When my aunt was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer seven years ago I sent her a Rachel Remen book.
When my nutrition colleague was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer this spring I reread Rachel’s books.
If you have been reading my blog for any length of time you know how much I value good books, skilled writers and articulate stories.
Rachel Remen has mastered all of the above.
Life can be hard. Life can be incredibly sad. In fact, life can knock us down so hard and so fast that sometimes we don’t know what hit us. I myself have experienced some profound hits.
I don’t cry easily, but when I do cry I sob. I weep inside and out for the struggles, sadness and betrayal both globally and personally.
In an effort to find some solace and perhaps discover new ideas for facilitating my own workshops I stumbled across yet another Healthy Discovery.
I signed up for a Rachel Remen workshop. The Healing Power of Story: A Deeper Human Connection
Health care practitioners (medical doctors, osteopaths, pastors, rabbis, social workers, therapists, nurses, surgeons) from all over the US, Canada and even New Zealand came to this workshop in Mill Valley, California last week.
It was absolutely amazing! It brought my tears to my eyes. It was exactly what I needed.
Rachel’s curriculum, The Healing Art, is taught in 71 medical schools around the U.S. It was an honor to participate in this 3-day workshop, if people didn’t sign up by March they were put on a wait list.
Rachel is a medical renegade.
She is a Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at The University of San Francisco School of Medicine. Rachel left her Pediatrics Practice at Stanford 30 years ago (she was the first woman on the pediatrics faculty at Stanford in 1968) and she founded The Institute For The Study Of Health & Illness at Commomweal Cancer Help Center.
Medicine and science can’t cure and explain everything, but the inspiration in people’s stories, both past and present bring healing when a cure (physical) or explanation (emotional or spiritual) may not otherwise be available.
Today she is in her 70’s. Her calm presence continues to move and transform audiences and her individual patients.
Rachel also has a 48-year personal history of Crohn’s Disease and nine major surgeries. Her work is a unique blend of the viewpoint of the physician and patient.
This was by far one of the best (if not the best) workshop(s) I have ever attended!
1. Put Down Whatever You Are Holding– At the beginning of each session Rachel would say, “put down what you are holding.” We would literally put down our paper, pens and drink cups, however, the careful phrasing of this sentence also spoke to the unconscious mind and asked us to “drop any emotional burdens or troubles we are holding at that moment.” I thought that was brilliant.
Then she taught us how to focus on the stillness within each breath.
Notice that space after each exhale and right before your next inhale. That space is our natural place of rest, peace and stillness. It only happens for a nanosecond, but notice it, focus on it, develop it. It’s a powerful reservoir of calm that is available to you every time you take a breath.
2. Stories Give Us New “Eyes” And New Perspectives, Especially When Dealing With A Crisis- Stories can liberate people and stories can heal. Stories strengthen the will to live. When your story is heard by another human being it validates you and the fact that your life matters.
Rachel would speak to the whole group (80 health care workers) then we would break into smaller groups. Everyone had a chance to share an experience through telling a personal story. We spoke about an object that represented our work and why it was meaningful to us. We spoke about a loss in our lives and how it transformed us. We spoke of a situation where we were of service to another human being but ended up receiving more than we gave.
When people take off their masks and begin to speak from the heart we remember what is real, what is important. Health care practitioners and clergy are on the front lines when it comes to hearing and witnessing transformational stories in their work each day. Rachel taught us how to avoid cynicism or burn-out and really hear and be with people as they heal.
3. Two Dimensions Of Story Telling
- Storytelling- Is about you sharing what is true for you in this moment. As time goes on that story will change shape. It will deepen. It will help you find a new perspective.
- Generous Listening- Is a container for the storyteller to be heard in a non-judgmental space. Do not comment, interrupt, ask questions, give advice, or speak. Simply listen as the person fully and completely tells their story. This is an incredibly powerful practice although it is not always easy. We are used to interrupting, hurrying the story along, launching into our own story or judging a story. Some stories belong to us and some don’t, many stories have been manipulated or distorted. But the more people can get in touch with what’s true for them the more they tap into the authentic story of their life. Most of the time we don’t need an answer, we just need to register an experience with someone who is capable of listening generously.
4. Appreciate and Recognize The Awe And Wonder In Your Life– Life is filled with so much mystery and beauty. When we stop noticing the awe and wonder that surrounds us, we become cynical, burned out and numb. Start noticing the joy and connection in your days. At the end of every day ask yourself these three questions and record your answers in a journal.
- What Surprised You Today?
- What Touched Your Heart Today?
- What Inspired You Today?
The most powerful tools are the simplest tools. Begin to listen more and you will notice the insightful and strengthening stories that surround you all the time.
I highly recommend Rachel’s books, she writes from the universal language of compassion, love, service, kindness and healing.
If you feel like you are struggling for any reason with your health, work, money, relationships, emotions, etc. pick up Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal or My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging they are filled with inspirational stories about every day people and cancer patients who Rachel has counseled over the years. Many times the story is quite ordinary but the message is extraordinary. Her books will lift your spirit without connecting to any particular religion or philosophical belief.
It was a pleasure to meet her and learn directly from her after being a fan of her work for years.
I left this workshop with a deeper desire to listen generously (in my own work with groups and patients and in my personal life) because that’s where the inspiration, the true spirit and the healing ultimately reside- In our every day stories!
A video of Rachel speaking at UCSF on The Art of Living Every Minute Of Your Life