Spiral staircases and old friends

IMG_0914“. . . in my own life, I seemed to be going round and round and round, making the same mistakes, having the same failures, the same experiences – and seeming to make no headway. But in fact, even though you’re going round and round, you are going upward. You are moving towards up, as I hope, towards the light or in the labyrinth, into the center of yourself.”

Karen Armstrong, in an interview with Bill Moyers about her book, The Spiral Staircase.

The religion writer Karen Armstrong called her memoir The Spiral Staircase, a phrase from a T.S. Eliot poem called “Ash Wednesday.”  I love the reference, because I have had the experience many times of revisiting situations and making the same mistakes, but I do see progress.

Armstrong’s book came to mind two weeks ago when I reconnected with an old college friend.  Marlene called me and we talked for an hour.  Afterwards I felt like I took a strong shot of déjà vu, some kind of elixir that coursed through me like adrenaline.  I had flashbacks to our young selves, and I saw a clear continuity to my meandering path.  I noticed an enduring thread in each of our worklives.

Marlene and I caught up with family, work, health, etc., but we also caught up with a seed we both contained as young women, an inquiry into how people heal and into our own relationship with healing.  Each of us was looking for something missing from healthcare as we knew it.

In college we could not yet articulate what we were after, but we’d begun our search.   Marlene was clearer at the time, and she worked harder, studying chemistry, organic chemistry, nutrition, spending hours in labs.  I dabbled in many subjects, for a while pursuing a “liberal arts” major with concentrations in biology, psychology, and English subjects.  Psychology made me squirm with discomfort, while literature taught me more about human beings, so I switched to English with a minor in biology.   Marlene focused on nutrition studies while I looked into journalism, and after college we moved away from each other:  After we married we didn’t talk for twenty years.

Marlene worked in dietetics (which ultimately frustrated her), then entered chiropractic school and private practice.  I worked at a hospital as a neuropsychology tech and studied cosmologies, philosophies, and Jungian psychology, later becoming a health writer and yoga therapist.  We both discovered how very different our emerging conceptions of healing were from most of the world’s, and we continued our studies through reading and workshops and mentorships.

Our recent conversation revealed some very similar conclusions about health.  We have come to believe that healing involves so much more than a specific modality, nutritional approach, or medical treatment.  We found that our own illnesses and recoveries required deep introspection, prayer, withdrawal from everyday life and its values, connection with nature, and a transformation in our physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual habits and ways of being.

Marlene experienced fibromyalgia, then breast cancer.  A long-time health fanatic, she was riddled with pain from fibromyalgia and looked to her emotional life and spiritual faith to heal.  Through cancer she faced intense fear and physical discomfort, again facing her own makeup and calling on her faith as well as a strong sense of humor.  Her tumor, with the help of chemotherapy, shrank to nothing.

I studied yoga therapy and ayurveda, yoga psychology, and body-oriented psychotherapy, or hakomi.  I experienced a change in consciousness as I became more aware of my body and of sensation and changed old patterns of movement and perception.  In the midst of all this study and practice of yoga, I encountered candida, which weakened me and made me foggy headed, and led me to make radical changes in my diet, friends, and exercise patterns.

Where are we now?  Marlene became a confident chiropractor, focused on muscle testing and the storage of emotions and life stories in our bodies and working to free folks for better health.  I have become a published writer, a student of many modalities, a disability and wellness coordinator, a yoga teacher, a spokesperson and interpreter for integrative medicine and for a broader perspective on healing.  You could say we are doing the same work we started years ago in different forms.

But, as Karen Armstrong observed, we can only see this spiral staircase in retrospect.  It’s been a path that has often seemed faint and hard to see.  I feel strengthened and empowered by my reconnection with my friend.  I feel a little more whole knowing I have a long-term companion in my travels.

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The trouble with Dr. Oz?

IMG_1356The New Yorker is my favorite magazine.  Every once in awhile, though, I encounter an article that really makes me scratch my head:  Actually a couple of these have been written by Michael Specter, including his recent “The Operator,” subtitle (in the contents), “The Trouble with Doctor Oz,” February 4, 2013.  (Specter is also the Author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.)

I think Specter, along with some other Oz critics, is right to question the unbridled and hyped up promotion of herbs or foods, like raspberry ketones to burn fat, or green coffee beans for weight-loss, or red palm oil for Alzheimer’s disease, though I do think its helpful to bring attention to these things:  In my mind the hype and overemphasis is problem.

