10 Questions Series: Lissa Rankin, MD

September 2, 2013 by Chris Grosso

Lissa Rankin

NAME: Dr. Lissa Rankin

BIO: Lissa Rankin, MD is a physician, the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourselfand the founder of Dr. Lissa Rankin’s Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers. She was featured on the public television special Heal Yourself: Mind Over Medicine, and will soon appear in a documentary film about her work.  Dr. Rankin is on a grass roots mission to heal health care by repairing the doctor-patient relationship, while empowering both patients and health care providers to marry the best of Western medicine with mind-body approaches scientifically proven to activate the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms. 


Q: Who and or what, do you attribute the person you are today to?


A: Although the nurturing care and unconditional love of my mother played an enormous role in shaping my life, my primary guiding force has been what I call my “Inner Pilot Light,” that voice of Divinity that comes from within.  While The Universe once had to thwack me upside the head with two-by-fours because I hadn’t learned to listen to the still, quiet voice within, learning to hear the whispers and notice the subtle guiding signs transformed my life.


Tapping into that Divine spark that lies within us all opened my life to mystery, awe, and so much love that I still have to pinch myself sometimes. Before I rediscovered my Inner Pilot Light, I had forgotten who I was and what I was on this earth to do. I was walking around blind, without a compass or someone to hold my hand. But after remembering that there is this “highest self” within me that is a little spark of divinity, I could suddenly see, not just the trail I was meant to blaze but the blind spots of my ego that kept me in the trap of creating my own suffering.


By tapping into my Inner Pilot Light, I learned to see straight through the masks other people wear, so I can see the Inner Pilot Light of another being, and with the courage my Inner Pilot Light grants me, I have learned to keep my heart open, even in the face of serial heartbreak, because that’s what Inner Pilot Lights are here on this earth to do – love.


Q: What are some of the musical albums or musicians/bands that have impacted your life and in what way?


A: Oh my, I’m a total music buff, like I read Rolling Stone cover to cover and worship it like it’s the Bible, so that’s like Sophie’s Choice for me.  Honestly, it’s more about the song than the musician for me, and there are so many songs that have impacted my life in profound ways – Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (in all its iterations), the Beatles Imagine, Loggins & Messina’s Danny’s Song, and Harry Chapin’s Cat’s In The Cradle. More recently, I’m in love with the former Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, Jewel’s Hands, Alanis Morissette’s You Owe Me Nothing In Return, Ani Difranco’s Both Hands, and the former Cat Stevens Yusuf Islam’s To Be What You Must. Don’t get me wrong. I also like to rock out, but these are the songs that have most touched my heart.

How has my life been impacted by these songs? Just as feelings sometimes don’t feel real until I write them down, songs give voice to feelings I have trouble accessing until someone else gives them life. Hearing the lyrics of my life set to music somehow bypasses my brain, bee-lining straight for my heart and allowing me to experience the feeling without thinking about it. All that medical training that taught me to numb and stuff down my feelings so I could keep working through traumas did a number on me, but music liberates me from that numbing influence, helping me fully experience life’s fully human emotions. Music also reminds me that the emotions we experience, which often feel so personal, are collective. This reminder of how connected we are as divine sparks spun together like a web alleviates the loneliness I sometimes feel.


Q: What is one of the most shocking experiences you’ve ever had?


A: One night when I was an OB/GYN resident, I had to deliver four dead babies in one night. Each time, I was hit by an unexpected rush of grief that led me to crawl into the blood and amniotic fluid-soaked beds of these mothers who had just lost a child and hold them in my arms. By the time I delivered the fourth baby, I walked out of the room, tears streaming down my face, and ran down the hallway to the women’s locker room, where I promptly fell into a heap on the floor. Two midwives rushed after me and held me, rocking me between them, while I cried, and while my male attending physician screamed through the door, “Buck up, Rankin! You’re never going to make it in this world if you can’t stop feeling so goddamn much,” one midwife whispered, “Don’t ever let them break you.”


Q: What is one of the most beautiful experiences you’ve ever had?


