It all started when I was seven years old and the chimney sweep found a nest of newborn baby squirrels in our chimney. Mom wanted to leave them – to let nature take it’s course, but I was having none of that. I insisted she take me to the vet so I could learn how to rescue the baby squirrels. I wound up being a squirrel healer over the course of the next 15 years. They called me the “Squirrel Girl.” My picture was in the papers. I tended squirrels until I was finally old enough to go to medical school and practice on people. My calling was clear.
And then it got corrupted with my medical education – and I pretty much forgot what I was called to do when I was a child. I’ll apologize in advance for how long this will be – but in case you’re curious, here is the story of how I remembered what I am here on this earth to do.
April 2, 2005
It’s my wedding day, and I’m at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. While scanning the list of activities at the ranch, I see yoga, meditation, and “shamanic journey” on the schedule. Having no clue what a shamanic journey is, I decide, on a lark, to embark upon one, with no clue that the next hour would mark the beginning of a journey I am still on.
During the guided meditation led by shaman Jon Rasmussen, I enter the interior realms of my own heart and am given a gift by my subconscious – a stethoscope with a paintbrush on the diaphragm. As both a doctor and a professional artist, it sort of makes sense. But what was the deeper meaning of the gift? Was I supposed to paint my patients? Teach my patients how to paint? Paint stethoscopes? With no clue how to interpret this gift, I file it away in my mind under “unexplained woo woo phenomena” and forget about it… until a few months later.
On my wedding night, Matt and I stay up until 1am, when a nearby hot springs resort opens to the public in the early morning hours, and you can soak in the natural thermal springs. We’d never heard of Esalen Institute, but it sounds wild and crazy, so we go, not realizing at the time that Esalen will wind up playing a major role in my life years later.
I’m casting the fourth breast cancer patient of mine who is modeling for my art project The Woman Inside Project for which I make plaster casts of the torsos of patients of mine with breast cancer. After I cast them with medical grade plaster, I hold up the cast, show them what the world sees of them, and then ask them to tell me about who they were inside. They talk for hours, and I listen, and when they are done telling me their intimate stories, I write a first person narrative of the beauty I see within each woman. I then paint the casts with encaustic and handwrite their stories onto scrolls of rice paper, which I then dip in wax. You can see images of the first showing of this exhibit here.
As I am casting my patient, I flash back to the gift of the stethoscope with a paintbrush on it, and I realize what I am doing. I am painting my patients. The message is clear – your work is about integration – medicine, painting, writing – bring it all together and the whole is more powerful than the sum of the parts.
My Perfect Storm blows through. I give birth to my daughter, my dog dies, my healthy young brother winds up in full blown liver failure as a rare side effect of the antibiotic Zithromax, which he was taking for a sinus infection, and my beloved father dies of a brain tumor – all in two weeks. Talk about getting hit with a proverbial 2×4 from the Universe. All hell breaks loose.
I get a random call from an art dealer in Carmel, California who wants to exhibit my art in a show that is opening the next week. After a furtive exchange of goods at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, she takes the art back to Carmel and nearly sells out all of my art before she even hangs it. She begs me to drive up to Carmel and deliver more art before the opening. Even though I am still nursing, I agree, and while I am there, I drive down to Big Sur, the home of my heart, where I had done the shamanic journey on my wedding day a year ago.
It’s pouring rain, but even in the driving rain, I can hear the early mutterings of a voice I came to call my Inner Pilot Light. The voice is so loving and comforting, so knowing and true, that I sit on a rock overlooking the stormy ocean and cry. I buy a memento to memorialize the preciousness of the day. It’s a wrought iron box I call my “Anything Box,” and it represents all the potential of what might one day become. (You can see a picture and read about my Anything Box here.) The Anything Box goes in my office where I see patients and reminds me that anything is possible, that there is hope, and that one day, I’ll free myself from the prison of seeing 40 patients a day in a way that feels like I’m selling out my integrity.
I finally get around to taking a massive leap of faith and quitting my job in medicine. To do so, I have to sell my house, liquidate my retirement account to free myself from my $120,000 malpractice tail, and move my 1 year old and husband close to Big Sur, on the Monterey peninsula, because that little voice tells me I’m supposed to uproot us. I feel crazy, but the insanity feels simultaneously perfect. My motto is “I’m on the right path, even though I don’t know where I’m going.”