On the other hand, I strongly part ways with Specter when it comes to Oz’s showcasing of some “alternative” approaches to healing.  I am like Oz in not needing scientific proof that these approaches work.  If one thinks physicians should stick within the scientific, Specter’s argument is understandable.  But medicine is also an art.  In addition, science has shown us that sometimes placebos work as treatment.  Specter says that Oz’s practice of mixing “sensible” and scientifically proven information with unproven information is hard to understand—IS IT?  Science, after all, is sometimes used in specious ways to promote pharmaceutical drugs.

These are old questions representing two camps, the Western scientific and Eastern, the rationalist and the mystic, the chemical and surgical with the natural (the latter has not been studied as extensively).  Here’s where I come from.  The two major health conditions that have affected my wellbeing have been untreatable by modern medicine.  If they progress to cancer or blindness or an autoimmune condition, medicine will have an “answer” or treatment, but I have used alternative methods to reverse or stop the problem in their tracks.  These modalities, ayurveda, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, were off the radar of modern medicine, and science would not have given me reinforcement for pursuing them.

My experiences with keratoconus, an eye disorder, and candida/gluten intolerance, a digestive disorder, taught me how to address illness from a system, organic, natural, and energetic  angle.   Arresting of the keratoconus and resolving the candida issue involved processes that took quite a long time and a commitment to my health at emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and environmental levels.  I may not have healed had I not meditated, prayed, dropped unhealthy friendships, actually adjusted my way of exercising to a more gentle one focused on yoga and walking outdoors in the sunshine.   Without all these angles of approach, I would have become sicker and repeatedly visited my physician, who could only have given me temporary measures and helped me manage chronic illness.

Western science and medicine exist in one realm while some of the healing arts tap into another.  We have to acknowledge the limitations of our mechanistic medical sciences, to realize there is a realm of healing, of energy, that we do not understand with our rational minds.  We need a practice of mindfulness, of openness, of listening to the body, emotions, spirit, and chi, to old traumas and the need for radical self-care on all these levels.

This approach is not easy.  It requires time, energy, and an ability to go through upheaval and reorientation.  It demands an openness to uncertainty and to life changes.  It means loosening dependence on the rational, analytical intellect and paying attention to the body and its sensations.  I think the process also leads to examination of our culture, to a reengagement with our selves, and to a new relationship with the fruits of the earth, the herbs and natural foods. Not many of us will engage in such a process, particularly if we are working hard and are engaged with a profession of status, busy in our day-to-day lives.  It is easier to turn instead to the scientific, the prescription, the surgery.  Valid too, but sometimes not enough.

Specter quotes Oz:  “All I’m trying to do is put a couple of road signs out there.  I sit on that set every day, and that is what I am focusing on.  The road signs.”  Oz says he wants to erase barriers between patients and medicine, wants to raise issues that remain undiscussed, wants to walk the line that divides conventional medicine and alternative cures.   I am glad for his efforts.

Specter also says of Oz, “He describes modern medicine as a “civil war” waged between conventional physicians and those who are open to alternative cures for maladies ranging from anxiety to cancer; he considers it his mission to walk the line that divides them.  But more often his show seems to erase that line completely, with results that may be less benign than Oz and his many viewers realize.”

I tend to think the marriage of pharmaceutical companies and medicine is also less benign than many realize.  I for one think that Oz is doing important work inhabiting that zone between medicine and holistic health, between science and energy healing.  Many of us are grateful that he’s talking about these things, engaging with people out there seeking healing.  Medicine does not have all of the answers, and we need people like Oz to ask the questions and to present other sides so we might actively engage in our own healing in ways that involve our bodies, minds, and spirits.  I believe we need just such a wizard to catalyze a transformation.

Community acupuncture makes my day

IMG_0878I recently had some sinus problems that made it difficult to function, and a friend recommended that I visit the local community acupuncture clinic.   It seemed like a good idea to me, because the cost of most acupuncture is prohibitive, especially if I need multiple treatments.  So I made an appointment at the clinic online, filled out some forms, and went on in.

I entered a nice lounge with comfortable couches and a kindly male receptionist, was soon ushered into a private room to visit with an acupuncturist.  After we talked about my ailments and concerns I went into a communal treatment room with high ceilings and a large curved window on one end.  I sat in one of six recliners, and the acupuncturist put numerous needles in me and left me for an hour to relax to the sounds of gentle new age music and water trickling down a rocky fountain. I went into a reverie, truly relaxing, falling in and out of sleep. I left feeling serene and supported by a community who wanted to help me sustain my health.

The visit was $25, and I was told the subsequent appointments would be only $15.  After the first treatment the inflamed and raw sensation in my sinuses calmed down, and by the time I had gone for three treatments, I felt relieved of headaches, sinus pressure, and a couple of other issues.  The third time I went I met the man who started the clinic, along with his wife, who does acupressure and Emotional Freedom Technique.   The owner said he is a social entrepreneur interested in integrating businesses as well as treatment modalities.  For example, he said, the clinic has a nutritionist who helps with weight loss, and when the clients run up against emotional blocks to weight loss, they see acupuncturists or his wife for additional support.

