Dr. Cynthia Li - Author, "Brave New Medicine: A Doctor's Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness"
Dr. Cynthia Li
Cynthia Li, MD, graduated from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and has practiced in settings as diverse as Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, San Francisco General Hospital, and St. Anthony’s Medical Clinic for the homeless. She also volunteered with Doctors Without Borders in rural China, in a clinic focused on HIV/AIDS. Since 2012, she has had a private practice in integrative and functional medicine, and currently serves as faculty for the Healer’s Art program at the University of California San Francisco Medical School. She is a member of the American Board of Internal Medicine, the Institute for Functional Medicine, and Integrative Medicine for the Underserved (IM4US).
“The journey of healing is deep,” says Dr. Cynthia Li, whose mysterious autoimmune illness forced her to become her own expert and led her to discover a new paradigm that integrates the art and science of medicine. “It goes down to the root causes and addresses the mechanisms of disease. It is slow. It honors the pace of nature. If you’re like me, you would prefer healing to be less deep and less slow. But healing is the corkscrew path of the human condition—it spans the lowest lows and the highest highs.”
In her forthcoming memoir, Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness, Dr. Li details the disabling autoimmune illness that forces a young doctor to question her medical training, embrace the principles of integrative and functional medicine, and unlock her body’s innate potential to heal. In this revelatory memoir, Li blends the insight of a scientist with the humility and candor of a patient, drawing upon cutting-edge science, ancient healing arts, and the power of intuition to offer a fresh, new perspective for doctors and patients alike. With 15 practical steps on how to heal, fellow sufferers can find the wisdom and heart to begin their journeys, too. I’m so excited for you guys to connect with Dr. Li, check out her work and new book, and follow along!
I'd love it if you'd introduce yourself, what you do, and what you're working on.
I’m a doctor of internal medicine, living and practicing in Berkeley, California. Currently, I have a private practice in integrative and functional medicine, a paradigm that investigates the root causes of chronic disease. My first book releases September 1, 2019: Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness.
How did you get started?
I grew up in the heartland of Texas, in an evangelical community. The messages of suffering and the heaven-hell duality loomed large in my mind, and the potential to ease suffering—hell on earth—called me to become a doctor. My first passion was to work with underserved communities. After medical training, I worked at the county hospital in San Francisco, in a group treating people living with HIV/AIDS, at a clinic for the homeless, and also with Doctors Without Borders in rural China.
I’d believed this would be my long-term trajectory, until life took me down another path.
What inspired the work that you're doing?
After the birth of my first daughter, I developed an autoimmune thyroid condition. Over the next two years, my health deteriorated into severe exhaustion and persistent vertigo: what would become a decade-plus of chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia (a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system). These were conditions I not only didn’t know how to treat, but because science had no way of measuring them, I hadn’t believed them to be real. This was a double hell.
Housebound for years, I couldn’t work. After bouncing from one specialist to another without answers or hope, I was forced to rebuild my knowledge from the bottom up. I had to learn at the fundamental level what was making me sick, and also how to heal. I now practice integrative and functional medicine, which can best be summarized as cutting-edge science wrapped into ancient healing traditions.
What is your biggest passion? Do you feel like you're living your passion and purpose?
My biggest passion is nature. I love immersing myself in the wilderness, the further off the grid, the deeper the restoration. This year, my husband, daughters, and I did a weeklong river rafting and camping trip with friends in the desert canyons of eastern Oregon. No cell coverage, no electricity, rare people sightings. Just water, sun, osprey and eagles and mergansers, and the essentials. Given where my health had been, to be able to do such a trip felt like a miracle. It was against all odds.
My purpose, if I have one, is something my mentor and dear friend, Michael Lerner, reminds me on a regular basis: to learn to love better, and to grow in wisdom. I don’t purport to live this out every day, but I give it my best effort.
What is your joy blueprint? What lights you up, brings you joy, and makes you feel the most alive?
Friendship brings joy and light into my heart and mind—authentic friendships, including my husband, children, and family—where my true self sees the other’s true self.
My qigong practice, which I’ve been practicing daily for 7 years, brings joy and light into my body. Wisdom Healing Qigong is a moving meditation, focused on the integration of mind, body, and spirit, as well as integration of the self with the universe, not in a far-fetched or woo-woo sense, but in an integral sense. The cells of my body merging with the outer limits space and time, and that expansiveness merging back into my body. It is a transformational practice that goes beyond what science can explain.
How do you live intentionally? Are there tools/resources/practices that you rely on to help you stay mindful and grounded?
Qigong helps me live with intention. So does regular prayer (although moving meditation and prayer, for me, are completely woven into each other).
In the past, whenever I felt an uncomfortable sensation or a frightening symptom, my reflex was to detach. Either through mind-over-matter techniques, or with medications to mask the symptoms. But symptoms, I learned, are the body’s way of communicating that something isn’t balanced, that something needs to change. And we can’t heal something we’re disconnected from. Whenever I feel a symptom now, I consciously move into my body and ask, What’s my body saying? This also grounds me.
What would your younger self think about what you're doing now?
She couldn’t have imagined the way I practice medicine now, to say nothing of my having written a book (I hadn’t written creatively since my senior year in high school, and was eager to place out of college English). The way I practice medicine isn’t just different in its application of science, but also in the art of healing.
What I mean is, several years ago, a friend taught me how to develop my intuition. Intuition, it turns out, is like art or music: some are born with a gift, some have greater challenges, but most fall under the large part of the bell curve; no matter where we start, we can all further develop it. Just as two eyes allow us to see with more depth and breadth, intuition—using the right brain—together with analytical thought—using the left brain—allows me to “know” with more depth and breadth.
My younger self would have been much too skeptical of this. Nothing opens the mind like desperation.
Do you have a go-to mantra or affirmation?
A single word: One.
What is your biggest dream?
I don’t have “goals,” per se. I know better now than to plan out my life. But I have “imaginings.” I like to visualize myself a hummingbird, flying through the sky, sipping nectar from flowers of all different colors, frolicking in the spray of a garden hose, in the manner that Aldous Huxley so beautiful said: Live lightly, child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
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