Hello! My name is Will Meecham. You can find information about me and Mindful Biology on this page. To send me a message, use this contact form. To begin practicing Mindful Biology, visit the Home Page.
- For a wide-ranging conversation that introduces Mindful Biology, listen to this podcast by Dan McTiernan of EarthBound (1 hour duration).
- For a wordless, meditative introduction, view this art project (3 minutes duration):
- To learn about Mindful Biology goals and values, view this conversation with my friend, Sister Elizabeth of Anubhuti Retreat Center (4 minutes duration):
This project grew out of my Life history, including a traumatic childhood and stormy adulthood. For that reason, a brief sketch of my past belongs on this site.
My parents were locked in conflict by the time I was born, and my mother suffered depression after my birth. During my infancy and toddlerhood, our family spent summers in Los Angeles, where my parents lived a chaotic lifestyle that included ‘free love parties’. In that context, my mom was sexually assaulted, which worsened her depression and made it hard for her to care for me. When my father insisted on another summer in LA, my mother divorced him. Around this time I was hospitalized for several weeks with pneumonia, in isolation under an oxygen tent.
After my dad moved out, my mother’s mental health worsened. Hospitalized repeatedly, she received numerous electroconvulsive treatments and was heavily medicated. These therapies failed to help her, and she died of suicide when I was six.
My father had remarried by this time and insisted his new wife would raise his me and my older sister. The stepmother didn’t want to be saddled with childrearing, but neither did she want to leave the marriage. Angry at our presence and having suffered child abuse herself, she mistreated me and my sister. In my case that included strangulation and other assaults, emotional abuse, and sexual humiliation. My sister also suffered. She self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, then experienced a psychotic break when I was eleven. As she struggled with delusions and hallucinations, I was her main support, which was a frightening experience for me.
Substance abuse, annual relocations, and social isolation added to our family’s stress and chaos.
While trauma is obvious in the above description, the root problem in any difficult childhood is lack of emotional support. So while formative trauma worsened my problems, emotional poverty caused them.
Without a nurturing environment, children are unlikely to mature into stable, confident adults. This explains why so many people from ‘normal’ homes grow—as I did—into adults who struggle with insecurity, emotionally reactivity, codependence, over-achievement, narcissism, interpersonal conflict, etc. On the plus side, the difficulties enforced years of inward work and spiritual practice, which led—in due time—to durable equanimity and affection for Life.
Mindful Biology helped me transcend the legacy of my overly stressed family. And because highly stressed families are common, I believe it can be widely helpful.
Despite the hardship of my early Life, I enjoyed advantages. As a white cis-gendered male in affluent suburbs, I received a good education, did not experience oppression, and lived near nature. I spent a month per year on my grandfather’s farm, where I learned respect for the land and the power of growing things. Thanks in part to his influence, I’ve felt awed and comforted by Life since early childhood.
Even some of my challenges proved advantageous. During most of my school years I wasn’t allowed home before dinner time. This led to hours by myself, and I learned to find solace in nature. Often, I simply sat quietly and enjoyed its peacefulness, which—I realized decades later—was meditation. My connection with the natural world was strengthened during a solo trek of the John Muir Trail at age 16. Formerly a lackluster student, I returned from that trip determined to enroll in college and study field biology.
Having a focus helped me weather the emotional chaos I carried into young adulthood. But I lacked a stable identity and was easily swayed. Because people I respected advised me to pursue ‘serious’ subjects rather than ecology, I entered graduate school to study the biophysics of neural signal processing.
Soon I found myself in a windowless lab, far from the beauty of nature, struggling with tedious experiments. Around this time, my grandfather died. I sank into depression and contemplated suicide.
I never fully recovered, but I improved enough to pursue medical training and become an oculo-facial surgeon. I secured a good job at a large HMO, where my practice focused on the treatment of eyelid skin cancers. The stress was significant but manageable, and reconstructive surgery felt artistic and satisfying. My salary enabled me to buy a house near the beach in San Francisco. Though stuck in low-grade depression, I felt satisfied.
