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.

Core beliefs revisited

IMG_1162I am so grateful for the comments on my blog on core beliefs.  I read more than 100 notes from people who are also questioning inner and outer belief structures, from people who seek more balance or simplicity in their lives, and from people who experienced awakenings in their minds and hearts through practicing yoga, dance, or martial arts.  Thank you so much for the kind encouragement and for letting me know you are in this process of reexamination too.

Some asked what my core beliefs are, and that is a good question.   I am talking about core beliefs in relation to my unconscious psychology, some of those beliefs that I formed as a kid and that shaped the way I see and experience things.  One is that I lack worth or a right to be myself, a perception fairly common in Westerners, from what I read.  I have constructed whole stories about myself and who I am, what I can and cannot do, around this sense of being inferior.  Stories like, I can’t have enduring good work or a decent salary, that I am an outsider.  With an underlying assumption such as that, how could I ask for help, or envision myself in lucrative work, or join a community where I could be involved in mutually nourishing connections and endeavors?

But that core belief has slowly changed in me and has been replaced with the sense that I have the right to be here and to take up space.  Mindfulness practice and yoga, as well as good relationships and time in nature have eroded my old beliefs.  I observed them in action as a hakomi body-oriented psychotherapy student and client, as a yoga and Feldenkrais practitioner, as a wilderness walker, in meditation, and I have seen through them.  The movement, mindfulness, and kind interaction with other people helped untie the knots around them, and they are loose now.  I see them kick in quite often, but I am not defined by them, I do not always react through their lens.

I am in love, I have deep friendships, I have rewarding part-time work, and I am writing.  I ask for help when I need it, and when I feel myself succumbing to the old core beliefs, I can often practice a little internal yoga, feel my feet on the ground, and release them.

Yesterday I watched this video discussion between a couple of people (Bari Tessler Linden and Ben Saltzman) examining how our core beliefs kick up around money issues: Enneagram Video.

Ben, a business and career coach, talks about how the Enneagram focuses on nine types defined by core beliefs formed in childhood.  He says he began to examine his own core beliefs when he experienced the pain of mismanaging his money and energy and how he changed by observing and unraveling his beliefs and related behaviors.  So whether it be money, relationships, work, illness, or other challenge that starts us on this path of examination, we end up in the same place:  Learning about who we are and what we believe and how that serves or hinders us.

We’ve been through the age of psychotherapy, and it seems like we are now into the age of mindfulness and community building.  Many of us are unraveling these beliefs and choosing new beliefs more consciously.  People wrote to me and said they believe in love and interconnectedness, in simplicity, sustainability, and health, in practices like yoga and how they transform us, taking us closer to our true selves and leading us to more conscious living.  Wow!

Making that mission statement

IMG_0968I am seeing a career coach.  I’ve tried this before, and it wasn’t helpful, but this time it is.  What is the difference?  The fact that she has tons of experience and presents herself well, the aggressive start to our work together (starting meetings and projects), and her professionalism.  But topping the list is her ability to listen to me and make adjustments, to respect me and my path.  I feel like we are working as a team.

I’ve really struggled in my career journey.  Maybe because I hear that different drummer and want to bring a new dimension to health care rather than join the system as it is.   I’ve been an outsider.  And yet I have had some extraordinary gigs along the way, such as working for a progressive magazine and for a hospital holistic center.  And teaching yoga to teens in a county drug court.

So I know my passion for mental health, yoga, and integrative medicine, and I have writing and publishing skills.  How do I put all these together and serve my community?  As I began to pay more attention to the digital world, it occurred to me that I could be a website content manager for a healthcare organization and teach yoga on the side.  But I felt I needed some help getting there, so I called Katy Piotrowski of Career Solutions in Fort Collins, Colorado.

We started out with The Strengths Finder and some values assessments.  I’m glad, because they helped validate my direction and enhanced my focus.   After working with Katy for five weeks, I feel stronger on my path, better armed with tools and techniques, clearer in focus, and readier to reach out to others to promote myself and reconnect with my work.

Katy is a successful entrepreneur herself, and I observe personal integrity and high standards in her.  She is always on time, and dresses well, and looks me in the eye.  She encourages me but points out areas to work on. Six weeks into our work together she asked for my feedback on her services.

It is lovely to experience aid in such an effective form:  I feel like the lonely adventurer I’ve read about in stories, a hero type who has struggled in the wilderness, been wounded, and is then taken in by a kindly soul who nurses her back to health and provides sustenance for the next leg of the journey. For one who doesn’t quite synch with the ways of the world, the path can feel rough, but now I pause to collect myself:  I train my body and my mind with courses; I receive mentoring; I articulate my mission.

It’s time for me to step forth and find like-minded people, to put my energy and creativity to work at a higher level.  Having gone through those woods and found my path, I’m getting the help I need to connect with these people and the work.  So this blog is less about career counseling, and more about me deciding I’m worth the investment and need help pulling my experience and abilities together into a new form.   It is not about selling myself to get a job and earn a living, but presenting myself and telling others what I can do.  Its about connecting with a broader wave of change in the workforce consisting of folks developing new models of business and care. I am glad for the help, and I hope to pass it on.

What are your core beliefs?

IMG_0042A decade ago I moved from northern Virginia to a small town in Colorado with just a carful of belongings.   I left behind a marriage and a job and joined some good friends who were living what I saw as a conscious and sane life.  A part of me was looking for time in the mountains to deprogram and start afresh.  With more space and quiet, in a gentler town, perhaps I could get down to some wiser ways.

Did that happen?  In many ways it did.  The East is so dense with people, buildings, and culture that a girl sometimes can’t separate her own values out from those of the society.  In the cacophony, the quick pace, the getting and spending, one doesn’t even have time to think.  The attitudes of society soak in through her pores and affect her thoughts and behavior.

