One way to define love is "sustained, compassionate attention". These words came from John Muir Laws, a naturalist, educator, and artist who inspires stewardship of the land by sharing his practice of nature sketching. When I read these words, I began to see the importance of my own art practice in developing sustained, compassionate attention for myself.Read More
I recently returned from a week-long stay in Keystone, Colorado. I was there with a small group of physicians gathered to restore their voice to the practice of medicine.
How I got there was through a series of events I can only call synchronicity.
What I felt was a profound feeling of "coming home".
I showed up as all of me, in full color. My role was to listen deeply and expansively, and I chose to record what I heard in visual form.
It was as if everything I practiced was serving me in my service to this gathering. Each morning I woke early and rode my rented bike along the many trails around Keystone. I listened to the Snake River winding its way through the trees. I inhaled with awe each time I arrived at the vista of Lake Dillon. I clawed my way up a steep hill only to be rewarded with the jackpot of a stunning view of Breckenridge and beyond.
I had learned from these past few years of practicing self-care that these morning steps were my fuel for being present and thinking creatively. I knew what to do - even in an environment away from my familiar surroundings at home - because I had practiced them into new habits. I had my biking clothes, I was comfortable riding, and all I had to do was explore new roads and read new maps.
I also had my daily sketching and art journaling practice in place, something I started only within the last two years. I have experimented with many different formats and media, and I am comfortable drawing outside. On this trip, I brought a small Moleskine Japanese album with accordion pages. It fit in my small travel purse or pocket, and I carried a pouch with pen, markers, and water brushes.
On my morning rides, I often sketched a scene quickly in ink, filling in color later in the day or in the evening. I noticed what I noticed. I took note of the stories I wanted to tell. And by the time I got home, there were three or four panels that needed coloring, which I completed within a few days.
New experiences, new people, new places -- all of these fuel my creativity and keep me inspired.
I am grateful for the daily practices I cultivate at home, so I am well-prepared to stay open when I'm on the road.
For a frame-by-frame caption story of my Keystone travel journal, see my post here.
For an in-depth reflection on the contents of the physician meeting and its impact on me personally, stay tuned!
"When you touch one thing with awareness, you touch everything." - Thich Nhat Hanh
Since moving to the coastside community of Half Moon Bay three years ago, I've become more and more inspired by farmers. Specifically, local organic farmers and the ecosystems they steward. I am not sure how this evolution happened, but somewhere along the way, in the age of industrial farming and processed foods, in the trance of busyness that convinced me to prioritize my "job" over taking the time to feed myself well, I woke up to the way farmers are actually key players in the health care ecosystem.
For me, the past few weeks have included the following. On the first Saturday of May, my acoustic rock duo provided the live music for our local farmers' market. Our evolution from being loyal customers to becoming more active participants in the ecosystem providing this precious resource for our community has been a dream come true for the kind of musicians we desire to be. We play for tips, lettuce, strawberries, olive oil, bread, chocolate, a bit of cash, and a big dose of the love that comes from knowing we are feeding the community with our art and joy.
Two weeks ago, I became a member of my first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). This means I signed up to get a box of locally grown, organic produce delivered to my door by a farm collective every two weeks. In each box is a note from Farmer Paul, with a poetic missive on his observations in the field, followed by some bullet points on "how to be a great and green member of the farm family". These two lines really hit home for me:
"Remember, you are not a customer; you are a shareholder in our farm.
Paying your bill is not enough. Owning a share means doing your share."
The "aha" for me was that I do have a responsibility. I was not just "buying" a box of food delivered to my door each week. I am now responsible for holding a piece of the thread. I am now a weaver of our local ecosystem. I am adding my voice to the chorus saying "Yes!" to locally grown organic produce, picked by hand, delivered by hand, and gifted to us all by the land. Do you feel that? We are gifted our food from the land. The land is not a factory. It is a generous donor and partner. And what we give to the land it gives back to us in multiples.
Several days later, I attended a lecture by Daphne Miller, MD, a family physician and author of the book, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing. Her curiosity about the relationship between her patients' health and the health of our soil led her on a global odyssey to visit small family-owned farms, as well as agricultural scientists and ecologists studying organic farming practices. The one-sentence summary of her talk was, "We are the soil." What we put into the earth, we put into ourselves. And what we put into ourselves, we also put back into the earth.
