A Scientist's Journey: Becoming Mindful in Midlife
As a medical geneticist and expert on autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at UCLA, Susan Smalley (left) used to believe that the sole basis for knowledge is reason. "I gave zero time to practices that would increase intuition or enhance insight," she recalls. "I was just running around constantly doing, doing, doing, and trying to soak up knowledge from books and experiments and science."
But all that changed nine years ago when, at age 47, she discovered a small "in situ" melanoma on her forearm. "My melanoma, after years of minor skin pre-cancers, shifted my thoughts to anxious worry. I thought that the life I loved so much, the children, the husband, the house, my possessions, were to be taken from me. I would not live to fifty."
Smalley decided to take a six-month leave from work and do everything in her power to heal herself.
She went to a dermatologist and had the melanoma removed. She also turned to holistic healing -- herbs, vitamins, acupuncture, lymphatic massage. She became a vegetarian, stopped wearing a watch, and began to practice yoga and meditate for one to two hours each day. Her doctor declared her cancer-free.
All these changes together with psychotherapy, which she'd started several years earlier, also produced what Smalley now calls "a massive reorganization of my world view. Over a really short period of time -- thirty to forty days -- I experienced an extremely surreal state of feeling our interdependent and constantly changing nature." She had an epiphany: "Suffering arises from trying to hang onto things. You can either shut down, or you can say 'Of course I'm going to die, and that is part of life.'"
The surreal quality of this state subsided after a few weeks, but her sense of awakening was so profound that she began to investigate it, reading 300 books over the next three years.
Although her experience bore many of the hallmarks of spiritual experiences described by Taoists, Buddhists and Christian mystics, Smalley was a scientist and an atheist, so she gravitated to the secular writers and philosophers who studied consciousness. One was Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, who wrote, "Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next."
Another was Albert Einstein: "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."
The intuitive state that Smalley was researching and that Salk and Einstein were describing is called mindful awareness, or mindfulness. Attained through practices such as yoga, martial arts and meditation, mindful awareness can most simply be described as attention to present moment experience with a stance of openness and curiosity.
As a geneticist, Smalley was fascinated by research showing that meditation could affect the capacity of genes to "turn on" or "turn off" in response to stress. Scientists also have begun researching the role of mindful awareness as a tool for healing and preventing physical illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, auto-immune disorders and chronic pain, and mental illness such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Smalley's research into mindful awareness persuaded her that true knowledge is like a rolling coin. "One side is reason, and one side is intuition. If you ever lean too far, the coin falls flat and can't move. The only way to keep the coin rolling is to keep both sides in balance."
Then she asked herself, "How can we open up the intuitive side of scientists?"
In 2006, as part of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute at UCLA, Smalley founded the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) to promote education of secular mindfulness practices and scientific research into the wellness benefits of mindful awareness. The center hosts courses and workshops in mindfulness meditation that are open to the public as well as to doctors, students, and UCLA faculty and staff.
In 2010, Smalley co-authored Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness with Diana Winston, the director of Mindfulness Education at MARC. She also blogs about her many budding interests.
Smalley today marvels at all the ways mindful awareness has transformed her life. "Your world is so much your mind and what you create. I practice every day to find some balance between that way of seeing the world and then living in the world, and figuring out how those two fit together. It will never end."
SecondAct contributor Aimee Liu is the author of the novels Flash House, Cloud Mountain and Face. Her nonfiction includes the recently released Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives, as well as Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders.