Sheena Yap Chan is creating a valuable resource for women everywhere, with her podcast The Tao of Self-Confidence.She recently interviewed me, and I hadn't thought about the topic of confidence for quite some time. It had never occurred to me that I lacked self-confidence, because I had always been a high achiever. But in the interview, I realize that my source of confidence has shifted from outer accomplishments to an invisible inner source.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!
Why is "love" such a hot button word for so many of us? It seems we remain as divided with respect to this word as we are on so many other issues. There are "hopeless romantics" and there are "anti-Valentine's" party hosts. There are those who sprinkle the word "love" over every communication with strangers or friends, and there are those who use it sparingly, like precious strands of saffron reserved only for the finest occasion.
We never said the word "love" in our house, so during my childhood, I formed the belief that something was missing from my experience compared to the outer world of suburban midwestern America I lived in. We didn't talk like the characters on The Brady Bunch. The emotions expressed in my family were much more raw, more volatile, so close to the surface and not easily contained. The love I experienced was unrelenting, filled with the need to protect me from constant imminent danger, and would never let me off the hook.
Over a lifetime of accumulating ideas of what love is - from what I was told, from what I experienced, and from what I imagined - I decided, other-than-consciously, that it was not safe to love fully.
So I made up a definition of love that suited me, protected me, and preserved my belief in what was possible. I chose different outer images to imitate. I tried on many different outfits in my attempts to recreate safety in love. First, it was a white coat in medical school. Then, it was a pant suit that placed me at the negotiating table, equal to men. Next, it was high heels and feminine-looking skirt suits that projected a combination of power and approachability. Finally, I went barefoot and wore "spiritual" clothes (whatever that means).
These were symbols of the stories I made up about love. I believed I had to earn love by being a skilled professional, by being accepted by a prestigious institution, by measuring up to someone else's standard, by performing above all the rest, or by joining in special rituals. I believed, other-than-consciously, that how I chose to present myself on the outside actually represented how much I loved myself on the inside. So I placed my attention on my outer presentation, believing I could come up with the "right" thoughts or do the "right" things to create the outer world I desired, while continuing to avoid the depths I feared most.
The bigger experience of love I have recently awakened to, through the precise application of language, love and presence, has truly gone to the root of all - and that is consciousness. I finally touched and stayed in places I had avoided for so long. I was shown, by experience and not any concept, how to love my fear, love my pain, love my anger, and love even what I had given up on ever loving again. And to allow "loving what I feel" to transform each emotion into a petal of my heart's desires blooming in action. This was an experience of love bigger than my imagination could accommodate. It was beyond the box of my known reality.
Any thought pattern I chose in the past as a way to survive is no match for the power of being fully present and allowing the love contained in presence itself to shine its unrelenting light on my anger, pain, grief, and even apathy. I had believed that by not touching these feelings, I would somehow rise above them. In fact, I was unaware of the energy required to keep them suppressed and avoided. My buoyancy returned only after being willing to touch, stay, and love exactly what I had believed to be untouchable, unworthy of my attention, and unloveable. In the light of love, which I experienced as pure nonjudgmental and unflinching presence, everything I once thought I was not safe to feel became my love, expanded. I found myself forgiving people I was once convinced had really "damaged" me. I found myself spontaneously making lists of the things I love about my mom (how she never let me off the hook, how she unrelentingly saw my highest self already expressed in the world, and how she did it even though it was hard for her so much of the time).
I am now excited when I experience uncomfortable feelings, as they are a chance to expand my capacity for love. I get to love what I feel, and let my love grow. I now reclaim my love as the life force which has loved me into existence, expressing itself in every experience, feeling, and desire that has come through me. I AM my love. And I love my love.
I facilitate this awakening in my Eye Reading sessions and this is the level at which all of my work is offered. It is time to play a bigger game.
This month, you can join me in awakening to your greater depths of love in a free teleclass, "Renegotiating Love", a free Friday talk at Prajna Center in Belmont, "Receiving The Love That You Are", and my ongoing introduction to my program for physicians, "Live Your Medicine: Responding To The Evolutionary Wake-Up Call to Remember Your Love, Your Art, and Your Medicine".
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.
I saw Gravity this weekend. It was date night. Since we normally watch movies on Netflix in the luxury of our own living room, with the sunset and ocean behind our backs and the fire roaring in the fireplace, the trip through traffic and the ordeal of finding a parking space in a shopping mall made me expect a lot from this one.
We decided to splurge on the 3-D version. We got a big bag of popcorn, and settled into the theater, which we had mostly to ourselves.
I was already filled with gratitude for my life on the coast after we set foot inside the neon shopping mall that contained the movie theater. At that moment, seeing the names of the food court vendors – none of which were familiar to me, feeling the fluorescence of everything, squinting at the brightness of the SALE signs in every store window, hearing the echoes and reverberation of the cavernous container of the space, I realized how long it had been since I’d shopped in a mall. When had that shifted? I recalled a time in my childhood when the only place to shop for clothes and shoes was the mall. It was also one of the main “hangouts” for kids who went out after school (of which I was not one).
I won’t talk too much about plot points here, but I want to list several of the “messages from the universe” that I feel are embedded in the movie. I’ll scramble them up so as not to have to give too much of a spoiler alert. But if you must see the movie first, I’ll warn you that I refer to some scenes in the text below.
1. We’re hurtling at light speed toward our destiny at all times.
2. There are two ways to go through our brief moment of time called life – light and floating and free, with laughter, presence, and acceptance, or tethered, struggling, thinking hard, constantly driving somewhere, not knowing where in particular.