I went home and watched this video on the movement connected with community acupuncture:  Community Acupuncture Video

Watching the story of this community acupuncture movement in the US, I felt a strong longing to see it take hold in a bigger way.  I saw dedicated practitioners searching for a way to help more people, and I heard the stories of people who experienced deep healing through their treatments and through feeling part of a healing community.  I saw people working together to provide good healthcare, or really I should say, healing.  There is basically a movement afoot to provide true care to clients, and I feel we have a great need for such alternatives.

Here is a statement from the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA):  “Our mission is to work cooperatively to increase accessibility to and availability of affordable group acupuncture treatments . . . Multi-stakeholder cooperatives recognize that producers and consumers are mutually dependent on one another, and that the health of the relationship between these groups is connected to the health of the larger community and economy.”

We need a great deal more of such an approach to healthcare and community.  Community acupuncture provides a crucial service, makes it affordable, and empowers healthcare practitioners.  It helps people take care of themselves and lead lives that are not only freer of suffering, but maybe even more fulfilled.  When we can obtain healthcare at affordable prices, see practitioners in environments that are good for both of us, feel a part of community, and know we have greater ability to affect our well being, we are more energized and engaged in general.

As healthcare gets more expensive, as I grow more reluctant to pay out-of-pocket for treatment because of my high insurance deductable and feel more stressed out by the bills, the tests, and the meds, I long for this simple and affordable care.  I am truly not against mainstream medicine, and I use it when I need it.  But I am also for this natural, preventive, healing, and empowering care.  Thank God it exists.

I love knowing my practitioner is as dedicated to health on a community and political level as I am, that she respects the body’s mysterious ability to balance and heal.  That she can perceive my current ailments through a wider lens encompassing my constitution, my overall health, my life story, and assist my healing on many levels.  I feel a great deal of gratitude, and I feel inspired to work myself in a manner that is good for my whole community, both local and beyond.

My father was a neurosurgeon, and I went into yoga

IMG_1452Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.    Carl Jung

My dad was a pediatric neurosurgeon in an inner city hospital.  His work virtually consumed him, and he came home late at night, many times after we kids were in bed.  When he was home, he often sat in an armchair reading or writing, and even on family outings to parks or movies, he could be called back to the hospital.

I felt like he lived at the hospital and that our suburban family world was a difficult one for him to understand or feel at home in.  All the activities and issues in the lives of his wife and four kids seemed more than he could handle, especially after his absorbing work in the city, and I do think he had a difficult time navigating the transitions from one to the other.  At home he was often distracted or short-tempered.  When most stressed out from challenges at work and returning to a raucous house filled with children, he’d yell at us.

When I went to work with him as a child, I too experienced the gulf between one world and the other, both geographically and culturally.  From suburban streets lined with similar homes, groomed lawns, and white faces, to city streets filled with row houses, dirt yards, convenience stores with boarded up windows, and black faces, I observed an unsettling contrast.  Arriving at the hospital, we parked in the VIP area and entered the foyer of a tall modern building with light streaming in from immense windows.  We walked down halls lined with rooms filled with sick people.   We entered elevators and escaped into Dad’s office with a view of the plant-filled foyer.  Quietly I looked about, absorbing sights and sounds, filing away the images and impressions of this strange world.

I saw Dad examine patients and interact with other medical staff, decisive in tone, projecting knowledge and care.  He was friendly, and he was respected.  Nurses, doctors, and patients told me he was a great man.

Dad’s examining room had a wall covered with photos of kids from the spina bifida clinic, kids of all ages who had shunts placed in them.  Other kids he worked with had brain tumors or facial abnormalities or other mysterious diseases.  At hospital holiday parties we kids would see other children suffering from all kinds of maladies, some thin from cancer or some with deformities, some too weak to walk. I felt like a space being in that environment, awed that I experienced health and wealth while other kids knew both illness and poverty.

Dad also grappled, actually wrestled with, the suffering of his young patients.  Sitting up late into the night, he read the Bible, C.S. Lewis, William Faulkner.  This pondering of the spiritual and philosophical aspects of illness and death had a lasting effect on me.  Confronting not only the reality of disease but the dichotomy between my life and the lives of others, I developed a lifelong interest in seeing things from different angles, in connecting distant worlds, in the causes and alleviation of suffering.  In my twenties I read the Tao te Ching and went on to explore dreams, then later Indian and Chinese medicine, eventually practicing yoga and meditation.

