Walter Isaacson: One day in March, 1970, a yogi named Swami Rama arrived at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas to prove a point. He had been sent to the United States by his guru in India to try to bring Eastern and Western ideas about medicine closer together. The objective was to demonstrate that there was a scientific basis to the ancient Eastern practice of meditation. At the clinic he met with psychologist Elmer and Elise Green. They were investigating whether humans could consciously control actions that we have long thought were involuntary, like a heartbeat and blood pressure.
Walter Isaacson: They hooked Swami Rama up to some sensors and a brainwave monitor and watched what happened. They were stunned by the results. While in a deep meditative state, the Swami was able to produce different types of brain waves on demand, control his body temperature and radically alter his heartbeat. He actually stopped his heartbeat for 17 seconds. When Swami Rama was later asked how he was able to do this, the Swami gave a simple response. He said, “All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body.”
Walter Isaacson: Today the efforts to close the mind-body gap continues among scientists and non-scientists alike. It’s a key component of a movement that seeks to expand our definition of health. Instead of focusing on sickness, it has shifted the emphasis to what is now known as wellness. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
Speaker 2: Breath in, breathe out.
Speaker 3: Mind therapy to meditate, improve their digestion, their sex life and everything else is what they advertise.
Speaker 4: The spirit can conquer bodily conditions.
Speaker 5: The constant flow of your thoughts upon an object which is of spiritual nature.
Speaker 6: We can begin just by locking in our breath in our bellies.
Walter Isaacson: What exactly is wellness? The Global Wellness Institute defines it as, “The active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.” Two important points about that definition. First, wellness is an active pursuit. It doesn’t just happen to you, you have to work towards it. And secondly, holistic health means it’s multidimensional. Getting a clean bill of health from your doctor only takes you part of the way there. And while the word itself first appeared about 70 years ago, the ideas behind wellness go back much further than that.
Walter Isaacson: Imagine it’s the year 400 BC and you’re a potter in ancient Greece. You spend your days gathering, molding and firing clay into beautifully adorned vessels, but you work long hours and it’s taking its toll so you decide to visit the doctor. Physicians of the time, including Hippocrates who’s considered the father of modern medicine we’re concerned with preventing disease through diet, sleep, hygiene and just as importantly, with exercise and emotional balance. Your doctor recommends that you visit one of the public gymnasiums in Athens.
Walter Isaacson: There you have access to different exercise facilities. You can go running and lift weights, both of which were thought to release toxins. After you finish exercising you head over to the gymnasium bath house. Here you remove your robe and gently submerge yourself in a fire-heated tub to enjoy a steam bath After your bath you receive a massage to ease muscle pain and encourage relaxation.
Walter Isaacson: If you’ve ever read a promotional brochure from one of today’s wellness retreats all of this will sound very familiar. And for a long time, Western medicine continued along the path laid out by Hippocrates. But by the end of the 19th century, doctors started spending more time in the lab looking for invisible pathogens and developing cures through drugs and surgery. Advances in science meant less attention was paid to holistic health. It was a time of rapid technological and societal change, and the pace of that change was dizzying. Life seemed increasingly stressful. The answer for those who could afford it was to leave it all behind and retreat to a place where life was calmer and more serene. Andrew Scull is a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego.
Andrew Scull: In the late 19th century they thought life had sped up to such a degree that it was putting a strain on the whole human system. The Telegraph, the speed of trains, the advent of electricity, everything seemed to be moving too fast. We look back at that as a golden age where things were pretty slow by comparison with our era, but at the time it was seen as a world that was whirling about people and stressing them to the max, so the idea of retreating from that had an obvious appeal.
Walter Isaacson: Many of the 19th century wellness retreats in America were founded by religious groups. One of the first was the Seventh Day Adventists, a Protestant Christian denomination that originated in Upstate New York in the 1860s. In 1866 the church founded the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. The emphasis was on wholeness and health. It promoted vegetarianism and a strict prohibition on alcohol, tobacco, and most drugs including caffeine. But the institute struggled financially and in 1876 control passed to two entrepreneurial church members, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, and his brother W.K. Kellogg.
