It’s been 3 months since I boarded a plane to leave my family for the longest time this mom has ever been away from them–in order to explore the wide field of integrative mental health. News of a conference on this topic, the first of its kind, came through the Safe Harbor yahoogroup, and luckily I signed up fast.  The event sparked an overwhelming response which mandated the closing of registration early. This bodes very well, for interest will only grow, especially after word spreads about the successful gathering.

I’m still trying to sort the whole thing out. On the one hand, I was overjoyed that so many professionals with such mainstream degrees were longing for this information.  There were no drug company reps in sight, and an ill feeling about Pharma prevailed. (Each presenter had to disclose any ties to the “Dark Lord,” as one NIMH –connected individual—with extensive ties—jokingly named the hand that fed him.)  The information was profuse, in-depth and positive about micronutrients and mindful approaches to mental wellness.  What more could one want?

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about my trip to Sedona after this conference. There a residential center takes things even further, and the players are of a slightly different stripe.  It was then I reflected that although the Weil milieu was rich with evidence and enthusiasm for natural medicine, they still relied on the supremacy of The Professional with sanctioned degrees.  There seems in the profession to be so much (unfounded!) fear of becoming obsolete.

 But there was more that troubled me.  The conference never broached a new view of the mental health plague as an environmental crisis. Little awareness about the notion of our children as the canaries in the coal mine–their toxic minds as a reflection of toxic Earth. Less still about what living such nutrient-deficient, consumer-focused, and noxiously artificial lives is doing to adult, even elder, body-minds. Instead, it often seemed that if enlightened mental health professionals would only shift their prescription to fish oil and meditation, all would be well.

Nonetheless, people get a glow about them when doing something with a large crowd for the first and historic time. Such was the case when 750 souls gathered in Phoenix for the maiden voyage of the Integrative Mental Health Conference, steered by Dr. Andrew Weil.  A swath of presenters ranged over the evidence for and use of mindfulness meditation, nutrients, indigenous psychology and more.  The starting point being: drugs, drugs and more drugs can’t stem the rise of our mental health crisis.

The metaphor of seeds and soil was oft referred to by presenters.  Some claimed to have the scoop on the potent seed (key) to natural mental health. Others outlined pertinent instructions on preparing the soil. Do nutrients lay the foundation (soil well prepared) so that the seed of mindfulness can grow?  Does the mind need to be “thrown a bone” (therapeutic visualization) before meditation can be accomplished?  “First…then” judgments aside, I like the metaphor of our whole selves as garden ground.  Perhaps the most critical task for the mental health field at this time is paying attention to systems, the whole person—going beyond the infatuation with the brain.

Well…If the conference organizers were thinking of “soil” when putting together their initial panel– as in laying down a nutrient-rich foundation– they started with a rich mix. You can’t beat the articulate authority of the bearded and bald Andrew Weil.  He has and will stand up to medicine-as-usual with eloquence and straightforward style.  Without pomposity or posturing, he was the guiding light of the conference and everyone knew it.

You also knew “Andy” was the kind of guy you could sit down with at lunch and never feel an underling.  While he offered one workshop—on breathwork—it was clear his passion for this conference was to showcase the many experts converging for dialogue and strategizing What Next?  Attendees were mostly psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, counselors, and many MDs in family practice. Yet the air was alive with tacit agreement:  our society needs integrative mental health!  Few shied away from pithy comments about the need for health care reform with this imperative.

If I had to summarize the interests of the presenters it would be mindfulness as number one, closely followed by micronutrients, and the insights of indigenous psychology a healthy third. Psychiatrist Lewis Mehl-Madrona (author of Coyote Medicine and Narrative Medicine) made sure of the latter. Please watch a very few minutes from his opening address here—his ideas are counter to the usual psychiatric claptrap and very fresh.       

The star nutrient of the conference was, predictably, fish oil. Nordic Naturals and other companies filled the lobby with their booths, lavish with free samples. Less predictably in the spotlight, True Hope’s vitamin and mineral mix, Empower Plus.  An entire workshop looked at the effects; the presenter was from Harvard and the evidence was compelling, for True Hope’s founders have been aggressive about having the mixture researched. It has proven beneficial for many conditions from bipolar to autism. Pretty exciting stuff. 

A most far-ranging and delightful plenary was a panel of two. Speaking first was Dr. Shannon Scott, a  child psychiatrist from Fort Collins,  Colorado, author of Please Don’t Label My Child , an affable, enthusiastic presenter, obviously on companionable terms with the his fiery co-presenter, Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, MD.  

Dr. Low Dog was a successful herbalist of many years standing in New Mexico before going to medical school. She is currently Director of Botanical Medicine for the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. Her many honors of distinction include Time magazine’s award of Innovator in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2001) and a Presidential appointment by Bill Clinton to serve on the White House Commission of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. She has appeared on many national TV shows including 20/20. Her expertise was stunning. I could write a whole post on how she affected me, and the great information I received that I could immediately go home and use with my daughter. And thanks Dr. Scott for raving about the calming effects of inositol!

