A Conversation With Lissa Rankin

New York Times best-selling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling, Lissa is a physician, speaker, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, and mystic. Passionate about what makes people optimally healthy and what predisposes them to illness, she is on a mission to merge science and spirituality in a way that not only facilitates the health of the individual, but also uplifts the health of the collective.

Conscious Life Journal: Your work with functional medicine and the body’s innate ability to heal itself has garnered a lot of discussion. Can you tell us about that?

Lissa Rankin: My mother has been diagnosed with an incurable cancer called chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. My dad died of cancer so we’ve been through this once before. But it’s important to move through the grief and trauma, otherwise it’s just a spiritual bypass. I’m doing that with my mother, really tuning into “what does she need right now?” And she needs comfort. She needs to cry. She needs nature. She needs to have conversations about end-of-life issues and how she wants to live in alignment with her values in the face of a potentially “incurable” illness which I keep reframing for her. “Mom, just because western medicine can’t cure your illness doesn’t mean it’s not curable.” She has a very deep and abiding faith, knows that death is nothing to fear, and there’s nothing but love on the other side of this dimension. But she’s also really attached to this dimension and the people in it, and the nature and beauty of life as a human on earth. Sometimes when the soul is ready to break a pattern, it will invite into the three-dimensional space/reality whatever is needed in order to learn the next phase of the lesson.

Codependence, the classic savior complex, and the martyr are not easy patterns to break. Especially for women with the caregiver pattern. I’ve spent ten years working on this pattern and I joke that it’s like trying to put an octopus to bed. Everything in my childhood was about how giving of yourself to others is how to be a good Christian and a good doctor. You violate your own needs in service to the needs of others.

It is literally the foundation of who I am. So if I dismantle that core piece of my identity, who am I without that? Nobody ever taught me how to be loving and compassionate to myself. I see this pattern over and over again, where we have given of ourselves to such a great degree in the name of service. There’s nothing noble in violating the self in order to do this. My needs are equal to the needs of everybody.

When we come from being so full of love, energy, abundance, and money that we have extra, we’re literally looking for a place for our love to land. That is a completely different energy than the energy of I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy, I don’t have a right to be, I don’t deserve to be here unless I’m depleting myself. I’m on the receiving end of an amazing tribe of humans in my inner circle who suddenly realize that Mom and I need some care. They don’t see us as broken. They see as whole and they’re just serving the wholeness in the flow.

It was beautiful for me to have to learn to take care of the wounded parts of myself, the parts that were always trying to be good enough, always over-achieving. How many more things do I need to do to get your approval so you’ll love me so that I have a right to be? When you’re hooked into that pattern, you think “if only I get there, then this part of me will feel complete.” But it doesn’t work. Everything we have is right here already.

CLJ: How do you access that?

LR: The access point is through my spirituality, through my relationship with my “inner pilot light”—the spark of the divine that gives me the right to be, just because. I don’t have to do anything to earn that right to exist. I am unconditionally loved and lovable by that and from that part inside of myself. That part doesn’t approve or disapprove. There’s no judgment there at all.

We humans are so adorable. We think we’re so alone in our little dramas. I can see my little octopus arms coming out—oh look, there she goes again. I learned this from my mother, so my mother has the same pattern and there’s no shame around this. We can’t demonize the little girl that’s up there on stage singing and dancing and trying to be good enough. We can’t make her wrong. We just have to love her.

Richard Schwarz wrote a fantastic book called You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For about how we integrate and reclaim those parts of ourselves that have been exiled, especially in the feminine. They’re like refugees, just waiting to come home.

CLJ: So how do we stay well?

LR: I don’t believe everybody is supposed to stay well. My spiritual teacher is a seventy-nine-year-old doctor who has had a chronic illness her whole life and is the most enlightened human I’ve ever met. I believe as souls we come to this plane to learn how to love. So if, as a soul, her journey is to be infinitely compassionate with the suffering of others, what better way to learn compassion than to be somebody who has had a lot of suffering? I don’t know that she would have been capable of going as deep and offering the world so much love and service if she had not been sick.

The language I like to use is, “what does it take to make our bodies ripe for miracles?” It doesn’t mean that we’re all going to be cured or that we’re all going to live forever. But what kind of lifestyle makes our bodies ripe for miracles?

First of all, we’ve got to be willing to have a certain humility about our conditioning and our patterns and the way that we’ve been raised, because the American dream is making us sick. You take the story of the rugged individualist, the John Wayne who needs nobody and can take care of himself, and apply that in the spiritual realm and self-help world, and you get the belief “I don’t need anybody else, I can do it myself, I can fix everything that’s wrong with me so I can get what my ego wants and avoid what my ego doesn’t want.” That’s not a true story. The soul is here on a journey and it is here to learn, and we have our greatest transformations when we’re going through the hard parts. I lost six people that I love last year, in six months. There’s a kind of ecstatic grief that’s possible when you’re not resisting life, when you’re not resisting death. I was able to go all the way to the bottom of my suffering and realize that the only reason it hurt that much was because I love that much.

