[This is an edited and amended text of the keynote address at the annual convocation of the American Academy of Osteopathy, March 2006, Birmingham Alabama]
Illness is a story. It calls us to healing beyond our physical selves. A strange contradiction. Suffering from an affliction invites us to step into a realm of healing that can benefit ourselves, our community and the world. Illness is, therefore, at the very core of healing. Not a contradiction but the strange dance of creation.
Over many years, I have come to understand that illness and medicine have become the way of transformation of individuals in this culture and may be the way of transformation of the culture itself. We are, like it or not, in a global process of re-imagining medicine, of restoring and integrating the essential principles that have guided healers historically from original shamanic impulses, through the time of the Asclepian healing centers and the insights that guided A T Stills, the visionary founder of Osteopathy, and finally through those ways of knowing that continue to guide contemporary indigenous healers and alternative medical systems. This re-imagining or restoration of the soul of medicine is required in a time when healers of all kinds are confronted by an increasingly totalitarian authority, a global commercial, corporate, governmental, pharmaceutical-indemnity-hospital-medical complex that is too often greedy, voracious, authoritarian, bellicose, even dangerous, and that can be quite vindictive when confronted or challenged. Healing often contradicted by the very institutions that have developed to provide it.
I will not inflict upon you the details you know so well regarding iatrogenic illness except to briefly cite Medical News Today, 18 March, 2006:
“An average of 195,000 people in the USA died due to potentially preventable, in-hospital medical errors in each of the years 2000, 2001 and 2002, according to a study of 37 million patient records released by HealthGrades, the healthcare quality company.”
This analysis probably does not include the long-term effects of some of our medicines and protocols, too often institutionally imposed, nor the long-term environmental consequences of medical waste.
The solution to this is not only an improvement in medical and hospital care but requires a change of mind that could benefit the society as a whole. For physicians to reaffirm their deep understanding of the nature of healing, its intrinsic dynamics, and the environment and culture in which healing flourishes is to offer, by analogy, to the community and world at large, ways of healing the body politic and the world itself. There is no contradiction between individual and social healing. They come from the same mind and gestures and those of you in the audience who know, after years of heartfelt work and experience what healing really is, must, I urge you, come forth with it.
Understanding healing and acting accordingly, looking for the single gestures, medicines and treatments that are good for the body, the mind and the soul, the individual and the society and earth, that have physical, political, spiritual and environmental integrity, is the sacred task of those who would be healers.
There is an indisputable relationship between our concepts of health and healing and our cultural ideas and practices. The language of war around cancer and other diseases makes this obvious. It is deeply grounded in a belief, almost a faith, in enemies. This malediction is systemic. We are encouraged to believe in enemies. We wage war against them. War is omnipresent. The military weapons we use cause cancer – Agent Orange, depleted uranium, chemical defoliants. The domestic ‘weapons’ we use, xenobiotics, cause cancer. Still, we blame the victims. Still we say cancer is genetic.
A woman came to me after making a decision to remove both her breasts because a cancer-causing gene was detected. She was so terrified of the enemy in her own body, she hadn’t thought to spend the afternoon before surgery with her pre-pubescent daughter. How will this daughter come into her womanhood when her mother has assured her that her body is her enemy? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to eradicate the environmental triggers, the xenobiotics, the toxins, the various electromagnetic fields that are so deeply implicated in causing cancer and other diseases?
When the cancers that we are responsible for appear, we make war on them, in turn, by using chemical and nuclear warfare, chemotherapy and radiation. The cancers disappear temporarily, like the enemies that seem to be vanquished by our military bombardments, only to rise up again, secondary cancers, similar even in their new more virulent forms to the new infuriated rebel uprisings in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last week I learned that an acquaintance has lung cancer, untreatable by conventional methods, and considered the result of the treatment he received for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma some years ago. The Lymphoma Information Page on the web speaks about the lymph this way. “The lymphatic system defends the body from foreign invasion by disease causing agents.” This is the language of the kind of xenophobia that is presently directing our foreign policy and leaving us virtually isolated in the world, separated from the community of nations and increasingly separated as well from the community of all beings.
In a recent talk, I was asked to address the question of why there is so much fear associated with cancer. I suggested that the afflicted ones know that something within themselves has gone wrong. A healthy cell has mutated and has become other than its nature. In a political sense, what was cooperative becomes imperialistic, devours the resources, takes over the territory, pollutes until all the systems are overwhelmed and breakdown is systemic. Cancer as event and metaphor speaks to us of political and environmental devastation. It speaks to us of rampant and unrestrained growth. It speaks to us of the take-over of the body by something not so much alien as aberrant, particularly in its inability to be a functioning member of the body community. It speaks to us of damage so severe that only excision or death can save the system it has invaded. It speaks to us of the extremity of the irreversible damage to the environment that is ourselves, where we live. But the cancer cell is, itself, an entity on the front line. It is a wounded self that seemingly cannot be restored. It is the first victim of environmental disaster.