Walter Isaacson: And yes, those are the same Kelloggs of Battle Creek who would go on to start a cereal empire that’s still part of the morning routine for millions of people around the world. But before there was cereal there was the Battle Creek Sanitarium. It only attracted about 100 visitors in its first year, but by 1906 that number had swelled to more than 7,000 annual visitors. Guests would spend several weeks there living in conditions that were anything but luxurious.
Andrew Scull: There was considerable emphasis on cold showers, on avoiding sex, on a purely vegetarian diet, making sure you defecated several times a day. This was a full on program of physical exercise. There were laboratories attached to this to analyze your feces and make sure you were excreting the toxins that otherwise would poison you, so the whole idea of the connection between clean air, clean food. There was a whole array of things that the Kelloggs put forward.
Walter Isaacson: And in case you’re wondering where the breakfast cereal came from, here’s your answer. It cost a lot of money to visit the sanitarium and the Kellogg brothers wanted every American to eat right and have regular bowel movements. They developed an all-bran cereal that was high in fiber and was affordable for everyone, the rest is history. By the 1950s, wellness had moved West and California became the favorite destination for affluent people looking for a retreat. One of the first was the Esalen Institute.
Walter Isaacson: Founded in 1962 on 27 acres of wild, Big Sur coastline, the Esalen Institute is nestled among towering Redwood trees, rocky seaside cliffs overlooking rugged beaches, and the vast Pacific ocean. On their campus you can learn watercolor painting and sculpture in their art barn, help harvest vegetables from the community farm and attend daily meditation sessions. Esalen introduced yoga, organic food, the importance of mind-body connections, and humanistic psychology to mainstream America.
Walter Isaacson: It even attracted some of the leading thinkers of the time, including Aldous Huxley, Linus Pauling and Buckminster Fuller. In 2017, the Global Wellness Institute estimated what they called wellness tourism was a $639 billion industry. Much has changed since those early retreats, but Andrew Scull says much has also stayed the same.
Andrew Scull: As you move into different historical time periods, the precise contours of how this concern with wellness can be exploited shift but the underlying ideas often stay remarkably consistent, these ideas are very, very persistent. The idea that inner cleanliness and outer good health go together, that various aspects of your life, making sure you get adequate exercise, not drinking at all, or perhaps not drinking to access, a whole range of these things. And often what you’re seeing is new wine in old bottles to use that cliche, you’re seeing the same ideas recycled and given a slightly different gloss.
Walter Isaacson: One important change that did happen as wellness moved to the West Coast was a shift from it’s austere Protestant roads towards a greater openness to Eastern non-Christian traditions. The most obvious manifestation of this was the growing popularity of meditation. There is evidence that people have been meditating as far back as 5,000 BC and major religion incorporates some sort of meditation practice.
Walter Isaacson: But in America, meditation was historically associated with Buddhism and other Eastern traditions and therefore seemed somehow foreign. Deepak Chopra has long been one of meditation’s most prominent evangelists and has authored 90 books on various aspects of wellness. His latest is entitled, Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential. He also has a new podcast called Now For Tomorrow. Chopra believes that secularizing meditation was an important step toward gaining mainstream acceptance.
Deepak Chopra: As soon as you start meditation there is this, “I’m a Christian, can I still do it?” Or, “I’m a Muslim, can I still do it?” And then what I try to do is I bring in the source in their tradition of meditation where there is Christianity or Islam or Judaism. And some people then are comfortable with it but as soon as you take away that spiritual component and talk only about stress management, how this might help you lose weight or smoking, then they embrace it and some of them, not all of them, some of them, then they start to go deeper.
Walter Isaacson: A second important step to the mainstreaming of meditation was the growing body of scientific evidence that meditation was not just good for the mind, but for the body too. In the 1960s, Herbert Benson, a cardiologist teaching at the Harvard Medical School was asked to conduct some experiments in the subject that the medical establishment had largely ignored, stress. So off the beaten track was his research that he initially had his subjects into his clinic through the side door so as not to arouse suspicion.
Walter Isaacson: Once inside Benson had them meditate while he measured their metabolism, brainwaves, and breathing. Much like the Greens who worked with Swami Rama, he discovered that all these things could be altered while in a meditative state. He called it the relaxation response and concluded that meditation could be central to treating many stress-related disorders.
