Her office is adorned with statues of goddesses and crystals; she’s inadvertently sparked protests in India, and is lovingly coined, “the White Tamil” by her Sri Lankan colleagues. From impoverished fishermen -- whose children were swept away by a Tsunami -- to New York’s rich and famous in private hospitals, Dr. Ellyn Shander lovingly, and if necessary, forcefully, doles out her energy and expertise with equal fervor. With an MD in Psychiatry, Ellyn deftly adjusts dosages of anti-psychotic meds, and then leads a guided visualization involving “Goddess Energy.” Small in stature, she almost prances when she walks, be it leading a protest or demanding the best care for hurricane Katrina victims. From Connecticut to Cambodia, Haiti to Tibet, Ellyn does not fit in. Rather, she stands out -- to the delight of those in need of her loving care, and to the utter fear of anyone standing in the way of her path to justice.
Speech given at Lincoln Memorial – speaking out on behalf of tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils massacred by the government. See PDF
1) What first impression do people get of you, is it accurate?
People usually say that I am full of energy, and have tremendous life force; they don't understand how I get so many things done, and think that I’m very buoyant and happy. I think primarily these impressions are true – and most of it comes because I’m very touched by being alive and by the grace that's been given me; I’m just happy to be part of this universe, and the world, and God. Now, other people say I can be bossy [laughs] and, um directive; and I would say that these can be accurate as well, if I really feel compelled and opinionated about something. That’s all I’m gonna say about that [chuckles].
2) What are your biggest passions in life and how have they influenced your chosen path?
Hmm, I think my biggest passion is service, helping people find their inner magnificence, inner power – also fighting for justice. Being a doctor and healer puts me in a position everyday to do this. After the Tsunami in Asia, I went and did service in Sri Lanka as a doctor, and I found out that there was a civil war between the Sinhalese government, and the minority, called the Tamil people. I went back for a second trip and I realized that the Tamil people were being destroyed in genocide. The third time I went back, I found out that they [the government] had killed all the kids in the village that I had helped the first time. And that devastated me. Their pictures sat by my computer day in and day out. I didn’t know anybody to work with. I just knew that this was bad, and this was wrong, and I wanted to do something.
I’ve also done medical and psychiatric volunteering in many disaster areas, including taking 7 trips to Haiti. We also brought hundreds of stuffed animals to the hospital to give to children, who were wounded by the earthquake, some were amputees. We gave them out and their smiles were so sweet -- the moms took little stuffed animals for the little babies who were wounded too. The physical effects are devastating, and sometimes the psychological effects are overlooked, so I try to address both. If a parent is too traumatized to care for children, for example, everyone suffers even more, so in my work I try to address all aspects, including mind and soul.
Because I grew up in a family that talked about the Holocaust, even though they weren’t in it, I always think, “If I were in a German family and Jewish people came to my door to be hidden, would I have done it? Would I have risked my family, my life, my children?” I would like to tell you I would have, but I don’t know. So this round, this time, this life, I will do the very best I can for anybody who needs help . . . so when the Tamil people showed up in my life, I started writing letters and going on the Internet, and a group of Tamil activists found me and we joined together. So I spent four years of my life going to Congress, going to the UN, talking to people about the genocide, and trying to get justice.
3) Was this something you knew early on, something you unexpected discovered, or something that is still being revealed to you?
I grew up in a family of very fearful people. They were good people, but very fearful and very constricted in their outlook on life. I always knew that I should search for something bigger or greater than I was, and to find a different way of living. So for instance, I left home at an early and became a professional ballet dancer. By the time I was in my early 30s, I began a search for God around the world. I went to ashrams and different places, and I would look for how people connected to spirit. Finally, three very huge influences were that I met a great saint in India who taught me that love and service to other people are why we're here on the planet. I also met a master teacher who helped me learn guided imagery, and the ability to see much more than meets the eye. And I met my best friend, Nicole, who taught me the magic in the world, of fairies and flowers, and the way to be touched with beauty and spirit. So when you grow up in a family of constriction and fear, I think the beauty is that you can look for what is the opposite, and that’s what I looked for. We can't lose our perspective . . . there is love and magic in this world, and fighting for justice is a good thing but you can’t let it consume you, or else none of us would get out of bed in the morning.
4) Tell us one of your most funny or memorable stories related to the pursuit of your passion?
I don’t know if it’s funny, but I have a story of my naïveté. When I went to Sri Lanka I always wanted to be connected, so I brought a satellite phone . . . so there I am, in Tamil Tiger country, cause that’s where we were, and I’m chatting up a storm on my satellite phone, thinking that, like, this is like the US, so no big deal. Then, all of a sudden I am surrounded by a whole bunch of people and soldiers saying, “What are you doing?!?!” and I say, “I’m just talking on the phone.” But, apparently, using the satellite phone was giving the coordinates of our location to anybody up in the sky who could find us. I take for granted the fact that we don’t live in a war zone. When you go different places, to different cultures, it behooves you to be respectful and learn what’s going on around you, don't assume everything is like the US. Now, when I drive home and it’s beautiful out, and I’m happy, I go “wow, nobody’s shooting at me, I don’t have to worry about bombs going off, I’m free.”