The ones suffering cancer see immediately that war is going to be waged in their body against another part of themselves that was damaged and can no longer function. Further, those who have cancer and are afraid know that as a society we turn against those who cannot function in society instead of trying to restore them. Ask the veteran’s of the Vietnam and later wars we have been waging.
Healing, however, imagines restoration. Healing looks to how communities protect, sustain and restore each other. Preventive medicine is compassionate and looks to restore the environment in which health rather than illness can flourish. What is good for the cell, is good for the individual and for the land and for the world and vice-versa.
Ever since my experience with breast cancer in the seventies I have been living by the dictum that we heal life and then life heals us. I watched a progression in myself and others. One got cancer and one changed one’s life. In 1977, when this idea first came to me, it had a relatively simple application. A life-threatening disease forces you to scrutinize your life, heart and soul as you recognize that there is a mysterious relationship between right living and healing. Right living, in a Buddhist sense, however it manifests for an individual, changes the odds: the deepening of one’s sense of joy, purpose, or meaning seems to enhance and extend life. Beginning from my own experience with breast cancer, and later through the work I have done as a writer, healer and medicine woman for thirty years, I have found that coming alive in community is often the true medicine.
When I had cancer thirty years ago, I was willing to cut the cancer out of my body; I had a mastectomy. I was not willing to have radiation or chemotherapy. I could not forswear modern warfare and then tolerate it in my body, neither for my own sake, nor for the sake of my community. I had to ask the environmental questions: what effects do the manufacture, use, and disposal of medicines and treatments have upon the natural world? I couldn't choose my own health while endangering other beings. What was good for me had to be good for everyone.
When I discovered the tiny lump in my breast, I had had a dream of being tortured by a Nazi matron from a Death Camp who told me to ‘Sveig,’ to be silent. At that time, I was writing a novel about women who had cancer. I finished the novel in December 1976 and had a mastectomy six weeks later. Having had the dream about being silenced, I took my typewriter to the hospital and wrote the book, Tree . It is the journal I kept during that time that illuminated, perhaps for the first time, the real and metaphoric relationship between the cancer event in a human body and the cancer event in the body politic. That was the beginning of learning to be a healer and of speaking about healing to the world.
After surgery, I changed my life, drastically. I stopped teaching in oppressive public institutions so that I could work with integrity. I moved to a small house in a rural area. I tried to develop a life and environment that was healing and encouraged health – that way of living and thinking became contagious. What was good for me was also good for others. So my own healing positively affected the community.
During that time in the late seventies, many of us became aware of the prevalence of cancer in our communities as we noticed a heightened aggressiveness in the public world. Simultaneously, however, there appeared parallel tendencies toward cooperation and community. As a culture, we began to learn to extend healing and kindness to each other, first with cancer—breast cancer, in particular—and later with AIDS when that disease became epidemic. People began to cultivate communities to care for each other. Many caregivers testified that the year or years they spent caring for their loved one was the most important time in their lives. First illness called forth the essential scrutiny of one's life, a critique that extended to the culture and the society. Then it called forth a healing culture, communities of caring which were, until that time, unlikely in the urban frenzy that characterized most everyone's existence. I wrote an essay about this entitled, “Cancer is the Answer.”
A friend and colleague of mine, a psychologist, commented that she despaired in her work because no sooner was a patient healed than the patient re-entered the fray of daily life and was immediately undone or contaminated again. In order to heal herself, the patient had to heal the circumstances in which she was living, whatever they might be—her family, her place of employment, the land. No one could be healed individually without extending healing to others.
I, and others like myself, began to imagine healing communities. Communities that are intrinsically healing, that are devoted to healing, that bring healing to each other, that create environments in which healing is implicit and in which the unique gifts and training of the individuals combine for the good of all.
In Topanga we call this Daré, which means Council in the Shona language. It is based on the principle that council is an essential way of knowledge, that we each carry wisdom, and that traditional and spiritual wisdom is essential to the solution of the problems that are affecting all of us. Daré frees us from the privatization of illness and suffering, and creates teams through which healing and restoration can be offered to each other, environments in which the possibility of healing and cure increases. Daré is, thus, a kind of social and deep functioning immune system. Daré is not a pill nor a protocol. It is an environment that allows for possibility. It is, metaphorically, the opposite, and so is an antidote, to the imperialism or the totalitarianism of cancer and the friendly fire or suicidal or enflamed aspects of the rash of auto-immune diseases that include Parkinson’s and MS and the systemic breakdown that is AIDS.
After my husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, was diagnosed with MS, the community gathered to offer him what we call a Music Daré. Musicians assemble with energy workers and together they jam, as a jazz ensemble might, with each other, the spirits, the patient and his or her affliction. The call to spirit, the love that is transmitted, the complex and specific vibration of the music itself, these become powerful medicines. Afterwards, Michael walked in balance, and without a cane, which he had not done for many weeks. Before the music started, Michael had commented, bewildered, that it appeared that we were throwing a party at the very time that we had gotten a potentially devastating diagnosis. “It is not a party,” I had answered, “it is our indigenous form of the Navajo Sing Way Ceremony.”
