Donna Quesada: You are speaking about an issue that is close to my heart. For those who might be listening and might not understand the connection between our personal diet and the world
and these kinds of global issues… Could you speak to that for a moment? Why is it that what is good for me is also good for the planet?
Dr. Dean Ornish: Well, for one thing, more global warming is caused by livestock than all forms of transportation combined. I used to get into friendly conversations with Al Gore and say, “it’s great to drive smaller cars and have fluorescent lightbulbs, but where the real action is, is in eating less meat.” And he became a vegan, not just because of me. He’s a cattle rancher. I admire him for that. Because the gas that the cows give off has damaged the ozone layer. Same thing with feeding the hungry. It takes ten to fourteen times more resources to make a pound of meat-based protein than plant-based protein. The Amazon is being deforested. And there is also that nine billion livestock are killed in the US every year, for food. And my spiritual teacher said, “look, if you are in a plane crash on the top of a mountain and all your fellow passengers are dead and there is no food, eat them!.” But with all this abundance of fruits and vegetables and legumes and whole grains and soy products, we don’t have to kill sentient beings.
I think, what goes around, comes around. All spiritual traditions have a name for that. Karma or destiny or whatever. And if you can avoid inflicting suffering and you don’t need to for your own survival, which by the way, is going to prevent or reverse all these chronic diseases. And it’s also going to help feed the hungry, and it’s also going to reduce global warming… Your brain gets more blood so you think more clearly. You have more energy. You can make more brain neurons. In a few weeks, your brain can get bigger. Your skin gets more blood, so you don’t age as quickly. Your heart gets more blood. You can reverse heart disease. Your sexual organs get more blood flow. So, you can have hotter sex and a cooler planet, when you eat this way. And, it’s not just the diet, but the whole aspect of this. So, to me, change is hard, but if you are suffering enough, then the idea of change becomes more appealing. It’s like, wow, this is such weird stuff… meditation and yoga and exercise and a plant-based diet, but I’m hurting so bad, let me try this weird stuff. That’s part of the value of science, is to say, “if you are willing to make these changes, this is what we’ve found.”
And then, when people do… And again, because these underlying biological mechanisms are so dynamic… most people find that they feel so much better, so quickly. It reframes the reasons for making these changes, from fear of dying, or fear of something bad happening, like a heart attack or a stroke… to joy and pleasure and love and feeling good.
DONNA: Because you feel the result right away.
DEAN: Well, that is the thing. You literally connect the dots between what you do and how you feel. It’s like when I eat this, I feel good, when I do that, I don’t feel so good. Let me do more of this and less of that. All those clichés, like… Am I going to live longer, if I eat healthy? What you find is that you have so much more fun by doing this. More pleasure. And what you gain is so much more than what you give up, and how quickly you can experience that.
DONNA: Let me ask you something. I’m thinking about what you said a moment ago about doctors and how in the whole training regime, there is so little attention given to things like lifestyle and holistic wellness. When did doctors lose a sense of being in touch with their role as healers?
DEAN: I don’t know actually. It can go all the way back to the 1900’s, where there were many systems of health care, at the time. And because of the success of penicillin, when it came out. It really changed everything. It’s like… now everything can be reduced to a pill. And with the Pharma Companies having such an interest in that, and the way doctors are educated… There’s a lot of reasons why that has occurred. But most doctors are in medicine for the right reasons. It’s not fun practicing medicine this way. If you have to see a new patient every eight to ten minutes, you really don’t have time to talk about what’s going on in their diet or their family or their kids or their school or their work. You basically go through the electronic medical record, look at the heart and lungs, write a prescription and the patient is out the door. It’s not a satisfying way to practice for the patient or the doctor.
Most doctors wouldn’t recommend medicine as a career for their kids because it’s not fun to do that. So, we are creating this new paradigm where Medi-Care and most insurance companies… instead of paying for an eight minute visit…. they are paying for 72 hours. We have a team approach. You have a doctor, a nurse, a Yoga teacher, an exercise physiologist and a psychologist, and they all work together as a team. It doesn’t take that much of the doctor’s time. It’s more of an oversight capacity. And patients come twice a week for four hours at a time, for nine weeks. So, they get an hour of supervised exercise with an exercise physiologist and a meditation and Yoga class, and a group meal with a lecture. And they do that twice a week. So, it’s a lot, but the doctor’s time really isn’t taking that much of it.
The Medi-Care is reimbursing us at a high enough rate that it makes it financially viable for doctors and other health care professionals to offer that. And so, we are hoping that now we can show that we can cut health care costs in half in the first year. And we can cut it by 400% in the 5% percent of people that account for 80% of the cost. It’s really changing. This is a tidal wave that really hasn’t begun to crest yet. We are feeling optimistic that things really are finally changing. It’s just taking a long time.
DONNA: And it is more of a holistic approach. Is that what healing is? What is healing?
DEAN: Well, healing comes from the roots to make whole. Like Yoga from the Sanskrit, to unite…to bring together. That’s the whole idea. So, anything that brings us together. Anything that creates community and intimacy is healing. Anything that creates walls or barriers, literally or figuratively, that we see in our culture now… it’s an illness. Identifying yourself as different and only different. Then you have the Other, with a capital O. Those Mexican rapists… those Muslim terrorists…. Once you see someone as different and fundamentally different, then you can do bad things to them because they are different.
To me, the essence of healing is really recognizing that on one level, we are separate. You are you and I am me. But on another level, we are not. We can have that dual vision and that really leads us more to healing. And so, the forth component of our program is love more. Well, people think that’s just romantic or sexual love. But it can be the love of a pet or a child or a parent. The time we spend with our friends and family and loved ones is thought of as a luxury that you do when you’ve taken care of all the important stuff. What these studies teach us is that it is the important stuff. People who are lonely and depressed are three to four more likely to get sick and die from pretty much everything, as compared to those who have a connection to love and community.