5) What have been your greatest influences, such as books, music, or role models?
Honestly, I’d like to talk about Nicole – she was my greatest friend and taught me that everything is sacred. She was French and she would show me how the pattern of things that is growing was something magical and planned out. She showed me the beauty of prayer and lighting candles with the intention of helping people. We would go into her garden and spend hours talking to the plants and appreciating the flowers, but mostly, she showed me the delight of being alive. She would say that the Goddess Mother Earth had bestowed upon us beauty, rain, sun, and fire, and I appreciated the way of looking at the world through her. Remember, I grew up in a fear-driven family so, throughout my life I’ve carried fear that I’m trying to dump and get rid of; so, I asked her what she does when she is alone, or feeling abandoned, and she said, “Look at the trees, look at the roots, they’re so deep into the earth. They've been there before we came, they’ll be there after we leave, and if you feel the depth and strength of the trees and roots, you'll feel the strength of your own roots beneath you.” She was a very, very bright woman and she's still with me, even though she passed two years ago. I love her.
6) What fears or challenges did you face pursuing your path and how did you overcome them?
When I was fighting for the Tamil people I was invited to go India to do to five-city speech about how the Indian government could do more to help the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Right before my trip, the Indian government revoked my visa and I couldn’t go -- of course I argued and I lost. I was devastated -- not so much for myself, but because the people who were counting on me were losing a voice. It became big publicity in India: how they could squash freedom of speech and why they wouldn’t give the American doctor a visa. I was very upset and I prayed, and within 24 hours somebody called me and offered a free service to videotape my speech and send it to India, and that’s exactly what we did. And within a few days that video speech was played in theatres all over India. There were huge traffic jams, I was told, with people pushing to go into theatres to see it. And I got taught a lesson: never say never—and if you're faced with an obstacle, look for some guidance. Still, it’s a continual disappointment that I’ve been banned form India this whole time, and you know, I’d really like my visa.
Also, I’ve had to look at baggage I was carrying from my family of origin and figure out how to drop it. I’ve had to drop fear, a feeling of aloneness and disconnect from other people, and realize that we're always connected. Also, I guess, prejudices – I think that my family of origin was very prejudiced towards other people and cultures. From time to time I would see that this would pop up [in myself] and I'd have to look very carefully and say, “Where is this coming from? This is not who I am.” So, the challenge to each of us is to look at where we grew up, appreciate any strengths or values in it, and really discard anything that interferes with our magnificence.
7) Any lessons/words of advice on finding and staying on your path; or in order words, is there something that society tells us, that you now know is bull shit?
There are no limits to what each one of us can do. Some of the people I treat had such broken, abusive, horrendous childhoods, and yet are graceful and peaceful and wonderful moms – and I go, “wow, I could better.” I don’t mean I can do better than them, I mean, they’ve inspired to overcome any negatives inside of me. None of us need to have a ceiling on our belief that what we can do whatever we want to—now, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna tell you I can fly, that’s unrealistic, but what I’m saying is that I can fly in my life in whatever capacity I want to. I know that with goodness and intention and the highest mission, you can do anything, anything.
8) What are your main goals for the future?
To stay healthy. I want to stay healthy so this body can continue to be happy and live on this planet -- I’m having a great time! I recently took out all of the chemicals from my house. I look at all the plastic bottles, and the bleach and the Lysol and all the stuff that I never even thought about, cosmetics and cleaners, and I went, “woah, my house is filled with chemicals,” and I became angry. How can our government tell us this is safe, yet none of these things are safe?!” So I think we have to be concerned consumers and advocates for our own health and freedom.
9) Outside of the path you chose, if you could have pursued one other career, what would it be and why?
I would love to open a healing center -- all different modalities under one roof, acupuncture, herbs, oils, medicine if needed. I dream about that. I have not made time to build that as I'm still working one person at a time. I work 80 hours a week -- I see patients at the Psychiatric hospital, then I come back and work ‘til 8:00 at night; but, to me, there’s no difference between work, service and happiness, so I don’t feel burdened by it, I feel happy doing it.
10) If you could spend a weekend anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I wish I could be with two very precious people who are on the other side, and have a weekend of just living and laughing and being in body with them. Other than that . . . the top of Machu Picchu. I’d love to be up there and feel the energy. Assisi, I’d love to walk between St. Francis’ Church and St. Claire, the air is beautiful in Assisi. The air is very bright and breezy. Or, a weekend in my backyard with no responsibilities, just hanging out in the sunshine would be great. Or, a weekend with the Dalai Llama.