The Natural Evolution Podcast

Season 1

Episode 5

S1E5 – Releasing the Need To Control with Dr. Cynthia Li

As a physician, Dr. Cynthia Li wanted to help people feel better.  What she didn’t expect was a health crisis that defied explanation.  It wasn’t until she was able to connect to her body and energy that the healing could begin.

Cynthia Li, MD, is a physician and bestselling author of Brave New Medicine, a very personal memoir of her healing journey through a disabling autoimmune condition that took her from conventional medicine in public health to integrative, functional, and intuitive medicine. She also serves as faculty for Rachel Remen’s Healer’s Art program at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, where she shares her hard-won wisdom with medical residents in training. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and Psychology Today. 

http://www.cynthialimd.com/

https://www.facebook.com/dr.cynthia.li

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Cynthia Li MD

Dr. Cynthia Li

About our Guest

Cynthia Li, MD, is a physician and bestselling author of Brave New Medicine, a very personal memoir of her healing journey through a disabling autoimmune condition that took her from conventional medicine in public health to integrative, functional, and intuitive medicine.
 
She also serves as faculty for Rachel Remen’s Healer’s Art program at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, where she shares her hard-won wisdom with medical residents in training. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and Psychology Today

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Podcast Transcript

Hello, and welcome to the Natural Evolution, produced by Rebel Health Tribe, a radio show focused on providing you with inspiration, education, and tools for true healing and transformation. I’m Michael and I’ll be your guide on this adventure as, together, we explore the very nature of the healing journey. I am here with Dr. Cynthia Li. Dr. Li, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Michael:

Hello, and welcome to the Natural Evolution, produced by Rebel Health Tribe, a radio show focused on providing you with inspiration, education, and tools for true healing and transformation. I’m Michael, and I’ll be your guide on this adventure as, together, we explore the very nature of the healing journey.

Michael:

We’re live. I am here with Dr. Cynthia Li. Dr. Li, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Cynthia Li:

It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Michael:

Yeah. This is going to be very fun and interesting. We’re probably going to go to some cool places that will not touched on the other episodes. So before we get started, I just want to give you a little intro. Dr. Cynthia Li is a physician and bestselling author of Brave New Medicine, a book that actually sits on my nightstand, a very personal memoir of her healing journey through a disabling autoimmune condition that took her from conventional medicine and public health to integrative, functional, and intuitive medicine.

Michael:

She also serves as faculty for Rachel Remen’s Healer’s Art program at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, where she shares her hard-won wisdom with medical residents in training. I want to ask you a question about that later, so I’m going to leave this bookmarked. You mentioned that you had a journey from conventional medicine and public health through to integrative and functional medicine towards intuitive medicine. That didn’t happen overnight.

Cynthia Li:

No.

Michael:

So I’m curious. I guess the first question would be what drew you to medicine in the first place? Did you want to be a doctor when you were growing up?

Cynthia Li:

First place, no. I was quite lost actually as a child. I mean I was a second child of four. My parents were first-generation immigrants from China and Taiwan. There was very much this culture of love, but it was kind of indirect and more formal. The Chinese culture just didn’t express affection very directly. I grew up in an evangelical community in Texas and, again, the teachings were all about love and the community was very loving, but this notion of God and heaven and hell, it loomed very, very large. Hell loomed, very large for me in my upbringing.

Cynthia Li:

I had a lot of fear. I was also a very sensitive child, so I felt like I was just kind of barely getting by in life. So I didn’t have a lot of dreams. In some ways, it felt kind of accidental. But I, by default, went to college because I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. It was the local school. It was the University of Texas. At that time, literally, it was a postcard in the mail if you were in a certain top percentage of your class. So I went. And it was there. It was 50,000 students from all different backgrounds.

Cynthia Li:

I started taking classes and really getting engaged with them. I should say also I fell in love for the first time. So it’s the first time I was not invisible. I grew up in a very white community in Texas. So suddenly, people saw me. Guys saw me, and I had my first boyfriend. So I was totally in love. I have to say that the opening to love also translated into I sort of loved what I was learning. So I kind of dove deep into the subject matters and thought I was going to become a linguist. I was really good at foreign languages.

Cynthia Li:

I was studying Russian at the time and I was reading Tolstoy in Russian. So I was just like, “Oh, I’m going to do something with languages.” I was also very fascinated by the classics, Latin, Greek, ancient wisdom, which at the time I didn’t realize that’s what it was, but I was really interested in ancient wisdoms. That’s what I thought I was going to do. Then it was a science elective. I took organic chemistry only because my racquetball partner, she was pre-med. She would play with these little 3D structures. They looked like tinker toys. I just thought, “I’ll just take it for that.”

Cynthia Li:

I didn’t know it was a weed-out class for pre-med students. I didn’t know anything about it. I loved it. Not only loved it, but I thrived in it. So it was the first time I began to realize that science also was a language. It was really a language about union and coming together and then merging with a larger tapestry and then kind of coming together. It was just this kind of constant … It was literally like forming words. So that’s what brought me to medicine.

Cynthia Li:

I have to say the other thread that was a little bit invisible was this existential fear that I had grown up with, with heaven and hell, was how do we reduce suffering? Or how do we reduce hell on Earth? What the hell’s going to happen to my soul? I went into the halls of medicine to look for those answers about the human condition and about alleviating suffering.

Michael:

That’s interesting. You stumbled upon organic chem. That is not a cake walk class. That was involved in my master’s program. And it was probably the hardest class that I took. You just stumbled into it to play with tinker toys, and it ended up being something that came pretty easily to you or natural to you. It was fascinating and interesting. You were in Austin?

