“Cover to Cover”
M. H.: Hello and welcome to “Cover to Cover.” I’m your host Maria Heep, and today our special guest is Dr. Nancy Spence. Her book is Life Medicine: Wisdom for Extraordinary Living. Welcome to the show.
N.S.: Thank you. Nice being here.
M. H.: Tell us a little bit about why you decided to write this book.
N.S.: Well, Life Medicine started out as a collection
of readings and exercises I put together for a course called “Life” which I
taught for seven years at the
M. H.: Was the course actually called “Life”?
N.S.: It was actually called “Life.”
M. H.: I hope it had a course description with it!
N.S. It certainly did. After a class ended, I would often get notes and letters from students telling me they were grateful for the course and that it had changed their lives. They would also tell me that their parents wanted copies of the textbook, which was called Life Medicine, that their grandparents had seen the book and picked it up and wanted to read it from cover to cover, and that many of them, even after they had graduated and were out in the world were returning to its pages again and again.
So, in other words, it became clear to me that more people than college students were interested in the articles and exercises in Life Medicine.
M. H.: Let’s read a little bit from the preface because that describes a little bit about what the book is about.
N.S. “We all want to be happy--to live the fullest, richest lives we can. But, what is a happy, successful life?
If we flip on the TV, success is characterized as the
emergency-room ‘doctor’ rescuing toddlers from auto wrecks or the last survivor
voted off the Australian outback. If we turn to the sports page, happiness
looks like the red Porsche and multi-million-dollar hacienda of a
From the pages of The Wall Street Journal, ending up as CEO of a computer-software conglomerate looks like a route to fulfillment. In the pages of People, success is measured by a bestselling book or pop album.
Prestige and excitement, wealth and fame, drop-dead looks and power, all are fine--and, in themselves, often temporarily satisfying. But, still, we’re aware that Nobel-Prize winner Ernest Hemingway and rock star Kurt Cobain both died of self-inflicted shotgun blasts; that lottery winners often say they were happier before they hit the jackpot; that a gambling addiction got Pete Rose booted off the baseball diamond; that well-known cover girls have suffered from eating disorders; that there are politicians and business moghuls who succumb to risky pastimes to fill a void that power has not satisfied.
How ironic that our schools teach us how to take square roots, diagram sentences, market Pampers, program in Java, or design aircraft engines, yet often fail to expose us to the wisdom from diverse cultures on how to live passionate, fulfilling, responsible lives over the long haul.
Life Medicine: Wisdom for Extraordinary Living draws on contemporary and ancient sources to guide us through the process of knowing ourselves and, eventually, reaching out to serve the world in a way that is unique to us.
Whether we are artist or reformer, helper or thinker, adventurer or peace-maker, powerbroker or nurturer, the authors and exercises within these pages suggest what attitudes we might cultivate, what steps we might take in order to discover who we are, what we truly want, what we are capable of, what we must risk on ‘this road we call our life.’”
M. H.: Perfect. That’s a great setting for this interview. I wanted to ask you … you mentioned that the reason you wrote this book was that you were teaching a class called “Life” to college students and that others seemed to be interested in the material.
But, why teach a class called “Life”? Was there a lack? Did you see a lack of information being brought? Is there a lack in our culture?
N.S. It used to be that students, all students, took courses in literature and mythology and psychology and philosophy and religion, the sorts of courses that covered the information that’s in the “Life” class.
But what I’ve discovered working with students the last ten, twenty years is that many of them are on their way to wonderful careers and they feel satisfied as far as their job pursuits but many of them come to me and say “there seems to be something missing,” that there had to be something more meaningful.
And, as I heard this over and over again, I thought, well, why don’t I put something together for those who often don’t have time in their curriculum to take many courses in literature or psychology or philosophy, but would like something?
So, this is a course that brought together students from all walks of the university. I had students from CCM [College Conservatory of Music]. I had architecture students, engineering students, MBA students—the whole, rich mix, which made for an exciting class.
M.H.: Wonderful. Talk a little bit about our culture. What does our culture lack that the Eastern cultures seem to provide? You’re right; I agree with you that most college students, even high school students—when they talk about what they want to do with their life, they talk about what they want to do with their career life; it’s not what I want to do with my entire life.
M.H.: Talk a little bit about why we are like that, why our culture is like that.
N.S.: Well, just to give you a little background. My training is rather eclectic. I’ve been trained in American Studies which has allowed me to take a close look at the culture and be able to analyze what’s going on and also, having training in the field of East / West Psychology, I’ve been exposed to the way other cultures look at how to live life well.
