Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Rachel Naomi Remen

American Physician, Author, Medical Reformer, Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine, Co-Founder and Medical Director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program

"The purpose of life is to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better. If life serves these purposes, then health serves these purposes and illness serves them as well, because illness is a part of life."

"When you listen generously to people they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time."

"Our listening creates a sanctuary for the homeless parts within another person."

"The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words."

"Because the medical system does not yet understand the full range of human needs it wounds people - both doctors and patients. It does not recognize the full range of human strengths, either. What is needed for the healing of the medical system is what is needed for the healing of the culture. Because we are wounded in the same way as our institutions, when you are trained by an institution your wounds increase. In our training we are actually rewarded for our woundedness and punished for our wholeness. Medical training at the moment is like a disease. We have to recover from it, and many people never do. I am a recovering physician. The medical system does not trust process. The whole concept of fixing and broken suggests an insensitivity to the process nature of the world. The essential word of process is yet. Yet is seeing with feminine eyes. We are all works in process. That means that judgment is really inappropriate, or premature, because none of us are finished... yet."

"Belief traps or frees us."

"Every great loss demands that we choose life again. We need to grieve in order to do this. The pain we have not grieved over will always stand between us and life. When we don't grieve, a part of us becomes caught in the past like Lot's wife who, because she looked back, was turned into a pillar of salt. Grieving is not about forgetting. Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of the things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again. "

"Every great loss demands that we choose life again. We need to grieve in order to do this. The pain we have not grieved over will always stand between us and life. When we don"

"Everybody is a story. When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don't do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering."

"From a good teacher you may learn the secret of listening. You will never learn the secret of life. You will have to listen for yourself"

"He realized that he was the first human being she'd ever seen. He was touched in a way that he hadn't imagined he could be."

"Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn't you - all of the expectations, all of the beliefs - and becoming who you are."

"Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul."

"I did this because the person I loved wanted it."

"I had thought joy to be rather synonymous with happiness, but it seems now to be far less vulnerable than happiness. Joy seems to be a part of an unconditional wish to live, not holding back because life may not meet our preferences and expectations. Joy seems to be a function of the willingness to accept the whole, and to show up to meet with whatever is there. It has a kind of invincibility that attachment to any particular outcome would deny us. Rather than the warrior who fights towards a specific outcome and therefore is haunted by the specter of failure and disappointment, it is the lover drunk with the opportunity to love despite the possibility of loss, the player for whom playing has become more important than winning or losing. The willingness to win or lose moves us out of an adversarial relationship to life and into a powerful kind of openness. From such a position, we can make a greater commitment to life. Not only pleasant life, or comfortable life, or our idea of life, but all life. Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than to happiness."

"I have come to suspect that life itself may be a spiritual practice. The process of daily living seems able to refine the quality of our humanity over time. There are many people whose awakening to larger realities comes through the experiences of ordinary life, through parenting, through work, through friendship, through illness, or just in some elevator somewhere."

"I was certainly not trained to be a fellow human being."

"If you carry someone else's fears and live by someone else's values, you may find that you have lived their lives."

"In some basic way, it is our imperfections and even our pain that draws others close to us."

"It is not that we have a soul, but that we are a soul."

"It's a human relationship, not a relationship between an expert and a problem."

"Life is known only by those who have found a way to be comfortable with change and the unknown. Given the nature of life, there may be no security, but only adventure."

"Life offers its wisdom generously. Everything teaches. Not everyone learns."

"Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden. In this culture the soul and the heart too often go homeless. Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you."

"Many times when we help we do not really serve"

"Meaning may become a very practical matter for those of us who do difficult work or lead difficult lives. Meaning is strength. Physicians often seek their strength in competence. Indeed, competence and expertise are two of the most respected qualities in the medical subculture, as well as in our society. But important as they are, they are not sufficient to fully sustain us"

"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 new ways."

"Most people have come to prefer certain of life"

"Often finding meaning is not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways."

"Our power to heal is far less limited than our power to cure. Healing is not a relationship between an expert and a problem "

"Our purpose in life is to grow in wisdom and in love."

"Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing."

"Perhaps wisdom is simply a matter of waiting, and healing a question of time. And anything good you"

"So, what is the task of the medical system? Our modern view of disease is that disease is centered in the body. The older view of disease is that it is soul loss, a loss of connection, of meaning, of purpose, of essence. If this is so, the real task of the medical system is to heal soul loss, to aid in the retrieval of the soul. The entire culture is ill with soul loss. What is needed is not to bring spirit into our work, to develop more of a spiritual practice or to go to church more. Our task is to recognize that we are always on sacred ground, that there is no split between the sacred and secular. That the living god is dancing on our back. That there is no task that is not sacred in nature and no relationship that is not sacred in nature. Life is a spiritual practice. Health care, which serves life, is a spiritual practice. Disease is a spiritual path, too. Much illness is caused by the loss of the soul. Many, many people live lives that are empty. This emptiness is caused, in some part, by living without meaning, or with meaning that is much too small, too trivial, or too material for the needs of a human being."