Cynthia Li:

Yes.

Michael:

Yeah. Beautiful. It’s a beautiful campus there. I’m a fan. Languages are fascinating, too. I am struggling through beginner Italian right now. That’s another interesting angle to go at life from. I’ve never heard that analogy made before, that science is a language. I’ve heard it with mathematics, and there’s a lot of math in science. But it really is. It’s kind of the language of nature. So you went into that.

Michael:

Medical-wise, did you have any idea when you were going through medical school and doing everything that entails with medical school, post-medical school, residency, stuff like that, did you know of aspects of integrative medicine or other forms of medicine, like-

Cynthia Li:

No.

Michael:

… Chinese medicine or anything else at all? It was just straight Western medicine?

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. What was interesting about my family is that my grandmother, my maternal grandmother was a doctor in Taiwan, in China before that, but also in Taiwan when they moved there. She was a Western doctor. So it was really unusual for women even, at that time, to go to college. But she went to college. She had an older brother who was really prescient in everything and he said, “If you study well, you should go to medical school. If you go to medical school, you should study Western medicine. It’s the medicine of the future.”

Cynthia Li:

So what was interesting was that she actually excelled and became an OB/GYN as well as a pediatrician. They kind of had this dual specialty there. But she was very, very skeptical of anything beyond hard science, so I was raised in that. And then the evangelical community, that’s very black and white. So I was raised in a very concrete, analytical framework. When I went into medical school, the only exposure I had to anything that was alternative was my younger brother had acupuncture when he was a young kid for a condition that just didn’t respond to anything else.

Cynthia Li:

He actually responded. We thought it was more that he was afraid of the needles and so it was this placebo effect that he was really motivated to heal his condition. But, really, that was it.

Michael:

Interesting. Your health crisis, too, first one, very long. It came on. You were practicing medicine. What type of medicine? Did you have a specialty?

Cynthia Li:

Internal medicine. So I was a specialist in chronic conditions.

Michael:

Interesting. I know a bit, but everybody else doesn’t. So what were your first onset? When did you know something wasn’t right?

Cynthia Li:

Well, it came really when I thought I was at the top of the world. I had been married. We had just had our first child. We had taken, also, a trip around the world. Before I got pregnant, we had taken a six-month trip around the world with no itinerary. It was the freest point in my life up until that point. It was just, oh my God. The world is our oyster. Let’s go. I was just a few years out of residency. I felt like I was mastering my calling.

Cynthia Li:

So it was three months after my first daughter was born that I started feeling really off. It was heart racing, palpitations, lightheadedness. Of course, most people just said, “Well, you’re postpartum. This is totally normal. Of course, you’re tired.” I went through a long period of denial until the symptoms got bad enough. And then I realized that I had an autoimmune thyroid condition. So that was the beginning of that.

Michael:

So it was autoimmune thyroid, like Hashimoto’s?

Cynthia Li:

Yes. So in the postpartum period, it’s technically called postpartum thyroiditis, but it’s the same pathophysiology. Yeah.

Michael:

Okay. So you had fatigue and heart palpitations and things were just off. At first, did you start with a … I don’t even honestly know what the conventional approach is to that condition, but …

Cynthia Li:

I went. I did what a lot of people would do and, also, certainly what a doctor would do. I found the top-notch endocrinologist, the thyroid specialist at an academic institution and saw him. There are medications. Initially, I was overactive, and there were medications to kind of help suppress the symptoms, slow the heart rate down to help me sleep. And then I fell underactive. So there were supplements to support my thyroid.

Cynthia Li:

Unlike chronic Hashimoto’s, postpartum thyroiditis often resolves in about a year. So that’s what happened to me, at least numbers-wise. My numbers normalized. I tapered off my levothyroxine. But I still actually had the symptoms. I still felt pretty much the same as I had-

Michael:

Fatigue and-

Cynthia Li:

… for the rest of the … Yeah.

Michael:

And then this became much more severe, as I know from … Those who don’t know, my wife has multiple autoimmune conditions, and when she was at the worst in her most recent flare, she read Dr. Li’s book. I would get daily updates from what she read. She was narrating it for me as she was going through it. But so I know this became very severe. Was there fear or was it frustration?

Michael:

When things kept progressing and getting worse and you were feeling worse, how did that feel? What was your experience of that? Now, we talked before we were on air a little about you’re the doctor. You’re not supposed to get sick. So I’m sure there was that component to it too. But I mean that’s scary. I’ve been through it now and it’s scary.

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. Well, so the way it happened with me was that the symptoms of not sleeping and having heart racing, that didn’t progressively get worse. It actually started getting better. I was still completely functional at that point. My husband, our young daughter, she was two years old at the time, and I took a trip to Beijing. My parents had moved back to China, and we went to visit them. And I had a, I call it a sudden disturbance. But we were in a dumpling house in downtown Beijing.

Cynthia Li:

I had a sudden episode where this energy shot through me. My heart started pounding, and I lost consciousness. So when I came to I was in an ER in downtown Beijing, and I woke to this body that I didn’t actually recognize. My whole body was inflamed, in pain, totally weak. And then I was in perpetual vertigo. I didn’t know, of course, at that time, but that was the abrupt onset of what would be 10 pretty grueling years of chronic fatigue syndrome, dysautonomia, where the autonomic nervous system’s really out of whack. I kind of went from like-

Michael:

Better, better, better, bam.

