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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Lissa Rankin: Leaps of Faith in a Benevolent Universe
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Lissa Rankin. Lissa is a physician, speaker, mystic, and founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, where she and her team train physicians and other healthcare providers about what Lissa calls “whole health.” After studying medicine at Duke, the University of South Florida, and Northwestern, she opened an integrative medicine practice after eight years as an OB/GYN in San Diego. She is the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and a new book, The Anatomy of a Calling. Lissa also has starred in two national public television specials, several TEDx talks, and also leads in-person and online workshops and retreats.
Today on Insights at the Edge, Lissa and I spoke about her journey from working as a traditional OB/GYN to being led to quit her job as an act of personal integrity, and the incredible life of discovery that has unfolded. We also talked about hearing voices of guidance and how to discern which voices to follow and what to do when you feel paralyzed even though you know you’re called to take a leap. Lissa also talked about softening into pain and how this is often what’s needed when we’re going through a difficult passage. Finally, Lissa spoke about the power of surrender and what it means to be in agreement with life. Here’s my conversation with Lissa Rankin:
Lissa, I feel so excited to be speaking with you, and feel so inspired by your writing—both your books and your blog posts. I wanted to begin our conversation by understanding a bit of how you have tapped into your writing voice. It seems like it’s just there for you, on tap. I’m curious about that.
Lissa Rankin: Well you know, I love the quote from Joyce Carol Oates that says, “I don’t understand why people make a fuss over me as a writer. I’m just the garden hose water flows through.” I think about that quote a lot because I know that [for] my part, I participate in the writing process, and part of that is keeping the garden hose clean; that includes things like my spiritual practices. And there’s also the discipline—sitting down at the computer and letting my fingers be used. I don’t feel like I [should] get any credit for the content itself. It’s a very interesting process for me.
Writing is one of the most tuned-in experiences that I have where I feel the closest to God when I’m writing. I don’t feel separate; I feel like I am God writing me. God is writing me. It’s a really beautiful thing. After I write, I often have to get up and go out to Muir Woods and climb in a redwood tree and really ground what is coming through me, because it’s a different vibration than my everyday experience. Sometimes my mind will then read something that I’ve written and be surprised. It’s almost like I don’t have conscious memory of having written it. So I’m not really thinking about it; something’s writing me, and then my mind will go back and have opinions about it, [laughs] which is very humorous. But I love writing. I’ve been a writer since I was a little girl. I was a creative writing major in college. It’s very much part of my nature.
TS: Now, this garden hose that’s not kinked up—I’m curious, do you ever sit down and you feel, “Hey, there’s a kink here, there’s a kink there. It’s not quite flowing. I’m not hooked in”?
LR: Well, I never have writer’s block, but sometimes I can tell that I’m writing from my ego. I’m thinking—my mind is writing or my mind is feeling sure of itself and has an opinion, or wants to rant about something, [laughs] or feels smart or whatever. Then my heart will read it and be like, “Ah, really?” That part of me likes to have a voice too, so sometimes I let it write too. But I try not to let too much of it get public. I look back now at some of the blogs that I wrote when I first started blogging in 2009 and I’m so embarrassed by them. But, I’ve decided not to take them down, just because that was part of my journey. Part of my journey was needing to let my ego have its say.
TS: I want our Insights at the Edge listeners to get a little bit of a sense of the arc of your personal story, because really there was a long period in your life where you were practicing as an OB/GYN primarily—not primarily functioning as a writer, teacher, and speaker in the world. And then, a perfect storm, as you describe it, occurred in your life, and a huge transformation process. I wonder if you can talk about what was happening before the perfect storm and then the perfect storm itself, and what has emerged for you. Just in big, broad strokes, so people have a sense of this arc of your life.
LR: Yes. You know, I was very young when I was called to medicine. It was like a spiritual calling, like the way a priest is called to the priesthood. I was seven years old and my parents had a chimney sweep come to clean the chimney, and they found a nest of newborn baby squirrels. My mother was using it as an example to teach me about the cycle of life and how they’d been abandoned by their mother, and they’re going to die now. And I was having none of that. I insisted that my parents take me to the veterinarian. My father was a physician, so he was supporting this little emerging healer in me. I swore that I was going to save these little squirrels and be their mother.
This sweet veterinarian taught me how to feed them with an eyedropper, dog’s milk from a can, and how I would wipe their bellies with a warm cloth to replicate the way the mother would help them go to the bathroom. My parents had to get permission from the school for me to bring these squirrels in a handbag to school, because they had to be fed every two hours. I was setting an alarm clock every night. All four of them died, and it was absolutely heartbreaking for me as a little girl.
But the newspaper had written me up, and they called me the “Squirrel Girl.” So word got out that Lissa Rankin was the Squirrel Girl, and I lived in a place that had a lot of squirrels. So, when somebody found an injured squirrel, they brought it to me. My heart just leapt with delight—“I get to try again!” That baby was a little older and [it] survived, and I was able to keep that squirrel until he hit adolescence and started climbing the curtains and wanting to go find squirrely girlfriends. So, I had to let him go, and it broke my heart again. It began this process of this repetitive healing process with these squirrels, then giving them permission to break my heart—and over and over having to learn to let them go, to open my heart to that healer’s love of the living being and the life force of another, and that little girl’s heartbreak of having to let her pet go.