A: When my daughter Siena was three, we were at a fund-raiser, where a kirtan band was chanting in front of about a hundred people to raise money for a woman with Lyme disease whose insurance had dropped her.  I was standing off to the side, chanting with the band, when my daughter strayed away from me, heading to the back row, where people sat in fold-up chairs. Starting on the end, she climbed into the lap of the stranger in the chair, wrapped her arms around the older woman, who started crying, and silently gazed into her eyes like she was looking at her soul.


Then she crawled off the lap of the first woman into the lap of the man sitting next to her, and once again, she offered a hug and a silent gaze.  When she was done, she climbed onto the next lap, and then the next, until she finished hugging that row, when she climbed down, walked to the next row up, and climbed onto another lap for another hug. Systematically, she hugged every single person chanting in that audience, leaving tears in her wake, while I watched in rapt awe.


When she finished with the front row, she walked down the side aisle, where I stopped her and told her it was time to go home to bed. But she gave me that same silent gaze, looked straight into my soul, and said, “No Mama. They need more,” and proceeded to go to the back row and start all over again.


The thought “Oh my God, I’m raising Amma” darted through my mind, and I suddenly realized the gravity of my job as her mother. Like all children, she was born perfect, and in that instant, I realized my only job was not to screw her up. And surely, I will. One day she’ll be in therapy because of me.  But I realize all I can really do is let her follow her own light and reflect it back to her if she ever forgets.


Q: What is one of the most defining moments in your life and why?


A: In 2006, I gave birth to Siena by C-section, my 16 year old Bichon Frise pup died, my healthy young brother wound up in full blown liver failure as a rare side effect of a common antibiotic, and my beloved father died of a brain tumor – all in two weeks. I called it my “Perfect Storm,” and it divided my life into two parts – life before my Perfect Storm and life after.


Before my Perfect Storm, I was comfortably numb, working full time as a physician in my fancy bay view house and my vacation home and my convertible and all the trappings of a “successful” life. But I was miserable, selling out my integrity in penny-sized chunks on a daily basis and covering myself up with masks so I would appear more acceptable to others. I had forgotten who I was.


After my Perfect Storm, the illusion of certainty that kept me stuck in an unhappy life was shattered like a crystal vase. I realized that life can change in a blink, and given how unpredictable life really is, we might as well live every day so that we would have peace that there was no dream unlived and no love unexpressed, should we discover that it was our last day on earth.  After my Perfect Storm, I rediscovered the flame of my Inner Pilot Light, and I’ve been guided ever since. After leaving my job as a conventional physician and writing my story in books and blogs, I examined what was true for me, and in the knowing, I found my peace.


Q: What do you believe are the benefit, if any, vs. the dangers of mind-altering drugs?


A: As a physician, medical school scared me out of the usual experimentation with mind-altering drugs many of my friends experienced. I tried pot once with a group of anesthesiologists and other friends, and I got so paranoid, I never tried it again.  The way I see it, if I never try it, I’ll never like it, and then I won’t get hooked. But I’m curious. While I actually think marijuana is less physically dangerous than alcohol, and I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of wine, most of the other mind-altering drugs scare the bejesus out of me. Like ecstasy – it sounds like so much fun, but knowing what it does to your brain, I’ll never try it.  I’ve experienced more mind-altering nirvana states in meditation than anywhere else. I’ll take that over drugs any day.


Q: What are some films you’ll never forget seeing for the first time and why?


A: I’m in love with the Italian film Cinema Paradiso, partly because I just love the music and the cinematography, but mostly because of the life lesson in it. My hubby Matt laughs at me because I watch it often, and I’ll start crying right when the movie starts, when the mood is light and cheerful. But even though the beginning is so joyful, the story of a little boy in a movie house, helping an old man run the cinema, the music reminds me of what is coming – a man who closes his heart and squanders the opportunity to experience love, depth, passion, and intimacy, until a reminder of the old man helps him once again open his heart. I guess, to me, the ultimate tragedy is a shut-down heart and a life unlived. I’m just realizing now, as I’m writing, that I’m often drawn to sad songs and sad movies, not because I’m a sad person – really, I’m quite cheerful – but because they help me experience the grief, loss, and sadness I sometimes I have trouble accessing. The experience of both profound grief and immense joy often leave me feeling the same way. Both make me teary, and I’ve come to realize that the tears are the result of feeling radically alive.


