I keep coming back to the stories of Rachel Naomi Remen, and this video of one of her lectures reminds me what I value in her work. While advocates of the new medicine have been revolutionizing the paradigm of medical practice, Remen is one of those physicians who has changed many lives by applying these ideas in her unique way. She tells stories.
She is a physician, teacher, story-teller and therapist all in one. For her, stories about moments of recognition capture a reality and truth that can help people reconnect with their own healing power. The first story she tells is her own – how she learned to live a fulfilling life despite a chronic, incurable illness.
Healing through New Awareness
She has lived most of her life with crohn’s disease. To survive an illness that normally cuts off life at an early age, she had to overcome many obstacles.
There was the depression that followed her diagnosis when she was 15. There was the expectation of a limiting life that doctors said would end before the age of 40. There were both the pain of eight major surgeries and the need to wear an awkward device for as long as she lived.
Instead of focusing on that bleak future, she found a way to see the wholeness of her life rather than the diseased body that her doctors saw.
It was, in part, the power of stories that helped her change her view of herself. As she puts it in a recent interview, a good story is like a compass that can “bring us home to ourselves.”
I think of her approach as a way of cultivating mindfulness through story rather than meditation. Her stories have a similar quality of helping shift attention away from daily worries to an inner awareness and acceptance of life in each moment.
Here are two stories about learning to heal by changing the way you look at life. The first, from her best-selling book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, describes an insight she learned at an early age. The second, from this video, concerns a moment of life-changing recognition in the worklife of a doctor.
Her grandfather was a lifelong student of Jewish mystic traditions. When she was a girl, he told her that at the beginning of things the Holy was broken into sparks and scattered through the universe.
Those sparks are in everything and everyone, “a sort of diaspora of goodness.” We can learn to see them in ourselves and others. When we spot one, as she puts it, we blow on it and strengthen it.
She has chosen to work with terminally ill cancer patients because they have become vulnerable and look more intently at themselves. They tend to rethink the values they’ve lived by without much thought. As they try to heal in soul if not in body, they are better able to see those inner sparks and find a larger sense of meaning in their lives.
In the lecture recorded in the video, she tells the story of an emergency room doctor, under constant stress but proud of his mastery of medical skills. One day, he delivered a baby in the ER. It was a procedure he liked to perform for the satisfaction he took in doing it well. After the birth, he was holding the baby on his arm to suction its lungs when she opened her eyes and looked right into his.
He felt deeply changed in that moment as he realized he was the first human being she was seeing in her life. This man, usually focused entirely on the technical process, felt his heart go out to her. He described this as a holy moment when all his cynicism and fatigue fell away. He felt not pride or satisfaction in his work but a sense of gratitude that he had been there at that moment. It gave him a new sense of purpose in what he did.
As a long-time reformer of the current medical system, she teaches medical students and practicing doctors a course called The Healers’ Art. She describes in the video a simple technique she assigns her students to help them change the way they view their daily lives. I think it’s also a good method to help change a depressive’s view of the world.
A Method to Change Awareness
At the end of each day, her students write down everything that has happened to them, going backwards in time from the last moment at work to the first. Then they reflect back over the events three times, each time asking a different question.
What surprised me today? What touched my heart today? What inspired me today? They review each moment not from the perspective of a doctor but more like that of a novelist or journalist – looking for the stories.
Although her students begin the practice after the day is over, they gradually learn to look for the surprises and inspiring moments as they are treating patients during the day. It becomes a habit.
She tells the story of one doctor who used this method for some time. After a while, he realized that he was speaking and listening to people differently, in much more human, less technical ways. He came to feel a deep sense of connection with his patients and their families, and he also found that they began treating him differently as well.
A major goal of her work as a teacher is to help doctors understand through their experience how important their words and actions are to their patients. By teaching them to find their own stories, she helps them learn to trust the power of their “personal presence and generous listening to heal.”
I think these stories of insight can have the same healing effect on all of us.
What do you think?