Interview with Bruce Davis
by Marianne Jacuzzi
Marianne: Thank you for doing this interview with us, Bruce. You’ve had a fascinating career, from health care to Unitarian ministry and now to Vedic astrology. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the different fields of work you have chosen during your life?
Bruce Davis: I’ve been lucky to have many satisfying career experiences during my 75 years. In college my main interest was fiction and poetry, and I graduated in comparative literature. I’d thought of teaching at a small college somewhere, but graduate classes turned out to be all about literary criticism, which was not what I wanted. Becoming a physician caught my attention because it was about real people and their real narratives, bringing to life what I liked best about studying literature. At first I thought psychiatry would bring me closest to people’s deeper stories, but eventually, family medicine did that for me. As a family doctor I would try to bring together physical ailments, functional decline, the distresses of the mind and the realm of deeper spiritual aspirations. For 25 years I worked as a primary care physician and director of prevention in a large integrated health system. I liked the work and felt that I was helping people.
But, eventually I felt ready for a change. The day-to-day practice of medicine was growing further and further from my imagined ideal of being with people in their stories, especially with the increasing drive for productivity and increased reliance on high-tech interventions. It had become more about the illness and less about the context of the person’s life. And so, I went back to school at an ecumenical seminary for four years, receiving a Masters of Divinity and a degree in spiritual direction. I became ordained in Unitarian Universalist ministry and was fortunate to be called to a lively mid-sized congregation right away. The ten years I spent in congregational ministry was often joyful, sometimes stressful, but always real. It felt like a large family of 200 or so people, whom I got to know very well—better even than the clients in my family practice clinic. It was all about people sharing their stories with each other, and the narrative of a vibrant and growing community.
In my late sixties I retired from congregational ministry, which allowed me to spend much more time with my spouse and family than I could in medicine or ministry work. I particularly enjoyed dropping into long conversations and unscheduled hours with the family, without phone calls from the hospital or the latest crisis in the church. My call to ministry found a new, part-time context, with individual persons seeking help and support regarding a wide array of life issues—what in seminary had been called “spiritual direction.” In the last decade since retirement I’ve maintained a spiritual direction practice with eight or ten people each week. It’s enough to be very satisfying and helps me to feel useful, while still allowing time with family, travel, long walks and uninterrupted meditation. During the pandemic the practice with clients continued over Zoom, but now in-person sessions are again becoming possible.
MJ—Is there a principal motivation for all these changes in how you have worked with people over the years?
BD—I like what Kahlil Gibran says about work in his book, The Prophet. “Work is love made visible. And if you can't work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of the people who work with joy.”
For me I think the deepest work comes in the reciprocity of love and in the sharing of a moment. Each of the avenues of work I followed got to a point when eventually this central principle became more difficult to find, especially in the context of external pressures that were also a necessary part of the job. Over time I felt I needed to deepen the core of connection with clients by shifting my attention more to the individual person, more to their unique personal and spiritual hopes and aspirations, more to a preventive than a reactive stance.
MJ—When did the Vedic arts and sciences become a central part of your work with people?
BD—During medical school I went through a painful breakup with a partner, which landed me in a personal dilemma. I felt drawn to what I imagined would be the work and life of a family doctor, and for me this included the whole householder experience: medical practice, home, partner, children. But there was also in me a yearning to be a contemplative, to remain single, and to explore life and spirit in this context. I had taken the TM meditation classes just before medical school, and when I completed medical training I bought a one-way ticket to the International Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Switzerland. It was there that the Vedic knowledge began to powerfully influence me. I became a teacher of meditation, and I began to immerse myself in the Vedic and Yogic knowledge. This began my lifelong curiosity with Jyotish, though at the time I only dabbled. I was invited to stay on with Maharishi as a physician on his international staff, with the intention of staying on indefinitely.
MJ—But then you left the monastic life?
BD—I stayed on for three years. It was an intense and fulfilling experience, working with clients, exploring the knowledge of the Vedas, and practicing my Sadhana. Eventually the dilemma to be a monk or be a householder became ever more acute. A noted Vedic astrologer was visiting from India to work with Maharishi, himself an accomplished astrologer. I asked the visitor if he would do a reading of my chart, particularly to help me answer this dilemma. “Shall I choose the path of a monk or a householder?” I asked. After a long look at my chart he said, “It doesn’t matter. If you continue as a monk, you will always be drawn to become a householder. And if you become a householder you will always be drawn to be a monk.” What happened next was like Mark Twain’s memorable line, “You pays your money, you takes your choice.” Soon I was back on a plane to Seattle, leaping with both feet into the householder life—what Zorba the Greek depicted as, “Wife, children, house--everything. The full catastrophe."
MJ—How did those few years with Maharishi influenced the work in your various career fields?