Q: Does God exist and if so, in what capacity? If not, why not?


A: Yes, God exists for me. In what capacity? I’m still trying to figure that out! I am certain that God lives within us, that we are each divine sparks, like little pieces of an interconnected bigger flame. But the bigger question for me lies in whether God exists as something outside of us. I have to believe He/She/It does, mostly because of what I call the “signs from the Universe” that I can’t explain otherwise. I’ve personally experienced thousands of big and little miracles; a man (angel?) who appeared from the woods to rescue me when I was a child and had fallen over a cliff; a fire alarm that beeped me awake at just the right moment and changed my life; a book that falls from the shelf; a teacher that appears right when I’m ready to learn.

Every day, I experience these signs from the Universe that steer me, sometimes towards what I seek, sometimes away from it, but always with Divine perfection. If God only lies within us all, as some say, how can we explain these external influences? Coincidence? Nah. I don’t buy it. I have to believe there is a Higher Power outside of me that somehow cares about little old me – and all the rest of you as individuals. I know it seems improbable. How can that be possible? How can one God care about billions of people?  But I have to believe it’s true. It’s the only explanation for the miracles I’ve witnessed, not just in my life, but everywhere.


Q: What do you think your greatest contribution to humanity is?


A: On a micro level, I’d say it’s my ability to see people’s divinity, even when they can’t see it themselves. (I call it seeing with “magical eyes.”) When I hold up a mirror so someone else can see their own divinity, lives transform. People heal. But I can only look into so many eyes…


So on a macro level, I think my greatest contribution to humanity will be the knowledge that our bodies hold within them natural mechanisms of self-repair that we can access via our thoughts and feelings. When we feel fearful, lonely, disconnected, and stressed, our minds trigger a cascade of hormones that turn on the “stress response,” signaling the adrenal glands to spit out cortisol and other stress hormones and flipping on the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system. Over time, these repetitive stress responses wear down the body, which can only repair itself when it’s in a physiological state of rest.


On the other hand, when we experience love, connection, faith, pleasure, and states of bliss, we turn off the body’s stress response and switch on the “relaxation response,” dropping cortisol and adrenaline levels and boosting healthy feel-good hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, and nitric oxide, which return the body to a state of physiological rest, during which it has the scientifically-proven power to heal itself.

In other words, healthy thoughts are preventative medicine and treatment for what ails you.  If you feel lonely, stressed out at work, and depressed, the data shows that you’re much more likely to get sick and die young. If, on the other hand, you feel happy, connected, and loved, you’re more likely to get and stay well.


If I can transform how people think about their bodies – to really help them understand that health is an inside job, that you won’t find optimal health at the doctor’s office without doing the inner work and being courageous enough to make the life changes necessary to optimize the health of your mind, I will have left my legacy. I detail the findings of my research journey into the medical literature, inspired by my desire to find scientific proof of the body’s self-healing capacity, in my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself. When I say you can heal yourself, it’s sort of a misnomer, because I believe you need to optimize what conventional medicine has to offer, as well as enlist the support of someone who sees your divinity. But ultimately, the solution to living a long, healthy, happy life doesn’t lie outside of you. It lies within.


Q: What does the human experience mean to you?


A: If we are all pieces of divinity living in human bodies, the human experience is an opportunity to align as closely as we possibly can to that divinity. But we’re human! We have egos that keep us from being clear channels for that divinity, and those egos that dare to separate us from divinity and from each other, never go away. Therefore, the human experience is about making peace with the ego, seeing and recognizing the ego, and in the seeing, allowing the ego to dissolve with love in order to further clear the channel. How do we do this? Through relationships with other people and with the Divine.


The human experience is an opportunity to keep our hearts open, even in the face of serial heartbreak, to resist the temptation to close our hearts in order to keep them from getting hurt. The closing of the heart stems from the ego. Our divinity – our Inner Pilot Light – knows the only way to live is to keep the heart cracked wide open, vulnerable and exposed, giving the people we love permission to break our hearts. Life is the experience we have as we fumble through learning how to do this.

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.