I spent the weekend at a Preventive Medicine Research Institute (PMRI) retreat. PMRI is the organization created by Dean Ornish to research and promote his work on preventive medicine.
As readers of my blog should know, I started a vegan diet in December the year before last, started exercising and meditating and became Joi 2.0 in the process. Since then, I had been trying to express on my blog and to my friends what was going on in my head and my body.
During this process I saw Dean's TED talk where he shows that a low-fat, vegan diet could not only slow down heart disease but actually reverse it. I filed Dean's name in my mind under "cool people to look up".
At the last TED, Lawrence Lessig and Dean met and scheduled to get together sometime. Larry, who has been "getting well" recently, knew that I would be interested and invited me to go see Dean with him. After our meeting, Dean invited us to attend an upcoming retreat and gave us copies of his new book, Spectrum.
Larry was unable to make it, but I did some scheduling judo and was able to attend.
After reading the book and attending the retreat, my conclusion is that Dean has a very effective program for increasing happiness and health. It tied together all of the pieces that I had been working on and anchored them with solid research. Dean's obsession with finding and conducting rigorous research to backup the effects of various components of his program make it completely different from most alternative medicine and lifestyle programs. Dean brings to the wellness movement the highest quality science which I believe is essential for all of this to go mainstream.
The program is not simply a diet. It includes a balance of four important parts: diet, exercise, relaxation and intimacy. During the retreat, we ate wonderfully healthful food the whole time, did yoga, exercise and meditation. We discussed medicine and science. We had small group sessions where we discussed our own issues in a very open and intimate setting. These sessions were much more effective than I would have imagined.
These group sessions weren't like psychotherapy or group therapy, but were small groups where we shared our feelings. They quickly became intimate and turned into a sort of fountain of compassion. The importance of intimacy in health was missing from the "formula for health" that I had been working on. Dean's research together with these sessions proved to me that it was an essential component and complimented my spiritual goals around compassion.
Dean has research that shows that intimacy, relaxation, diet and exercise all have an impact on our health. In particular, clogging of our arteries and inflammation in general are affected by these things. Dean shows that constricted arteries and inflammation are the cause of many of our modern diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and even impotence.
Most of this is described in his book. One interesting angle that the book takes is that there are a spectrum of foods ranging from the least healthy to the most healthy. If you choose the most healthy diet - my vegan super-duper-diet that I did last year - you can reverse heart disease. If you're pretty healthy and happy already, you can be a bit less hardcore. Dean suggests that you never should feel guilty about what you eat, but that you need to be aware of how healthy the food you are eating is. He has a table that rates the healthiness of various foods. You should choose the healthiness of diet that works for you and adjust it in moderation, allowing yourself to occasionally indulge. Dean tries very hard to prevent people from feeling like diet is something you should feel guilty about and is trying to design a sustainable diet that makes you happy instead of making you suffer.
I had just reached a point in my diet where I had reached my weight and health goals and was having a hard time driving myself to work harder on my health. Maintaining your weight is a much less exciting goal than reaching a target weight. Spectrum helped me think through how to make my healthiness sustainable. The retreat rejuvenated and recharged me completely and I am now committed to augmenting my diet with yoga and to start my meditation practice again. I also learned after consultation that the best way to maintain my weight is probably increasing/recovering muscle mass to increase my metabolism rather than focusing only on aerobic exercises and calorie management. (I had regained 7 of the 20 kg that I had initially lost and was trying to figure out what to do...)
Thank you Dean and the whole team who put the weekend together. Thanks also to the other participants in the retreat who shared.