I considered but never truly had the desire to be a physician, yet Dad’s work and his response to it gave me a lifelong need to investigate, to learn, and to serve in other ways.  I study life and “medicine” on spiritual, cultural, and psychological levels.  I explore what it means to heal and how a spiritual dimension can help us negotiate suffering.   Practicing yoga and using Ayurvedic herbs  and bodywork, I experience a stronger more supple body and greater emotional grounding, and I really feel the connection of mind, body, and spirit.

I love the way that cosmologies of Indian and Asian medicine are so comprehensive of all aspects of our being and are also still relevant today.  I believe that the acknowledgement of the origins and dimensions of our being within nature, within the divine, must ultimately be part of our healing journeys.  I know from experience that the energy medicine involved in yoga and qigong, as well as the interpersonal/emotional healing provided by psychotherapy, also provide keys to healing.  And I know healing doesn’t always mean curing.

Rather than following in Dad’s doctor footsteps, I followed his investigations into the wisdom traditions, the nature of life, and even social economics. I traverse various worlds (urban and rural, poor and rich, mainstream medical and natural medicine), seeking ways to connect, to communicate, and to widen our medical paradigm.  While I confronted some strong dichotomies as a child, I now explore the idea that everything is connected.  My role is investigative journalist and somatic educator:  Believing we have to unravel our current ways of thinking about both economics and treating illness, I am interested in opening the dialogue and the process of questioning.  Believing there are wiser ways to live and govern, I turn to ancient ideas and to experimenting, conversing, and opening ourselves to change.

It’s an exciting time, a “brave new world” in which not only the business of medicine is changing, but in which models for business itself are shifting.  We know our ways need to change.  How now do we see ourselves, and how do we want to live and address our ills?

Clash of cultures

What motivates us to work? We know from an early age that we have to work as adults, and we find our way into jobs one way or another, some through years of education and some not.  How much time do we really spend thinking about it?

Many of us don’t get to know ourselves, or have the opportunity to try out numerous jobs, before we really need to “make a living.”  We choose a job, or a field, and we enter an enculturation process either in school or in the workplace.  The culture we absorb becomes a motivation itself:  We learn a vocabulary, way of thinking, norms, even habits of thinking, often without realizing it or taking time to reflect.  Some may relish the process and enjoy having a niche, others may experience a bit of unease, a sense of something missing depending on the fit with the culture.

Some professions, such as medicine or social services, possess a strong culture, one the employee has to embrace to some extent to excel in the field.  My father said medical school was like boot camp, a challenging experience in which his own ego and perspective were subordinated to the process of becoming a doctor.  He worked so hard for so long, was sometimes belittled, and he became one with his role, demonstrating decisiveness and as much clarity as possible to treat illness and perform surgery in a capable way.

Many of us are unknowingly brainwashed by a worldview, unaware of the underpinnings and influences forming that perspective, not possessing the tools with which to question or examine.  For some darn reason, not completely known to me, I have stood on the outside and asked questions.  While I had an interest in psychology in college, studying it raised more questions than it answered, so I asked my favorite professor to recommend books on the history of the field, because studying it made me uncomfortable, and I wondered why.

I think we need to stay alert, to ask questions as we learn a field and after we are in it.  To develop our own perceptions and to participate in ongoing inquiry with peers and supervisors.  But generally we are not encouraged to follow our hunches, to turn inside, to question, or even to dialogue with others in our fields.  We instead become absorbed into the work, the money, starting a family, building security for that family and ourselves.  But I believe there is a place for curiosity.

I have long conversations with a friend who teaches a contemplative education course at a university and is a sometime psychotherapist herself.  She teaches in a scholars’ program populated by pre-med students, future scientists and engineers, future writers.  She encourages the students to examine their assumptions, to consider their personal relationship to the subjects they study, to explore the underpinnings and influences on the professions they are considering entering.  Some of the students are resistant to her proddings in this class, at least at first.  The pre-med student is a bright, busy, focused fellow, or gal, who usually embraces a belief in the medical model, says my friend.  She does not ask them to let go of that belief, only to be circumspect, and many find themselves immensely grateful for the process of internal and philosophical inquiry she guides them through.  While some see no use for the process, others tell my friend they will go to med school as more sensitive, well-rounded humans.

My friend herself is examining the mental health field, from psychoanalysis to psychopharmacology, as a consumer, professional, and researcher.  She has experienced ill effects from medications and explored alternatives from re-attachment to ayurvedic herbs and diets to yoga and dance.  You could say she is a renegade academic and psychotherapist.

A person awake to her own emotions, adventurous in her intellectual pursuits, and brave enough to ask questions, is a different kind of professional.  Rather than immersing herself in a culture and system of thought, she remains a sensitive individual with an ability to respond to situations from within her self.