Cynthia Li:

… very sudden. Yeah. So the fear was tremendous, and it was very sudden as well. Beyond the physical crisis and even the medical crisis, which I wrapped fear into that, was a real existential crisis because the longer it continued, the more I went to see specialist after specialist after specialist and the more I could not answer my own questions. I was always questioning, is this in my mind? it was really an existential question and crisis because I didn’t fit into my own paradigm of what reality was.

Cynthia Li:

I have to say, I stayed there for a long time until I became desperate enough to realize that I had to try differently and I had to think differently. So it was not enlightened, by any means. It was definitely through the back door, having my arms pinned, literally, actually to the bed and figuring out how to start from square one.

Michael:

Wow. How long were you in Beijing for after that happened? Did you come right back or did you stay there for …

Cynthia Li:

Well, we had a flight three or four days later.

Michael:

Oh, wow.

Cynthia Li:

I was terrified because it was a 13-hour flight. I had my first modified panic attack on that plane. But you know what? I made it, I made it back. I was really glad to have been … I just wanted to be in my bed with a medical system that I understood. But yeah. It was crazy. I think I didn’t know how … Again, I was ignorant at the time. I didn’t know how severe things were.

Michael:

Or would get or how long it would last or-

Cynthia Li:

Right.

Michael:

Yeah.

Cynthia Li:

So I did get on that plane and I’m actually glad I got on it.

Michael:

So you took a pretty conventional approach to trying to get well for a while.

Cynthia Li:

Yes.

Michael:

If they’re unfamiliar with the conditions you’re describing, this is debilitating. You have a little girl and a new career, and you’re unable to be mom or doctor.

Cynthia Li:

Right. and I should add one other critical piece to that was when I was in the ER in Beijing, I also learned that I was newly pregnant with my second child. So I’m also pregnant.

Michael:

Pregnant and mom and doctor and can’t get out of bed.

Cynthia Li:

Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So it was terrifying. There were really, really dark times where I just thought, “I can’t actually tolerate this anymore. I just can’t tolerate it.” But I was pregnant, and I had a young kid. My role as a mother is actually what kept me from making certain choices that I don’t know what would’ve happened had I not-

Michael:

Because this went on about 10 years, correct?

Cynthia Li:

Yes. I would say it was kind of like this, but it was overall slowly up. Yeah.

Michael:

Or slowly better over 10 years?

Cynthia Li:

Well, yeah. Because over those 10 years, I’m also then learning-

Michael:

Learning new things to do and-

Cynthia Li:

… learning about functional medicine. What is that? And yeah.

Michael:

Hey, if you’re enjoying the show, make sure you head over to rebelhealthtribe.com/kit, that’s K-I-T. And grab the RHT Starter Kit, which includes a sampler of four free videos from our professional master classes and webinars, the RHT Healthy Sleep Guide, the Wellness Vault Coupon Book, which will save you money on all of our favorite health-related tools and resources, a professional product guide, and a coupon for 15% off your first order in our shop. That’s rebelhealthtribe.com/kit, K-I-T, and you’ll get all that delivered right away.

Michael:

Also, if you’re on Facebook, we’ve got a fun, engaging, and supportive group over there as well, with thousands of health seekers, just like yourself. Just search for Rebel Health Tribe and you’ll find us. Thanks for listening, and now back to the show.

Michael:

What was your first introduction there? So how long was it from the onset until you started to look at integrative or functional approach, like start hearing about or learning about or exploring those things? Was it pretty quick, like I need to find a way to get better? Or was it like, is there anything out there that can … and you just were at a desperate point where you started to …

Cynthia Li:

My entry into that was an acupuncturist.

Michael:

Okay.

Cynthia Li:

I really didn’t know anything about … I mean as far as I knew about Western medicine, it was just what I had been trained in, I didn’t know integrative and functional medicine. I also didn’t look. I was really not wanting to be online and digging stuff. From where I was, the more I looked, the more fear I had. I felt paralyzed by the amount of information. So I actually sought out an acupuncturist that was recommended to me by a really, really good friend who was in acupuncture school. So he was my entry into it. Bob Levine, and he’s still practicing. I think he’s near retiring now.

Cynthia Li:

But he became not just my acupuncture, but really a mentor. Each time when I was really at my low and I was very brittle, I went and saw him for treatments every week. He was always actually kind of checking in saying, “There’s some really gentle Qigong practices you could do.” I was like, “Qigong, whatever. I’m just going to come see you every week.” I would do herbs. I was doing herbs. But I was then slowly, slowly learning about root causes, and I would say the other way in was environmental health.

Cynthia Li:

I had been doing some environmental health research and advocacy when I was pregnant the first time, really becoming aware that there’s chemicals in the environment that are harmful. So the environmental health got me into much more of an ecological paradigm of health of how to approach my body, like, “My body is an ecosystem.” How do I begin to think of my body in terms of systems? Which is really how to address these chronic complex conditions, like dysautonomia and chronic fatigue syndrome. So it was very step-wise like that.

Cynthia Li:

It wasn’t until I was actually ready to think about going back into clinical medicine, I mean very, very part-time. But I was like, “How do I integrate what I’ve learned? Short of going to four years of traditional Chinese medicine school, how do I begin to incorporate what I’ve learned into clinical practice? What does that look like? I started shadowing different alternative MDs. One of them said, “It sounds like you’re really interested in functional medicine.”

