Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen
Clinical Professor,
Family and Community Medicine, UCSF

Becoming a Blessing:
Remembering the Power of Who You Are

Sponsors: Hillel at Stanford,
Women's Soul Matters, & Office of Religious Life

Dinkelspiel Rehearsal Room, Stanford University
Monday, November 15, 2004, 7:15 pm-8:35 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: After Stéfan Sinclair's lecture "Envisioning Visualization in the Humanities" at Stanford Humanities Center (4-5:45 pm), I rushed back to Green Library to check for books by Rachel Naomi Remen. I've never heard of her before and wanted to check out her books before the 7:15 lecture. Two were listed in the online catalog: Kitchen Table Wisdom (1997) and Masculine Principle, Feminine Principle, and Humanistic Medicine (1975). But both copies were in the Stanford Lane Medical Library. It was already 6 pm as I headed out of Green Library to catch the Shuttle A-Line Bus to the Medical School. I didn't know whether I could check out books from the Medical Library and took my chance rushing there. I found Kitchen Table Wisdom in the basement floor, but not the other book. The Medical Librarian told me the 1975 book is in another building due to its earlier printing. He did an online reserve for me and said they'll retrieve it by tomorrow. I gave him my Green Library card which he scanned to check out Kitchen Table Wisdom, due in four weeks on Dec. 13. Great! When he asked me whether I am a Stanford faculty member, I said "independent scholar". He said, "You must then fill out this form." When I said I already did at Green Library, he told me that I must also have one on file at the Medical Library. "I'll miss my Shuttle Bus for the Remen lecture," I pleaded. He said, "Then you can't check out this book." I rushed to fill it out and made it to the bus in time. I was so absorbed reading the Epilogue about Rachel and her grandpa, that when the bus announced "Next stop— Encina Hall", I realized that it had passed the Hoover Tower stop. I got off and began running across the campus. Rachel's talk was scheduled at Hillel in the Haas Center. I asked student passer-bys where the building was and finally got there around 7 pm. The Donald Kennedy Room where the talk was scheduled was small and still occupied by a class. I went to the rest room to wipe off my sweat from running. When 7:10 came, around four of us were wondering how come the speaker and the audience haven't arrived yet. Then someone pointed to a flyer on the bulletin board of the Room Change— Dinkelspiel Auditorium. One fellow said "If you could all hop in my car, I'll drive there." I told him, "I know where Dinkelspiel is— near Tressider Student Union. It's faster by foot and you don't have to find parking." They all followed me as we trotted there. When we got to Dinkelspiel, someone asked us "Are you headed for the Remen lecture? Just follow the purple arrow on the ground to the Dinkelspiel Rehearsal Room. Someone said, "It's like following the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard!" After a few turns in the dark around Dinkelspiel, we found the lecture room. The chairs were on four raised platforms and almost filled. It was 7:15 but the lecture has not yet begun because of the room change. Susan also showed up around the same time. I told her about Rachel's lecture a week earlier. She called Hillel and found out about the room change. We found seats on the third platform near the center of the room. Before Rachel's talk, a Stanford student talked about Camp Kesem— bringing magic to families coping with cancer. The work of Camp Kessem is people helping people. The act of listening helps us heal. Then Rachel began her talk. It was 7:20 pm. Rachel tells the audience, "I speak softly. Can you all hear me from the back? Good. I don't have to turn up the microphone." The next hour and half was pure magic— as if Rachel had transformed the entire room into a cathedral of blessing with her stories. Because she spoke softly and slowly, I was able to jot down most of her lecture. My pen ran out of ink at the beginning so I wrote down everything in pencil. These wisdom words of Rachel's are priceless beyond rubies. May they bless us all. Words in [brackets] and web links are my additions to Rachel's lecture.

One of the concepts in the Bible is the act of blessing— our power to bless others and restore the world. In 1998, I thought about blessing a great deal. At UCSF, I taught a class "The Healer's Art". One of the medical student, Richard, came up afterwards and said thanks. The course meant a great deal to him— "Before the course, I came to medical school to become a doctor. Now, I'm here because I wish to be a blessing!" [WOW! I thought to myself— this student just had an alchemical mind transformation from selfish ego consciousness to cosmic consciousness of kindness & compassion!]

My grandfather taught me when I was four years old something about blessing. He was a flaming mystic and studied the Kabbala. Once he told me a story about the "Birthday of the World"— "In the beginning there was only the Holy Darkness— Ein Soph. Then there was an horrible accident. The world of 100,000 things emerged from that accident. The light of the world broke into 100,000 people and events. The human race is a response to this accident. Our purpose is to restore the wholeness of all the people alive, past, and future." In Hebrew [Tikkun Olam], this is called healing the world back to its wholeness.

