Avant-guard psychiatry

IMG_0193When I encounter people working in alternative energy or holistic health, I find a purity to their work born from having personal experience with their modality and a conviction in its importance.  There is a clarity in their words and a humility in their demeanor.

At the moment I have in mind a psychiatrist named Will Van Derveer whom I heard speak in Boulder, Colorado, last week.   Van Derveer is soft-spoken and articulate, a lean middle-aged man with clear skin and the centeredness that stems from meditation and wisdom.  He spoke on a holistic approach to psychiatry, one that takes into account gut health, neurotransmitter fluency, chemistry, genetics, attachment disruptions, ego structure, trauma, relationship, and spirituality.  As someone who has studied psychology but often finds something missing, I reveled in hearing a perspective that made sense to me on every level.

Van Derveer does prescribe medications, but he keeps his sights on the truth that it is still the relationship between therapist that is the heart of healing, as research has shown for decades now.  He also works with natural medicine to determine if someone has adrenal fatigue, candidiasis, gluten intolerance, lyme disease, or some other issue underlying mental dysfunction.  He may order neuropsych tests as well.  He works with somatic experiencing to address trauma, and he uses a natural supplement to help those who wish to come off meds.  It’s a very complex job he has, and his clientele is varied, their symptoms sometimes mysterious.  But he listens, seeks the advice of colleagues, and recommends a variety of treatments, including yoga, tai chi, and meditation.

Many MDs do not even recognize the validity of adrenal fatigue or candida, and Van Derveer acknowledges that these issues are more often the territory of naturopaths and sometimes of a few integrative medicine docs.  But he believes these disorders are real and much of his clientele does too. He follows studies and can describe case studies in which clearing up candida or adrenal issues clears up depression, lethargy, or anxiety.

When people are suffering, have tried a myriad of treatment approaches that have not helped enough, or are inclined to minimize medication use, they seek out Van Derveer’s.  They may have to make some real lifestyle changes, but this doc is patient and understanding.  He understands the importance of community and social support in making changes and recovering.  He understands the problems involved in an unbalanced brain and in addiction.  He has compassion, and he is open to learning from patients, colleagues, research.

Here is a man in touch with the realities of his time, the evolution of medicine, the suffering of his fellow creatures.  When someone in the audience asked him why he often prescribes medications for a person in acute distress, he said, “fear.”  Not a common confession from a physician, but an honest one.  Another listener noted that compassion is also involved in wanting to help someone suffering deeply and using the most powerful or best known remedy at hand.  At another point he spoke of the need to accept a condition and the ongoing struggles associated.   For me, the daughter of a doctor, I am most impressed by one admitting his fears, the limitations of medical knowledge, and this awareness of the complexity of humans, our environments and the food we eat.  At the same time I am reassured that he is attentive to the latest thinking and research as well as the experience of patients.

Other things he said let me know he is aware of his own psychological issues, that he eats well, lives well, and learns from mistakes.  Here is the art of medicine in full relief:  open to mystery, employing intellect and intuition, considering the natural world, practicing what one preaches, learning from mistakes and from patients and colleagues of all ranks.   I call him enlightened.

The brave new world of work

IMG_0618I peruse the want ads online for that off-hand chance I’ll discover a job that I want, but also to learn of trends and new companies. Once in a while I see a job that is a good fit, but I have yet to land one. And while I look, I find that I am formulating a role for myself, one whose outlines have slowly emerged and brought me to a place where I can now fill in this little sketch.

The online world has stimulated my thought process. I read the blogs of entrepreneurs like Seth Godin, Penelope Trunk, and Chris Guillebeau. I see artists and healers make a name for themselves through their online presence. And I read about new professions, like digital media coordinator and web content manager, or ayurvedic counselor. New types of health professions are emerging, like navigators and coaches. Environmental fields are developing. As the world changes and consumer needs evolve, as healthcare and energy sources change, some of us will be taking on new roles. Seeing this change happening invigorates me: I like this direction and the values it espouses.