Some of the things that I have noticed in our culture is that, first of all, we live in a culture that is addicted to constant activity and frequent distractions.
Yet research shows that periods of slowing down, periods of spending time alone are central to lives well lived. Poet Robert Bly even says that “people in a hurry can’t grow.”
N.S. So, Life Medicine explores how we can get out of the “activity trap” and how we can create sanctuaries that can lead to what Admiral Richard Byrd, who spent some time alone at one point in his career described as “moments when I felt more alive than at any time in my life.”
So, that’s one thing—the constant activity, the frequent distractions that are part of this culture.
I think we also live in a culture that hides death and pretends in a million ways that we’ll live forever.
If you’ve ever spent time out of this culture, it becomes even more apparent. I remember about four years ago walking down a street in Kathmandu in Nepal and looking off to my left and seeing a neighborhood with children playing and then I did a double-take: I looked again and there was a body lying on the ground wrapped, and besides this body were some men who were building a pyre and were about to cremate this body. And I realized death is not hidden in that culture—that it is an integral part of one’s life from the time you’re a child.
I saw the same
It’s not that way in this culture. Anna Quindlen had, in the April 23  issue of Newsweek, had a wonderful essay called “Leg-waxing and Life Everlasting,” talking about how we pretend in so many ways that we’ll be around forever.
Yet, it’s physician Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who has said, “It’s the promise of death more than any other force that can move us as human beings to grow.” I think it was Catholic monk Thomas Merton who wrote that, in considering any important decision in our life, “we must consult our death,” I think is the way he put it, “for it is that that helps us wake up to what matters most.” And that is really what Life Medicine is about—discovering what does matter most to us so that we don’t get to the ends of our lives and have regrets.
In many traditions, the central route to living well is to contemplate deeply our impermanence.
So, one of the chapters—one of my favorites in Life Medicine—is called the “Camel That Kneels at Everyone’s Gate.”
M.H.: Oh, I read this one—talk about this one.
N.S.: It actually comes from a Middle Eastern saying, “Death is a camel that kneels at all of our gates.” And this chapter examines why we don’t live fully until we know—and don’t just know in our heads—but know in our souls, know in our hearts, know at a cellular level, that our time is limited and now is the time to live and to enjoy each moment.
A couple other things about our culture—I think we live in a culture that gives us the idea, in so many different ways, that the way to happiness is to look out for #1.
N.S. My husband was telling me he was reading recently that, of the 450,000 words in the English language, the 4 used most frequently are “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.”
M.H. Oh, my gosh, that’s sad.
N.S.: Yet research shows, and I have included some of this research in Life Medicine, and there are a number of moving personal stories that demonstrate that caring for self is inextricably tied to caring about others.
The way a proverb,
I think from
And, finally, we live in a nation that is highly focused on image, that’s highly focused on status and, unfortunately, that can seduce many of us into living lives that aren’t right for us. And I saw that in many of the people I have worked with over the past 27 years.
And knowing how to step back from that in order to find out who we are and what we came here to do—which may not be what the culture suggests we’re supposed to be doing.
M.H.: I think what I enjoyed about the book too was that the wisdom you’re offering from these different cultures and different times in the world’s history allow us, not necessarily have to change our culture…
M.H.: …or go live in another culture, but be able to live simultaneously in our culture, yet find ourselves.
N.S.: And, even though I draw on other cultures—and I think it’s important (we live in such a tiny, global village that, I think to be aware of the way other people live their lives can enrich the way we live our own), but, if we look within our own culture, many of the thinkers and doers within our own culture have been saying the same things.
Thoreau often talked about, for example (and Emerson) the importance of looking within and knowing who we are, following our own drummer, realizing that we have come here to really share something unique and that uniqueness often comes not only from our interests and capabilities, but also from our woundings.
The title of this book Life Medicine was inspired, actually, by my understanding of an idea that comes out of Native American culture--that our “medicine” is our unique blending of our interests and capabilities with our woundings.
And, if you look at the juxtaposition and the intersection of those two—that’s what we have to offer the world. So, one of my favorite chapters in the book is called Out of the Mud, the Lovely Lotus Blooms.
And this is actually a saying from Chinese culture that suggests that living fully means using those things that we might initially consider of no use—our pain, our trauma, our disappointments, our problems, awkward situations that we face, misfortunes, things not going the way we wish them to, even our flaws and bad habits—in order to nourish something worthwhile.
