For more than 20 years Dr. Elliott Dacher practiced medicine. He was an internist going about his rounds of helping patients with their physical ailments. Over the years, however, he began to sense that something was missing. He didn’t know exactly what it was, but he felt an inner longing, both for himself and for his patients, whom he felt were not receiving the entire package.

It’s something many people can relate to, this inner longing that there is actually something more we can be doing with our lives, or for other people. Most of us turn up the television or radio, bury ourselves in work or the newspaper, or pour yet another glass of wine to silence this still, small voice.

Elliott Dacher, however, decided he needed to listen even harder. In 1996, a month after his daughter’s graduation, he quit his practice, sold his house and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where he had bought land in the 1970s. For two years he did basically nothing but listen to that voice, nurturing it and letting it grow louder.

“It was pretty quiet,” Dr. Dacher said of the transition. “Someone asked me, did I go crazy? But I was delighted. It was a transition in life.”

During the transition, he met an Indian physicist who suggested that Dr. Dacher travel with him to India. The trip changed his life.

For the next 12 years, Dr. Dacher traveled back and forth between the Vineyard to India and Nepal, immersing himself in the study of meditation and the inner aspects of health and healing.

In 2006 he wrote a book about his experiences and what he had learned called Integral Health: The Path to Human Flourishing. After a reading at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Lenny Bernstein, who works at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, asked if he would consider doing a workshop at the hospital.

“My initial response was no,” Dr. Dacher recalled. “But Lenny kept on persisting. They had a wellness program they ran out of human resources. I said, ‘Let’s do it for free, let’s do it for staff.’”

This workshop has now been running for five years, with close to 300 people participating over the years.

Susan Markwica, the assistant director of human resources at the hospital, has taken the course four times.

“It really is a life-changing experience,” she said.

The current iteration of the course meets once a week for eight weeks. There is a large focus on meditation as the chief vehicle to quiet one’s thoughts. Students are asked to meditate each day for however long they can stand it, up to about 20 minutes, and then back in class they compare notes on their practice.

“They are really fairly simple and straightforward,” Dr. Dacher said of the classes and instructions. And yet very quickly they begin to show results.

“Usually within the third week people will start talking about less reactivity,” Dr. Dacher said. “It can be subtle, ‘Well, I’m in a situation with a person that normally I would get upset about but strangely I seem to be fairly quiet and calm in the situation.’”

Pat Waring, who has taken the course three times, agrees. “Daily practice is really important to me because I miss it when I’m not doing it,” she said. “And the way I know when I’m not doing it is I start to feel edgier. And the other day there was something going on where there were some people being somewhat irritating. And I thought, what is the matter with these people? And then I thought, I know what’s the matter with them, I’m not meditating.”

But the course is not just about not learning how to relax or not to be angered or upset. This focus on quieting one’s thoughts begins a journey inward toward untangling the whole foggy mess of our habitual actions and responses to everything life throws our way.

“They come with an overactive mind, they know their patterns are habitual, their experiences are habitual, people know that, they see it,” said Dr. Dacher. “There is a sense that they have some choice in this whole matter, but the choice isn’t a choice. It’s a choice between conditioned choices.”

In other words, our perception that we operate under free will is actually not true. We operate under the will of our thoughts which have over time buried our true self.

If this all seems too esoteric or vaguely unsettling, this meditating business and the supposed life-changing benefits of sitting down and learning to let our thoughts float by rather than grabbing hold of the maelstrom of impulses coming over the mental transom, that makes a lot of sense. Claiming that our thoughts are not our true self, and that we do not need to play slave to their mastery, is quite a radical way of thinking. After all, aren’t we actually our thoughts?

Dr. Dacher puts it this way: “If you have a dream at night, when you’re having a dream it’s very important whether it’s a mountain or a person or what’s happening, but when you wake up in the morning you see it’s all a dream. None of it bothers you anymore. It’s the same thing with this daydream we’re having that’s going through our brain. When we actually wake up from the daydream and understand it, you don’t worry so much about the individual parts of it.”

And what are these individual parts?

“In your initial meditation you are trying to suppress the noise of the mind. Then you begin to understand what the noise is about, how it arises, how you can be with it, how you can let it be. You don’t jump on it and chase it and try to catch it. Then you begin to learn more about the settled part of the mind, the natural resting part of the mind.

“Some people have dramatic changes over the weeks that follow. They have a sense of mastery over their life for the first time, they know there is something I can do that will actually make a difference, so my life tomorrow doesn’t have to be the same as yesterday and the day before. And that sense that there is something they can do, that there is actually a place inside of me that is not injected, that doesn’t come from a pill, that is peaceful and calm. And if I know that’s there, even if it’s fleeting, all I have to do is access it.”

Full disclosure, after speaking with Dr. Dacher for this article and reading his latest book, Aware, Awake, Alive, which is essentially a primer for his course, this reporter already noticed a difference in his own life. During the morning routine of trying to get his young children to school, he felt himself growing impatient and then angry at his seven-year-old’s stalling. However, instead of reacting and making the situation worse, or merely breathing deeply to relax, which works only sometimes, he found himself watching his mind seemingly taunt him to take charge and put the kid in line. It was as if a huge bully had entered the room cornering not the child but the adult. Of course there was no real bully. It was merely an impulse in his own mind, and not a helpful one at that, which when looked at directly seemed ridiculous and disappeared.

Over the years a cross-section of Vineyarders has taken Dr. Dacher course, including hospital staff, doctors, teachers, everyone from age 20 to others in their 80s. This is exactly what Dr. Dacher hoped for.

“I wanted people who are living an ordinary life, who are concerned with stress. Just a normal cut of the community, all sitting together learning about how to have better lives and be better for other people. We get that in a hospital. We don’t get that in a spiritual center.

“I wanted to be with the same group of people, the same human beings that I could follow up and be with a long period of time. They come back with their parents, their children, their mates. We usually have some couples who take it together. If your wife comes home or your husband comes home and you find that they are calmer and more relaxed, you begin to wonder what’s happening. There’s something happening that I like.”

The hospital also now includes in their welcoming packets to all newly admitted patients a notice about Dr. Dacher’s methods for relaxation and that there are trained volunteers on the premises to help them with the basic techniques. It is a program Dr. Dacher hopes more patients take advantage of, in part because he knows firsthand, from his career as a medical doctor, how much stress patients feel just being in a hospital, let alone before surgery.

Dr. Dacher is presenting his new book on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. The word presenting is correct as the evening will not be so much a reading but a talk about the book, which is, according to Dr. Dacher, both the product of his courses and the working manual. It is divided into four sections, the very progression his course takes from vision to path to fruition and finally to integration.

Dr. Dacher stresses that the course is not affiliated with any religion and in his new book he doesn’t even use the word meditation. He wants the practice to be accessible to all without preconceived notions or worries that they are entering into some new age practice. They are simply entering the path to what he calls “human flourishing.”

He also stresses that the course isn’t designed for people just to discover how to have a happier life.

“That would not be a worthy purpose. But it has to start that way. The ultimate aim is so that we prosper in our own lives and then we see that this is possible for others.

“There is a saying, ‘All my happiness comes from wanting happiness for others, all my suffering comes from wanting happiness for myself.’”


Elliott Dacher’s fall session takes place on either Tuesdays or Thursdays for eight weeks, beginning on Sept. 27 and 29, and meets from 6 to about 8:15 p.m. The cost for the course is $170, which includes his new book and a CD. However, no one will be turned away due to financial constraints. Call 508-862-1940 to register.