Some new businesses that inspire me include Mindbody Solutions, a nonprofit started by a yoga teacher paralyzed from the chest down. Matthew Sanford seeks to change healthcare and bring yoga philosophy to the process of rehabilitation. I see new companies developing solar energy products and new types of energy provision. New health insurance cooperatives.

I know a man who is a counselor who advises from a yogic framework. Physician Nita Desai and psychiatrist Scott Shannon in Colorado embrace nutrition and Eastern healing arts to help people heal in new ways. Brain imaging is changing the way we interpret some forms of learning or mental illness, and there are new perspectives on autoimmune diseases.

Meanwhile the digital age has made it possible for many to make their living through blogging, web design, social media, or online marketing. More folks are becoming entrepreneurs or advice distributors.

I feel that I am developing right along with all of these trends, evolving into a new kind of professional who will translate these ideas into words and “treatments.” I feel that I might finally bring together my knowledge, skills, and life experiences to serve, rather than hanging out on the fringes.

I am fashioning this conception of my work. It involves creating and running a web “magazine” on mental health in the digital age. One utilizing my knowledge of yoga, ayurveda, and mindfulness. My other hat will be educator/coach. I want to work with a holistic psychiatrist or an ayurvedic practitioner teaching about mindfulness, yoga, and yoga philosophy for the westerner. The third component of this work is facilitating support or discussion groups, in which people learn together how they are getting in their own way and how to apply mindfulness, nutrition, and energetic aspects of wellness.

Yes, in the meantime, I may serve in a good nonprofit or healthcare organization, most likely one that allows me the flexibility to develop my own endeavor. I may yet need to shed a few layers of my own armor, fear, and limited perceptions to embrace my creative power and take a fully realized role in my community. I know deep down it can be done.

I think of body workers who changed the “world” like Moshe Feldenkrais and Ida Rolf. Of academics, scientists, or clergy who thought out of the box: Einstein, Buckminster Fuller, Howard Zinn, Thomas Merton. People who tried to make it in established professions until creating their own niche, like Karen Armstrong, former nun who became the writer of The History of God, Buddha, and Islam. Throughout my whole adult life I have wondered, “Can we not do the work that engages our particular sensitivity?” It is the artists and somatic educators who inspire me: In them I see an engagement and fostering of life, a vocation that also provides a “living.”

For me the question is, What stirs my heart and serves the world? Though I have longed searched for my niche, it just may be that I have to create it.

My lack of ambition

IMG_0325Ambition

noun

a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work : her ambition was to become a model | he achieved his ambition of making a fortune.

• desire and determination to achieve success : life offered few opportunities for young people with ambition.

ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from Latin ambitio(n-), from ambire ‘go around (canvassing for votes).’ 

What is ambition?  Last week, my friend said she was struck that my partner and I accept each other’s seeming lack of ambition.  What does she mean?  Should I be offended?  My friend comes from a very accomplished family and has siblings and friends who have high status jobs and high salaries, its true, but I assumed she was commenting more on our acceptance of each other and our humble material status (I’ll have to clarify with her for sure).

Her comment elicited some interesting thought on my part.  Ambition . . . I think my partner and I have different organizing structures than much of society.  In a way we are dedicated to a lifestyle and to values of simplicity.  To gentle vocation . . . He is a carpenter who likes to build things, fish, mountain bike, and hike.  He is devotedd to me, to his children, and to his parents.  I am committed to a mission, in a sense, to help individuals and communities be healthier in mind and body.   Money therefore, is not the main motivator for either member of this couple.

So no, we do not have big, high-paying jobs.  We aspire to earn more money, but we’d like to do so by doing what we do better.   In the meantime we are happy.  We enjoy our relationship and lifestyle immensely, and we love living near the Rocky Mountains.  We have good family relations, good friends, good food, and time for books and building fly rods and writing.  We spend as much time as we can outdoors, and we consider ourselves richly blessed.

