After two decades in the study and practice of medicine, Sarah Bamford Seidelmann took a three month sabbatical to search for a way to feel good again. Having witnessed human suffering early in her career and within her own family, she longed for a way to address more than just the physical needs of her patients and to live in a lighter, more conscious way.
Her newest book, Swimming with Elephants, tells the eccentric, sometimes poignant, and occasionally hilarious experience of a working mother undergoing a bewildering vocational shift from physician to shamanic healer. During that tumultuous period of answering her call, Sarah met an elephant who would become an important spirit companion on her journey, had bones thrown for her by a shaman in South Africa, and traveled to India for an ancient Hindu pilgrimage, where she received the blessing she had been longing for. Ultimately, she discovered an entirely different way of healing, one that she had always aspired to, and that enabled her to help those who are suffering.
A couple years ago she wrote an article for us about how to know if your business is truly a success. She’s back today with an excerpt from her new book, Swimming with Elephants: My Unexpected Pilgrimage from Physician to Healer.
Back in 2010, I took 3 months of from work. I was no longer feeling engaged at work and longed for something more meaningful but I was scared and completely unsure what I was supposed to be doing. This is a bit about my adventure. I hope it inspires you to create some space in your life to say yes to your truest calling!
Three months. That’s what I asked from my section chair. Three months completely away from my pathology duties. I was already part-time, working just a couple of days a week. I was curious what might grow in my life if I dropped just one of the “part-times” that crowded my resumé. He readily agreed. I think the wise and kind secretaries at the hospital suspected just how life-altering my sabbatical from my medical practice would be, however. When I left at the end of June, they threw me a party.
During my sabbatical, I immersed myself in Martha Beck’s life-coach training program a few days a week. Learning virtually alongside fifty other like-minded women (and a few men) was heaven. I felt much less alone. I had learned about Martha’s training program after I took a weekend life-coaching telecourse that Michele had suggested. I liked coaching my practice clients and I wanted to know more. When I dialed into a call from Martha for prospective students, I was sold.
After telling us that she had lived all her life with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)— “my brain is like a squirrel on meth and that’s why the CEO of Martha Beck, Inc. is here with me today”—she got right to the point. “If you really want to learn how to coach people,” she said, “you’ve come to the right place. Even if you don’t know why you’re here, you’ve come to the right place.” I was amazed that this Harvard-educated writer had just admitted in public that she had ADD. Was she joking? I couldn’t even tell, but I found that I really didn’t care, because I sensed that this authentic woman and her team could help me have fun while walking this new unknown path.
Martha’s band of coach trainees were smart, sensitive, and down to earth. We’d all been undergoing huge meltdowns in our respective lives—divorces, cancer diagnoses, careers dead-ending, recovery from addiction, crippling grief, mysterious illnesses, kids leaving the nest—yet we all shared a common desire. We wanted to help people who were suffering. Before we could help others, however, we first needed to sort ourselves out.
At first, three months of sabbatical freedom felt like an enormous amount of time to me. And, for once, my time wasn’t consumed by caring for an infant. I planned to use the time to focus on learning more about coaching. Inspired by my earlier interest in découpage, I also hoped to do more work with my BFF Suzi, with whom I shared a passion for interior design.
I was forty-two and, for the first time since I was fifteen, my sabbatical afforded me the rare gift of some unplanned free time. And it was summer—when happy, well-groomed, organized families leapt off docks into lakes, traveled harmoniously, planted gardens, set up lemonade stands, and went to the beach. Until this point, I hadn’t been able to do many of these things with my kids, except on scheduled vacations. Now they could finally sleep in. So could I. I welcomed this strange new leisure.
Not so fast, missy.
My mother called the house in early July to ask what exactly I planned to accomplish on my sabbatical, warning that I’d better set some clear goals or I might be disappointed. I suppressed a sigh, and tried to explain the all I’d ever done was work and accomplish things. Couldn’t I just rest for a while? Her response was to warn me how quickly the time I had would fly by.
I felt defeated that even my own mother didn’t really approve of me taking a complete break. It also annoyed me. Yet, I sensed she was right. But what else was I supposed to be doing? I had quite a bit going on with life-coach training and part-time design work with Suzi. Couldn’t I just be?