The book, The Spirit Catches you and You Fall Down, is about the clash of the Hmong people’s needs and beliefs with that of the Western medical system.  It is about the damage that can occur when two strong belief systems meet.  I was struck by a story in the book about a young Western enthnographer and fan of improvisational theater who is able to appreciate and understand the Hmong peoples’ perspective on illness and their resistance to the imposition of Western ways upon them.  He learns about them and their beliefs and is able to encourage them to get immunizations for their pets through staging a theatrical parade.

What made him sensitive to these people, capable of understanding their perspective?  Was he less enamored of the Western view he was born into?  Was he secure enough in himself to open his mind?

I have been immersed in this very process throughout my life:  I studied psychology but wanted to know where it came from, I was interested in medicine but had the mind and heart of an anthropologist.  I’m not sure why I am like this.  I think it may be feeling close to nature most of my life, through listening to old-time music as a young child and driving through inner-city DC with my dad on his way to work, through reading black authors from off my parents’ bookshelves.  I knew there were other ways of thinking about things than mine, other cultures and races, varied spiritual paths.

My role is that of an amateur ethnographer, a student of work cultures.  I make my living as a yoga teacher and writer, and I work various part-time jobs along the way.  It is a grand adventure, and I am grateful to share it with friends like my university teacher buddy.   This is my enduring question:  Can we not work from our authentic selves in ways that make sense to us and are healing to the world?  We must let the world change us, but sometimes we need to change it.

Will it make me well?

I teach yoga to a few people who have multiple sclerosis, and I find this illness scary and mysterious.  The medical profession continues to grapple with the cause and best course of treatment, and researchers remain mostly in the dark about it.  This week though, I heard a perspective that provides a handle on how to understand and manage it:  It came from a talk by a woman who was diagnosed with MS 20 years ago and who is virtually symptom free.

Carol was once told she had an aggressive form of the illness and that she would quickly deteriorate.  She had already lost vision in one eye and had trouble walking.  And yet she only used the recommended medications briefly, then went off them because they made her feel sick and were terribly expensive as well.

She looked instead for a different doctor, one who might have other suggestions besides drugs.  She discovered an orthomolecular specialist in Denver who spoke with her sympathetically and recommended homeopathy.  Carol took his advice and addressed her diet as well, eliminating gluten and sugar and eating grass-fed beef and a variety of vegetables.  Today she is symptom free–walking, talking, and practicing as a homeopath herself.  She now sees dietary issues, particularly gluten and overall imbalances, as a key to understanding MS.

We’ve all heard stories of such turn arounds, but I’m very interested in two things about her story.  One is that she came away from her experience with doctors and medication, then homeopathy, realizing the most important question to her when it comes to treating her illness, is, “Will it help me to be well?”  Her determination to seek a treatment or healing path that made sense to her and would support her wellbeing impresses me and, I think, was part of her ability to heal.

Second, I was struck by the part of her story in which she encountered her first doctor, the one who diagnosed her and gave her such a dire prognosis, in the hardware store.  Seeing him, she immediately began to feel nauseous, weak, and confused.  She greeted him and hurried out of the store, recovering her strength outside.  What better example is there of the power of authority and the enduring strength of social conditioning?  Of our passivity in the patient role and the godlike qualities we ascribe to doctors?  After leaving the doctor’s presence Carol felt fine again.  Free of his influence, she felt her health and her body’s remarkable ability to heal.

Also attending her talk was a young man named Dave who sees Carol as a client.  A former forklift operator turned oil and gas employee, he said he also was told he had an aggressive form of MS after experiencing vision loss.  He then experienced pain in his left leg and later lost feeling below his waist.  He stopped working, sat around on the couch dealing with sickness and sleep deprivations from the medications.  He gave up.  His wife, though, did some research, found Carol, and Dave saw her for help with his MS.  He now takes homeopathic remedies and follows a gluten-free diet.  He too is walking, working, and playing ball with his son:  When he does experience numbness or pain he goes to see Carol for remedies and dietary changes.

I am quite struck that these folks had to strike out on their own to get well.  Both learned about the politics of food supply and pharmaceutical use, making their own decisions about their treatment.  And both made radical changes in their diets and sought natural remedies.  It isn’t easy to turn down all the sweets and fast food coworkers bring to work, says Dave, but he knows he must to be well.  Both sought doctors who support their perspectives and partner with them, and both are prepared to challenge conventional “wisdom” on their illness.  While neither is Both against allopathic medicine, they truly do want to support their bodies in more natural ways, and they want to do things that make sense to them.