If ambition in our society connotes success, than I want to ask what success entails.  I identify with passion, with the development of excellence, with innovation, and with developing work, art, or vocation with enthusiasm and integrity.  Ambition can easily become merged with destructive ends, or it can be clouded by insecurity or the undue influence of others.  Consider the instance of the woman who becomes a doctor because her parents want her to while she wants to be an English professor.

So I don’t really identify with the concept of ambition.  Do I have drive?  Yes, I feel an enduring and deep motivation to investigate what it means to be healthy in mind and body, to live from spirit and humble inquiry into what spirit means.  Do I work hard and persist?  I think I do:  I work hard to integrate yoga into healthcare, and I challenge myself to work with others, learn from others, about what they need to be healthy, what helps and hinders.  I explore models of health and mental healthcare.  I keep writing and stirring up conversation on the issue.

I do relate to ambition more in the original roots of the concept, “to go around [canvassing for votes].”  I travel about, looking for like minded people, listening to people struggling with illness and pain, investigating organizations that were set up to help but may or may not be.  I read history and Eastern philosophy and explore various healing arts to learn more about where we came from, about our imbalanced institutions and professions and what might be missing.  I work in different institutions to learn when I am too idealistic and to compare notes with others.

What a different meaning the word ambition had originally.  The current meaning is one I relate to in this sense that I have of drive, but I am wary of how distorted, or corrupt it can become.  My driving question is, How do I live this one life that I have?  What do my head and heart say?  How does my body want to engage?  What makes me a better person, more present?

I want to be present, internally motivated, a healing presence.  I love this life.  I want children to grow up being honored and feeling free to follow their passions and to align those passions with their ambition rather than living a distorted or destructive sense of the term.  I want to enjoy my connection to the earth and to my loved ones.  I want to create and share.

You see, my friend’s comment made me think of lifestyle and motivation, but it also lead me to the idea of archetypes.  My partner is an artisan, and I also see him as a “husband” in the old sense of the word:  a master of the home who can construct the hearth, build the fire, feed his family, cultivate a garden, fish the streams and care for the earth.  What does a man like him do with ambition and pressure to succeed in the material world defined by the current version of Western civilization?  From my perspective, he is a companion, in the archetypal and practical sense.   Me?  Perhaps I am a rebel, visionary, or storyteller:  I am a person seeking to bring deeper wisdom to our society and our healthcare system.

It seems to me that once you touch into these archetypal energies, once you think of a life unfolding, ambition can show itself to be misguided energy.  For me the intrinsic motivation is the gem of a life, something more like the idea of the “daemon,” or forces of nature, or the gods themselves guiding us strongly and surely and shaping our outer life.  A deep and driving force inside us, something ambition, fear, and conformity can stifle.

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.

Happy or normal?

IMG_0920I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning never stops.  The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

That’s Jeannette Winterson, in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She is talking about her long-time fascination with the Grail stories and Perceval’s “twenty years wandering in the woods, looking for the thing that he found, that was given to him, that seemed so easy, that was not.”

Winterson’s book is a memoir.  Adopted at the age of six weeks, she has explored issues of identity through reading and writing, an endeavor I identify with strongly.  Her book elicits thoughts and memories for me related to my worklife, and this message in the grail stories reassures me as it did Winterson.  I remember that the same message comes through in The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, another favorite of mine whose title is a reference to this process of departing and returning.

At one point in my life I worked for a magazine on a staff of creative writers as well as with people revisioning psychology, looking at the field’s intersection with spirituality.  Already a reader of Carl Jung, an observer of my dreams, and a student of Taoism, I couldn’t believe my fortune in landing this job.  The staff, which was young and inquisitive, attended plays and concerts after work, had stimulating conversations over lunch.  I was living my dream life.  Then the magazine folded, and most of us were faced with the prospect of reentering a more utilitarian, mechanistic work world.  Like Perceval, I’ve been trying to find my way back for a long time, and I haven’t made it, though I’ve found sure found some nuts and berries along the way.