BD—In my years as a physician I would often talk about Maharishi’s teachings on transcendence and stress release with my clients. I could see how often their conditions were either caused by or aggravated by stress, and many would get a quick introduction to meditation. For a time I led a chronic pain referral clinic, and one of the criteria for acceptance into the program was the willingness to begin a regular meditation practice. Also, when accompanying clients nearing their own death, I shared practices of transcendence that gave them balance and hope as the window of this life slowly closed for them.
I would add that the time with Maharishi helped me to maintain my own balance amid the pressures of medical practice. The volume of work, the burgeoning technology, the threat of malpractice litigation, the advent of computerized medical records—the stresses in primary care medicine were huge. I think that my own Sadhana, coming out of the years with Maharishi, stabilized me so that I could maintain a measure of sensitivity to the needs of both my clients and my colleagues.
In Unitarian ministry, the Vedantic wisdom and the compassionate mentoring that I learned from Maharishi’s other teachers set the stage for becoming a pastor myself.
When I began my ministry with a Unitarian community, meditation became a central part of the Sunday service experience, and I facilitated spiritual retreats and on-going meditation groups. Among many members of Unitarian Universalist communities there is a great longing for spiritual knowledge: not with traditional “religious” vocabulary or dogma, but with the shape and meaning of the underlying spiritual principles. Notions like the universality of “spirit of life” or “oversoul” are reflections of the Vedic understanding of Brahman. The web of all life in Unitarian Universalist teaching are akin to the Vedic sense of the interconnections of all living things. It turns out that many of the early American Unitarians, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, had an abiding interest in the Vedic tradition and its spiritual practices.
Now, having primarily individual consultations with people, I can offer whatever elements of Vedic counseling may draw them deeper into self-understanding and spiritual growth. This also becomes a chance to explore the symbols and patterns of their Jyotish chart with them as part of the counseling process. For me this is a very client-oriented process, depending on their own interests, history and language.
MJ—Clearly Maharishi had an enormous impact on your life and work. Were there other important teachers along the way?
BD—I’ve had great Karma for teachers. In the area of Vedic studies I’ve gotten great benefit from CVA mentors/leaders who are bringing much of the Vedic wisdom to light here in the west. The several retreats I’ve taken with Dr. David Frawley, often on the Ganges in India, have been a great introduction to Jyotish, Vedic counseling and Vedic and Tantric Sadhana. Dennis Flaherty’s “Correspondence Course” was my first disciplined approach to Vedic astrology, and I continue to participate actively in his classes and mentor series. His support has been essential to integrate Jyotish in my work with clients. Dr Suhas Kshirsagar has also been an important mentor, related to Vedic counseling and medical astrology. Suhas doubles as my Ayurvedic physician, as well, for which I’m deeply grateful. Another active teacher for the last twenty years has been Deepak Chopra. Both Suhas and Chopra had themselves been part of Maharishi’s international community many years ago.
I found the CVA process to become certified as a Vedic astrologer at the Visharada level was a great experience. The process of preparation for the exam and the required supervised Jyotish readings gave me a real boost forward when I began to do readings for clients as part of my spiritual direction practice.
I would mention here also teachers and mentors who have not been under the Vedic umbrella but who nonetheless have been hugely important in my formation as a healer and pastor. One in particular deserves mention here. I worked with John Enright, a humanistic psychologist and philosopher in the mode of Gestalt psychology. John had been a close student of Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt, and shared many tools with me to help clients discover their potential and their grounding. I mention this connection here because I believe there is great value for the student of Vedic arts and sciences to be open to the teachings of other traditions and practices, both Eastern and Western. The more angles we can bring to the conversations with clients and the more remedies (Upaya) we can offer from diverse sources, the more likely they will find new and deeper ways to live their Dharma, whatever that may uniquely be for them.
MJ—I’d say you’re not alone in this process of searching for the right work. I see many people changing jobs and shifting careers these days, especially in order to make their work more meaningful. Many of our readers who are studying Jyotish would like to see this practice become more part of their work. Can you tell us a bit more about how you moved from one field to another?
BD—I’ve always wanted to do what seems to me most purposeful, most useful. I often would refer to that as a sense of calling. But not calling in a static sense. For me the calling itself has deepened over time. Each field I’ve committed myself to became, over time, not quite the true and authentic expression of myself that it had initially seemed to be. In some cases the field itself changed. During twenty five years of practice the field of medicine became more oriented to increasing productivity, more high-tech treatments and ultimately lowering quality of interpersonal care. In other cases the changes were more within myself—how was I meant to serve in this world now.
MJ—Tell me a little more about these shifts you’ve made from one line of work to another. How did you discern where to invest yourself next? How did you decide when it was time to take the leap? What resistance to the changes did you have to cope with?
