Spiral staircases and old friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?

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.

The other side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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