Then severe neck arthritis started causing problems as I performed surgery. I tried to adapt by relocating to a suburb near my office, hoping less driving would translate into less pain. I tried working fewer hours per week. But when the pain began threatening the quality of my procedures, I decided it was time to leave my career. I went out on disability.
No longer working a demanding schedule, often alone in a suburban tract home, and burdened with chronic pain, I felt crippled and defeated. My mood darkened, and I spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch. After I was discharged, my mental state grew expansive and culminated in powerful visions.
The visions were overwhelming for the first several days and remained active for months. One of the early ones set me firmly on the path toward Mindful Biology. Here’s an edited version of a description I wrote years ago, when all this was fresh in my mind:
I saw and felt the universe manifesting from the Big Bang to the present day, from subatomic to galactic scales. The cosmos filled my consciousness as a single organism, encompassing all space and all time. Most striking was the lack of difference between ‘it’ and ‘me’. The universe became my body and mind, the whole of it awash with love, unity, and beauty.
I’d experienced expansive states before, but only briefly, and I’d never felt sure they could be trusted. After numerous visions as powerful as the one above, I grew convinced of their importance. Yet although they felt healing and revealing, they also disrupted my sense of self and my ability to negotiate ordinary life. I consented to psychiatric medication in hopes of returning to ‘normal’.
The drugs restored ordinary consciousness, which felt comforting. But they also blocked me from moving through the grief that followed the loss of my career, which itself was an echo of childhood grief and trauma. After six years on high doses of multiple medications, I wearied of the accumulating side effects and lack of progress. I consulted a wise and compassionate psychiatrist who encouraged me to deepen my spiritual practice as she helped me taper off most of the meds.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed regular expansive experiences. They no longer feel disorienting, and these days I feel equally comfortable with ordinary and expanded states of mind. In fact, the two don’t seem as different as they once did. And no matter my mental state, Life is always present, always supporting me, always wrapping me with love.
Wholeness & Purpose
The visions left me with a powerful sense of purpose. I believed it was my mission to heal the rift between science and spirituality. Doing so felt vital for the planet’s wellbeing and humanity’s survival.
This was grandiose and ego-centric. As the energies ebbed, I understood my role would be limited and collective. Yet the connections between science and spirituality had intrigued me since my first forays into Quakerism (see Mindful Biology’s Story for more about my spiritual journey), and the visions moved them to the center of my life.
Despite my ‘calling’, I needed psychological healing before I could answer it. The expansive goal of merging science and spirituality had to begin with personal wholeness.
In service of that quest, I sought biomedical and alternative healthcare for my bodily pain. I underwent treatment with a series of psychotherapists from different theoretical orientations. Many advocated mindfulness. As I began practicing it, I learned to remain present and focused, even when physically or emotionally uncomfortable. My reactivity lessened, which improved my health and relationships. Mindfulness also helped me remain clear-headed as expanded states grew more common after I reduced my medications.
On the professional front, I tried my hand at biomedical computing and environmental health, then practiced acupuncture for a time. Although these endeavors interested me, they proved too challenging, in part because I remained out of touch with my strengths. I grew discouraged as I realized that conventional work no longer felt possible, while the work I felt called to do seemed unrealistic.
A Way Opens
As I groped for clarity, I started blogging. Writing online connected me to a community and helped me develop a voice. It allowed me to share ideas about science, spirituality, and mental health. However, blogging did not ease the angst that followed my collapse. I found it difficult to accept my transformation from a busy, high-functioning surgeon to a part-time, unemployed blogger. Yet I remained clueless about what to try next.
Then, unexpectedly, I was offered a job teaching human biology at a yoga institute. As part of my employment, I completed a dynamic mindfulness/yoga teacher training. These endeavors helped me realize that because our bodily processes can be felt subjectively and also studied objectively, they naturally bring spirituality and science together. I began incorporating biology-based mindfulness into my classes, and the yoga students responded enthusiastically. Encouraged, I expanded the teaching beyond the yoga institute to my local community college. On a small scale—and essentially by accident—I began fulfilling my ‘calling’.