Cynthia Li:

So when I was finally able to take a short trip down to LA, there was a foundational course in functional medicine by the Institute of Functional Medicine. That was my real intro. I remember sitting there. I was barely able to sit through even two or three hours a day of the lectures. But at the time, it was still relatively small. There were probably about 100 people in the-

Michael:

Do you remember who your teacher was?

Cynthia Li:

Well, there’s multiple. Mark Hyman was the opening speaker. But some of the core faculty of IFM were there. I was like, “Oh my God. I don’t have to figure out this paradigm. It’s been worked out.” People have been practicing this-

Michael:

Having to learn something is different than having to create it.

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. And having to apply it to somebody within a fixed timeframe. So then, of course, as I was studying that I was also learning more about my own health and how do I navigate that? So what happened was I went from having very little to no options in conventional medicine to having infinite options in functional and integrative medicine. I actually became very overwhelmed. My system was very sensitive. I would take whatever protocol that they recommended, and I would crash too. So that’s actually what very, very reluctantly took me into intuitive medicine.

Michael:

What is intuitive medicine mean? What do you mean by intuitive medicine? Because there’s a lot of definitions that could float around there. I just want to get everybody on the same page.

Cynthia Li:

So it’s different than medical intuition. Again, I’m kind of learning these as I go. Medical intuition is usually when you seek out someone who’s basically clairvoyant, intuitive, who’s been trained to scan the body and to translate that into what’s going on. So my foot into the door with that was seeing a medical intuitive healer, Martine Bloquiaux. And again, with that, I was so reluctant. I was also afraid. I was really afraid.

Michael:

That’s one I still have a hard time with, and I know people will swear upside down, left, right, sideways by it. It’s like that’s where my edge is right now.

Cynthia Li:

I was very afraid. But again, I was completely desperate. So from the first time that, again, a very trusted friend, very levelheaded friend who had autoimmune stuff that she just hit a wall. She said, “You know what? She was really, really helpful.” I should say also, the person I introduced in my book, Pia Aiken, was a friend of ours who is clairvoyant, and she was the one who opened me up to the fact that everything is energy. I need to start thinking about my body as energy and not just a fixed, I don’t know, a mass of matter that’s not going to change or going to change very, very slowly.

Cynthia Li:

I already had that introduction. I was skeptical and afraid, but it was very much about that’s her, it’s not me. And then when I got desperate enough with my health, everything plateaued. I was already into functional integrative medicine. I still wasn’t getting answers. Then after a year of being introduced to the possibility of a medical intuitive and a specific one, I finally made the appointment. When I had the appointment, she scanned my body and was telling me things that I had experienced, but I couldn’t put into words.

Cynthia Li:

It was so detailed that it blew me into a new world of what was possible. Again, I had no expectations about whether it would help me or not. And then the other thing was, she gave me a protocol. I tried it. I actually crashed really bad. I gave her the feedback and she said, “Oh my God. I didn’t realize that.” What I realized also was I actually need to start being empowered in my own healing. But then from that point on actually, a lot of the protocols that she gave me were I was actually experiencing healing.

Cynthia Li:

I realized that some of the supplements that I was doing, there was a certain order that I wasn’t aware of yet. I can’t do probiotics right now, even though everyone’s like, “Hey, balance your gut flora.” Somehow I was responding negatively to it. So okay. There’s an importance in terms of sequence. So what I learned from her and also from Pia was that I can develop my own intuition. It’s like art or music. So you know what? They’re born gifted. There are musicians who are born gifted, but all of us can learn it if we practice, if we apply ourselves on a largely daily basis. So that’s what took me into intuitive medicine.

Cynthia Li:

When I say that is that I’m a functional and integrative doctor. When I come to something that feels gray or I don’t actually know which way to direct the patient, I will actually go into my intuitive. I’ll tap into that, and it feels like tapping into this, I don’t know, energetic database. It’s hard to explain. I know that it sounds a little bit crazy for people who have not been exposed to it. But there’s something that happens that we all have access to.

Cynthia Li:

And then I learned also through my qigong practice, which was another really important piece of my own healing, wisdom healing qigong I began to practice every day. So through that, I really began to experience the subtle sensations that I was receiving literally as information. The fascinating thing about energy and, again, I think of it very pragmatically. I think of it in terms of quantum science, that energy is just it’s so fluid. I was like light travels around the Earth seven times in a second.

Cynthia Li:

I thought, “Okay, if I can rationalize that, okay, it’s possible that I could receive some energetic information. If I learn how to interpret the sensations I have in my body, maybe I can apply that in my doctor/patient relationship.” So it really takes the doctor/patient relationship into a completely different dimension. What I also realized is that I think a lot of us doctors are already doing that, we’re just not aware. We’re not aware that we’re actually using our intuition.

Cynthia Li:

Because there’s a lot of times when labs and things don’t really express anything, but then doctors will be like, “You know what? I’m going to treat you for that anyways.” And then it ends up being the right path. I feel like it’s not even anything that’s different. It’s bringing me back into the kind of doctor that I thought I was going into training for when I signed up for medical school.

Michael:

Accomplishing the things that you had wanted to then, just in a way that you had no idea existed. The Qigong, for those who don’t know, I never even really know how to explain it. But it’s energy movement in the body or energy cultivation practices is kind of how I would phrase it. It comes from traditional Chinese medicine or Taoism. I think there’s a lot of different lines. What I’ve noticed personally regarding how you’re talking about this space of intuition or this access point in my own Qigong practice is that the more consistent I am and regular with the Qigong practice, it’s almost like I have more access or easier access to that as well.

