Full text of Buddhist practitioner Dr. David Hendricks’ talk: Mind is Everything at TEDxTraverseCity conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Mind is Everything by Dr. David Hendricks at TEDxTraverseCity
(Announcer) Please welcome to the stage Dr. David Hendricks.
Dr. David Hendricks
Tashi delek – that’s how you say hello in Tibetan.
Today I’m really happy to be here to share thoughts that have been on my mind every day since 1989.
My talk today, I hope, you will find some benefit in. That’s the basic motivation I have in talking to you today.
And the subject matter of my talk is going to appear to you today just to be a little bit on the academic side, and there’s a reason for that.
Before my own recovery, the only emotions that were easy for me to access were anger and depression. And one of the true gifts of my recovery was the ability to access a full range of emotional responses. And I haven’t yet got the hang of all of the more tender emotions, so I tend to break into tears easily.
So staying on the academic side is the best thing for a macho man like me so I don’t break down in front of you.
So, the other thing I want to say is that even though the presentation may seem at points academic, it has a deep soulful purpose, because it’s been my passionate intention over the years to try to relieve the suffering of addiction particularly, but also mental illness.
Before I start, the last thing I’d like to say is that I’d like to dedicate this talk today to my old Buddhist teacher, who died last year.
So Buddha said:
“The mind is everything. What we think we become.”
Because I really believe that to be true, I’m often made really uneasy when I see the kind of crazy stuff that goes around in my own mind.
But what’s in my mind today is really more peaceful and calm than it was in the many years during my rough childhood, where my father was incessant in his attempts to shame me and break me down. And it’s certainly clearer and better than it was during the uncontrollable anger of my 20 years as an alcoholic.
I figured that if Picasso can have a blue phase, then I’m entitled to an alcoholic phase, which I’m glad is over.
But at the end of that career, I really didn’t believe that I would ever be able to have a normal life. But I joined AA anyway, and within one year of that, I met my Buddhist teacher and I began to meditate. And I began to practice the Buddhist philosophy of mind, which was the most profoundly useful psychological system I’d ever encountered.
And then three years later, the unexpected miracle of a top-to-bottom revolution in my entire life occurred — something we call “sobriety in recovery.”
This has been a pivotal event in my life, and at the time that it occurred, it’s become my fundamental motivation in life to try to help other people who suffer as I did to also achieve the same kind of redemption that I was lucky enough to achieve.
So, what I would like to do is to see if there’s any fundamental truths that we can bring out of my little miniature biography today, and I’d like to start in childhood.
Recent brain imaging studies of maltreated children revealed extensive structural abnormalities in multiple regions of the brain, and enough damage to the brain so that the brain of these kids has actually reduced as much as 10% in size below normal.
When you look at the painful images, these brain images, of these children, it’s difficult to understand how they could ever have a decent life.
But it wasn’t until the publication of the Adverse Childhood Event Study, the ACE Study, a few years ago that what these kids were going to face in adulthood became clear.
Now the ACE Study was a groundbreaking clinical epidemiologic study that did two things for the first time in the history of clinical research, and that is that it looked for — I’m going to put all this up so you have a chance to see it.
For the first time in clinical research of this type, it looked for all of the types of adversity that kids could go through at one time. It’s hard for me to believe it wasn’t done before this — it was always fragmented — but in this study, all forms of adversity that children could suffer were looked at.
And they were eight in number, and they include: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, witnessing the mother being abused, divorce or separation, and being raised by a parent that was criminal, mentally ill, or drug addicted.
The study — the second thing that was done… was that the study was done in a very large well-designed population of study subjects on whom med and psych records existed so that the results of the study accurately represent the experience of the entire U.S. adult population.
64% said that they had experienced at least one form of these eight forms of adversity. I’ve done my math about Millikan Auditorium. And I’m sorry to tell you, but it has probably already occurred to some of you looking at the screen that 230 of you also likely experienced one form of adversity growing up, and that 140 of you experienced two types of adversity — two of the eight – that’s 40% of the U.S. population, and 13% experienced four or more, like me or like 45 of you.
So the first thing that we know from the ACE Study is that adversity is very common and that most of us in this room share it.
What do you think the ACE Study would predict the likelihood that these suffering children would use drugs in adulthood?
This is a graph that depicts on its vertical axis the likelihood of injecting drugs as an adult plotted against childhood experience on the horizontal axis.
The way this works is that for those that report no adversity, the likelihood of injecting drugs is very low. But among those who have only one species of adversity during childhood, the risk triples, and for those that have two of any of the eight …or three …, or four or more …80% of all addicted adults in the United States today come from this population of people that were abused as children.
What would you guess about the likelihood of mental illness in their future?
This is a bar graph that depicts a likelihood of committing suicide — surely, the ultimate marker of emotional suffering — in adulthood plotted against childhood experience.
And again, the zero represents an ACE score of zero, that among those who had no reports of childhood adversity, the risk of committing suicide as an adult was very low — vanishingly small.
For those that had one type of adversity in their childhood experience …two types …, three of the eight …, four …, five …, six …, and seven or more …
In the article where these results were first published, the authors said that the linkage between being abused as a kid and killing yourself as an adult was so strong as to be unprecedented in the history of epidemiologic studies.
And they further concluded that the vast majority of suicides in the United States every year are attributable to only one thing, and that is they were abused as children.
So the 20th century closed on an extremely dark note. What we knew at that time is that adversity altered the structure of the brain of these kids, and that these structural alterations set the stage for emotional states that accounted for the majority of the suffering in the United States due to drug addiction and mental illness.