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?
Photo credits: Top - Randy Bales. Bottom - Lydia Puhak.
OK, I admit it. I was disappointed. I was disappointed when Tiger Woods, just a few short months after the "SUV incident" outside his home in Florida, staged a press conference, stood behind a podium, and recited a canned apology written in corporate-speak by the damage-control PR spin doctors at Nike. Like a dutiful boy, he was dressed in a suit, clean-shaven, looking humble and respectful to the corporate sponsors who made his public career that much more lucrative.
But beneath the surface was a whole story waiting to be uncovered, spoken, and shared.
I secretly (and not so secretly) cheered Tiger on when he hit the apparent depths of his personal crisis - the extent of his adultery revealed, the intensity of the pain he has kept hidden beneath the socially acceptable, corporate endorsement-worthy veneer of relentless competitiveness and focus.
I saw this as an opportunity for Tiger to deliver his real "medicine" to the world, and to show us how a hero falls, journeys through the abyss of his own self-discovery, and emerges whole in a different way. With a different message about heroicism, with a more solid foundation on which to stand, with a deeper message than can be conveyed merely by counting wins and trophies.
I secretly thought, "Wow, now THIS is Tiger's real moment." I thought he would go into seclusion and embark on a healing journey, away from the limelight, away from golf, away from his lifelong drugs of choice - winning and getting public recognition.
I'm reminded of the David Whyte poem, "The Well of Grief":
"Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
...will never know the source from which we drink,
...nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else."
I secretly thought, "This is Tiger's 'well of grief' moment. I can't wait to see what emerges from the bottom of this."
Just weeks later, I walked by a television tuned into ESPN and saw Tiger back on the golf course, competing in the Masters. There were casual remarks from the commentators about this "comeback", but for the most part it was "business as usual". He had the emotionless expression of competition on his face, as always. There was no evidence of anything that had transpired in the news just weeks earlier. He was back to "doing his job".
And what message are we, the public, supposed to take away from this "heroic" return to the "job" of business as usual? Has Tiger put the incident behind him now? Should we simply leave his private life alone, and just focus on being entertained by his golf skills? Is this the model of courage that we're expecting from our public heroes, sports or otherwise?
All of it disappointed me.
I have felt for the past several weeks that there is something inside me that wants to find expression. There are words that want to find their way into the world, to give life and breath to the truth in my heart. They get caught somewhere in my chest, my shoulders, my throat. And I've been feeling into the reasons why.
This week I realized it's because I was hoping someone like Tiger would make it OK to be a public figure, someone who has attained legendary status through hard work, competitiveness, and discipline to develop his talents, someone who has achieved beyond anyone's wildest expectations - to acknowledge his own humanness. To show that even a legend shares the tenderness of the human condition. To demonstrate that no matter how high you fall from, you can get up, and you can emerge whole, with an equally powerful message from your moments of weakness as from your moments of strength.
Instead, he took the corporate political entertainment route. He dusted himself off, put on a fresh shirt, and stepped right back out there on the stage. "The show must go on," as the old adage says.
But what I feel we are so hungry for - the show we wish we could see, in all honesty and transparency and without any regard for entertainment value - is the show of even one person's truth, undramatized. Yes, the pain. Yes, the journey of living through the pain. Yes, the fear. And the journey of moving through fear. Yes, the joy and peace and freedom that emerge in the only way that nature works - by going through it.
I am aware that maybe I'm so disappointed in Tiger's choices because I have a deep longing for permission to do what I know I need to do. I've been waiting for some signal that I'll be OK, that it'll be OK, if I start to talk about what I've really learned about myself, and how I've really discovered my own sources of joy and peace. How everything I once thought to be absolutely true has come into question, and how I have been slowly, day by day, setting myself free. How I have had to look at every painful belief I've held so tightly, how I have trained myself to become more familiar with these beliefs, so that I might gently let them go, and love myself for doing so. How I've managed to cycle through this work with curiosity, openness, and willingness to endure whatever I've needed to in order to reveal the next layer of peace.
But there are parts of it that I'm afraid will look ugly, that will brand me as a "bad" person, that will confirm to the world how I failed in some way, that will concede my own defeat.