The little voice keeps telling me I’m supposed to go back to Esalen in Big Sur, where Matt and I had soaked in the hot springs on our wedding night. The voice tells me, “You’re supposed to meet someone there.”
When I look in the course catalog, the classes they are teaching sound so New-Agey and “out there” that I resist for months. But in March 2008, I finally arrive at Esalen as a curious student about to take a writing workshop with Nancy Aronie.
Within minutes of arriving at Esalen, someone asks why I am there, and I say, “Because I’m supposed to meet someone here.” After talking to me for a few minutes, she says, “Oh, you’re supposed to meet Dr. Rachel Abrams.” Rachel Abrams is now one of my bestest besties.
Someone else says, “You’re supposed to meet Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.” I go out and buy Kitchen Table Wisdom, and for five years now, I’ve been attending a once a month gathering of physicians at Rachel Remen’s home, which is a five minute drive from where I now live.
While at Esalen, I also meet Joy Mazzola who became my first editor at Owning Pink. I meet Nancy Aronie, who led the Writing From The Heart workshop I took, which taught me everything I know about writing authentically and finding my voice. Nancy has also become a good friend. I also meet several alternative medicine providers who seem much happier than any of the doctors I know. Having never met an acupuncturist or an energy healer in real life before, I am skeptical, but my curiosity about what they’re doing professionally is piqued. I file these encounters under “Maybe I shouldn’t be so dismissive of things I don’t understand and can’t prove with science.” My closed mind cracks open a tad.
By the end of my week at Esalen, it is apparent to me that you can quit your job, but you can’t quit your calling. I stand on a bridge among the redwoods over a rushing river in a place people had told me was an “energy vortex.” Standing there amidst the twisted, spiraling trees, I make an agreement with the Universe that I will dip my foot back into medicine, but this time, it will be on different terms – not my terms, but God’s terms. I ask God to guide me, to help me find my way, and I promise to let God use me in whatever way I might be of service, as long as it doesn’t require depleting me or making me sick the way my old job had done (a girl has her limits.)
When I hold my hands on the railing of the bridge, I feel the railing vibrate at the frequency of my own heartbeat. Freaked out, I run around Esalen to see if the same thing happens on other railings – but I only feel my heartbeat on the railing in the energy vortex. I take it as a Sign from the Universe. My mystical journey – and my pulse -quicken.
I have an idea for a website I plan to call Owning Pink – only I know nothing about the internet or how to blog or even where to start. I have two friends from San Francisco who work at Adobe – one of them had breast cancer and modeled for the Woman Inside Project – and they invite me to lunch in Big Sur. I figure it is the perfect opportunity to run my ideas by them and pick their brains.
As I tell Scott and Vera about the website I plan to create, integrating everything I am passionate about – health, creativity, relationships, spirituality, sex, the environment, professional lives, money, mental health – my pulse quickens again.
I describe the shamanic journey I had once taken and the gift I had received – the stethoscope with a paintbrush on it. Owning Pink, I told them, would be the fruition of the integration the stethoscope represented.
Then I look over at the table next to us and – OMG – Jon Rasmussen, my shaman from 2005 just sat down beside us. I haven’t seen him in 3 years. I take it as yet another Sign.
I accept a job at an integrative medicine practice, where I finally get a whole hour with my patients. My patients are the proverbial choir – they’re raw vegans, they work out with personal trainers, they sleep 8 hours a night and take handfuls of supplements – and they’re still sick. This makes no sense to me, so I start questioning what I’ve been taught.
I begin routinely asking my patients, “What does your body need in order to heal?” and their answers baffle me:
“I need to leave my marriage.”
“I need to quit my job.”
“I need to finally go to art school.”
The brave ones who follow their own Prescriptions start experiencing spontaneous remissions I can’t explain. Something about how health care really needs to be delivered and received starts to click. I begin to dig into the scientific literature to find out what might really be going on with these spontaneous remissions.
OwningPink.com is born. Magical things begin to happen at an accelerated rate.