The Navajo people rarely gather ceremonially except to bring healing to each other. When one is ill, one goes to a hand trembler or crystal gazer or another diagnostician. When the nature of the illness has been established, a Singer is sought who will preside over the healing ceremony. As illness is understood to occur when the spirits, the community or the natural world have been violated, healing consists of reconstituting the world, gathering the community, entering into ceremony, reciting the prayers and telling the myths in perfect order. What has been disrupted is healed by the perfection of the sacred. Hozro is restored. Hozro, often translated as beauty, refers to the essential intrinsic harmony of the universe in its undisturbed form. We can think of it also as perfect balance. Michael’s illness is characterized by imbalance. The music daré helped to restore balance. We can also think of it as restoring the right relationship between all the parts.
We have been offering Music Darés to one or two ill or suffering individuals per month for six years. Each time we meet to answer a different call. A ten year old boy whose physician warned his mother that if his ear infections would continue he would suffer deafness, yielded to the music daré, brought his friend, drummed along with us, and was, I have to say it, healed. Not by the music daré alone even as conventional medicine wasn’t healing him either. Something happened in the fusion, in the alliance between the healing ways, the community ways and the medical ways that called healing into being. Five years later he is well, he is not afflicted by ear infections, he has no hearing loss.
There is an earlier part to this story. When the young boy first began suffering repeated ear infections, his mother had a dream that he would be well if she became a healer. Valerie Wolf who is now a shaman, a healer and a dreamer in the Nez Perce tradition, will ultimately tell her story. For ourselves, it serves to know that his healing began when she yielded to the dream and the call to become a healer. She began to study healing and his health began to improve. But, as he became older, it seemed he also had to actively participate in his own healing. Accepting the ritual of the Daré marked that willingness and participation.
Indigenous traditions speak of the ways one is initiated as a healer by illness or grief. In western medicine we have invented, but without consciousness, the equivalent of the vision quest. It is called bone marrow transplant. We take someone down to a breath’s distance from death and then restore them, transformed. However, we fail to accompany the patient on the vision quest that is implicit in such an ordeal. This is where the healer in the physician must be called forth. For the healing of the illness to occur entirely, the patients need to know they are on a vision quest, that they are being initiated, that their spiritual transformation is required. They need to know that a new and useful destiny awaits them and that the illness has called them to it.
In our community, we frequently speak about being called forth. I was clearly called forth by breast cancer. My husband is being called more deeply to his gifts as a healer through MS.
The Osteopathic Home Page speaks of it this way:
“In 1874 Missouri was ravaged by an epidemic, one now identified as viral meningitis. Dr. Still lost three children that spring. Although a physician he had no way to cure them - no way to help them.
“Still's loss sent him on a personal and professional search for the truth. He was driven to understand why some people became sick, and others remained healthy. The doctor grew to reject the prevailing medical practices of frequent amputation and the overuse of drugs.”
It is not unusual for illness to lead to vision, but we err in not fully understanding its implications. We are conversant with the idea of the wounded healer but we do not fully recognize that the making of a healer may well be the positive function of illness, a call to every person who suffers on behalf of the world.
Illness is the breakdown that requires re-organization. Without that breakdown, the re-organization or re-visioning may not occur. This can be true on an individual as well as societal level. We know the big stories but we have failed to see how this operates with ordinary people on a daily basis.
When anyone comes to me for healing, I look for the story, the meaning, the path, the treatment opened through the affliction. This creates an entirely different environment around the one who is suffering and deeper healing happens, almost inevitably, as a consequence. The illness is not the enemy; it is the messenger. To live with this premise is to live in a field of possibility.
Illness causes us to change our lives and then our lives heal us. But also our lives heal our communities and then our communities, in turn, can bring healing to us.
Saso was an attorney and judge in Liberia who just barely escaped being massacred during the battle for Monrovia that took place during the most brutal twelve year civil war. When she emerged from the building where she had taken refuge, the courtyard of the neighboring church was littered with bodies and body parts. Like so many Liberians, she had nothing to eat for weeks at a time and lived terrorized. When we met, she was in the United States having managed to escape not only the war but also a war-related personal vendetta against her. As a teacher, she had purchased equipment for a college level laboratory, trying to keep education going under the most horrific circumstances. She carried her papers with her, intent on showing anyone she met, the documents that proved that the government school had reneged on its guarantee to pay for the equipment. She was being hounded for the money and her life was threatened. Saso was destitute, she had breast cancer and she was emotionally undone, seeming at moments, even to be deranged.
We offered her a Music Daré. An NGO, everyday gandhis, which does peace building work in West Africa paid for her trip from Detroit to Los Angeles and offered her a tiny, occasional stipend to help her survive.
I cannot determine why and how the Music Daré brought her healing. I can say that she is cancer-free when before she was not, though she had had the treatments by then. I can say that she is no longer agitated, is not obsessive in her speech and is calm and confident about her future even though she is still exceedingly poor.