And yet I know there is freedom on the other side of telling the truth, being able to name not only what brings me alive, but what breaks my heart. I learned this myself last year at a weekend called "Real Speaking", where I stood among 6 important strangers and practiced publicly speaking my heart's truth. Most of my words got caught in my throat, when I got to the really juicy stuff. It was caught there by fear. I couldn't even name the fear at that time, but now I am closer. I am more prepared, strengthened by my daily practice of comparatively new muscles called trust, peace, and allowing. I feel that something is about to be hatched, to be born, from my finding a voice for these words. There is such fear attached to not knowing what will come out, not knowing how I'll steel myself for the response of letting it out for the world to see.
And so I sit with my disappointment in Tiger. Since he didn't become the model I wanted him to be, I am left with finding the inspiration within myself - the knowledge that what my heart has to say is of value in the world. With or without corporate sponsors.
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I went to my first Monday Night NFL Football game this week. It was a very exciting opportunity to experience such a central piece of American pop culture, especially since I grew up in the Midwest in a football-watching family. My mom actually started getting interested in football as a result of wanting to feel included in her male coworkers' lunchtime conversations at the suburban Catholic hospital where she worked. For her studious dedication as a fan, she was rewarded with a Chicago Bears Super Bowl win in 1985 (Chicago 46, New England Patriots 10).
That was the last year I remember caring about football. This apathy continued for me throughout high school, college, and even in medical school at University of Michigan, where football is the closest thing to religion in the town. It did not earn me any popularity points at any of the schools I attended, since sports is the quasi-religion at most schools, athletes acting as demi-gods, and loyal fans as humble worshippers.
So, in my state of Being Open To Life, and Saying Yes, I went into Candlestick Park on Monday with an open heart and an open mind. What I noticed rushing in to all that open space were profanities. Adults yelling at other adults just because of the colors of the jerseys and hats they chose to wear. Adults telling other adults to "Go *%@& yourself!" in broad daylight, as if it were a completely acceptable and justifiable thing to do.
All in good fun, you might say.
Well, the loudness and general license to yell whatever-came-to-mind at whomever-happened-to-be-walking-by continued inside the stadium. In my state of openness, I felt very vulnerable, like I had stumbled into a warzone that I never meant to participate in.
I observed my own judgments come up, I felt my own discomfort at being around all the vicarious violence, and then I smiled at humanity. I noticed that throughout human history, every culture has had a means for its people to feel "at one" with something larger than themselves. Humans have an innate longing to gather, and to feel understood, and to express a group energy.
I looked around the bowl-shaped stadium and recalled my visit to the Coliseum in Rome. I watched the players dressed in helmets, body armor, and uniforms, and recalled a time when Roman citizens gathered by the tens of thousands to watch human gladiators battle ravenous animals, fighting to the death.
I also imagined tribal or indigenous island cultures creating ceremonies and rituals involving costume, dance, chanting, drumming, and roasting of animals for food. I noted how we "modern" civilizations tend to look at "primitive" cultures in a distanced, academic way, as if to say, "Aren't we lucky we've advanced beyond THAT?"
And right there, sitting in the stands of Candlestick Park, I felt a kind of oneness with humanity. I won't say that I got to a total state of equanimity, especially as I witnessed what I assumed were otherwise civilized adults arguing about the merits of standing versus sitting, a verbal altercation which ended in one of the men saying, you guessed it, "Why don't you go *%&^ yourself!"
But I did manage to find a Buddha-like source of joy in my heart to laugh, instead of cry, when the young man next to me, perhaps in his 20s, responded to the injury of the opposing team's player with the comment, "Yeah! Get him a stretcher! Take him off the field for the rest of the season! And amputate his leg while you're at it!"
I laughed not because I appreciated his comment. I laughed not because I joined in his disdain and free-flow remarks about another person just because he was wearing the jersey of the opposing team.
I laughed because I was observing yet another aspect of humanity.
We are one in our longing to feel a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. I looked around and saw the colored jerseys, hats, seat cushions, and beer containers as modern-day versions of tribal costumes. I listened to the roars and rants from the crowd and heard them as modern-day chants and battle cries. I saw the entire Candlestick Park as the modern-day expression of what has united us throughout time as human beings and produced grandiose structures like cathedrals, temples, arenas, theaters, and even town squares -- our need to feel oneness with SOMETHING.
What I was really seeing around me was vicarious passion. As a society, we need fans as much as we need the players on the field. Just like musicians need listeners. It became clear to me as I was sitting in the stands that I am here to find my own playing field, and not to remain a fan.
