Rachel Naomi Remen —
Listening Generously

Rachel Naomi Remen's lifelong struggle with chronic illness has shaped her philosophy and practice of medicine. She speaks about the art of listening to patients and other physicians, the difference between curing and healing, and how our losses help us to live.

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is medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, and a clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. Her books include My Grandfather's Blessings, and Kitchen Table Wisdom.

Pertinent Posts

For the National Day of Listening: listen to stories of friends and loved ones, and record them too.

Selected Readings

Recapturing the Soul of Medicine

In this essay, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen calls on physicians to examine how they give meaning to their daily practice and reclaim that meaning in their working lives.

About the Image

A caregiver listens to a young man who is HIV positive and confined to his home in South Africa.

(photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

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I ask my landscape design clients for a mission statement. Two sentences of what they want from & for their garden.

Rachel Naomi Remen's words, "Coherent, elegant, mysterious, aesthetic" are a complete mission statement for a fabulous landscape.

And a life.

Proving, again, the more we go inward the more we outwardly connect.

Thank you for all you do.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara Dillard

The collective wisdom on issues of faith, healing and spirituality as it relates to finding peace in my days has been a process of many gifted writers and medical professionals including the "Speaking of Faith" broadcast series.

The SOF broadcast makes it possible to hear their stories and their "voice" which brings more depth and breadth to these important truths.

I have the honor of having worked as an RN for over 20 years in intensive care and clinical settings. I have also had the privilege of having Rabbi Harold Kushner as a friend and colleague for the past ten years through my very small company, White Light Events, that was created after my cancer diagnosis. White Light Events serves to connect non profits and business's with critical thinkers and authors in the areas of ethics, spirituality and humanitarianism.

After hearing Dr. Rachel Remen's story of the "Birthday of the World" and the light in all of us it made my heart skip a beat!

Finding the courage and hope needed to live a life that has been touched by unspeakable pain with a sense that all the events of our lives create a wholeness not otherwise realized except when as Dr. Remen so beautifully put it "Living on the edge of life."

Thank you for making me feel like I am of one of many on this journey of finding peace in all that comes my way and that I am not alone!

This is the wisdom gifted me from Rabbi Kushner over the past ten years! He is what has brought me hope that it is only through our human stories and connections that we are able to truly live life with meaning and purpose, no matter how many days we have to live, is the acceptance and love of each other.

Blessings,
Terri Jones

Rachel Naomi Remen: Kitchen Wisdom I just read the interview with Rachel Naomi Remen and what she is saying, I want to say, about the "sparks" is quite true. I studied Jewish mysticism, or Kabalah, as this is most popularly called, and I took a course because I honestly believed at the time that this was medieval and bore no relevance to our lives today. For me, this course made a profound difference in my life, including a mystic experience shared with a colleague and friend who had attended with me. When we left one night, and stood alone outside, realizing it had rained, we saw the entire street was covered with the Hebrew letters shaped from the water and they shone in the moonlight. This was so intense an experience, we were then, afraid, and did not return. I do deeply believe it's all correct, and as strange as this might seem to a modern, "scientific" world, the ancient stories of how the world was shaped, how we are each sparks of divinity, well, they are beautiful, however perceived. I do see divinity within us all, and a most cosmic dance, and within that dance, as light is a word also referring to laughter, call it the comic within cosmic, I think God is also laughing. Life is hard. Life is filled with sorrow, and I so totally agree with Naomi that through this suffering a kind of individual alchemy is forged, involving, deeply the opportunity to help each other, to heal, called tikkun olam, the bringing together of those sparks. I was sparked by this article, enough to write, again. And I can say, truly, that Ruth follows Naomi!

Hi.

I listen to your show every Sunday morning on Nebraska Public Radio as I prepare to go to church. The show this week where you interviewed and visited with Rachel Naomi Remen was exceptional. She spoke of experiences like the kind I myself have witnessed. To establish my credibility, I am a Professor of Biology at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska and I am the Lay Minister at Trinity Lutheran Church (a small rural congregation) in Winside, Nebraska. I have been a college professor for 21 years and parish minister for 10 years and I tend to find myself somewhere between the issues of life science and God the Creator.

