What Inspired A Scientist To Open A Meditation Center At UCLA?
By: Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald
I recently attended a gathering of supporters of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the University of California, Los Angeles. During this event, I heard MARC founder (and Huffington Post blogger) Susan Smalley, Ph.D., speak. Dr. Smalley, a research scientist for 25 years, shared her fascinating journey of how she was inspired to create a center for mindfulness research. Her audience was completely captivated. I was so moved by Dr. Smalley’s story, I wanted to share it with the HuffPost audience. I was fortunate enough to track her down for an interview.
Before I share the interview, I’d like to clarify what mindful awareness is. According to the MARC website: Mindful Awareness – the moment-by-moment process of actively attending to, observing and drawing inferences from what one experiences. Mindful Awareness (also known as mindfulness) is an ancient concept with over 2,500 years of history and development that has recently been brought into health settings and has shown to have a powerful role on overall health promotion and healing for a variety of physical illnesses including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, auto-immune disorders, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
PF: Sue, thanks for meeting with me to share your story. Let’s start with your background that, in a surprising way, seemed to lay the foundation for your interest in the study of mindfulness. How did you originally get involved in science, specifically in the field of genetics?
SS: My Ph.D. is in Anthropology, specifically Population and Behavior Genetics. I was interested in evolution, how genes change in frequency over time. Also, how genes influence human behavior. I did two years of post-doc work at UCLA in Medical Genetics, and am licensed as a medical geneticist. I was fascinated with the gene mapping studies. I thought that if you found all the genes that influence human behavior, you could solve the world’s problems. I thought that once we understood the biology, we would be able to map out what are the environments that interact with those genes and we could cure everything. I thought that was the solution to end suffering. I did autism research for ten years, and ADHD research for 13 years. As I really started studying ADHD, it became clear that, like every other psychiatric and behavioral condition, there’s not a single gene involved. There are many genes that interact. It’s not something you’re going to treat by altering genes; it will require a variety of approaches. I see ADHD as a way of brain processing that impacts many dimensions, not only attention but also working memory, probably personality, and other domains.
PF: So for 25 years you were immersed in fascinating research at UCLA. And now you are the founder and director of the MARC Center. Seems like a complete 360, but I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind the switch.
SS: Patricia, I received a real wake up call when I was diagnosed with an early stage melanoma. It was a big shock. I thought I was going to die. I really reevaluated my life. I realized that I was doing everything Western medicine said keeps you healthy (working out, diet, etc.) and yet I was not preventing myself from getting ’sick’. The shock of the diagnosis and the fear of death really brought me to a heightened awareness.
PF: What was your life approach before this heightened awareness?
SS: I didn’t think about trying to heighten my sense of consciousness in any way. I thought, yeah, learn more, read more, study more, talk to people, everything’s in books, everything’s out there in a reason-based world. Just follow it. I gave zero time to places that would increase intuition, or enhance insight, ignoring what is probably a core component of wisdom. I was just running around constantly doing, doing, doing, and trying to soak up knowledge from books and experiments and science.
PF: So prior to this new level of “awareness,” did you have any hobbies, escapes?
SS: Not really … I would go on vacation with my family every year but mostly I worked. And in addition to working, I was a mom, but I was a workaholic in motherhood and a workaholic in work. I constantly would try to do more. I loved the role of being a mother. It was the one place that intuition naturally arose for me. In that sense, when I had my first child, I had more awareness. I wrote about it in my first post on Huffington Post; it’s called Mystic Mom. Motherhood was my first touch with being connected to something outside of myself. That was 24 years ago. I have three kids now, ages 18-23. Back then, I had very few friends to be honest, except my husband who has been my closest friend for 35 years. I didn’t really open up that much to anyone outside my family. But I did go into therapy. That was a huge component to my self-discovery.
PF: You were in therapy before your “awakening”?
SS: I was in therapy for stress, worry, parenting. I felt stressed, and wanted to do the best I could do with my kids. Therapy helped me open up on one level.
PF: Did the cancer diagnosis and the “awakening” inspire you to make changes in your lifestyle?
SS: The medical treatment for my cancer was successful; however, I felt that there was something deeper going on with my overall health. I decided to go back to an East-West doctor that my husband had recommended earlier. I had started going to him 10 years before, but I didn’t believe in him. I just would roll my eyes. I was so skeptical. He would give me suggestions of ways to improve my well being, and I didn’t follow through. But when the melanoma was diagnosed, I thought, something’s not working. I thought I was doing everything right, but something’s off. So for the first time, I listened to what he said and started doing everything he recommended. This included massage, acupuncture, taking herbs, different forms of yoga. On my own, I decided I would explore dietary changes, too. I looked into all of the diets and I went really hardcore into macrobiotic. I did all of those things simultaneously. And I started meditating. I had learned TM (transcendental meditation) in the 70s, and kind of made fun of it. But I did have a mantra and I knew how to do it. I took a little time off from work when I started doing all of those things, including meditating every day. I would drop the kids at school and come home. I’d spend the day doing things to improve my health: acupuncture, yoga, massage. Hour after hour of it. This was like a mega retreat on my own. Then I’d pick my kids up from school and do the normal mom stuff.
