Teacher and Devotee

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Dennis Gersten, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in San Diego, and author of "Are You Getting Enlightened Or Losing Your Mind?" (Harmony Books). Here follows a letter he wrote me about his transformative experience with a guru named Sai Baba. On reading this letter, I thought to myself, "Yes, he's probably lost his mind, but maybe he's a little enlightened, too." Whether or not what Dr. Gersten describes is objectively true, his twenty-year history with a guru has been deeply beneficial to him personally and as a psychiatrist. Here is all the passion of the devotee and true believer. - Jill Neimark.

I've thought a lot about your questions and decided to go all out, 100% truth. Many people will think I am crazy for what I am about to say. It's so controversial that my publisher deleted this material from the book.

I began my psychiatry residency at the La Jolla Veterans Administration Hospital at the University of California at San Diego. Within the first month, a nurse named Madeleine approached me and gave me a photograph of an Indian holy man with a big Afro and an orange robe. "You're a spiritual person, and I think you should have this photograph. His name is Sai Baba." That was all she said. I kept the photo, but had no interest at all in Sai Baba.

In my second year, I was supervised by a San Diego psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Sandweiss, who is a devotee of Sai Baba. For two years we met and he told me stories of this man of miracles. The miracle stories shook my very foundation of reality. Sometimes I thought that Dr. Sandweiss was himself out of his mind, except he was friendly, intelligent, and sociable, with a loving wife and four daughters.

When I finished my residency, I traveled with Sam to India to see Sai Baba. Baba deluged me with so many miracles that after four days I couldn't take any more and left on the fifth day. During that brief visit I observed and experienced Sai Baba materializing material objects out of thin air. He manifest sacred ash, called "vibhuti," rings, medallions, even candy, with a wave of his hand. If you think this was sleight of hand, let me say that Sai Baba even materialized a three-foot-high brooch for his pet elephant. During the closing moments of that first trip, I was called in for a personal interview. Sai Baba knew everything about me. Now, I'm obviously interested in things that most doctors and psychiatrists shy away from. But it was as if he'd lived in my head every moment of my life.

But we've just scratched the surface. There is no miracle known to humankind that Sai Baba has not performed. I personally know two people who had a loved one resurrected from the dead. The most astounding was a woman whose husband died while at the ashram. She refused to let anyone take the body for cremation. She told people, "Baba said he would come help him." Five days after the man's death, Sai Baba came to the room, which reeked with the odor of the decaying body Half an hour later Sai Baba walked out of the room with the resurrected man.. arm in arm, cheerfully greeting the wife.

Isaac Tigrett, founder of The Hard Rock Cafe, is a devotee of Sai Baba. In Isaac's younger days, he says, he was sailing around the curves of the Malibu hills in his sports car when it flew over the cliff. Sai Baba appeared in the car, held his arms around Isaac and protected him completely. The car lay demolished at the bottom of the cliff with the waves pouring over it. Isaac was unharmed.

These stories are jarring to the average American, but more so to the average psychiatrist. "Magical thinking" they call this stuff Yet, if one dares to explore what I have said, then we are faced with more than a challenge for the theories of modern psychiatry. Psychiatry is a speck of dust compared to the infinite mystery of God. Sai Baba says, I am God and you are God. The only difference is that I know it and you don't." And so, yes, this psychiatrist is saying that, after his puny medical ego had been sufficiently deflated, that he, that I, know that God is on earth, walking, talking. Is Sai Baba my guru? We, in the West, have a very hard time with the idea of a real guru. We're tough-minded individualists, and surrendering to Sai Baba has been a tough lesson. What is a guru, anyway? The word means "he or she who removes the darkness." These people are like human magnets, their power of attraction is so great. Although gurus throughout the ages have developed immense powers, these are not what attract. It is the boundless love one feels in such a presence, a love so great that one can be permanently changed.

How has this transformed my practice? Because I have witnessed miracles, I now expect miracles. It's my job to create the atmosphere in which a miracle can occur The mere belief in miracles is like a fertilized garden. I now know that deep change need not take eight to fifteen years of psychoanalysis, four times a week. Deep change can be instantaneous, and that is a miracle. But there are "real" miracles that I have been part of in my clinical work, and I stand in awe before them. Take Carmen, an acquaintance who came to me for help after being diagnosed with lung cancer

I gave Carmen the works: meditation, mental imagery techniques, nutritional supplements, and some lingham water. A lingham is an egg-shaped stone. Sai Baba materialized one for a friend of mine and said, "This is for healing purposes. I will send you patients." She returned to America and made bottles of water prepared with the lingham.

Carmen's entire right lung was filled with cancer. Then came the call. "Dennis, you just won't believe this. Then again, you probably will. I had the surgery. They opened my chest and discovered that the cancer had spread into the left lung and was wrapped around the big blood vessels. They closed me up and sent me home to die. Well, I was meditating one morning, and suddenly Sai Baba appeared in front of me. He was reaching inside my body pulling cancer out. They gave me one radiation treatment. And you know what. The cancer has shrunk by 75%." Six months later Carmen walked into my office and said, "Dennis, I am 100% cancer-free."

The question arises, when going beyond traditional medical and psychiatric boundaries, what to do with spiritual experience, how to "treat" it. Before each session with a patient, I now say a silent prayer for guidance in working with the next person. I imagine my guru, Sathya Sai Baba, in the office with me. When I am stuck, I will silently ask Baba for advice. Part of my spiritual practice is to look for the spark of God in every person, including the craziest of my patients. Sometimes this can be quite a challenge, but I've learned to find wisdom in the midst of insanity; divinity amidst the darkest depressions or psychotic episodes. A few months ago, I was working with a woman named Sarah, who suffered from a full-blown manic psychosis. Mania is interesting. These people have an ability to zero in on your personal weaknesses in an instant. When this woman and I met, she was loud, angry, and threatening. I managed to simply listen, remaining centered. Toward the end of that first meeting, she asked about my family I told her I have a 22-year-old daughter. "Do you tell her you love her?" she asked. "Yes," I said, "I do." "But do you tell her every day?" she insisted "Yes " I said, "every single day" And then the kicker: "But do you really tell her from deep in your heart? I want you to tell her tonight from the bottom of your heart how much you love her." I agreed. I knew that the divine part of Sarah had spoken, and that I had better pay attention. I went home that night and told my daughter how much I love her, from the bottom of my heart. Spiritual psychiatry is about bringing my patients to a point of serenity they may never have experienced, but it is also about finding the divine in another person and connecting with that, soul-to-soul.

This is the psychiatry of the future, a psychiatry of love, hope, faith, and miracles; a psychiatry that heals and uplifts, that sees the pain as part of the spiritual journey that knows that spiritual ecstasy is real, and that God exists. A psychiatry that dares to bring God into the office, that dares to offer miracles, and that considers Prozac the last choice and not the first.

- Dennis Gersten, M.D.

From Psychology Today, April 1998
Religion's Bad Boy! The Lure of Gurus
Holy Madness in Healing: Psychiatrist as Disciple