All of this has gotten me thinking more about both how we feed our world, and how we are fed by our world.
The thought seeds that take root in our consciousness create feelings which course through the cells of our body as chemical signals and are digested in each cell, creating our experience of life.
Imagine the gut - our digestive system - as the place where our feelings about the world are taken in, broken down and digested into the elements that fuel our entire being system of Soul+Body+Mind, driving our decisions and actions in the world.
Each of us is a mini ecosystem living within a sphere of progressively larger ecosystems - our bodies, our relationships, our homes, our families, our communities, our nations, our planet, and our cosmos. Mindfulness of food - what we put into our mouths - equals mindfulness of what we take in from our experience of life and what we perceive through our consciousness.
When we touch the essence of "WE ARE THE SOIL", we see that what we feed our consciousness we also feed to our world.
What are some things you can do now, in your world, to live more from this awareness?
- walk outside and breathe fresh air...imagine and feel the air feeding every cell of your body
- notice the products you choose that wash down the drain -- this eventually becomes part of our soil
- plant a garden
- walk barefoot in or touch actual soil or living earth
- vote with your dollars and support a local organic farmer in your area
- receive the sounds in your environment and notice how they are feeding you
- clean up your thinking...junk thoughts equals junk food
- love what you feel and trust your gut
Your mind may react to this list as being too simple to have an impact. But I believe we can each find our own way of remembering the ecosystems we are already part of. And when we remember, we touch everything in our world in a new way.
We can reclaim our position as owners again...not just customers, but holders of our own share in this web of life.
It has been fourteen years since I graduated from University of Michigan Medical School. I have journeyed far from the field of medicine, and yet my heart keeps hearing the call to return to my physician communities and share what I have learned. I simply cannot ignore my sense that the pain within our health care system - now felt at every level, including patients, physicians, and payors - is a resounding call to wake us up to our next stage of evolution.
It takes only a cursory scanning of the headlines of medical blogs like this one to get a sense for the unrest, the frustration, and the abundance of innovative practices emerging as a result of the rising sense of powerlessness among doctors. I left medicine immediately after receiving my MD, moving into uncharted waters after the Dean of Career Development at Michigan told me, "You're on your own. We can't help you with that." This was when, as a fourth year student, I announced I would be pursuing a career in venture capital.
I volunteered at a private equity investment firm - yes, I worked for no pay - and six weeks later, I was hired as an Associate. Within two years I was the youngest partner-level Investment Manager in the firm. No one told me this was possible. I simply would not accept anyone else's opinion of what I could or could not do. Especially after what I witnessed in my world of medical training.
One of my most vivid memories was on my Vascular Surgery rotation, where I was absolutely loving the concept of what we were doing - as intellectual masturbation material. But in practice, what I saw was my future laid out in the following scenarios. The second year resident, sick as a dog, showed up to work anyway, and, too weak to stand, lay down on a gurney in the OR while a case was going on. The third year vascular surgery fellow, a gentile Southern man, was in the middle of a lower extremity bypass graft and stepped out of the room. He lifted his mask, vomited into the scrub sink, and then reentered the OR to continue the procedure. This happened two more times within the same procedure before he completed.
Many of you reading this may be nodding and saying, "Yup. That's just the way it is. Suck it up or leave it." And my question is, "If you have trained yourself not to feel, what else might you be missing in your experience of other people?".
Later in the month, on a Saturday night call, we brought Mrs. X into the OR at about 10pm. This was hospital day 50-something for her. She had come in for a routine renal artery stent, and apparently had embolized into her IMA, killing off part of her gut. Her wound was infected, she developed multi-organ failure, and was kept alive, with an open abdominal incision, on a ventilator. She was unresponsive, and it was unclear, each day of the month we rounded on her, whether the family was aware of her prognosis. One day I spoke to her husband, and he told me, glossy-eyed, that the day before she was admitted to the hospital, they had played tennis together. He looked forward to the day they could do this again. What a far cry from the rigid piece of meat that was plugged into machinery and called "alive". I was confused, then, when we suddenly decided to bring her back to the OR to "drain her abdomen" or do something surgical, when there was no clinical evidence of any change in her status.
