Rachel Naomi Remen

Rachel Naomi Remen, whose unique perspective on healing comes from her background
as a physician, a professor of medicine, a therapist, and a long-term survivor of chronic illness,
invites us to listen from the soul.  "Rachel Remen is one of the most important women of our time.
She is an extraordinary combination of wounded patient and highly skilled physician, an intuitively
compassionate healer, who is also a gifted author. She has had a life-changing impact on me,"
says Naomi Judd.  Taken from several of her books are the following passages
that give us great insight, peace, and perspective.

 thinkers home


When we haven't the time to listen to each other's stories we seek out experts to tell us how to live.  The less time we spend together at the kitchen table, the more how-to books appear in the stores and on our bookshelves.  But reading such books is a very different thing than listening to someone' s lived experience.  Because we have stopped listening to each other we may even have forgotten how to listen, stopped learning how to recognize meaning and fill ourselves from the ordinary events of our lives.  We have become solitary; readers and watchers rather than sharers and participants.

I have come to suspect that life itself may be a spiritual practice.  The process of daily living seems able to refine the quality of our humanity over time.  There are many people whose awakening to larger realities comes through the experiences of ordinary life, through parenting, through work, through friendship, through illness, or just in some elevator somewhere. 
Meaning may become a very practical matter for those of us who do difficult work or lead difficult lives.  Meaning is strength.  Physicians often seek their strength in competence.  Indeed, competence and expertise are two of the most respected qualities in the medical subculture, as well as in our society.  But important as they are, they are not sufficient to fully sustain us. . . . Competence may bring us satisfaction.  Finding meaning in a familiar task often allows us to go  beyond this and find in the most routine of tasks a deep sense of joy and even gratitude.

There is a great difference between defending life and befriending it.  Defending life is often about holding on to whatever you have at all cost.  Befriending life may be about strengthening and supporting life's movement toward its own wholeness.  It may require us to take great risks, to let go, over and over again, until we finally surrender to life's own dream of itself.


We have not only lost one another,
we have become isolated from the past as well.



The real epidemic in our culture is not just physical heart disease;
it's what I call emotional and spiritual heart disease:
the sense of loneliness, isolation, and alienation that is
so prevalent in our culture because of the breakdown of the
social networks that used to give us a sense of connection and community.


Until we stop ourselves or, more often, have been stopped, we hope to put
certain of life's events "behind us" and get on with our living.  After we stop
we see that certain of life's issues will be with us for as long as we live.
We will pass through them again and again, each time with a new story,
each time with a greater understanding, until they become indistinguishable
from our blessings and our wisdom.  It's the way life teaches us to live.


People can learn to study their life force in the same way that a master gardener
studies a rosebush.  No gardener ever made a rose.  When its needs are met a
rosebush will make roses.  Gardeners collaborate and provide conditions which
favor this outcome.  And as anyone who has ever pruned a rosebush knows, life
flows through every rosebush in a slightly different way.


We are all more than we know.  Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten.
Integrity rarely means that we need to add something to ourselves; it is more an undoing
than a doing, a freeing ourselves from beliefs we have about who we are and ways
we have been persuaded to "fix" ourselves to know who we genuinely are.
Even after many years of seeing, thinking, and living one way, we are able to reach
past all that to claim our integrity and live in a way we may never have expected to live.



A woman once told me that she did not feel the need to reach out to those around her
because she prayed every day.  Surely, this was enough.  But a prayer is about
our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another.
God may not need our attention as badly as the person next to us on the bus or behind us 
in line in the supermarket.  Everyone in the world matters, and so do their blessings.
When we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world.

Those who bless and serve life find a place of belonging and strength,
a refuge from living in ways that are meaningless and empty and lonely.

Few of us are truly free.  Money, fame, power, sexuality, admiration, youth; whatever
we are attached to will enslave us, and often we serve these masters unaware.
Many of the things that enslave us will limit our ability to live fully and deeply. They will cause us
to suffer needlessly.  The promised land may be many things to many people.  For some
it is perfect health and for others freedom from hunger or fear, or discrimination,
or injustice.  But perhaps on the deepest level the promised land is the same for us all,
the capacity to know and live by the innate goodness in us,
to serve and belong to one another and to life. 


