One of the greatest gifts of my life has been the incredible opportunities I have had to deeply explore many of the world’s great spiritual and healing traditions — while also having the privilege of pursuing a deep and fulfilling career in science and medicine. In many ways, my entire life has been an ongoing exploration of the interface between the vast domains of science and spirituality.
Now that I am walking the cancer journey as a patient — facing a very serious and uncertain prognosis, with difficult challenges along the way — this exploration of science and spirituality, the dance between them, and what I have learned in the process, has become an even more integral part of how I am living each day.
Because this exploration has been and remains such an important part of my life, in this blog post I would like to share some of the key highlights of this process and how it has evolved over the many years of my life so far. As a result, I acknowledge this is a longer-than-normal post, because it covers a great deal of territory.
My spiritual path began as a child, growing up in a Jewish household with very special grandparents whose devotion, kindness, and sensitivity to the plight of others touched me profoundly. As a teenager, like many others of my generation, I discovered the Eastern spiritual traditions. I was drawn in like a moth to the flame, dived in fully, and kept going. My first formal teacher was the Korean Zen Master Sueng Sahn, who I met and studied with while I was a student at Brown University, in 1976, at age 19. He was an amazingly clear and powerful Zen Master, who really “showed me the ropes” about the Zen tradition, and Zen meditation.
During that time, I also met Ram Dass at a lecture in Boston. He had returned some years earlier from a trip to India, where he met the great Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaj-ji, who became his guru. Along the way, his life was transformed from the Harvard professor Richard Alpert into the spiritual teacher Ram Dass.
Neem Karoli Baba had died in 1973, and yet, at that lecture, I was profoundly moved by a sense of his extraordinary and powerful presence before me, in an unmistakably real, tangible, yet spiritual form. My head and heart were blown wide open. A sacred bond was established that has never been broken, and has impacted my life ever since. After returning to Brown, I began to have powerful, spontaneous kundalini experiences, deep experiences in meditation, and a feeling that I somehow couldn’t keep functioning in the “normal” world. It was scary and disorienting, but Maharaj-ji’s presence was never far away.
My efforts to make sense of what I was experiencing — and the impact of seminal books I was reading at the time, such as Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Ram Dass’ epic Be Here Now, and many others — soon made it clear to me that I wasn’t going to find what I was searching for in a university. I could not resist the expanding call for inner, spiritual exploration and understanding that was resounding in my heart and soul. So, in June of 1976 I dropped out of college to pursue the spiritual path full-time. On my way from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City, where I was going to meet a friend and move to California, I was involved in a horrific single-car accident on the Connecticut Turnpike that should have killed me instantly. And yet — in a way that can only be described as miraculous — I emerged from the accident not only alive, but physically unscathed. How I walked away from that car wreck was completely inexplicable by any rational analysis … but it happened.
Three days later, through a series of equally inscrutable events, I met a remarkable Hindu spiritual teacher named Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, who was teaching at a Jesuit Monastery in Staten Island, New York. Within moments of meeting her I knew I had found the next phase of my spiritual path. That very day, I moved into her community in Queens, New York. A year later, I joined her and a small group of students in Florida, on a 40 acre parcel of land with two houses and a beautiful pond, where we began to create an ashram that quickly grew and continues on even now. I spent four years living with Ma Jaya and her expanding community of students. During this time, I became a vegetarian, and spent hours a day practicing yoga and meditation, diving deeply into the ocean of Hinduism and Vedic knowledge, and exploring the mysteries of the student-teacher relationship. Those years helped me to establish a spiritual orientation to my life that has continued ever since.
After fours years in the ashram, however, another powerful, undeniable inner call appeared in my heart; the call to return to the more conventional world, go to medical school, and become a doctor. Becoming a doctor had actually been a dream of mine since childhood, but was submerged in the tumult of growing up and the subsequent imperative of pursuing a spiritual path. After months of inner struggle about making such a momentous decision — which would require leaving my teacher and community — I left the ashram, moved to New York, and enrolled at Columbia University. Two years later, I completed college and was accepted into New York University School of Medicine. Enthusiastically, I dove as fully into my medical studies as I had into my spiritual studies in the ashram.