BD—I think that “discern” is the right word for it, rather than using purely rational decision processes—pro’s and con’s, for example. Back when I was learning about Vedanta from Maharishi I was drawn to a tool of discernment, referred to as Neti, Neti. Literally, “not this, not that.” My work at any point in time felt good but only as an approximation of the deep calling of Dharma. In the field of medicine, I felt fulfilled as a young family physician treating a great number of patients for their health problems and, I hope, doing a measure of good for them. In time I realized that this work was close to what I felt I needed to give, but it was too reactive, too technical and too problem oriented. For me my ideal meant adding more prevention and client education in my work. So I did. “Not this” reactive problem oriented practice, but instead “more this” preventive and educational practice. After some years I realized that prevention for my single medical practice was less helpful than preventive services over a larger community of people. “Not this” individual prevention practice but “more this” prevention and evidence-based practice over a larger population. I was eventually invited to be the director of prevention and patient education for an organization caring for about 500,000 people, finding fulfillment and success in smoking cessation, cancer screening, diabetic care, and more.
The Quaker teacher, Parker Palmer, speaks of such discernment in his book, Let Your Life Speak. When wondering about how to move forward in the best way, Palmer suggests that we can pay attention to the “way opening” for us. My discernment to move out of my individual medical practice was furthered by the fact that an opportunity opened up for a director of prevention. Palmer suggests also that we watch for the “way closing.” Beleaguered by increasing number of patients, expanding technology and decreasing resources, I felt discouraged. It felt like the work as a family doctor that I had so greatly valued so long was closing up behind me. “Way opening” for me has usually been a vision of getting closer to my purpose, my Dharma if you will. “Way closing” has often been a rising tide of dissatisfaction and frustration, where I could no longer feel the vitality of Dharmic work.
MJ—It sounds as if there were several steps forward, several discernments, even just in your medical work. And then, finally a decision that concluded your work as a family doctor. Can you tell us about this?
BD—After twenty-five years, one day in September, as the workload of the year loomed ahead of me like a cresting wave, it just seemed like too much. I felt burned out. Overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do, but I needed to do something.
I started taking a class or two at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. Not that it made any sense on my current career path. It just helped me to feel hopeful to expand my horizons in a field very different from the science of medicine. In a class on discernment I learned a practice of “morning pages,” a free-writing practice of self-discovery that is beautifully described by Julia Cameron in her book, Artist’s Way. The writing took me away from analytic exploration into an intuitive process that over time clarified what I was longing for and how I could make it happen. When I started, I had no idea where I was headed. After six months of listening to the inner movements of mind and heart, I was clear that my life as a practicing physician was over. I quit my medical jobs to concentrate on being a student again. And I knew that some amorphous future in something like ministry was waiting for me out there. After four years of study and further discernment I found myself fully certified and ready to practice Unitarian Universalist ministry. Which I did for the next ten years or so.
MJ—I’d be interested in what was going on in your chart at the time of this momentous shift in direction.
BD—I hadn’t learned much about the planetary periods or transits by that time, but looking back on it, I can see that a shift of Mahadasha from Jupiter to Saturn took place right as I was closing the door on my medical practice. Most of my medical work took place during my Jupiter period, which makes so much sense to me now. I thrived with the healing role of the family doctor, I took on leadership roles with increasing responsibility, I had a higher income than I had before or since that time, and with challenges I just kept landing on my feet. I felt the good fortune of Jupiter. It was smooth sailing until the last couple of years before I quit. I began to face challenges and losses, many coming from what I felt was the increasingly broken American medical system—what Arnold Rellman referred to as the “Medical Industrial Complex.” In retrospect I see that the Saturn Bhukti of Jupiter’s period had created some roughness before the final Dasha shift. “Neti Neti” began to be an increasing awareness of my situation, and finally I said “not this” once and for all. The day of my retirement from my medical career was, in retrospect, surprisingly close in dates to my shift from Jupiter’s Mahadasha to Saturn’s Mahadasha. It was also at the time I was making a fuller commitment to my theology studies, which became full time as the Saturn Karmas began to flow in.
MJ—This can be a difficult Dasha shift, from the beneficence and good fortune of Jupiter to the limits imposed by Saturn. It can’t have been an easy transition for you.
BD—It was a tough time in many ways. There was a lot of loss of prestige and income with the shift, and I lost touch with many colleagues and friends who had made the medical work meaningful. I was saddened that some of them felt I was leaving them in the lurch with the system problems I had spent years trying to address. One colleagues said, “Sorry to see that you have ultimately failed as a doctor.” I suppose from some vantage points I had failed.
But Saturn is Saturn. With the loss at one level comes the liberation at another level. Each day I went to seminary classes I felt the kind of freedom again that I felt during those years in Maharishi’s community. For at least part of my day I was back in my life as a monk, and I turned the garage into a hermitage/study, where I could retreat into my contemplations of theology and of my fresh start. In my chart Saturn resides in the ninth house (spiritual teachers and traditions) and his idealistic sign of Aquarius is the location of my fourth house of home and mind. My wife and I simplified our living at home, and I paid one-pointed attention to theological studies and formation as a minister. As when I was with Maharishi, I was again with teachers who lived and breathed their faith.
