In this episode, I am speaking with Dr. Reef Karim—a transformational scientist, standup comedian, and double board-certified psychiatrist—about the importance of creativity, transformation, and the new Master Your Madness Program.
In this podcast, Dr. Reef Karim will cover:
- How money dictates the diagnosis and prescriptions doctors give to their patients
- The cultural conditioning that he experienced growing up (And how it spurred his transformation)
- Four different types of pain (And how they can affect your life)
- The primary reasons people want to transform
- The biggest obstacles to making transformations in your life.
- The Master Your Madness Program
- How spending time on social media causes stress and reduces creativity
- The importance of creativity for transformation and well-being
- Three tasks you should do every day
- The role of psychedelics in transformation
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Creativity, Transformation, Flow, Growth, Purpose, and Finding Your “Madness” with Dr. Reef Karim – Transcript
Ari Whitten: Hey, everyone, welcome to the Energy Blueprint Podcast. I am your host Ari Whitten, and today I have with me Dr. Reef Karim, who is a guest I have been very, very excited to interview for a long time. And he has, I think this wins the prize for probably the coolest title that I have ever seen for anybody in the health profession. He is a transformational scientist. I love that term, that phrase that you coined there. You are also a performing artist. You have done stand-up comedy, you have a very broad list of interests which I want to dig into a little bit. And you are a double board-certified psychiatrist. You have served as an assistant professor at UCLA. He has been a frequent guest and thought leader on Oprah, CNN, Time, Business Insider, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, the Today Show, Good Morning America, and many others. And he is currently offering a transformational program called Master Your Madness, which I love, and we are going to talk a bit more about that. So, welcome, Dr. Reef Karim.
Dr. Reef Karim: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I am happy to be here.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. So, let’s first talk about this transformational scientist thing. Where did that come from, and what do you mean by that?
Dr. Reef Karim: Okay, so it actually came from a client, I guess you would call them a patient because being a physician I was in physician mode when I was talking to them. And we help each other along to define ourselves, right? Like sometimes we don’t exactly know who we are. We have a certain amount of training in life. You know, we got an MBA, or we got a medical degree or whatever, but we don’t really know our dedication to our fellow man or fellow woman. So, in this case, I had a client or a patient that… I used to own a treatment center, and the patient would be like, “You know, doc, you are really good at helping me with crisis, you and your team and all that. But where you really help me is to transform my life because I am not just, I don’t want to be stuck in a crisis and just get out of the crisis.” A divorce, you know, a loss of a job or being really unhappy or having an existential moment where you feel like, “What am I doing? How did I end up in this life?” You know? Not that, not just that part of the crisis, but the back end of that. Once you come out of the crisis and you are stable, then what? And he helped me coin this phrase. He was like, “You know, you are both helping people with transformation, but you are also a scientist. You know, you are not just like a life coach or, not that there is anything wrong with that, but there is more psychological and medical training behind you. You are like truly a scientist.” And I am like, “Huh, transformational scientist, I like that. Yeah, that really fits what I do.” So, it stuck and now, you know, when I work in the media or wherever I go, people will use that sometimes.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Well for my take on it, I would say it is way cooler than double board-certified psychiatrist because if you say that to me, then I am like, “Oh, this is a guy who sits in a fluorescent-lit office all day and, you know, diagnoses people’s psychological or psychiatric disorders. Oh, you have got schizophrenia, here are some anti-psychotics. Oh, you have got depression, here are some antidepressants. Oh, you have got anxiety, here’s some Xanax or whatever.” You know, that doesn’t conjure, really… Let me put it this way, I wouldn’t be having you on the Podcast if that is what you did for a living. I would not be that interested in it. Yeah, but transformational scientist, well that is pretty badass.
Dr. Reef Karim: Thank you. Well, I am really glad you said that though because my entire platform, my entire shift in my life, my entire like what I dedicated my life to is moving people from a state of repression to expression. And I have to explain what that sometimes means because a lot of people are repressed, and they don’t know it. Like in my life, I was a typical doctor for a while. Like I am Indian, so I am supposed to have this Indian spiritual street crud, and you know, know all these things, be really good at yoga even though I am totally inflexible, and certain things that we are supposed to have, right? Those stereotypes. I was also a performing artist, and my parents freaked out at the fact that I could act, or I could dance, or I could play music. It was a threat to their way of life and the direction they wanted my way of life to be.
So, I was essentially under a system. Like at first, it was my parental system, and then I was handed off almost like a baton like a running team, like to the medical industry system. And my parents handed the baton to the medical industry and all of a sudden, I was governed in a way, or I let the medical industry govern me. And that means you act a certain way; you work a certain way. You are taught to look at labeling and diagnosis, and you are part of the system. The system is doctors, and medical providers and psychological providers will diagnose there is an illness. The illness gets coded for insurance companies, and then pharmaceutical companies and biotech, and you know, manufacturing companies will manufacture medications for those diagnoses. And then doctors get paid, either self-pay or by insurance companies, for giving out that diagnosis and prescribing that medication. So, it is a nice little fine-tuned system. But I was like, “Jesus, my entire life is focused on pathology. It is not focused on human potential.” And it was driving me, and when a psychiatrist says insane, you know, it really means insane. Like it was driving me crazy because I am like, “I could help these people so much more than I am, but I have got to find a way out of this system or deviating away from the system in order to do it.”
The impact of cultural expectations
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Yeah. Beautifully said. As you were talking, I wanted to, I was kind of connecting the dots with the bit I know about your personal background and how you grew up. And I think what you are doing now is such a massive contrast to the way you were originally brought up and kind of what your parents wanted you and envisioned you doing. And so, I would love for you to just kind of talk about how that played out. Because I feel like repression can either lead to just like operating in that endless state of repression forever and ever, or it can potentially lead to you sort of busting out and then maybe going to the opposite extreme and like doing something totally at odds with what you were, you know, kind of the box you were originally supposed to be in. So, can you talk a bit about kind of your personal background and how you were brought up and how that connects to what you are doing now?