Michael:

It’s where the ideas come from. It’s where the solutions come from. My experience is that I can’t will an answer out of it necessarily, but that things kind of just when I’m not trying. So that’s my interpretation of that same experience is that it’s like when I’m not trying necessarily that things come from somewhere and that the more open I am and the more I practice those types of things, the more open that door seems to be, and the things come more easily or more frequently. But the qigong you mentioned, what is the specific?

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. The lineage is Zhineng qigong. And then in English, it’s translated to wisdom healing qigong. What was beautiful about Master Mingtong is not just his teachings, but they’re available. They’re all online, even-

Michael:

Yeah. I’ve got his site bookmarked right now.

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. Seven-some years ago when I started, he was one of the very few people who was available online. So the saving grace for me was I couldn’t really get out of my house. I was largely housebound for 10 years, and it was available right then and there. I mean I had to have a lot of just commitment to do that every day. But the way I saw it, a lot of people say, “Well, how did you even do that? How did you have the …” I said, “I just thought it was a very simple choice. Either I continue with my vertigo and my fatigue, or I choose this.”

Cynthia Li:

I mean I’m at home anyways. So I want to try to focus, not just do a rehabilitation practice, but focus my mind on something that’s life-affirming rather than constantly thinking about how miserable I feel.

Michael:

Yeah. 10 years is such a long time.

Cynthia Li:

It’s a very long time.

Michael:

Her longest flare has been nine months, and that seemed like 10 years, to be honest. It’s just grueling and the ups and the downs. The day where you’re a little bit better and everything’s moving in the right direction and you feel good about it and positive and we’re going to make plans to do this thing and this thing. And then it comes screeching and halting backwards. There’s the ups and the downs and the disappointment. 10 years is, I can’t even honestly imagine it.

Michael:

That’s such an exhausting amount of time. You had to have lots of ebbs and flows of I’m never going to get better, to I’m getting better to, nope, I’m never going to get better. What was the mental process during that long of a-

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. But the thing is you don’t know. I mean I think if someone had said, “Oh, this is going to be 10 years, I mean I would have been like, “Forget it.” So you don’t know as you’re going through it. But when I finally decided, “Okay, I got to do something differently. I am going to choose to live, not just to exist, but I’m going to choose to be alive.” There was a turning point where I woke up every day and was like, “I’m just grateful for a new day. I’m grateful for a new day with my kids.”

Cynthia Li:

I mean what was hard actually was being in a relationship, was my marriage, because his expectations were still like he was waiting for me to get back to where I was, where we were when I was fully vibrant. So really learning also how to both honor his process, but also how do we find each other when we’re in a really different place? So the way I describe it is I felt like he was very forward-moving. He’s also very optimistic. So he’s always forward-moving this way. I was going down.

Cynthia Li:

I was like, “I’m going to be present. I’m going to go deeper. I’m going to go into the root issues. I’m going to go into myself.” My qigong practice, thank God, gave me a framework to go into my body, so basically going into the place that scares me the most. It was going into lots of grief, and not just around my health. I mean my health was a manifestation of all the stuff that had been shoved down from existential fear, from being a young kid to … One thread that I write about in the book too, that I haven’t spoken about, is in medical school I was engaged to the first love of my life, Kurt.

Cynthia Li:

He died when I was an intern in training. It was tremendously difficult. But I was 28 at the time, and people just kept telling me to live my life. So where did that grief go? I mean it was out of my conscious mind. I grieved him consciously as much as I could, but it just went straight into my body. So I had a framework then to begin to go gently but every day into my body, connecting to the parts that scare me. I would say one of the most profound lessons I learned was that you can’t heal something you’re disconnected from.

Cynthia Li:

A lot of meditation practices, a lot of psychotherapy, I’m all for it, but we tend to not be able to access in the subconscious. Before the call, you mentioned hypnosis. There are a lot of different modalities to access the subconscious. Actually, I had tried hypnosis twice. Didn’t really do anything for me. But it was because it was so deeply locked into my body. So that was my way to go there. But I felt supported by a framework and not just by an online program, through Master Mingtong, through a lineage that had been going on for thousands of years.

Cynthia Li:

I thought, “Okay, people have done it. People have walked this walk. I’m going to do it.” So what was fascinating and completely unexpected about that practice also, it took me back into my natal religion. I began to understand the Christ mysteries in a completely different way, like using energy in terms of healing and miracles and things like that. So I began studying again Christ and Jesus, His story, the divine feminine and piecing things together and healing a lot of the trauma that I had with what I’d grown up with and understanding heaven and hell in a very, very different way.

Michael:

Yeah. That’s amazing. The perspective shift on that, Christ and energy and divine feminine versus heaven, hell, the evangelical model couldn’t be any further apart. Your upbringing with the fear, you were scared of hell and scared of …. I was raised in Lutheran schools. It’s not quite as hardcore as evangelical in the South, but there was a fear. I had an eighth grade teacher tell me when I was doing something obnoxious in class that I was literally going to go to hell.

Michael:

I grew up in schools where that was a thing the teachers would say to children, and then you believe them. And then I grew up with this. I’m going to hell. That fear and losing someone at 28, like your first love, grief, suppressed grief and suppressed fear, and I’m sure you’ve explored all these things now. But these are things, like we spoke before we came on air and how functional medicine’s starting to acknowledge the importance of things like that.

Michael:

It’s kind of at a crossroads where it doesn’t really know what to do with it, but it knows they’re important. Now if a functional medicine practitioner hears something like that on somebody’s case history, it at least dings a bell. Conventional medicine, probably we’re still 20 years off from that being the thing. But going into the body, our whole economy and society is pretty much designed to stop people from doing that. We stay up here in the stories and the thoughts and the distractions of the grief, too.

