Excerpts from My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
I respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.
The future may depend less on our expertise than on our faithfulness to life.
We can bless others only when we feel blessed ourselves.
Perhaps the wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.
Healing involved not only the recovery of the body but the recovery of the soul. The soul is not just a human capacity; in times of loss, illness, and crisis, it is a human need. At such times, spirit is strength. The language of the soul is meaning. We may first discover the soul when life events awaken in us the need for meaning.
What challenges the body can evolve and strengthen the soul.
Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion, sometimes described as the feminine aspect of the Buddha.
Perhaps we are all standing in a doorway. Some people pass through it on their way to the rest of their lives, lives that we may never know or see. Others pass through it to their deaths and the Unknown. Everyone leaves something behind. I had a sense of the value of every life.
The love of life is not a function of the strength of the heart muscle.
Wisdom comes most easily to those who have the courage to embrace life without judgment and are willing to not know, sometimes for a long time. It requires us to be more fully and simply alive than we have been taught to be.
Knowing that a Buddha seed is present in everyone changes the way you see things. We are all more than we seem. Many things do not wear their true nature on their sleeve. What you can see and touch about an acorn, its color, its weight, its hardness, length, and width will never hint at the secret of its potential. The secret is not directly measurable, but given the proper conditions over time it may become visible.
I know that if I listen attentively to someone, to their essential self, their soul, as it were, I often find that at the deepest, most unconscious level, they can sense the direction of their own healing and wholeness. If I can remain open to that, without expectations of what the someone is supposed to “do,” how they are supposed to change in order to be “better,” or even what their wholeness looks like, what can happen is magical.
When you listen, the integrity and wholeness in others moves closer. Your attention strengthens it and makes it easier for them to hear it in themselves. In your presence, they can more easily inhabit that in them which is beyond their limitations, a place of greater freedom and sanctuary. Eventually they may be able to live there.
It has been my experience that presence is a more powerful catalyst for change than analysis and that we know beyond doubt things we can never understand.
In Children, the Challenge. We are often not very good at things when we are new. But there may be an important choice to make at such moments. Do we support and protect the innate wish to be of help to others in our children, or do we protect the eggs? Hard as it seems, the greater mother wisdom may lie in a willingness to clean up broken eggs or replace a mitten and a box of crayons.
Sometimes just being in someone’s presence is strong medicine.
Tuesdays with Morrie, “Death is the end of a lifetime, not the end of a relationship.”
Grief is the way that loss heals.
With a stethoscope I can listen to hearts.
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 a 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.
The word yoga actually means union or joining.
I am not afraid to be with people, no matter where their lives have taken them. There is no place I cannot belong.
Perhaps finding the right protection is the first responsibility of anyone hoping to make a difference in this world. Caring deeply makes us vulnerable. You cannot move things forward without exposure and involvement, without risk and process and criticism. Those who wish to change things may face disappointment, loss, or even ridicule. If you are ahead of your time, people laugh as often as they applaud, and being there first is usually lonely. But our protection cannot come between us and our purpose. Right protection is something within us rather than something between us and the world, more about finding a place of refuge and strength than finding a hiding place.
Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.
Something in us can transform such suffering into wisdom. The process of turning pain into wisdom often looks like a sorting process. First we experience everything. Then one by one we let things go, the anger, the blame, the sense of injustice, and finally even the pain itself, until all we have left is a deeper sense of the value of life and a greater capacity to live it.
Grieving may be one of the most fundamental of life skills. It is the way that the heart can heal from loss and go on to love again and grow wise.
It has taken me years to realize that being a human being is not unprofessional.
Abandoning the heart weakens us.
Knowledge alone will not help us to live well or serve well. We will need to take off our masks in order to do that.
All that she needed in order to serve was the courage of her vulnerability.
Sometimes it takes a lifetime to become clear. No matter. It may be the most worthwhile way to spend the time.
My grandmother was a lap, a place of refuge. I know a great deal about AIDS, but what I really want to be for my patients is a lap. A place from which they can face what they have to face and not be alone.
There are two types of people in this world, those who are alive and those who are afraid.
Perhaps the most basic skill of the physician is the ability to have comfort with uncertainty, to recognize with humility the uncertainty inherent in all situations, to be open to the ever-present possibility of the surprising, the mysterious, and even the holy, and to meet people there.
There is no certainty; there is only adventure.
Despite suffering, loss, and disappointment, life can be trusted.