Dr. Reef Karim: Yeah. My parents are both, you know, medical people. My dad is a Ph.D. doctor. He, funny enough, the irony of the whole thing is he invents a lot of medications to be given to pharma companies. So, I knew the world. And my mom is a nurse, and they know medicine. Medicine, medicine, medicine. They are immigrants coming to this country. It is scary. So, they want stability, and they want, they love their kids, they want stability for their kids. So, they are going to pick a really stable profession. So that whole stereotype of like you are Indian, you must be like a doctor, an engineer or an IT consultant is really true because they are stable careers. So being the eldest son in an Indian family, you know my parents are like, “He is going to be a doctor. Like doctor, doctor, doctor. That is it.” So, they literally made a pact, like from the day I was born, my dad made an announcement in the labor and delivery ward. He is like, “Everyone gathers around, gather around, I have decided he will be our doctor.” It is like everyone was on the same page. I was going to be a doctor. So, there started this like Jedi mind trick childhood of no matter what happens, “He is going to be a doctor.” So, when I would be in my crib and crying, my mom said my dad would come over, and he would hold a little toy, and he would whisper, “Doctor, doctor, doctor,” like subliminal messages. Every birthday I didn’t get Legos I got a medical gift. “For your fifth birthday, we go to an audio school so you can look in people’s ears.” Every Halloween, they dressed me up as a different type of doctor. The only way I was going to go to college where they were going to pay for it is if I was premed. So, it was like just hit me over the head. And then they were super negative about anything else I was good at. Like I would make these home, you know, like those really big camcorders, like those huge ones. I had like a big camcorder when I was growing up, and so I would make these Saturday Night Live videos with my brother or with my friends, and they were pretty funny. And my mom was doing laundry one day, and she was realizing that like, I am getting better at this whole video thing. And so, she would be like, “You know, you are not funny. There is nothing funny about this. The only thing funny is if you didn’t go to medical school, that would be hilarious. You would be a laughingstock. [inaudible]” Like it was intense. Like medical school or you are a total failure your entire life.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, no pressure, right?
Dr. Reef Karim: No pressure at all, right? And the emotional programming of that. So, this could happen to anybody. Yes, I mean for me it is this crazy, outrageous Indian story, right? But there are Italian parent’s stories. They are Greek parent’s stories. There are Hispanic, there are African American. There are like, everybody has got a story from their parents. And maybe it is their parents, maybe it is their uncle, maybe it is a boss, maybe it is an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend. Maybe it is a wife, maybe it is a husband. It is somebody. And they leave this impression on you where you develop a certain amount of conditioning. And for me, this whole transformational process where I developed this Master your Madness process came from, “Man, I am like a robot. I am automated like a robot. I have been conditioned, there has been a chip or a plant-like stuck in me, and I have to act a certain way and be a certain way. And I am not being creative; I am not being inventive, I am not developing something new to help other people. I am just a preprogrammed robot, and I have got to snap out of it. I have got to do something.”
Ari Whitten: From the day you were born, basically, there is this pre-programmed robot.
Dr. Reef Karim: Yeah. And for like 40 years I lived that life.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. And just as a cog in that wheel of that system that you were trained from the time you were a kid to be a cog in the wheel of.
Dr. Reef Karim: Absolutely.
Ari Whitten: So how did you bust out of that? I mean, given what you just described about your childhood and those pressures and the cultural programming and the family programming, I would never imagine that it would be possible for anyone to bust out of that at some point.
Dr. Reef Karim: Well I am sure you have talked about this, you know, with other guests in your Podcast in your work. We all know about pain, you know, just the concept of pain. And most people think of it as like, you know, I hurt my elbow or I broke my leg or something like that. There is emotional pain, which stresses and you know, all the mental health issues and all of that. There is physical pain when you get hurt. There is also spiritual pain, and you could lump energetic pain in that, or you could even separate energy pain from that. And when you have enough pain in all of those dimensions, then the pain, you know, what is that expression like, “When the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of change, then you are going to change.” And it got to that point for me where I was running a treatment center, I was only getting reimbursed by insurance companies when we prescribed or when we had a serious crisis.
My entire life was dedicated to sickness and crisis. I was, as you said, a cog in the system. I was not making any revenue to the point… I mean, I was making money, but breaking even basically. And it is not about the money, but to grow or to have more of an impact or to do something bigger requires you to generate more income. And I started to not be able to sleep at night because I was right in the trenches of the opioid epidemic and I owned a rehab. So, it was addiction and mental health and toxic relationships, and like people that were really stuck in life. And so, they were self-sabotaging, or they were, their brains were hijacked by, you know, addiction. So, these people were suicidal, they were homicidal, they were, they would get psychotic. They were in deep, deep, deep pain.
And when I am working with somebody like that, I take on their energy. I take on that darkness, I take on that pain because a lot of times they can’t hold onto that pain themselves. So, I share that pain with them. And you know, think about your most dramatic best friend or dramatic friend you have ever had, who is a mess, who is all over the place, who is super dark, a disaster. Like every minute things are changing. Now, multiply that by 24. And that is how, what I was dealing with every day. And so eventually I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I started to develop physical symptoms. A two-millimeter disc herniation from a car accident turned into a 10-millimeter disc herniation with like shooting pains down my leg. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t feel any, I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel optimism. I didn’t feel positive.
I felt robotic. I felt stuck. I felt like I was in this repetitive cycle over and over again and I couldn’t, I just couldn’t snap out of it. So, it got so bad that you know, I needed back surgery at one point. And, that day that I got out of the surgical center, luckily, you know, I am knocking on wood right now in case you can’t see, it worked. But, I said, “That is it. That is it. I am not just making a career change. I am not just making a philosophical life change of going from pathology to human potential, you know, as a healer, as a thought leader, as a scientist, whatever you want to call me. But I am going to change the way that I look at my life from this day on. Completely change it.” And that is what I did.