John Travis: When I was an intern in San Francisco, it was a patient who introduced me to Herbert Benson’s, one of his early papers on lowering blood pressure with meditation. And it shocked me, it completely shocked me and I did a 180 in my career and started learning about alternatives.
Walter Isaacson: That’s John Travis. He is considered one of the founding fathers of the modern wellness movement. In the 1970s, he was doing a residency in preventative medicine when he came across Benson’s research. After reading his research, Travis concluded that conventional preventative medicine with focus only on the body could work for acute care but it was inadequate for preventing chronic diseases. To do that he realized you needed to go deeper.
John Travis: That there was the mind-body connection, and that there was valid research to show that you could influence your physiology with your mind. And that was a direct physical connection showing how you could alter your physiology with what your thoughts were. We were taught the only way you could lower blood pressure was with drugs, you couldn’t do it with your mind. That was radical.
Walter Isaacson: It was around that time that John Travis stumbled upon a book on the clearance stable in a local bookstore. It was called, High-Level Wellness. The author was a medical statistician named Halbert Dunn. The book had been published in 1961 and was based on a series of radio programs that Dunn had written in the 1950s.
John Travis: There were 29 different radio shows that became 29 chapters. And I thought wellness was a silly word, I couldn’t imagine using it. But the concept of a mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual dimension to health was just totally amazing to me. And this was a guy who had founded the U.S. Department of Vital Statistics and run it for 25 years and he was nearing retirement when he coined the term high-level wellness, which was the title of his book. And he put all these things together and it blew my mind. And I decided, “Well, I think I found my career, I’m going to open a wellness center.”
Walter Isaacson: In 1975, John Travis opened the Wellness Resource Center in Marin County, California, outside of San Francisco. For most Americans it was a first encounter with a word that today has become commonplace. John Travis said he had to spell out the word when talking to people on the phone. And when the CBS program 60 Minutes did a story about the center in 1979, correspondent, Dan Rather opened the segment by claiming… “Wellness, that’s a word you don’t hear every day.”
Walter Isaacson: But it wasn’t just the word that people were unfamiliar with, John Travis was reinventing what it meant to be healthy. You didn’t come to the center if you were sick, you came if you were well and you wanted to get even better.
John Travis: We had a contract that our clients, they were clients not patients, would sign indicating that we didn’t prescribe, treat, or diagnose. It wasn’t about fixing anything but about learning and growing and taking responsibility for your own health.
Walter Isaacson: But even in wealthy, progressive Marin County, there weren’t enough people prepared to buy into what John Travis was selling and his Wellness Resource Center folded after four years. But the idea of wellness was catching on in America, or at least the word was. By the 1980s there were hundreds of wellness centers in hospitals and retreats with the word wellness in their title. But today when John Travis looks out at the landscape that he did so much to create, he’s not pleased by what he sees.
John Travis: It was that point in the ’80s when the word wellness got co-opted and basically dumbed down to the more physical and fitness and stress and nutrition were about it, which missed completely Halbert Dunn’s ideas of the mental and emotional and the spiritual aspects. At that point, I almost stopped using the word wellness because it had been dumbed down so badly and it still is for the most part. It’s been co-opted by the alternative therapies and supplements and it’s just been watered down to the point where it doesn’t have anything at all to do with your state of mind and your overall health.
Walter Isaacson: John Travis is clearly critical of much of what passes for wellness these days. But there’s at least one part of the current craze that he believes is consistent with the original idea, mindfulness.
Andy Lee: Well, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, to your present moment experience with an attitude of openness and curiosity.
Walter Isaacson: That’s mindfulness expert, Andy Lee. From 2016 to 2019, he was a Chief Mindfulness Officer at Aetna, a Fortune 500 insurance company. He was the first person in America to carry that title at a major corporation. Today he’s the founder of Mindful Ethos, a New York-based company that helps introduce mindfulness to the workplace. That’s something that more and more employers are focusing on. Andy Lee says a more mindful employee is one that is more focused, less distracted and better at listening and building relationships.
Andy Lee: All these skills really help us to be more effective throughout the day and not only to be more effective, but to manage our stress and anxiety more effectively to cultivate and maintain a sense of emotional balance and mental clarity. And given today’s work environment that’s just more important than ever.