We're all born to be a power of blessing to others. As a little one, I took this story personally. Over time, I forgot this and delegated this power to others. I thought I had to become a professional. But we have this power just as we are. In order to matter, we have to be smarter, richer, and think that only our expertise matters. We don't need expertise. We can bless right now. We can offer refuge for others, not a hiding place, but a place of strength. The first person who blessed me was my grandfather. Every day after school, we'd have tea together. He'd light two candles and speak to God— sometimes aloud, sometimes in silence. He'd rest his hands lightly on my head. If I made mistakes, he'd mention my honesty. If I slipped, he'd mention my bravery in the dark. These moments of the week with him, I felt completely safe. Others would always want more. When I got 98% in my school exam, my Dad would say "Where are the other 2%?" My grandfather died when I ws 7 years old. He called me by a special name— Neshume-le which means "Little Beloved Soul". I had learned to see myself through his eyes. My socialist mother began lighting candles at home. When I asked her how come she never blessed me, she said "I bless you every day— I just don't have the wisdom to do it aloud." We've blessed many more people than we know.

A colleague of mine, Elaine, told me this story. Her first husband was a pillar of the community. Everyone thought they were the perfect married couple. But nobody knew of the domestic violence at home. He was abusive and her private life was a hell. One day after lunch with her husband in New York City, they stopped on a street corner. There she saw a perfect building with beautiful architecture and told her husband. He asked "Which one?" She said "The one right across the street." He said in a loud tone of contempt, "Oh, the yellow building— that's the ugliest one in New York!" She fell silent with shame. Her husband had put her down in public. A stranger nearby said "What! That's a perfectly beautiful building. She's right! And you are a dumb ass!" At that moment, she realized she always felt subordinate in their 7-1/2 years of marriage and it's time to leave him. This is not a story about Elaine, but that woman at the street corner who gave back to Elaine her dignity. If we were to find her and say that she saved someone's life, she'd surely declared "No way!" But she saved Elaine's life that day. When we bless someone, we bring them to wholeness.

One of my medical students said, "I heal more with my humanities than from my science." I have a mysterious disease [Crohn's disease] which required eight major surgeries. The first time I had surgery at Stanford, I was 27 years old and a single woman. The medication I was taken since 15 was not working and my colon was removed. My intestines were put on top of my abdomen for cleaning every day. The nurses who did this procedure wore surgical mask and gloves and had to sterilize the appliances each time. I didn't feel feminine any more. I felt depressed. I collected my pain killers and sleeping pills. I didn't want to commit suicide in the hospital and embarass Stanford. I was going to do it at home. One day, a nurse came to my hospital room. She was going out on a date. She had perfume on and heels. She washed her hands and removed my old appliances without putting on gloves like the other nurses. When she learned about my disease, she began talking to me. She was not in a rush to get out to her date. I experienced a place of great strength within. This woman didn't give me back my intestines. She gave me back my life! The lives of others respond to us. Only blessings heal people. You need to talk about your stories. We need to listen more to other's stories. Andrew Weil has a program at University of Arizona relating to story-telling. A woman asked me "Have you seen this nurse before or since?" When I said no, she said, "She may have been an angel." An angel is a being between two worlds.

How can I matter when I feel so inadequate myself? All the events of your life can be a blessing. My grandma, wife of the Rabbi, had her kitchen bulging with food. The icebox was full to the edges. When someone opens the icebox, and an egg falls out, Grandma says, "Ah ha! Today we have a sponge cake!" Something are too important to be wasted. When I was 16, the doctor told me "You have a disease that's incurable." Then I hear my Grandma's voice, "We will make a sponge cake, Rachel." It took many years to find a recipe of my own. Our wounds can heal us. When we're wounded, others trust us with their wounds. It's been 30 years since I worked with cancer patients. People find their power to bless others. Find wisdom so others will live well. Nothing need to be wasted. As age and illness diminish us, our blessings help us heal. Blessings are mutual. Giving darshan— dying people can bless us in special ways the way a spiritual teacher does. The guru throws candies— those who catches them, the darshan we eat becomes who we are, woven into our fabric of being.