M. H.: Yes.
N.S.: To give you an example, I once invited to talk to a class of mine a student who was about to going into hiding because authorities had alerted her that her ex-husband was about to be released from prison.
M.H.: Oh, goodness.
N.S.: And what had put him away was that he had shot her point-blank as she had held their two children on her hips.
Well, this woman would certainly not advise seeking out that sort of marriage, but she did discover her purpose as a result of it: She later wrote a book alerting dating couples to the warning signs of abusive relationships, she worked with Garth Brooks on a song about domestic violence, and addressed the issue nationally through an appearance on Oprah.
I think the way the great poet Rilke put it is, “We must always trust in the difficult” rather than running from it, because our greatest contributions often do flow from our most painful wounds.
There’s a story in the book about a schoolteacher who was stricken with manic depression. And she spent six months in a psychiatric hospital.
But when she returned home, she decided that she wanted to use this experience as a steppingstone. She had already been very successful as a schoolteacher, but she went back to school, earned her doctorate in clinical psychology and ended up designing an innovative program for college students who were suffering from depression.
And she says, “I’m happy I fell apart. It was the best education I could have. When students would come to me and tell me about black depression, tell me about screaming anxiety, I knew what they were talking about and they knew they could depend on me because I had overcome what they were now trying to overcome.”
M.H.: That’s real interesting because I was at a support group, and they brought some specialists in to talk to us about vision loss. And they said, “tell us some bad things about being blind. And tell us some good things about being blind.”
And some people were laughing and saying, “Well, I get to use the information 411 for free.” And they had all kinds of things. And I kept thinking—I had newly lost my sight—and I thought, “There’s not a god-damn thing that’s good about this situation.” And here I am nine years later and I’ve never been happier in my life.
And it’s because, before I lost my sight, I was like the college kids with my career. I was going to be a career woman and I was going to do this and that. Now, I’ve found out—I can’t say for sure, but I probably wouldn’t have been happy with that kind of a life, but I’m very happy in the life I have now.
But now I think, if I had never lost my sight, never had that tragedy, I never would have found it. So, when you’re in the situation, you can’t see it until you’ve gotten past it.
N.S.: Um, hum. I think it was James Hillman, the Jungian therapist, who says that we must realize that it is those traumas, those woundings, that are an integral part of our path. And some people would even say they were chosen, on some level, because they were necessary to do the work that we’re to do in the world.
So, to honor those rather than try to push them aside…
N.S.: and not deal with them.
M.H.: But, like you say, that’s part of our culture—we are the invincible: We’re never going to die. Disabled people are, not that they’re different, it’s that’s there’s something wrong with them.
We never want to be wounded. The books we read all tell us how to fix ourselves, rather than how to “live through” and “live with” our pain and our troubles.
N.S.: That’s interesting that you say that. Sometimes people ask me, “Well, what’s different about this book?” and that’s one of the things I say: “This is not a book about fixing ourselves. It’s really a book about honoring ourselves, including all pieces.”
And that may mean we’ll transmute something we may consider a flaw--somehow it can be transmuted into something that will be useful to the world. How we do that is one of the things Life Medicine looks at.
I see it more as a process where you have a diamond and you’re chipping away at the coal. We may be chipping away at certain behaviors or we may chipping away at certain attitudes that get in the way of us sharing our brilliance with the world.
And I think one of those attitudes is what you were referring to and that is how we perceive our blindness or how we perceive whatever it is…
M.H.: that’s holding us back.
N.S.: Yes, yes.
M.H.: Is there a portion of people that take your class or read your book—I guess I say some of the things have been extraordinary, but what of the typical person like your college students. What have they said about Life Medicine or the course “Life” because they may be too young to have gone through a trauma, or too young to have seen a lot of the world? But, what have they said about getting their focus off their career?
N.S.: Well, first, I have to say I feel very honored that I have been privy to many people’s lives, and I have been really amazed at how much wisdom 18-19-year-old, 27-year-old students, sometimes can have and what they have already been through in their lives.
The feedback that I have gotten really has run the gamut and one of the things about Life Medicine, is that, depending on where you are, you get different things out of the book.
But, feedback I’ve gotten from readers—this is the revised edition and has just been released—but feedback I got on the first edition is that “I realized I was driving down the wrong path.” One woman wrote me after the course was over, “I realized I would have died an unhappy, regretful, meaningless life.”