When Carol and Dave do see doctors, they seek practitioners who acknowledge their needs and the validity of their own approaches to their illness.  There are some who know how to partner with them in their chosen approach, in their quest for wellness, and there are some who do not.

Out of step or a foot ahead?

Change is coming.  So said a healthcare recruiter to me a few days ago when I interviewed with him at the local hospital.  The company has been preparing for 10 years, he said, to develop new IT and wellness programming.  Wellness is included since new healthcare legislation is designed to instigate reimbursement for keeping people out of hospitals.  Finally!  But I’ll wait and see.

It’s the kind of healthcare I have been awaiting for a long time.   I want the hospital to hire me.  As a mind-body therapist.   I interviewed to be a wellness specialist/yoga teacher.  The description was for a health educator really.

The weird thing is that six years ago I had a job as an education coordinator in a holistic center associated with this same hospital.  I ran a yoga/qigong studio, coordinated classes and workshops, and supported the administration and holistic pharmacy.  It was part-time, and I had health insurance.

I loved that job.   I loved being a part of a holistic center within a medical center.  And I loved developing an integrative approach to healthcare and providing wellness services to the community as well as people in the hospital suffering from illness and injury.  We helped people through chemotherapy with acupuncture, people going through rehab with massage, people with chronic illness with nutrition, kids with ADD and depression with a more natural approach.  We also  supported dying people with reiki.  Our classes, open to staff, patients, and the community, included meditation, infant massage, and other healing approaches.

This center was closed down.  The healthcare company sponsored an exit lunch for us in which we talked about keeping our commitment to the cause alive in our individual work.  But it’s been lonely.

Yesterday, I talked with a recruiter for 45 minutes, took a break, then interviewed with two wellness managers and did a yoga demo.  Turns out all this was for a temporary position to teach two yoga classes a week.  While I wish for something more substantial, the wonderful part of the interview for me was the conversation with these three folks and the awareness I had of the growth in me since I last worked there.  I am bolder, stronger, and more articulate about wellness, yoga, and mindfulness and their role in the healthcare system.

Dan, the recruiter from a temporary staffing company, asked me why I was interested in wellness.  I said that I want to help people live healthier lives, to tap into their own immunity and stay well or find supportive therapies when they get sick.  I hoped to teach yoga to help people gain a sense of their inner healing capacity.   Dan looked at me and said, “that’s where our company is heading.”

When I sat down with two female managers from Wellness, one said to me, “You worked for the holistic center?  It was ahead of its time:  If it were created now, it would thrive.”

Will things really change?   We still don’t know what will happen with the latest healthcare reform bill.  And we don’t know how far policy changes will reach.  But healthcare expenses are getting too high, and more folks have less money and will be excluded from care.  When things begin to affect the bottom lines of hospitals and insurance companies, or when the people make enough noise, a shift will certainly occur.  We already see stirrings of movement.

In the meantime, us mind-body types will hang in there, learning about embodied experience, the immune response, healing, and inner work.  Practicing stress reduction and renewal, exploring our connection to ourselves, each other, and nature.  But there really isn’t time to spare:  We and our world will become much sicker if we don’t move forward.  I’m ready to work, and I think others are too.  Let’s get the behemeth moving a little faster.

What we really need from healthcare

Both streams of my career, yoga and writing, focus on health.  You could say both are designed to promote health in body.  But in actuality, my real interest is a change in consciousness.

When it comes to yoga, I think first of transformation.   Yes, yoga loosens up and strengthens our bodies, but it also changes our minds and spirits.  I love the way it changes my awareness, makes me feel more present, alive, and in tune with nature.  When it comes to writing, I sometimes write to promote wellness, but the real reason I write is to engage with the world, learn, and find greater connection.

I think health has to do with being open to change, to interacting with our environments and other beings.  I think it involves transformation.  We all know it isn’t easy to change a habit or to gain higher levels of fitness:  Doing those things usually requires a change of mind, a change in our way of being that translates into new ways of behaving.  So I experiment in my yoga practice to experience a different state of awareness and observe its effects.  And then I write about what I’m exploring and learning.

When I learned yesterday that the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of most of the Healthcare Reform Bill, I cried.  My reaction surprised me, but then I realized I’ve cared about health and wellbeing for most of my life, and I see changing our healthcare system as vital to our wellbeing as a country.  But I also know that a change in the laws and access to healthcare is not enough: to get to the most needed changes requires a change in mindset.  We must develop a different sense of ourselves and our own ability to find balance and health, with the help of good food and humble practitioners.  We must move from a mechanistic/materialistic view of the world to one of a living world in which we are intimately connected with the natural world and with each other, no matter our race or creed.  We must acknowledge the Gaia theory and the reality of our own true nature.  We must believe or die, know our connection or destroy ourselves.