Rachel Naomi Remen invites me to exhibit The Woman Inside Project at Commonweal, where she teaches workshops for cancer patients. She introduces me to Nancy Bellen, a breast cancer survivor, advocate, and photographer who was going to be exhibiting her photographs as part of the show.
Nancy Bellen models for me as one of the subjects of the Woman Inside Project. After we finish, she says, “You need to do that for my doctor.”
I said, “Why, does she have breast cancer?”
She said, “No, but whatever you just did to me, she needs.”
I’m puzzled. So far, the only breast cancer patients who had turned me down to be models for the Woman Inside Project have been doctors. I conclude that doctors are so traumatized from our training, so emotionally shut down, so unwilling to get vulnerable that they can’t handle getting naked with me, both physically and emotionally.
So I pose a question on Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s physician’s-only forum. Why would non-physician patients with breast cancer allow me to cast them for my project, but doctors with breast cancer wouldn’t? And why would Nancy tell me I’m supposed to cast her doctor?
The response from the very conscious doctors on this forum leaves me misty. “You can cast me.” “I’ll model for you.” “I don’t mind getting naked for you.” “Sign me up.”
None of them actually have breast cancer. About half are men. I am baffled. What does all this mean? Why are all these doctors from all over the world offering to model for an art project about women with breast cancer?
I ask Rachel what she thinks. She tells me the meaning of it all will unfold when I am ready to know. I file the experience under “The world is a mysterious place, and doctors simultaneously confuse, scare, surprise, and delight me.”
The Woman Inside Project opens at Commonweal. During the show, I spot a UCSF medical student, Jade, kneeling before the sculptures of the women with breast cancer. It is downright holy.
Five years have passed since my shamanic journey. This art show feels like the birth of something sacred.
Nancy Bellen, the photographer who exhibited with me at the Commonweal show, is driving with me on Highway 1, when she says, “Lissa, you’re a physician witness.”
I say something to the effect of “Say what?”
She tells me that when I cast her for the project, I bore witness to something her doctors had been unable or unwilling to witness, and that in offering her this gift, I helped heal her. Other models had said something similar. In fact, one had said, “You lay your hands on my wounds and cover me with warm bandages, and when the cast dries and you pull it off me, you pull off all the pain and leave me whole.” Whoa… and I thought I was just making art.
I don’t understand at the time what these women mean. And I have no idea what a “physician witness” might be. Nancy tells me I am a bridge, that I bridge between patients and doctors – and in doing so, I will heal both in the process.
My first reaction is “No way in hell. Not me.”
But the little voice I first heard in Big Sur says, “She’s right.”
Signs from the Universe guide me to leave the integrative medicine practice where I have been working – and to open my own practice. (You can read about the guidance that arrived in the form of a dream here. My very conventional, very skeptical physician father would roll over in his grave if he knew the center included four acupuncturists, a naturopath, a therapist, a nutritionist, and a massage therapist.
While at this practice, I learn and practice everything I wind up teaching in Mind Over Medicine.
I am in the midst of a never-ending book tour for What’s Up Down There?, which interferes with my ability to manage my practice. I realize I have to decide whether I’m going to be a globe-trotting, book-writing blogger/author or the best damn integrative medicine physician in San Francisco. In spite of my sadness about letting the practice go, I choose to focus exclusively on my career as a writer/teacher.
I turn down a crappy book deal from St. Martin’s Press for a book that never got published – Broken: One Doctor’s Search For The Lost Heart Of Medicine. After completing a four month book tour and realizing that hardly anyone actually bought my book, in spite of all of my spermiest efforts to promote it, I’m experiencing full blown PPD – post-publishing depression (a well-known phenomenon most authors can relate with!)
When I turn down my book deal, my agent ditches me because “I did the best I could for you and you’re not happy.” (True words.) We agree to break up and stay in love. (I just had lunch with her in New York this month, bless her heart.) You can read the whole story of why I turned down that book deal here.
But now I have no practice, no publisher, no book deal, no agent, and I’m $200,000 in debt. My career as a full time writer isn’t going so hot, and all those blog readers who are wondering whether I’m an inspiration or a cautionary tale are pretty sure I’m a cautionary tale. I begin to suspect they’re right.