So, I did that until college. I raised over 20 squirrels until I went to medical school and learned the tools to practice on humans. It wasn’t until several years into my practice that I really became aware of how much of that kind of true healer’s integrity that I had had as a little girl was feeling repetitively violated inside of this system.
I was getting the message over and over again after twelve years of medical education and eight years of practice that the very feminine part of me was not welcome in medicine. I had one night where I had to deliver four dead babies in one night, and I would deliver this baby crying and hold the baby and crawl into bed with the mom, and hold the mother and hold the baby, and the three of us together in the bed. My male professors would come in and yell at me for being so sensitive.
It was not until the fourth baby, who had been born earlier in the night and had been born blue and ended up going in for emergency surgery and was found to have a congenital heart defect—the nurse came to tell me that that baby had not survived surgery, and I just lost it. I was in the middle of a full-on meltdown, running down the hallway to the women’s locker room, and my male physician professor was running after me, yelling at me, “Buck up Rankin! You’re never going to amount to anything in this field if you don’t get a thicker skin!”
These two midwives [were] running after me and blocking the door because he [was] trying to come into the women’s locker room, and they [were] holding him at bay while I’d fallen to a heap on the floor. The two of them dropped down on their knees and they held me, and they rocked me. I’ll never forget this. They held me and they rocked me in their arms, and one of them said, “Lissa, don’t ever let them break you.”
It was eight years into my practice that I had a really traumatic experience with a patient that left me suicidal. I thought—I heard this little voice that said, “Lissa, they’re about to break you.” Then this really benevolent voice that I was not familiar with said, “Sweetheart, you’re going to have to quit your job.” The only reason I didn’t kill myself that night was because I was six months pregnant with my little girl, so I think my little girl and that benevolent voice saved my life. I just couldn’t—I didn’t see a way out. I felt really trapped inside of this system. I felt really—I hated myself. I hated the person I had become. I had become one of those doctors that I had judged as a younger person. And I couldn’t—I didn’t know how to live with myself, and I didn’t know how to leave. So, I felt really stuck.
Then I went through my perfect storm—and this came after the night when I was suicidal, which, part of that story—and it’s a long story, I won’t tell the whole thing, but part of that story was I found myself at this grocery store and this poor teenage boy was trying to swipe [check out] my yogurt, and I’d been up for like 72 hours delivering 20-something babies. I found myself looking at this poor kid, and I said—he could not make the swiper work, and he was the only thing keeping me from my well-deserved bed, and I’m pregnant and grumpy and exhausted and depressed. I looked him square in the eye and I said, “If I did my job the way you did your job, there’d be dead people everywhere.”
TS: Oh my.
LR: This poor kid! And then I got in my car and I drove out of the parking lot, and I hit a squirrel. [Pauses.] And I just had so much pain, like I didn’t know—I didn’t know how to navigate the world, and I didn’t know how to quit it. I really felt helpless—like victimized by the life I had created, you know?
Then I gave birth to my daughter by C-section, and my father, who was sick, flew out to be with me for the surgery. And my brother, who was healthy, flew out to be with my dad because my dad wanted to be with me. So we were all in San Diego, and right after my C-section, my dog—my 16-year-old dog died unexpectedly, and I was heartbroken. Then my brother, who had just flown out to be with my dad, wound up in the ICU in full-blown liver failure as a rare side effect of an antibiotic that he was taking for a sinus infection. Then my beloved father, who was 59, died of a brain tumor.
This all happened within two weeks, and I was wrecked. I was absolutely shattered. I ended up going to my father’s funeral a month after my surgery, and I had to go back to the hospital like two days after the funeral. I was just the walking dead. I had exited. I had exited [on] some level, and I was just this robotic figure walking through my life. I mean, thinking back on that, it’s such a heavy memory. It’s hard for me to even go there to tell the story.
It was about eight months later—I was just starting to come out of that daze when my then-husband cut two fingers off his left hand with a table saw. He was the full-time caregiver of our daughter, and he couldn’t take care of her. All of the sudden, it was like I could not function. I was paralyzed.
It took me another four or five months to quit my job, and people ask me all the time, “How did you find the courage to quit your job?” My husband wasn’t working, I was the full-time provider for my family. I had $200,000 of medical school debt, and if was going to I quit, it was going to cost me $120,000 to pay my malpractice tail and I had no idea what else I would do with my life. It felt like this impossible thing. But I came face to face with an integrity decision that was going to put two premature babies at risk, and it did not feel like a choice. I did not make a brave choice; I made a survival choice. It was like my soul made a choice to live. That was it. People ask me, “How do you know when it’s time to take a leap of faith?” And I say, “When the pain of staying put exceeds your fear of the unknown, you leap.”
I recently heard Adyashanti in an interview, and he said something that—thinking back on that—is really profound. He said, “Faith is taking refuge in the unknown.” Not just finding comfort in the unknown, but actually taking refuge in the unknown. I think that’s the only way you can survive those kinds of experiences—is to have a kind of trust in the unknown, and to trust that the unknown is better than this. Whatever the unknown is, is better than the status quo.