Even while in medical school, the inner spiritual calling I felt in the depths of my heart never diminished. In 1984, when I was a sophomore in medical school, I went to Nepal as part of a medical expedition to a remote village in the Langtang Valley in northern Nepal, on the border of Tibet. Here, the universes of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Medicine opened up before me like another vast ocean of knowledge and wisdom. Camping along the trail to Langtang, I feasted my eyes each morning on stunningly beautiful mountain vistas of Tibet that lay just over the border from Nepal, and was moved to tears. Along the way, I devoured amazing books on Buddhism and Tibetan Medicine, including Lama Anagarika Govinda’s classic The Way of the White Clouds, and felt an inexplicable, powerful call to visit Tibet. While on this expedition in Nepal, I spent time with a traditional Tibetan healer, and discovered the world of Ayurvedic Medicine as well, which is also practiced in Nepal and was barely known in the West at that time. Exploring these sacred traditions was like another, exciting home-coming; a reunion with something deep and ancient and yet completely familiar to me. I knew that somehow, I would return to this part of the world, and keep exploring.
At the completion of the six-week medical expedition in Nepal, I made my first trip to India, to visit Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in Kainchi, near the beautiful town of Nanital, in northern India. I was again profoundly moved by the power of Maharaj-ji’s loving presence, which permeated every inch of the Kainchi ashram.
Upon returning to New York, I continued to explore these extraordinary Eastern traditions while simultaneously continuing my Western medical studies. This included working on a variety of cancer research protocols, while also researching and publishing work on the use of alpha-interferon as a treatment for human papilloma virus infections, which formed the basis of my medical school honors thesis. It was a large leap from the Eastern spiritual traditions I’d been studying in Nepal and India … to the world of science and high-tech, academic medicine that I was now fully immersed in. But I felt compelled to traverse this broad divide as fully and completely as I could.
Then, two years later, in 1985, while I was a senior in medical school, my father was diagnosed with an aggressive gastric cancer that had already metastasized at the time of his diagnosis. Tragically, he died less than four months later, at the tender age of 60. This was, to say the least, a shattering experience for him, for me, and for my entire family. Remarkably, I had already known — from the first week in medical school — that I was going to become an oncologist. It was very clear to me that oncology was a field of medicine that, perhaps more than any other, involves some of the most advanced, sophisticated forms of science and technology … yet also touches some of the deepest questions about the human heart and soul, and the great mysteries of life and death. I immediately knew that oncology was the field to which I wanted to devote my career. I just never imagined that I would be plunged into the questions and challenges of cancer in such a deeply personal way.
My father’s death from cancer in early 1986, when I was 29 years old, was also a turning point in my medical career. I was horrified to experience, first hand, the harsh insensitivity of the purely mechanistic approach of the western medical model, and its failure to address the human dimensions of what many people experience in the often agonizing process of dealing with cancer. I vowed to do all I could to transform how patients and loved ones are cared for, in a real and tangible way. A few months later, after my father’s death, I had a clear vision that I would become a fully-trained and credentialed oncologist and one day build a cancer center that embraced and integrated many forms of healing that could help patients and families heal and transform at a deep level. Accomplishing this required first completing three years of post-graduate residency training in internal medicine, which I did at the University of California at San Diego Medical Center.
During that time, I traveled to Lhasa, Tibet, diving more deeply into Tibetan Buddhism and Medicine, and then to Dharmsala, India, where I continued these explorations and was blessed to meet the Dalai Lama for the first time. Some years later, I was honored to give a plenary talk at The First International Congress on Tibetan Medicine, in Washington, DC, titled Gifts from the Medicine Buddha: Three Jewels for the Practice of Modern Medicine, in which I was able to share some of my thoughts on how this amazing tradition could contribute to modern medicine, and to life.
After returning from this trip to Tibet and India, I completed my residency training in internal medicine, and went on to complete three additional years of fellowship training in hematology and oncology at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. These were very challenging, but exhilarating, years, as I moved closer and closer to my goal.
