The Swami Who (Literally) Saved My Life

By Dean Ornish, MD

After finishing high school in Dallas, I began studying at Rice University, a small, extremely competitive university in Houston. Over half the students there had graduated either first or second from their high school, and most of them acted as though academic success would define their net worth. It did for me. It’s no surprise that Rice also had the highest suicide rate per capita of any school in the country.

From the beginning, I worried that I wouldn’t do well enough to be accepted to medical school. I got into a vicious cycle — the more I worried, the harder it became to study; the harder it was to study, the more I worried. My mind was racing so fast that I couldn’t sleep. I would lie down and watch the hands of the clock go around and around until morning. At one point, this went on for about ten days in a row.

Becoming that sleep-deprived is enough to make anyone a little crazy, and I got to the point where I couldn’t function at all. I became deeply depressed for two reasons. One was that I thought I was stupid and a fraud, that I had somehow managed to fool people into thinking that I was smart, and now that I was in a school with a lot of really smart people, it was just a matter of time before they figured out what a mistake they had made by letting me in. And the other reason, which was even more painful, was that I had a spiritual vision before I was really ready to handle it. And that vision was: Nothing can bring lasting happiness. The combination of those — feeling like I was never going to amount to anything, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter — was profoundly depressing.

The worst thing about being depressed, as opposed to just being sad or blue, is that you really feel like you’re seeing the world clearly for the first time, that all the other times you ever thought you’d be happy, you were just deluding yourself. And that’s where that hopelessness and helplessness come from. Because it’s not that you just feel bad today, you feel like you’re always going to feel bad and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. That’s true depression and it’s a lot more common in our culture than most people realize.

I remember one day very clearly — I was sitting in my organic chemistry class when it occurred to me, I’m in so much emotional pain, I’m so tired, I’ll just kill myself and be done with it. Then I can sleep and be at peace forever. It seemed so logical and clear, I couldn’t imagine why I hadn’t thought of it before. And in the twisted logic of the moment, some part of me replied, “Because you’re stupid, that’s why!”

I had always thought that if I could get into medical school, become a doctor, make a lot of money, get married and have kids, then I’d be happy. I now realized that those things weren’t going to bring me happiness. I remember being in my apartment and looking around at all the material possessions that were supposed to make me happy, and the idea seemed like a cruel joke. I threw my expensive stereo down a flight of stairs.

I was very depressed and getting increasingly worse. I was so run down that I got a really bad case of mononucleosis. I was so ill that I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed. It was my first understanding of how the mind can affect the body, in this case for the worse. When my parents saw how sick I was, they told me to withdraw from school and come back to Dallas, which I did. I felt like a complete failure. I was very anxious to get well enough to go out and kill myself.

Then something happened that changed everything. My older sister, Laurel, had been studying yoga and meditation with the renowned ecumenical spiritual teacher, Swami Satchidananda. She had become happier and calmer, and had stopped getting migraine headaches. As a gesture of support for her, my parents hosted a cocktail party for the swami. This was considered a little strange back in 1972, especially in Texas.


Swami Satchidananda

He walked in our front door looking like a casting agent’s idea of a swami — he had a long white beard, intelligent, sparkling, and peaceful eyes, and he was wearing long saffron robes. There’s an old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” and that was certainly true for me. He had agreed to conduct a satsang, or informal lecture, in our living room. He started off by saying, “Nothing can bring you lasting happiness,” which I’d already figured out — except he was glowing and radiantly happy and I was miserable and ready to kill myself.

The second half of that sentence sounded like a New Age cliché, and yet it turned my life around: “Nothing can bring you lasting happiness, but you have it already until you disturb it.” He went on to say, “Not being mindful of that, we end up running after all the things that we think are going to make us happy. And in the process, we disturb the peace, happiness, and well-being that we already have if we simply quiet down the mind and body enough to experience it.”

It’s a radical concept, and it goes against everything we learn in our culture. The entire advertising industry is based on the idea that if we just get these things outside of ourselves that we think we’re lacking, they’ll bring us happiness. And they do for a very short period of time, which is what makes them so seductive. But it’s soon followed by, “Now what?” because it’s never enough, or “So what?” because it doesn’t provide a lasting sense of meaning and joy and peace. In some ways, it’s even more painful to get all the things you think are going to make you happy and realize that they don’t than not to have them — at least then you still believe in the myth that happiness would be yours if only you could get them. That’s why some of the most unhappy people are often the most affluent and powerful — they can’t tell themselves that if they just had a little more money, or a little more power, or a little more influence, that they’d be happy.

Anyway, I was in so much emotional pain that I was willing to try anything. It’s not even so much what the swami said, but who he was and what he embodied. I was struck by the clear light that was filling up the room, his peacefulness and playfulness, the twinkle in his eye, and the joy that he exuded. And so I figured, Well, let me give this a try. I can always go to Plan B and kill myself if it doesn’t work. So I gave up my Texas diet of chili, chalupas, and cheeseburgers, and began exercising, meditating, doing yoga, practicing breathing and relaxation techniques, and doing more selfless service. Within days, I began to get glimpses of what he was talking about, and that was enough to save me.