In the beginning, I joked that I had blind faith. Now, 10 years later, I have evidence-based faith. Now I know that the unknown can be trusted, and it can be trusted more than my mind can be trusted to try to figure it out. I’ve experienced so many miracles in the past 10 years—things that my mind didn’t know were possible—that now it gives me a lot of comfort. I have this very soft, tender place inside of me where I know that there are these arms of love that were guiding me, and that my perfect storm was purposeful. I was not the victim of a hostile, chaotic universe—but a benevolent, purposeful universe was doing whatever it took to wake me up.
TS: I want to ask you about the benevolent voice that said, “You’re going to have to leave this job,” and this sense of being held in loving arms. What do you make of the voice that you heard? What do you make of that?
LR: Well, at the time, my response was, “Who’s that?” and, “Where are you?” When I first read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, and she described that scene on the bathroom floor where she’s on her knees, I laughed, because I was like, “I know that voice!” [Laughs.] “I know that voice!” But it was an unfamiliar experience for me to hear this benevolent voice that was like a nurturing mother. It was like the arms of those midwives on the floor. It was like this faith place of refuge. I was terrified of the message that I was being given: “Sweetheart, you’re going to have to quit your job.” I was like, “I can’t do that, that’s impossible.” But there was something so benevolent in it; the feeling of it was so loving and so trustworthy that there was some part of me that had been like, bracing against my life, that fell away—that kind of relaxed into those arms of love.
I was like, “I don’t know what this is, but”—and it felt crazy. It felt crazy to trust this voice—and of course the mind is saying, “You’re going crazy. You’re hearing voices. There is a DSM diagnosis for this!” [Laughs.] But there was something quieter and deeper that didn’t question that. And that became the only thing that got me through the next five years, because what happened after I quit my job—things got much worse before they got better.
Looking back—I mean, God, I wish I could go back to the me then and just be like, “Sweetheart, relax. It’s all going to be OK.” I say that to my clients now, because I run a mentoring program, and a lot of them are in that place where I was in 2007. I wonder sometimes if my future self did go back. Maybe that was me! Maybe that was me—“Sweetheart, you’re going to have to quit your job.” Maybe that was me now talking to me then. I don’t know.
But I now hear that voice a lot more regularly, and it doesn’t scare me. I’ve learned that when I don’t listen to it, things don’t go very well, and when I do listen to it, very strange and miraculous-seeming things happen. I get instructions to do things that my mind thinks are weird, and when I follow them I have this deep feeling of fulfillment—of knowing that I’m being used to serve others, and that because I am now willing to take instructions from that voice, I can be used to be somebody else’s miracle.
TS: I’m curious how you might help people—you talked about your mentoring program—discern, you call them whispers—which whispers to listen to, and when there are strange voices in your head that maybe you don’t need to listen to. I’m bringing this forward because I think a lot of people hear different kinds of instructions and often bat them away, and use different reasons for batting them away like batting a mosquito away. Like, “You’re pestering me, I don’t believe in you.” How do you know when this is really an important voice of guidance?
LR: Well I think that if anybody has the answer to that question—that’s the million-dollar question, right? I mean, my knee-jerk response is, “I don’t know, Tami.” I don’t know how you know. I can highly recommend a book that is written by one of my mentors and her husband. It’s called Your Soul’s Compass: What Is Spiritual Guidance? by Joan Borysenko and her husband, Gordon Dveirin.
I lost six people that I loved within six months this year—it was kind of the second perfect storm—and five of them died within six weeks. And all but one of them were young and died very tragically, and weren’t sick. It was very shocking to go through that, and in the wake after the third one died—he was a shaman and a sound healer, and was bombed by the Egyptian military. He and 11 of his students were killed when he was teaching a meditation retreat in Egypt. So, it was shocking.
I started writing a story about him. I was on the plane—I was actually with Joan Borysenko and Gordon at their house when this happened. I was weeping because I had just lost somebody else I loved 48 hours before, and Joanie came up behind me and she put her hands on my heart and she said, “Lissa, soften into the pain. Soften into the pain.” And that voice that sometimes comes through when I write just asked me to sit down and start writing.
So, I started writing, and nine days later, I had written 80,000 words of a book that I haven’t published and I haven’t sold, and I don’t know if I’m going to publish it, but the title that the voice gave me was called Impeccable Alignment. It’s about how to hear and follow spiritual guidance.
So, it essentially answers some of the questions that you’re asking, but I guess—there’s no short answers. That’s my answer. “I don’t know” is the real answer, but I can tell you that in 10 years of learning, 10 years of hearing voices, [laughs]—and I remember the founder of Effluen telling me at one point when I was sitting in a room with he and about 30 other people who also hear voices, he said, “You know, the only difference between us and the schizophrenics is we know how to turn the voices off.” I think that’s part of it, but I also think that the only thing between us and the schizophrenics is that we learn how—we learn a series of discernment tools that help us to know whether those voices are benevolent and are using us to serve humanity, the planet, love—or whether they’re toxic. Hitler was hearing voices, right? So, the sociopaths often feel like God is telling them to do something.
Some of those questions, for example, [are] you know, if I hear a little voice, is it kind? One of the discernment questions I got from Martha Beck, who is another mentor of mine: “Does it feel like shackles on or shackles off?” One of the questions—and this is not a requirement. None of the questions work on their own; for me it’s like the whole picture. But one of them is, “Is there common sense here? Is it rational?” Often it’s not! [Laughs.] But I like to know if my mind is completely opposed to what it’s being told—well, OK mind, I hear you.
