Friday, October 17, 2014

This Is What You Do the Night Before the Biggest Exam of Your Life

 (Last year, on the night before the biggest exam of my life, I wrote this. It was my way of turning off my exhausted TCM brain and finding refuge in words, at least for a little while. Today, I share it for my friends who will be writing the board exam (part 1) tomorrow. I love you, I believe in you, I am so grateful to know you.) 

You don’t freak out. First and foremost, you don’t freak out.

You have studied all day, all week, all month, reviewing patterns and points, and it is ok to stop now. It is ok. It is 8pm. It is time for a glass of red. There is a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon just waiting to be uncorked. Uncork it. Let it breathe. And as it breathes, breathe along with it. Deep, unhurried breaths, like suspension points.

Yes (…) like (…) this (…). Breathe like an ellipsis.

As you breathe, place your hand on your chest and feel your heart’s rhythm regulate, its pace become slower, less of a thump and more of a throb. A heart throb. Not the kind that makes you swoon, but the kind that keeps you soft and reminds you of the precious, painful gift of being alive.

Throb (…) throb (…) throb (…).


Before you pour your glass of wine, stretch (for stretching with a glass of wine may be messy). Extend your arms high above your head and feel your spine elongate. Elongate, what a beautiful word this is. Elongate: to grow longer. Grow longer. Grow long in four directions, six directions, eight. Become longer than you have ever been. Reach beyond the ceiling, beyond the sky, to the nothing and everything of outer space. Scoop a fistful of the milky way and suck it through a straw.

Elongate your legs. Let them sink through the linoleum floor, through the ground, to the molten rock at the center of the planet, and through the molten rock to the other side.  Your legs are most likely dangling in water now. Saltwater. There are jellyfish nipping at your toes.

Now come back. Contract. And pour that glass of wine already. Drink it mindfully, as though it is the first or last glass of your life. Notice its every nuance, its layers of fruit upon fruit (blackberry? blackcurrant?) and its overtones of spice and wood. Swish it around your mouth, against the inner lining of your cheeks, wake up your tongue.

Your tongue. When you think of the word tongue you inevitably think of diagnosis. Tongue diagnosis: the art of tongue reading. You know this art. You have learned it well. You have practiced it on friends, on family, on Miley. (Yes, that Miley.) This is the part of the exam you will ace.

Ace. Ace. Ace the exam.

Forget about it. 

Sip your wine. Watch your silly cats chase after the lid of your highlighter and laugh. Laugh more. Let your laugh explode out of your throat like an exclamation point shocking your cats into stillness (!!!) just (!!!) like (!!!) this (!!!)


Laugh as long and as hard as you need to, dissolving the tightness in your belly, the tension in your head. Then, pick up your cats, if they will let you. Hold them close, letting their soft bellies rest against your soft belly. Allow the power of the purr to calm your frazzled nerves. Bury your face into their squishy little bodies and feel your heart swell the way it always does when you hold your cats, when you hug your dog, when you look into the eyes of any living creature and notice the kindness that lives there.

Look into your own eyes (use a mirror, use your phone). Notice the kindness that lives there.

Be kind. Don’t exhaust yourself with thoughts of, “I will fail.  I can’t do this.” Be kind instead. Tell yourself you have absorbed this medicine through your flesh. You have sewn it into your bones.  You have poured it into your veins and imbedded it deep inside your muscles. All you must do, at the exam, is unfurl yourself onto the test sheet. Easy.

(No. Not easy. But breathe, keep breathing.)

Now, remember. Remember how scared you were when you left your job and went back to school on nothing but a wing, a bank loan, and a long-winded prayer. Remember how irrational it seemed to many, many people who thought they knew you. Remember all of the hours (thousands and thousands of hours) you’ve spent, leaning over books and charts and diagrams and living human bodies (and, once, dead human bodies). Remember how deeply you have healed.

Be grateful.

Be grateful you are writing this exam at all, for it means that you have listened to the guidance of your heart. Be grateful that, everyday, for the rest of your life, you will practice a medicine that you are madly, deliriously in love with. Be grateful that you can place three fingers on a person’s wrist and speak the language of the Lungs. Of the Kidneys.  Of the Heart. You understand Heart-speak.  How amazing is that?

As you get up to refill your glass of wine (or to pour a glass of water because, yes, maybe now is a good time for water), feel your feet firmly planted on the floor, your soles pressing against the surface that connects to ground underneath. Notice this feeling of being connected to Earth, and tomorrow, when the thick exam booklet is placed face-down in front of you, uncross your legs, and root your feet. Feel solid, supported, steady. As steady as an ancient maple tree. 

Tree. Tree. Tree is like Wood, which belongs to the Liver, which manifests in the Spring, which responds to the colour green, which reacts strongly to Wind, which houses the Ethereal Soul called Hun, which lives in your Blood.

(See? You know this.)

Now dance, if you want to. You’ve had some wine and you’re feeling loose, and the kitchen offers a decent dance space, so dance.

Or call your Mom, if you want to. Or read, if you want to. Or write. Maybe write a piece about what to do the night before the biggest exam of your life.  Maybe write the piece and then take your own advice.

Then rest. Definitely rest. Make some tea (chamomile or valerian or lavender or kava kava). Dim the lights. Settle.  Settle into your body, settle into your nest. Close your eyes.

And know, in the deepest part of you, that this exam does not determine your worth, as a person or as a practitioner. It is a man-made attempt to assess, in three hours, what you have learned in three years of full-time school. It represents nothing but a snapshot of your healing and learning journey. It is nothing close to the whole picture.

It cannot assess, for example, how aware your fingertips have become, how electric they feel when palpating down a person’s spine, and how accurate their knowing is. It cannot assess what a present listener you’ve become, how you are able to sit in stillness with another person and provide a safe and loving space for them to share their story. It cannot assess the goodness in your heart and the way you pray at night, for all of the people who have walked through your doors that day, and how you ask God to guide and protect them on their way.

(These are your gifts and this exam knows none of it.)

Now, give yourself a hug. Tell yourself you’ve done well and you will continue to do well, regardless of the outcome of this exam. Walk upstairs. Change into the most comfortable sleepwear you own (tonight is a good night for satin) and fall into the softness of your pillows. Say a prayer, if you want to. Greet the moon, if you want to. Invite the stars into your bed, into your head, with their messages buried in dreams, if you want to.

But only if you want to.

Because tonight is about you. It’s about honouring the work that has brought you to this place. It’s about honouring the inner strength that has carried you this far. It’s about honouring the heart that has continued beating through the exhaustion and the fear and the doubts and the grueling schedule. It’s about honouring all of the moments of the past three years and trusting the moments to come.

Trust. Then sleep. Then wake.

Then walk into that crowded room, find your seat, line up your pencils, place your analog watch directly in front of you and unfurl yourself onto the test sheet.

You can do it. You know this medicine. You live this medicine. You are this medicine.

Ready? (Breathe.) Set? (Breathe.)