Such people seem to have found through their suffering a deep sense of what is important to them, and the courage to bring their lives into alignment with it for the first time. Rather than using their strength to endure situations and relationships that betray their deepest values, they have used their strength to make needed change.
Video called Brother Sun, Sister Moon
I have met many young people of vision who suffer from a deep sense of difference. They may first need to abandon their resentment of the way things are in order to begin repairing the world.
We all have the power to affect others. We may affect those we hardly know and those we do not even know at all.
When we help we become aware of our strength because we are using it. Others become aware of our strength as well and may feel diminished by it. But we do not serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves. We draw from all our experiences.
My loneliness has made me able to recognize the loneliness in others, to respect the place where everyone is alone and meet others in the dark. Most humbling of all, I have found that sometimes the thing that serves the best is not all my hard-earned medical knowledge but something about life I may have learned from my Russian grandmother or from a child.
The best definition of service I have come across is a single word, BELONGING. Service is the final healing of isolation and loneliness. It is the lived experience of belonging.
Service is an experience of belonging, an experience of connection to others and to the world around us. It is this connection that gives us the power to bless the life in others. Without it, the life in them would not respond to us.
Compassion begins with the acceptance of what is most human in ourselves, what is most capable of suffering. In attending to our own capacity to suffer, we can uncover a simple and profound connection between our own vulnerability and the vulnerability in all others. Experiencing this allows us to find an instinctive kindness toward life which is the foundation of all compassion and genuine service.
It takes many years to remember that everything of value we have to give was not learned from a book and that the wisdom to live well is not conferred with an advanced degree. But the real teachers are everywhere. The life in us will be blessed by others over and over again until finally we have remembered how to bless it ourselves.
In the parable about the three blind men and the elephant, he who takes hold of its trunk believes that the elephant is like a snake, he who touches its leg believes that the elephant is like a tree, and he who leans against its sides believes that the elephant is like a wall. This is a story about blindness. Perhaps there is a wholeness hidden in the world, and the experience of separation that causes so much of our suffering is an illusion. If the world is really one large elephant, the wisdom may lie in holding your part loosely and loving what you cannot understand. And in helping others, here in the dark.
Sometimes when a life of service has taken us to the fringes of human experience, what we find there is so overwhelming that our hearts can break. One might think that compared to the size of the problem what we do means nothing. But this is simply not the case. When it comes down to it, no matter how great of how small the need, we can only bless one life at a time. (Remember the starfish story)
We die not because we are ill but because we are complete. Illness is the occasion of our dying, but not the cause.
The very last letter of the last word in the Torah and the very first letter of the first word in the Torah, taken together, form the Hebrew word for the heart.
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, Give me a light that I might go safely out into the darkness. And he replied, Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be more to you than a light and safer than a known way. Despite the challenges and difficulties of this sea journey, “the wind always blows in the direction of the promised land.’’ I have seen many people spread their sails and catch the wind.
There is a grace in life that can be trusted. In our struggle toward freedom we are neither abandoned nor alone.
There is a parable about the difference between heaven and hell. In hell people are seated at a table overflowing with delicious food. But they have splints on their elbows and so they cannot reach their mouths with their spoons. They sit through eternity experiencing a terrible hunger in the midst of abundance. In heaven people are also seated at a table overflowing with delicious food. They too have splints on their elbows and cannot reach their mouths. But in heaven, people use their spoons to feed one another. Perhaps hell is always our making. In the end, the difference between heaven and hell may only be that in hell, people have forgotten how to bless one another.
Over the years, I have attended many births, as a pediatrician or a birth coach, a family member or a friend. I sometimes suggest to parents in labor that they reach out to their unborn child in just this same way, showing their baby mental images of the world’s goodness, sharing their love of life to strengthen and encourage their baby in this difficult passage.
The slavery that keeps us from following our goodness is an inner slavery. We are trapped by ideas of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem, by desire or greed or ignorance. Enslaved by notions of victimhood and entitlement. It is a story about the fear of change, about clinging to places and behaviors that are small and hurtful because letting go of them will mean facing something unknown. I heard again my grandfather’s words: “The choice is never between slavery and freedom; we must always choose between slavery and the unknown.” Freedom is as frightening now as it was thousands of years ago. It will always require a willingness to sacrifice what is most familiar for what is most true. To be free we may need to act from integrity, on trust, sometimes for a long time. Few of us will reach our promised land in a day. But perhaps the most important part of the story is that God does not delegate this task. Whenever anyone moves toward freedom, God Himself is there. 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.