PF: So when you get into something, you really get into something.
SS: Yeah, I totally got immersed in it. But it was all new because I’d never done any of it, and I didn’t believe any of it before, so I was like, be open, be open. And it really had a huge impact and I had what I now call a “mystical experience” – I had a huge shift in consciousness. And it wasn’t one that was incremental, day after day, increasing and increasing, but one of those, bam! Wow! The world, we’re all interconnected, I’m part of the oneness of the universe. I discovered this sense of deep interconnectedness of our dependent nature and posted a blog about it.
It was so profound that I couldn’t harm anything, and it was like all of a sudden. It wasn’t choosing not to eat meat anymore or choosing not to harm an insect because I thought it was a nice thing to do. It was because I felt to harm another animal, insect, even plants was like hurting a part of myself, as if I was chopping off my own left arm. I saw us all as one interconnected thing.
It was a really profound state, and along with this heightened state of consciousness, this incredible state of compassion, came a flood of rushing joy, bliss, calmness, happiness. I couldn’t even muster the old feelings I had that included the negative feelings of jealously, greed, anger … all of those things I couldn’t find in myself.
This state was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to function. It was so different, this heightened state of bliss. I had no signs or symptoms of any kind of mental disorder, but I’m guessing it had qualities of what mania or hypomania might feel like in some ways. But not only was there this bliss, but creativity was just massive. So I started painting, I started creative writing, doing lots of things I hadn’t done before.
PF: How long did this feeling last?
SS: It was a really profound experience, then it kind of dissipated after about a month. The negative emotions didn’t come back but I started to lose that extreme feeling of everything as so connected, of that extreme sort of blissful state. Then I started reading a lot, trying to figure out what just happened to me? What was this amazing experience?Somehow I came across William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Here I had been an atheist, or an agnostic, my whole life. But what happened to me was a profound shift in consciousness which led me to relate to the universe in a very different way.
That experience sounded like what James described for people who had had what they called “religious experiences” except my experience had no ‘God’ associated with it. But, when I began reading Eastern religions of Taoism and Buddhism, I saw many parallels with the profound ‘truths’ I experienced during my ‘epiphany’ in those 30 days, and writings of people from different religions, as well as philosophers, writers, poets, and others. I saw that a lot of truths that became apparent to me in meditation were commonly recognized universal truths that other people have seen and have written about throughout history.
My quandary became that I didn’t know how to go back to work, as I had a totally different view of the world. I felt that the insights I gleaned during that 30 day period were ones that we could each discover but how do you discover them if you don’t give time for yourself to try to uncover that stuff? Before I didn’t think that this was anything I should value … to take time for myself, to reflect on things. Or to use any kind of tools that could help you to do that. I didn’t know what to do next and I didn’t know if I could ever go back to UCLA because I just thought it was so inconsistent with this way of seeing the world – an alternative way of knowing – a first-person experiential way vs. a third person scientific way. Both are valuable and I used to think only one was valuable for real truth, until I realized they both are valuable.
Then I came across the Albert Einstein quote: “The Intuitive Mind is a sacred gift, the Rational Mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” That was really profound to me because Einstein said it. It helped that my insight was validated by someone else who I knew was really smart.
Jonas Salk is another person who had a huge influence on me. I didn’t know Jonas Salk had written anything about ‘insight’ or ‘intuition’ until after my experience and then I discovered this Salk quote: “Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.” This resonated a lot with me.
Then I read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, where even he, the great proponent of reason, argues for the value of ‘intuitive’ experiences; what he described as the sort of knowledge that makes reason pale in comparison. So there was all this from highly intelligent, reason-based thinkers that I respected.
My analogy that I use all of the time to reflect the balance of these two modes of knowing (reason and intuition) is that of a coin rolling on its side, and I wrote a blog about it. One side is reason and one side is intuition. If you ever lean too far, the coin falls flats and can’t move. The only way to keep the coin rolling is to keep both sides in balance.
With all of this, I contemplated whether or not to go back to UCLA….
Stay tuned for Part II (next Wednesday), where you’ll read how Dr. Smalley created a university-based center to share her insights and processes with others.