Here are some possibilities about the way that music daré functions. Music is the oldest form for inviting healing and connecting with the Divine. In our work, we always have a mother drum that carries the heartbeat and asserts the basic pulse of the earth. Different instruments combine with voice to release tension, remove blockages or obstacles, and release emotional and spiritual toxins. We also imagine these other instruments as carrying and restoring the essential environment of health by ‘jamming’ if you will with the person’s own essential rhythms and tides; this is not unlike the philosophy, though the mode is different, that is basic to cranial sacral therapy, and the philosophy of osteopathy. At the end of the ritual, the task is to restore the individual’s essential harmony in relationship to the community and the earth.
This is one way of looking at it. Another way is that the simple gathering of members of the community who offer themselves with such love and focus is, itself, healing. And also, one cannot disregard the possibility of the efficacy of prayer, that the Divine enters because of the prayer, hope and intent, and brings healing.
For Saso, in particular, we cannot overlook the deep healing consequences of the gathering of a community for the sake of healing a woman who has seen the worst of war. As her illness went into remission when the war in her was eased, we can assume that there is some relationship between the war and the illness to begin with. Not anything so simple as cause and effect but still some certain dynamic between them. Somehow also, in gathering in this way, something of the war itself is healed. Two years later, Saso is beginning to make plans to return to Liberia, to be a judge again, to teach the principles of justice. There are global and political consequences of the most benevolent sort that come from making such an offering to another and they are not outside but exactly within the purview and responsibility of the medicine that truly wishes to heal.
In the last years, we have offered such healing to, among others, several people suffering cancer, including a 78 year old woman with lung cancer given six months to live who had never been to Daré. She went into remission after a Music Daré and remained in remission until she went to the hospital for an unrelated injury and was frightened there by the staff. Though she lived much longer than predicted, we and her family felt she would have continued for several more years living a restored life had she not had gone to the hospital.
Her 80+ year old pharmacist husband was so skeptical of what we were doing, he intended merely to bring her, drop her off and pick her up, but stayed and was so moved by the event, he has returned to Daré himself every month since that first meeting though he claims he doesn’t understand anything of what we are doing. What brought healing to her and sustains her husband now is community.
We have offered this form of healing to a couple grief-stricken over the death of a child and a woman who was kidnapped, kept blindfolded and tortured for six years. In the course of the Daré she went through and overcame very difficult flashbacks and left radiant with a bouquet of tiny roses in her hands.
We have worked with a woman with severe environmental illness. In the sessions preceding the Music Daré, she revealed for the first time to anyone that her father had been an inventor working for a paint company, that she and her sister who also suffers environmental illness, played with the paints that he brought home, most of them now illegal. Her father never speaks about this and she was never questioned about her life by her physician. The danger to her life has come, inadvertently, from someone very close. Unable to continue her former work, she has spent several years on the web alerting a large audience to the real dangers of environmental toxins and degradation and consequently lives in a highly charged atmosphere of fear. First, it is difficult for her to be in public spaces because they are toxic. And second, she was assaulted each day by the news that she felt it imperative to dispense in order to save others from similar ordeals. Since our healing work, she has chosen another tactic. She sends out bulletins having to do with healing and restoration of the natural world. This encourages her and others. She is significantly better, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Here again, as with so many others, her healing has consequences for others, even those outside her own immediate community.
In recent months we offered a Daré to the wife of a man who started a foundation that supports conscious activism on behalf of environmental and social change. It is very important for him to know that even as he gives so much to community, community will rally to offer what healing they can to his family. Healing, as he offers it to the world, is reciprocal and relational. As it happened, she was also the subject of what we call ‘Indigenous Grand Rounds” a collaborative investigation of the story of the illness by physicans, other healers and Daré members. The physicians learned so much more about the patient, the illnesss and the possibilities of healing when they saw the depth and breadth of the illness in its mythical, emotional, cultural dimensions. We owe physicians the time, education and training that will allow them to learn the larger story they are involved in with each patient, for ultimately, this is the story they are treating.
In October 2005, we offered the music ritual to Dr. Ed Tick to ease him on his return from his annual pilgrimage with American veterans to Vietnam for healing and peacemaking as a prelude to the publication of his extraordinary book, War and the Soul. Though he had been engaged with bringing healing to the soldiers and citizens on both sides, he was also anguished and debilitated from facing the pain of history. He also needed peace and healing. When a community is involved with healing, the doctors, the physicians, the healers, do not have to carry the huge burden of healing on their own.
I am not trying to offer Daré or Music Daré as a form of treatment especially because it cannot be contained within a protocol or standard procedure. A healing giesture or ritual to be effective is always original, intimate and personal and arises out of the intrinsic circumstances and relationships between the afflicted one, the affliction and the healer. Healing rituals or paths, to be effective, meet the story of the illness in complex, multi-leveled ways. Rather, I am saying this is a mode that the particular gifts and inclinations of our community have led us to. Treatments are often culture specific but the underlying principles are inherent in many traditions. Creating a harmonic, restoring balance, actively and reliably extending love and concern, valuing relationship, bringing diverse gifts and skills together, holding council, recognizing the wisdom in dreams, identifying the important symbology and learning and meeting the story the illness is telling, are qualities and activities that lead to health.