Like teaching yoga and studying ayurveda.  Exposure to some incredible teachers and experiences through yoga.  Writing articles on Feldenkrais, Continuum, and qigong.  Studying Hakomi, or body-oriented psychotherapy.  Working for an herbalist and making tinctures from freshly harvested herbs.

Like living in a small town in Colorado and hiking in the mountains.  Working at a bookstore, meeting folks in the disability world.

Finding berries in the form of books and ideas from novels of all kinds to Kerouac to American history, to Buddhist psychology to yoga to Jung, Wendell Berry to David Orr and Terry Tempest Williams.

Work has been spotty, but I have grown, and I’ve had an incredible education.  I am ready to plug into a community, a project, an organization working for change in healthcare and education.  Think Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal.  The Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, Positive Futures Network, the Center for Mind-body Medicine.

Where do I come out?  Winterson writes that the “stories of loss, of loyalty, of failure, of recognition of second chances” related to the Grail continue to inform her life.  Right now they inspire me, for I have experienced loss of good and connected jobs.  I have remained true to my mission in many ways, but I have also failed by becoming lost in fear or alienation, but I am still here, and I recognize the second chance.  I come back to writing, yoga, and integrative medicine.  My “Perceval” question to the Parker Palmers, the James Gordons, the editors of Yes! magazine, is, can I work with you?

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.

My yoga career as a template

child pose eliza snow istockHave you had a lot of satisfaction in your career?  A sense of mastery?  The ability to make things happen?  Those are questions I wonder about, for myself and others.  Mostly because I have not found such attributes in abundance, at least not in my office jobs.  But I did experience them as a yoga teacher.

If you are imagining me as that advanced student, as master teacher demonstrating extra-advanced poses in my trendy yoga wear, let that picture go.  It’s not applicable.  Here is the real story:  I ordered a couple of half-price yoga pants online, incorporated some comfy tie dye t-shirts, and went looking for gigs.  I applied to various institutions, a recreation center, the local hospital, a corporation, and a drug court.  I was inflexible, shy, and naïve about yoga.  But I loved it and had to do it.

Teaching was excruciating for me for several years.  Sitting before a group of people and conveying something I barely understood was uncomfortable to say the least.   But darn if it wasn’t compelling, and I listened to feedback and learned.  I felt my way through, literally, in my body.  In this job I could move, demonstrate, engage physically, mentally, and spiritually.  At the same time, my yoga teacher told me that people would just be grateful to be led through a class, and her comment helped me relax.

I developed a sense of myself and a sense of my vocation as a yoga teacher.  I saw ways to integrate yoga into institutions, and I became a good promoter.  I felt motivated from within, energized by my work.  As I ventured into various organizations, I was not discouraged that administrators knew little about yoga, instead I became a translator between the institution and the practice, the fitness world and the mindfulness world.

About eight years in I became really good at teaching yoga, something I attribute to having lived and absorbed it and to the inspiration of a teacher who taught me what I most needed to learn.   From her I learned that yoga was more about undoing patterns and waking up, and I was able to guide people through that process.  For me, it was about educating the body, mind, and soul.

In my career I learned many skills, like teaching methods, communication, promotion, translation, conveying material through multiple modalities.  I used many of my strengths and learned to work better with my weaknesses.

In time I changed and began to explore the idea of educating about integrative medicine.  For a while I lost my bearings.  Yoga didn’t seem like a resume building skill, and my other skills had faded into the background.  Forgetting about the success I’d had and the many folks who expressed gratitude for my classes, I felt “unmarketable.”

And yet it is my experience with yoga that is coming back to me now and informing me in a visceral way.  I realize that yoga has taught me what was most important in my overall career.  I remember that feeling of vocation, of commitment, of mission, and I remember the willingness to barrel ahead even though I had little experience in a field.  I know that I can come up with my own proposals, contact folks who might need my skills and knowledge, translate my heart-felt sense of contributing to my stress-ridden society.

I sense the fertile ground available to me and my opportunity to create something new.  And I continue to do my own yoga and meditation practice so that deeper wisdom and steadiness might accompany me on the path.