A few weeks later, I went back to school with a lighter course load, and then went on to summer school to make up the rest of the courses I had missed. After that, I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and did so well that I actually graduated first in my class and gave the commencement address. I went from one end of the spectrum to the other because of the difference in my intention. And that was part of the paradox: To the degree that I felt like I had to do well in school so that I could get into medical school so that I could become a doctor so that I could be happy, I was so stressed out I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t function, I couldn’t read a headline in a newspaper and tell you ten minutes later what it said. But to the degree that I was more inwardly defined, the less I needed to succeed and the less stressed I felt, which allowed me to function at a much higher level. Paradoxically then, the less I needed success, the easier it came to me.

Once I made the connection between when I felt stressed and why, then stress became my teacher instead of my enemy. When I felt angry, afraid, anxious, or depressed, the suffering and stress reminded me that I was looking in the wrong places for peace and happiness and self-esteem. I stopped viewing pain — both physical and emotional — as punishment and began seeing it as information. It was an empowering realization. If I felt I didn’t have any control over a situation, if I was just a victim of bad luck or bad karma or bad genes or bad fate or whatever, then what can I do? I’m helpless. But if the answer lies within me, then I can do something about it. That’s why, when people asked the swami, “What are you, a Hindu?” he’d say, “No, I’m an Undo. I’m trying to teach people how they can undo the patterns that cause damage to their minds and bodies so they can begin to heal.” It’s all about having the awareness to identify and to stop doing the things that allow our inner peace to be disturbed.

I talked to the swami almost once a week for more than thirty years. We traveled all over the world together and had a very close personal relationship until the day he died. I still practice his teachings today — it’s called a “practice” because you never master it, you just keep going deeper — which form the basis of the lifestyle program we created to help people stop, and even reverse, the progression of heart disease and other chronic diseases.

Many people focus on the nutrition aspect of our program, but diet is really the least interesting aspect of it. It’s really about transformation. And in particular, it’s about helping people use the experience of suffering as a doorway for transforming their lives. Depression was my doorway; for someone else, it might be a heart attack, or a divorce, or a child who gets sick, or any of a number of painful, traumatic things that people experience. And while I would never go up to someone who is suffering and say, “Oh, how wonderful, you have this opportunity to transform” — the proper response to that would be a punch in the nose — suffering is a part of life. All too often, there it is. If we can use our suffering as a catalyst for fundamentally transforming our lives, then it brings meaning to the suffering and makes it more bearable.

After doing research on people with heart disease, I also realized that their physical problems were just the tip of the iceberg; in many cases, they were suffering from many of the same issues I had struggled with — depression, loneliness, isolation, and lack of meaning in their lives. When we began working on that level and addressing the psychic, social, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of heart disease, then their physical heart disease also improved in ways that we could actually measure. Ironically, we used very high-tech, expensive, state-of-the-art measures to prove the power of these low-tech, low-cost, and in many ways, ancient interventions.

If you don’t try to address suffering at a deeper level, it’s very difficult to motivate people to make and maintain any kind of meaningful changes in their diet and lifestyle, or even to take their medications. If you had told me back when I was so depressed that I was going to live longer if I just did this or that, I would’ve said, “You don’t understand. I don’t know if I want to live longer. I don’t know if I want to live at all.” And so part of what we learned is that providing people with health information is important, but not usually sufficient to motivate them to make lasting changes in their behavior. If it were, nobody would smoke because everybody knows it’s not good for you. People smoke or overeat or use alcohol or drugs to numb their pain. Or they work too hard or spend too much time on the Internet or watching TV to distract themselves from their pain. I used to ask my patients why they engaged in such maladaptive behaviors until I kept hearing the reply, “You know, Dean, you don’t have a clue. These behaviors aren’t maladaptive. They’re very adaptive because they help me get through the day.”

The problem is, we just kill the pain or numb it or bypass it without listening to it; it’s a little like clipping the wires to a fire alarm and going back to sleep while your house keeps burning. It just gets worse because you haven’t dealt with it. And so much of what we do in traditional Western medicine is like clipping the wires to a fire alarm rather than addressing the underlying cause.

Change is hard. But if you’re in enough pain, as I was when I was in college, suddenly the idea of change becomes more interesting. And when people make the kinds of changes in their lives that I recommend, most of them find that they feel so much better, so quickly, it reframes the reason for making those changes from simply living longer to living better, from fear of dying to joy of living. And because of that, many of them will look back on painful events and think, as I did, I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone, but I never would have been motivated to even explore the areas that have made such a profound difference in my life had I not gone through that pain at the time.

I know I wouldn’t be here today were it not for Swami Satchidananda and his teachings. Just as others passed these teachings on to him, passing on this wisdom to others is my dharma now. This wisdom is part of all spiritual traditions and religions once we get past the superficial differences. The more I experience the inner peace and love that are already fully present in everyone, the wider I am able to open my heart to my wife and true love, Anne, and son, Lucas, in ways that have made my life more joyful than anything I could have ever imagined.

Dr. Dean Ornish is the founder, president, and director of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. For the past 40 years, he has directed clinical research demonstrating, for the first time, that comprehensive lifestyle changes may begin to reverse the progression of severe coronary heart disease, prostate cancer, and other life-threatening conditions without drugs or surgery. 

He is the author of numerous best-selling books, including Undo It!: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic DiseasesThe Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health... Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease... Eat More, Weigh Less... and Love & Survival.

Click here to visit Dr. Ornish’s website.

This story appears in Phil Bolsta’s book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything. To order your copy, click here.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 15: Thriving in Your Third Act Summit