In addition, an environment is created in which compatible conventional medical techniques and treatments are optimized. Finally, healing becomes possible because community creates community and the ills that develop from alienation, paranoia, violence, and meaninglessness are undone themselves in an environment that is cooperative, compassionate, kind, generous and meaningful. Many different kinds of treatments may be appropriate at different times for different people suffering different illnesses. But what is consistent, is seeing that there is a story being lived out, that the story has community and global implications and that the illness may be provoking a profound personal and societal healing crises. As healers we are being called to work with the patient to identify the larger story as well as to meet and relieve the physical and emotional symptoms and complexes.
A dear friend, Carol Sheppard, and Daré member who is usually the healer carrying Music Daré for others is in the hospital because of gall stones. We were speaking of what gall implies. Off handedly, I suggested that the opposite of gall is sweetness and was suggesting that as she is entirely self-sacrificing, she learn to treat herself with sweetness and tenderness, the sweetness that she consistently extends to friends, clients and especially to the animals that she tends so well. Because she is to attentive to the birds, we spoke of the sweetness she offers daily to the humming birds. So far the conversation with casual and could have applied to anyone. However, I remembered then, before she did, that she has been writing a novel in which bees and bee swarms are central images. That she has been writing about the honey flow. And that a few days ago, when she consulted a shamanic practitioner, they were awed and honored to watch the sudden appearance of a bee swarm on a tree outside the practitioners window. As we speak about this, exploring the image, we laugh also that she is jaundiced, so is yellow, and that a golden oriole, not common to our neighborhood, recently appeared at her hummingbird feeder.
How does this lead to healing? The night she was admitted to the hospital, Carol was in a great deal of pain but rejected pain medication so that she would be alert when speaking with the physicians. She and Danelia Wild, another practitioner of Music Daré and music healing, decided to sing to ease the pain. Carol finally found a note that she could create without causing more pain and Danelia joined her in it. It was, Carol said, as we contemplate all of this, a hum, the hum of bees. The humming brought her significant relief.
As insights and events gather into a single complex and coherent story, the healer can be confirmed in his or her intuitions and insights. Here the advice to meet herself with sweetness is supported by the story even as the note she finds confirms her connection to the bees. Much more may come from working with these images, but Carol will probably find that returning to her novel, often neglected when serving others, with new dedication will also help her heal. Writing her book is not offered to replace surgery, but surgery alone, without the wholeness of healing, deals with the symptom but not the full underlying condition.
Healing like medical practice is monitored both by evidence and results. The assemblage of such moments, symbols and events can become evidence, if of a different nature than medicine usually relies upon.
Healing flourishes where the stories of illness and healing are told; the path of healing and service opens in the wake of the telling of these stories, dreams and visions. Neither the medical path nor the healing path heal fully in and of themselves. Healing occurs when wholeness is restored, when all the ways of healing that are appropriate to the situation are considered.
Recently I had a dream which taught me this.
In the dream, I place my hands on the head of a sick child and pray. A great heat comes through my hands and the child comes to life. The next day, I walk into a house where another child is very ill. I have been called by a group of physicians because I have healing power. It is quite comfortable to be among them—we will become a team. The child is extremely ill. Its recent medical tests are confusing. Or rather, the medical test isn’t valid or reliable unless it is can be confirmed by other ways of knowing . One of the physicians asks me about a dream and I respond that I dreamed, the night before, that I was able to bring a child back from the dead. The physician is pleased; the dream augurs well for the child we want to save. As we begin to work on the child, I am insisting to them that healing knowledge and medical knowledge must be brought together in order to truly meet the challenges of illness. I am insistent about this because of the first dream or experience and then because of the work we are doing on the child who is, because we have become a team, responding well.
When I awakened, I could have simply believed that I was being called to overcome my reluctance to be a hands-on healer and that the dream was confirming gifts I had been hesitant to claim. But, if this were the true meaning of the dream, it could have stopped after the first child is healed. Rather the first part of the dream seems to establish a foundation for the second part. The first part extends credentials to me as a healer that allow me to enter into a healing dialogue with the physicians called to tend to a dying child. The first part of the dream creates the foundation for peerage between us. I understood the dream to confirm the necessity to bring the ways of medicine and the ways of healing together by incorporating within oneself the multiple ways of knowing so that the complex and multi-leveled nature of illness and treatment is continuously recognized and honored.
In the dream, the conventional medical understandings were not viable without the participation of the healer. I understood this to signify that illness, because it is a way of transformation, requires us to meet it in its entirety. The physician is called to recognize the ways of healing just as the healer is called to recognize the ways of medicine. We cannot continue to divide the body between us and treat one aspect as if we are arguing over Solomon’s child.
My acquaintance with lung cancer following Hodgkin’s disease will probably not live very long; wars eventually take us down. We can say that he will die of cancer or we can see that he will die of war; the war against cancer, or the war within his body, or the lingering consequences of the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, or the war against the earth. Healing such a condition requires a change of mind down, as it were, to the cellular level.
