From Medicine To Ministry: Coming Out of The Closet
A physician's own "coming out" as a minister during COVID-19. Original artwork by an Italian participant of one of Dr. Khaneja's Zoom circles.
Do you ever feel like you lead a double life?
There is one life which is your public personality that you share with your colleagues, in your office practice, or in the hospitals. And another, that stays hidden, because you don’t feel comfortable expressing your authentic self for fear of ridicule, shame, or being excluded from the main group.
I believe that deep down, we all have a real desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves. I also believe that to truly belong means that we feel validated by this bigger community.
But what if we feel that we have to hide and pretend to be something we are not to fit into the accepted mold?
How can we truly thrive and express our innate potential if we don’t feel safe to be ourselves?
For me, these themes of public and private persona, belonging and not belonging, played out while I was training in medical school and even during my residency. Ever since entering an accelerated medical school program at the age of 17, I felt this conflict between being a doctor of this world and being a doctor for God. A physician of medicine versus a physician for inner peace.
My journey in medicine
As a young medical student, and even later as a resident, I didn’t even have the vocabulary to express this inner conflict. All I knew is that I often felt sad, confused, and lonely. I had a deep calling to be of service as a doctor, but I also felt a burning desire to give up medicine completely and give myself over to a life devoted to meditation, prayer, and spiritual exploration. To resolve this inner conflict, I studied many different complementary and alternative health modalities. I discovered that most of these healing systems addressed inner psychosocial and spiritual aspects of healing. I even traveled to India and Nepal, so I could explore yoga and meditation as well as Ayurveda.
All of these experiences helped to nurture my vision of a more expansive healing system that honored the power of the mind and intention along with faith-based approaches to healing. My path eventually led me to practice integrative medicine for over a decade, where I worked with children and adults facing complex medical and mental health issues. I shared homeopathy, yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and Reiki with them. I found that in cases where the traditional medical model failed to help, many responded favorably to these alternative modalities. In 2015, I transitioned to becoming a coach, and in the Spring of 2019, I became a commissioned minister with Living Church Ministries.
Why I chose to become a minister
In becoming a minister, I felt no desire to add another title to my name. Nothing really changed in my outer life either. However, I felt that I was honoring my strong inner calling to go deeper with my commitment to God, or Love, Light, or whatever name we would give to that place within us that is our true Self- beyond the external mask of our superficial personality selves.
Yet even then, years out of medical school, now established in my own coaching practice, I still felt hesitant sharing about being a minister with more than just my close circle of family and friends. I still feared being judged or made fun of, that somehow, I would be labeled as a Jesus or God freak, and less of a real doctor.
And then the coronavirus pandemic hit which changed everything.
How do we heal the mind and body when we face stress?
We know in medicine that the stress response can aggravate most if not all of our experiences with illness, perceiving illness in the outside world, as well as caretaking of another who may be ill. We also know that studies show that those who feel that they have an internal locus of control often are more resilient in the face of stress than those with an external locus of control. But how does one practically face a stressful situation such as the corona pandemic where there is no place that truly feels safe? Where does one find this way to connect to the relaxation response and find this inner locus of control? Is this even possible?
Stepping into my ministry
As I found myself connecting with clients, friends, and family in the States as well as across the world struggling to face this unprecedented pandemic, I felt impelled to step out of medicine and into ministry. I could feel that the public and private persona of Seema needed to merge into one whole where what I felt, believed, and knew in my heart were expressed through my words, writing, and actions. I felt like I was part of a huge orchestra and it was time for me to play my part in the music with my instrument in the best way I could. It was time to sing my song in the way only I could sing it.
After joining with my trusted circle of friends and family- who always knew my heart was in ministry- I decided to offer an online video call daily for 21 days where we would all gather in a safe space for healing.
What I discovered in my journey over those past three weeks
Creating a daily zoom call lasting about 90 minutes was a wonderful way to offer an anchor of comfort and support to the participants. Many shared how they scheduled their day around the call. Having it daily, providing recordings, and offering this on a donation basis allowed there to be no barriers to access.