Walter Isaacson: Andy Lee, like many people who conduct mindfulness workshops is a graduate of an eight-week program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It was started in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts.
Andy Lee: Jon Kabat-Zinn went to India to learn about Eastern contemplative practices and found them to be very helpful to him personally and also at a spiritual level. And he really wanted to create a way that people could discover these benefits for themselves without necessarily committing to a spiritual path, to offer these tools and these practices in a secular way so that it could really help anyone to manage the stress and the challenges of day-to-day life. And that really had not been done before. The basic practices themselves are completely secular, for instance, paying attention to your breath as you breathe in and out, there’s really nothing inherently spiritual about that. And he put together a program, an eight-week program that is still the gold standard for teaching mindfulness and meditation.
Walter Isaacson: Today, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is offered in schools, workplaces, hospitals, and clinics around the world. Its therapeutic benefits have been widely accepted within the medical community. Participants are taught how they can be mindful or focused on the moment, whatever they are doing, mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful working. And for that reason, while meditation is an important part of mindfulness, there’s a lot more to being mindful than just meditating.
Andy Lee: There’s a lot of confusion about the connection between mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is a state of awareness that you can really bring into any moment if you choose to. And meditation is more like an exercise. It’s more like a taking your brain to the gym so that it’s easier for you to be mindful, to call up that mindful state throughout the day.
Walter Isaacson: Meditation is that the core of the modern wellness movement. And even though the practice has been around for thousands of years, it’s easy to forget that in the West it’s only really gained mass acceptance in the last half century. Thanks to the work of Herbert Benson, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others, meditation’s role in promoting mind-body health has now been firmly established and it’s been embraced by millions of people both inside and outside the medical establishment all around the world, including entrepreneurs like Ariel Garten.
Ariel Garten: My name is Ariel Garten. I’m one of the founders of Muse, the brain-sensing headband that helps you meditate. I was always curious about meditation and I was trained as a neuroscientist, so I understood all of the benefits of meditation and how it impacts the brain. And then I was practicing as a psychotherapist and meditation was really one of the frontline approaches to dealing with anxiety and trauma. I would be teaching my patients to meditate, meanwhile I would be struggling at meditation myself.
Walter Isaacson: If you’ve never tried meditation you might be a bit surprised by what Ariel Garten just confessed. You might think that meditation is something that comes naturally. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream as the Beatles famously sang. And some people can just do that, but not everyone.
Ariel Garten: We all know that meditation is good for you but meditation is actually really hard to do. Some people have the misconception that your mind is supposed to go blank, and let me tell you, it never does. You sit there and it’s wondering somewhere and you’re not always catching it and you can get into very negative ruminating thoughts that can be hard to get out of. And frankly, there’s no little coach inside your head telling you when you’re doing it right and encouraging you back to the state of focused attention.
Walter Isaacson: Ariel Garten and some colleagues in Toronto set out to develop a piece of wearable technology that would come as close as possible to giving meditators that little coach inside their head, a coach to help bring them back when they start getting distracted. In 2014, they launched a brain-sensing headband called Muse.
Ariel Garten: It’s a little fitbit that you wear around your wrist, except that this you wear on your forehead and it has sensors that actually track your brain during meditation. Muse uses a focused attention meditation where you put your attention on your breath. As your mind begins to wander, Muse alerts you and that is your cue to bring yourself back to your breath, so it’s actually tracking your brain during meditation. And as we were building it and trying it and sitting with expert meditators to create the algorithms for it, I would be using it and one day after a few weeks I finally had that aha moment, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Okay, when I’m in focused attention on my breath and that’s when I’m in the meditation state, my mind wanders. I can be cued, I can know and I can come back to it.
Walter Isaacson: Using technology to help relax may seem counter intuitive, after all, many people find their inability to unhook from technology as a major source of stress in their lives. But Garten says that the marriage of technology and meditation makes sense in today’s connected world. And even Deepak Chopra who’s been meditating without technical assistance for most of his 73 years has concluded that wellness and technology aren’t necessarily incompatible.