After completing fellowship training, I finally became a board-certified medical oncologist and fulfilled my vision from medical school when, in 1994, I opened an integrative cancer center, the Geffen Cancer Center and Research Institute, in Vero Beach, Florida. My staff and I offered leading-edge conventional medical treatments for cancer, along with a wide array of complementary healing modalities for patients and families. At the base of all of this, however, our treatment was offered in a spirit of genuine respect and caring for the well-being of our patients and their loved ones. It stemmed from a true desire to do all we could to help them heal, as fully as possible, and to experience love, support, connection, and the feeling of being truly cared for — on all levels of their being. To me, this is the fundamental shift that has to occur for medicine to fulfill its ultimate potential. It felt wonderful to be able to help and support so many people in this way.
In another powerful vision that occurred during this time, our approach was developed into a coherent body/mind/heart/soul/spirit program for whole-person cancer care, called The Seven Levels of Healing. In 2000, I published the first edition of a book — The Journey Through Cancer: Healing and Transforming the Whole Person — which describes this program and whole-person approach in detail. The Seven Levels of Healing is a powerful map of what human beings encounter in the search for wholeness and healing on the cancer journey — or in the face of any serious life or health challenge. Even more, it demonstrates a way to skillfully and effectively support patients and loved ones — as multidimensional beings — within the context of mainstream medicine. This map became the foundation of the care that my staff and I offered to thousands of patients and loved ones over ten years, and it has guided my support and care of others ever since — including myself, on my own cancer journey.
In 2003, it became clear that my time practicing medicine and running a cancer center was complete. I wanted to see if I could bring The Seven Levels of Healing program to a wider audience, and implement it successfully in other cancer centers — which I was able to do over the next number of years through my consulting company, Geffen Visions International. But at a deeper, personal level, the calling for greater inner healing and understanding was compelling me to leave the day-to-day practice of medicine and devote myself more fully to exploring other healing and spiritual traditions.
These explorations involved four great paths, among others.
To begin, one of the most profound and important events of my life occurred in 1994, when I traveled again to India and met the great spiritual master, H.W.L. Poonja, affectionately known as Papaji to the thousands of seekers who came to see him over many years at his home in Lucknow, India. Papaji was a direct disciple of Ramana Maharishi, one of India’s most renowned and revered sages. Papaji was himself a realized master in the Hindu tradition known as Advaita, which honors the oneness of all life and recognizes consciousness as the ultimate substratum of existence. Papaji introduced me to this ancient tradition, and its profound approach to life. I was deeply privileged to spend many hours in close, personal contact with him on several more trips to India before his death in 1997. He remains a shining star in my heart and soul, and I was indelibly changed by his presence in my life.
Another profound domain for me was the field of transpersonal and Jungian psychology. This was initially facilitated by an extraordinary transpersonal psychotherapist, Dr. Sandy Sela-Smith, who I first met in 1999. Under her incredibly wise, gentle, and skillful guidance, I pursued over many years a long and extensive exploration of my life and personal history, and discovered profound dimensions of healing that can be accessed through a conscious exploration of the human psyche and soul. Sandy helped me to discover and heal wounded parts of myself that had been buried for decades, that were crying for love, acceptance, and expression. It is hard to describe how profound and transformational this process was, and continues to be, in my life.
Next, in 2004, while continuing to work with Dr. Sela-Smith, I met Dr. Stanislov Grof — the renowned psychiatrist; one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology; and creator, along with his beloved wife Christina Grof, of Holotropic Breathwork. The extraordinary understanding and technology of Holotropic Breathwork offers participants — in an exquisitely designed, safe, group setting — access to deep, inner healing resources and unconscious parts of the human psyche that include and transcend one’s personal biography, and which often contain the psycho-spiritual roots of illness and disease. I enrolled in his training program and four years later became certified as a Holotropic Breathwork Practitioner. I have tremendous gratitude and admiration for Dr. Sela-Smith, Dr. Grof, and the leadership of the Holotropic Breathwork community, including Tav Sparks, Diana Medina, Diane Huag, Matthew Stelzner, and others. The psycho-spiritual healing and insights I received from their guidance and skill have been life-changing for me.