Fed up with being typecast in the MD role, I have a hissy fit one day when a major TV show, a major news website, a bigtime national magazine all call on the same day wanting me to be a talking head about some medical issue. I huff around and stomp my feet while my husband watches me acting like a crazy person. I tell him I want to be the next Tony Robbins when I grow up. He suggests that maybe I should be the first Lissa Rankin. I stomp around some more and curse everyone who straps me into my white coat like it’s a straitjacket.
With no medical practice, I hang out a shingle and recast myself as a “life coach.” A few people hire me, but it wasn’t exactly a rousing success as a business move. We’re still broke, and my husband starts suggesting that we might need to move someplace cheaper. I tell him he’s going to have to take me kicking and screaming out of the San Francisco Bay area, which feels more like home than any place I’ve ever lived.
Things are not going well. I wind up deep in the narrow place (read what I mean here). Matt insists we must move – or I must go back to the hospital and get a job like my old one. I spend most days in tears.
Ophi Edut of the AstroTwins, who is following me on Facebook and reading about my narrow place, sends me an email and offers to do an astrological reading for me to let me know that I’m supposed to be in the narrow place and I’ll get out on June 4. She challenges me to, instead of throwing out medicine altogether, “find the baby in the bathwater”.
Around the same time, Danielle LaPorte, Chris Guillebeau, and Mama Gena all kick my business ass and tell me I’m sitting on a gold mine – and that the golden ticket lies in me making peace with my doctor self. Mama Gena says, “I could swing my Fendi bag and hit a life coach. We don’t need you to be a life coach. We need you to be an effin’ doctor.”
Trust me. You don’t want Mama Gena or Danielle LaPorte or Chris Guillebeau kicking your ass. It’s scary. But looking back, I couldn’t have been more supported by the perfect people.
I’m hiking on a coastal trail near my home when I get the download of the vision for the Whole Health Cairn. I rush home to draw it – then promptly call my new agent with the idea for the book that became Mind Over Medicine. Breathless, I also call Ophi Edut. I have found my baby in the bathwater!
Matt is moving full swing ahead to evacuate us from the Bay area because we’re flat broke, I’m refusing to go back to the hospital, and there’s no money coming in on the horizon. With a whole storage unit filled with art, we decide to have a blowout art sale so we don’t have to drag 100 old paintings to the place we’re moving. Matt schedules the art sale for June 4, without consulting me. I don’t even remember that this is the date Ophi told me everything would turn around.
June 4, 2011
We sell over $40,000 worth of art – all of it at less than $500 per painting. Plans to move are suddenly canceled. I realize a week later that this all happened on June 4 and Ophi was right.
Mind Over Medicine (PREORDER IT HERE) goes to auction, with Hay House winning with a six-figure bid. Apparently, finding the baby in the bathwater was the ticket that took me from an $18,000 book deal offer back in January 2011 to a six figure deal with Hay House. Now that I had gotten back on track with the calling the Universe had designed for me, things started happening – quickly.
I finish the first draft of Mind Over Medicine. The data I collected in this book blows my freakin’ mind. I experience a series of ego deaths as I expand into a new consciousness about how healing really happens. Everything I was taught in 12 years of medical training gets flipped on its head. I’m terrified to put this stuff out there because medicine is like a fundamentalist religion and as a heretic, I’m afraid of getting burned at the stake. But the imperative is clear. I’m supposed to use the platform it took me two years to build to amplify the message of what I share in Mind Over Medicine.
Hay House tells me they want to produce a PBS special about the book. I nearly have a panic attack.
With one simple email to my newsletter list, I launch a mentoring program for 10 visionary entrepreneurs who yearn to change the world. Ten people pay $10,000 each to enroll in the program. My husband finally breathes a sigh of relief because we’re finally out of debt, and by spending a whole VIP day with my 10 clients, I realize I have recreated what I once did for the women in my Woman Inside Project models. My clients tell me I heal them – but in a very different way than most doctors. I realize I am doing with my mentoring clients what I always wanted to do with my patients – make them the center of the world for one whole day. They start having massive breakthroughs that affect not only their businesses, but also their relationships, their spiritual lives, their health, their finances.
As much as I’ve resisted the word, I finally realize I really am a healer, in my own unique way. I get a sense that I’ve come full circle, and I love working with my mentoring clients so much – and I feel so connected – and it feels so yummy that I could cry.
