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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: How to be happy

Dr. Daniel Lee was stressed out.

He had ignored the urge to pursue a career playing tennis or testing video games to become a doctor instead, a notoriously stressful occupation.

In 1993, his partner died of complications related to AIDS, adding sadness to the stress.

Then four years ago, Lee and his partner of seven years broke up. Stress, depression and insecurity piled up in his life.

“I wanted to feel better,” Lee said.

The solution was meditation.

Today, Lee, 40, is an associate clinical professor at the UC San Diego Medical Center. He practices Kelee meditation twice a day. “Kelee” comes from a word meaning “vessel” in Greek and Hebrew. With Kelee meditation, Lee focuses on moving energy from his stressed-out brain, down to an emotional “vessel” in his chest. Lee says that focusing his energy helps him still his mind and silence nagging thoughts that follow him around all day.

Lee admits the process is hard to explain.

“It’s like trying to explain to someone what ice cream tastes like,” he said.

After practicing Kelee meditation for several years, Lee started teaching the meditation to patients at the medical center. Lee works with HIV-positive patients who struggle with stress, depression and anxiety after learning they have the incurable disease. Lee said that Kelee has helped many of his patients stay mentally healthy.

“Many of the patients feel more confident,” Lee said. “They feel more empowered.”

Lee is currently conducting a study with his patients. He trains patients in the meditation technique, has them try it twice a day for 12 weeks and gathers data through surveys and interviews. So far he’s had 27 patients complete the process, and he hopes to eventually test 55 patients. Lee hopes to use the data to conduct a larger study.

When I interviewed him in December, Lee was reluctant to report his data so far, but he said the “results definitely look good.”

It all sounded rather New-Agey to me, and Lee acknowledged that other doctors don’t see his work as “hard science.” Nevertheless, Lee attributes changes in his own life and his patients’ lives to Kelee meditation. He’s seen patients work through anxiety and stress and end up happier. He’s also seen patients with substance abuse issues cut down on drug use.

Lee doesn’t try to sell the practice to his patients. He says patients find it more empowering to decide for themselves whether meditation works.

“All we’re doing is asking people to still their minds,” Lee said. “We’re not asking people to believe in something.”

Lee recommends Kelee for everyone. He sees the benefits of meditation in a college student’s life. Lee said calming the mind can help a person study. Dealing with stress through meditation can cut down on the “chatter” of distracting thoughts – Will I meet my deadline for this science column? Am I sticking to my budget? Will I graduate on time?

“You can’t focus, not when you’ve got all this crap at the same time,” Lee said.

Lee knows his stuff. When he began talking about the “looping process” of negative thoughts, I recognized my own stupid mantra of doom during finals week. I don’t fail classes, but my brain shouts YOU WILL FAIL.

I go running when I’m stressed, or I eat ice cream and watch “Buffy.” I call this therapeutic, but Lee calls it “coping.” He says when you watch a movie to relax it distracts you from stress, but doesn’t actually fix the problem.

Lee believes that the real benefits of Kelee meditation come after he’s tried to relax. “Looping” thoughts often drag him back to reality, so at the end of a meditation session, he analyzes why certain issues are on his mind.

He says that going back and examining negative thoughts helps him work past an issue – like tension he feels from his mom’s nagging – and stops the looping process. Through meditation, Lee feels you don’t just escape from a negative thought – “you can get rid of the actual triggers once and for all.”

When Lee and his partner broke up, Lee felt insecure about being alone. Kelee meditation helped him stop stressing over negative thoughts.

“When I really think about it, I should be okay with myself whether I’m in a relationship or not,” Lee said.

I don’t have enough experience with meditation to judge whether moving energy around in “vessels” has an effect on me, but I do think budgeting a few minutes a day to sit still and relax would help me deal with stress. When I’m racing around to get business done, it would help to spend time recharging.

We’re three days into a new quarter and the homework is already piling up. If you’re not the meditation type, find another way to relax. Walk around the Arboretum or bake cookies with your roommates. Even Dr. Lee uses “Super Smash Brothers” as a way to unwind.

MADELINE MCCURRY-SCHMIDT wants to know about your science projects for the New Year! E-mail her column ideas at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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