The Miracle of Peacefulness
For Futurehealth: Lewis Mehl-Madrona - Writer
excerpted from Coyote Healting, chapter 2
The people who consult me are often scared and distressed. An illness threatens the length and quality of their lives. They want to be well. They want to be cured. They want a miracle.
Unfortunately, miracles cannot be guaranteed or produced on demand. What is more certain is our ability to cultivate a sense of peacefulness and meaning even in the face of illness. This is miraculous in itself given today's world and medical culture. So many people sit namelessly, faceless and alone on nursing home floors, passing the time before death.People typically feel blamed for causing their illness, for we know on some level that we have contributed to our getting sick, if only by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We sense that how we have lived has had some impact, if only through our lack of kindness for ourselves, the diet we have followed, or the resentment we have never given away. We have some deeper, subliminal sense that our illness somehow relates to the way we live. We have some awareness, however unconscious, that the illness makes sense in the context of our relationships and the choices we have made or that our families have made for us. Regardless of how often doctors and others reassure us that the illness is entirely accidental, that sense of blame does not go away. We have an intuitive awareness that we and the illness are related, and that illnesses are not random. This awareness is implicit within Native American medicine and spirituality.
Buddhists call this awareness an appreciation of the causes and conditions of an illness. What torments us and causes us to feel worse about ourselves, is the widespread Western European belief in the power of the individual.
Native cultures teach that the individual does not have the power to get well or sick all on her own, because illness occurs through participation in a life of many constraints. We are born into families with particular beliefs, cultures, values, and habits. These patterns are embedded in our identity. Only through later personal growth activities or therapy do we become sufficiently aware to change these patterns. We tend to think, relate, live, and feel the way our families do.
Beyond that, families are embedded in communities and cultures. Families do not consciously choose their values, beliefs, patterns of relating, and habits. The culture expresses itself through the family.
The "New Age" idea that "you caused your cancer, now fix it," doesn't work. If cancer arises, as Native philosophy teaches, from every aspect of our being, including family, community, spirit, emotions, relationships, genetics, diet, environmental exposures, and more than we can imagine; how can anyone say that one person could cause such an event? I struggle to help people understand that they did the best possible given their resources and beliefs.
With rare exceptions, people are always trying to do their best. Limitations come from how we were raised, our economic and political environment, and our continuing relationships, including those to our families and our cultures. Even life's mistakes can be viewed as unsuccessful or partially successful attempts at self-healing.
When a healing elder said, "Every thought is a prayer, and every prayer is answered," he meant to call our attention to the many prayers that are made each moment by each person. Many are contradictory. Two football teams pray for victory. Only one can win. How is this negotiated?
To my academic friends, I joke that God must be a parallel processing, neural network computer. This joke refers to the way that these devises separate, integrate, and respond to conflicting and contradictory input. On a human side, many philosophers, including Native Americans, speculate that our thoughts create our reality. The Native perspective is that the Universe (Creator, God, or other name) must negotiate these thoughts to produce what we see before us. One elder told the story of a community praying for jobs. A power plant was built upriver and people began to get sick from the pollution. The prayers for jobs had been answered, but at a cost.
Therefore, I work to help people see that the world is too big and too complex, to believe that they single-handedly caused the illness. We may have been taught to want something (like jobs) without understanding the consequences (pollution and illness). We may have no choice but to participate in a society that exposes us to toxic wastes in the name of corporate profit. The ways of relating that we have learned from our families may have the side effect of eventually suppressing our immune systems. But we didn't know this consciously. These processes were not under our control.
The healing journey often involves our becoming more aware of those processes (causes and conditions) that contribute to the illness. Why? To change what we can change! To accept response-ability -- the sense that we can respond and change relationships and habits of behavior, even economic and political ones.
Therefore, a healing journey must begin by addressing the blame a person feels for his role (real or imagined) in getting sick. That sense of feeling blamed opposes the sense of peacefulness that is necessary for any possibility of cure. This sense of peacefulness is what one person called the greatest benefit of working with me. It must solidly exist regardless of what the actual medical outcome will be.
This problem of self-blame is rampant in our culture. Doctors ask me if I don't encourage people to feel worse if they don't get well. I respond that my first task is to help them abandon the concept of blame. I aim to nurture compassion and loving kindness. I understand that people are always doing the best they can, given what they have learned (beliefs and experience) and what resources are available to them (income, social class, education). No one would intentionally give herself cancer. No one would purposefully give herself AIDS. No one would press a button to destroy her kidneys, except for the most desperately suicidal, and even they are still doing the best possible given their beliefs and resources.
