Bye bye rationality, hello another healer

water_lillies_black_and_white_by_sugartasticvalentineIn Ubud everyone, especially the foreign travelers (i.e. rich white people) are seen first as potential customers, second as people. It’s like you’re some kind of defective muppet in desperate need of more yoga, more dance classes, more detox, more healing. My friend told me of an interesting healing experience he had with an Indonesian friend of his (“He barely touched me and I was thrown onto the floor!”). This man, who I would later learn is a well-known, award-winning documentary producer hailing from the island of Java went through a five day awakening and was apparently given superhuman powers. Before the end of my coffee date with my friend, he had sent me his name and number and told me to call this guy. My friend’s girlfriend, who has also had a session with him claimed, “He’s the person who knows me the most in the world.” That actually sounded quite terrifying to me (you know me that well so now I have to kill you).

But of course my insatiable curiosity won out over my rational brain and within a week I had contacted and made arrangements to meet this man. He came to my guesthouse, in his hipster black jeans, boots, t-shirt and obligatory man bun. He told me a little about his job and his family. Hard to believe that someone so young was married with three kids. I made him wait out on the balcony. “Wait here, I need to quickly clean my room,” I ordered. “Don’t worry, I’m going to see all the mess inside of you anyway,” he chuckled. I nearly choked.

The session got underway as I lay on my bed and him perched on a stool next to me. He told me that he didn’t heal people per se but talked them through their own healing. I’m not ill so I don’t really know what I needed healing for, but I guess he works on an emotional/subtle energy level. First we sat in silence. “I’m accessing your files,” he said. And then what he said next was unexpected. According to the information he received from his cosmic database, I had a twin when I was in my mother’s womb that died and was absorbed into the placenta. This means that I have attachment issues and experience separation anxiety more than most people. The grief from losing my twin means that I have been holding onto this emotion for a long time. He told me that one in eight people have this experience and that he also lost his twin in the womb. Consequently, he met a woman who he had a very strong, primal connection with and his relationship with this woman threatened his marriage. Luckily, he found out about this phenomena and felt that she was his long lost twin before his marriage imploded and now they share a familial rather than romantic bond. Apparently, I’m going to meet my twin next year (he was reborn from a different mother, and it’s a ‘he’ because I’m the feminine energy, so he must be the masculine energy). He wanted to make me aware of this because he said in his experience it was very unsettling and I should be prepared to be emotionally thrown by the encounter. Ooohhhhhhkkaaaaayyyy.

We went through the motions of him talking me through clearing what he perceived to be some blocks in my energy, letting go of particular feelings, letting in others. It went on for well over an hour. I have to admit that I lost track of time and went into a kind of light sleep state, although still conscious. I like to think of myself as open minded and open to new experiences, but things like this I am skeptical about. But then, near the end of the session something weird happened. He said he kept hearing a name in his head of someone that was close to me. He said the name aloud several times and I was slightly freaked out because indeed, this person had been very close to me but was no longer in my life, although my grieving had not ended. He said that he would sever the ties energetically so that I could get closure. I have to admit that I found this freaky and felt weird afterwards. After two hours of lying on my bed I really needed to pee. I opened my eyes to see him moving his fingers over me before I got up off the bed and stumbled to the bathroom. I peed for what felt like five minutes and then when I returned we slowly finished the session. He gave me some good advice about giving love in relationships, about following my heart and setting intentions. Who knows the value of this stuff. I don’t want to be a die-hard skeptic, but I don’t want to be a gullible sucker either. Let’s see if my supposed twin appears in my life. I’ll keep you posted.

When Breath Becomes Air

dr paulDr. Paul Kalanithi is a brilliant young neurosurgeon in the midst of his residency when he is faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Breath Becomes Air is his memoir, his exploration and examination of what makes life worth living. And indeed, this harrowing yet exquisite account of his life and musings as he shuffles ever closer to his inevitable death is well worth reading.

Educated Americans love nothing more than a doctor who can write and Dr. Kalanithi is one of those rare souls who excelled both in the operating room and on the page. In the first part of his story, we learn about his upbringing and his genius – he has a master’s degree in English literature and one in philosophy and considered being a writer before opting to take the more difficult path of becoming a surgeon. In his own words, “The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

It was not a decision taken lightly and he throws himself into his training with eyes wide open. As he writes, “The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

What is remarkable is that Dr. Kalanithi continues his residency while undergoing harrowing treatments for his cancer. The grueling training required to succeed in one of America’s most prestigious hospitals (Stanford) would be impossible for most high functioning, healthy individuals. Paul has unfathomable grit and tenacity and keeps inching towards his goal even as his body deteriorates and betrays him.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. Tears rolled down my cheeks at many moments, especially as he enters his final days at the tender age of 37, just months after his baby daughter is born.