Why people want to transform
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. Why do people want to transform? What drives that process of transformation?
Dr. Reef Karim: I think innately all of us are, you know, we hear the expression, “We are wired to connect.” I think we are all programmed, not just technologically, not just like neuronally with our neuronal connections, I mean spiritually, like deep down inside, we want to help each other. We want to be empathic; we want to be compassionate. And we have the brain chemistry, the mind connection, the neuronal synapses to feel good when we connect with each other and when we help each other. We are supposed to do that. So, when you are stuck, and sorry, and part of that, part of that connection is also connecting with yourself. And so that is a very, it sounds so easy, but it is a very deep and complicated thing. Connecting to yourself means you are original.
You are not a clone. You are not conforming to what other people want you to do. You are not doing the safe thing that maybe doesn’t feel good, but it just keeps you in like a small, living small. You are fully expressing who you are in your life in an original state with your innate talents, experiences, traumas, celebrations. You can learn a lot from your traumas. So, you express, and you develop the original you. So, at some point in everybody’s life, I don’t care who you are. It could be when you are 80 it could be when you are 12. But at some point, in your life, you are going to realize, “I am not aligned with who I am.” Now, there might be the rare circumstance where somebody just their entire life was in full alignment, but for most people, you are going to realize it at some point.
Usually, it is after a traumatic experience. For me it was, you know, really suffering during my work and then having this physical, existential spiritual change in my life, this toxicity. But for everybody, it is going to be something. And when that happens, that is your light bulb. That is your moment of transformation. That is your opportunity for transformation. Now, you can also work with somebody or elicit that feeling of transformation yourself, but you have to be able, there is a structure to it. You have to know how to feel. You have to know how to take in that feeling that will eventually elicit this response. And then you have to know what to do with it. “Okay, I am in this feeling, I am in this state. Now what? How do I shift? How do I find my calling? How do I become more authentic? How do I develop this original state? Where do I come up with this innovation and these ideas that I know are floating inside of me? What do I do?” And that is what I help people with.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. I want to come back to this moment of you called it an “opportunity for transformation.” This moment of decision. When people encounter that what they are doing is not aligned with their value systems and they are suffering internally because of it. This feels like such a crucial moment in a person’s life, and maybe there’s multiple of these in their lives, but what are the consequences of not taking that opportunity for transformation? What are the consequences of not choosing to disrupt whatever you have built, whether you have gone to school for years and worked your butt off, or whether you have built a business and a practice in a clinic like you had, what are the consequences of saying, “You know what? It is too scary to leave everything that I have built and everything I know and pursue this unknown of this other thing that feels like what I am being intuitively drawn to. So, I am just going to stay here and keep doing what I am doing.” How does that play out in a person’s life?
Dr. Reef Karim: I am in it right now. Like I am feeling how I felt when I hadn’t changed. You know, so it is like… I am really good with words, but at the moment it is actually really hard because I was just feeling that when you were saying it. I mean, the repression is one of the scariest things you will ever encounter in your life. Like repression is so painful. It is so toxic. It obviously leads to regret later on in life. It induces stress. It induces physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual pain. You have this deep gnawing sense that you should be doing something else with your life, but you don’t know how to do it. You don’t know how to shift. You don’t know how to change. It is like you go through life knowing someday I am going to do this. Someday I am going to do that.
Someday there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is, “Yeah, I am doing this job, and I don’t love this job, but you know what? There are better things coming.” And it is at one point in your life you are going to realize that if you don’t change, for most people, if you don’t change something about the direction you are going, there will be… You know what, they will be, “Okay. Now I am old.” And now you look at the rear-view mirror, and you look at what you could have done, and you realize you didn’t do it. And you know, I always cite this. There was an AARP study that looked at, you know, they did a study in nursing homes, and they talked to different, you know, people that were in the homes about their lives. And they said, you know, almost everybody has regrets. Nobody leads a perfect life. But it was always, “I didn’t do what I felt like I was destined to do or my calling,” or, “I didn’t spend enough time with family or friends. I was constantly working, and I was working in a job that didn’t bring me fulfillment or satisfaction or enjoyment. I didn’t feel like I was creating anything.” And I don’t ever want to feel like that.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Why are we so, why are most people so incapable of coming to those realizations in the moment when they are 25 and 35 and 45? And why is it that only, you know, when we are in our 80s or 90s that we are coming to these realizations? “Wow, I wish I would have done this other thing, and I wish I would have spent more time with my family.” And what do you see as the big obstacles for people coming to those realizations much earlier in their life such that they can actually take action and put themselves on a better path?
Dr. Reef Karim: Yeah, I mean, two things to that. First off, anyone can transform and make a change. I mean, obviously, if you have a family, if you have rent to pay, if you have a mortgage, if you have a bunch of bills, if you have debt and loans, it is hard. Right? But there is always time, and there is a way to shift, even if you have to stay at the same job. Or maybe you could find a job in your space, though, that brings you a little more satisfaction and joy. Maybe there is a different way you can talk to your colleagues or your boss. Maybe there is a different mindset you could have, even if you are in a toxic environment or a toxic relationship. There is always something you can transform and change.
So, I just want to put that out there first. But, secondly, you know, before you end up in that huge amount of debt or you end up in a situation where it is going to be a lot harder, I think people don’t realize how easy it is to live in a comfortable state. And you know, like if you are going out, and you are partying like all the time, and you are going to clubs, or you are going to restaurants all the time, or you are, you know, you are enjoying life, you are seeking pleasure and you are enjoying life, it is fine. But how long are you going to keep doing that? At some point you may have a desire or there is like just a little thing that is lurking just somewhere inside of you that is saying, “God, I wish I could invent something or create something or write something or play an instrument or be fulfilled in doing something else.” Or, “In my field, I would love to be able to think out of the box and not just do the same thing over and over again.”