I will never forget the first snipping of the sutures holding her abdominal fascia together, as a wave of black liquid gushed out of her belly. We tried to catch some of it in a test tube to "send it for culture". As if we couldn't predict the lab report of "multiple anaerobic organisms not otherwise specified". Then, at around 11pm, our 63-year-old attending vascular surgeon walked in. He had street clothes on, and held a mask over his face. He leaned about ten degrees in over the body and said, "OK, I'm signing off". Then walked out.
We were left with closing her up, bringing this woman - not just a body - back to the ICU, and coming up with a story in our notes about what we did and why.
I moved on to a different rotation before she was ever pronounced dead. I wasn't there when someone had to break the news to her husband that they would never play tennis again in this lifetime. But I internalized a lesson in that month about the price of actually DOING what I LOVED. A door inside my heart closed, believing that my heart's desire - to do a job I loved, and to live a LIFE I loved - was simply not possible. I had to choose one or the other.
Since then, I have been a partner-track professional in a venture capital firm (again, something I was told would not be possible given my experience), I moved to California to follow my childhood dream of starting a violin school, built a successful six-figure business on my own from scratch, and then experienced the loss of that school through what I now see was burnout.
The gifts of burnout have been the rediscovery of my humanity, my desire, my creativity, my purpose, my own healing, and my love. I love empowering people and being co-empowered in relationships. I love seeing my ideas in action. And I love being the facilitator of true healing and transformation in people.
I have created a life in which I do what I love, and I am fully supported in the very uniqueness of my expressions of love. I have received trainings in life coaching, sound healing, traditional Thai massage, Breema bodywork, and Bio Optic Holography. I made a conscious transition from playing only classical music for thirty-plus years to improvising on my violin, voice, and other instruments. I co-created an acoustic rock duo with my partner-in-life, and we perform in public regularly. We live in a beautiful natural setting, among a community of people who value artistic expression, stewardship of the earth, and mutual support. I birthed myself as a visual artist, and have exhibited in a juried show during my first year as a painter. I have traveled the world and studied with the most inspiring people I have ever met in my life. And I share this with people, one-on-one, in groups, by phone and face-to-face.
I have avoided sharing the fullness of my learnings with physicians, other than those who happen to find me in their own internet searches. I have been hiding my joy. And now, even as I feel my fear of wading into shark-infested waters, I choose to bring my message to you. It is not necessary to settle for what others have told you is possible, or even for what you have defined in the past as possible. You are a creative force far beyond your current imagination.
I have followed the public and academic discourse on physician burnout and suicide, and I notice several things. First, the good news. It's being discussed and therefore legitimized as a "syndrome" in the eyes of the medical establishment. Not surprisingly, however, burnout is being "medicalized" as a diagnosis that must be prevented, eradicated, treated aggressively, and fought like a battle against a raging enemy among us. This is the medical mindset. It's how we were all trained to see the world - to focus on what's right and wrong, eradicate the wrong, and restore the system to its previous state if at all possible.
I have a different perspective. I see the experience of burnout not as something to be eradicated, shamed, attacked, or avoided, but as something to experience with full participation and curiosity. To see the depths of despair and loss as a form of structural tension within a system that holds great innate latent potential to launch a powerful trajectory in the direction of your greater mission in life. Yes, I believe your personal, specific experience of burnout holds the very keys to the fulfillment of your wildest dreams and desires for your thriving life.
Fundamentally, the process is one of remembering your love. Remembering your art. Remembering YOUR medicine. And LIVING YOUR MEDICINE. Yes, that means looking at yourself. Shining loving light - transcending right and wrong - on those experiences within you that require healing attention. When you have walked with courage through your own healing process, and you have touched the places within you that you did not understand how to love previously, you become your medicine. You embody the grace of healing, and you effortlessly deliver the level of care, compassion, and precision that flows through you as love.
If your heart says YES, please join me for a free introductory call to my new program for physicians, "Live Your Medicine", by registering here. Vote for your own joy, creativity, and desire by taking a courageous step on behalf of your own heart. And please reach out to any colleagues you know who may benefit from this discussion.
