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Lose the Path, Lose Your Mind

October 23rd, 2016

After years of protest I got an iPhone last year, and of course became seduced by it. Now I have a British accented, personal computer assistant, Siri, who responds to my every wish (and even occasionally jokes with me). I love her, and have come to depend on her to take me wherever I want to go. Alas, Siri got me lost last week because I couldn’t adequately explain which of the five restaurants (all with the same name) I wanted to be guided to.  I had to turn her off and found myself unable to decide which direction to go.

I finally got it sorted out, but it reminded me of one of the profound teachers in my life, a Hopi medicine man when he found out I was a psychiatrist said what he knew about how to keep the mind happy was having a good path and a direction to walk in life… otherwise you go mad. He also shared an ancient Hopi prophecy that predicted the coming of a time of destruction and madness. The Hopi predicted centuries ago that humankind would face destruction as the result of an explosion he called a “gourd of ashes”. Death, disease, and pestilence would spread over the earth, people would become sick, and in the absence of the old landmarks they would lose their way, wander aimlessly, lose their way, and go mad. The atomic bomb did indeed happen, and disease and pestilence certainly followed… but until now we haven’t all gone mad.

Alas, that time may have arrived; I just got lost on the road last week, but as a Nation I think we have finally lost our path and are going mad.  Whatever the outcome of this Presidential election, it will leave behind a dark cloud of isolationism, fear, and self-protection; it will launch a new Alt-Right movement in this Country bringing together racists, separatists, and conspiracy theorists. This legacy threatens our historic path of equality, freedom, liberty and justice for all, and when we lose our path and purpose we will fulfill the ancient Hopi prophecy.

P.S. I am interested in your thoughts, and in the next several weeks am going to move from a Schlagbyte written response format, to a Schlagchat format in which we can talk face-to-face around this new digital fireplace. I’ll let you know when it begins.

Clown therapy is community psychiatry in disguise

October 18th, 2016

Ever had a patient who not only got better but used the insights she gained from talking with you to help others in distress? I have just such a patient in the Peruvian Amazon.

I’ve previously written about an annual clown trip to Peru that I make with my friend Patch Adams, MD, and 100 other humanitarian clowns from all over the world. We have been going there for a decade to spread cheer, and revitalize the impoverished community of Belén, which is situated in the Amazon floodplain in the city of Iquitos. We conduct workshops, perform street theater, create community art installations, visit hospitals, and work with local grass-roots organizations. For the last 5 years, we also have been conducting mental health clinics in the streets.

To provide a brief overview … we go to a neighborhood, set up our space, and walk the streets with a bull horn. We announce our presence – “we are mental health professionals, and we’re meeting over at” … and we talk with anybody, young and old, who wants to discuss health problems, family issues, or other concerns.

We sit in a public place and speak to individuals/couples/families for 20 minutes, while around us, support clowns entertain the kids. We neither make diagnoses nor give drugs; we come with a clown nose and an open heart, and we listen actively without judgment and focus on solutions. We help people identify their strengths and resilience, and give them practical advice. This is community psychiatry disguised as “clown therapy,” which is just another phrase for solution-oriented therapy/ positive psychology/reality therapy/resilience-based therapy, logotherapy, existential psychotherapy, or kitchen table wisdom. These street clinics have had a profound impact on patients and clinicians.

Three years ago, I met a middle-aged woman who was suicidally depressed, and together we negotiated a successful intervention. In summary, she emerged from a church that happened to be across the street from where we were setting up our clinic. A clown saw her weeping and approached her, and after talking with her assured her that there was somebody here right now – a mental health professional – who would talk with her.

Maria sat down and told an unbelievably painful story that was happening within her family. On that day, after 8 months of prayer and receiving no sign from God, she had decided to kill herself. After listening to her, I actually believed she could do it.

There are no treatment centers or emergency shelters for the poor in Belén, so at our closure, I made her promise that she would not try to kill herself until I could see her again at our next clinic 2 days away, and close by. I gave her an amulet that was blessed and told her it was a reminder of her promise, and that my smiling face would be with her until she saw me again. She returned with her daughters to the next clinic, and together, they found a way to take a step forward.