I have about 10 of these questions that I ask myself when I think I’m getting guidance. I’ll give you an example. I was walking through the mall, and I was supposed to go to the Apple store. And I don’t go to the mall much; I don’t like to shop, and usually my assistant runs these kinds of errands, but they needed me to do it. So I’m on a mission to go to the Apple store and I’m walking through the mall, and this little voice—I come to recognize it because it doesn’t feel like my mind making something up, it feels like something drops in, it has a certain flavor. Martha says it tastes like cilantro, and once you know what cilantro tastes like, you recognize it. It’s like, “Oh, there you are, cilantro.”
And the little voice comes in and says, “Go to the Gap.” So, my mind starts arguing: “I don’t like the Gap. I’m not here to shop. I don’t want to go to the Gap.” And this happens all the time; I kind of laugh at the little dialogue that goes on between my mind and the voice. And the voice is persistent: “Go to the Gap.” So then I can go through my discernment questions: Does it make common sense? Does it feel like shackles on or shackles off? Is it kind? Is anybody going to get harmed here?
Like I said, I’ve had enough experience with this voice that I know that things tend to go well when I listen. So, I go to the Gap, against my preference. I walk in right as somebody’s having a cardiac arrest, and I’m the first person on the scene of a code blue. And I was like, “Oh. I was needed at the Gap.” So, I was there assisting as a physician with this person at the Gap until the paramedics could get there. I have a thousand stories like that now, where I’ve kind of come to trust a certain feeling in my heart, which is I guess the most accurate part of the discernment. I don’t know that that’s terribly helpful.
TS: No, it is actually. What I’d love to know is: what is that taste of cilantro—but the feeling in your heart, because that’s what you’re describing? Your experience—that’s your taste, if you will. What does your heart feel like at that moment?
LR: Well, I use—one of my discernment tools I use is my body compass. That’s very—it’s a hard tool for me to use, because as a physician, I was trained how to become a walking cerebrum—completely disembodied, completely out of touch with my physical body. You know, 12 years of not eating when you’re hungry and not sleeping when you’re tired, and not going to the bathroom when you have to go to the bathroom, and coming to work sick, and retracting in surgery when you’re in these horrible, ergonomically nightmarish positions. [That] teaches you how to have a functioning cerebrum that’s completely disconnected from the wants and needs of the body.
I’ve had to do a lot of somatic work with somatic therapists and dance—I’m a dancer. I’ve worked a lot with Debbie Rosas at Nia and Steve Sisgold, who wrote What’s Your Body Telling You? in order to come back into my body. But now, that feeling that I get that’s like the body’s “yes” is this kind of feeling in my chest that almost feels like I have butterflies coming up out of my chest and my heart is opening—sometimes to the point of tears.
There’s an emotion that comes with it too; it’s a physical sensation, but it’s also a feeling of—it’s hard to put words to the numinous, but it’s almost a feeling of gratitude. Like, “Go to the Gap”—“Oh, thank you for using me.”
And that’s in opposition to the “no.” If I hear a voice that makes my solar plexus clench and feel contracted, and often my shoulders will kind of bow down—I feel that physical closing sensation that comes with a feeling of dread or a feeling of exhaustion. The “yes” feels like there’s aliveness here—there’s love. It feels like love.
I don’t know if I’m doing a very good job of explaining this! [Laughs.] It’s such a deeply meaningful thing to me, but it’s very hard to describe to other people.
TS: You talked about this recent period in your life of great loss of six people. What do you make of that—how these different individuals that all happened during the same period recently in your life? What was the instruction coming through this experience for you? It sounds like quite an initiation.
LR: I’m going to get emotional talking about this, because it’s still pretty tender. My teacher—my teacher is a Kabbalah mystic. She’s a 78-year-old physician—Rachel Naomi Remen. Rachel asked me that same question. She said, “Why do you think this is happening?” Because I believe that we participate with creation—that we’re not victims of random, hostile, chaotic universe where bad things happen to good people and you just have to brace up against life.
I believe that we are co-creators of our experience in this three-dimensional time and space. I don’t believe we control it, so I’m averse to the kind of “law of attraction” messages that say, “If you want a Ferrari, just visualize and affirm the Ferrari, and then a Ferrari’s going to show up in your driveway,” or, “If you have cancer, all you have to do is visualize your white blood cells fighting your cancer and you can control your cancer and cure it with your mind.”
I’m averse to those kinds of messages because I think it’s quite dangerous. But I do believe that we participate—that we influence reality. And I believe that it’s a benevolent universe. So, I believe that when things that we perceive as painful are happening, and especially when they’re happening one on top of the other, that it’s—in some way our soul has called this in, has co-created this for a reason. Part of my practice is when something like that is happening, to really be in deep inquiry about it.
So, when Rachel asked me that—and this was right in the middle of it, right in the middle of the really deep grief that I’m still in—the last one just died a month ago, so I’m pretty tender around it. One of the things, certainly, that it’s given me an opportunity to witness is it’s really given me a way to reflect upon my own resilience. I’m kind of amazed at how different I am than my last perfect storm. It’s really given me kind of a benchmark where I can compare one way of being with another way of being. I have a lot of gratitude that the experiences that I’ve been through in the past 10 years have given me tools for coping with the real pain and tragedy of the human experience. It’s really put me in a place of feeling that pain of the human experience on a collective level.