Falling in Love with Life
I’ve taught a combination of biology and mindfulness ever since. As I teach, I fall ever more deeply in love with Life and its powerful, nurturing energy. I grow more intimate with the vibrant aliveness that permeates body and mind. In the process, I’ve realized that questions about science versus spirituality aren’t as pivotal as I once believed. The central issue is how we relate with Life.
My own relationship with Life has grown sweeter and more secure, even though I remain uncertain about ultimate answers. No matter where I stand philosophically, I feel intimately in touch with my mammalian body and its diffuse, empowering aliveness. Meanwhile, biology-based mindfulness helps me understand that the ‘I’ who experiences Life is just another manifestation of Life, along with everything ‘I’ see, touch, hear, feel, think, and so on. Most importantly, biology helps me make peace with pain, whether bodily or emotional, personal or collective.
My individual history—with its traumas, accomplishments, failures, pains, and joys—has faded in importance. My past no longer defines me, though it does explain things about me. Naturally, my behavior and its impact on others still matter. But my ongoing experience is one of aliveness, a deeply felt sense of harmony with my body, other beings, and the living world.
Mindful Biology’s Story
Mindful Biology grows out of my life history (see Will’s Story for details), formal education, and spiritual practice. This section describes the latter two and how they led to this project.
After undergraduate studies in zoology and ecology, plus graduate work in biophysics and neuroscience, I entered medical school. Inspired by my graduate research and the natural beauty of the human eye, I gravitated toward ophthalmology. After residency, I pursued fellowships in ocular oncology and oculo-facial surgery.
My spiritual interests developed haphazardly. Though raised as an atheist, I felt spiritual leanings from early on. They moved closer to the center of my life as I completed medical school and entered a 12-step program to deal with substance dependence, which I feared might undermine my clinical work. Taking the program’s spiritual focus to heart, I visited a series of churches, but none of them fit. Then, shortly after moving to New York for internship, I happened upon a Quaker meeting house a few blocks from my apartment. Many of my ancestors had been Quakers, and I immediately felt at home with the silent worship, lack of dogma, non-hierarchical leadership, and commitment to equity and nonviolence. Though my mind remained skeptical and atheistic, my heart grew more reverential.
As described in the Will’s Story section, powerful spiritual experiences followed the premature end of my career. Many of these visions were Christian in character. Because my wife had been raised Catholic and saw my need for spiritual support, we met with our local priests and began attending masses. I converted to Roman Catholicism. For ten years I attended mass twice per week and Quaker meetings on Sunday. Throughout that time, I kept a biological focus, being convinced that Life is sacred. However, neither tradition made this focus easy.
I had taken up mindfulness meditation as my career ended, as part of my effort to hang onto it. At first I only hoped to reduce feelings of stress and tension. But as I became more mindful of my body, I began to connect meditation with biology, and thus to spirituality. Wanting to deepen my practice, I attended Vipassana retreats. As it became obvious that my Life science education fit easily within mindfulness practice, I drifted away from Catholic and Quaker worship. In 2010 I began hosting weekly meditation groups, where I maintained a biological focus while helping people feel into their bodies.
Mindful Biology began in earnest two year later, when I started teaching human biology at a yoga institute. The students came from diverse backgrounds, and many had felt alienated and ignored during their school years. Teaching lots of factual information didn’t work very well, so I emphasized imagery in the classes. I highlighted biology’s beauty, complexity, and subtlety, while helping them feel Life in their bodies.
Teaching in this mode enriched my own mindfulness practice and gradually dissolved my sense of separation from my body, other beings, and the biosphere. This led me to teachers who emphasize non-duality, which became my spiritual emphasis for several years.
As Mindful Biology matured, I found ways to resolve the tension between science and spirituality without violating the central values of either. One key to this was emphasizing well-established, noncontroversial findings. That saves me the task of vetting less secure results. It also sidesteps some of the skepticism that meets speculative science.
More importantly, limiting factual controversy reflects my conviction that what we know for sure is sufficient for awe. Even the most basic biological facts can help us see Life as powerful and supportive. Fact-based wonder and gratitude engender something like faith, a cornerstone of many religions. Looking at the most unspectacular flower can feel like worship—the only requirement being sensitivity to the majesty of Life. Concepts are fascinating, but faith can be free of them.