In fact, I do. Often.
Martha Beck, Amy Ahlers and I launch the Find Your Calling program in response to a whole bunch of emails from readers who know they’re meant to be visionary entrepreneurs like the ones who took my online program Visionary Ignition Switch but don’t know exactly what they’re called to do. I remember reading Martha Beck’s book Finding Your Own North Star shortly after someone at Esalen told me I was supposed to meet Martha Beck. I figure Martha will be the perfect person to co-lead the program with me. I don’t expect she’ll actually say yes, but she does.
1,000 people sign up for the $297 program! Our students love the program, we have a blast, and it’s so easy, graceful, lucrative, fun, and “eggy” that Martha and I vow to find more ways to work together.
Martha and I also both admit that we’re still trying to find our callings – or rather, refine them – because it’s an ongoing process, this whole business of finding your calling. Mine is becoming increasingly clear, but there are still fuzzy edges to my calling, edges I’m trying to clarify.
I know I’m supposed to help heal health care, but how? I have a vision for how this needs to happen (you can read it here.) But what is my role in that? I don’t yet know…
The Signs From The Universe start flooding in so fast I can’t interpret them. I can tell I’m supposed to be receiving a transmission, but I can’t tell what the Universe is telling me.
So I tell Melanie Bates, the CEO of my now very successful company (phew!), that I need to get away, go back to Esalen, and listen carefully to the Signs. She tells me I have no time for a getaway – my schedule is jam packed. I’m about to go to New York to speak at the Hay House conference, when Hurricane Sandy hits and the conference gets cancelled. Melanie tells me to hightail it to Esalen because I suddenly have time off!
As soon as I get there, my spirit guide Sebastian tells me to sit down at my computer and take dictation. (Yes, I have a spirit guide named Sebastian – you can read the whole story here.) Sebastian proceeds to dictate an email with the title “Calling All Visionary Physicians.”
When I’m done, I ask Sebastian what I’m supposed to do with this email. The maddening answer I received was, “Do nothing. Await further instructions.”
I’m thinking greeeeaaaat… you tell me to write an email I’m not supposed to send? Whatever…”
I breathe – and agree to wait and trust.
Fast forward a week, and Martha and I are chatting on the phone when I tell her about Sebastian and the email.
Martha asks to read the email. I send it her way, and all of the sudden, Martha is rambling on about how I’m supposed to bring the doctors to her ranch so we can heal the healers together.
Suddenly, very eggy Martha is pure sperm, spouting off details about dates and curriculum and where these doctors will sleep and how much we’ll charge and how she’d bring in her horse-whisperer friend Koelle and how all these doctors will go out and amplify our collective visions, like threads of a web covering the earth.
While Martha plans, I sob. I have just been given further instructions – and it had only taken seven days. My role in helping heal health care is suddenly getting very clear.
The Whole Health Medicine Institute is born. The email Sebastian had me write goes out to my newsletter list, inviting 15 visionary physicians to raise their hands and say “Me! Me! Me!” We wind up accepting 16 into the program because all 16 are just AMAZING. After interviewing them, I tell Martha, “They’re ALL Wizards! Not one of them is a Muggle.” I’m relieved. Phew.
When I ask these Wizard doctors why they’re signing up for the program, many of them say they’re tired of feeling on the fringe. One said, “I jumped off the Mother Ship and have been adrift in the ocean, trying to either find someone else’s ship to jump on or learn to build my own ship.” I tell her she can find safe harbor on my ship until she figures out what kind of ship she wants to build for herself, and I reassure her that there will be other doctors who have bailed from the Mother Ship and are building ships of their own. I can feel her body relax even over the phone…
That’s what’s happening. We’re bringing 16 doctors (well, 17 with me there) and together, we will float towards our collective and individual destiny, and in doing so, we will help heal health care.
I’m hiking with a friend who has a PhD in tribal psychology. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and I’ve dreamed of working with her for years – only she has been otherwise employed and hasn’t had the bandwidth to work with me – plus, I haven’t known how we might work together. But I’ve seen that we will – someday. When the time is right…
And during our hike, she suddenly tells me the time is right. She’s suddenly got bandwidth and is ready to collaborate. Her specialty is tribe-building. I’m so giddy I can hardly speak. I know what tribe I want her to help build. There are doctors and nurses and alternative health care providers and wellness coaches and pretty much everyone with letters after their name – naturopaths, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, midwives, dentists, veterinarians, and more – and they’re all looking for their tribe. There are also conscious, empowered patients who are seeking each other, as well as the health care providers that share their beliefs.