Dr. Kalanithi passed away before finishing his manuscript (oh and he was also writing this book in addition to everything else) and the last part is pieced together by his wife, Lucy who is also a doctor. In the epilogue she writes, “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”

Indeed, one of the most heartfelt aspects of the book is how Dr. Kalanithi navigates the uncertainty of his predicament and how he must recontextualize his life and the way he must now improvise given so much uncertainty. As Janet Maslin writes of the book in the New York Times: “There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death: One of the most poignant things about Dr. Kalanithi’s story is that he had postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die.”

The tragedy of this story is of a brilliant man who is unfairly and senselessly taken far too soon (although is there any other way?), leaving behind a grieving wife and eight month old daughter. The beauty of the story lies in Dr. Kalanithi’s ability to express in words his experience, to take charge of his own narrative even as he has so little control and power in the face of his own death. I, along with millions of others, am eternally grateful to have been able to bear witness to his life and death through his writing.

 

Off to the healer we go

tjok-rai-bwI was happy to tag along with my friend here in Bali when she suggested that we hire a driver and go on a day trip, checking off all those clichéd Bali things that I didn’t get a chance to do last time (healer, Holy Water temple, rice fields, traditional dance performance).

And so we headed off on a rainy, humid day, our first stop to visit a traditional Balinese healer. You’ve heard all about Elizabeth Gilbert and Ketut Liyer which I suppose has caused something of a resurgence of interest amongst tourists for such figures. Our Balinese driver, Putu, planned out our whole day and took us to see a healer that he had personally seen when he was a child and who had apparently cured him of a black magic spell. “I was sick when I was a child. I had bad stomach pains. Went to the doctor four times. He couldn’t help. Then my father took me to see the healer and I was better,” he told us.

While I believe there are probably some gifted healers in the world, those of the shamanic variety who have healing powers us average joes don’t have access too, I had low expectations of visiting this man.

We pulled up to his compound, a beautiful, well-kept maze of rooms, statues and shrines in typical Balinese style. The man himself, whom I later would find out is named Cokorda Rai, was working humbly with a patient (client? customer? seeker?) in the porch area where the people come and wait their turn. My friend and I gleaned that the woman and her friend who was waiting were Russian. We waited our turn patiently as Mr. Rai told the girl in broken English how to help herself, although we could only hear the occasional snippet. After waiting about twenty minutes my brave, recently broken-hearted friend took her place on the ground at his feet as he sat behind her in a chair. He wore traditional Balinese dress, complete with white cotton shirt, patterned sarong and traditional hat.

I watched as he felt my friend’s head and face as if he were blind (he’s not) and then pushed his fingers into her ears and felt around her throat and neck. She then lay down on a bamboo mat and he proceeded to poke her toes and feet with a small stick. I guess what he told her resonated as she walked towards us wiping a tear or two from her eye.

Then it was my turn. I get the full head-feeling treatment – and indeed I can attest to the fact that it feels weird when a stranger pokes their long gnarly fingers into one’s ears. He felt around my head and told me that I was strong minded, ‘like a lawyer.’ Unsure if that was a compliment or insult, I kept calm and let him continue feeling around. He asked what my profession was and didn’t seem surprised when I told him. He shouted out across to my friend and Putu that they should ask me for advice because I think I always know what’s best for others.

Then came the painful part.

I lay down on the mat and he proceeded to prod my toes with his evil little stick. It was painful. Like really painful. Like being stabbed. After some minutes of this torturous exercise, the healer comes to the conclusion that I have low blood pressure, that I shouldn’t do anything strenuous at night (it’s true I’m a ‘morning person’), that I need to eat more meat and take Omega-3 supplements. I wouldn’t disagree with analysis. However, I didn’t put much faith in the whole thing to begin with and before I knew it, I’d made my ‘offering’ of $30 and we were on our way to our next attraction. We said a polite goodbye to Mr. Rai and the German expat who was waiting patiently after us. I didn’t give the experience a second thought.

Cut to a few days later and I am forced to fly to Singapore to renew my visa due to some monumental fuckup on an immigration official’s part. I’m in the airport bookstore in the departures lounge (like a moth to a flame!) and a book about Balinese healing catches my eye.

I look at the photo on the back, and to my surprise, it has a picture of the healer whose fingers were in my ears just a few days before. It turns out this Cokorda Rai is quite the famous, revered figure with a lot of mana, both among expats, seekers and local Balinese alike.

More interesting perhaps is what I read about his life between the covers of that book. Encased within the first chapter was a hurried account of a swashbuckling life – a teen runaway, life as a thug on the mean streets of Jakarta, a series of failed business, marriages and some nine children born along the way. But this  regal man (he comes from Balinese royalty) returns home and answers the call and fulfills his destiny…so today, here he is, this elegant man in his 80’s, sitting joyfully on his porch, waiting for those in need for what ails them.