I cried when I heard the news of the court ruling because I feel it is a first step toward addressing our healthcare system and the underpinnings of our insurance system, and I for one am desperate for such change.  For more access for more people, and for new conceptions of health and prevention.  But I also know that we as individuals must take more responsibility, that we need to think about our wellbeing and insist on a different model of health and healthcare.  If healthcare reform is enacted, more of us will have to think about what health means to us, how to foster it in ourselves, what kind of care seems most supportive and healing to us.  We will have to speak up to the insurance companies and governments to keep care affordable.

We need this first step to start dismantling a system that not only doesn’t serve many, but that waits for us to become deathly ill before it helps.  A system whose idea of prevention may not be enlightened, may even be destructive.  We need to wake up as individuals and communities and foster our health as individuals and groups.  Our conversation about health will address food, habits, addictions, exercise, economics, politics, environment, community, and environmental design.  Ultimately it will involve and engage our consciousness.

The other side

I called this blog “Work from the Other Side” because I feel like I’ve spun off from the career path presented to me in school.  Instead I’m making up the rules, and I’m seeking guidance from above.  Everyone’s career path is full of unexpected twists, and each of us tells her own story at various stops along the way:  This is mine.

Moving to the other side, where money became a tertiary consideration in my work life, really started with my father’s death.  Dad was diagnosed with cancer at 51, and he died six years later.  Seeing him go through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, lose work he loved, then his beloved dog, finally more and more function until he ended up confined at home in a chair with a morphine pump, started me wondering what is important.  When he died I became acutely aware of my mortality, and I felt a strange new sense of myself, a self I had often tended to define in my father’s terms.  I realized I was responsible for setting my own course.

It also made me wonder why cancer treatment had to be as bad as the illness, and it made me wonder how the medical system (or some other system), might provide nurturing treatment along with the harsh treatment.

I mean, herbs may at times cause irritation, but generally they soothe and heal.  They work synergistically with our bodies, drawing forth our own immune responses.  And yoga?  (Don’t get me started on that—I’ll try to be brief.) As my yoga for cancer teacher, Nischala Devi, says, “cancer helps us remember who we are.”  I didn’t need to ask her what she meant by those words; I immediately began to think of our divinity, of our spiritual natures, of our connection with mother earth and father sky.  We may get sick and we may die, but why do we assume that’s bad and avoid thinking of it?  The other side of that question is this:  What is the nature of healing and wellness?  What is illness telling us, and what might we gain from it?

Add my own discomfort in the work environment to staggering fact of Dad’s departure, and I’m ready to walk off the grid.  This discomfort is a response to the rigidity of the work environment as well as a result of shyness.  It is a restlessness spawned by a desire to investigate.  By a need to move, physically, to feel sunshine on my face rather than commute and work the entire span of daylight.  By a need to join the forces pressing for a new paradigm when it comes to healthcare.

I have had the joy of working at a hospital holistic center as education coordinator.  The gig lasted one short and quick year, but I embraced it wholly, thrilled to provide education and services to the community.  Since then I have had part-time wellness, retirement, or independent living center jobs.   And I write, and teach yoga.  Life is good.

When I lost my ideal job, I prayed, and I meditated.  I cannot analyze and put forth a resume campaign:  I am too far gone, too far out on the other side.  Sometimes I get scared on this less certain path, but more often I know deep down that I’m okay.  I always find work, always have just enough income.

This week I went to Lifespa, John Douillard’s ayurvedic center in Gunbarrel, Colorado, for a consultation and oil massage/lymph stimulation session.  Douillard, a chiropractor and sports medicine fellow turned ayurvedic doctor, is squarely, firmly, and abundantly on the Other Side.  He’s providing much needed guidance and treatment to our tired, stressed, toxic, emotionally constipated world.  Meeting him and his staff, I feel that the other side is a good place to be.  I realize that I am not alone, I realize there is a need, and I see one can also have the material support to sustain oneself.   It is possible to thrive out here, off the map.  May God sustain us, and may we learn, work together, and serve.

Why I am not a psychologist

What is this particular blog, a negative manifesto? Why should I write about why I am not a psychologist, and why would anyone care?  Well, yes, quite so.  Here’s the beauty of blogging for the blogger; it sometimes becomes journaling.  And yet it has the added dimension of inviting dialogue.  Have you ever had the experience of thinking something is a good idea for you but then learning in practice that it is not?

I am attracted to medical and psychological professions at first blush, but then part of me balks.  I have never been able to get past taking some courses, and when I get near to practicing, I run the other way.   The truth is, even the coursework gives me a headache.  Am I dumb?  Terribly resistant?  Or is it something else?