People do not make mistakes; they make unsuccessful attempts to heal. Even the antisocial criminal is struggling, however unconsciously, to heal some aspect of his or her life, perhaps to steal back the love he or she was never given.
An example brings these concepts alive within a unique human being, and shows some of the ways I help people find peacefulness. Ursula was a 47-year-old woman healing uterine fibroids and migraine headaches. Through our work together, her fibroids had dramatically shrunk and her headaches were almost gone. She came to the session I want to describe, abruptly different, feeling drained and wanting to give up. Suddenly, she was having fantasies of dying in her sleep. During the past week, her 16-year-old daughter had spent a night of intense retching after getting terribly drunk at her birthday party. Her son had been arrested for assault. One of her psychotherapy clients had killed himself. Her younger boyfriend had declared his inability to make a commitment because she was too old. Business was falling off and she worried about money. A major client had bounced a check on her and hadn't yet replaced it. Finally, she felt as if she was coming down with a major sinus infection, or at least a bad cold.
Ursula looked absolutely drained. I suggested she lie down with her head to the north so that her brain was closer to wisdom (comes from the direction of the north on the medicine wheel), and that I do energy/body work with her. I began by placing my right hand on the sinus areas above her eyes. My left hand roamed above her body, several inches out of contact, feeling her energy field. All of her energy felt subdued, as if she had contracted her soul into a small ball inside her heart the only area that felt normal (In Chinese Medicine, the heart is the seat of the soul).
Energy healing is hard to describe with words, and some readers will doubt its very existence, imagining that my mind fabricates the feelings and sensations of moving my hand through and above another person's energy field. Science, I would say, is catching up with this, and studies are appearing to demonstrate the validity of these phenomena. Nevertheless, for our purposes in this book, their validity isn't as important as how people respond to the process of therapy.
As my left hand moved above Ursula's body, I felt her energy slowly increasing. I imagined moving healing energy through my right hand and into her sinuses. Having been raised "hybrid Christian," I sometimes imagine when I am working in this way, that the Christ Spirit, or Christ Consciousness, moves through my hand, rearranging molecules and structures in the person's body, thereby creating the healing. I feel comforted by the connections of this feeling with my childhood visions of Christ, even though I understood that my grandmother's version was not basic Christianity. Nevertheless, as I read Christian mystics (Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Matthew Fox, Thomas Merton), I realized that my Christ was their Christ, a higher principle of love and consciousness of all humanity (what my grandmother called the chief spirit of the humans), who heals by mere thought or glance. I felt this healing energy coursing through my right hand into her sinus area. I can't always make this happen on demand, so it's an honor and a privileged when it does.
On impulse, I began to talk to Ursula about stepping back and looking at her life the way angels would see her. "How would they see me?" she asked, genuinely puzzled, turning her head on the blue naugahide of the massage table to peer at me. She was sweating at the edge of her short, brown hair. The setting sun was still bright against the white wall.
"They see you as exquisitely precious and lovely beyond belief," I answered. "They see your life as a beautiful work of art, whether you heal or not, whether you live another day or not, whether you solve any of your problems or not, whether your children succeed or not, whether your clients live or die, pay or don't pay. You and your life are art in their dimension, and no human life is bad art. Even the most sordid life is appreciated and honored there. Their joy in you, your suffering and pain, your happiness and pleasure, is so complete, that you need not do one more thing for them to love you passionately forever." Street lights were beginning to flicker on outside the window.
"How do you know this?" she said. I could see people crossing the street at the corner by Carnegie Hall.
I sheepishly replied, "I've had some conversations with them." Here's where I find myself walking on thin ice. My brief conversations with angels have been among the most profound, peak experiences of my life. Though some would argue that these experiences are just imagined, I think not, because they have always changed me for the better. They gave me more compassion, more kindness, more love for humanity, more flexibility, more tolerance, and more willingness to accept and forgive the foibles of others. They made me a better human being and a better doctor. If imaginary, I need more of these fantasies, and wish I could produce them on demand. In distinction, the visions of psychotic patients, imagined or real, are definitely not angelic, for theirs aggravate their fear and deepen their suffering. The signs of Shelley's steakhouse reflected red against the opposite graying wall.