There is something in there, there is something calling it out, and it is a matter of are you tuned in to listen to it? You know, like when somebody has that moment of change, that wake-up call, they need to make a decision to act on it. And it is like, you know, it is like at your house, the doorbell rings or your phone goes off and are you going to answer it or are you comfortable enough in your life and you are willing to say, “You know what, if I get older and I don’t accomplish what I really wanted to do or what I thought I should be doing, that’s okay.” If you make that decision, then fine. Live with the decision and live a great life. But if you have got something gnawing inside of you that you know you should be doing something else, then I would encourage everybody to listen to it.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. I want to say on a personal note, and I, when we talked in person a few weeks ago at the Mindshare Health Summit, I mentioned some of this to you. But, for me, I had that moment. I spent several years working my butt off doing premed, getting amazing grades in college so I could get accepted into medical school. My original plan, I had already been… I had never really wanted to be a conventional medical doctor.
My plan was because I had already been studying natural health and nutrition and exercise and lifestyle medicine for a decade at that point, I really wanted to get an MD and then be a force for change, be a force for shifting the paradigm towards one that incorporated more nutrition and lifestyle therapies. And I unfortunately discovered from basically the first week of medical school that my attitudes weren’t really welcome there and that I was looked at by my classmates and by my teachers as a crazy person.
And I just, I couldn’t stand the paradigm, and I couldn’t stand the fact that there wasn’t a single nutrition class taught in the entire medical school curriculum when 80 plus percent of the entire medical burden is diseases that are directly attributable to nutrition and lifestyle. And every week I was on a phone conversation with my brother, “I hate it here. I think I made a mistake. I think I need to get out of here.” And it was like, “It is only four more years. You have got this. It is only three and a half more years. You got this. It is only three more years.” You know, and I did basically two years. I went through the entire medical school coursework, for the most part, almost at two years.
And when I started getting in the hospital, and I was in the internal medicine ward dealing with people with diabetes or cardiovascular disease and seeing people who are on 10 or 12 or 15 or 18 different pharmaceuticals being taught nothing about nutrition and lifestyle, it drove me insane. I was literally, I thought this was the height of absurdity that this was going on.
That you have people with diseases of lifestyle being taught nothing about nutrition and lifestyle on just a dozen or more prescription medications, and like I wanted desperately to teach them something about nutrition and lifestyle, and I was just silenced. I needed to shut up, or I was going to get kicked out of the program. You know, and I knew that I couldn’t handle another, it wasn’t just two more years to get the MD. It was then I was going to have to be in a residency for four or five years in the hospital environments doing that same thing, tolerating that.
Having to silence myself because if I said anything and taught that person anything about nutrition or lifestyle, that is deviating from standard hospital protocols and then I can be kicked out of my residency at any time. And so, it gnawed on me, my health deteriorated, I was severely depressed, suicidal, lost like 30 pounds, my hair is falling out, terrible insomnia and I mean, I was just absolutely suffering. My soul was suffering in that environment, and I made what was the hardest decision for me at that time, which was to leave and go start teaching people about health in the way that I wanted to teach and not keep pursuing this path that was destroying my soul and sucking the life out of me. It was a very, very hard decision at that time. But I am so glad that I made it because now I am filled with life and joy and helping so many more people and not having to suffer that soul-sucking fate that I would have had to go through for the last eight years since then.
Dr. Reef Karim: Yeah. It took me a long time to realize that traditional medicine, don’t get me wrong; I am a physician. Traditional medicine is great for what it is. But what it is a crisis. What it is is we are going to put a diagnosis on you, and you are now going to answer a system by which, you know, we have a certain cookbook way of doing things, and we are not going to deviate from this system once you are in this system. But do I think it is good for lifestyle measures? No way. Like dude, do I think it is good for human potential and optimism and growth and moving beyond a crisis to stabilization. No way. Like it is good for what it is. And I realize that look; I would never want to trade in my medical knowledge base. I think that you know, you did a couple of years. I mean, what is frustrating is the way that knowledge is applied. But the knowledge itself is pretty cool. I mean is it all-encompassing? No, but it is a good start, and then you kind of grow from there, and, “Oh, I want to learn more about you know, nutritional medicine. Oh, I want to learn more about spiritual medicine. Oh, I want…” You know, it is a great starting point, and then you build off of that with a whole bunch of other disciplines.
The Master Your Madness program
Ari Whitten: Yeah, absolutely. So, I want to talk about Master Your Madness. That is your program. I feel like that ties into all of this discussion that we have been having so far and this kind of opportunity for transformation. What is, I mean, first of all, that is a pretty wild title. Normally madness is something that people have a very negative feeling attached to. But here you mean it, I feel, more in the creativity aspect. So, tell me how that ties into this opportunity for transformation and the transformation process.
Dr. Reef Karim: So, I have made it my mission to redefine madness and to let people know that we have a certain energy state in all of us, and that energy state allows us to be creative. But that energy state can also be used up in chaos. So essentially, we have chaotic madness, and we have creative madness. Now if you look at some of the data that is out there, like, you know, the University of Manchester, King’s College, and Harvard just did a study that they published recently that looked at distraction and divided attention and the concept of digital distraction and the concept of… It was one thing that blew my mind.
That was like, if you image somebody and you look at the part of the brain that is associated with rejection, so say a guy talks to a girl that he really likes and asks her out, and she says no, and he is humiliated and feels rejection and feels loss and feels the loss of the fantasy and the whole deal. There is an area of our brain, the medial prefrontal cortical region that lights up. If you are online and you put something up on Facebook or Instagram or YouTube or whatever else, and you get a rejection, which could be like a negative comment, it could be like no likes, it could be, you know, whatever the measurements are for that specific social media platform that you are on. If you get a rejection, it will light up the same area of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortical region.
