The Book of Rachel Naomi Remen

Rachel_NaomiHere are some of the things, from her first book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, (Riverhead Books, New York, 1996), that got my attention:

It is actually difficult to edit life. Especially in regard to feelings. Not being open to anger or sadness usually means being unable to be open to love and joy. The emotions seem to operate with an all-or-nothing switch. I never cease to be impressed by the capacity of some ill people to live life more fully than most, to find more meaning and more depth, more awe in the ordinary. Perhaps it is because they have allowed the events of their lives to take them to some extra-ordinary highs and lows. Meeting people there is a choice.

Sometimes we may need to simply choose life. It is possible to become so attached to something or someone we have lost that we move forward blindly, looking over the shoulder of the past rather than before us to what lies ahead.


We can all influence the life-force. The tools and strategies of healing are so innate, so much a part of a common human birthright, that we believers in technology pay very little attention to them. But they have lost none of their power.

People have been healing each other since the beginning. Long before there were surgeons, psychologists, oncologists, and internists, we were there for each other. The healing of our present woundedness may lie in recognizing and reclaiming the capacity we all have to heal each other, the enormous power in the simplest of human relationships: the strength of a touch, the blessing of a 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 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 others. 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.

Note: It is my current belief that none of us can help another person to heal without his or her demonstrated willingness to take full personal responsibility for their own healing. i.e. it is not my task to take over their burden: Compassion, empathy, of course, but no assumption that I know what is best for another person.

She continues:

At the heart of every story is a mystery. The reasons we attribute to events may be far different than their true cause. Often our first interpretation of events is quite different from our last reading of them. Mystery is a process, and so is our understanding of it.

The ability to seek and find meaning in life is based more than anything else on the capacity to hold paradox and maintain an unblushing cognitive dissonance. The objective world and the subjective world lie one atop the other. Spiritual causality and immediate causality are often different yet occupy the same space, and so a truth may be less a matter of either/or than both/and.

The following extracts are taken from her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging. (Riverhead Books, New York, 2000):

We do not serve the weak or the broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual.

Blessing life is about filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others.
(Osho says the same thing).

At the beginnings of medicine, the shamans, or medicine men, defined illness not in terms of pathology but in terms of the soul ….illness was “soul loss“, a loss of direction, purpose, meaning, mystery, and awe. Healing involved not only the recovery of the body but the recovery of the soul. 

Life asks of us the same thing that we have been asked in every class: “Stay awake.” “Pay attention.” But paying attention is no simple matter. It requires us not to be distracted by expectations, past experiences, labels and masks. It asks that we not jump too early to conclusions and that we remain open to surprise .Wisdom comes most easily to those who have the courage to embrace life without judgment and are willing to not know, sometimes for a long time. It may require us to suffer. But ultimately we will be more than we were when we began. 

When life is stripped down to its very essentials, it is surprising how simple things become. Fewer and fewer things matter and those that matter, matter a great deal more. 

We strengthen life any time that we listen generously or encourage someone to find meaning, or wonder about possibility, or dream or hope or escape from self-judgment and inner criticism, or know that they matter. Anytime we share someone’s joy, we bless the life in them.

In the depths of every wound we have survived is the strength we need to live. The wisdom our wounds can offer us is a place of refuge. Finding this is not for the faint of heart. But then, neither is life.

We learn by experience. The unexperienced life does not teach anybody anything. There are no spiritual shortcuts. 

Without compassion, the world cannot continue…. Compassion begins with the acceptance of what is most human in ourselves, what is most capable of suffering…. Experiencing this allows us to find an instinctive kindness towards life which is the foundation of all compassion and genuine service.

By its very nature Mystery cannot be solved, cannot be known. It can only be lived…. But Mystery does not require action; Mystery requires our attention … that we listen and become open. When we meet with the unknown in this way, we can be touched by a wisdom that can transform our lives.

Mystery helps us to see ourselves and others from the largest possible perspective, as a unique and possibly endless process that may go on over life-times. To be living is to be unfinished. Nothing and no one is complete. 

Mystery requires that we relinquish an endless search for answers and become willing not to understand. That we be open to witness…. Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking answers at all. 

After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company. 

Lastly, some much shorter quotes:

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

Life wastes nothing. Over and over again every molecule that has ever been is gathered up by the hand of life to be reshaped into yet another form. 

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

Every great loss demands that we choose life again. We need to grieve in order to do this. 

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

Perhaps wisdom is simply a matter of waiting and healing a question of time. And anything good you have been given is yours forever. 

The willingness to consider possibility requires a tolerance for uncertainty,  which Alan Watts had called “The Wisdom of Insecurity“.

Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you ~ all the expectations, all of the beliefs ~ and becoming what you are. 

Belief traps or frees us. 

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.
(Krishnamurti says this too).

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