When I was a senior in high school applying to college, I remember one university had as its essay question, "What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?". I remember considering not applying to that school because I couldn't think of a failure to write about.
At the time, I was on the receiving end of a lot of attention and praise for never having failed (publicly at least). But now as an adult, I know the trap of living a life based on avoidance of failure. It's no success to have reached all the goals that have been set for you, to have checked all the boxes other people have laid out as important for you, and then to look in the mirror and not recognize yourself. Or to have your body screaming in pain or exhaustion.
Having been there and done that, I have rediscovered the vital importance of failure. Not "achieving" failure as an identity, but being willing to fail. I gave a workshop on Friday to a group of engineers, coaches, consultants, startup founders, and other change agents interested in how groups of people grow and learn. It was based entirely around sound, voice, and music improvisation - in other words, the most common fears of about ninety-nine percent of the population.
The name of the workshop was, "Play the Wrong Note: Daring Adventures in Learning, Failure, and Creativity". The title actually refers to a specific moment in my life when everything changed for me. Those four words - "Play the wrong note" - were the four most compassionate words ever spoken to me by a teacher. No one in a position of authority had ever said, "Lisa, I want to see you break the rules. And I'll help you." It turned out to be the most loving instructions I ever received, and the framework for an entire body of work.
It was about three months in to my sound healing training program. A weekend workshop dedicated to the art of improvisation. I thought I could just observe and let the others do this improvisation thing, which was clearly for "those people" but not me. So I hid behind the teacher with my violin tucked under my arm, hoping he would not see me or ask me to participate in this bluesy, jazzy jam that was happening all around me.
And, of course, at that very moment, he turned around and pointed right at me. "You! Solo!" he said.
I had no idea what to play. I wasn't into blues or jazz and had no reference point for what sounds to make. He could sense that I needed help so he said, "Play the wrong note."
My facial expression must have communicated the feeling I had, which was, "OK. But...which one?". There were an infinite number of wrong notes I could play. How would I know which one was right?
He smiled and took my finger in his hand, and moved it to a random place on the fingerboard of my violin. "Play that," he said gently.
I heard his instructions, but when I tried to play, my bow arm literally would not move. I was so hard-wired to play only the right notes - after daily practicing from age four - that my entire body would not allow me to play any wrong ones.
It was the perfect timing for me. I was ready. I had had a lifetime of good training, practice, and mastery. I was wired for success. But I had no wiring for freedom, fun, or failure. And in that moment, standing there, stranded, in the middle of a room with forty or so people making sounds, having a great time, and waiting for me to solo, I got it.
I could continue to avoid failure, or I could choose to grow into the unknown.
Later that day, in the same workshop, my violin case fell off its chair and onto the floor.
I took it as a sign and stopped avoiding the failures that were wanting to happen for me. I closed my violin school a little over a month later. I started practicing - first in the privacy of my own home, and using my voice, not my violin - making sounds that were all "wrong" to my trained ears. I started PLAYING again. Something I had not done in a long time, and maybe never on my violin.
The adventure that followed was a list of things I could never have planned for my life. I started playing only improvised music, in public, on a stage. I discovered hiking and backpacking. I went to the top of Half Dome and the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I started working at REI - the retail job I was never allowed to have as a teenager because I could earn more money teaching violin or staying home to practice. I won a gig as a gear tester and reporter for Backpacker Magazine, including a free trip to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. I discovered Thai massage and Breema bodywork, which led to traveling to three countries I would never have dreamed of visiting before - Bali, Thailand and Laos. And through my practice of these forms of bodywork, I traded massages for studio days with a couple of artist friends. And I discovered that I could play with paint. Which led to a daily art-making habit. Which has (so far, in the year or so that I've been doing it) led to a juried show, a new blog, and a whole lotta new art supplies in my house.
I could not have written these down on a bucket list because I would never have let my imagination run that wild. Until I was willing to Play The Wrong Note.
And not just once, in a workshop. It was about making a decision to bring the learning from that moment back to my daily life. To find ways to practice that willingness every time the opportunity came up.