I ask my friend if she’ll help unite these beautiful people who are seeking each other. She says yes. I can hardly breathe…
The doctors and I all gather to activate our Wonder Twin powers at Martha’s ranch on March 21, 2013.
HealHealthCareNow.ning.com, an online forum gathering empowered patients and conscious health care providers launches soon and community manager Ken Jaques will fulfill part of his calling by leading the conversation and helping give calls to action to the tribe that wants to gather in what Martha Beck calls the “Everywhen.”
A national TV talk show calls and they want me to talk about healing health care.
The PBS special films in April and airs in August.
Mind Over Medicine launches May 7.
There is momentum. I feel a quickening in both my professional development and my spiritual growth. I am being called. There is no more waiting. The prep time is behind me. It’s time to step up.
Nancy Bellen was right. I am a physician witness, and I now know what that means. I am a bridge, a translator. I find myself apologizing to patients on behalf of doctors who have hurt them. I apologize to doctors for patients who don’t appreciate them. I apologize to alternative health care providers who feel dismissed and disrespected by doctors who don’t understand what they do.
I stand with one foot in science and one foot in the spiritual realm and help people cross between the two. Mind Over Medicine is the first book of a trilogy. Mind Over Medicine is pure science. The third book, Sacred Medicine, will be pure spirituality (what happens with John Of God in Brazil? What’s happening in Lourdes? What are the shamans doing in Peru? What is energy medicine?). And the second book, The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind & Spirit - which Hay House just bought – is the bridge book, spanning the gap between science and spirituality.
Most of all, I am a healer who supports empowered patients and conscious healers as they embrace mind-body medicine, as well as other healing modalities. It’s my job to rally the troops, to help shift consciousness about health care, to bring heart back to medicine, and to tend the wounds we have inflicted upon each other in the quest to heal others.
It’s a big calling – and sometimes it feels daunting. But I know I don’t have to do it alone. There are hundreds of thousands, millions even – who share this calling, and we’re all just trying to find each other so we can hold hands, no longer adrift in the sea, but creating a ship of our collective making, one we will all steer, with no particular individual at the helm.
A few years back, when I was trying to decide to leave the integrative medicine practice where I worked, I had a dream. In the dream, I saw magnificent mountains covered with millions of people, dressed in brilliant colors and tribal garb from all over the world. The people were standing shoulder to shoulder, covering the mountainsides like a great quilt, and all of them were facing due north, where a bright light was shining on their faces, illuminating them.
That’s what I see when I think of healing our broken health care system – all of us, standing shoulder to shoulder, facing north and being the light.
I know it seems hopeless to think that health care can reclaim its heart, but just like I believe there are no incurable illnesses, I also believe there are no incurable systems. It’s going to require a grass roots effort though, initiated by patients and health care providers just like you.
This is my calling, and I stand before it, ready, willing, allowing myself to be used by the Universe. As Dr. Larry Dossey said to me, “The time is now. Welcome to the dance.”
The Hero’s Journey
Someone recently told me that the story of how I found my calling is a classic Joseph Campbell-esque hero’s journey. I wasn’t so sure I could claim the title of “hero,” so I looked up Joseph Campbell. (You can read about the steps in the hero’s journey here).
What I realized is that anyone who accepts a call is embarking upon a hero’s journey. It takes courage. There are dragons to slay. Supernatural aid helps you out. The Universe conspires to both test your fortitude and make things easy for you. You learn the strength of your own mettle, and finally, you find the holy grail. For me, the holy grail was what I wrote about in Mind Over Medicine.
But you’re not done yet once you find the grail. You have to take it back home. That’s where teaching the doctors and the Whole Health Medicine Institute comes in.
We are all heroes in the making….
Will You Answer Your Own Call?
Be brave. Pick up the phone. Join the dance.
And if you’re not sure what’s calling you yet, await further instructions… and listen. Your call is coming. I promise.
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