Spiral staircases and old friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The trouble with Dr. Oz?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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