It started with music. Being willing to play the wrong note in my personal comfort zone. And then it expanded. Not with planning but as a natural consequence of becoming familiar with the willingness to be "wrong".
So this is my soapbox.
Risk taking is necessary. Being open and willing to fail is necessary. Not knowing is necessary. And these skills are not taught in school. They are not the skills that get you straight A's. They are not the skills that make you look "smart". They are not the skills that earn you the proud distinction of being a Good Daughter (or Wife or Mother). They are not the skills that you use to fill out a college or medical school application. They are often not the stuff of polite cocktail party conversation.
They are the skills of the maverick. The rebel. The free thinker. The one who creates.
So no matter how long ago it was that you experienced your last failure - whether it was just this morning or decades ago or not at all - it is never too late to dive right in. Start practicing the F word.
Take it from a straight A student. Me.
And if you're ready to start practicing Fun, Freedom, and Failure with writing as improvisation, check out my brand new coaching program here.
Wishing You The Fun and Freedom of Being Willing to Fail,
I firmly believe everyone should have the experience - at least once in their life - of pooping in the wilderness. Of digging a hole at least six inches deep, dropping trou, and watching their own poop land in the hole. Then filling it with soil, packing it down, and returning the surrounding earth to its original state.
I believe this not just because pooping in holes has become second nature since I started backpacking, but because I experienced real compost in my friend Lydia's yard yesterday. From start to mulch. When you see one too many potted plants or cut flower arrangements in your life, you forget where it all really comes from. Not just the postcard pictures of a farm with a guy in overalls posed casually leaning on a fence that you see from the side of the road. Not the beautiful bins of colorful, washed produce (definitely not GMO and definitely organic) at the farmers' market.
No, I'm talking about what dirt really is. How our bodies - the stuff of our skin and bones - are ultimately the same stuff as dirt. How the plants growing prettily or wildly in the ground are also the same stuff as dirt. How if you have the chance to take a shovel and pull up some plants, move them to the compost heap, then come back a few months later, you might see something that looks nothing like the original plant but a lot like dirt.
We make dirt wrong. We use it to describe the things we don't want on us ("Don't touch that! It's DIRTY!"), don't want to hear ("Don't say that DIRTY word!"), and what we work hard to get rid of ("Wash your hands...they're DIRTY!").
But DIRT is US.
It was a moment of revelation - of Oneness, if you will - when my friend Lydia lifted the tarp covering the fresh heap of compost made of kitchen scraps. It was hard for me to watch all the creepy crawly worms and bugs making their way through coffee grounds, pumpkin skins, paper scraps, egg shells, and leaves.
I didn't want to have to see it. I'll admit that.
But there they were, making DIRT...the vital ingredient that fuels all life, the stuff that IS life in its final form and the source of all living things. The end...and the beginning...simultaneously.
It had been so long since I'd seen, smelled, and participated in decomposition that it woke me up. But of course that isn't exactly true. I'm surrounded by life - and DIRT - at all times, I just ignore the "dirty" parts and focus on enjoying the flowers and the fruits. I let other people handle the dirt - "do the dirty work". Or I separate myself from the "dark" or "dirty" aspects of me. I try to edit them out of my experience, as if it's better that way.
As I stood there, staring at the bustling city of worms crawling in and out, up and down, through the muck, I remembered. I remembered all the ways I have tried to push away the "dirty" parts of my past, to make everything look clean all the time, to live as if the flowers - the things of Beauty I've decided I want to see - don't have deep roots that crawl through that same rich soil, black and moist with powerful fuel for life. I remembered how I've distanced myself from the earth, whenever I insisted on standing tall, head held high, looking towards the horizon of some greater dream, trying to deny the "dirt" that supported me under my feet at all times.
Staring at the pile of compost as it became compost, I witnessed an aspect of Oneness we aren't often presented. If it's true that everything is energy, that every single phenomenon is in the same field of infinite potential, then it surely applies to compost too.
It also applies to pooping in the woods.
Which is why, if you ever have the chance, you should do it. But please don't leave toilet paper in the backcountry. I'm begging you.
Or go look at a pile of compost. Study and observe how life feeds on life.
And be with everything that comes up for you - all the feelings of aversion, disgust, and wanting to turn away to experience "something better" than this.
