Goodbye to ISH
By David Cregg
July 21st, 2015
It’s with a bittersweet feeling that I write this, my final blog entry as an official employee of The Institute for Spirituality and Health. The next chapter of my life begins this August as I start my PhD in clinical psychology at Ohio State University. I’m excited for this next step in my journey, but sad all the same because it means that I’m leaving the place and people from whom I’ve learned and grown so much with. It has only been a year, but what a year it’s been! When I reflect back on all the new experiences and depth of relationships ISH has offered me, I am astonished that it was all able to fit inside a time-frame just shy of 12 months. I’d like to just briefly recount some of the experiences that made my time at ISH so valuable.
Prior to my position as Research and Congregational Outreach Coordinator, I had never done a formal sitting meditation a day in my life. As it happens, I had also never worked on a neuroscience study a day in my life. Imagine my surprise, then, when just a few days into work Stuart presented me with an opportunity to develop a study on the neural correlates of meditation. I am very thankful that he was willing to take a risk in presenting me with something novel, something that would expand my horizons. I now have two interests and skills that I did not possess prior to my time at ISH. First, I completed an intensive, week-long meditation retreat with Lex and John. Though challenging, the retreat taught me meditation skills that I’ll have for the rest of my life. In fact, I now regularly use the techniques I learned during moments of stress to relax my mind and body. Second, I’ve had the privilege to work with a team composed of computer scientists and a Zen Monk on developing the neural correlates study, utilizing a new neuro-imaging technology named fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy). I now have a basic competency in understanding brain regions and neuroscience techniques as a result of my research for this study. It is a new potential avenue added to my “academic tool belt.” I have ISH to thank for both of these opportunities.
I never imagined that less than a year out of undergrad I’d be presenting my research at a conference hosted by Harvard University. Together with two other ISH staff and a board member, I had the privilege of presenting my study on religious identity and existential anxiety at the 4th Annual Conference on Medicine and Religion in Cambridge, MA. It was exciting to build up my professional network and see the scholars, such as Christina Puchalski and Harold Koenig to name a few, whose work has been an inspiration for me. This is not to mention the other scholarly connections ISH afforded me throughout the year. I was able to attend a lecture and briefly meet Andy Newberg, one of the fathers of neurotheology. During my junior year as an undergrad at UT, I recall reading about the work of Professor Lisa Miller at Columbia. I found her research on the interface of psychology and spirituality fascinating. Who would’ve thought that two years later I would be dining next to her during her visit to ISH. On top of all this, I attended many other lectures, conferences, etc. and met sharp-minded men and women from a variety of disciplines. Needless to say, ISH has developed my professional network more than I could’ve possibly expected.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what I considered the most fun part of my job, visiting congregations. Prior to ISH, I had never stepped foot in a synagogue or temple, and I rarely had conversations with people of disparate traditions about their deepest, spiritual core commitments. My work with ISH took me to churches, mosques, synagogues, and Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu temples. My knowledge expanded so much by dialoguing with the leaders of these communities about their faith’s role in health. As a result of these visits, I feel very comfortable communicating with people from a wide variety of cultures and faiths. This will be an invaluable skill as I move on to work as a clinician with a diverse population.
All said, I think it’s quite apparent that ISH was an amazing place to work. I could think of no better place to develop me personally and professionally. I feel that my successful application to graduate school was due in no small part to the unique opportunities and perspective ISH afforded me. And I suspect the principles learned here will serve me for many years to come. It is incredible what this institute is able to accomplish with just nine staff members. Consider the breadth of activities spanning from psychotherapy education to employee enrichment. Everyone here is very driven, “self-starters” as John would say. And as a result it was always a positive, flexible work environment. There was not a rigid hierarchy; everyone had space to be creative and express their ideas. Furthermore, the people here genuinely care for and support each other. I often had staff members stop by my office to ask how I was doing – and they meant it. It has only been year, but I feel that I’ve been here much longer. I will greatly miss ISH, but I know that it will continue to be a source of positive change for Houston and beyond.