Last year, I made my first home visit, and met with Maria, her daughters, and new grandson in their “new” home where they were happily sustaining themselves . When I left, the love and appreciation was so overwhelming that I told them as long as I returned I would come visit every year.

I just got back from this year’s annual visit, and was again greeted with passionate tears of joy. We sat and talked, and Maria told me her story. It seems that people in the community were now coming to her as a resource when they were deeply depressed. People know that she had walked a similar path and moved beyond it.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag receives assistance in announcing that the clowns are back in Belen, Peru, for their annual mental health clinics.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag receives assistance in announcing that the clowns are back in Belen, Peru, for their annual mental health clinics.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag receives assistance in announcing that the clowns are back in Belen, Peru, for their annual mental health clinics.

She is a warm, good listener, and tells them a story about walking out of church and deciding she wanted to kill herself, and meeting with a tall gringo, a clown/doctor who miraculously saved her life. She gives them simple, practical advice, tells them how important it is to stay connected to their children, speak your truth with them openly; to pray for miracles and recognize them when they occur. She tells them to reach out for help, and people will reach out to them. She is a credible, inspiring friend who gives hope.

For those who remember when community psychiatry was actually a subspecialty, this is my vision of community mental health: People talking to credible witnesses/healers/resources in their community, whom they respect, who will listen without judgment, and maybe even say something that inspires a light in the darkness. It’s at least as effective as psychotropic drugs, and all its benefits come without side effects.

Once a year we come together, listen to each other’s stories, and continue our healing work together. Maria tells me her friends want to meet me. “They want to steal you away,” she says, “but I tell them I am not afraid.”

Maria, a lay therapist of sorts, is the community mental health consultant. Once a year, she consults with her gringo, the clown/doctor, to compare notes. We laugh and love, hug and cry, and give each other hope. No matter how divisive and polarizing the times, it is possible to come together in community and promote healing.

Dr. Hammerschlag is chief of community mental health of the Gesundheit! Institute and a faculty member at the University of Arizona, Phoenix. He is the author of several books on healing and spirituality, including “Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within” (New York: Turtle Island Press, 2010) and “The Dancing Healers: A Doctor’s Journey of Healing With Native Americans” (San Francisco: Harper, 1988). Dr. Hammerschlag’s website is healingdoc.com.

Old Guys Rock

October 12th, 2016

I missed the second Presidential debate; escaped the nausea that listening to this campaign has inspired and instead went to Coachella, California to listen to the greatest array of musical talent ever assembled. I went to restore my loving soul and it was an extraordinary experience.

On a Polo Field that was at least two football fields long and wide, I watched and listened to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who, and Roger Waters.  Along with 100,000 other aficionados’ we listened to six, two hour concerts, and it was beyond belief. For three nights we listened to the greatest musical talent and genius of the last 50 years.

I went with my son and grandson who also love this music and made a luxurious “boy’s trip”. We camped at the event in luxury, a 32 foot RV that was lined up next to thousands of others from all over the world. United by a love of the music, these grounds became an instant community of shared spirit. There were thousands of others camping in tents, cars, and tipi’s, there was a general store, hot showers, and plenty of entertainment to keep you busy (if you weren’t recovering from the night before.

The concerts started at about 6:30 PM with a 45-minute intermission between performers. We had low folding chairs which we set up in the grass with some room to dance, but couldn’t see the stage. The big screens and sound system were extraordinary; Dylan is 75 and opened the show Friday night launching right into Everybody Must Get Stoned and the crowd was with him immediately. He never actually spoke to us (he rarely does) but played old songs and new ones, with a great backup band he sounded better than ever. When I sat and looked around me at this mass of music lovers I waxed nostalgic, imagined it was still possible to come together in community and change the world.

After intermission the Rolling Stones strolled in to Start Me Up, and Mick Jagger at 73. pranced up and down runways for two hours we were electrified, I said afterwards that it was the best concert I ever attended.