Michael:

The first thing, like you said, I’ve read a couple books on grief. Grief is actually a doorway of mine that I found to be like a gateway to feeling really alive. The one book says in our culture, the first thing when somebody dies and you’re sad and you’re grieving is everyone tries to make you happy. they immediately try to get you back to normal. You mentioned it. You need to live your life or you need to come out with us or do this thing or move on or all this. The author of that book suggests, and I agree, that it’s because they’re uncomfortable with your pain.

Cynthia Li:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean that’s an extreme example. Maybe one example I think is more common is just parenting. A child crying, it is our desire to soothe that child. It comes out of love. It comes out of just we don’t want to see someone that we care about or someone that we don’t even know, a stranger really suffer. So I think for me the aha moment was realizing that grieving is not suffering. What is suffering is when because we’ve privatized grief in our society.

Michael:

So grieving alone.

Cynthia Li:

When you grieve alone, you risk depression and despair. It’s literally like crying, but you don’t have a lap to crawl into. so if you have this container, if you have people who are holding you who aren’t also in the middle of the same grief, they’re not mourning the same person who’s been lost. They’re not grieving what’s happening on the Earth stage or what’s happening with the environment. But that person who’s grieving can be held literally in a lap. Sometimes that lap actually can be Mother Earth. It can be just physically being on the grass and feeling held. So it doesn’t have to be a person.

Cynthia Li:

But if we can connect to that, we don’t risk despair. And then we’re also literally grieving. We’re releasing stuff that is just draining energy, I mean to say nothing of what’s doing to the physiology. But just from a more binary standpoint, it’s draining us. So I was like, “Oh my God.” I had chronic fatigue. Okay, what am I carrying around?

Michael:

You were carrying a lot.

Cynthia Li:

[crosstalk 00:37:46] around for years. Okay. Suddenly, I’m on top of the world and I crash. So I can look at it now in hindsight and say, “Well, I crashed when I was on top of the world because I had actually the space to do that.” I wasn’t going, going, going, going, going. I suddenly felt relaxed. I relaxed and then I crashed. I do have patients who say, “Oh, you know what?” When I work my butt off, I’m good. It’s when I take a vacation that I have health problems. I’m afraid to stop.” I’m like, “No, that’s actually that’s backwards.”

Cynthia Li:

You stop and you’re telling your body you have time. At some point, you will potentially crash. So we want to really prevent that from happening. So yeah, absolutely. Grief, I think is huge. It’s really, really big. We try to think it. We try to think it out. So the embodied piece is really important. So I did. I went to a few grief rituals and the rituals are what … Again, rituals are just an embodied practice. We’re moving our bodies. In church even, I was like, “We’re doing rituals.” We’re, whatever, holding our hands out like this. It tells our brain something different than if we’re just thinking about it.

Michael:

You’re from around here. Did you do grief workshops with Francis Weller?

Cynthia Li:

Yeah, I did. I did. I wrote about the first one that I attended-

Michael:

In the book?

Cynthia Li:

… in my book. Yeah. I went to a few more with him. And then I’ve done also some with some friends, actually some other doctors who are intuitive, who practice intuitive medicine in different sort of expressions of it. But yeah. Lots of ways to do grief rituals, even within a small setting as well, small private setting.

Michael:

I saw him on a online event, I don’t know, a year and a half ago maybe. He gave a presentation and it just blew me away. He blew me away. His depth of connection to the grief practices that he teaches came across in a 90-minute discussion. I watched a weekend-long thing and his was the one that stuck like that. I was like, “I need to work with that guy.” And then COVID happened and his workshop shut down, so I couldn’t go. I didn’t expect this to take that turn.

Michael:

There were two other things I wanted to … Just one, I know you had, I don’t want to call it a relapse, but you were a lot better. The Qigong practice and the grief work and embodiment practices you’d done had gotten you to a place that you probably were ecstatic to be, and life was “normal.” You were going on with these practices in place, but then symptoms started to come back.

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. Well, they came back very suddenly.

Michael:

Oh, they came back very suddenly.

Cynthia Li:

I wouldn’t say life was normal, but I was quite functional. It wasn’t normal, but it was quite functional. And then I ha second health … I call it a health awakening now.

Michael:

Was it the same experience that you had in China?

Cynthia Li:

Very different. Some of the symptoms were similar, but it came on just as abruptly. It was 2017, so about three and a half years ago in the summer. This one was, I would say, a lot scarier because back then I knew there was a lot I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I knew there was a lot I didn’t know. This one happened and I felt like I was at the forefront of internal medicine, integrative functional medicine, and I had the intuitive medicine stuff, too. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

Cynthia Li:

So I was doing the right diet. I was doing my supplements. I was doing the whole thing. Actually, that was when I had a profound return to the Christ. I had nowhere else to go. And then I went deep into my qigong practice. I also reached out to the medical intuitive again. It wasn’t even in that integrative functional medicine umbrella anymore. It was completely out in this energy field. The way I describe it is kind of like a three-month near-death experience. It was this prolonged period where I really felt like I was kind of suspended between a physical realm and whatever people want to call the soul realm. It was terrifying.

Cynthia Li:

So I realized during that time that everything I had been doing was still very much mind-based, even the intuition piece like, “I am using intuition in order to figure out what the answer is and that I hadn’t actually surrendered.” I didn’t know that I didn’t surrender until I was forced to surrender completely. What happened there was I went deep into the qigong practice, and I was practicing from my couch or from my bed instead of 30 minutes, 45 minutes a day, I was doing three to four hours.