A friend of mine who was dying of cancer. "Mary was dying" said her husband. Thin and bald, I couldn't recognize her. We spent four hours together. She said "I am no longer suffering." We read Proverbs 31: "Woman of valor" ["Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her." Proverbs 31.25-26,28]. We drank Snapple and rolled it around our mouth as wine. She released her habit of anger. After four hours, I felt as if I was with a High Lama and was reluctant to leave. Later she slipped into a coma. I came to her bed. She opened her eyes and said "I love you" and went back into coma. It was a moment of unconditional love. In science, there is the Null Hypothesis— Should one find a single instance when the law didn't hold, then the law is invalidated. One moment of unconditional love can invalidate an entire lifetime of uncertainty and doubt. "Her candles don't go out by night." [Proverbs 31.18]

Blessing is a relationship between equals. When you bless others— you realize that your life matters. The people you bless can make you immortal. In this country, Prozac is the most commonly prescribed drug, not Viagra. We pursue the American dream of success. It doesn't make us happy— not beauty, not success. Perhaps the real question is what Plato have Socrates ask: "What is a good life?"— that we are satisfied in living a life well. Cancer strips life down to its essential. Only a few things matter. No one says, "When I die, I'll miss my Mercedes." They realize that Mercedes was the booby prize. Who we have touched in our life and what we have is our true blessing.

George, at age 45, patented a medical device. He was a CEO and a shrewd investor. Six months before, he came to my office. He was diagnosed with colon cancer. "I've wasted my life Rachel," he said, "I've had two wives and five children. I had no time for my family, only my business. I've nothing to leave them except my money. No one will miss me." George sighed to himself, "What an old fool!" It so happens that I knew a woman, Stephanie, who used George's medical device. I asked her if she'd write a letter of appreciation to George. Stephanie said she'd rather meet George personally. When I told George about it, he said, "I'll take Stephanie and her husband to the most expensive restaurant in San Franciso and treat them to dinner." But Stephanie said no, she wanted to invite George to dinner in her home. When George arrived, Stephanie had invited all her friends. For three hours, they each in turn thanked George for his invention which saved Stephanie's life. This is not a story about Stephanie. It is a story about George. He had tears in his eyes and told them, "I made 10,000 medical devices. I only know the numbers, but don't know who used them. Today, I met someone who did. Thanks for sharing with me your story. Now I feel my life is not wasted."

The events of 9/11— buildings 110 stories tall shattered. Planes flying around the world in 5 hours. Our experts have created marvellous gadgets but they have not made us or the world whole. Our real power is blessing others. To bless people is simple and old. The Hipprocratic Oath tells us that life really matters. The individual words are written in each student's heart. In my last class on "The Healer's Art" there were 30 medical students, 10 faculty members, and some religious pastors. I asked each to write an individual Hippocratic Oath. I've taught this class at UCSF for 13 years now. I can't tell if the individual oath was written by a student, a surgeon, or a pastor. The blessings are old. A young student wrote: "May you find in me the Mother of the World. May my heart be a mother's heart, my hands be a mother's hands. May my response to your suffering be a mother's response to your suffering. May I sit with you in the dark, like a mother sits in the dark. May you know through our relationship that there is something in this world that can be trusted."

My grandfather used to give me presents. Once he brought me a paper cup when I was four years old. I was disappointed that the cup was filled with dirt. He took me to the kitchen and showed me how to put a little water in the cup. He told me "Neshume-le, you put some water in the dirt every day and something will happen." The first week I waited for something magical, but nothing happened. The second week, I wanted to give the cup back to grandfather. But the third week, two tiny green leaves appeared out of the dirt. I was thrilled and when I showed the cup to him, Grandfather said, "Life is everywhere— hidden in the most ordinary and unexpected places." I asked, "And all it needs is water, Grandpa?" And he laughed, "No Neshume-le, all life needs is your faithfulness." Perhaps faithfulness is needed now. Ever since 9/11, our politicians have failed us. The only place of real safety is connectedness. Instead of the motto "Live and let live" we should have "Live and help live." We don't need to be more than who we are. In Deuteronomy 30.19, God said, "I have put before you— goodness and evil. Choose Life."

After the Lecture:
The lecture ended at 8:35 pm to an enthusiastic applause from the audience. There was no Q&A session following the usual lectures I've attended. But somehow I felt there was no need for any additional questions. Rachel's wonderful stories were nourishing enough for us to savor and digest. I felt a wave of healing energy throughout her talk the whole evening, similar to the blessings and darshan felt in the presence of sages and holy men I've met in my spiritual journeys. A crowd had gathered around Rachel to chat with her. I showed Rachel her book Kitchen Table Wisdom which I just checked out of the Stanford Lane Medical Library. When I told her that the librarian was retrieving her 1975 book The Masculine Principle, the Feminine Principle, and Humanistic Medicine from their "moth ball" collection in another building, Rachel said, "If you had told me, I would have brought you a copy from home." She signed my Hillel flyer of her talk— "For Peter— Blessings from Rachel 11/2004". I found a web page printout with Rachel's photo & bio which she signed for Susan.