When the second person died, I was with Joan and Gordy, and Gordy was taking me on pilgrimages every day. So, he took me—we were in Santa Fe, where they live and he took me to the Sanctuario de Chimayó one day, and he took me to Ojo Caliente one day, and he took me to the Christ in the Desert Church one day. Every day, we were going with this intention of going on pilgrimage in honor of the people that were dying. I sat there at the Sanctuario de Chimayó and lit a candle, and all these candles—they had a whole chapel devoted to people that they had lost specifically, and there was a whole wall of children that had been lost. There were all these candles that everybody [had] lit for these children that have been lost.
It was such a beautiful experience because it was able to take me out of my self-referencing, “Poor me, I’ve lost six people that I love. I’m all alone in a hostile universe. When’s the next shoe going to drop?” It was able to take me into, “Oh, I’m one of many; I’m a human among many humans who all experience loss and grief.” When we stop fighting life, when we stop saying, “This shouldn’t be happening. These people shouldn’t be dying, they’re young, these are tragedies,”—when I’m able to get out of that, and I was able to really inhabit this consciousness of being in agreement with life, where I’m not fighting life; I’m not resisting life. I’m one of the many people who are lighting candles in a sanctuary where people have been lighting candles for hundreds of years. Where pilgrims have been coming in pain to find refuge in this sanctuary, among other pilgrims. I’m not special. I’m special and I’m not special. There was great, great comfort in that.
I was with Rachel on New Year’s Eve this year as the new year rang in. As the new year rang in, my mantra—and I was chanting this—was, “I am in agreement with life and I resist nothing.” I’m not good at practicing this mantra all the time; it is an intention but it is not always practice because it’s amazing how much I can fight life. Like, Jesus!
But, there’s something about—I’m an OB/GYN, right? I was trained as an OB, so I have a lot of experience with women in labor. Labor comes with pain; it is inevitable that you’re going to feel the pain of a contraction. And what I was feeling when all of those people were dying was these contractions in my heart. It literally felt like—I mean, I was having chest pain, my heart hurt so much. I heard myself—I heard that voice, that benevolent voice, midwifing me through the pain. Joanie was there, like God with skin on, holding me from behind, saying, “Soften into the pain,” which is exactly what I would say to women when they were in labor. When you fight the pain, when you fight the contraction, you actually make the contraction—you make the pain worse, and you obstruct labor. The way to make it through labor is to soften into the pain and not to fight it.
What I found when I was actually practicing that on myself—on my own heart labor—was that that pain only lasted about 90 seconds if I wasn’t fighting it, which is exactly how long a uterine contraction lasts. I would get emotional, I would feel the physical pain, and I would often cry. And then on the other side of the 90 seconds, I would feel this lightness; I would feel something like—the pain would lift, and I would feel this almost—I hesitate to call it ecstatic grief—but it was almost like it was one cell layer away from joy.
I felt that a lot at some of these funerals, where we’re sitting there—and at one of them, we were all around the casket and we had our hands on each other, and we were all crying, and we were toning the name—chanting and toning the name of the person who had died. The vibration in the room was so high, even though we were in deep pain. I kept thinking, “OK, if I lean all the way into this, if I go all the way into this grief, it’s going to hurt so bad I’m never going to come out.”
But that’s not what happened. We all went there together, and we all came through the other side just like a contraction pass. And on the other side was this feeling of communion and connection and divine intervention, almost. It was holy—it was downright holy. So I guess that’s been part of this experience of repetitive loss for me this time—is that beautiful ability to connect to the holy even while the human in me is really suffering and really resisting, and really just sad.
TS: You know, Lissa, this idea that the universe is benevolent—I think is a really important thing to underscore here, and describing your orientation and approach. I happen to feel that as well; I feel—I mean, if you cut open my skin, I would say yes, this is a good universe, supporting my life. But I’ve had conversations with people who just say to me, “No, Tami, actually this is a neutral situation. That makes you feel better. Let’s pat your little girl head, you know? That makes you feel safer and secure, but it’s neutral. I don’t share your belief in the benevolence of the universe.” And I never know what to say when I have that kind of conversation with someone. So, I’m curious what you would say.
LR: Well, maybe they’re right. I mean, I don’t know how the universe works! [Laughs.] I know, for me, that’s a restorative narrative. When I navigate the world with that worldview, it comforts me. And maybe it is—maybe it’s just the opium of the masses and none of it’s true, and it’s really a kind of meaningless, neutral universe. Maybe that’s true.
I like James Hillman’s term, “healing fiction.” I think often those restorative stories that we come up with are a type of healing fiction. Maybe we’re making it up, but I know that when I believe that I live in a—when I believe that I’m all alone, this flesh-covered ego in a hostile universe—or a neutral universe, even—where I can’t handle losing what I cherish and uncertainty is unsafe, then I’m really afraid. When I believe that I am interconnected in this interbeingness with the life force itself in a benevolent universe where uncertainty is the gateway to possibility and loss is natural and can lead to growth, then I feel a lot more brave and I feel a lot more stillness inside.