Our circles became safe havens where on the average about 20 men and women of all ages from all across the globe gathered to share their fear, worry, doubt, anger, pain, and hurt openly and transparently. There was no judgment and no attempt on anyone’s part to fix anyone. The purpose of the call was not to be positive but rather to allow everything that seemed to stand in the way of inner peace to be shared openly and honestly.
Often, there was anger, frustration, fear, sadness, and many, many tears. But I always kept our purpose clear in mind: to allow our deepest inner wisdom to use this global pandemic for healing, transformation, and miracles. I called the events Coronavirus miracles healing zoom circles. And at first, just associating coronavirus with miracles seemed strange to some. Yet to many, this was the first shift in moving out of paralyzing fear into relating to this experience in a different way- from one of resistance and terror to moving towards allowing, acceptance, and trusting that there was a way to move through this challenging time together.
The participants began to understand that the miracle was not about trying to shift something in the external world- where we do not have control. But rather, the miracle was always a shift inside the mind to relate to the experience before us in a more expansive and open way: from less judgment and fear to one of acceptance and allowing. From this new lens, we could begin to expand our vision of ourselves to include much more than how we had defined ourselves before. In fact, the whole corona experience forced many of us to let go of the everyday way we were used to showing up in the world. With most of us being asked to shelter in place, we finally had the time to connect to a space of shelter within that was independent of all things external.
Many tools were used to help us open to this more expansive and open state of mind which included videos, poems, stories, music, along with guided meditation, prayer, and self-reflection. The participants had time to share, express, and also receive one-on-one coaching with myself during the call as well. Guests with a background in meditation, mindfulness and the teachings of A Course in Miracles were also invited to share their perspectives.
It is really important to emphasize that these groups were not about doing a spiritual bypass and avoiding the pain and tragedy we often witnessed in the news. Nor were we ignoring the guidelines around social distancing, handwashing, and accessing medical care if needed. In fact, being a doctor, and having many friends and colleagues working on the frontlines, I would share stories of nurses feeling worried about working with Covid-19 patients amidst shortages of masks, gowns, and gloves. I would talk about an ER doctor working at Elmhurst Hospital (where I did a bulk of my clinical training as a medical student) who broke down in tears because she was not feeling that her staff had the support and infrastructure they needed to adequately care for the burgeoning Covid-19 cases in NYC. We also talked about the doctors in Italy facing ventilator shortages and feeling they were no longer doctors but selectmen- having to decide who got to live based on who got the ventilator.
However, we always used these stories as a springboard into looking deeply into our own minds where we hold our own beliefs in lack, suffering, guilt, punishment, feeling alone, feeling unsupported, or not safe. We were not joining to change or fix anything in the outside world. Yet we knew that by finding our inner source of comfort, refuge, and peace, we could be of greater service to everyone by first allowing our own healing.
At the conclusion of our circles
We concluded our zoom circles with a special Easter service with live music, meditation, and a lot of sharing and discussion. In three short weeks, we all could feel how deeply we had healed.
I had watched participants who initially felt anxious and worried about possibly having Covid-19 feel comfortable and safe at home self-monitoring their symptoms while they stayed in touch with their doctors. Just having a daily group where they could connect and check in was very reassuring. Others found the group a safe space to share about their fears and worry about a loved one hospitalized for non-Covid-19 related illness whom they could not visit. One woman from Italy joined us almost daily and found that our group helped her immensely to feel supported and anchored in love and peace in contrast to the social panic and isolation she witnessed in her own country.
In three weeks, we witnessed that our focus had shifted from worrying if we or a loved one would contract Covid-19, or what would happen to our future economic security or when we would go back to our normal lives. Instead, as I looked upon the faces of the 25 or so participants in our circle, I could feel that they felt a deep sense of being supported from within and from each other- that while they sheltered in place, they were able to connect to the space of shelter, refuge, and peace within and extend that to each other.
In their smiling, shining faces, often through tears and laughter, I could see that finally I had fulfilled my destiny which I carried within me since I first entered medical school. Now, I truly can say with joy that I am a physician for inner peace, a doctor who leads her patients to the Inner Healer within.
The corona pandemic is in no way over. Yet I do feel that while my colleagues serve on the front lines, I too am joined with them across space and time, serving in the way that is mine to serve. And for this, I am deeply grateful, honored, and privileged to be a doctor.