So, in essence, we can live our lives from a negative standpoint online. So, isolationism, loneliness, rejection, distraction, divided attention, all of that stuff. You know, like I have done a whole bunch of news segments about the stress, increased cortisol related bodily responses to being on social media too long, to being on Facebook too long, to being on Instagram, to having an unhealthy relationship with social media. The dopamine spikes that come and go with associations of likes or rejection. When you are on social media, all of that stuff is in the box of chaotic madness.
All of it takes up your energetic space. Even if you are just on your phone and you are like, “Okay, I just want to relax. I just want to take a minute for myself. I want to meditate, or I want to just read a book, or I just want to chill, or I want to just think about what is going on in my life. I want to reflect,” all that stuff. The minute you get a post, something comes up on your phone, you get a message, you get a DM, you get this, you get that, it pulls you out of that state. So what scientists are finding is that not only do we have this divided attention in this chaotic madness, but we are losing our ability to be creative.
We are losing our ability to enter flow state. We are losing our ability to tap into empathy and compassion and a lot of other human characteristics that we innately have developed prior to this advancement in technology. So, in essence, we are becoming less human. And creative expression is one of the hallmarks of being human, of being innovative and of being inventive and of being connected and of self-expression. And so, I said, “That is what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to. I want to help people become more human, more connected, more creative, easily enter flow state and be more aligned and more original with who they are. And I am going to develop a program that taps into psychology, philosophy, creativity, spirituality and neuroscience of expression. And I am going to help people along to move from this kind of not aligned, stressed, not sure what they should be doing state to a state that feels much more aligned with who they are with more energy, more passion, more creativity and more expression.”
Ari Whitten: Yeah. So beautifully said. I love this paradigm that you just outlined there. I notice for myself sometimes when I have a lot of work to do, but it is like I have to answer a million emails and I have to get back to people on scheduling for this. And I have to manage employees doing this or that and oversee this kind of work and, you know, I have all these kinds of administrative tasks and things like that and it takes up most of my day to do that. Versus, if I have a period of time where I can engage in writing or teaching and answering questions and engaging with people or creating a video or a webinar or something like that. At the end of the day on a day where I did not create something, I feel almost like a sense of emptiness.
I feel like I didn’t get anything done that day and I don’t feel like happy and fulfilled. Even if I spent many, many hours like objectively accomplishing this, this, and this, it is a totally different feeling than a day where I spent five hours writing and digging into the research and putting the pieces together and explaining and teaching something. It is on those days I am like, “Yes, this is what it means to live a good life and feel good.” So just, that is what came to me as you were talking is like, “This just makes sense. We need to be creative to feel happy and fulfilled in life.”
Dr. Reef Karim: Yeah. And also, it gives you a different lens on the world, the way that we create, our confidence behind our creativity. And think about what creativity is. Creativity is not just like some little like space in your body or in your brain that was always there from birth. Creativity flows with your traumas, with your celebrations, with your skills, with your talents. It is a culmination of a life lived. Whether that life is 12 years old or 80 years old. All of it ties into your creativity because your experiences and what you have experienced in your life are very different than my experiences. And my ethnicity, your background, everybody, you know, it is who we are. Our creativity is who we are.
So, when I tell people, when I coach, you know, when I coach with clients or I work with people or I do talks, I always say there should be essentially three separate parts of your day. Whether they are 30 minutes, or they are an hour, or they are 15 minutes or two hours, whatever you have dedicated to it. You need to have physical activity, you need to have spiritual activity, and you need to have creative activity. So that means if you go to the gym for an hour, great, you have just done your physical activity. Or you take a run or you stretch or you do yoga or you do Pilates, whatever it is, great. What is your spiritual activity? Are you meditating? Are you practicing gratitude at night? Are you doing breathing exercises? Are you out in nature? You know, like, I always think it is very important to have a spiritual activity. And I think, you know, quite a few people do that. I think more need to do it.
But then there is creative activity. What are you doing to massage that creative muscle in your body, in your brain? Are you painting? Are you drawing? Are you writing? Are you composing music? Are you playing music? Are you dancing? Are you doing, you know, I studied improv for six years. You know, I had acted in some Bollywood movies. I acted in Hollywood movies out here. I danced most of my life. I have played music for a long time. I was fortunate that even though my parents were so anti everything creative, I did it anyway. But I did it on the DL. I did it secretly. In fact it was so crazy, at one time I was doing stand-up under an alias name because I didn’t want my parents or people at work to find out. So I have a fake name.
I literally had a stage name for my stand-up but not because I was cool but because I didn’t want to be outed. So anytime you dive into some type of creative expression, and I am not saying you need to, you know, be in a ballet company or you need to play in a band. No. Just your version of doing something creative in your life for a half hour, for 20 minutes, for an hour, will pay off in spades because you will start looking at your work differently. You will start looking at your family differently. You will start connecting with people differently. You will gain more confidence. You will be quicker, you will be faster. You will develop cognitive flexibility which is a huge thing for me, you know, is how quick your neurons connect to each other and are there collateral ways that your brain will fire outside of just cognitively like reading a book or memorizing something. And it is an incredibly important thing. I can’t emphasize how important it is enough.
The biggest saboteurs on people’s creativity
Ari Whitten: Now you have mentioned social media and I am just curious if you could talk directly about the biggest saboteurs of people’s creativity. Social media of course being, it sounds like a major one, maybe the biggest one right now.
Dr. Reef Karim: Well, when people come to me to give talks or to, you know, just talk in person one-on-one about their social media history I say, “Okay, tell me about your relationship with social media.” And they are like, “What are you talking about?” And I am like, “Tell me about your experience with social media, but also what is your relationship like with social media?” And I usually have to explain it and so I am like, “Okay, how often do you see social media? What mood are you in when you go to social media? What mood are you in during social media? What mood and stress levels are you in when you leave social media? What brings you back to social media?” It is like a relationship.” So, we literally write down… I used to do relationship therapy and we would write down, not like a pros, cons list, but like a, you know, like a trigger list. Like what triggers somebody into conflict? How do people get out of conflict? We do the same thing with social media. And you find if you look at your digital use history or your digital habits, it is very predictive of a lack of creativity or a lack of fulfillment or a lack of sociability or a lack of human connectedness based on your relationship. Now there are some people that have a very healthy business relationship with social media. There are some people that have a very healthy family and friends relationship with social media.