Grace and Grit (& perspective)

grace and gritThe memoir Grace and Grit by American writer and philosopher Ken Wilber is a sprawling account of his late wife’s, Treya, grueling fight against the cancer that ultimately kills her. Although under Ken’s name, the book was the brainchild of both of them and before her death, and Treya gave permission to Ken to use her very personal diary entries, letters she wrote to loved ones and conversations they had during this time, so her voice is very present. Treya’s journey is a constant reminder of how, even when our body is giving up, our heart and mind must remain strong. The need to have grace and grit, not just for survival but for growth and meaning, is ever present.

From the beginning, we learn that Ken and Treya are well-educated intellectuals and immersed in various ‘transpersonal’ spiritual traditions, making the memoir sweeping in its scope. Questions about the meaning of life and death hover over every page, as well as inquiries into what it means to be fully human, to truly love someone, and the risks and costs of these endeavors. The themes of sacrifice, faith, freedom, science, medicine, and devotion feature prominently.

I recently completed my third reading of this cathartic book. I file it under ‘bibliotherapy/memoirs of catastrophe’ – one of those books you return to when you are going through a hard time and need some perspective, some comfort, a vicarious experience of suffering and triumph.

Through Treya’s own words, we get a sense of her world and where she’s at in her life as the book opens with her and Ken’s very fast courtship and wedding. She is young (mid-30’s), vibrant and adventurous. She is deeply spiritual, having spent some years living in a remote spiritual community. Although accomplished in her own right (degrees from prestigious universities, well-travelled, multilingual, involved in myriad spiritual and environmental causes), she reveals her insecurities – that before she met Ken she was resigned to a life of being a single woman who was unsure of her life’s purpose or daemon. She is relatable because like many women, she struggled with self-criticism and feeling unworthy of love. She died in 1989 and in many ways, was ahead of her time in her pursuit of independence and self-sufficiency.

As one of her diary entries reprinted in the book states: “Sometimes I think my real problem is that I just don’t believe I could ever get really good at something, that I have an inflated idea of how good others are, and that maybe by the time I’m fifty that will have been cut down by experience to match reality and I’ll then know I could be good enough. And sometimes I think I just have to stop chasing my daemon long enough to let some space in my life for it to begin to show itself and grow. I want a full-blown plant right away and have been too impatient to nourish the small shoots enough to see which one I choose or chooses me.”

Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer just ten days after their wedding. This puts a lot of pressure on the young marriage and as the main caregiver and support person in Treya’s life, Ken is under a large amount of stress. He makes a lot of sacrifices to care for her and must deal with the consequences of this while riding the waves of hope and despair as Treya goes through several remissions and relapses, each relapse pushing her closer to death.

As time goes on, Ken finds it increasingly difficult to hold himself together, becomes depressed, ill and even loses his will to write. In his words: “I suppose the simplest and most crushing mistake I made was this: I blamed Treya for my woes, I had freely and voluntarily chosen to set aside my own interests in order to help her, and then when I missed those interests – missed my writing, missed my editorial jobs, missed meditation – I just blamed Treya. Blamed her for getting cancer, blamed her for wrecking my life, blamed her for the loss of my daemon. This is what the existentialists called ‘bad faith’ – bad in that you are not assuming responsibility for your own choices.”

In his darkest moment, Ken considers committing suicide. It takes a lot to pull himself out of that black hole, but he does so and is able to be stronger for himself and his wife. Their journey continues but with more support, more therapy, more spiritual practice, more medicine, more awareness of the pressure they are under.

As her physical health declines, Treya finds inner strength and faces her fears head-on. She has many epiphanies as she learns to surrender to the inevitable – that she will die. She overcomes her fear of being dependent and needy and her harsh judgement of herself and of others subsides. A new psychological landscape emerges in which she is more tolerant, relaxed and free.

From one of her journal entries: “I’m less critical of others. I don’t hold them to the standards of conventional or ‘doing’ success…I’m not only more tolerant of but genuinely interested in the various ways people choose to shape their lives, and a quick judgment isn’t waiting in the wings, ready to pop on stage at any time. I see all of life as more of a game, not quite so totally loaded with importance. It’s more fun, easier. I hold life more lightly.”

She develops a sense of self-trust and is able to let go of the harsh self-criticism and perfectionism that has plagued her most of her life. Her evolution is revealed in the following entry: “I trust myself more. I’m kinder to myself. I believe there is a wisdom guiding my life and that my life doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s to feel good and fulfilling and, yes, even successful.”