My routine was a morning yoga class, breakfast, and nap until the evening  performance. On Saturday night Neil Young 70, gave an incredible performance and owned the crowd only to be followed by Paul McCartney  74,  who did it all, from the Beatles to his solo albums, and then a sensational duet with Neil. By the time 100,000 people swayed together to Hey Jude it felt like the Age of Enlightenment had dawned. When it was over I said “that’s the best concert I’ve ever attended”.

Sunday night, while the debate was on, The Who came out and Peter Townshend 71, thanked the audience, amazed that so many people would want to watch these old guys dance. By the time they got to the Pinball Wizard, there wasn’t a soul who wasn’t dancing. Roger Waters, 73 closed the show, and is still a potent political voice. Roger couldn’t resist projecting Trumps racist, sexist, degrading statements up against The Wall while launching a huge inflatable pink Trump pig.

What can I say, it was the greatest 12 hours of music by the greatest musicians/songwriters/poets/and philosophers for the last 60 years. Three generations listening to these old guys still doing what they love to do and can still do; for an audience who still appreciates their genius. No one left uninspired; they surely made me a believer. Do what you love doing and still can, you don’t have to fill a polo field of admirers, just tell your story and listen to those of others.

This line-up will never happen again, but I’m coming back if anything close to it does. I want to feel it one more time… and watch my son and grandson holding onto each other as Roger sang Wish You Were Here.

In the midst of this ugly, divisive campaign I came to a place that reminded me of the healing power of music.

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Ayahuasca’s Coming to Town

September 19th, 2016

Two weeks ago, New Yorker Magazine (September 12, 2016) featured an article about the Amazonian hallucinogen Ayahuasca, which is fast becoming the drug of choice for psychic explorers in the current age.

This profoundly mind-altering mixture has been brewed by the indigenous Shaman for millennia, and used in a complex ceremonial ritual handed down from generation to generation. There are detailed instructions for harvesting and preparing the vines and flowers, the singing of ancient songs while the “medicine” steeps, and becomes filled with the words and the spirit of the ancestors.

I took it once in the Amazon jungles of Peru, on my continuing quest for awakening. I spent a day going up the Amazon in a dugout canoe to reach a Cocama village where a shaman, descended from a long line of practitioners, grew and prepared the medicine. Six friends and I sat all night in a hut on stilts, in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by birds, insects, and howling monkeys. The experience was intense, and one of the most astounding learning experiences in my life… but is not one I would like to repeat. I’ve written about it in detail (Hammerschlag, C.A., Kindling Spirit, 2011, p.23-25); the profundity of the experience of what it meant to truly give up control of my entire being. Trusting that somebody other than myself, could help me through the night.

Today’s Ayahuasca experience is a trendy, happening place to be… in New York and San Francisco you can find such gatherings as easily as you might a specialty coffee shop. These ceremonies are led by “shaman”, sometimes called ayahuasqueros, curanderos, vegetalistas, spiritualists, whatever they call themselves is less important than the critical question of where do they get the authority to do this ceremony?

I have worked with indigenous people most of my professional life, and Inmy experience, when a sacred ceremony becomes trendy it loses its holiness. The ritual becomes modified for public consumption, and performed by anybody who claims the authority, it diminishes its power. When you decentralize the sacred it becomes easier to abuse it, and bad things can happen.

The New Yorker article described gatherings in which violence, molestation, and even a murder occurred. It reminded me of the fraudulent Native American sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona in 2009 conducted by James Arthur Ray a motivational/self-help guru who squeezed 60 people into a faux sweat lodge that he charged thousands of dollars for, to initiate participants as “Spiritual Warriors”. Three bright, well-educated, competent people in the prime of their lives died in that faux ceremony.

I’m not saying Ayahuasca doesn’t possess awesome power for revelation, but it’s important to choose carefully those who are telling its story.  For more information on protecting yourself against charlatans visit SeekSafely.org. This organization, founded by the family of Kirby Brown, a young woman who was one of the three who died in that sweat lodge tragedy, is a forum to talk about who and what is real and what is make-believe. Let’s talk to each other so we can choose wisely who we want to accompany us on the healing journey.