Cynthia Li:

I mean I kind of had no … People go, What?” Some of it was I was just connecting consciously. Sometimes I was just listening to a chant by my teacher. I wasn’t physically doing the practice for three to four hours. But I realized then after a while that my healing was nothing like the 10-year laborious struggle.

Michael:

It wasn’t-

Cynthia Li:

I think everything is up and down a little bit, but it was small ups and downs, but just fast. So about three or four months into it, I started being able to get out of the house. I went to a chapel that was very close to our house just to sit and just to be quiet and to meditate. I never thought I would ever end up going back to church or whatever, a service. But, lo and behold, the priest, it was an Episcopal church just a couple of blocks away from my house. The priest showed up one day and he was just like, “Hey.” We started talking. He invited me to go to a Christmas mass.

Cynthia Li:

The Episcopal tradition also is very different than my evangelical upbringing. So I go. He invited me to give a reflection that following Good Friday, so later in the spring. By that point, I was much, much stronger, but still I felt like I don’t know what the hell is going on with my body. So I give a reflection and I’m just basically talking about all that I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m struggling with my health. I’m struggling with my faith.

Cynthia Li:

After that, it just … and I realized that to stand up in front of 100, 200 people there while I still didn’t know, I actually released a lot of the shame that I had of being a doctor who hadn’t figured it out. I don’t know. It was just an experience of complete forgiveness of-

Michael:

Yourself, yeah.

Cynthia Li:

Exactly. So the way I would describe it is maybe the first one was an awakening of the mind. And then the second one was really awakening of my heart and my spirit to something much bigger than myself. So with regard to the wisdom healing qigong practice, it was I realized that I had been very transactional before. I’m going to practice because it’s another thing that I need to do. And then I’m going to get better. As long as I’m getting better, I’m going to do it. This was really much more just about really connecting to my essence and connecting to the sun.

Cynthia Li:

So then the way that I eat food, the way that I take my supplements also feels different. So I had a certain rigidity to the way I was living my life. Everything was very carefully managed that first time. That’s why it felt difficult, but I was grateful. And then the second time, after the second time, I have a freedom in my body that I never thought I would recover.

Michael:

So the recovery the second time is different than the recovery the first time?

Cynthia Li:

Oh, completely. Yeah, completely different. It’s not to say that I don’t have more challenging days and better days. I mean I think that that just comes with life. But something happened with the fear. I don’t fear or dread the crash. Well, actually, I haven’t, knock on wood, I haven’t had a crash. But I don’t fear that anymore. I have had days that have been challenging and you know what? It’s just like, “Okay, I know what to do. You know what? This too shall pass,” and releasing the need to control. I think that’s the hardest lesson is it’s something that we usually have to learn by going through it.

Michael:

Yeah. That’s been our experience, too. There’s been so many lessons along the way that I wouldn’t have chosen to learn. People will tell you, too. People who have been through it, who’ve been further along that journey when you’re in it will tell you, and I didn’t want to hear it from them. I would get so mad when somebody would be like, “Look, you’re going to really learn things through this and this.” I just wanted it to stop. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to go back to how it was or I wanted to get … I didn’t want life to be what it was when it was like it was like.

Michael:

I just resisted. This can’t be what it is. This can’t be happening to her. This can’t be happening to us. That resistance alone from both of us was like gasoline on the situation. It fed for both of us. For me, it was mental health. It fed my depression and my anxiety and my panic attacks. That fed her flare of when I would freak out more, her pain would get worse. And then I would freak out more. And then she felt pressure to feel better or else I was going to freak out. And then it was this cycle.

Michael:

It’s like, “I’m just freaking out because I don’t want you to be in … It was this one feeding into the other into the other into the other. The final thing you mentioned is the point of when you’ve had client or patients say that when they had a second to rest is when their situation would kick into high gear. Her second flare, the first one came on really sudden and really fast, really scary, tons of pain, went to the ER. They gave her a monster dose of prednisone. The pain went away. It was gone.

Michael:

We were like, “Whew. Whatever that was, good thing that’s gone and not a thing.” And then six months went by. I went through a hellaciously insane busy, stressful period of work for three months, launching a film series that I was up all night, all morning, all day, stress, bad on the relationship, stressful for everybody. The day the launch ended where that was over, her pain came back. It was literally the first day we could relax.

Cynthia Li:

Right. The stress hormones are just keeping you going, and then they stop.

Michael:

Yeah.

Cynthia Li:

So yeah, exactly.

Michael:

I don’t look at cortisol the same way anymore as I used to, especially with conditions like this. It was the steroids that saved her life, basically in one of the flares. And then she ran a DUTCH and her cortisol sum was like two. People don’t realize that cortisol isn’t bad. Stress hormones aren’t bad. When you don’t have them, the inflammation goes out of control. And yeah, we were stressed, stressed, stressed. It comes down and … It exploded. So many lessons along the way. Your book was written in between, right, in between?

Cynthia Li:

The very, very final version of edits was due just when the second health awakening happened. So what was really interesting was that … So I had to table it. I couldn’t do it. I told my publisher, “I can’t do it.” As I was coming out of this second episode and I was coming back to writing, I said, “I can’t write this. This book isn’t complete.” Because the original version-

Michael:

Ended.

Cynthia Li:

… didn’t have any of the intuition piece in it. It was conventional medicine, functional integrative medicine-

Michael:

Better.