And so, when you hate somebody, it poisons you. One finger points at another… three fingers point back at you. When you forgive… when you have compassion for yourself and others, then healing can begin to happen. Bodies have a remarkable capacity to begin healing if we stop doing what is causing the problem. The one emotion that has consistently linked to heart disease is anger. So, when you carry a lot of that anger around, it literally eats you up… and to the extent that you can love other people. Is that selfish or unselfish? Well, it’s really both because when you let go of that anger, it frees you of that suffering, as well as the other person. When you build up these walls, it isolates both of you and leads to more suffering. For me, all of this work is really a trojan horse to get people’s attention to talk about what really matters. So, I appreciate that we started this dialogue by… usually I have to go through the science to get people’s attention but what I think is really important is this stuff. Now, that we have been able to talk mostly about that, I really appreciate that.
DONNA: Well, I think a lot of people don’t realize that you have a spiritual background. Your teacher was Swami Satchidananda. What can you share? What did you learn from the Swami? And how did that put you on a path, so to speak, and influence the way you approach medicine?
DEAN: Well, pretty much everything we have been talking about, I learned from him. As I mentioned, I was suicidally depressed in college. This was in 1972. My older sister had studied with him and he helped her a lot, so my parents decided to have a cocktail party. It was in Dallas, Texas, which is a little weird. But it was really weird back then. So, in walks this central casting vision of a Swami with a long white beard and saffron robes. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. So, he came into our living room and gave a lecture. He said that “nothing can give you lasting happiness,” which I had already figured out… which is why I was going to do myself in. He’s glowing and I’m about to kill myself. What am I missing here?
And he went on to say what sounds like a new-age cliché… is that, while nothing can bring you lasting happiness, the paradox is that we have it already, until we disturb it. And not being mindful of that, we end up running after all these things that we think are going to bring it to us, and in the process of that, disturb what we can have already. If we could just stop doing it…
If you have a pan of water and you are trying to smooth out the waves by moving your hand across it, it only creates more waves. If you just stop doing it. Everything settles down and you begin to experience that. And the other thing that was so helpful… So, I decided to try some of this weird stuff. I’ll move killing myself from plan A to plan B, and try some of this weird stuff first. And I began. You know, I grew up in Texas, eating meat three or four or five meals a day. So, I started to eat a plant-based diet… Meditate to the extent that I could… And get a little exercise, and so on. And began to get glimpses of what he said.
I transformed my life. I went back to school. Instead of feeling stupid and worthless, I graduated first in my class, went to medical school, and so on. I say that, not to brag, but on the one hand, I thought I was so stupid… that I couldn’t even read a headline in a newspaper and tell you five minutes later what it said. That’s when I felt like I had to do well in school, so I could get into medical school… so that I could love myself and feel respectable and feel good. And then it was so counter-productive that I almost didn’t survive it.
But then, when I became more inner-related, the paradox was that I was able to go out in the world and accomplish even more because I didn’t have all the stresses related to my sense of self-worth and well-being, which are tied to what I’m doing. If you have that already, it’s very liberating and empowering because then you can go out in the world. I mean, everything that I have done in the last 40 years, people thought was impossible. But it gives you the courage to take risks. It’s like, what’s the worst that can happen? I can learn something… because I don’t have to tie my self esteem to the outcome of what I’m doing because I feel like I have that already. To me, that is really where the healing is the deepest and most profound in my limited understanding. And how we can help patients with this sacred work as doctors and healers… Use the experience of suffering as a doorway to a transformative life because change is hard but if you are in enough pain, as I was…
DONNA: You are motivated to wake up.
DEAN: That’s right. It might be a heart-attack. I’ve had patients… numerous patients who have said that “having a heart-attack was the best thing that happened to me!” The first time someone said it, I said “What are your nuts?” They said, that’s what it took to get their attention to begin transforming their life, and it’s made my life so much more joyful and meaningful and I’m rediscovering inner sources of peace and joy and wellbeing. My relationships are much more authentic and loving and pleasurable. Professionally, I am much more successful. I can take risks that I wouldn’t have taken before. And I wouldn’t have done any of that if I hadn’t gotten sick.
But it’s an opportunity as doctors, that we aren’t really trained to take advantage of. We are just trained to by-pass the pain. To numb the pain. To kill the pain and that’s in our culture. We do that. We have this Opioid Epidemic going on right now. That’s where it comes from. We have people who say, “I have 20 friends in this pack of cigarettes and they are always there for me. Are you going to take them away from me?” “Food fills the void.” Or, “video games numb the pain.” “Alcohol or other drugs numb the pain.” Or, working all the time…And so, for me, pain is not the problem. Pain is the messenger. It’s saying “listen up, pay attention, you are not doing something that is in your best interest.”
But, we are not trained to see that,as doctors, and that is part of the paradigm shift that we are trying to change with lifestyle medicine.
Read and Watch Part I Here: Awaken Interviews Dr. Dean Ornish Pt 1 –Eat Well, Move More, Stress Less, Love More
Read and Watch Part III Here: Awaken Interviews Dr. Dean Ornish Pt 3 – From Fear Of Dying, to Joy Of Living
Dean Ornish, M.D., is the founder and president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of six books, all national bestsellers. He has received numerous honors, including the Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Public Health Hero Award from the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Ornish was recognized as a “TIME 100 Innovator;” by Life magazine as “one of the 50 most influential members of his generation;” by People magazine as “one of the most interesting people of the year;” and by Forbes magazine as “one of the world’s seven most powerful teachers.”
Dr. Dean Ornish: https://twitter.com/DeanOrnishMD
Ornish Lifestyle Med: https://twitter.com/OrnishLifestyle