"One of my most powerful experiences," I continued, "happened during midnight mass on Christmas Eve in a wooden, Catholic Church in South Burlington, Vermont. The choir was singing the Hallelujah Chorus. I looked at the window above the cross, and saw an angel outside, seemingly hanging in space, wings folded behind him. Then feelings and words exploded inside my mind. (Others have reported similar experiences.)
"'We have to be careful when we talk to you,' he said, "for even a small part of the love we feel for you would destroy your nervous system. We have to give you very small doses of what we feel or we would hurt you.' I sensed the potential for pain even in the ecstasy of that contact. He proceeded to explain, or rather, give me an instantaneous understanding that surpassed what is possible with words or pictures, of their view of us -- of us as works of arts, of their dimension as holding a kind of gallery in which each of our lives can be seen in its entirety as a multi-dimensional structure, a dimension outside of time in which beginning and end are present together.
"I try to communicate that vision directly or indirectly to my patients. I try to teach them to love themselves at least a small part of how an angel would love them. So maybe we could just begin to imagine that level of unconditional love. Humor me, and play with imagining that everything about your life is exquisitely perfect just the way it is."
I did have other perspectives on Ursula's life problems. I knew that her daughter was a very bright, athletic, straight-A student in a difficult private school. I knew that her son had fought back from a bitter depression in which he had almost killed himself, and was doing quite well. I had heard the story of his "assault" and felt certain the charges would be dropped. I had met her boyfriend, and believed she would be happier without him. He was self-centered and unable to care for her in the manner she deserved. I knew she was a very good therapist. We had talked about her patient at length when he was still alive, and I knew she had done everything possible. He had actually died in a psychiatric hospital, relieving her of any liability or even culpability for his demise in the eyes of established psychiatry. She had done everything correctly in the conventional sense of psychotherapy. She had just not saved him, as she had so desperately wanted to do. That was why she blamed herself for this death that had happened only days before. Therefore, I could afford to focus on unconditional love, self-forgiveness, and loving kindness. As we did, her energy field grew stronger and stronger. Her nose seemed less stuffy. She breathed easier.
I finished by rubbing points on her neck and skull that are related to sinus problems. I had felt blockage in the movement of energy at these areas. Then I used a technique called craniosacral therapy in which subtle pressure is applied to the cranial bones to make shifts so that energy (and spinal fluid inside) can flow more smoothly. Her breathing deepened. Her body relaxed. She felt more calm and peaceful. She was ready to continue the work we were doing on shrinking her uterine fibroid* and eliminating the remainder of her migraine pain. *See my paper on alternative treatment of uterine fibroids.
I was encouraging Ursula to lovingly see herself as perfect. She could only do so by letting go of self-blame. Eliminating self-blame is so different from the individualistic concept of some "New Age" approaches that tell people, "you created your illness, now get over it." From this limited understanding of the complexity of health and disease, people feel like failures if they can't heal their cancer (for example). The complexity of health and healing is phenomenal, and means that our small minds can't control (or even begin to imagine) the myriad of forces involved in making us sick or making us well. But everyone is capable of some degree of personal and spiritual transformation, and even of imagining the possibility of angelic intervention and miraculous healing. These are possible, but not something to feel guilty about if not achieved.
Once we eliminate feelings of personal blame, we must address hope. Hope is hard to define, though we can immediately recognize those who have it and those who don't, even if we don't know how we make that distinction. Real hope is a by-product of creating a sense of peacefulness.
For many years I thought my job as a physician was to help people get well. I didn't recognize the importance of peacefulness, and of helping people discover meaning and purpose in whatever experience they had. I sometimes humorously described myself as a clinical engineer, matching treatments to patients. My job was to solve the problem of finding a path to wellness. The problem with the engineer analogy was that not everyone got well no matter how diligently I plotted their paths. Some people died regardless of my efforts. Then, the engineer metaphor failed me, and I felt lost. No amount of analyzing or understanding could bring the desired results to some patients, who died despite my best efforts.
We have all grown up believing that science and its expertise will save us, and it is sobering when it doesn't. Our belief in medicine is so strong, that we usually turn to alternatives or to God as a last resort, when conventional treatments have failed. We are trained to believe in the experts and their technologies.