CLJ: That is the definition of being truly conscious. You’re not avoiding the pain, you’re truly conscious of the pain at the same time that you’re honoring the pain.

LR: I felt like my heart was having contractions. I had to breathe through it like I was a pregnant woman in labor to just let the grief flood me and not resist it and not fight it, and it would move through my whole body, but then I would get relief. And I couldn’t do this alone. I needed my community, I needed to have self-awareness, I needed to give myself permission. So I let myself be with my grief, not compartmentalize it, not skip it, and not employ some spiritual bypass. And that also felt beautiful, honoring of my experience.

CLJ: I love that. So many people, myself included, have spent a lot of life avoiding pain.

LR: Of course we resist pain. Being human means stuff is gonna hurt. I get frustrated with the masculine teaching in spiritual circles that says if only you’re enlightened, if only you practice spiritual principles and work on your thoughts, then nothing’s ever going to hurt and you can just live in this state of nirvana. We crave that so much, but I think the most enlightened people on the planet feel everything very deeply. And they move through it quickly and they see the grace in it even while they’re feeling the pain. They’re recognizing the growth and the pain and holding them in paradox. Both of them are true at the same time.

I just got back from two months in Bali where everybody lives in the family compound and the whole family is there, multiple generations. We desperately need tribe. There’s a movement now towards rebuilding what it means to have modern tribes. We’re supposed to be eating our meals together, creating art together, doing our spiritual practice together, feeling what we feel, and having collective ceremonies to address our grief. This is very restorative to the nervous system, to have collective places. I’m looking for my mother to have a support group of other people on a cancer journey so that she can have community around her fear and grief and anger and whatever else is coming up.

CLJ: The depth of your pain equals the depth of your capacity for joy.

LR: I fully believe that and I’m really clear that part of my soul journey on this earth is that I’m going to be all the way human. I don’t want to transcend this human experience. The sacred masculine is about transcending, but the divine feminine is about embodiment. I’m going to feel my pain more than the average human, but I also have a whole lot of ecstatic bliss in my life, really inexplicable depths of connection to Source, nature, other humans. I know that a lot of people who aren’t feeling their pain are not feeling that ecstasy.

We don’t know how to do this, so we have to be really gentle with ourselves because our culture is teaching us the opposite of what is natural to the soul. It’s based on the story that we are separate from God, we are separate from each other, therefore, when the other is separate, we can violate the planet, we can violate other humans, we can violate our own woundedness. Not only do we have people on the planet that are bullying one another, including our administration right now, but we are bullying the feminine within ourselves. And that to me is the saddest part because that is what we actually have control over. All we have to say to those exiled, rejected, wounded parts is, “Come back. I’m going to love you with my big mama arms. Please know that I’ve got you and you are safe here and there is no part of me that I cannot love and accept the way God loves me and accepts me, because there is God in me.” No matter how messed up some of my parts might be, no matter how much I might be tempted to judge and condemn and reject and exile them, that part that I call the inner pilot light is so expansive and so loving and so feminine that all of me can be held on her great lap and rocked like a mother.

This is what I’m working on with my mother. “Can you hold all of those parts of yourself inside the loving arms of the God/Goddess within you?” That is the ultimate medicine. But we can’t do it alone.

CLJ: So what’s next for you on a professional level?

LR: My initial answer is I don’t know. Everything is a constantly unfolding mystery and the feminine doesn’t have a business plan. My mother’s diagnosis was a curveball. This was not my plan for the year. So I don’t know.

CLJ: That’s a great answer. It gives our readers permission not to know and to just follow that spiritual guidance.

LR: Right now I’m getting information about healing the trust rift between the divine feminine and the patriarchy and between the masculine and feminine inside ourselves. I feel, especially in 2017 with what’s happening on the planet, that we will never have peace on earth or peace within ourselves unless we have a sort of truce and reconciliation between the separation of those seeming dualities between the masculine and feminine. In actuality, they’re not dualities. They’re one.

There’s a certain perverse pleasure for me in watching the world fall apart. The very foundation of who I am, my entire world view, had to get shattered in order for my soul to start to come back into my body, and I feel that on the collective level the same thing might have to happen.

Lissa Rankin, MD. Bridging between seemingly disparate worlds, Lissa is a connector, collaborator, curator, and amplifier, broadcasting not only her unique visionary ideas, but also those of cutting edge visionaries she discerns and trusts, especially in the field of her latest research into “Sacred Medicine.” Lissa has starred in two National Public Television specials and also leads workshops, both online and at retreat centers like Esalen and Kripalu. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her daughter. She blogs at LissaRankin.com.