Friday, September 19, 2008

Humanity is a healer

Film Festival to host pioneer in the art of healing

Express Staff Writer

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen will speak at the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival. Photo by

One of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen's medical students once summed up Remen's pioneering mind/body healing practice by saying, "I can heal with my humanity things I cannot cure with my science."

This is a cogent idea that she will discuss as one of two guest speakers—the other is Dr. David Shlim— at the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival. Remen was one of the first doctors trained in Western medicine to recognize the role of the spirit in health and recovery from illness. Co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, she is also a clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. She has cared for people with cancer and their families for almost 30 years. As well, she is the author of the New York Times bestseller, "Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal," and "My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging."

A gifted storyteller, Remen will conduct a presentation on "Embracing the Mystery" tonight from 7-9:30 p.m. and with Shlim, "The Doctor and the Soul" from noon to 2:30 p.m. Both talks will be held at the Sun Valley Opera House.

"As a physician I was trained to cure," she said. "But as a human being I can heal. There is a real difference between healing and curing. The goal of cure is optimal physical function. The goal of healing is the capacity to live a full and meaningful life, an endpoint often within reach even in the absence of cure."

In the midst of chronic illness, she said, it's not unusual for people to "discover a capacity to live more richly, fully and passionately than ever before."

Remen knows personally of what she speaks.

"I've had Crohn's disease (an auto-immune disease that attacks the digestive system) for 52 years," she said. "When I became ill, the only option that was offered to me by the medical system was to be an invalid. Nobody knew how to cure my illness. Nobody knew what caused it. I was told I would be dead by the time I was 40. That's what I believed because the people who told me this were medical experts."

At the time no one spoke about spiritual healing in terms of illness. Remen said a physician's training often makes it difficult—amid all the new technology and modern medicine—for them to recognize the simple power of humanity to heal.

"As time went on, I became aware that something was growing in me," she said, about her experience. "That something had no voice, but it changed me. I had new eyes. I looked at the world differently. As a person I actually became stronger, much more loving, much wiser and more courageous. I no longer ran away when other people were trouble.

"Healing is not a relationship between an expert and a problem. It is the outcome of a relationship between two whole people who recognize the potential in their relationship to exceed the limitations of both science and disease."

Throughout her career, Remen has proved that having had an illness has been a bonus in terms of her understanding.

"I truly believe that I can do a much larger work in the world because of (Crohn's)," she said. "Perhaps that process of becoming more a person is what healing is about and it can occur whether one is physically sick or physically well. Cure is something you learn. It's the work of experts. But healing is a relationship. It is the work of human beings."

Because Remen is a working physician she can still face everyday doubts from colleagues, students and patients.

"Educare, the root word of education, is a beautiful word," she said. "It means 'to lead forth the hidden innate wholeness in another person.' So education and healing are profoundly related."

Remen said she simply reminds people of what they already know, and encourages them to examine their own experience for the truths in it. She tells stories from her life and from the lives of others, and listens as people reflect on the stories of their own lives.

"I encourage people to wonder and to be open to seeing familiar things in new ways. I wonder together with them about cause and effects and about meaning. And lastly we talk together about why we have come into this work and renew our old and deep intent to make a difference in the suffering around us."

Remen views the connections between healing and humanity as intriguing and mysterious.

"Our humanity includes both our strengths and our vulnerability," she said. "Jung speaks of the archetype of the wounded healer, which suggests that wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Our own wounds have taught us compassion for the wounds of others and allowed us to experience the hidden strengths that may develop in times of weakness and despair."

In the long run she feels that what is most important to the outcome of care is "becoming genuinely present and remembering and trusting the hidden capacity for growth in myself and everyone else."

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