One of my beloved soul connections in life is with a man, Charles Eisenstein. He teaches a lot about story, and he says that our culture—modern culture—we’re inhabiting this story of separation, which is that story of the flesh-covered ego: the separate, the Cartesian model of the universe. One of the restorative narratives that he gives that I quite love is the idea that we as a species chose, at some point, to embark upon the story of separation to see what happens when we separate ourselves from one another, when we separate ourselves from nature and just see it as something that we can use for our own personal gain, when we separate ourselves from the divine. Then we can create the kinds of atrocities that you see on the news every day. But part of the restorative narrative that [Eisenstein] uses that is comforting to me is he says, “What if we chose that on purpose, and we need to go all the way out to the absolute, absurd extremes of the story of separation in order to choose the age of reunion, in order to choose interbeing—to choose to come back into oneness, knowing, ‘OK, we tried that, here’s how that goes?’”
So is that true? I don’t know. Maybe humans are inherently evil and the story of separation is just what happens when you leave human nature to its own devices. But that’s not a restorative narrative to me. So, I don’t see the harm in choosing restorative narratives that allow us to do courageous and often uncomfortable things. But is it really a benevolent universe? I don’t know. It has been for me.
TS: Your answer is so interesting! I really did not expect that, Lissa. I guess I thought that you didn’t necessarily think it was a fiction, like a narrative story we made up; that you actually deep in your bones believe that, feel that, know that, if you will, in some way—that the universe is benevolent. But are you saying to me it’s something you’ve adopted because it works, or just you have a question mark and you’re willing to go with it?
LR: No, I’m saying for me, I have evidence-based faith. For me, I have proof. I can give you—I could spend a whole hour giving you stories that, for me, prove that it’s a benevolent universe. But what I’m saying is, I’m willing to—the answer that I gave you is the answer I would give to a skeptic, of “I don’t know.” I guess I don’t like to lead with dogma because I think when we lead with dogma, then we make ourselves vulnerable; whereas when we are willing to be humble and curious and admit we don’t know [and], “Maybe it’s restorative narrative that I’m telling myself because it’s too scary to think that I live in a neutral universe,” it’s almost an invitation for everybody else to be curious and open and to wonder with me.
It’s a good question. I wonder. I can tell you my personal experience or my personal belief, but my proof is not something that I can prove in a lab. It’s only something I can prove through story. My book, The Anatomy of a Calling, is kind of my proof. It’s, “Well, here is my proof that it’s a benevolent universe.”
But, I don’t know. Like I said, I can’t prove it in a randomized, controlled clinical trial in a way that is going to convince the materialist rationalists who believe that we live in a neutral world. I don’t need to dismantle their worldview in order for mine to be true for me. But, I do believe—because I believe we participate in the co-creation of our three-dimensional reality—I believe that because I believe it’s a benevolent universe, miraculous things happen to me all the time. And I’m not saying that if somebody doesn’t believe that those things are possible, that they won’t experience miraculous things.
I love—recently, Michael Shermer, who’s the head of The Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, and one of the most famous skeptics—scientists and skeptics and materialists on the planet—had a mystical experience. He wrote about it publicly in Scientific American, and I thought that was incredibly brave.
So, he’s a great example of how I don’t think you have to believe in the numinous in order to experience it. But I think that when you do believe, when you have evidence-based faith, or maybe even just blind faith, then you start to call [evidence of your belief] into your field. It ramps up the volume. It’s like it accelerates something such that you get more and more evidence of what you believe and then it actually gets solidified on some level.
Now, those kinds of experiences—like the cilantro messages to send me to the Gap—I used to be shocked. It used to be actually quite scary for me, because I was raised as such a materialist. My dad was a doctor, I went to places like Duke and Northwestern. I was the smart kid, [the] scientist who questioned everything and needed proof in order to believe in anything. I don’t come from this sort of “woo woo” mystical world. That wasn’t part of my experience. We have three Methodist ministers in my family, so I had a very traditional religious upbringing as well, and there wasn’t room for any of that in my religious upbringing either.
So, I had the dueling religions of science and Protestant faith. And yet, going through this process of what has happened to me over the past 10 years has created a world where the kinds of experiences that those cilantro kinds of experiences are my new normal. In the beginning, they were really threatening, really uncomfortable. I would literally have to lie on the floor and rock myself. I’d lie in a fetal position and rock myself because I was so freaked out; I couldn’t believe that these things were happening—things that felt like miracles. I mean, real miracle—like Jesus-level miracles. Like somebody getting cured from me holding them in my arms—something she had been told was incurable. I just held her and loved her, and she had a spontaneous remission. I didn’t know what that was. That’s like, freaky, scary.
TS: That sounds pretty freaky. When did that happen?
LR: That person’s now my roommate. It happened five years ago. Again, that’s another freaky story. I was hiking, which is often when these cilantro messages drop in, and this was a very different experience than anything I had had before. This message came like a movie: I was hiking, and it’s like a drive-in movie screen dropped down in front of me and showed me a very specific movie of me with a client of mine who lived in New York at the time. This client had a rare blood disorder that nobody had been able to figure out. I had reviewed all of her medical records, and she would become very, very anemic, and in the beginning, she would have to go to the all-day chemotherapy section of the hospital to get these infusions to get her blood count back up. This would happen once a month, and when I met her, it had gotten worse and she was having to have this happen once a week. She was told it was genetic, her mom had the same thing, but nobody could figure out what it was. She was dependent on these all-day infusions.