When I settled in Colorado, I found a job with odd hours, and I hiked up many a mountain.  I sought out yoga classes, then a yoga teacher training.  Slowly I began to unwind my physical patterns, my muscular tension and my defenses against the world.  In a hakomi, or body-centered psychotherapy, training I sat with peers in mindfulness and observed my core beliefs emerge.  I found an outstanding yoga teacher whose classes took me on an ecstatic journey, and after all this, I could feel my feet on the ground, my animal body engaged in the world, my heart open so that I engaged more easily with others.  I hoped work and love would flow more easily.  And they did, especially love.  Work?  I’m still progressing on that front.

Presently I find myself wondering how we in this country developed the mindset we have and the belief that we must work excessively and purchase new gadgets regularly.  I wonder how our environment, healthcare system, and political system all became so toxic or dysfunctional.  There is an armoring and network of habits at the national level just as there is at the individual level, of course.  We buffer ourselves against remembering another set of values by escaping into entertainment and the pursuit of status, or things.  I see a clinging to old beliefs and habits.  I see a belief in the dominance of a market economy above all.

I turned to history to understand more, and I read about the founding fathers and their ideas, about Christian fundamentalism, about the decline of intellectualism, about our perspectives on the body and about the evolution of psychology.  How, I wondered, did we become so materialistic?  How did a business mentality so thoroughly permeate medicine and education?  How did we get to this place where we must work such long hours and commute such long distances to have enough money for expenses?

At the same time I wonder what might help us to loosen hold of those beliefs and reconsider.  Let some new ideas in.  Would it be a change in education?  More yoga and less time on treadmills?  More time in nature?  That’s my prescription!  But each of us thinks we know what would be best, and none of us knows the whole truth about our troubles and what to do about them.

The good news is that younger people are coming up with new ways of doing things.  Whether it is because they are facing less abundance than their parents or just seeing what the world is now, they are already trying something different.  Generation Y, for example, is said to want a shorter work day and more time for family, more flexibility in their jobs, and meaningful work or lifestyle that includes work.  They want to support their communities.

I see this trend evolving in this small town I landed in.   Many young people are starting small businesses, collaborating to build a counter economy.  There are people making a living as web designers, social media managers, artists, and healers.  They find ways to network, or share office space, to promote one another’s businesses.  When our society can sustain these folks well, or if they can sustain themselves, we will all be healthier.

There is so much that is rich in life that becomes buried in business and striving.  I am a baby boomer with the values of Generation Y.  A yoga teacher in need of a job, a job in which I work with others for something I believe in and yet also have time for family and creative work.  Time to be outside.  Time for prayer and mediation and the study of history.  We need to really think about what we believe, what we feel in response to the world around us, and where we need to go.  Because if we don’t change course, we will pay a big price.

Can we not examine the bundles of assumptions and beliefs wrapped around us so tightly that we can’t notice?  It is time, right now, to slow down, to look both inside and out and consciously choose the values we will live.

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?

Until I get it right

IMG_0820You know the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray gets to repeat one particular day until he changes his degenerate ways and turns instead to educating himself and helping others?  I feel like I’m having that experience at work in a disability center, though I am not sure what the end result should be.  The thing though, is that each day I feel like my slate from the day before has been erased.  I walk in with an opportunity to write something brand new on it.

What creates this type of environment?  How can it be that we get to try again, and again?  Is it that disability and illness are such great levelers that whatever warts we exhibited the day before are sloughed off?  Is it that the staff members have such good hearts that they forgive very easily?  Is it that each of us is humbled by our own foibles, or that we don’t have the energy to over-react to conflicts?  We are not a paragon of character:  Or are we?  Nah, I don’t think so . . . I think we have good hearts, and I think the visible suffering and injury we see put things in perspective.

I have to say that on the other hand, there are people who have become disgruntled and left.  Or people who don’t trust or like each other.  But from where I stand, and in relating to people whom I sometimes get short with, I am given multiple opportunities to try again, to get my feet under me and encounter a coworker afresh, exhibiting more patience, more kindness.   I repeat the scenario time after time, experiencing it on good days or bad, at times when my feet are firmly underneath me and times when they aren’t.  I learn from my previous mistakes, and when in a better mood, I realize I don’t need to feel quite so threatened by a tricky encounter.

Take for example my interactions with two staff members who are on the needy side, who attempt to rope others in to take care of them or do their jobs.  They appear to me to take advantage of others, to manipulate them into doing things for them that they can do themselves.  My first response is to avoid them, and yet I continue to encounter the same experience with them and play out different responses.  I learn to be kind but to tell them I am not available to do their task.  I have grown to like these folks now that my boundaries are established, and I am grateful for the lesson I have learned.

Is this continual situation at work dysfunction to eliminate or an opportunity to learn?  One could argue for the former, particularly in other workplaces, but in this environment of disability services, things are turned upside down, and people have much more latitude for behavioral issues.  And room to focus on one’s spirit.

All of us on the staff are older, have seen some hard knocks.   We know when to back off.  We know when to laugh.  And we know when to tell someone they are crossing a line.   We value the casual, relaxed environment we work in and the autonomy we have.  And we value serving others.  One thing I can say is, if life is a game, if all this earthly living is an illusion as the Buddhists say, this place teaches me how to play, how to be, and how to embrace my imperfection.  It is gentle enough that in it I remember life really is a game, that we are just passing through.  And I realize that an environment that makes space for this awareness is quite unusual:  It is no small feat to create it.  Within this little world I often think of Jesus’ statement, “The meek shall inherit the earth.”  And I wonder, what really is important in our work days?

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