Dr. Reef Karim: They are not looking for, I mean we are all looking for a little validation. But they are not looking for like validation to define who they are. They are not looking for some level of fame and recognition to define who they are. They are looking at it, you know, the people that I have met that I am like, “Look, your relationship is fine,” are people that are utilizing social media for marketing or they are using it for their small business or they are using it for, you know, a cause.
It can work incredibly well if you don’t get lost in the relationship. And so if you have defined the relationship and it seems fairly healthy, then I think social media is fine. It is just I have treated many, many, or helped many, many people that have gotten lost in social media because they didn’t have a strong foundation of who they are, because they didn’t have a good sense of their own creative power and spiritual power. You know, if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. They just had this amorphous foundation. They had no idea who they were. So then you, it is very easy to become codependent on a relationship. And in this case that relationship is with social media.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Are there any other big saboteurs of creativity beyond that?
Dr. Reef Karim: Oh, a ton. I would say the biggest one is toxicity. And when I say toxicity I mean like usually relationship toxicity. For me it was my family. My family absolutely loves me and they, you know, I have had a very difficult, rocky relationship with them as adults, too. But we are good now. But it took a long time and…
New Speaker: It doesn’t sit well with them that you are a terrible disappointment having, you know, not really being a traditional doctor and a cog in the wheel anymore.
No, not at all. At one time, you know, they stopped talking to me because they were just like, you know, “We don’t, accept you for who you are.”
Ari Whitten: Wow.
Dr. Reef Karim: But you know what? I contributed to that. It took me a long time to realize this, but I contributed to the fact that I didn’t stand up for who I was. I didn’t take enough initiative in my own life to discover, to have experiential moments to explore who I was separate from my family. Because what that does is, and part of that is creative growth. And part of that is spiritual growth. Because I didn’t do that and I essentially said, “Okay, I am a martyr. I am now a byproduct of this family. I will do whatever you say. Take me. Okay. Okay.” You know, because I did that, I became a byproduct of my family. So, yeah, I could blame them, but I have got to blame myself just as much as them because I let that happen. We all have the ability to say, “Okay, I now need to explore for myself.” And whether that is asking others for help or finding leaders or reading the right books or going to the right workshops or getting the right course or whatever it is, we have the power to do that.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Before I forget, I know we don’t have maybe a whole lot of time left. I don’t know if you have a hard cutoff at five, but hopefully we can go maybe a few minutes beyond that. I want to make sure that we talk about psychedelics and where you see those [crosstalk]. I want to see where you think…
Dr. Reef Karim: Introduce your parents to psychedelics. Let’s do this.
Dr. Reef’s view on psychedelics
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Well, I think this opportunity for transformation is interesting. I have had a couple of these moments. I described one of those and I have had a couple of these moments in my life and I will be honest that psychedelics played a role, not in the first one, but in the second one in helping me take the opportunity for transformation. And so I am just curious where, I know you have a big background in psychedelics and I am curious where you see them fitting into creativity and flow and transformation.
Dr. Reef Karim: Okay, great question and controversial question. Right? I am not going to give my parents your link just to be… I am kidding. So when I had this period of time where I was in so much pain that, you know, I was literally walking around with so much pain in my back and spiritual and emotional pain that a buddy of mine came over just to check up on me. And I was walking around like an 80 year old man and I looked at him and I said, “You know, if I don’t do anything else in my life, I mean I have led an okay life. Like I think I helped people and I tried to do the best that I could.” And I acted like an 80 year old man who was giving up and who was just ready to just like lay there and not do anything anymore with their life. That is how bad it got. Like, you know, maybe you can, you feel, you know, you feel it. I am sure some of your listeners feel this, like you get to that point. And so when I got to that point, I studied everything I could. Fortunately, I had been to medical school, I had done an internal medicine internship, I had done a psychiatry residency, I did specialty training in relationship therapy, I had done addiction medicine, a full fellowship, you know, everything from psychoanalytical therapy to psychodynamic to cognitive behavioral, blah, blah, blah. I studied a ton of stuff. So, and I was fortunate enough that, you know, at night I had studied improv technique for a long time. I was raised Sufi, so I had really followed Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi and Hafez and a number of eastern philosophers.
Ari Whitten: That is pretty rare, right? I mean, how common is Sufism in India? It has got to be what, just no more than a few percent of the population.
Dr. Reef Karim: It is not that big. And it is also very, very uncommon in the US and Canada and North America. Like it is definitely unique out here. And it is something that I didn’t talk about for a long time because I didn’t want to get made fun of. I didn’t want to be seen as different. But there is some beautiful like… You know, the whole background is based on philosophy, meditation, spiritual connection and service. I mean, that is not a bad way to go, you know. So I came back to it later. But, you know, so I looked at eastern philosophy, meditation, spirituality, psychodynamics, psychoanalytical, all these different types of connection. I looked at my improv training, I looked at music therapy and emotional therapy and drama therapy and just all this stuff. And I put together this program to help me along the way and it worked incredibly well. And I used that program with patients, with therapists, with, you know, friends, all of that. But I had one extra factor that a lot of my friends didn’t have and many of my patients didn’t have. And that factor was I had been on the front lines in this war with the opioid epidemic and psychosis and suicide. I worked within the jail system so I met serial killers and homicidal people and I took on all their darkness and at some point I couldn’t get rid of it and I couldn’t sleep at night like I mentioned. You know, I was just, I was a mess.