Anyway, this movie screen drops down and shows me this vision of me on a yoga mat in my guestroom—my guest house—leaning against the wall with my legs straddled out, and her lying with her head on my chest with her back to me, lying between my legs with one of my hands on her forehead and one of her hands on my chest. There was a specific song playing on my iPod, and there was a specific crystal that was in her hand, and there was a candle.
I’m looking at this movie, and I’m thinking—first of all, she was a high-security bodyguard who had severe PTSD and OCD from abuse in childhood. All of this is in my book, so I’m not revealing any client secrets here; she’s happy to have this story shared. But, she was unable to turn her back to anybody; she was hypervigilant. When she’d go outside, she would be constantly turning because she couldn’t’ leave her back exposed.
So, even just that vision of her with her back towards me, I was like, “No, she’ll never agree to this. What is this?” I’m going, “What is this picture? Is this something I’m supposed to do? Am I seeing the future? Am I getting instructions? I’m not familiar with this.” And now people that I’ve told that story to, they’re like, “Oh, it’s a clairvoyant vision,” or whatever. I didn’t even know what that meant. I mean, I’d heard the term as some weird psychics with crystal balls or clairvoyance, or whatever, but I hadn’t had a direct experience like this before.
I felt compelled to tell her about it. So, I told her I had this weird experience, and I said, “I don’t know why, I don’t know what it’s for.” But, I said, “Maybe we’re supposed to try to recreate what I saw.” And she was up for it. She was like, “I don’t know; I trust you.” She was flying out from New York to do in-person sessions with me. From the minute she came across my blog, some little voice in her own experience had said, “Trust this woman.” So, we had been working together.
So, she came back out to California, and it was a very humorous experience, Tami. I’m walking into a crystal store in Marin County saying, “Look, I don’t know anything about crystals, but I’m supposed to have this crystal,” and I’m describing it, and I’m describing this vision, and they’re laughing at me!
So, she comes out and we do this thing. We create this vision. And she has what looks like a 30-minute seizure, and I’m freaking out! I’m thinking, “I’m killing this woman, and I need to call 911.” I have no idea what’s happening, but the little voice just told me, “Stay the course. She’s safe. Stay the course.”
So I’m sitting there and I’m just visualizing this light coming through me and going all the way into the Earth, and I’m really scared. But the little voice is reassuring me, “Don’t be scared.” And I’m just holding her, and she’s having—her whole body is flailing around. After about 30 minutes, her body calmed down and I asked her to describe what had happened or how she was feeling, and she said, “My mother came out of my belly.” Then she crawled into the bed in my guest house and slept for like 30 hours.
I thought, “I’ve killed her. I have killed my client.” I kept checking on her to make sure she was breathing, and I went and called a shaman friend of mine. I was like, “I don’t know what happened.” I described what had happened; I had a terrible headache. And he said, “Oh, you did it the old-fashioned way.” He said, “First of all, I couldn’t have described a more perfect exorcism, but you didn’t have to take it on yourself. Here, let’s do a little aura-clearing, and you can get rid of that headache,” and my headache was gone five minutes later. Thirty hours later, she woke up and went back to New York, and that was five years ago. She’s never had another infusion since.
A year later—a year after that, I was hiking on the same hiking trail, and the little voice told me to invite her to move in to my guest house. I was like, “What? Why would I invite a client to move in?” She had all kinds of psychological issues and psychiatric diagnoses, and I have a 10-year-old—then-five-year-old. But it had that voice of cilantro, so she moved in a couple months later, and she’s been one of the most incredible blessings in my life for the past four years. She is the most incredible grounding force in my life; I went through a divorce three years ago, [and] I could not have survived my divorce if it hadn’t been for April. She said to me something really beautiful: she said, “You are what I needed in order to be what you need.” I have a hundred stories like that, Tami.
TS: I believe you. I believe you, Lissa, that you do! There’s actually so many things that I would love to talk with you about, and I hope that we get the chance. What I want to call our conversation today is “Leaps of Faith in a Benevolent Universe,” or at least in a narrative fiction of a benevolent universe—just kidding there! “Leaps of Faith in a Benevolent Universe.”
Here’s the thing I’m curious about: I’m curious about the person who’s listening who says, “You know, I know there is something that’s being said to me that carries with it the taste of cilantro. I know it, and I know I’m supposed to do this thing. I’m supposed to leave this job or leave this relationship or make this phone call, or write this letter, or whatever it is. I know it. I know it. It’s a true leap of faith; I’m supposed to do it, and I’m actually going to go along with the benevolent universe. I feel that too. And yet, I’m at the edge of the cliff, if you will, and there’s this crevasse—that’s what makes it a genuine leap—and I can’t quite get flight. I can’t quite do it. I can’t quite do it!” They could have all kinds of reasons: I’m not good enough, it’s going to hurt, I might fail, I don’t want to be criticized—I don’t know, I’m sure you’ve heard it all.