"The choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown."

"The healing of our present woundedness may lie in recognizing and reclaiming the capacity we have to heal each other, the enormous power in the simplest of human relationships: the strength of a touch, the blessing of forgiveness, the grace of someone else taking you just as you are and finding in you an unsuspected goodness. Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal. Becoming expert has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the wholeness in myself and everyone else. Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise."

"The imbalance in the medical system, the emphasis on masculine-principle approaches and perceptions that pervades our entire culture, diminishes everybody. It diminishes the people who work within the system, and it diminishes the people who seek out the system for their healing. When you leave the doctor's office you may feel diminished, even though you have been given the right diagnosis and the right pills. Think of the masculine symbol, the circle with the arrow on one side. If someone relates to you in a predominantly masculine-principle style, you experience their strength, their capacity. You get rescued, as it were, and you feel smaller."

"The recovery of the sacred is not an academic nor even a scholarly pursuit. The sacred is an experience. It is also a universal human capacity, and a human need. When this need goes unfulfilled, we may become ill. Furthermore, the sacred is a way of perceiving the world, a way of seeing that is deeply inclusive. There are no experts in the sacred. It is our human birthright. Every one of us has the capacity to experience, participate, and manifest the sacred. The recovery of the sacred is not about becoming something more. It is not even about fixing yourself. Even our idea of spirit may be part of what gets in the way. Recovering the sacred is remembering something we've forgotten, something we may have hidden from ourselves. It is about uncovering and discovering the innate wholeness in ourselves and in the world."

"The recovery of the soul may depend not on having the right answers but on asking the right questions and carrying them with us for our whole lives. The medical system may need to relinquish a single-minded quest for mastery and allow for the presence of mystery. Who spoke? indeed."

"The willingness to consider possibility requires a tolerance of uncertainty."

"The yin is a way of seeing, a way of understanding the world, a way of formulating solutions, and a very powerful way of acting. Access to sacred experience requires us to reclaim our feminine capacity, to value the subjective, the intuitive, the qualitative, to not limit our focus to the surfaces of things. We all know the power of the masculine principle, especially in health care. There are many people who would have died long before today without the powerful, life-saving interventions of masculine-principle oriented medicine. I am one of them. So it is not about throwing away the masculine principle; it is about reclaiming wholeness, integrity."

"There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who are alive and those who are afraid"

"There is a fundamental paradox here. The less we are attached to life, the more alive we can become. The less we have preferences about life, the more deeply we can experience and participate in life. This is not to say that I don't prefer raisin toast to blueberry muffins. It is to say that I don't prefer raisin toast so much that I am unwilling to get out of bed unless I can have raisin toast, or that the absence of raisin toast ruins the whole day. Embracing life may be more about tasting than it is about either raisin toast or blueberry muffins. More about trusting one's ability to take joy in the newness of the day and what it may bring. More about adventure than having your own way."

"There is a great difference between defending life and befriending it. Defending life is often about holding on to whatever you have at all cost. Befriending life may be about strengthening and supporting life's movement toward its own wholeness. It may require us to take great risks, to let go, over and over again, until we finally surrender to life's own dream of itself."

"To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary. Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving. It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value. Approval cannot be trusted. It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been. It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy. Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it."

"To the degree that we can relinquish personal preference, we free ourselves from win/lose thinking and the fear that feeds on it. It is that freedom which helps a team to go to the Super Bowl. An adversarial position may not be the strongest position in life. Freedom may be a stronger position than control. It is certainly a stronger and far wiser position than fear."

"What does it mean to a physician to practice medicine without mystery? When I was a medical student, my school had a large, black-tie retirement dinner for a very famous man on the medical faculty, whose scientific contribution had earned him a Nobel prize. He was 80 years old. The entire school gathered to honor him, and famous medical people came from all over the world. This doctor gave a wonderful speech describing the progress of scientific knowledge during the 50 years that he had been a physician. We gave him a standing ovation. After we sat down he remained at the podium. There was a brief silence and then he said, There's something else important that I want to say. And I especially want to tell the students. I have been a physician for 50 years and I don't know anything more about life now than I did at the beginning. I am no wiser. It slipped through my fingers. We were stunned into silence. I remember thinking that perhaps he was senile. In retrospect, it was a very remarkable thing he did. He took an opportunity to warn us about the cage of ideas and roles and self-expectations that was closing around us, even as he spoke to us - the cage that would keep us from achieving our good purpose, which is healing. Healing is a matter of wisdom, not of scientific knowledge."

"What if? What if things were different than the way you have seen them in the past?"

"When people are blessed they discover that their lives matter, that there is something in them worthy of blessing."

"When we haven't the time to listen to each other's stories we seek out experts to tell us how to live. The less time we spend together at the kitchen table, the more how-to books appear in the stores and on our bookshelves. But reading such books is a very different thing than listening to someone' s lived experience. Because we have stopped listening to each other we may even have forgotten how to listen, stopped learning how to recognize meaning and fill ourselves from the ordinary events of our lives. We have become solitary; readers and watchers rather than sharers and participants."