I wasn’t myself. I had a girlfriend break up with me. She was like, “I don’t know what happened to you, but like a year ago you were cool and now you are not” And it is like I was numb. I just was numb to the world. And so I am like, “Okay, I have healed myself 80% of the way with my program.” The only thing is, you know, like I felt fulfilled. I felt like I was on the right track. I felt like I had my purpose. I felt like I was aligned. I knew what I wanted to do. I was, but there was something stopping my connection. I was numb to feeling states, and that was the last piece that I was having a hard time with. So, you know, Gabor Maté is a friend of mine and he emailed me and said, “Hey, there is a program where healers are working on being healed themselves in Peru utilizing a type of transformational therapy that works with the Shipibo healers and it is spiritual in nature. There is an ayahuasca component, a breathing component, a meditational component, a nature component, you are in the Amazon jungle, blah, blah, blah.” So I said, “You know what, let’s do it.” And, I just want to put it out there. I am not, “My name is Reef, but I don’t smoke weed,” which is kind of interesting. I also don’t surf, but I do live in Venice so there is something there. But I don’t do drugs. It has just never been my thing. So very different experience. But I will tell you it was probably the most horrific yet enlightening experience I have ever had. It was terrible at first. Like you are left with you, without your mask, without your defenses, without your resistance. Anything you have thought of about yourself that is negative, anything other people have said to you that are negative, anything that has been swimming in your unconscious that you have tried to hold back comes out and that can be a really scary place. Because for me, it wasn’t just my stuff, it was other people’s stuff. And that made it a hundred times worse.
But the good news is by the time I was done, I felt very cleared of other people’s energy that were in crisis such that I have a clean slate to be able to help people now. Because ultimately I wanted to take this program and the work and the training I have been fortunate enough to have, to be able to help as many people as I can. Writing a book on the whole mastery of madness process, coaching people, online course. I am going to have a talk show named Reef Madness that is coming out. Like all of this great stuff is happening from it, but I had to clear other people’s energies first before I got there.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. So it has played a role in your own personal transformation and I assume this ties into you taking this opportunity for transformation. To get out of sort of the treating people who are ill towards working towards human potential. Do you feel that that clearing sort of all those negative energies was instrumental to that?
Dr. Reef Karim: Yeah, I feel like in many ways I was super fortunate in that I was raised in this very eastern culture. I had incredible training in neuroscience and human behavior and psychiatry and addiction and relationships and all that stuff, and I was super fortunate to have this creative, artistic talent, creative background. But the sacrifice for all of that was that I was in the trenches for 15 plus years of really dealing with the darkest of dark energy out there. And for me to be in a position which I am now, to be able to help people, coach people, heal people, I had to be at full functionality. I couldn’t be a shell of myself. And I felt like it would be a disservice to other people if I didn’t try and see if I could rid myself of some of that stuff that was there. And I feel like it worked.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Do you have any thoughts on psychedelics more broadly? Like for outside of your own personal experience with them, but, as far as the use of them. There is obviously a lot of research going on right now with a lot of different psychedelics and MDMA, which is arguably not really a psychedelic, per se. But there is a lot of positive research, a lot of interest in the research community with things like psilocybin and ayahuasca and MDMA. Also, you know, as you alluded to in your own personal story these are really, this is a different class of compounds then sort of what most people think of when they think of drugs. There is a semantics issue around this where a lot of people who have no experience and no understanding of this just say, “Oh, these are drugs and therefore you get high and you escape reality and they make you all, they make you feel really good and then you get addicted to them and they are harmful, toxic substances.” And the research just doesn’t bear that out. And there is also a lot of personal experiences that aren’t all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns and butterflies, you know, as you described yours and my first, and I have had a couple really horrific and painful experiences. These are, I mean you would have to coerce me to go do it again in some cases with some of the experiences that I have gone through using some of these compounds. I mean, they are almost anti-addictive in that sense. Like these are not experiences you look forward to necessarily. But hopefully, if you are lucky enough, they leave you better off. I am just curious if you have any thoughts on psychedelics more broadly for most people.
Dr. Reef Karim: So my background is in psychological medicine, psychological healing. So I can really talk, my expertise and specialty is going to be more that. Which is everything from, you know, ADHD, depression, stress, anxiety, all the way to personal development and fulfillment and alignment and originality in expression and stuff like that. When I look at somebody who is suffering and I look at somebody who has got either a diagnosable thing like they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or they have anxiety disorder, medicine is not just the bioavailability and pharmacokinetics of how a drug goes into your system and goes to the right places. Medicine is not just symptom reduction. True comprehensive, holistic healing of somebody also involves their belief system. This is why the placebo effect works. Do they believe they will get better? But also do they believe they are worthy of a life that is better? Which means the conditioning that has happened in their life, all the negative things they have heard from their boss, their parents or ex-girlfriend, blah, blah, blah. The traumas they have had, the events that have happened in their life all create some level of conditioning. So when you are looking at healing someone, you are looking at their biological, which is medication based. You are looking at their psychological, which is their psychological history, their traumas, their this. You are looking at their social history. Who is in their relationships right now that is toxic or not toxic? Who is their support network? You are looking at their spiritual history. Their spiritual history and their spiritual background is do they have a belief system? What is their foundation, you know, who are they connecting to? Do they believe in God? Do they not? What do they believe should be happening in their life? Do they feel they are original? Do they feel that they are aligned with their purpose? Do they have a purpose? All of that is part of that bio, psychological, social, spiritual model. And I feel like, in traditional medicine, we are very much missing the boat on the spiritual component and sometimes you know, the social component. Nowadays there is a little more mind/body, bio/psych, but psychedelics, interestingly enough, tap into that whole unconscious element of what is happening with someone.