LR: Well if that person is listening and what Tami just said, you’re saying, “Yes, that’s me,” I would say don’t do it. One of the things that Rachel has taught me over and over again is you can’t force a rosebud to blossom by beating it with a hammer. You can’t bully yourself into being ready. But I can tell you that when it was time for me to take the leap of faith, like I said, it was not courage that made me leap; it was pain. It was survival. I would have—if I had not left the day that I left, I would have followed instructions, followed orders from my boss to prematurely deliver twins that probably would have been sick in the neonatal ICU. And I said, “No, I’m not willing to violate my integrity any more than I have and do this thing that I believe is malpractice.” And my boss said, “It’s our way or the highway.” And I said, “Oh my God, it is so highway, baby.”
That was not a brave thing; that was the lives of two little babies. That was not me being brave. And at that point, it wasn’t hard at all. I didn’t have to white-knuckle it to leave. It felt so freaking good to walk out that door. And I think it’s OK to wait until you feel that way. I think it’s OK. You know, one of the things the benevolent voice thing said to me—the second thing the benevolent voice said after, “Sweetheart, you’re going to have to quit your job,” the second thing it said is, “All you have to do is make peace with what’s true right now.” So I would say to those people that know you’ve got to leave the job, you’ve got to leave the toxic relationship, or send that letter, or go to art school, or write that book, or do whatever crazy thing the voice of cilantro is telling you to do—it’s OK to wait until you’re ready. Just make peace with what’s true right now. That’s all. That’s not so scary; that’s not so hard. And then there will come a time where you just know, and where the pain of staying put exceeds the fear of the unknown.
You don’t have to wait that long; I want you to know that too. One of the mantras that Martha Beck gave me is “cave early”. Cave early—what about that? Things might have been easier if I had caved the first time I heard that voice. Instead I waited a year and a half and I had a lot of suffering in that year and a half between when I knew I was going to have to quit my job and when I actually did. Things got way worse. But I needed things to get way worse in order for me to enter into the unknown because I did not see the unknown as a place of refuge at that time. Now, I do. Now, when I don’t know what the future holds, I know that anything’s possible. I mean, goodness, if you had told me 10 years ago, “You’re about to embark into the unknown and one day, Tami Simon is going to call you and want to talk to you on her show.” You don’t know, right? Really cool stuff can happen when you don’t know what the future holds.
TS: One final question for you, Lissa. The program’s called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious to know what someone’s leading edge is—their growth edge—kind of what you’re working on right now, if you will, that’s the thing you’re tossing around inside with. What [is] that for you?
LR: Well, I think we’ve been talking about it this whole time. Rob Brezsny uses the term “pronoia,” which I love, because it’s the opposite of paranoia. It’s the unshakeable faith that everything in the universe is conspiring to shower you with blessings. It’s that belief in a benevolent universe.
But when things go wrong, as they inevitably do—and I want people who are thinking about taking a leap of faith to hear this too—what usually happens—and nobody wants to hear this—what usually happens is when you first take the leap of faith, a whole series of synchronicities will affirm that you’re doing the right thing and it will feel really comforting. And then things go awry and you wind up—Joseph Campbell talks about the Hero’s Journey, which I use as a map for this process in my book, The Anatomy of a Calling. The road of trials is that phase of the journey where things don’t go as planned and the hero or heroine is actually getting his or her mettle tested. It’s a really uncomfortable part of the journey, and it’s a continuous process, this Hero’s Journey—it certainly is a myth to think that you go on a journey and then you find the Holy Grail, and then you bring it back to the ordinary world and then you’re done. It’s a continuous cycle of multiple journeys happening simultaneously.
So, I guess my edge is when things aren’t going the way I want them to and my willing[ness] to notice the part of my mind that is always grasping for what it wants and resisting what it doesn’t want—and oh my goodness, it makes it so busy, trying to figure out how to get what it wants and solve problems and decide decisions and avoid what it doesn’t want. Man, the mind can just—it’s so cute! It’s so busy, trying to get what it wants and avoid what it doesn’t want.
So, I guess my edge is really letting go of that. I’ve been very influenced by Tosha Silver, who I know you’ve interviewed as well, and that process of deep surrender—real letting go, real trust in the benevolence of the universe so that I can partner with the divine beloved in this co-creation process and trust that that divine beloved that is participating with me maybe knows what’s aligned with the highest good better than my mind. To really allow that force of love to move me in the world, to flow me in the world, to instruct me. I feel like I get a vote and God gets a vote, and if we disagree, then God gets the tie-breaker. [Laughs.]
So, that’s really an edge for me, because I have to remind myself of that like 10 times a day. It’s one thing to know it cognitively, but it’s another to put it into true practice. Every time I notice that I’m grasping for something that I want or trying to solve a problem or trying to decide a decision, I have to remember to practice making those things an offering to the divine and then paying very close attention and being very present in the moment to the guidance that comes through—in all the ways the guidance comes through, and the voice of cilantro is only one of those ways.
TS: Lissa, I want to end just by saying something a little odd, but I really like you!
LR: I like you too!
TS: I just really like you. You are such a genuine voice in the world, and I feel so grateful for the work that you’re doing. So, thank you so much. Thank you so much for being with us on Insights at the Edge. If you’re interested in more information, visit lissarankin.com.
SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks everyone for being with us.