Most of the study that underpins this project came prior to its formal launch, and I wasn’t taking notes. It’s often difficult for me to name sources for the ideas presented. Still, it’s safe to assume there were sources, either in books I’ve read, traditions I’ve explored, or people who’ve taught and supported me. My failure to give credit for ideas is due to poor record-keeping and unreliable memory, not an attempt to claim them as my own. I like to believe my work offers uniqueness in style and organization, but I doubt much of it is truly original.
Mindful Biology isn’t an academic project; it’s a program of joyful relating with our bodies, one another, and the natural world. Its sources are therefore less important than its power to acquaint us with our biology, root us in enduring values, and help us blossom as lovers of Life. And although the material is prepared in the modern world on a laptop computer, then uploaded to cloud servers, it advocates a way of being that is as old as Life itself.
Though what’s offered here has helped me and many class participants, it’s not evidence-based. No research trials have evaluated it. Consider trying Mindful Biology and assessing it for yourself. If it seems beneficial, great! If not, there are many other options. As we seek individual and collective maturation, it’s vital to discern what works for us, or doesn’t.
Biology as Spirituality
This site is based on the premise that Biology can be a spiritual practice, in the sense of encouraging reverence, gratitude, and affection for Life. When combined with mindfulness, it deepens intimacy with our bodies and the natural world.
To be clear, I use the word ‘biology’ in an expanded sense, to refer to scientific findings and natural phenomena that teach us about Life. This includes biological sciences and other disciplines, particularly psychology but also geology, physics, cosmology, and others. It also includes the lessons of nature, taught by flocking birds, old growth forests, mountain ranges, tide pools, and so on.
Humanity needs more connection with the deep, nonverbal aspects of ourselves, where our enduring values reside, and where the power of Life is felt. We need more sources of meaning in this chaotic and self-destructive civilization. I offer Mindful Biology as a grounded, contemporary, and accessible path to psycho-spiritual maturation.
It seems especially suited to people who (like me) have suffered substantial trauma and struggle to feel comfortable in their bodies. It also suits those with interest or education in biology or health care. But it can be helpful for anyone who values an open-minded, open-hearted approach to Life.
To use a popular phrase, this project is ‘spiritual but not religious’. It highlights well-established results from biological sciences, and it honors mystery and beauty. It encourages gratitude and commitment to Life.
Mindful Biology steers clear of controversy and takes no strong position on religion, metaphysics, philosophy, or other contentious topics. The aim is an improved relationship with life, not debate about ultimate truths.
Mindful Biology borrows concepts and practices from spiritual traditions, but it does not promote religious doctrine. It is not part of the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement. I’m not hostile to the argument that biological complexity implies the existence of a deity, but I’m not convinced by it, either. My position is neither neither secular nor theistic. Mindful Biology uses basic scientific understanding and practical meditations to help us live richer and less anxious lives. It sidesteps questions about where reality comes from and the ultimate meaning of Life.
With regard to Life’s evolution, it’s worth noting what the study of nature has revealed, and what remains to be worked out. The mainstream academic view is that natural selection acting on randomly occurring variants explains all biological evolution. But while natural selection surely plays a dominant role in favoring better-adapted life forms in diverse populations, there are reasons for caution. For instance, if cell-initiated genomic shifts alter inherited traits, then new variants aren’t strictly random (see Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, by James A. Shapiro). And if Darwin was correct about sexual selection, then female esthetic preference—and hence consciousness—plays an important role in evolution (see The Evolution of Beauty, by Richard Prum). More crucially, Life’s origins remain far from settled.
Going further, scientists are grappling with the nature of reality itself (for example, watch this video). Experiments call into question longstanding assumptions and raise issues once left to philosophers. I’m not qualified to evaluate the proposals on offer, but the uncertainty should give us pause. If we don’t understand reality, it’s hard to be sure we understand Life.