In the dynamic between medicine and community, the fundamental belief system that underlies healing affects the fundamental political, social and spiritual life of the community. They inform each other. Holding fast to the principle of relationship rather than enemy is validated everywhere we look from physics to ecology. Relationship sends a message to the alienated souls in an alienated world that other ways of knowing and other ways of living together are possible and that there are ways out of our enflamed and tortured lives.
What I am saying here is that the physician’s task, because of the extremity of the world situation, socially, politically and environmentally, is to extend oneself beyond bringing healing or health to an individual, to bring healing to the world itself. The two cannot be separated and while adding such a task to an already entirely overwhelmed system may seem beyond daunting, the fact is that with consciousness, the same gestures heal all.
Returning to Carol’s condition, the plight of bees are also involved in her situation. There have been reports of many bee swarms in the Riverside and San Bernadino California areas and people, have, as they are want to do, called exterminators as well as the police. We are so out of touch with the natural processes that sustain the world. The extreme number of swarms is attributed to the unseasonable warm weather and so this takes us, again, to global warming. We cannot live without the bees. Exterminating them injures us too. Carol’s relationship to the bees is entirely tender and benevolent. Her writing about the bees is a gift then to our culture. Her healing then and the world’s healing in one beautiful yellow gesture.
Only it seems, the extremities of pain and mortality are sufficient to call the participants in this culture out of the thrall of the naïve and materialistic world we have created. Illness is the knight errant’s quest calling us to consciousness. In other cultures, people commonly seek spiritual development and the welfare of the community as intrinsic portions of their life journey. Here, these are less common. But sometimes when truly ill, many people begin thinking about community and spiritual matters, the meaning and quality of their lives, and the offering that they may be called to make to the society, even if the only means left to them is the way they meet their illness or their dying. The physician is called, in addition to easing pain and curing ailment, to be a practitioner of the sacred and a guardian of the community, to create what traditional people call a medicine bundle, a personal assemblage of powers, skills, gifts totems and medicines to be used on behalf of others and the world. Walking with the patient on the path of healing has the possibility of entirely changing and transforming everyone’s life.
When I leave here, I will be meeting a young spiritual leader of a community, who very recently suffered a massive heart attack culminating in serious short term memory loss. He is forty years old. I was forty years old when I had breast cancer. I didn’t know then that I was a young woman.
My goal is not to help facilitate his physical recovery so much as to enter with him into a dialogue of the meaning of this affliction so that he can better determine the path of healing and the ways that he might meet the sacred extremity of the moment. Also to assist in creating an environment fully receptive to healing.
Of the several remarkable things this man has been saying as he negotiates a territory uniquely located between life and death, two stand out at the moment. When it was suggested that he might start to relearn some of the things that have been wiped out in his memory, he responded immediately that he would rather learn new things that he had never known before. He then commented that this event has practically stripped the human from him and the he feels transported to other realms. Practically stripped from the human but also more profoundly immersed in the human or the mammalian or in mortality than ever before. His bodily functions came almost to a critical halt at the same time that something unparalleled was happening to his consciousness. He both lost language and was catapulted to a level for which language does not exist.
If we refuse to look at the situation pathologically, if we refuse to label his detachment as denial, or his understanding of his situation as confabulation, or compensation, but take his interpretations at their face value we are in the presence of someone who is in an enlightenment experience. In our community, we laughingly advise each other, don’t heal too fast, don’t heal before you deeply know the spiritual intent of the affliction.
A sacred illness is one that educates us and alters us from the inside out, provides experiences and therefore knowledge that we could not possibly achieve in any other way, and aligns us with a life path that is, ultimately, of benefit to ourselves and those around us.
My husband, Michael who was a registered nurse for 20 years was diagnosed with MS over two years ago. Unable to continue being a floor nurse, he gave up nursing and turned his attention to a book he had considered writing for a long time, about the practice of compassion at the bedside of the ill, even when the bedside is in a large, urban hospital. MS, like so many contemporary diseases, is associated with inflammation. Diseases of inflammation in an enflamed world. In order to be a healer who works with the medicine of compassion, he has, apparently, had to learn the poison of inflammation. Having a 35 year long meditation practice was not sufficient to avoid inflammation even though it has been central to his healing process. Michael thought he would write the book immediately, as a way of rehabilitating himself. But actually, he has just gotten into the depth of it. What the book required was his own suffering, the exact knowledge of the nature of this devastating illness, its terrors and opportunities. He could not write about the practice of compassion from the objective view of the one who was offering something to an afflicted one. He had to know from his own experience what suffering really means, how inflammation provokes it, and how compassion truly cools and eases. There are many things that objectivity and clinical experimentation cannot possibly teach and yet they are essential to the treatment of illness.