MJ—You mentioned that some people were not as supportive of your shift in career. Were there any who were more encouraging?
BD—I felt the support of a lot of people. My family, for sure. And many colleagues, as well. I remember one time when I overheard one senior colleague talking to another. He said, “I hear that Bruce is leaving medicine to become a minister.” The other said, “Oh, that’s nothing new. Bruce has always been a minister!” I remember telling one long-time patient in my family practice that I would be leaving the practice of medicine to become a minister. She said, “Well, of course you are!” When I left the practice, lots of patients called, sent notes or left small gifts of encouragement. It touched me deeply that they would do that.
MJ—At what point did you begin to get more active with your Jyotish studies?
BD—I found remarkable congruence between all I had learned about meditation and Vedic sciences and the work in my UU congregation. But the more Vedic wisdom I shared, the more I realized that my understanding of Vedic astrology was quite superficial. So I began my journey to understand the symbols and patterns of Jyotish. When I began to approach retirement from the full-time ministry, I signed up with Dennis Flaherty’s extension course and began to take retreats with Dr. David Frawley (Vamadeva). Later I began to take further classes with Suhas Kshirsagar in Vedic counseling and medical astrology. After a time I completed my preparation for the CVA Visharada exam, which I found to be a very meaningful and supportive process of growth. I was happy when I heard that I had passed! Now I have a few students I’m working with to get them ready for the Visharada process.
MJ—What would you say is your growing edge now? Are there likely to be more shifts ahead in your work focus?
BD—There will be more chapters, I’m sure. It doesn’t feel as if I’m winding down just yet. But the earlier chapters continue to have their place in the unfolding story. It feels more like a continuing evolution than a change from one state to another.
My desire to keep jumping into new territory over the years seems to correlate with the cycling of the lunar nodes over my natal chart. I was born shortly before a lunar eclipse in Taurus, with Rahu conjunct Moon and Ketu conjunct Ascendant. The nodal return to the natal position every eighteen years has often been the harbinger of evolutionary change in my life. During the Pandemic I experienced “shut-down” in a variety of ways (Neti, Neti), and I noted once again that the nodal return was taking place, with Rahu and Ketu returning to their natal positions of Taurus and Scorpio. I realized that once again it was a time of endings and beginnings.
This re-birthing, if you will, never happens all at once. With the nodal axis having regressed now to Aries and Libra, my sixth house of obstacles and my twelfth house of loss and liberation, I’m beginning to get a better sense of what this next (and final?) chapter might be about. But, I never know what’s up until it is up. I had a teacher many years ago who advised me not to get too concrete about imagining a future life chapter. “It’s enough just to know that there’s a there there.” She described it as being like an amorphous container that manifested as it was slowly formed and filled by small movements and choices, day to day and year to year. I remember a transitional time like this when Dennis Flaherty told me, “Be open to epiphany.”
I feel my Vedic orientation with clients shifting increasingly to the paradigm of Vedic counseling. I see this as an integrated approach to facilitating client-oriented growth that employs the variety of Vedic arts and sciences, and that values other meaningful approaches to personal and spiritual transformation both East and West. As Vamadevaji and Suhasji make very clear in their book, Vedic Counseling, the point of the process is to help the client wake up to their great personal and spiritual potential. I hope to keep this in the forefront of my work in this next period of time.
I have also had the sense that another next step might hearken back to those days when I was studying literature. I’m increasingly drawn to reading fiction. I often imagine what the Jyotish charts might look like for the main characters. Sometimes I wonder if “there” may involve writing some stories. It feels like another way to engage people to consider afresh what their divine potential as a human person may be. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what comes of this notion!
MJ—As we prepare to close our conversation, Bruce, I’m wondering what suggestions you would offer to those contemplating career shifts toward deeper meaning and purpose?
BD—There are a few points I keep handy as reminders:
Don’t be afraid to make a change. Be prudent about money and responsibilities, but also have faith in your own evolution.
Nurture and listen to that still, small voice within. How are you being guided?
Neti, Neti—What’s not working well, and what’s working better? Where is “way closing” and where is “way opening.”
Discover tools that work well for your own self-study (Swadyaya) and discernment, such as journaling, conversations with trusted others, or meditation, and take the time it takes to know confidently how best to move forward on your path. Let discernment about where you are headed be a small part of every day, even if you are very busy.
Don’t “put all your eggs in one basket.” Let the forming career be an integrated expression of the diversity that is within you—not just one planet, but nine. Don’t let a new career be a limitation to you; incorporate the best of you from all the chapters you have lived so far.