In 2007, I discovered an entirely different world of healing: shamanism, indigenous healing traditions from North and South America, and the sacred plant medicines Ayahuasca, Peyote, and San Pedro. I met a South American shaman and dived deeply into the world of shamanic medicine and healing, making multiple trips to South America, participating in astonishingly deep and transformative healing ceremonies, vision quests, and sweat lodges, and experiencing profound inner revelations. For a while, I actually thought I would become formally trained as a practitioner in these traditions. However, after several years, and for a variety reasons, my relationship with this shaman ended. This was a very disappointing turn of events, and I was unclear about the direction my life would now take.
Then, four months later, I was diagnosed with cancer, and my entire world was turned upside down.
As I have shared in this blog, the cancer was diagnosed at a relatively early stage, and at first it looked like I would be cured. But nearly two years later it returned, and then, just over a year ago, it began to spread — catapulting me even more deeply into the efforts to heal and survive, which still continues.
Along the way, for all these years — and during my entire cancer journey — I have been traversing the two worlds of science and spirituality, which have been the focus of my life for so long. I have been trying as hard as I can to understand who I am as a human being, the meaning and purpose of my life, and how to best help myself and others to heal in the face of the great paradoxes and challenges of modern life, including cancer.
My intention has been to navigate between these worlds as consciously and skillfully as possible, and integrate the best and most important gifts and technologies they have to offer. As a cancer patient, this integration has not been easy; first of all because the medical model — in which I was trained and practiced for many years, and which I respect on so many levels — openly acknowledges its limitations in treating, let alone curing, metastatic cancers such as the one I have. It focuses almost exclusively on the physical dimensions of health and disease, and does not acknowledge, let alone understand, that who we are as human beings extends far, far beyond the physical realm. Nor does it acknowledge the tremendous healing potential that can be accessed and received in the spiritual realms of life. Nonetheless, the medical world clearly has an important role to play in my efforts to heal and live. At the same time, the spiritual world — including the incredibly profound healing traditions I have loved and explored so deeply, and which are filled with exquisite and vital insights, treasures, and healing potential — cannot offer a clear or reliable path to a cure for me, or anyone, as well.
Over this past year I have been blessed to connect with a beautiful community of people involved in the Native American Church, which embraces many elements of the Native American worldview and traditions. I have participated in a number of traditional ceremonies that have been greatly healing and inspiring for me. It is extraordinary to experience the healing energy that is created when a group of sincere, loving people gather together in a teepee, around a carefully-tended fire, for a time of sincere prayer and gratitude, and with the intention of facilitating healing for everyone. What an incredible gift!
In the midst of all this, I am continuing — at least for now — with chemotherapy treatments, radiation treatments as needed, and regular visits with my conventional medical doctors and specialists. I also continue to pursue a variety of complementary and alternative healing modalities that make sense to me, which feel safe and grounded, and which I find inspiring and helpful. Most recently, on the medical front, I’ve been receiving the chemotherapy drug Doxil, on a monthly basis. I have received three cycles to date, and have found that I generally recover from the side effects of this drug after a couple of weeks. I am finding the courage to continue with this treatment as long as it continues to show evidence of positive benefit, which it most certainly has — although not without challenges. Next week, I will receive my fourth cycle of Doxil, and we shall see what happens thereafter.
I am also continuing to gratefully receive the blessings of the spiritual traditions that have so deeply touched and informed my life.
In the end, it all remains a Mystery. I continue to do my best — pursuing the deepest blend of science and spirituality that I can find and imagine and create — while working closely with my doctors and healers to see what might be possible.
The journey continues to unfold, as I have also shared, with “focused action and intention, wrapped in the arms of surrender” … one day at a time.
I hope this overview of my journey to bridge the two vast worlds of science and spirituality will be meaningful for others — especially those who are struggling to find a synthesis that speaks and makes sense to them, wherever they may be on their own journeys in life, or in dealing with cancer.
Thank you again for your love, support, and good wishes.