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Katherine Martin

The Courage to Follow Your Wisdom
by Katherine Martin

Courage. Is it the domain of a special few? Are courageous people any different from me or you? As people are naturally, uniquely different, of course. But do they have some courage gene that you and I do not possess? No. In fact, the term "courageous people" is an oxymoron. Courage is in us all, ebbing and flowing. It breathes. It calls. Sometimes, we answer that call. Sometimes, we don’t. That call often comes from deep within the recesses of our soul, a stirring of our spirit. Step up. Be heard. Be seen. Your life matters.

Women of Spirit by Katherine Martin

We may not want to hear that calling. At times, we turn away from courage because we’re afraid and, even further, because we’re afraid of our fear. We turn away when we’re unwilling to make mistakes, to be wrong. When we guard ourselves so carefully that we avoid being seen, really seen, outside a preconceived notion of who we’re supposed to be or what we’re supposed to do.

In moments of courage, we are seen for we are. We stand out. In those moments, we have the capacity to let life get messy, knowing the power of chaos and trusting that out of chaos comes order, often divine order, and I use that word divine in the broadest sense to mean the sacred beyond us. Being courageous comes from keen intuition and listening to it carefully even if it appears to make no sense. It comes from being able to live with the irrational, the illogical. From paying attention to synchronicities.

In the deepest spiritual breaths we take comes courage. A far cry from bravado, it derives from the French word coeur, meaning heart. And, yes, courage is always a matter of the heart. Courage is a matter of people claiming themselves, bone deep. It’s about people demanding that freedom for others as well. It is loud and noisy and messy and mouthy. It is also quiet and intimate and vulnerable and fragile. What a paradox. Courage takes us far and wide into the very meaning of life.

Let me tell you a story about one woman who listened to the seemingly irrational, who followed her intuition when it seemed nuts. Her name is Dr. Marcy Basel.

~  ~  ~ 

“What are you doing?”

He was a small man, glaring at me, mean looking.

What’s his problem, already, I thought. I was standing at the counter of the pharmacy at the Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine in Santa Monica, California. I felt like crap. The last thing I needed was this Korean guy and his who-are-you-and-what’s-in-that-paper-bag attitude.

“Come over here! Let me look at your tongue.”

I was sick. I didn’t need him to tell me that. I’d simply come in to get some herbs. I stuck out my tongue, which was coated sickly white.

He didn’t like the looks of it. “Let me feel your pulse. I’ll give you the herbs you need.”

Any other day, I probably would have squared off with him: “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but this is none of your business.” Today I didn’t have it in me. I held out my wrist. He felt my pulse and scurried behind the counter. Oy, I just want to go home and crawl into bed. Setting three herbs next to my small paper bag, he brusquely said, “Take those out.” I spilled out the herbs I’d just picked from the shelves of roots and herbs and medicinal potions to treat whatever it was that was making me feel horrible. They were the same herbs he’d just set on the counter.

“How did you do that?” He was really upset.

“I don’t know, I just looked at the shelves and picked them.” Who is this guy?

“I’m Dr. Kim, this is my college,” he said, seeming to read my mind, his tone softening. “Would you come with me, please.” I followed him into his office. “Please sit,” he said, indicating a chair as he eased down behind his desk. “I’d like you to meditate with me.”

Talk about strange. He closed his eyes. Because I’d been on a spiritual path most of my life, meditating wasn’t foreign to me. Don’t ask me why; I closed my eyes and sank into meditation. The thought that disturbed the stillness in my mind was, Why is he so familiar?

When we finished, Dr. Kim looked at me with a startling clarity and said, “You’ve been coming back for two thousand years to be a healer. I’m here to facilitate that. I will pay for your studies for a year. If you see that it’s right, you can stay and continue the program.”

The program? Me? Oriental medicine? What’s he talking about? I’m an artist! I couldn’t make it through a medical textbook if you paid me.

I left his office shaken. How weird.

Later that night, at home, I startled myself by remembering the most profound meditation I had had a year earlier during a spiritual seminar. In the meditation, I was in a huge place of worship two thousand years ago. High stained-glass windows were everywhere, letting in warm colors. It was very sweet. Standing by a fountain in the center of this sacred place, I saw two very old people. They had those brown eyes that turn blue with wisdom. They were healers. “We’re ready, now, to leave our bodies,” they said to me. “May we give you our healing practice?” They wanted me to carry on their tradition. I said no, I wasn’t qualified, I couldn’t heal the way they did, which was primarily with light and color and water. I don’t remember what they said in response, if anything, but they gave me a small stained-glass window on a little stand.