The man I will meet, who suffered the coronary is a musician so we will investigate the healing power of music. He has been a performer, he has entered into the practice of sacred dance, he knows the power of prayer and the ways in which music eases the soul, but now he has an opportunity to learn in his own body and soul the potential of music to heal. He probably could not get to this knowledge without such affliction. Just as he couldn’t, otherwise, get to the place where he is projected elsewhere, beyond where he was living. No one would go there on his own. No one volunteers for such a path of detachment. It has taken a massive heart attack to temporarily disengage him from the routine activities, the assumptions and expectations of his former life, though they were blessed, in order, I believe, so that he will ultimately be able to offer his community something entirely new, the nature of which he/we cannot know yet. He does not want to relearn what he knew. He wants to learn what he doesn’t know and, presumably, what none of us know … what he will learn only from and during this affliction, the treasure, the grail, he brings back to the community from the edges of the world during his version of the lonely hero’s journey.
To accompany him on such a journey requires a precise gathering of information that is not contained in any data banks nor in any clinical experiments but is rigorous and exact nevertheless. It requires a deep and respectful listening to everything the patient is saying. The physician is called to recognize that the patient is privy to the deepest level of diagnosis and healing but the wisdom is scattered, hidden and disguised as treasures often are in the minutiae and history of one’s life. I prepare to meet him by formulating questions I might ask: What was the song he was singing when he collapsed? What is the nature of his music? What has he been dreaming? What path has he been following and what is the logical next step? Why was his heart broken? Why was memory taken from him? What might we all be called to forget? What paths are we being asked to step away from on behalf of our lives and also the lives of our communities? What are the values he sees in this ordeal as opposed to the afflictions?
The point here is that his physical healing actually depends on such an esoteric investigation. The more sincerely he, his physicians and his community can honor his illness as a path, the more likely his recovery, in ways that will matter to him, will be.
What does medicine become when it recognizes the stories inherent in the diseases and the healing implications for the individual and the community?
In the early days of the woman’s movement, I understood that every life is a story and that recognizing that story brings dignity and meaning. Afterwards, I learned that illness is also a story and that it can call us forth to our real lives for the sake, also, of our communities.
My acquaintance who has lung cancer and once had Hodgkin’s might well say the treatment he received, even if it has led to lung cancer now, was worthwhile because it saved his life for some years. But we also know that the treatment he received was developed within a belief system predicated on war and enemies and disrespectful of the effect on the environment. We do not know what treatments we would now have if we lived in a culture that profoundly believed in the integrity of the world community, alliances, guardians, cooperation, peacefulness and healing stories.
An understanding and loyalty to the principles of healing will lead to medicines that are healing for all and to ways of life that are similarly healing. The greater the cooperation and collaboration between ways of healing and wisdom traditions, the more certain that the healing of the individual will lead to the healing of the whole. If we can learn to discern and honor each other’s stories and the call to healing, we will offer the world great gifts.
Some months ago, a physician at a Veteran’s hospital sent me a few journal entries:
“In the mid afternoon I “processed” one of the most articulate PTSD sufferers I’ve come across. Just two days back from Iraq. He told me such stories, painting word pictures of the burned bodies, the chunks and pieces of flesh after a car bomb, the random mortars, the filthy air heavy with diesel smoke and sand, the stinging flies, the odors, the children trying to sell their bodies, having to straighten twisted corpses to wrap, his growing sense of rage and helplessness…. Too intense! My body rushed alternately cold and hot, my hair rose up in prickly shivers, I was nauseated. Sometimes being an intuitive and open to people’s suffering is overwhelming to me. … I expect I shall see one or two of his visions in my sleep tonight.”
While writing this talk, I felt compelled to write to the physician and here is an excerpt from that letter:
“I am writing a talk in which I am trying to speak about the ways that the particular illness or affliction speaks a story that is multi-leveled and complex and that it calls the individual, if he or she is fortunate, into the real life. What I am trying to say is that the exact words and perceptions of the patient, though often happenstance, are the evidence from which the exact nature of the illness and its spiritual purpose might be gleaned.
This implies, of course, that there is a healing path. And that the physician can't fully find it without the intelligence and insight or at least participation of the patient. And so I think of you at the VA and how impossible it must be for the vets to imagine that healing is possible ... How could it be after what they have done and seen and had done to them? Healing? Relief? Ease? Restoration? How farfetched that must seem for them and so for you.
Some months ago, you sent me some snippets from your journal. I was very moved by them ... It was right after Katrina, Rita was moving north ... What we have done to the environment was becoming clear: the poles melting, the polar bears endangered, the lesions on fish and frogs, the numbers of species going extinct, the fourfold increase in uranium levels in the British atmosphere from Shock and Awe in Iraq and the consequent occurrences of cancer and genetic mutation. ... I see that the role of the physician is greater than we have ever imagined. We are being asked to heal not disease but catastrophe, the treat and terrible illnesses of the earth. It is awful, however to speak of this. Most people cannot bear to see where we are and how we have inadvertently colluded to create the catastrophes that are environmental and political and spiritual, that exist on every level. But how heal something or someone if we refuse to see the illness in its totality which means the presenting symptoms, yes, cancer, and then the world from which it springs – Agent Orange, Depleted Uranium, the wars, environmental devastation, and so on.
