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?

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.

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