The last part of the book recounts Treya’s last weeks as it becomes evident that she will soon die. She makes a conscious decision of when to ‘let go’ and one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the book is when she tells Ken she is ready to die:

‘“Sweetie, I think it’s time to go,” she began.

“I’m here, honey.”

“I’m so happy.” Long pause. “This world is so weird. It’s just so weird. But I’m going.” Her mood was one of joy and humor, and determination.’

Ken writes about this experience of watching his dear Treya fade away and concludes that: “Real love hurts; real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and therefore real love will devastate you. I kept thinking, if love does not shatter you, you do not know love. We had both been practicing the wound of love, and I was shattered. Looking back on it, it seems to me that in that simple and direct moment, we both died.”

Although exquisitely written, the last days of Treya’s life as they are recorded cannot come close to the actual lived experience. Years after her death, Ken has spoken about the growth that occurred for both of them through that five year ordeal. If nothing else, the story of Ken and Treya can teach us about the profound transformative power of love. Treya’s own tenacious struggle can give us perspective, remind us of our own mortality and teach us to face our own dragons and challenges with grace and grit.

On Ya JK

9780143204800I can’t say exactly what drew me to John Kirwan’s memoir, All Blacks Don’t Cry. Maybe it’s being so far from New Zealand and feeling a bit homesick that made me want to read about the mental health struggles of one of the country’s greatest sporting heroes, a man that figured prominently in my childhood as I was dragged to rugby matches and forced to watch endless matches on the TV by my rugby-mad father and brother.

In fact, it’s possible that I once had a crush on him – those tree-trunk thighs in that black uniform that symbolized so much, the sandy blond hair and shy, boyish good looks. I do remember having an All Blacks coin collection and a few All Blacks plastic figurines with over-sized heads that I got from the service station. I think JK was my favorite.

There’s something quite compelling and inspiring about this revered figure, the epitome of Kiwi masculinity, coming out about his demons and making himself so publicly vulnerable. New Zealand is a country that does have a terrible suicide problem, coupled with a tendency to keep everything on the inside, to ‘harden up’ and get on with things. To sweep things under the rug and say, ‘she’ll be right.’ This is probably more so for men, and Sir Kirwan does talk about this – how it was so hard for him to seek help because of stigma attached to a man of his status needing to see a psychiatrist.

The arc of his life thus far is amazing – from humble, working class roots to becoming one of the best rugby players in the world. He was an underachiever at school. He failed School Certificate and became a butcher, working with his father. He then reached the top levels of rugby playing for the All Blacks. He was rugby royalty. When he retired from rugby, he moved into a coaching role, first with the Italian national team then the Japanese national team. He currently coaches in Auckland. He is also married with three teenagers. His wife is Italian and they have a restored farmhouse in the north of Italy, and a beach house near Auckland. JK speaks fluent Italian and almost fluent Japanese. His accomplishments become even more extraordinary when we take into account that through his 20s and 30s, he suffered from debilitating depression.

Imagine the sheer willpower it took to get out of bed, train and play in front of tens of thousands of people. To engage in such a physically demanding game under intense pressure. Fortunately, his story so far has a happy ending. He describes his journey to wellness in clear and simple terms. He is candid and brave. Not too many sporting heroes want their fans to know about their mental breakdowns, but it’s all laid bare here.

His perspective is refreshing and balanced (“Rugby is a game that I had a gift for, and through it my life was enriched. It’s left me with friends all over the world. It’s the greatest game ever, but it is a game – and there is a bigger picture.”) As he outlines his road to recovery, he takes a nuanced approach. Medication helped him a lot, but it wasn’t a silver bullet. He also sought out therapy and had to try two or three psychologists before he found a good fit. He worked on himself a lot and had to rebuild his confidence and self-image. He saw that there was a genetic factor, as other family members had also suffered. He looks outside himself as well and believes that society is putting too much pressure on to lead faster, busier lives. He speaks of his Italian life which, with its emphasis on family, spending quality time with others and working less, he advocates.

JK was knighted in 2012 for his contribution to rugby and to raising awareness about mental health and depression. In his book, he recounts stories of some of the hundreds of people who have approached him in public to thank him for saving their lives. It’s warm fuzzies all around. Due to the big impact his personal story and awareness raising have had, a second book was recently released aimed at teens. Called Stand By Me, it is a comprehensive book that includes the voices of not only JK but also mental health professionals and a range of teenagers who have suffered from various mental health issues.

Both of his books are interesting, entertaining and informative. To me, it seems that the wide audience they are reaching and the impact they are having signals a positive change in how New Zealanders deal with mental health issues. We need to give JK a pat on the back for opening up the conversation and helping to remove the stigma attached to it. As the subtitle of the cover states, it is a story of hope.