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The Face of God

September 4th, 2016

Here’s a Labor Day story about a guy who has worked 65 years in the same job and who had a magical impact in my life. Vin Scully, announced his first Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game in 1950 and has been the most colorful voice of the game that I loved as a boy. An enchanting storyteller, Scully taught me life lessons about heroes, villains, and described miracles that made me see the face of God.

Back then baseball was America’s game, and the NY Giants were my hometown team. I was a rabid fan. Bought and traded baseball cards, knew batting averages and stats, learned how to calculate odds and become an elementary school bookie. The Brooklyn Dodgers were our hated cross-town rivals, but Scully was not just a baseball announcer, he loved the game with a passion. He described the players, the fans, color, smells, chants and told the story as if it were an Olympian struggle as epic as the Trojan Wars.

Vin Scully worked the first nationally televised baseball game in Oct. 1951; the National League pennant game between my beloved Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the the ninth inning of the final playoff game, with the Giants down by a run, and 2 men on base, the Giants 3rd baseman Bobby Thompson came to the plate and hit a three-run homer off Ralph Branca to win the game and the pennant. This is still referred to as the “shot heard round the world”, and I watched the ball sail into the stands, I looked up at the heavens and saw the face of God.

My passion for baseball waned when the Giants and Dodgers moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively, more lucrative markets said the owners who left their loyal fans heartbroken.

In a few weeks this 88-year-old living legend will work the final game of the regular-season when the Dodgers play the Giants In San Francisco. Lots of people will wave up at the booth, some will surely drop by… ballplayers, umpires, officials, fans acknowledging his incredible gift and contribution to the game.

I’ll be watching the game…eating Cracker Jacks and drinking a glass of chocolate milk, listen to Vin Scully tell his story, remember my dreams and when I first saw the face of God.

Have a great week, labor well and love well. I say this for All My Relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin.

The Coming of the Messiah

August 22nd, 2016

I just returned from one of my favorite places in the world, a place that always replenishes my soul; my annual clown trip to the Amazon with my holy brother Patch Adams MD, and 100 clowns from around the world. We go to the Festival de Belen, in Iquitos, Peru where we work with kids conducting workshops, performing street theater, community art projects, health education. For the last 5 years we’ve also been conducting mental health clinics in the streets, staffed by clowns who are also healthcare professionals. We find a suitable location and then walk through the streets with a bullhorn and leaflets announcing our mental health clinic. We say we are health professionals and will talk to anybody about anything that might be troubling them.

I’ve written about the impact that these brief encounters can have (healingdoc.com/articles). Twenty minutes of active listening, where the emphasis is less problem-oriented than it is solution-focused. We focus on strengths and resilience, what you want and how to get there. We prescribe no drugs, but do provide vitamins (for adults and kids), and sometimes give sacred amulets.

I’ve previously described my meeting Maria at such a clinic three years ago; a middle-aged woman who emerged from the church across the street from where we were setting up; she was weeping openly. A clown approached her and suggested she might want to talk to a mental health professional who happened to be here right now. Maria sat and told me her story, and this morning in church, after eight months of prayer without receiving a sign from God for relief, decided that today was the day…and I believed it was possible. There are no hospitals, treatment centers, emergency shelters for the poor, so at the end of our talk Maria promised not to kill herself until she came to see me again at another clinic 2 days later. Indeed she returned along with her 2 daughters and together we made a plan to help move them beyond their suffering.

Last year I revisited Maria, her daughters and new grandson in their new home, where they were happily sustaining themselves. We talked, and when it was time to say goodbye, it was filled with such passion and love that I promised I would make this an annual visit. So last week I visited Maria and the family again, was greeted with passionate hugs and tears of joy, and then sat down to review our lives. She told me that people in her community now come to her for counsel when they’re suicidal. Her neighbors know that she had felt the same and survived. Maria tells them her story, the miraculous appearance of a tall, gringo, clown-doctor, who saved her when she had decided to kill herself. She tells them what she learned about how to build on her strengths, how important it is to stay connected to your children, and how to reach out for support so you don’t have to face your burdens alone. Maria reminds them of hope, she is a credible witness who helps them see possibilities. This is my vision of community mental health!