Most of us have been given many more blessings than we have received.
We do not take time to be blessed or make the space for it.  We may have filled
our lives so full of other things that we have no room to receive our blessings.
One of my patients once told me that she has an image of us all being circled
by our blessings, sometimes for years, like airplanes in a holding pattern at an airport,
stacked up with no place to land.  Waiting for a moment of our time, our attention. 


Most of us lead far more meaningful lives than we know.  Often finding meaning is
not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways.
When we find new eyes, the unsuspected blessing in work we have done for many years
may take us completely by surprise.  We can see life in many ways: with the eye,
with the mind, with the intuition.  But perhaps it is only by those who speak the language
of meaning, who have remembered how to see with the heart,
that life is ever deeply known or served. 



We have not been raised to cultivate a sense of Mystery.  We may even see the unknown
as an insult to our competence, a personal failing.  Seen this way, the unknown becomes
a challenge to action.  But Mystery does not require action; Mystery requires our attention.
Mystery requires that we listen and become open.  When we meet with the unknown
in this way, we can be touched by a wisdom that can transform our lives.


Just Listen
an excerpt
Rachel Naomi Remen

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.  And especially if it's given from the heart.  When people are talking, there's no need to do anything but receive them.  Just take them in.  Listen to what they're saying.  Care about it.  Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it.  Most of us don't value ourselves or our love enough to know this.  It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, "I'm so sorry," when someone is in pain.  And meaning it.

One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted her to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them.  Subtly her pain became a story about themselves.  Eventually she stopped talking to most people.   It was just too lonely.  We connect through listening.  When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves.  When we listen, they know we care.  Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.

I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening.  In the old days I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief.  Now I just listen.  When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.

This simple thing has not been that easy to learn.  it certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young.  I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer.  A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.

A wonderful book of short vignettes by Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom is an exploration of the meanings of life and living.  Through her experiences as a medical doctor, Remen has learned much about living and dying, and the meaning of both.  Highly recommended for anyone who wants a dose of humanity and a positive perspective on life and the people of this world we live in.

The life in us is diminished by judgment far more frequently than by disease.  Our own
self-judgment or the judgment of other people can stifle our life-force, its spontaneity
and natural expression.  Unfortunately, judgment is commonplace.  It is as rare to find
someone who loves us as we are as it is to find someone who loves themselves whole.
Judgment does not only take the form of criticism.  Approval is also a form of judgment.
When we approve of people, we sit in judgment of them as surely as when we criticize
them.  Positive judgment hurts less acutely than criticism, but it is judgment all the
same and we are harmed by it in far more subtle ways.  To seek approval is to have
no resting place, no sanctuary.  Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant
striving.  It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value.  This is as true of
the approval we give ourselves as it is of the approval we offer others.  Approval can't
be trusted.  It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been.
It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy.
Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it.


As I age I am grateful to find that a silence has begun to gather in me,
coexisting with my tempers and my fears, unchanged by my joys
or my pain.  Sanctuary.  Connected to the Silence everywhere.


Everyone alive has suffered.  It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from
our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal.  Becoming expert
has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the
wholeness in myself and everyone else.  Expertise cures, but wounded people
can best be healed by other wounded people.  Only other wounded people can
understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.


Life offers its wisdom generously.  Everything teaches.  Not everyone learns.
Life asks of us the same thing we have been asked in every class:  "Stay
awake."  "Pay attention."  But paying attention is no simple matter.  It requires
us not to be distracted by expectations, past experiences, labels, and masks.
It asks that we not jump to early conclusions and that we remain open to surprise.

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Yes, life can be mysterious and confusing--but there's much of life that's actually rather dependable and reliable.  Some principles apply to life in so many different contexts that they can truly be called universal--and learning what they are and how to approach them and use them can teach us some of the most important lessons that we've ever learned.
My doctorate is in Teaching and Learning.  I use it a lot when I teach at school, but I also do my best to apply what I've learned to the life I'm living, and to observe how others live their lives.  What makes them happy or unhappy, stressed or peaceful, selfish or generous, compassionate or arrogant?  In this book, I've done my best to pass on to you what I've learned from people in my life, writers whose works I've read, and stories that I've heard.  Perhaps these principles can be a positive part of your life, too!
Universal Principles of Living Life Fully.  Awareness of these principles can explain a lot and take much of the frustration out of the lives we lead.



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