Despite these caveats, there’s no need to invoke a deity with humanlike intentions. There is plenty of intelligence in the cosmos (people are proof of that), but the nature and scope of it remain—as yet—uncertain. Maybe, as materialists think, sentient biology evolved from insensate matter through random variation and natural selection. Or maybe, as many religions insist, a deity purposefully created the universe.
I suspect the truth lies between these extremes and is more subtle than either of them. To me, the cosmos doesn’t appear mindless or purposeless, and I’m inclined to grant it some form of diffuse or collective intelligence. Yet it does not strike me as having been designed by a deity with a plan for humanity. Time may settle the question, but until then (and even afterward) biology can be employed in a spiritual way, to cultivate healthier relationships with Life.
Mindful Biology helps us grow more intimate with our bodies and the ecosphere while sidelining questions about why they exist. We fall more deeply in love with our bodies and the world even though (and perhaps because) so much remains mysterious.
Enlightenment? Or Enlivenment?
So what are we pursuing, exactly? What do we call it?
My spiritual journey began 35 years ago in Christian contexts: first Quakerism, then Roman Catholicism. One name for the goal of Christian worship is salvation (aka, redemption). We are saved from sin and the suffering it causes by turning our hearts toward God, particularly as embodied in Christ. For Quakers, this is an inward turning: toward the Light of Christ within. We connect with our innate divinity while honoring the divinity in others. For Roman Catholics, the turning is outward: we connect with a God who stands beyond human weakness, an omniscient being who loves us and wants to save us.
More than a decade ago I started practicing in the Eastern traditions of Raja Yoga and Theravada Buddhism. In both, the goal is enlightenment (aka, liberation, nirvana, realization, or awakening). In yogic traditions enlightenment comes from realizing that one’s individual nature, one’s soul, is inseparable from the world soul, or God. We gain freedom by reclaiming our connection to the timeless Divine, while the difficulties of mortal existence are seen as illusory and transient. In Buddhism, the focus is not on the individual soul (a central Buddhist belief is that no permanent soul exists), but on the mind. With the right practice, our minds gain insight into the nature of worldly life, how it is impermanent, impersonal, and never fully satisfying. These insights free the mind to recognize its source in pure awareness, which remains stable despite the chaos of daily living. By grounding ourselves in that stability, we liberate ourselves from suffering.
Although major conceptual differences separate these traditions, they share much in common. They all direct us toward connection and away from suffering.
I don’t worry much about the existence of God or soul. Regardless of what does or doesn’t exist, I know what I experience. At times I feel something divine in my chest, warm and full like the Light of Christ. Sometimes I sense a vast intelligence surrounding me and the world, and sometimes I feel inseparable from that larger intelligence. Other times, my painful stories dissolve like temporary ripples in the ocean of awareness, and I know that I am awareness itself.
So we have all these names: redemption, salvation, nirvana, realization, awakening, liberation, and enlightenment. They don’t mean exactly the same thing, but they point to a single phenomenon: the power of connection to free us from suffering. Now, although another name isn’t needed, I propose one: Enlivenment.
We enliven ourselves and our world when we connect with Life and know it as the fabric of all experience. As we practice what I call Mindful Biology, we feel Life everywhere and always: in what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and in every bodily sensation. We realize how rooted we are in the body’s living processes. We begin to move through the world as Life, feeling no separation from it, surrendering to our dependence upon it. Deeply connected, we accept Life as it comes and are freed from needless suffering.
Enlivenment doesn’t bump into questions about the existence of God or soul. We know Life exists, and we know how it feels. I have no problem with ideas about God or soul, but in Life I find something unquestionable. Neither science nor skepticism can argue with these basic truths: Life accompanies us in every moment; it supports our existence; it manifests intelligence. Even more, it remains after our individual body dies.
When we know we are Life, we know that even when our personal storyline goes awry–or ends, the larger part of us continues unchanged. Our self story becomes less important, a mere subplot in the grand narrative. No matter what happens, Life flows through the world and the cosmos, self-balancing and whole. When we accept it as it is, it offers both salvation and enlightenment. To know Life–in our minds, bodies and souls–is to be enlivened.