How is the stuff you consider "dirt" in your life actually the compost pile, rich with nutrients and material for your growth and thriving?
How would you feel differently about your "poopy" circumstances if you saw them simply as compost in the making, as both the byproduct of your process and the source of all that is to come?
By all means, train your eyes to see the flowers, and use your taste to savor the sweet fruits of life. But also remember, they - and we - all need the dirt to grow.
The Native American tradition speaks of each person's Original Medicine - that set of gifts that only you can offer the world with your particular life. I've always felt there was such a finality to the phrase "Original Medicine" - like I had to define the one thing I was here to do, or it would be lost forever.
This feeling would ignite the achiever in me, who would scramble to come up with a name, a brand, a package, a business, something very "put-together" that would create an image of how well I knew my Life's Purpose.
I've been doing some version of that for most of my life. But recently I've begun to discover a process I find much more alive, much more healing, much more in alignment with my own sense of unconditional wholeness. I call it "Live Your Medicine." It is the practice of asking, "What time is it now, for me?". It involves listening for what holds the most fear for me in this moment. And then summoning the courage to take action toward that in one small way. Again and again, revisiting and refreshing with each present moment.
It is reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt's words:
"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
How often do we actually avoid - quite skillfully - the things that spark fear inside us? How often do we explain away these avoidances with elaborate theories, often quite impressive in their defense of our own status quo?
"Live Your Medicine" captures my emerging discovery that the true healing experiences for me happen whenever I do something that is utterly frightening to my mind's unquestioned beliefs. "Live Your Medicine" is an invitation to search inside yourself to find your edge, and to live in a way that develops your courage, rather than reinforcing old patterns, no matter how comfortable they seem.
For example, each morning for most of my life, I would begin with a "To Do" list - my responsibilities and things to get done. There was no reason for me to get out of bed beyond that list. It served as my purpose. There was no rhythm other than the methodical ticking off of items, showing up for scheduled activities, and getting through things.
Everything in my life changed when I made one seemingly small shift: I began my days differently. Instead of hopping out of bed and beginning to run after my "responsibilities" dutifully, I stepped off my bed and sat in silence, looking out a window at the sequoia tree stretching tall in front of it. I started with five minutes. I did yoga, not when the yoga studio scheduled a class, but when I needed it - sometimes first thing in the morning - and for the length of time my body required it - sometimes only twenty minutes.
Since then, I have maintained a practice of beginning my days with rituals that ground me in my connection to breath, body, and the earth. I am currently blessed with the situation of living just fifty steps from the beach. Most mornings I make the walk out to the bluff, and down to the sand where the birds pace along the water's edge. I wake up gradually, following the pace of the sun's creeping over the fog-covered hills to reveal the glistening surface of the ocean.
I notice, though, that even this ritual can drift into feeling of an "assignment" I give myself. I can fall back into a pattern of giving myself a job - even if that "job" is to start my day more kindly. My practice can harden into a set of rules that I must follow, or else be judged as something less than acceptable to myself. Not very kind!
My mind can turn any practice into a "To Do". It's just a repetitive pattern - a habit that was practiced for many years, and reinforced without questioning.
So my medicine is to "do the thing I think I cannot do". To be attentive to what that thing is, in this moment. And then do it.
I recently learned some simple restorative yoga poses from a friend. No need for the fancy bolsters, blocks, straps, and blankets that I've used in yoga studios. I can use pillows, blankets, and whatever else I have available. The experience is like floating - like my entire body is being supported, almost suspended, without any effort from my muscles. It's like being in water, without having to move at all.
And it's a totally ridiculous way to start the day! Which is why it's my medicine. Living MY medicine, at this particular point in my life, means having the audacity to begin my day by going into a state of complete surrender and relaxation. As if there is nothing to do, nothing to conquer, nowhere to be.
This is what living my medicine looks like for me, right now:
While my body floats in the feeling of being totally supported, my mind rests. It cannot feel fear in this moment of rest. And each moment I spend here, I train in courage. I look fear in the face - the fear that whispers a "To Do" list in my ear - and I do nothing anyway.
What's YOUR medicine right now? What time is it now for YOU?