3. As unlikely and miraculous as it was for the protagonist to arrive back to earth, her journey is a metaphor for the set of unlikely circumstances that collide to create any individual life on earth, and both are equally miraculous.
4. There are two ways to meet our inevitable demise of death – in awe and wonder, with a light heart, and fully present, or with fear and regret. The way you die is the way you live. Start living.
5. To continue living, you must continuously jettison the parts that no longer serve you. Even though at one time in the past they were essential to your survival, these parts can be exactly what’s holding you back right now. Keep letting go.
6. Sometimes you find yourself on the end of a tether, getting whipped around, believing you’ve been rescued or saved. While you’re technically alive, the ride may feel nauseating, and you’re never permanently protected by what’s on the other end of the tether.
7. Use what you have, do what’s in front of you, remember what you know, and start from where you are.
8. Be grateful for your mind, and remember to use it to serve your heart’s desires, not replace them.
9. Everything can be blown to bits, and you can be one of those bits. You can experience your own rebirth by falling back down from (your head) space into the watery womb of mother earth. You can dive deep, find air, reach land, express gratitude, and then finally find your own legs. This is the story of human evolution…from star stuff to dirt, that’s what we all are: miracles.
10. Sometimes we need to journey far, far away in order to find our way back home.
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.
"Not Knowing is most intimate..." - Zen saying
This is a note for you. You are such a good student, when there's a teacher standing in front of the class, and other students surrounding you, all learning to do the same things. You are a stellar worker, always taking responsibility for your job, above and beyond the call of duty. You take instructions quickly, correct your mistakes diligently, and do everything you can to get along with others. You are smart, capable, successful, but still feel there's something missing from your life, even though you can't quite name it.
So what is it? What is that missing thing?
I don't know.
But I'm willing to bet that your relationship with Not Knowing could use a little tune-up. A little checking in and refamiliarizing. You see, each of us was born in a state of perfect Not Knowing. The first several years of our lives were filled with the joy, awe, and wonder of discovering, playing, experimenting, failing, and doing it all over again every single moment. This is how we learned to walk, talk, and explore the world around us. There was tremendous accumulation during this time, but the overwhelming majority of space was occupied with Not Knowing, and being perfectly content with that.
Then we acquired language, and experience, and started going to school, where we learned to correct our mistakes diligently, take instructions quickly, and get along with others.
Those skills served us in advancing through lots more school, in getting a job, and then learning the ways of the business and professional worlds.
Somewhere along the way, all of that accumulation began to take up much more space than Not Knowing. In fact, we may not even remember the last time we did something for the first time.
So right now you may be wondering, "How does Not Knowing actually solve a problem I'm experiencing in my life?".
Consider how your life might be different if you reclaimed the fun of it. Not having a reason, but just doing it - you know, whatever that thing is that you've always wanted to do or try. Letting go of what experience tells you, and embracing the fresh innocence of the present moment. Better yet, just existing without judgment.
If any of these sound scary or crazy, it may just be that you've been out of practice at Not Knowing.
And how do you practice Not Knowing? Well, not by fixing it or solving it. Not by hunting for an answer, or coming up with a plan.
But by consciously being there. And watching attentively while you are there.
Last night I went to my first ever hula dancing class. I had never dreamt of hula before, but I saw a performance locally that really inspired me, and then I found out there was a community class offered right in my town.
So I showed up.
There was a lot to learn. The teacher started out slowly, showing us the basic steps, then putting a few of them together into a simple first dance. Then we newbies were sent to the back of the classroom and were told to fake our way along with the more experienced dancers as they rehearsed songs they already knew.
I got to experience myself in the moment of Not Knowing, and to see how I stayed with myself. Now I am at a point where I can see this as a precious gift. But I also know that not so long ago, this was an edge I very carefully avoided, constructing my life so that I would never be in that position of Not Knowing.
How do you react when you are put in the space of Not Knowing?
Do you ask for more information?
Do you look around for someone who looks like they know what they're doing, then copy?
Do you sit out and wait until next time, when you'll definitely know more and do better?
Do you just keep moving, doing what you can, trusting that this is exactly where you should be?
Do you compare what you can do now to what others around you are doing, trying to figure out what's wrong?
All of these are possible ways to relate to Not Knowing.
And all of these responses - if we are able to observe them in ourselves - hold the possibility to bring us closer to knowing ourselves. Closer to becoming intimate with Not Knowing. And more grateful for being exactly where we are in any given moment.
So that is the gift of any brand new experience, whether you enter it by choice, opportunity, or crisis.
In one form or another, all of my work is an opportunity for you to experience yourself in relationship with Not Knowing. I hold open the space for you to experience how you are as you navigate this unfamiliar territory.
This fall, I'm offering you an expansive yet gentle way to become more intimate with your own space of Not Knowing. It's an oceanside retreat with me and a circle of 6 participants, called "Beyond Knowing: Many Paths to the Present Moment."
We will learn from the teachers in nature - the ocean, the sky, the birds, the trees, the sand. We will also learn from approaching and entering various portals to the present moment, which is always fresh and alive with Not Knowing. We will discover what arises when we clear our attachments to thoughts, align our mind-body-soul, and allow our innate expressions to find a voice. We will create a safe space together where we can touch the space of Not Knowing, with gentleness and firmness, full participation, mutual support, no judgment, no force, and no extra.
You will take home tools that you can continue to practice in your daily life, each time you come in contact with the beauty and terror of Not Knowing. You will also take home artifacts from your unique expressions created in the setting of the circle of support provided during the retreat, reminding you of your heart's truth, and your magical reserves of resilience. You will also have the experience - carried in every cell of your body - of having become more familiar, more intimate with Not Knowing.
You can learn all the details about the retreat here.