Ms. Remen's interview helped to reveal for me some of the difficulties I have had being a professor where my colleagues are Biologists trapped by the dogma of science and discovery. I tend to struggle with that same dogma because it is wholly insufficient to explain how life truly works as alluded to by Ms. Remen. Her comments were liberating to be sure. Her description of the person that had terminal cancer who was miraculously cured of that cancer at the befuddlement of science was priceless. As a lay pastor, I too have witnessed miraculous recoveries and personal transformations that my colleagues in science would scoff at or at the very least laugh at if they were told of them. As a result of my unique placement between science and spirit I have had to develop a course in Biomedical Ethics that serves to uncover the biases and inabilities of science in relation to a God many scientists refuse to accept. I was particularly intrigued by Ms Remen's comment that "objectivity is bias." This is so true in science, but it is also ignored to large degree in scientific discovery. I'm a firm believer that most of life on earth and in the universe is a mystery and will remain so until such a point that God the Creator wants us to know about it, which may be never.

I must interject that when it comes to helping other human beings with the Holy Spirit that a trust develops that can not be understood by science. The afflicted may not be able to verbalize with you but one can tell what they are saying by simply looking into their eyes. Also, when working with animals, one can see the pain in their eyes that they too experience, and one can see the gratitude that they have in those same eyes after we help them. It may only be a pat on the head or a rub of the ears, but there is something there that objective science will not see. I believe God is in all things and that is why Ms. Remen's interview was so important. Thank you for the interview, as it does change the direction my teachings will take. I would welcome any questions you might have on this post.

Sincerely,

Glenn E. Kietzmann

As Brother Confessor [an unsought office] we often experienced "generous listening"- for we are the one who gave it.
We do not recommend it.
A tedious litany of "Me,me,me."
It but sickens.

We turn our back upon Heaven- it is but Idiot.
So is its Crown of Creation.
We found far better medicine in Hell.

Physician heal thyself.

After listening to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen's words, I realized why I've followed a medical specialist of mine to three cities: He (in the limited time per visit imposed on him by the medical system) has always attempted, and succeeded, in making a connection with me. I see him once a year and yet he remembers details about me other than those of a medical nature. I would be truly devastated if he transferred to yet another system even farther away.

Additionally, I've begun an introspection as to the questions Dr. Remen poses her students about their own losses and how they deal with them. When listening to the podcast, I tried to immediately think of my own losses. While I've been much more fortunate than others regarding loss, I found myself struggling to find a voice for my experiences. Her assertion of "the way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life…" are definitely something more for me to examine.

It seems like my mother provided me love by "listening generously" like Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen spoke of. She passed on 5 months ago, and her loss is still felt. When I was kicked out of Phillips Exeter Summer School over the fact that my girlfriend had become suicidal and she'd spoken some untruths about me, it shattered my life. Fortunately, I was given a second chance at another prep school, that coming Fall.

It wasn't until I was leading a group of cross country backpackers up a mountain, in Yellowstone around Xmas time, that it really hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to stop and unload with some of the fellow skiers I was leading. I cried like a baby. That moment of unloading was when my fellow skiers acted to "listen generously" to the pain I'd felt about that earlier expulsion. That was quite a relief to finally be able to share what had happened the year before, that I hadn't ever told anyone about.

My mother had listened generously to me most of my life. Because I didn't grow up with a father during much of it, it meant a lot to have that kind of unconditional love, when she could be there for me. My mother's recent loss is teaching me to live in ways I hadn't before. Dr. Remen's stating that "fixing is to small a strategy to deal with loss" is accurate in dealing with large losses in our lives.

I am just trying to move on after my mother's loss. It really "can't be fixed", (in Dr Remen's words), but must be felt, dealt with, experienced in the future moments without her and learned from. I live with the knowledge that each day I wake up, it is another chance to try again to set things right in my world and in other people's worlds.

Sending love and light to you Adam. Five months is a very short time in the life of grief - short but acutely painful. You've done well getting into another school & continuing with hiking in our beautiful Country. There's a lot of beauty & comfort outside in the big skies with wildlife and small flowers upon the path. In quiet presence you can depend on finding a peaceful spot to dream and create your future. Namaste from the heart of NYC.

