As a teenager in northeastern Ohio, I was in great physical shape. I played competitive tennis, ran five miles a day, shoveled mounds of snow in the winter, and cut 20 lawns a week with a hand mower during the warm-weather months. Then, at age 17, I developed knee pain after skiing for the first time down the icy slopes of Maine. Over the next 13 years, the pain progressively worsened, but conventional orthopedic medicine could neither cure nor even diagnose my problem. Motivated by this dilemma and the complex underpinnings of my pain, I set out on a healing quest.
After completing a BA at Tufts University, my healing journey led me to medical school at Case Western Reserve University in hometown Cleveland. CWRU was just the right place for me. For the first two years, it provided me with an excellent basic medical education while giving me the freedom to explore my deepening interest in natural healing forms—especially Tai Chi, acupuncture, and acupressure massage.
Then, after a year of intensive hospital-based clerkships, I put on my backpack and headed eastward for a 1½ year journey around the world– living, working, and learning from courageous, wise, and openhearted physicians and indigenous healers.
My teachers included brilliant academics in urban medical centers in London, Tel Aviv, and Taipei and gifted Tai Chi teachers and traditional acupuncturists quietly practicing their arts nearby; beloved family physicians working with beautiful tribal people and displaced refugees in the mountains of southern India and northern Israel, and local shamans whose psycho-social and spiritual work seamlessly complemented their physician friends. There was an emergency room doctor in Portland, Maine who performed laying-on-of-hands healing on the sly; a Philipino cardiologist who ran his impoverished small town hospital with love; a traditional Tibetan doctor who shared his ancient healing system with me and asked for my help treating the tuberculosis epidemic in his refugee camp; and a Gazan internist who risked his life to get medical consults and free supplies from our mutual Israeli mentor.
My life opened, my mien calmed, and I was changed forever.
Toward the end of the journey, while being treated for my knee pain and seasonal allergies by a London acupuncturist named Fred, he asked if he could try out a new technique he was learning. “It’s called Craniosacral Therapy, and it’s very relaxing and gentle,” he said.
Trusting him implicitly, I complied.
Fred put his hands on my head. His touch was soft and soothing—completely non-invasive. Within a few minutes I found myself spontaneously sighing as my chest relaxed and expanded. I hadn’t even been aware that it was tight and that my breathing was constricted. The effects lasted until the next day, when I walked into the hospital where I was studying neurology.
The following week Fred worked on my head again for a few minutes, and the same thing happened. This time my chest stayed expanded and relaxed for three days.
The next treatment was my final one, as I was about to leave London. This time the chest-opening effects of the Craniosacral Therapy lasted five glorious days.
At this point my vision for a future medical/healing practice was still unclear. I loved the idea of having portable healing skills that could be useful to others. I thought that perhaps I’d want to travel the world as an itinerant doctor, helping local people and fellow wanderers with the nuts and bolts kind of skills possessed by a good family physician.
But I also imagined working in a purely natural way— freed of the dependency on technology and pharmaceuticals that physicians everywhere had. Fred, with his Chinese pulse diagnosis, acupuncture, and newfound Craniosacral Therapy, the Tibetan doctor who used Tibetan pulse diagnosis and herbs, and the tribal shaman in the jungle in south India who went into a trance and channeled the tribe’s god— each of these men mastered a natural form of healing. Yet I wasn’t yet clear on which path was right for me.
I decided to ground myself in conventional family medicine and completed a three-year residency program at the University of Maryland Hospital. It was a grueling ordeal, but it was the right place for me to be, as the intensity of the experience helped me mature in ways I might not have been able to do otherwise. It also gave me the practical experience dealing with suffering, trauma, and death that can perhaps only be obtained in such a context.
By the end of my second year of residency, however, I clearly understood that my heart’s calling was elsewhere. Synchronistically I heard about an upcoming workshop in Craniosacral Therapy (CST) taught by John Upledger, an osteopath who was in the process of bringing this once-secretive work out into the public. With my residency director’s blessing, I signed up.
Two months later, in a crowded hotel room in West Palm Beach, Florida, I began what was to become a life-transforming long weekend. John began the training with some theoretical background material on Craniosacral Therapy interspersed with lively stories from his decades as a practicing physician.
Then came the hands-on portion of the training, which John introduced with a profound and revolutionary piece of guidance: “For the next four days,” he said, “relax your critical minds. Let go of your analytical, left-brained thinking, and trust your intuition and your hands.”
This was the antithesis of my whole formal education—from my childhood through the present moment. While I loved the idea, I didn’t have any idea how to just shift gears and do it.
Discombobulated, I watched John demonstrate a basic CST technique. From the outside it looked like nothing was happening. However, based on my treatments with Fred, I knew that most of what was happening was invisible to the naked eye.
“Now it’s your turn,” he told us. “Practice on each other using four grams of pressure.”
At that moment, I felt both clueless and inadequate. Receiving a treatment was one thing. Doing the work was another. I had no idea how to gently use my hands to sense subtle motion and help someone feel good.
However, I took John’s advice to heart, and I told my critical thinking to take a hike. The results were amazing. My partners, who were health professionals of all kinds as well as lay people, relaxed, slept, and had colorful visions. Then they told me how good my touch felt.