As I am writing the talk, the extent of your suffering is with me. Also your impatience with how ordinary and stubborn and limited and benighted our species is. Somehow, mysteriously, your suffering is part of what accompanies me this entire time. And I know that you are one of the those who can bring healing to the monstrous cavity of pain and that you are at your wits end about it. I’m not sure you can find the way to sustain doing what you are doing, day after day after year, while also having to negotiate and overcome the extreme, inevitable, stupid and bureaucratic limitations. Even if these impediments didn’t exist, how can you, how can anyone bring healing to what you have to hear, listen to, absorb, understand, and then … meet, treat? I do not think anyone can meet this alone. I am writing to you as an attempt to offer community so that we all carry what we must carry as responsible beings together. It makes it easier if we do it together. We each become wiser, more capable even as we become more capable of bearing compassion.
That day you wrote about a patient who is the carrier of an impossible story not of Vietnam that day but of Iraq. That is, of now. This minute. What he experienced is happening now. And how heal him without healing the entire damned last hundred years of horror and violence? And, again, he should not be carrying this alone. His nightmare is rightly ours. We didn’t save him from it.
So maybe this is the story I am in this minute [Interrupted by the most glorious light. The sun was just at the crest of the mountain. I looked up and saw brilliant golden light. The trunks of the eucalyptus trees were gilded. It was raining at the same time so I ran out to see the light … what a gift when I am so frustrated and so sad about not being able to find the words … and looked for the rainbow. Sunset. Rain. Dark clouds. There had to be a rainbow. There was. It appeared suddenly in the east and disappeared almost immediately. But long enough. ]
Yes, maybe this is the story I am in this minute. Whenever one sets out to do something important for oneself or others, an offering has to be made. So, yes, I poured birdseed on the ground and filled the fountain for the birds as I usually do, and prayed and asked what spirit might want to say … but maybe this is not enough because this talk really means something to me. Why is that? Because I believe healing is possible. I believe it is possible because it has to be possible because otherwise we are in hell and will be there perpetually and that is, frankly, unacceptable for your children, for my sons and granddaughters, for the trees, the birds, even for the rainbow. We have to have a world for them ….”
I sent the letter and returned to writing this talk.
Medical procedures or stories alone cannot be relied on to heal. But brought together, the medical sciences and the healing spirit and art of story, especially in the context of community, even if it is only the compassionate community of one physician and one patient, become a formidable medicine. Let the earth be the judge of the essential commandment of medicine: First, do no harm. The medicine of healing benefits the earth and all beings. It is in your hands.
I met with the man who had suffered the massive coronary in his hospital room. Having suffered chest pain the night before, he had returned to the hospital for tests. We entered immediately into dialogue in the realm of the sacred. Because he is close to being ordained as a Rabbi, I asked him to choose a Letter to reveal or focus his path of healing from a divination deck that was made for me as I have written about The Holy Letters as agents of Creation.
“In the ancient tradition of Kabbalah, the quality spiritual energy of the Holy Letters can be invoked for the sake of Creation. …Approached with the profound humility and devoted Kavanah [spiritual intent] that these times require, the invocations may be effective prayers for the sake of Peace and Tikkun Olam, the repair of the entire world.”
He chose the Letter Tav, it is the last, the 22nd letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. It is the letter that includes all the other letters. “Tav completes the Invocation. … All the Letters are in this last Letter. All the prayers are in this prayer. We speak the truth. We live in truth… We do the work of Tikkun Olam. We rectify, we redeem, we repair the world. We live among all beings as equals and so we make the world whole.”(Entering the Ghost River, Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing, Hand to Hand, September 11, 2002.)
We were all startled and gratified by the augury for it confirmed what we had been saying to each other. It also came as close as was possible to meeting the ‘hidden letter’ that he has tattooed on his arm … a letter that is not in this deck, a letter from the future, that may appear as he has it as the four crowned (a variation of the conventional three crowned) Shin.
And so the three of us who were gathered in his room then sang our prayers for his health and the healing of the world through him. Sustained to a great extent by the experience of speaking and meeting with the physicians at the American Academy of Osteopathy Convocation, I was able to convey the reality of a healing alliance that is possible between the healer and the afflicted one also for the sake of the world. It seemed as if, in the tradition of Mind/Body/Spirit medicine, we were confirmed through the coherence of a healing story and path. Four days later, writing this postscript, I hear that he is home and his memory is improving. On any account, good omens.
In the Breakout session that followed the Keynote, a physician opened our discussion by noting that in the course of any day he may tell a patient he has AIDS, another he or she has cancer, then he will deliver three babies. When he returns home, his partner says, “How was your day?” and he answers something like, “It was an ordinary day.” We considered with him the great loss that is contained in this story. He spends his day meeting the urgencies of life and death but without time or opportunity to reflect upon these or to meet them at a soul level.
At the end of the session, entirely energized it seemed, he asked, “How long has it been since we have sat together and talked in this way?” Of course, the group that had gathered from everywhere in the country, had not met together before. But community can form instantly around matters of the heart. Illness can heal the world when community is one of the medicines, especially when it is a medicine for the physician as well as the patient.