I was a partner with my husband during the 8 years of his Alzheimer's and I noticed that there was a sense of discomfort when the medical profession worked with him......almost a sadness in their eyes. This was not true of the many professionals who got to know both of us over the years. We were living a rich, full life and the Alzheimer's added spice, depth and challenge. The adult day care center staff and eventually the nursing home staff grew to love both of us and smiled as we danced together and held hands. Yes, there were the sad times and the angry times but generous listening as Rachel describes would have helped the medical staff learn about this full vibrant relationship and their pity would have melted. Living on the edges of our culture does allow us to see more of the truth and intimacy that exists.

Thank you so much for rebroadcasting the interview with Ms. Remen. I listened to the program off your podcast service the day after I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. I am fortunate to live in a time when this is in no way considered a fatal disease. But listening to Ms. Remen's comments on what people look for in their doctor and what they need to heal resonated with me deeply. My worst moments leading up to my diagnosis were spent at hospitals when I was vomiting and writhing in pain. What I lacked more than anything was information and the knowledge that people were listening to me. It's not an ego thing. It's just being scared and not knowing why you're in pain. Even though it is not fatal, I have asked myself while waiting at hospitals "Why me?" I really love Ms. Remen's understanding that medical science intersects with issues of faith and love. I know my recent treatments gave me a stronger awareness of my faith. Thanks for broadc asting this.

Dear Krista,

I'm going to do my best, but I feel I hardly have the words to express to you how inspired and emotionally stirred I was by your show: "Listening Generously" with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. The entire program exuded a sacred softness, a gentle and loving view of our lives at this moment in time, and everything that is possible for the human race to become.

Since the beginning of my life, my archetypal "storyteller" has been active, fully engaged and (thank God) employed most of the time. But more than ever before, I see clearly how the theme of "story" continues running through me. Whether mine or someone else's, it is the same. To tell our own stories, we are both giving and recieving. To listen generously, we are both giving and recieving. It's the ultimate ying yang-middle ground experience when it comes to relationship, community, compassion, world peace.

The analogy is just coming to me now as I write this, that a story is like a jewelry box: an encasement that carries and cushions something as valuable as the wisdom held within each narrative.
Or, if I'm going to be less superficial with my metaphor: stories are shells holding life... holding truth. And they keep SAVING my life. Again and again and again. When the shell is tapped and opened, I recognize that truth of human experience, and am comforted that I am not alone. I think that "sharing our stories" is the act of reminding ourselves of our own wholeness, our own "okay-ness", our own perfection right now.

But back to you. I love Speaking of Faith, and I think you are so very good at what you do. Please forgive my redundancy, but this particular show, "Listening Generously" was crystaline in its wholeness. Of course, listening to Dr. Remen slowed and then stopped my mind, and for 51 minutes and 9 seconds, I was just sitting, feeling my heart, and listening to the words and stories, and the gaps between those words and stories. I could feel your profound presence during the conversation, your own joy in the experience. Each movement of music, every production value, and such an authentic human connection came together to create one heartbreakingly divine moment in radio.

Thanks for giving what you give, and thanks for listening generously,

Walker

Walker Vreeland
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"Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it."

-Mark Twain

Wonderfull interview! it reminded me of the book "Momo" from Michael Ende, one of my old time favorite stories.

Listening to Rachel Naomi Remen's account of how medical training cannot help but change you, I heard the echoes of my own experience in medical school and training. We often described it as "being in the trenches". It was the time of "us vs. them" mentality when denying our bodily and spiritual needs was indeed a status symbol. Lately I have been reflecting a lot on the fact that science is not the only thing in the therapeutic relationship. This post is inspired by what I have been thinking, thanks in part to your program!
http://evimedgroup.blogspot.com/2010/08/allopathic-medicine-and-cam.html

An excellent program, as usual. I am forwarding it to my granddaughter who is in her last year of residency....thanks

This episode moved me deeply. I need to listen to it a few more times, and I'm happy to find that there is an unedited version. If only all doctors were as caring as Rachel Naomi Remen!

On Being sustains and inspires me, week after week. Thank you.