After so many years of languishing in a hypercritical and judgmental environment, it was difficult to take in their support and encouragement. I needed to prove to myself that I could use my newfound healing tools — my hands — in the “real” world.
I didn’t have long to wait. Three days after returning from the workshop, my weekly family medicine clinic wasn’t busy, so I offered CST sessions to a few of my physician instructors. With a little prodding, two friendly but uptight, white male doctors agreed to let me work on them. One after the other, they lay on an exam table and let me touch their heads for 10 anxiety and tension-filled minutes. Then, like clockwork, each of them jumped off the table and ran back to work, stating he’d felt nothing except perhaps a little relaxation.
I felt deflated and invalidated. I began questioning anew whether I could do such subtle work. A few minutes later, one of my regular elderly patients, Clarence, walked into the clinic. He was a strong yet gentle African American who had lived through immense physical and emotional suffering, and we had a warm, mutually respectful relationship.
“Doc, my head’s killin’ me since yesterday,” he groaned. “I got feverish and all stuffed up from a cold, and now my face hurts and my phlegm’s all green and thick.”
I examined him and quickly diagnosed his acute sinus infection. Then I wrote prescriptions for an antibiotic, an antihistamine, and a nasal spray– the side-effect laden and often ineffective conventional treatments for his painful condition. “Here’s a two week supply of medicine. They should help you feel better soon.” I recited the party line as I handed Clarence the prescriptions, hoping that at least the drugs would do no harm and that perhaps they’d help.
Then, before he could turn to go, I took a risk and did something I had never done before. “Clarence, I just finished a four day workshop learning a technique called Craniosacral Therapy. It’s a gentle way to release pain and tension using my hands. It shouldn’t have any bad side effects if it doesn’t work, but maybe it will help you. The front desk has you scheduled to see me for another 40 minutes. Want me to try it?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Sure! What do you want me to do, Doc?” “Take everything out of your pockets and lie with your face up on the exam table.” I grabbed a chair and sat down at the end of the table by his head. Then, trying to replicate what I’d learned in the workshop, I placed my hands on his forehead. With more intention than physical force, I magnetized his frontal bone and lifted toward the ceiling.
“Doc, I’m breathin’ again!” he exclaimed. “Just keep going,” I encouraged him, not knowing what was going on but sensing that we were on the right track. “Whoa! I see this bright light in my head. It’s gettin’ warmer and bigger, and my head feels better and better.”
A few minutes later I followed my intuition and shifted my hand position, placing one hand over his heart and the other behind it. It was so effortless. Clarence’s chest softened as his tight muscles seemed to melt in my hands. His breathing deepened. “Oh man! I feel like I’m on a magic carpet, flying through the sky. The higher I go, the sweeter the air smells. Ahhhh.” He groaned with joy and sobbed. Then he drifted off to sleep.
Clarence awoke feeling euphoric. “Gosh, Doc, I haven’t felt this good in years. I feel really happy!” He paused. “My sinuses feel much better, too.” He left the clinic with the three prescriptions, but he never filled them.
With that treatment, Clarence initiated me as a healer. Though I still didn’t know what I was doing, working with Clarence gave me the confidence to continue moving through the uncharted territories that lay before me— to continue practicing and learning the work that has become the core of my practice as a healer.
Meanwhile, I began receiving weekly treatments from a gifted massage therapist who was a senior student of John’s. These sessions not only helped heal my chronic knee pain, but they opened me up to the richness of my own inner world— the world of unconscious images and imagination– from which I had long been cut off.
During the subsequent year I finished my family medicine residency and began working part time in emergency rooms, both to pay bills and to hone my conventional medical skills. At the same time I passed my specialty exams and became board certified in family medicine. This was my completion— my goodbye to the practice of conventional medicine, a system that had given me innumerable enriching experiences and opportunities over the preceding nine years.
It was time to follow my heart.
In 1986 I set up a private healing practice centered around Craniosacral Therapy and dove into my next cycle of professional training. I studied more advanced aspects of CST with John and the wonderful massage therapist who healed my knee pain. Then I trained with a gifted healer named Barbara Brennan, developing my empathic ability, learning about energy work and emotional healing, and opening further to the richness of human potential—mine and others’.
This amazing journey continues to this day. I never know who will serendipitously appear in my life or what unanticipated gifts they will bring. And I feel blessed to be able to live a life that feels authentic and in harmony with my deepest values.
Getting back to answering the question that began this discourse—what I’ve given up has been negligible compared with all the blessings I’ve received. Thank you.
Dr. Ron Wish, whose Hebrew name, Yitzchak, means laughter, is a warm, caring teacher, trained in both modern medical science and complementary spiritual healing. Ron is married to a gifted psychologist, father to three wonderful children, and companion to a lovely german shepherd who mothered many seeing-eye dogs before joining the Wish family.
Ron Wish, MD is approved by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) as a continuing education approved provider - number 451491‑10. The Great River Craniosacral Therapy Institute is approved as a sponsor of continuing education for physical therapists & physical therapy assistants by the New York State Education Department, Office of Professions.
© Ron Wish, M.D., All rights reserved, 2019
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