abdominal CT was negative for cancer. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most incurable forms of cancer that one can have, with only two to seven percent still alive at five years. I will describe pancreatic cancer and the likelihood that she would still be alive in a later post.

The journey she describes seems to bear distinct similarities with that described by many other remarkable survivors. Yes, Claire made many lifestyle changes in her life. She rid herself of the processed foods and many of the chemicals that fill our foods and daily lives. She forgave people who had been critical of her, and forgave herself. But, as with others I’ve interviewed, she fundamentally addressed her relationship with herself. In her words, “When I got my diagnosis, I knew from long experience with myself that I absolutely had to banish fear and desperation; I knew this in a deep and profound way. I knew that I could not chase a cure if I wanted to live…Desperation, fear and anxiety do not equal healing.” She later concluded that she needed to change her relationship with herself. Certainly one must ask whether banishing fear for courage and changing her relationship with herself played a critical role in her recovery.

I understand that this is only one story. You could say, “That’s just an anecdote.” What I will try to show in subsequent posts is that similar themes come up in story after story, each with medical evidence, and across many different kinds of illnesses. It is truly shocking that in the history of medicine we have never rigorously studied those remarkable individuals who found health when we thought they were going to die. Common sense suggests that we should take a scientific interest in them; that perhaps they have stumbled onto golden keys to health and healing that could be helpful to others.

Perhaps you don’t suffer from an immediately life-threatening illness like Claire did. But every day I take care of both medical and psychiatric patients who suffer from lifestyle illnesses that are more preventable and “fixable” than they realize. The suffering seems so unnecessary. And after listening to remarkable survivors for years, I believe that the lessons they have learned have relevance for the suffering associated with chronic illnesses as well as other difficult problems of living that diminish happiness and quality of life.

In an upcoming post, I will address what Claire seems to have meant by replacing fear with courage and changing her relationship with herself. In the back of my mind are conversations that I have had with other remarkable survivors, so over time we will deal with a number of scientific issues and potential objections. We will, for example, examine whether such stories are “anecdotes” or “rare”; and whether they represent an unmapped, fertile territory in modern medicine, right in front of us, but ignored. I do not believe that we can just “think ourselves into health,” and so we will also examine what role the mind, faith and courage seem to play in these remarkable stories.

If it’s helpful, I can post medical evidence for accurate diagnosis and recovery from the illnesses and stories that are discussed here. Based on what you tell me, I will work out over time a plan that seems most helpful.

We become what we focus on. Focus on what is right and great about you. As a remarkable survivor once said to me, “There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be fixed by what is right about you.”

Dr. Jeffrey Rediger | The magnificence of you and the higher possibilities within you.

I want to talk with you today about the magnificence of you, and the higher possibilities within you.  I just returned from giving a plenary in Tulsa at the Zarrow 21st Annual Mental Health Symposium.  It was a fabulous conference, well-designed, and oriented towards what it takes to create a meaningful and flourishing life.  People said that a movement needs to be started from the ideas spoken about, and I agree.

I was impressed once again by the fact that we are living at a very exciting time.  In spite of the fear that dominates the news cycles, the current period of time will be regarded by the annals of history as a renaissance.  All institutions and nations are slowly being brought under the democratizing influence of the central idea that each individual brings something of infinite value and goodness into the world.

Everywhere, all over the world, people long for an approach to medicine, psychology and spirituality that is rooted in what’s right about us.  Patients, doctors, and all manner of clinicians are feeling the burden of a healthcare system that isn’t quite getting it right or giving us the kind of healthcare system that we really need and want at this point in history.  We all are ready for something new, whether we call it a Science of Health rather than a Science of Disease, Positive Medicine, or a Medicine of Health and Possibility. 

I have been taking care of both medical and psychiatric patients for years, and also listening to patients who have recovered from illnesses after they were told that their illness was fatal and that they were going to die.  I now see how illnesses are more rooted in our hearts and minds than our current healthcare system understands. 

What I am learning from normal patients, and from those with remarkable recoveries, is that we all suffer to the exact extent that we don’t get it about the unrepeatable magnificence and dignity of what we bring into the world.  It’s just easier to believe the bad stuff.  Or to believe what parents or others who didn’t know about what was great about them taught you about yourself, which is that you are not good enough.  No one can teach you what they don’t know about themselves. 

In this blog, we will examine this central misunderstanding, and how it is this that so dramatically undermines health, vitality and success.  And how the reversal of this heals lives, sometimes even physically and to a shocking degree. 

Rachael Donalds – a grad student in Harvard’s School of Public Health who researches resilience – told me that the central insight at the core of remarkable recoveries – that we all suffer to the exact extent that we don’t get it about the unrepeatable magnificence of us – should be called the “Rediger Remission Ratio.”  I’m not so sure about that exact language, but I do know that we need a simple and clear way to highlight the one issue which lies at the unacknowledged core of so much human illness and suffering.  We all get better and feel better – sometimes to a degree that is astonishing – when we feel seen and loved for what’s great about us, and can halt the otherwise unceasing internal flow of criticism and self-criticism.  We do not need more “shoulds” in the world.

This ratio, Rachael suggested, provides a way to potentially measure the connection and outcomes between the physical, mental and higher aspects of our being.  I know that this is the future of medicine.  It is the doorway to a medicine of hope and possibility.

It is to the understanding of this central idea that this blog is dedicated.  In the next blog, I will discuss how a recent patient’s heart disease was connected to deep personal loss, and also how a remarkable individual unexpectedly recovered from pancreatic cancer.  Thank you for participating.