When I mentioned Jon Kabat-Zinn's blurb in back of her book ["A book of stunning radiance, authenticity, and power. I laughed and cried my way through it, from beginning to end."], Rachel said, "Jon is a good friend, I've known him for 30 years." I told Rachel that I was a postdoc at Brandeis University in 1970 where I met Jon Kabat-Zinn and Larry Rosenberg, both Brandeis faculty members back then. Together we would go guru hunting in the Boston area searching for enlightenment from gurus, swamis, and Zen Masters. Now, Jon and Larry have both written best-selling books on meditation and mindfulness. I'm trying to share similar teachings on my web site WisdomPortal.com through art and poetry for insights and inspiration. I told Rachel how much I enjoyed her lecture of blessing and will keep in touch. I walked Susan to her car near Tressider. She was glad to come to Rachel's lecture. I went back to Green Library and worked till midnight to complete "On the Number 96" for Mom's 96th birthday (lunar calendar: October 6, 1908) which falls on November 17 this year.


Books by Rachel Naomi Remen: (at Amazon.com)

My Grandfather's Blessings:
Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

By Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
Riverhead Books, NY (April 2001)
Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal
By Rachel Naomi Remen
Riverhead Books, NY (August 1996)
The Masculine Principle, the Feminine Principle,
and Humanistic Medicine

By Rachel Naomi Remen, Anita Astrom Blau, & Raymond Hively
Institute for the Study of Humanistic Medicine, San Francisco (1975)

Web Links to Rachel Naomi Remen:

Rachel Naomi Remen
(About Rachel, Books, Speaking Schedule, Workshops, Links, Contact)
Rachel Naomi Remen
(Brief biography about Dr. Remen)
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD
(University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, OCIM, Faculty)
The Healer's Art [UCSF School of Medicine]
(Course Manager: Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., ihp.net)
Rachel Naomi Remen: Poety, Creativity, and Healing
(from Interview with Bill Moyers, Healing and the Mind)
My Grandfather's Blessings
(Introduction, Selected Stories, Review & Articles, Links)
Kitchen Table Wisdom
(Introduction, Selected Stories, Review & Articles, Links)
Book Review: Kitchen Table Wisdom
(Reviewed by Everyday Warriors' webmaster Jillian Leslie)
(Story from My Grandfather's Blessings)
The Web of Blessings
(Introduction to My Grandfather's Blessings)
Immy's Medal [from My Grandfather's Blessings]
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Beliefnet.com)
Telling Our Stories, Living Our Lives
(Prof. John McDargh Carney's seminar at Boston College based on
Rachel Naomi Remen's book My Grandfather's Blessings
This course is not about getting a job, it is about getting a life.)
Thoughts from Rachel
(Institute for the Study of Health & Illness at Commonweal)
Dr. Redwood Interviews Rachel Naomi Remen: "Living in the Post 9-11 World"
(Daniel Redwood, DC, DrRedwood.com)
Essay: Not Easy but Good [Parable from Rachel Remen on stonecutters]
(By Midge Steadman, Penwing.com)
Lessons from Stonecutters— and Brothers [Parable from Rachel Remen]
(By Rabbi Gerald M. Kane, Yom Kippur 5764, Oct. 6, 2003)
Rachel Naomi Remen: Top 5 Items to Grab When Evacuating a Hotel
(By Pat Holt, Holt Uncensored, Jan. 8, 2002)
Proceedings of the Plenary Session: Recovering a Sense of Service
Comprehensive Cancer Care 2001: Integrating Compementary & Alternative Therapies
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 19, 2001)
Naomi Remen: Disease can be an awakening
(Interview By Ravi Dykema, Nexus, Sept. 2001)
Recapturing the soul of medicine
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Western Journal of Medicine, Vol. 174, January 2001)
Glimpse of a deeper order
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Shambhala Sun, November 2000)
The Doctor's Dilemma
(Interview with Peter Warshall, Whole Earth Magazine, Summer 2000)
Meaning & Beauty [Developing an eye for meaning]
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Shambhala Sun, May 2000)
A Revolution in Health Care
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Shambhala Sun, July 1999)
In the Service of Life
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1996)
The Recovery Of The Sacred [Good Medicine Issue]
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, In Context #39, Fall 1994)
Pray without ceasing
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Noetic Sciences Review, Summer 1993)
An Interview with Rachel Remen, M.D.
(By Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher)
Spirit: Resource for Healing
(By Rachel Naomi Remen, Noetic Sciences Review #8, Autumn 1988)
Rachel Naomi Remen
(Shambhala Sun Online Articles by Dr. Remen)
We Will All take This Journey [Shambhala Sun. July 1998]
(Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen on illness, loss and spiritual growth)
Events Calendar: Rachel Naomi Remen's Talk at Stanford
(Hillel at Stanford, November 15, 2004)
Rachel Naomi Remen: Links to Resources
(Commonweal, ISHI, Healer's Art, Finding Meaning in Medicine)

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email: peter@wisdomportal.com (12-1-2004)