Cynthia Li:

… voila. I said, “This actually isn’t true because …” I’d worked also enough with patients as a functional medicine doctor to know also it was kind of black and white. This one is incomplete. This one is complete. I was like, “It’s not.” I said, “I have to actually introduce the mystery into healing.” So I added this whole other thread and I said, “You know what?” I had nothing to lose. I said, “This is actually the truer story. You can take it or leave it.” I had a really, really great relationship with them. So it wasn’t like, “Ultimatum, take it or leave it.”

Michael:

Well, yeah, because sometimes you go off-script of what the book’s supposed to be about-

Cynthia Li:

Absolutely.

Michael:

… and the publishers, yeah.

Cynthia Li:

That wasn’t what I signed the contract for. So I said, “This is the book that I would need to publish.” They said, “We love it even more.” Not enough time had passed yet beyond the second healing for me to actually understand what it was. So that part didn’t make it in there. I want to just one comment. One thing that Francis Weller at the grief ritual had said was … He said so many incredible things, but is that, “Grieving is a solitary journey that cannot be done alone.” We all have to do our grieving, unfortunately, but we’re not alone.

Cynthia Li:

We need the support of other people. I have also applied that to healing and awakening. Healing and awakening are solitary journeys that cannot be done alone. So they are done in community, but we all have to do our own. Another thing that he had said was, I think he was quoting somebody else but, “Two primary sins of Western culture, amnesia and anesthesia. We want to forget and go numb.” It’s just a human experience.

Michael:

To move away from pain and towards pleasure is a evolutionary-

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that if what we are forgetting and going numb to is our bodies, there are some serious consequences to that in terms of our health. It’s not that pleasure is a negative thing. That’s what we’re working towards is balance and harmony and pleasure, deep, deep experience of aliveness in our bodies. So when we go numb to pain, we also go numb to beauty and every other experience. So I still work with supplements. I thank God for them, herbs.

Michael:

How many hours a day now of qigong?

Cynthia Li:

Well, it’s hard to calculate because it’s really a way of life, tapping in, connecting to the qi field right now. But in terms of practice, I usually do a consciousness practice, qigong consciousness practice before dawn. And then after breakfast, I will do an embodied practice to build up the vessel.

Michael:

Beautiful. You’ve inspired me to take my qigong a little bit further. It’s one of those things that I do most days and it’s like a have-to because it’s part of my training. It’s daily qigong practice. I always feel better when I do it. I always feel good when I do it. It’s still on my list of how you were with your structure. This is a thing I have to do. I’m working to switch that to something I get to do and then be more of.

Cynthia Li:

Yeah, Beautiful.

Michael:

So thank you for that.

Cynthia Li:

Yeah. It’s like eating, it’s like nourishing my body. Another analogy I like is I’m just kind of plugging in and recharging.

Michael:

Perfect.

Cynthia Li:

It feels really good. It feels really good.

Michael:

Thank you so much for sharing so openly and so comprehensively. I feel like we got so much covered here. We’ll have all the links below, your website, cynthialimd.com. People can find you there, and the book is there and your clinic information and a whole bunch. You got great resources on there, too. I reached out to a number of the doctors that you listed on your site when Mira was really sick to communicate and kind of try to find our way. Chicenter.com is his website. I’ve got that bookmarked, and it’s beautiful. Have you been to New Mexico?

Cynthia Li:

Yes. I went there once right before the shelter in place happened. It was incredible. It was really incredible.

Michael:

Yeah. Well, I’m going to bookmark this because this looks like not a coincidence. So we’ll put his link down there too. We’ll put any links that were relevant that you talked about here. We’ll make sure that they’re down below. People can find it. Check out her book if you’re going through a healing journey yourself or if someone you care about is and you want to better understand what they’re going through. It took my wife about three weeks to get through it. I would go in and be like, “How’s Cynthia doing today?” Because she was reading your book.

Michael:

She was in a really dark place when she was. It was a really scary … This was the third time. It was more severe. She was out of work. She couldn’t be the nurse. She couldn’t be the person that she wanted to be. Experiencing the arc through her, it was an interesting third-party experience, but I was following your journey through her. It really opened her up to some things that we’ve now tried and implemented in her healing journey coming from conventional medicine herself, she’s an ER nurse, that we wouldn’t have probably done.

Michael:

We did it in the morning. We do a little qigong and she said … We’d joke about it, qi and cheese. She said, “We would be making cheese,” like plurals of qi. But then it would turn into we would make cheese in the morning is what we would call it. She would get up. She had a joint meridian-opening type of practice. She got taught with a lot of these type of movements, and it helped. So every morning, she’d get out of bed and her feet would hurt. She’d work through that. And then we would make cheese for 15, 20 minutes before we went downstairs.

Michael:

I think your book played a large part in that. So thank you. And thank you for turning your really difficult journey into a gift that you can share. It’s your medicine, then.

Cynthia Li:

Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

Michael:

Yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much. Check everything out, for real. Click down there. Go to the book. Go to the website. Go to his website. Learn all the things. Thank you so much.

Michael:

And this brings us to the end of today’s episode. Head on over to rebelhealthtribe.com/kit to access the RHT Quick Start Bundle, which includes four full-length presentations from our RHT master classes, two downloadable PDF guides, and a 15% off coupon which you can use in our retail shop. If you’re on Facebook, come join our Rebel Health Tribe group over there. And finally, if you like the show, please subscribe, leave a review, and share with your friends. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you again soon.