My belief is that we have all these traumas in our life that gets stored. You know, somebody could be in 9/11. I had two patients that were in 9/11. One was absolutely debilitated and still is today. And the other one had a couple of nightmares, which were bad, but then a year later they were fine. So why is that? I feel like we have these traumas that happen in our life and we have a certain level of trauma and a certain level of resilience. And if the trauma is higher than our ability to handle it, our resilience, then it is going to keep leaking out of our unconscious. Because most of the time we take these traumas and we store them deep in our brain, into our unconscious. Because if we had them in our conscious brain most of the time we would be nuts. We would be like, “What is going on right now? What’s happening?” We would be stressed out. We would be a basket case. So we shove it back there and sometimes it comes out. And you know, I have worked with war veterans. They hear, you know, a shock from a car. They hear a loud noise and they are hypervigilant and they are stunned a bit. That is a trigger that is coming, that unconscious leaking back into their conscious brain.
My take on psychedelic therapy is essentially you are momentarily dissolving the wall of that, whether it is your prefrontal cortical area, whether it is, whatever it is that is housing that distinction, some of that unconscious trauma or most of that unconscious trauma or all of that unconscious trauma is coming out into your cognitive, into your frontal lobes, into an area that can be worked with. And then the healers are then working with you to try to extract that from your system or diminish the emotional and spiritual content of that from you, your person. Not just your brain, your person.
And when I talked to the Shipibo Indians, they said, “We are diminishing the negative and the dark energy that is housed inside of people.” So to me what psychedelics do is they add that spiritual healing component to people that you may not get with traditional medical therapy. But I have to put the disclaimer in there that not everybody should do this. You know, depending on your psychological history, your medical history, you know, if you have any ailments or disorders, where you stand on some of this stuff, your energetic history. Like you need to do a lot of research and you need to go to the right place and it has to be done, absolutely, you know, with all caution in mind when you do this. You should not just frivolously do it.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Great advice. To wrap up I want to just come back to creativity and flow and Master Your Madness. I would love if just to kind of conclude everything that we have talked about here, you could give maybe your top two or three things that you want to leave people with as far as creativity and flow. And then I would love to have you talk a bit about your Master Your Madness program and then, and how people can reach you if they want to do that.
Dr. Reef Karim: Absolutely. I would start by saying every single one of us, inside every one of us is creative power, is creative prowess. A lot of people don’t even know it. Some know it, they just don’t know how to harness it. And other people don’t even know they have it. But what that creative power does is it allows you to see the world slightly differently. It allows you to solve problems differently. It allows you to resolve conflict differently. It allows you to think out of the box in regards to your life and how to connect with other people. I have seen people tap into their creative power and creative prowess and change their relationships, change their work life, change the way that they innovate in their own life, come up with really creative ideas. Like, just completely change everything about them. Be confident, feel more alive, feel more energy.
It is amazing. It is an amazing thing and it is very, you know, it is hard to harness. So I developed this Master Your Madness program so that people could spiritually clear, decondition some of the stuff that they come in with, like I just mentioned all this stuff that I did, work on their creative growth, their creative prowess to build their originality. And with their originality you can find your calling and your sense of purpose and then lead to a life of expression and moving from a state of repression to a state of expression. So what I would love to leave people with is that flow, that state of being in the zone is absolutely possible and you have creativity swimming inside of you. And whether it is me or it is somebody else, let an expert, let somebody who has been there, done that help you to develop it. Because I think if more people in the world were creative and tapped into their own inner energy, it would be a much better world than it is now.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, I agree with you. Beautiful. Reef, I have enjoyed this so much. You are amazing. This is so good. I have really, really enjoyed this conversation. It is one of my favorite Podcasts of all time. Where can people reach you if they want to do the Master Your Madness work with you?
Dr. Reef Karim: So the Master Your Madness work is coming in stages. Stage one right now is one-on-one coaching where I do once a week coaching and, you know, there is lots of exercises and we work together on a whole bunch of stuff and it is usually three to four months total. And they can reach me directly by my email, because the one-on-one coaching I really want to get to know people better. And so if they just type in kind of “one-on-one coaching,” my assistant will give me all the info and then I will set up a call.
Ari Whitten: In the subject line of the email .
Dr. Reef Karim: In the subject line put “one-on-one coaching” and, you know, my assistant will get it to me and we will set up a call with you and all of that kind of stuff. Because I want to make sure it is for the right people. You know, I feel like you need to be at a certain place to be able to do it. Then starting next month, in October, I am going to be doing monthly virtual, like intensive work. So it is going to be a one day intensive where I block out a whole day and I work with people on a mini Master Madness Program for an entire day. It is super intense. I am, you know, we don’t play games like, we do it. So I am going to start that the following month. And then either in November or December we will have the Master Your Madness online course that is going to come out. So my website is reefkarim.com, r-e-e-f-k-a-r-i-m, not Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Karim, k-a-r-i-m.com. And if you go there, you will, the website is just being kind of changed and put together where you will start seeing all the Master Your Madness stuff there. And send me an email email@example.com and if you have any questions, you want to know more about the program, anything you and I talked about that anybody wants to talk a little more about, I am happy to do that. You know, I really kind of dedicated my life to helping people do or get to the place that I did with, hopefully, a lot more speed because it took me awhile.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Beautiful. So again, if you want to reach out to him firstname.lastname@example.org. Reef, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you for the work that you are doing. I think it is really important and I personally love it and I am, really a fan of what you are doing, so thank you.
Dr. Reef Karim: Thank you. And I am a fan of yours as well and I love the fact you are doing the work you are doing on this platform. Because in some ways I am glad you didn’t go to medical school because if you developed that mindset it would have taken you a lot longer to get to where you are today. So, you know what? Keep doing what you are doing. It is great work.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Thank you my friend. I hope to have you on again soon because I know you have much more wisdom to share. So thank you and have a wonderful evening.
Dr. Reef Karim: Okay. Bye, everybody.
Creativity, Transformation, Flow, Growth, Purpose, and Finding Your “Madness” with Dr. Reef Karim – Show Notes
The impact of cultural expectations (6:26)
Why people want to transform (15:39)
The Master Your Madness program (30:54)
The biggest saboteurs on people’s creativity (41:41)
Dr. Reef’s view on psychedelics (47:12)