We always begin and end with hugs, kisses, and tears; and we always remind each other of the miraculous. I told them I’m coming back every year, because feeling such unconditional love reminded me of my Mother who greeted my weekly Sabbath phone calls with the same intensity, as if I were the coming of the Messiah.

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Join the Clown Tribe

July 31st, 2016

While I was clowning at Oregon Country Fair last weekend, the Hopi Indians in Northern Arizona were celebrating their Home Dance, it’s one of the holiest days in their ceremonial calendar and they were also clowning there too. The Home Dance is the time the Kachina’s (the holy messengers of the Great Spirit) return to their homes atop Mt. Humphrey. Even at this most sacred celebration there are clowns, who provoke even these holy angels with their irreverence (singing out of tune, dancing out of step, parodying drunkenness, sexual innuendos) and their antics are considered therapeutic.

It was when I was working in Indian Country that I learned to appreciate the clown as a sacred healer, and came to understand what the distinguished Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called the Clown Archetype. An archtype is a universal character in the unconscious mind, and one that’s been present in every culture in human history. The Clown/Fool/Jester/Trickster has served the purpose of lightening the mood, defusing anxiety, helps us laugh at ourselves, and look at the familiar from another perspective.

I appreciated clowns, but never actually clowned publicly until I was 50 years old and met Patch Adams MD, the world’s most recognized humanitarian clown. Patch was responsible for my coming out as a public clown, and for the last 25 years I have joined him doing so all over the world.

Every year in early August we clown together in Iquitos, Peru with 100 clowns from around the world. For the last decade, we have come to the distressed neighborhood of Belen to energize its citizens’ dreams for a healthier life. We conduct workshops for children, paint murals, conduct public health outreach, and mental health clinics in the streets. We parade, perform street theater, visit hospitals, prisons, shelters, hospices, and leave behind a core group of clowns who continue to work with local organizations in the community.

I love this work; I love getting out of my head and into my spontaneous child mode; I love being with other clowns, we remind each other of what we like best about ourselves… to be able to connect with people from any walk of life and culture at a heartfelt, soulful level.

People sometimes ask me what tribe I belong to, and I say am a member of the Clown Tribe; I am one with clowns all over the world who connect with people at the heart level, it reminds us of our shared humanity. Join the Clown Tribe, it’ll make you feel better…especially in these hard, divisive times.

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Vacation Stupidity

July 20th, 2016

After our annual family reunion at the Oregon Country Fair last week, my wife and I had a chance to spend some quality alone time with our almost eight-year-old grandson. Friends allowed us to use their mountain cabin in the Cascade mountains near Sisters, Oregon; snuggled amidst tall pines, snow covered peaks, and crystal-clear mountain streams, it was spectacular. On the rear deck was a hot tub in which we soaked in the cool early morning chill and under the sparkling night sky.  My grandson showed me how to shoot a BB gun, and I showed him how to cast a fly line; we kayaked, fished, swam, and stalked deer.

I hadn’t read a newspaper or watched TV in over a week, but the Black Butte general store had a copy of the previous day’s New York Times… I thought how wonderful to welcome tomorrow morning with the paper. The front page featured news about: a deranged man who opened fire in downtown Dallas killing five police officers; the bleak state of race relations in America; and Donald Trump’s mobilization of a disaffected, largely white audience, who were fed up with their powerlessness, and bringing them together by promoting racism disguised as ultra-nationalism. This escalating, divisive rhetoric in this Country is posing potential violence.

Cleveland, Ohio is now hosting the Republican National Convention. Ohio has a lenient, open-carry gun law, that a number of groups plan to exploit by flaunting their military assault rifles in the name of protecting gun rights and free speech.

These times concern me and by the time I finished the paper I was sick to my stomach. I trashed the paper and thought how stupid to choose to escape from this pristine fairyland to such demoralizing rancor. Instead of arming ourselves with weaponry, we need to be arming ourselves morally. We are all Americans, let’s make decisions based on what’s good for most of us, the common good, and come together in ways that reinforce our precious rights and freedoms.

