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
“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
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? 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
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,”
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
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
“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
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
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
That’s when it all came together, and I started
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
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
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
(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.)