For sure something won’t let me work as a psychotherapist.  It feels like the gods to me, or as if my wires are crossed.  Maybe I’m just one hell of a rebel, a contrarian.  Perhaps I belong on the fringe, and here I sit here in the way the Buddhist does, listening, learning, watching the world go ‘round.  Looking for my way to participate in the art of healing.

Though I’ve attempted to work in the field of psychology several times, I am not doing so for the following reasons:

  1. These professions require an immersion in a system of thought that I am in the process of examining, evaluating really.  It’s true I do not feel qualified to guide others over their emotional terrain.  Call me rebel or explorer, perhaps time will tell.
  2. I am on a mission to explore the nature and circumstances of healing.  It isn’t as though one day I had the thought that this is what I must do and embarked on the endeavor; it took me over.  I’m insatiably curious about the nature of life, the human condition, and how we find wholeness in any circumstances.  Partly this orientation comes from being exposed to suffering children  through my dad’s work, but I also believe it is my daemon, my driving motivation in this life to explore these things.
  3.  I want to pull myself back from the textbook, the table, the clinical orientation, and look at the larger system in which we are embedded.  Where do some of our assumptions come from, and how do they strike us at this time in history?  We made fast progress in medicine:  From the creation of antibiotics to brain imaging, we have learned a lot about function and disease, no denying, and many lives have been prolonged.  But we are also missing part of the picture.   We’ve been coming from a materialist perspective, a reductionist perspective for a long time. As a follower of trends in psychiatry and mental health therapies, I see a movement that has traversed territory from locking away the crazy, to looking for ways to help, to applying harmful “treatments,” to deinstitutionalizing, to fearfully clinging to chemistry and treatment.  In this relatively new science, we have been like a blind man walking down the wrong hallway and into a dark dangerous alley.
  4.  I am deeply curious about the traditions and knowledge we virtually lost touch with in the industrial and information technology ages.   Those things we buried so well during the Salem witch hunts in our own country or distanced ourselves from in our quest for technological advance.  I need to know about the holistic, naturalistic approach in which we saw ourselves as part of nature and plants as medicines and foods.  Such a view is slowly returning to our Western consciousness:  Others seek such knowledge as I do, often when they come up against the limits of Western medicine or psychology.
  5.  My personality, temperament, and turn of mind make me predisposed to seek an overarching cosmology in which we see ourselves as part of the natural world.  My more global bent of mind draws me toward this perspective when comes to questions of healing and wholeness.  I want to explore the world through yogic practice and philosophy, through plant medicine, through an ayurvedic worldview about the creation of the earth and man’s place in it.  Within this view we discover ways to find balance within our bodies and with our environments.  We see the environment as part of ourselves and treat it with more respect.
  6.  I believe in the art of healing.  I also believe in the science of healing, but my daemon orients me to a full embrace of the art:  the story of the human encountering illness or injury, the communication between the man and his gods or God, the connection between the woman and her mother earth and father sky.  I see poetry and deep truth to medicines based on the theory of five elements (Indian, Chinese, native).  I intuitively relate to the idea that my bodies is comprised of air, ether, water, fire,  and earth (or metal and wood in Chinese medicine).  I can sense when one is out of balance:  my water element causing sinus headaches, or the element of air (wind) contributing to anxiety.
  7. I need to examine the role of our societal dysfunction in illness.  Economics and social demographics contribute to habits and even addictions that cause diabetes, obesity, and cancer.  Our lack of wisdom about emotional difficulty contributes to the psychological reliance on food and drink for numbing, for comfort, for protecting ourselves from others.  A myriad of issues affect an individual’s psychology, and we need more awareness of that fact so we don’t get to buried in blaming our family dynamics.
  8. Psychology leaves out the spiritual dimension.  I am interested in the role of spiritual practice in our emotional health, mindfulness as central to this practice, and the body as a conduit to this dimension.

After making this list and carrying on a bit, I feel the need to state my manifesto in more positive terms.  I am a journalist and psychological anthropologist, an explorer into other realms of explaining and depicting our mental and physical challenges.   A writer who covers mental health paradigms.   A yoga practitioner and teacher involved in a process of finding greater physical and emotional freedom.  Writing and yoga are professions in tune with my mindset and temperament; they call me and engage me and connect me with the world.

I talk to healers, dialogue with doctors of Chinese or Indian medicine, with native American shamans, medical doctors looking into integration of perspectives.  Listen to people who’ve tune into their internal wisdom and recovered from challenging illnesses.  Explore with others in a yoga class what it means to be human and how to hear our own bodies’ messages about health.  Learn about food and herbs that work synergistically with our bodies to make us more whole.  I want to bring back some of what we lost.

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