Michael Baime (right) with author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn '64, a friend and mentor.
Michael Baime M.D. ’77: Melding Medicine and Meditation
On a Sunday night in December, 11 cancer patients sat in a circle on the second floor of the University of Pennsylvania’s Ralston House. Their eyes were focused on Michael Baime, the charismatic director of Mind-Body Medicine at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, who was leading the two-hour gathering.
The session began with the sweet sound of the tingshas, two Tibetan bronze cymbals that Baime struck, signaling that it was time for his patients to close their eyes and open their minds to meditation. His goal was to teach them how to concentrate on the here and now, on this moment, dismissing thoughts about the past, which cannot be changed, and about the future, which is uncertain.
He did it by suggesting, in a velvet voice, that they gather their attention around their breathing. When thoughts and sensations intrude, as they inevitably will, he directed that they “let them be,” and refocus on their breath.
In ten minutes, when the tingshas sounded again, everyone in the circle opened their eyes. Some blotted their tears with a tissue, and began to speak softly about what they had experienced.
Baime, a doctor of internal medicine, is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Stress Management, which has taught 5,000 people how to meditate.
Though Baime graduated from Haverford more than a decade after Jon Kabat-Zinn, their paths have converged in the world of mind-body medicine. Yet it was a Haverford connection that sparked their first meeting. It happened when Baime read Kabat-Zinn’s 1991 bestseller, Full Catastrophe Living, and was startled to see an acknowledgment to the late Alfred Satterthwaite, the English professor in whose on-campus home Baime had lived during his senior year. He contacted Kabat-Zinn, visited him in Massachusetts, sat in on his classes, and a long relationship took root. “It was a powerful meeting for me,” recalls Baime. “He was the person who was doing it in the way I thought was most effective and and he became an important person to me. If I need him, he’s there.”
For Baime, Haverford was “a powerful, remarkable place that valued intellectual curiosity, interpersonal honesty and a community spirit, all of which created my most important values for living.” It was there, he said, that he encountered a set of assumptions about moral and intellectual life that opened him to possibilities he never could have imagined. Although it was not compulsory, he attended Quaker Meeting, which, he said, had a “contemplative, meditative quality” to which he became connected.
Today, Baime is convinced that everyone — not just cancer patients — can benefit from mindfulness meditation. He has worked with police officers, heart patients, teachers, public school students, hospital employees, accountants and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In February, he led the national conference for educators in Philadelphia, at which Jon Kabat-Zinn was keynote speaker.
But meditation is exquisitely suited to those fighting cancer, Baime says. “They are willing to take a chance on living fully now because they realize how precious life is. They want to experience the beauty of their lives because of the severity of their treatments and the agonizing mystery about what lies ahead for them.
“It doesn't just give them a couple of helping techniques,” he continues. “It gives them a fresh start and adds a different dimension to their lives.”
Baime, who meditates daily, may be his own best example. In 2002, he was diagnosed with a rare condition—central serous retinopathy— that has robbed him of the central vision in his right eye. He was only moderately concerned as long as his left eye functioned normally. But three years ago, he developed the same condition in his left eye. “I began not recognizing faces, and I couldn’t do physical exams because I couldn’t see what was happening in my patients’ eyes or throats or ears,” he said. “It was devastating. Meditation kept me from losing my mind.”
Baime was lucky. He entered a clinical trial to have his eye injected with a drug often used with patients who have macular degeneration. It seemed to work. His vision, which had deteriorated so much that he could not read a newspaper, was back to 20/30. But the improvement lasted only four months.
“It was heartbreaking,” Baine said. “A lot of my identity was in the role of being an internal medicine doctor, and I knew I’d have to give up my practice.”
Another experimental treatment—photodynamic therapy—suggested by his doctor as a last resort produced almost miraculous results. Sight in Baime’s left eye was largely restored. Still, he can’t see well enough to return to his practice right now, and he lives in the same kind of uncertainty as many of his patients. His doctor has predicted “‘three good years’ and then he doesn’t know,” said Baime. “So I have this window, a few years to make a difference in the world, to get this (mindfulness meditation) program into government, education, corporations, to make it a routine part of training for professionals.
“I don’t know how people live without something, some form of discipline to help them feel whole and balanced,” he said. “We have made a decision as a culture to sacrifice quality of life for what we do and what we can consume. The time urgency, the unmet demands, the frustration of not being able to fulfill our deeper hopes, the lack of time to feel, to cultivate friendships, the loss of community all create unbearable tension. It’s in our bodies so we can’t sleep at night. It’s in our hearts so we feel alienated even from ourselves, from our deeper nature. It’s not just common, it’s endemic.”
Baime believes he was born to meditate. He has been doing it, in a way, since he was six. Without understanding what was happening to him, he remembers experiences of a deep, profound peace that would come over him suddenly, inexplicably. He could bring on that feeling by walking at a certain pace or counting slowly or just looking up at a slice of sky. “I spent my whole childhood trying to make that happen,” he said. “I didn’t think it was anything special. I thought it was what everybody was doing.”
As he approached puberty, the ability to recreate those peaceful interludes eluded him. But for his 14th birthday, his parents gave him a gift of meditation instruction. In his 20s, he met Chogyam Trungpa, his lifelong teacher, who changed his life forever. He has been meditating ever since, training in Tibetan Buddhism and authorized as a teacher in 1983.
Michelle Gossett, one of Baime’s cancer patients, said the sessions with him have been “life changing.” “Not only do I use mindfulness to deal with pain but my definition of happiness has changed. It used to be that the carrot was what motivated me, the prospect of achieving and making more money. I was driving on autopilot and not present in conversations I was having with others. Now it has become so simple. I learned how to meditate for 40 minutes every day and went from being agitated over my diagnosis to having the tools to make me stop, breathe, let things be and be mindful of everything going on around me.”
“Life is experienced in moments,” Baime said. “When we enter those moments fully, there is beauty and joy and wonder. Mindfulness gives us an anchor in our most turbulent times. The walls come down and we become aware that the life we have is worth celebrating.”