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When in Doubt, Party

June 27th, 2016

My mothers’ philosophy of life included this admonition… when in doubt, party. It didn’t matter how hard times were, you had to find a way to celebrate life. She knew about hard times having survived the Holocaust but to party even during our trials is how we remember that we are still human.

In these last couple of weeks, I’ve not been partying much…Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination and has escalated his divisive rhetoric; 54 people murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history; and the British have exited the European Union. Our divisions, separation, and seething anger, are manifesting confrontations all over the world. People are feeling powerless and frustrated at unresponsive institutions and individuals are demanding change. I’m one of them; I’m angry, resentful, and sickened by our inability to live peacefully in community.

I haven’t felt much like partying until my friend Jack’s wedding last week in which I was invited to participate. The wedding took place on the summer solstice on a full moon in Jerome, Arizona; at the turn of the 20th century it was a thriving copper mining town, precariously perched  on a steep hillside, it is now a tourist town with a hippie, artsy vibe. Since the 60’s Jerome has been a unique Arizona town that’s tolerant of eccentricity.

Jack, has been a friend for over 40 years, we began our careers in Arizona together here in the early 70’s. A dentist by professional training, he organized the first student dental association, became an internationally recognized public health professional, and is now the Dean of an innovative dental school. The wedding ceremony was performed in the garden of the historic Surgeon’s House. Jack and his lovely bride Jami were radiant as they entered to the accompaniment of a classical quartet. The atmosphere was loving and intense; no boundaries between families and friends, only love.

Afterwards we partied and danced to the music of the Jerome Ukulele Orchestra. This funky band actually got through two rounds in the America’s Got Talent competition, and were an absolute riot. Playing “golden oldies”, people danced and I got up to sing with them when they played Bob Marley… Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.

Feeling the music, remembering those times and the hopes, I heard my mother’s voice and smiled…when in doubt, party.

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How Not to Make America Great Again

June 13th, 2016

I try to avoid blogging about politics because it stimulates far too much divisiveness, but the thought that Donald Trump could become President of the United States is more than I can continue to bear silently

It doesn’t matter how ridiculous or incendiary “The Donald’s” words are, the social/print/video media spread them globally and instantaneously. He is a trailblazer in making politics a Reality TV show. The Donald knows what sells, and understands that you can say anything you want to (the more outrageous the better). Fact checkers tell us half the stuff he says is simply untrue, but it has no impact on his popularity. In our society what’s right and wrong is defined by what you can get away with.  The Donald has masterfully tapped into a rising tide of anger and resentment in this Country that is directed at an indecisive, unresponsive government, an economy in which the rich get richer and the disparity between the haves and have not’s is getting bigger and bigger.

What The Donald is selling is religious intolerance, fear of strangers, xenophobia, ultra-nationalism disguised as protectionism. American’s are arming themselves like never before, and now with assault weapons. The Donald’s political reality show is fueling the flames of mayhem.

It’s a slippery slope from protectionism to ultra-nationalism, racism and fascism; they all thrive on hardening the lines between groups, and they all promote antagonism under the guise of protecting boundaries. “Trumpism” is happening everywhere; the world is shifting to a more belligerent, intolerant, ultra-nationalistic sentiments that suspects immigrants and minorities. The Austrians almost elected a neo-Nazi as their head of state… he lost by less than 0.3%. The French, Germans, Greeks, the entire Middle East is moving toward isolationism.

This narcissistic, loud-mouthed, bullying, lying, litigious, racist, misogynist will not make America great again. America will become great again when we become the change we want to see in the world; an open, welcoming society that practices liberty and justice for all, that is a beacon of hope inspiring its people to imagine what they dare to dream can be achieved.

We will make America great again, when we lead not by building walls that divide us, but bridges that connect us. Now is the time! We either come together as a people and planet or we will continue to annihilate ourselves and our planet.

Dump Trumpism!

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.