Deepak Chopra: Technology is neutral. What you do with it is up to you and the choice is yours. But the other aspect of technology is it’s part of our culture now and it’s unstoppable. I think about technology as the next evolution of the human species. And there’s a principle in evolution, if you don’t adapt, you get extinct, you become irrelevant. Either we use technology to our advantage or technology can be a source of stress, but technology can also be used for our total well-being. I think through technology, I look at the internet as our global brain and that if we can actually use technology to help people harness their inner creativity, and their imagination and ability to bioregulate, we should be doing it otherwise we are not being responsible.
Walter Isaacson: Mindfulness consultant, Andy Lee, agrees that it’s important to reach people where they live and these days that means connecting with them on their phones. And he acknowledges that there are some very good apps and devices out there to help people with their mindfulness and meditation. But he worries that technology might sometimes be making things a bit too easy, minimizing the importance of struggling through to achieve your goals. Andy Lee.
Andy Lee: I am concerned a little bit about convenience trumping everything. I think that there is some benefit about practicing mindfulness without an app, without being guided to see really what your mind is doing when there’s no one there to tell you what you should be focusing on right now. I do believe that practicing meditation without guidance is something that everybody should do, if not all the time then certainly part of the time. And that’s not always recognized by people who use the apps. Because one of the things that people are doing now is they’re coming up with ways that you can monitor your own physiology using your phone or other wearables to tell you when you’re stressed, or to tell you when you’re happy, or to tell you when any number of things are happening.
Andy Lee: And I think that the goal, I think it’s so much more powerful if we can learn to do that ourselves without technology. Because we really should be able to stop and say to ourselves, “How am I feeling right now? Am I impatient, or calm, or happy, or disappointed?” And to invent an app that can help us to do that I think can be counterproductive. I think we really need to build those skills ourselves and to make sure that apps are really helpful and not crutches.
Walter Isaacson: Apps and devices like meditation headbands make up just a small part of what’s become a lucrative and sometimes controversial wellness industry. Much of it is driven by celebrities like actress, Gwyneth Paltrow. Her company Goop sells a wide range of wellness products and treatments, some of which have come under attack from the medical establishment. Still, Goop is valued at about $250 million.
Walter Isaacson: In fact, what the Global Wellness Institute calls the wellness economy, was estimated to be worth $4.2 trillion in 2017. Clearly some people who’ve learned how to do very well with wellness. Dr. Deepak Chopra is a Board Certified Internist and Neuro-Endocrinologist, but he’s also a leading wellness entrepreneur. He sold millions of books and offers dozens of products for sale on his website, including jewelry, shampoos, and facial masks. He rejects the idea that wellness has become over commercialized.
Deepak Chopra: I don’t concern myself with that, I think anything that helps is useful. People spend much more money on other things like entertainment, alcohol, even in pharmaceuticals. All you have to do is look at a commercial on network TV say, “Okay, ask your doctor about this but be warned it could give you sexual impotence, it could kill you,” and then they mentioned everything in between. For me, I don’t worry about the commercialization of wellness in the West.
Deepak Chopra: In our culture that’s the only way to make something mainstream, otherwise it’s considered not important. I would prefer that people spend their money on wellness rather than on unnecessary pharmaceuticals or procedures. We know now for a fact that 90% of drugs that are prescribed are of optional or marginal benefit, which means they don’t alter the landscape of the disease, of chronic illness.
Walter Isaacson: Today, the wellness industry like everyone else is trying to figure out where it will stand in a post-corona virus world. The days of jetting off to spend a few days at a wellness retreat seem to be over at least for the foreseeable future. But closer to home indeed, inside their homes, people are dealing with anxieties about the virus and its direct impact on their health, their jobs and their families, and their stress trying to anticipate life in a world that will be radically changed in ways they don’t yet fully understand.
Walter Isaacson: COVID-19 is an assault on our minds and our bodies. That’s why today the ideas behind wellness and practices like meditation and mindfulness are perhaps more important than ever before. There’s nothing like a couple of months of self-isolation to enhance a person’s understanding of what holistic health really means, or to gain a greater appreciation of what Swami Rama observed 50 years ago. “All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body.” I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about any of the guests on today’s show, you can visit our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.