As I thought about that meditation and about picking out those herbs at the college pharmacy and about the meditation in Dr. Kim’s office, I began to consider the possibility that, maybe, possibly, perhaps, I should think about his suggestion and not dismiss it. Listening to something that has absolutely no reason or logic, letting myself be guided by, I’m not even sure what, I began to think about the idea of studying Oriental medicine. Oy, not only am I right brain, I’m forty. That is hardly the right mix for medical school.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. It was so different that, quite possibly, it was right. As I went about my day, teaching my private art classes, I’d find myself thinking about it. I even said something about it to my teenage son. “Whatever,” he shrugged.

I began to feel drawn to the idea as though someone had hooked it behind my heart and was gently pulling. Finally, I went back to the college and talked to Dr. Kim. “Okay, I’ll try.”

Fear came rushing in. I’m not smart enough. I’ll fail. I’ll make a fool of myself. I’ll be humiliated. I’ll never make it through four years. In fact, the stress would be tremendous. I’d hear horror stories about the state boards, which ate people up and spat them out, forcing them to reconsider or sit again for the exams. To think about what was in front of me was daunting.

My first day of class is burned into my memory. The “History of Oriental Medicine” was taught by Dr. Kim. I felt awful, out of place. I was totally claustrophobic in a room with closed doors and thirty people sitting stiffly at their desks, taking notes. No way am I going to be able to do this for four years. Toward the end of class, Dr. Kim said, “I’m going to call three people to the front, and I want you to come up, take a look inside my body, and tell me what you see.” He must have noticed that I was tormented. “We’ll start with Marcy Basel.”

I went up to the front of the class and looked him over, head to toe. Believe me, I surprised no one more than myself when I told him about a problem on his left side and, in particular, the left part of his lung. He called two other people, who came up and surveyed him and gave their assessments. When we were done, he looked at me and said, “When I was a child, I had a problem with the left part of my lung, and it has never healed quite right. How did you know that?”

I felt an odd sense of calm come over me. This was right. I’d be okay once I was working with people, if I could just get through the books.

That first year was the year from hell. I was living in Malibu, a coastal town just north of Santa Monica. Three months into my studies, Malibu went up in flames during the worst fires in decades. It started while I was in school. My son was at his school in Malibu. When I heard the news, I panicked. That feeling of separation was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Frantically, I called friends who had kids in my son’s school. The children had been vacated and sent to a safe place north of Malibu. I was beside myself, racing north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Police blockades were up. No one was getting through; it was a mess. I went back to the school, where I was supposed to take a midterm that day. “I can’t take the test,” I said to Dr. Kim, “I can’t do this; my son’s just been caught in the Malibu fire.”

“Is he safe?”


“Then, take the test, it will be good for you to use your mental focus.”

I took the test. And barely passed.

Not long after, Malibu was hit with some of the worst floods in decades. All we needed now was an earthquake. It wasn’t far behind. And it was big.

That was my first year of medical school. Full of natural disasters, which is how my inner landscape felt. I couldn’t get my brain to work. I couldn’t remember data, and we had floods of information to memorize, a plethora of herbs and roots and how they affected the human body, acupuncture points and what they stimulated and healed, on and on, ad nauseum. I tried all kinds of tricks, copying study habits of other people in class. Nothing worked. Either I was an idiot for thinking I could do this or something else was going on that I clearly wasn’t aware of yet. It was breakdown or breakthrough time.

That I didn’t quit still surprises me. The last thing I needed was a big challenge. Raising my son alone was challenging enough. I didn’t want to be bothered with difficult things. Looking back, though, I think I was worried that, if I dropped out, it would be one more thing I didn’t complete. So staying was a big lesson in persistence and in the meaning of progress. I came to appreciate that I didn’t necessarily have to get great results or even do so well. Progress could be measured in teeny-weeny steps, which, put together, became an evolution.

At one point, maybe a year and a half into school, I realized that since I was by nature an artist, I would probably be able to remember facts better with a visual or physical sensation. I started making charts, gluing herbs on boards next to information about their properties. I’d set these around my apartment, so that I’d see them frequently as I walked from room to room.

Everybody digests information differently. It was key for me to recognize this, to stop hitting my head against the proverbial wall trying to learn in a way that didn’t work for me and to develop my own way. On my daily morning walks, I took flash cards and pictorial information and studied while I walked. I took books into nature and read in between gazing up at a tree or turning my face into a breeze. I took long hikes in the mountains and thought and pondered, and if something didn’t make sense to me, when I got home, I researched until it did. I needed to know why something existed in a certain way, rather than simply that it existed. I became a voracious reader and researcher. In time, I reached a level of understanding much deeper than memorization. And this understanding kept deepening into the levels of the emotional and psychic and of how those aspects of a person affect the disease and the diagnosis. It reached the point where if somebody gave me a physical complaint, I would hear the different things they were saying and tune into the problem on an intuitive level. At times, before even asking the patient what was wrong, I’d touch a place on her body and she’d say, “I can’t believe you touched me there. That’s exactly where I have a problem.” It made me think of the moment when Dr. Kim said to me, right after our first fortuitous meditation, “All you need to do is pass the boards, because you have a gift, a level of intuition, and you can heal people using your intuition.”