If nutrition made up the body of the non-pharmacological approaches discussed, meditation and Buddhist views were the soul of the work.  The presence of the popularly well-known Jon Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living, Coming to Our Senses, Wherever You Go, There You Are) plus the first neuroscientist to study the Dalai Lama firsthand, Dr. Richard Davidson, made it so.

Many know about Kabat-Zinn as the first to introduce meditation as a medical treatment with his stress management program developed at University of Massachusetts Medical School . His technique is now known as Mindfulness Based Stress Management (MBSR), taught and disseminated throughout the world. At the conference his presentation amounted to a dharma talk that was straight from the heart.

Constant references to “Richie” by other presenters stoked anticipation for Dr. Davidson’s plenary. His gist: meditation makes for neuroplasticity. Change your brain by mind transformation.

The scope of Dr. Davidson’s experiments—about neurocardiac coupling (the heart-mind connection), the effects of meditation on attention (implications for ADHD) and peripheral biology (meditation reduces inflammation and extends the efficacy of flu vaccine titers), amygdala changes indicating empathy/compassion—all of it, in a word, fascinating!

But it was his work with the Dalia Lama’s expert meditators, monks from the inner circle (over 10,000 hours of meditation logged) that produced a startling thought. In a nutshell: high Gamma wave oscillations correlate with more hours of practice.

Generally we’ve been taught that the Alpha state is the prize to win. Alpha brain waves produce relaxation, creative states, “flow,” positive thinking and top athletic performance.  But besides the usual association to the Gamma state—compassion, above-average intelligence, sensory acuity– Dr. D’s presentation used an intriguing word in conjunction with Gamma waves:  ecstasy.

 Here we are talking about “ecstasy” as in shamanic practice. One definition:  From the Greek ‘ekstasis’, ecstasy literally means to be placed outside, or to be placed. This is a state of exaltation in which a person stands outside of or transcends his or herself. (from Shamanism FAQ, Dean Edwards, online.)

It’s not uncommon to see parallels between Buddhist practice and shamanic or indigenous psychology– reference the work of Joan Halifax,  for example.  While the modifications of Western Buddhism have made meditation and even the concept of spirituality more accessible, there has been a certain sanitization. The spirits are gone, where once they existed seamlessly with Buddhism in the practices of indigenous ceremonial religion— shamanic through and through—and still do in Tibet (Bon) and Japan (Shinto), to name only two instances.

I hadn’t expected to experience ritual from a shamanic culture on this trip, let alone one of such depth. The ceremony on the second night of the conference was unique and memorable:  psychiatrist Dr. Mehl-Madrona (Cherokee and Lakota) prayed and drummed, several of us lit candles and voiced our prayers for integrative mental health, there was a give-away, then we sang and moved to the drum.  It went on for quite awhile through various stages: white-people uptightness, giggly connections, traditional moves from many ethnicities, and serious circling of the altar by those who needed to be close to the night’s intention.

At the end Dr. Mehl-Madrona led us in some quiet time to see what spirits might be about and there for us. He mentioned that individuals might feel nothing–that perhaps it was poker night for the spirits.  Yet unexpectedly I sensed my deceased father–upsetting but somehow important I could tell, by the quality of my tears.  I noticed that many of us were silent in the shuttle riding back to our hotels. “Ecstasy?”  Our Western ideas define it only as smiley-faced bliss. But perhaps that night we had a taste of brain waves from Gamma-land.

Honorable Mention among useful workshops:  Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression. I find this book a treasure of heartfelt story, usable breathwork and poses, and solid research. At the conference the author showed us many experiential moves that made sense.  I’m also delighted to find ever new, quality research showing that yoga combats anxiety and depression in a measurable way. It seems every time you turn around there is emerging information for clinicians on using yoga and meditation in psychotherapy.

 I deeply regret missing the workshops on Laughter Therapy, Perinatal Depression, Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for Mental Health, and the Ecology of the Child.  But that ubiquitous concurrent-session mode, though necessary, forces painful choices. Next year….!

So in this rich intellectual soup the only missing ingredients were a perspective on diet/special diets/gut-brain connection as essential to integrative mental health, a recognition of the role of toxic metals, and the whiff of an idea that we might transform the stigma of mental illness through seeing the plague as environmental. Either Andy couldn’t find good presenters on these topics or didn’t consider them important. Yet.  

In time, there must be an articulation beyond this oh so necessary position:  Pharma has done wrong and we need to switch to natural medicine. Yes, that’s a giant leap that would make a giant difference. But we also need a commitment to stop poisoning the Earth and hence our minds along with bodies. That will change the role of Pharma (if not its very existence as a money-driven entity) and the way we view our responsibility for our own health. 

Unfortunately, what was billed and anticipated as the punch line–the much-awaited strategizing session where folks from different focus groups by region reported–was a disappointment. Not to belittle the need for us all to keep puffing away in our own little worlds—we touch lives and it does make a difference.  But one longs for a brainstorm that would truly bring integrative mental health and true body-mind treatments to the people.  It was enough, for now, to know that we all shared this hunger.

NEXT:  After the conference I traveled to Sedona to visit the Alternative to Meds Center, relocated from San Francisco. Now for something completely different!