Magical connections occur, a sense of possibility surfaces.  I feel my muscles, my conviction, my confidence in my ability and my right to assert myself in the world and offer what I’ve got.  If I do not fit in a particular job, that’s okay, I still have my mission, my contribution to make, work to do, and spiritual lessons to learn.

To sum it up, yoga gave me a sense of myself (this being who knows the connection to mind and body), it gave me some inner knowing and some muscle, and it gave me a bridge to the medical and mental health realms which are so in need of change.  It provided me with connections to individuals that educated and supported me, and it gave me a meaningful role in my community.  When I feel like there is a hole in my “career” experience, I remember how satisfied I was, how much I grew, and how much I gave.  I know I built new bridges, and I know I provided something there, under the radar of the institutions, that woke people up a little.  If not to spiritual or physical mastery, to just knowing their bodies a bit better, knowing how to move more easily, knowing how to be embodied on the earth for this short time we’re given.

When I was a yoga student with the right teacher, I felt like I was getting the single most important education of my life.  I hope some of my students felt that way, and I hope I don’t forget what I learned.

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?

Steve Jobs and me

I am reading Steve Jobs’s biography.   Why does this yoga teacher want to read about an arrogant nasty person whose work centered on technology?  Really it was encountering the applications of iPhones and iPads in the disability world and the recommendation of a woman I met at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

A person could write about 15 different aspects of Jobs’s career, but I’m particularly drawn toward two of his work traits.  He knew how to focus, and he usually knew what to focus on.  “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he said.  “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”   So he narrowed down the projects that Apple worked on and sought to perfect the products and services associated.   The other trait I admire in him is realizing what people need before they need it and creating it (and yes, it can obviously be argued that we don’t need iPhones).

The truth is that my current greatest career challenges are learning to focus and developing the confidence to press forward to create something I think many folks don’t know they need.   I have this problem of being distracted by some shiny existing job with a good salary when I am already on track in terms of creating my work.

Instead I need to hone in on my task, find others to work with, and follow Jobs’s example by going my own way, keeping my finger on the pulse of change, creating that which people do not yet know they need.

What did Jobs decide to turn away from as he moved toward his vision?  He turned away from developing some products, from working with other companies in sharing software, from employees who were not smart, creative, and tough.  Perhaps he decided not to focus on gentleness in his rush to produce.  He certainly didn’t waste time with people or things or designs he didn’t like.  What he did focus on was products he thought people would need, that would help them to be more creative, that would change the world.

What do I need to turn away from?  Fear, fancy mainstream jobs, the latest “lucrative career fields” posted on Yahoo.com.  I think that the need to belong and the fear of poverty are behind the process.  Like everyone, I want to feel needed, valued, productive, and like I can make a good living.  Such needs can supersede my creativity.  In addition, we are trained and conditioned from an early age to take our places in the system as it is rather than to question it and create new things.  Such conditioning has a strong hold on me and it slips in when I feel frustrated or isolated in what I’m doing.  Jobs’s cantankerous personality and his rebellions streak may have actually helped him stay on track, to be immune to the above mentioned needs and fears.  I do think his drive to create affected his behavior with others and was linked to his meanness.  Yet it seems his internal value system influenced his ability to inspire those who are creative, intelligent, and self-motivated.

And how do I stay focused?  I need to turn toward what excites and challenges me.  And toward tasks that align with my personal characteristics.  To calling attention to the failings in our health and mental healthcare system and proposing new models, to teaching yoga and writing.  I need to keep poking my nose out there.Image

I keep connecting with organizations and individuals involved in health care as a yoga teacher and writer.  My thought is to help individuals with health issues tune into their own inner wisdom, their own talents (re Jobs), their communities.  I take inspiration from the part of Jobs that was committed, took risks, connected with bright individuals in garages and corporations, dressed to suit himself, and kept his sights on the product.  Yes, many of his qualities were not as inspiring, but his focus and drive are.  And I do choose to take his advice to “think different.”

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.

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