So the question I was left with, since I was not converted into any more of a football fan after this than I was going in, was, "Where do I find my feeling of oneness? How do I experience the release that these football fans experience by gathering here?"
I have a sneaky suspicion that when I fully admit all the ways in which I connect with this place - the place where I truly feel my own oneness with a spirit larger than myself - I will have found my power and unique medicine to heal and serve the world in my lifetime.
Where do you feel your oneness?Where do you experience your own passionate expression? Observe yourself and you might find clues toward the life you were meant to live.
"I have to live a glamorous life like all of my friends who graduated from law school with me!", says your social self, leading you to feel guilty every weekend you're not slaving away at your computer, responding to emails within minutes of their arrival in your inbox and feeling overwhelmed before you can even start your own agenda for the day.
Meanwhile, the small, childlike voice of your essential self says, "I want to create something I am proud to call my own, and sound like a human being again when I write. It's like I've forgotten what it's like to be me."
How is it that we can end up with the demands of the outer trappings of our lives leading us one way, and our innermost desires - the thoughts and feelings we are hiding from - leading us in another?
From the moment we are born, we live in contact with a world of ideas being absorbed into our brains, becoming part of our habitual thinking. We also have an innate intelligence that is present inside us before, during, and after all the habituation. If you're like me and have lived most of your life without consciously examining this innate layer of intelligence (which some call "intuition", others call "heart", and others call "soul"), at first it might seem downright outrageous to even consider that there might even be a distinction between what we've been taught to believe versus what we know in our hearts to be true.
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All of the "learning" that we do in school is basically training the social self. If we were really lucky, we had one or two outlets in our childhood which allowed us to explore the expressions of our essential self - a sport, a musical instrument, dance, visual arts, collecting comic books, or staring at the sky. And when I say "if we were really lucky", I mean that many of our essential self expressions are not easily accepted in social settings or approved of by parents, and not always encouraged in school.
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The essential self speaks through passion, imagination, and hard-to-explain joy. Not all "extracurricular activities" allow kids to explore their passion, or connect with the real reason for doing the activity. This is why I'm more than a little amused by the current obsession among Harvard undergraduates to remain "as busy as possible". At the highest level of our education system, we are perpetuating the myth that our self-worth is tied to how much activity we do.
But the essential self is about being. It speaks subtly and sometimes quietly. Especially when compared to the volume and frequency of signals that feed our social self's neverending list of "have to..." and "should..." statements, the essential self speaks like a whisper, or like a cool breeze, which is felt long before it makes an audible sound.
Just as music is the silence between the notes, our essential self needs space to express itself between the fast-paced demands of the social self's thoughts. The essential self is persistent. If you don't create the space to feel what your essential self is trying to say, it will find a way to speak more loudly to you. It may even find a way to stop you in your tracks, through immobilization of your body by pain, forcing you to get still and listen.
Everyone's essential self speaks in a unique way, discernible only to you. So how do you start to decode the language of YOUR essential self? What are some clues that your essential self is speaking to you?
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Ways the Essential Self Says "YES":
- You feel, in your heart, that you are OK, even though "Everybody Else" is telling you something different.
- Your body is in great physical shape - you are sleeping well, eating what you need, are pain-free and feeling energetic.
- You can't explain in words why you feel good or why you are drawn to something that makes you happy. You just do it and it truly makes you feel good inside.
- Your mind is clear, your mood is not dependent on what other people do in response to you, and you are at peace.
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Ways the Essential Self Says "NO":
- Every time you drive to the job that you hate, your stomach starts to hurt.
- Your body feels stiff, immobilized by pain, or numb to any sensations at all.
- You have lengthy explanations - full of quotes from other people - about why you keep doing the thing you know you hate doing and secretly wish you could stop doing.
- You forget things associated with the work you hate doing, your mood is very susceptible to fluctuation based on how other people respond to you, and you feel a vague sense of discomfort that you can't quite name.
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Notice that the essential self speaks in a dialect that involves YOUR BODY as well as your mind. The social self is a PhD-level expert in THE MIND. It could care less about how the body feels, unless it serves one of its purposes as a symbol of something to the outside world. The social self teaches us to override internal signals in order to get what it thinks we need. The problem is, the social self on its own isn't a reliable guide.