That’s when it all came together, and I started excelling.

I went from barely passing to getting an A in physics and then straight A’s across the board. By the time I got to a lab and actually saw inside a cadaver, I was in heaven. Everybody in class was saying, “It stinks in here, it’s disgusting.” But for me, it was art.

What it took to get me here was the courage to step up to a challenge that was greater than I had ever humanly felt capable of. We all have our ideas about who we should be, what we should do, and how we should do it, ideas about what our past says about us, what we’re capable of, what friends and family say about us. I had mine about this idea of becoming a doctor of Oriental medicine. But somewhere deep inside me, I knew I was in that college for a reason, I knew on some profound level that it was going to work. I put aside my interpretation of myself to achieve something greater, something more than I’d ever envisioned for myself. And that’s where the real transformation took place. Having the courage to let go of all the stuff that had tied me up in a small identity. So that no matter what happened to discourage me — fires, floods, earthquakes, the fear of being dumb, the failing of tests — I could still hold the idea as right and continue to move through barriers and, eventually, it was as though I came to a critical mass. An opening. A place where I was in the flow and everything made sense.

Achieving something that I thought was impossible gave me a new feeling about who I am. I have a different kind of faith in myself. I don’t get as easily discouraged, because I know that with persistence, the right idea will unfold. Nothing seems beyond my reach. I know that, with courage, I can follow my heart no matter what.

One of the most rewarding things I’ve done since passing my state boards and being certified a doctor of Oriental medicine is to treat my mother. She called saying she had terrible lower back pain. It was sciatica. I flew home to Philadelphia and worked on her. She was scheduled for surgery in May. She never went. And I think it was this experience that began to change my entire dynamic with my parents. In fact, my whole family structure changed. They never thought I’d finish medical school. The Jewish acupuncturist from an East Coast upper-middle-class family. Oy vey. You just don’t do that. Now they call me if anything is wrong. My mother recently phoned, saying her tongue was funny and she didn’t feel good. She had thrush, which shows itself with a white coating on the tongue and aching in the joints. For two months, I told her what to do, changed her diet, got her treatments with an acupuncturist, and after two months, the thrush cleared up.

Every time I walk into my office, I am reminded of the power of inner knowing, guidance, our higher selves. When we take the time to be quiet, to listen to ourselves deep within, a whole sea of answers can be found. But it’s hard to hear when we’re running around like mad. My first whisper about working in the healing profession came from a deeply spiritual place, that meditation in the sacred place with the two healers asking me to take their practice. Although I didn’t follow it right away, it was a clue that, fortunately, was buried close enough to the surface for me to see it again. Following it is my most tremendous accomplishment so far.

(Marcy is an acupuncturist and herbalist in Sebastopol, California. She has worked with an oncologist to treat cancer patients and is developing a stained-glass prototype for healing through the use of light and color.)

From the book, Women of Spirit. Copyright 2001 by Katherine Martin. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. Toll-free 800-972-6657 ext. 52 or www.newworldlibrary.com

Katherine Martin has spent the last seven years researching, speaking and writing of courage. Sold-out theater performances and two ground-breaking books are the result of her work: Women of Courage: Inspiring Stories from the Women Who Lived Them and Women of Spirit: Courageous Stories from the Women Who Lived Them. Both books feature first person stories from the famous and the not so famous. Stories from Isabel Allende, Dana Reeve, Marianne Williamson, Faith Popcorn, Judith Orloff, Judy Chicago, Sarah Weddington, Mary Pipher, Riane Eisler, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. And from Geraldine Ferraro, Iyanla Vanzant, Judy Collins, Joan Borysenko, Julia Butterfly, Wit star Judith Light, SARK, Cherie Carter-Scott, and many others.

Through her books, lectures, public appearances and media interviews, Katherine provokes a new conversation about courage, busting myths, getting real, and empowering people to live their lives boldly and authentically. She is the “resident courage expert” at women.com, an iVillage company and the pre-eminent women’s website. Katherine hosts the Courage Board and contributes articles and excerpts from her books. She is also executive producer of a television adaptation of a story from Women of Courage.

An award-winning screenwriter, Katherine co-wrote an original Showtime movie and an independent feature film starring George Segal. She authored Non-Impact Aerobics with fitness experts Debbie and Carlos Rosas and has written cover stories and profiles for the San Francisco Chronicle, Esquire, Ms., Parents, Working Mother, Women’s Sports & Fitness, and numerous other national magazines. She was the senior editor of New Realities magazine.

Learn More About Women of Spirit at: www.katherinemartin.com



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