M.H.: Oh, my gosh. How stunning that is.
N.S.: Someone else wrote, “I’ve found the courage to be who I really am.” “I’ve learned to tap into my inner strength, my power, my capabilities.”
Someone else wrote me, “Life Medicine has prompted my spiritual and intellectual growth.”
Another said, “I learned to take risks. I’ve learned to take care of myself.”
One had a very practical impact on her life; she said, “I’ve quit drinking.”
Another said it had really challenged him to examine his core values, the core values that guided his life. And he said for the first time in life he lives “consciously,” rather than on automatic.
Another said, “It’s really made me aware of every moment and that I must live in each moment. It’s made me think in more positive ways. It’s pushed me to start focusing on what I love.”
And two people literally reported that the book saved their lives—that they had come to it feeling very hopeless and went away realizing that what they had was very precious, even the parts that they didn’t realized when they started were precious and that they were going to use them to make something worthwhile.
So, that gives you some idea of the different impacts this material has had.
There is material from 94 different authors, some very well known. Having been an English professor at one point in my life, I appreciate good writing so one of the things that was very important to me as I picked this material is that I wanted it to be material people would want to pick up and read because it was well written, it was interesting, it was fun to read, as well as having something worthwhile to say.
So, besides that, there are thousands of sidebars in this book—everyone from Aristotle to Tiger Woods.
M.H.: You cover a lot of material in the book, but I think what is unique about the book is that is very complementary in the fact that it’s got this wonderful depth of wisdom and reading material and yet, sometimes reading makes us think, but actually physically doing an exercise like those that are in the book makes us more action-oriented, more like “I’m going to take a step, I’m going to do this.”
N.S.: I think we all learn in different ways and this is something I quickly realized through 27 years of being in the classroom….
M.H.: Quickly…Quickly over 27 years!
N.S.: Yes, quickly over 27 years!
Some of us learn well by reading. But some of us learn well by doing. And we need to sift the information through our own lives. So, that’s one way I think the book is different than many books in that you not only have a lot of interesting, worthwhile material to read, but you have lots of things to do in the book.
And the feedback I’ve been getting is that it’s not something you read once and put on your bookshelf.
I just got a note
from someone who went through the book 4 years ago, now lives in
So, yes, that “hands-on” piece is something I wanted to make sure was in there.
M.H.: What story or reading was the first to be chosen for this book?
N.S.: Oh my!
It’s hard to choose. You know, being a person who reads about 400 books a year, sometimes people will say to me, “What’s your favorite book?” and my mind goes blank, there’s so many good things. It’s so hard to choose; it’s probably like trying to choose you’re favorite baby. You love all your children.
I personally had gone through a period in my life when I was trying to choose my life’s work, and I was interested in so many different things, and the chapter in the book on “What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?” really had a lot of relevance for me.
And I see this for many people. Not only those who are young and are graduating from high school, are graduating from college, but those that want to fine tune what they are doing, or those that are maybe twenty or thirty years down the road and feel that life is passing them by and there is something they need to be doing, or even those in retirement who want to enrich their retirement.
So, that chapter really hit home to me because it asks us to tap into our passions.
There is a story in this chapter
about a young man who said he was seduced by the lure of fast rivers. He grew
up in suburban
So, he decided between college
and graduate school he was going to take a year off and go to
He did, his name is Richard Bangs, he started one of the oldest adventure travel companies called Mountain Travel Sobek. He is now editor-in-chief of Expedia.com, one of the major online travel services.
He, as William James, the great psychologist and philosopher, said, was able to look within and say, “this is the real me.” As William James says, until we can look within and say, ‘Ah, this is the real me’ then we have not found our passion and will not feel truly alive. Once we do that is when we open up to all that life has to offer.
M.H. I think that is the most appropriate way to end this segment. I want to thank you so much for being with us and sharing your experiences.
N.S. Well, thank you.
M.H. Is there anything, any future plans that we have so we can hear more from you? Are you on a lecture circuit, seminars, more books, anything that we can hear more about you?
N.S. If people would like to get hold of the book, it is available at Joseph-Beth (Booksellers) or they would like to order it directly from firstname.lastname@example.org, they can just email that and I would even send out an autographed copy.
I think it’s the sort of book that no matter where you are in life you can get something out of. It is my wish, my purpose now in life, to share this information and to pass along what I feel I have been blessed to be exposed to.
M.S. Thank you so much for being with us today.