Any form of body movement helps us connect with our essential self more. If you're avoiding exercise, chances are your social self is afraid of what the essential self might have to say if you tried. By the same token, if you're an exercise "freak", examine your body's reaction when you give it rest and allow it to be totally still.
Making music - from a simple humming sound to clapping your hands or tapping a rhythm on a tabletop - connects us with the inner vibrations of our bodies. Sometimes simple music is best for this purpose. When you're heavily involved with the mind in trying to control the sounds made by a musical instrument, especially if you're a "trained" musician, sometimes you forget to feel your body. You are engrossed in "figuring out" how to make a sound, and how to make it sound "right".
OK, this is all great in theory. But how have I personally experienced my essential self?
I'll tell you three brief stories of life transitions that I have made and how. While I didn't call it "my essential self" at the time, I now realize that I've been listening to my life in this way for many years, learning to trust more and more each time.
- I was standing in the Operating Room in January 2000, a third year medical student on vascular surgery rotation. With a patient's leg open, I watched as our Fellow leave the O.R. to throw up in the sink outside, and return immediately afterward to finish the surgery because he "couldn't" take the day off. I saw a fourth-year general surgery resident excuse herself from the same surgery, to lie down on a gurney outside the O.R., so she wouldn't faint out of exhaustion on top of the patient. I watched these people and decided that my life was not going to be about this kind of self-sacrifice. I wanted to work with people in some other way. I didn't know what, but I did know - without a doubt - that I would not be continuing in a residency after graduating from medical school. Everybody Else thought I was crazy.
- I was living in Cleveland in late 2003, and was on the phone with a fellow venture capitalist (who'd also opted out of a residency after medical school) about fifteen years my senior. He was living the dream I imagined in my head when I set out on that career path - he had all the material trappings of a "good life", including the house in the hills, the many cars, the expensive man toys. I thought that anyone with his level of "success" must have gotten there through belief in his own dreams. I found out that his real dream was to be a musician, but he never got over his fear to really go for it. He was good. I heard him play. I asked him why he was a venture capitalist. He explained that everyone in this business had "a number", some goal that they've set (in millions of dollars). Quite calmly and rationally he explained that once he got to his number, he would stop. THEN he could start doing his dream of playing music. I was stunned. I thought, "Really?? And what if you DON'T get to your number?" I even said out loud, "If I had twenty million dollars, I'd start a violin school." And then it clicked. I didn't need twenty million dollars to start a violin school! What was stopping me? Within two months of that conversation, I had given notice to my partners that I'd be leaving the firm. Within five months, I had moved across the country to California (with my house in Cleveland still on the market). Within three more months, I started teaching my first students.
- Fast forward to this past year, 2009. I had been sitting on top of another summit, having gotten to many of the goals I'd pictured in my mind when I started my violin school. I was financially self-sustaining, I had many students, I had my own studio space, I had built a performing group that was beloved by audiences, was able to play in tune and was disciplined. I had built "an institution". But I was exhausted and confused by the feeling that my work, which had started out as my passion, had somehow become a spigot through which my life force was being drained. My social self was so frightened of what might happen if I listened to my body and took some time off. "Won't people think I'm lazy?" my social self said. When I finally gave in to the immobilizing pain in my body and took one month off from teaching last June, doing yoga again and correcting my posture, I started noticing new opportunities arriving in my life, calling me to make the deep changes my essential self so craved. It was a slow process of discovery, but I knew from my teaching and learning to play the violin, that small steps taken consistently over time eventually lead to dramatic results. For me, it was a question of where my small steps were taking me. Was I still pointed in the right direction for my essential self?
In January of this year, I let go. I changed directions. I am still working on deciphering the language of my essential self, discovering it each day. When I get still and check in, I know that I am pointed in the right direction because it is where my essential self feels calm, at ease, at peace.
Ask me again in five years to make sense of this recent transition. I can't wait to tell that story, because I'm already writing it with every step I take right now.
**At my Free Sampler Evening this Thursday, I'll teach you ways to hear YOUR essential self, and also HOW TO USE YOUR BODY'S KNOWLEDGE to bring each day more in alignment with your essential self. Hope you'll join me!***
Photo credits (used through a Creative Commons license):
Girl in school: http://www.flickr.com/people/seeveeaar/