That summer, the days passed gloriously slowly, as if the Universe had held all of those sunny days when I was working in the hospital in escrow and delivered them to me in a grand payout—one big, warm, cloudless day after another. I relished each day, each breeze. Our neighbors probably thought I was nuts—standing at the bottom of the driveway, admiring the kids’ chalk art and exclaiming over the beauty of the day. It was as if I had been born again—not in a Pat Robertson way, but organically. As if a long lost part of me were waking up and coming to life.
For the first time, I was able to offer rides to other kids to and from soccer. I could begin to repay all the favors I’d received from others. This felt deeply satisfying. I suddenly understood that, when other moms had helped me out in the past, saying “no problem” or “my pleasure,” they really meant it. I drove to several of George’s games in Minneapolis with a carload of teenaged boys and it was such fun to listen to their banter and hear them belting out “All the Single Ladies” at the top of their lungs in a newly achieved lower register.
On other days, we just went exploring like life pirates. One day, I took the three younger kids to a place just up the north shore of Lake Superior—a sort of rabbit-and-llama petting zoo coupled with odd logging-camp paraphernalia, including large papier-maché loggers posed in funky logging-camp scenes. It was endless fun to watch them feed the critters, and the trading post had rock candy, agates, and jack-a-lopes. It was the kind of aimless, imaginative, idling time for which we had all been longing.
There were also dark days when I was overwhelmed with learning about coaching, keeping the house neat enough to live in, and trying to navigate the many locations for weekly soccer games, practices, and skill sessions for Katherine and George. My brain struggled to keep all these details straight. All I ever wanted to be was home and now that I was, why was it so incredibly hard?
Between soccer games, design work with Suzi, and coach-training calls, I had a little surplus time in the early morning and late afternoon when the kids were either sleeping or otherwise entertained. I began to wander outside with Buttercup, our pug. I never realized how Nature-starved I had been until now. I walked to the edge of the woods near our house and stood there, looking into the shady darkness. In the stillness, I could sense a great buzzing energy, but I wasn’t quite ready to find out what it was. Instead of going into the dark woods, I hung out in the cattails at the marsh near the edges of the woods with a bunch of red-winged blackbirds, who really were excellent company.
The marsh really began to work on me. I felt softer there, more peaceful and more myself. One day, while sitting in the grass watching the cattails bend and blow, I felt as if the wind were trying to talk to me as it softly bent the tall stalks. It was as if we were conversing—the wind speaking and I listening—although nothing specific was being said. I was just suddenly aware. I began to get the feeling—to know—that everything in Nature is alive and can speak to me. I grabbed a few minutes of video of the scene on my phone, because I didn’t want to forget it. It was comforting and also exhilarating. I wanted to know what to do about this new ability to commune with Nature; I wanted to learn more about this peculiar mode of communication.
Eventually, as the weeks rolled by, I began to wander deeper into the woods. And they began to speak to me and reveal things in their own wild way. One cold fall day, it felt as if everything were being laid bare—as if everything were full of truth. The leaves had fallen away and the grasses had withered to the ground. The chickadees were singing out their own honest cries: “Sweetie, sweetie.”
As I witnessed the pure honesty of the wild, my own untruths became more apparent to me. I needed to ask clearly for what I needed. I needed to become quiet so that I could hear. A large dead tree whose arms extended in all directions seemed to be pointing me home. A huge old pine with a mossy two-part trunk drew me in, and I began to notice that it looked like a lady buried upside down, with just her hips and legs left above ground. I became acutely aware of the season—how, as fall marched on, it became eerily silent and all the energy seemed to go underground. Faces appeared to me everywhere—in rocks and in tree trunks—and they all seemed to have different personalities and feelings. I couldn’t recall ever being so aware that everything was so alive and that it was also aware of me.
It was at this point that I had my second significant dream about animals, this one sweet. There were beautiful beluga whales nuzzling my fingers as I sat at the back of a boat. The boat was riding very low in the water and so it was a bit precarious, but the sea was calm and gentle. The message from the whales was simple:
Everything looks good. Just slow down so we can communicate with you. And try to float a little higher.
Latest posts by Sarah Seidelmann, M.D. (see all)
- Finding Your True Calling - October 3, 2017
- Riding Elephants: Knowing If Your Business is Truly a Success - July 27, 2015