Principles that guide this work:
The mind, the brain, the body, relationships, culture and the environment operate as a whole. If you are suffering, any or many of these areas may be out of balance in some important way. Only by taking them all into account can we have a comprehensive perspective on what is troubling you.
Different approaches to healing and health promotion complement each other and are often favorably combined. One person will likely do best with a combination of approaches, at the same time and over time. Increasing self-awareness, cognitive exercises, tending to physical health needs, addressing problematic relationship patterns, incorporating contemplative practices and many other approaches create synergies when combined in a disciplined way.
The innate capacities of the body and brain to heal and grow should be harnessed as much as possible. Given the right raw materials, the body has a profound ability to heal itself. Lifelong neuroplasticity allows the brain to change and grow throughout the lifetime, creating enduring freedom in a way that medication alone can never provide. Medications are enormously helpful, often life-saving tools, but their use should be reserved for circumstances where harnessing innate healing and growth is impractical or insufficient. And even (or especially) if you have a condition that requires medications, doing everything you can to access your intrinsic healing abilities will help your life to go better.
Mental disequilibrium, which causes symptoms, results from a combination of intrinsic, genetically based vulnerability and extrinsic factors. Expose two people to the same stress under the same circumstances and one sails through while the other becomes suicidally depressed. The difference is a vulnerability, a relative lack of resilience, with roots that are ultimately genetic. Expose the same person to the same stress at different times and one time they sail through and the other time they become suicidally depressed. The difference is circumstances — whether extrinsic factors that support mental health and well-being are sufficiently at play. These factors have a profound effect on whether genes get expressed or not, which the exciting field of epigenetics is beginning to understand. Biology can be a real vulnerability, but it is not destiny.
Intentional acts can drastically alter the expression of genetic vulnerability. As epigenetics is beginning to elucidate, changes in diet (both physical and mental), activity level, social experiences and even thoughts can literally switch hundreds of genes on and off. This is very, very good news; it means that the choices we make affect our health, resilience and well-being all the way down to the level of our genes.
Intentional acts can rewire the brain. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” With practice and repetition, we grow new synapses that alter the flow of energy and information in the brain. If we practice problematic, habitual, unconscious patterns of thought and behavior, we’ll reinforce our problematic habits. If we practice new ways of thinking and behaving, which often feels quite unnatural at first, we can create enduring freedom and equanimity that we literally lacked the capacity for previously. Modern neuroscience is confirming this, but we didn’t have to wait for neuroscience. The Buddha was teaching this 2,500 years ago.
It is possible to have a fulfilling life regardless of external circumstances. Modern culture and marketing soaks us in messages saying that happiness lies in having things — the right stuff, the right trip, the right relationship, the right experiences or circumstances. The problem is that we can’t control circumstances. The good news, again taught in ancient times and being confirmed by modern science, is that happiness is an inside job. The less attached we are to having circumstances conform to our desires, the more happiness and fulfillment we can enjoy. Some of us are called to work on non-attachment much harder than others. And for many of us, cultivating sufficient non-attachment to experience fulfillment independent of circumstances is the work of a lifetime.