Between the Worlds
Flesh like metal, spirit like mist,
teach me the gait
of the luminous wolves drinking
from the dark river.
In those waters the stones sing.
Can the world mend
in this body?
Deena Metzger, Ruin and Beauty
Can the world mend in this body?
These last lines of the poem do not answer “What does it mean, to heal?” but they open the discussion by inquiring if the World can mend, can heal. If we imagine it can, we have to consider what illnesses or anguishes it is suffering, where and how it is broken and whether someone like me or you can bring some healing to the world. Not by enacting anything toward the World as if it were an object outside the poet or speaker, but by some mysterious process within the body of the speaker, perhaps by healing herself or performing acts of healing within or on behalf of her body, a human body.
Or maybe the poem is implying that we cannot know by ourselves what healing might be, but that we have to go to other ways of knowing, stepping out of our linear minds to stand between the worlds so that the luminous wolves and the singing stones can teach us. Or mend us? Or heal us?
That would certainly mean that the more conventional healing activities which have taken so very much focus in the last years as our little worlds contract into little jewels of self-concern might not be the answers at all. I do not think the singing stones, luminous wolves or the dark river will inform us to seek medical advice or engage in self-care. We will not come to health through taking supplements, exercising, getting enough sleep, bathing or not bathing regularly, eating or not eating kale or salmon, signing four petitions a day, contributing to two good causes a week, eliminating stress – lots of luck — or any of the myriad self-help – can/will no one help us? – regimens. These activities may ease human lives, and may make the world a better place for humans by our definitions – they still won’t heal us. Or the World. Whatever healing is. Which is the great unanswerable question ahead of us.
When I had breast cancer in 1977, I wanted to heal, wanted my body and soul to heal, that is regain its autonomy, rid itself of the invader, as I had wanted my body and soul to heal, regain its autonomy, rid itself of the invader, after I was raped in 1969 at gun point at the community college where I had just finished entering grades and was preparing, by dumping the contents of my purse on my desk, to put on a cap and gown for the very first time (I hadn’t attended any of my university graduations) when I was interrupted by a gun to my temple held by a masked (white) man.
What I didn’t immediately understand, forty-eight and then forty years ago was that healing the world would be the most direct way of healing myself, as the number of women who can expect to be raped in their lifetimes and the number of women who can expect to have breast cancer is about the same —about one in five—and that is not the natural order. So if we heal the World … I was still caught by the adamant conviction that one heals oneself before tackling others’ difficulties (no matter, it seems, how long it will take for one to heal), extending the ‘wisdom’ of the ‘enlightened’ flight attendant who commands us to put on our oxygen mask before we assist another. Now I’m not so sure. Yes, after rape I had to return to functioning and that took a year or so. But had I for one moment taken my eye off and removed my heart from the other women who had been and were being raped, now that I knew what such an experience meant to one’s self, I would not have healed. To heal is a verb that reaches out to the community and the entire World. It is a verb that does not conjugate with first person singular.
I gave a Keynote address for the Annual Conference of the American Holistic Medical Association entitled ‘The Soul of Medicine’ in 2004, suggesting that the patients we would be discussing were (Western) Medicine itself and the Earth. Both patients were gravely ill, but the Earth especially.
As a medicine woman, I am no less responsible for the World than I am for the man or woman who seeks my help because she or he has cancer or is suffering from panic attacks. And I am also aware that what I do on behalf of healing any individual or being must also be healing, even if not directly extended, for the World itself. The medicine path into which we are being initiated insists that each word and activity has to be healing by its nature so that the single gesture has consequences in all the realms.
Holistic medicine is committed to seeing the patient as a whole and to attending mind, body and spirit in the activity of healing. Now we are required to go another step and see that in healing the patient, we are given the opportunity to treat the World, as well.
It is no accident that so many of the illnesses that we are suffering at this time in history are analogous to social and global ills, and so in treating the individual we are being trained and called to bring healing to the society at large. No matter our politics, philosophy or perspective, we can’t avoid being conscious of the implications of the co-incidence of symptoms and complexes in individuals and in the society. And seeing how different diseases ravage the body, we understand the ways they ravage the earth, the soul and the society. This is essential wisdom that the physician can bring to the World.
This and the realization that Healing is a real event. Complex and multi-leveled. To experience its reality is to bring medicine into the realm of spiritual activity. Healing occurs in a harmonious state of joint consciousness. The healer and afflicted one, together, carry the wisdom, knowledge, skill and energy to harmonize relationships and situations that are disquieted.
That was fourteen years ago. I gave the talk and one thing led to another as they do and I entered another phase of being a healer. It seems I took the talk I gave seriously and in relation with others—physicians, psychologists, healers of all sorts—took on the patients described in my talk as my/our own. It would have been irresponsible, wouldn’t it, to talk about Medicine, Earth and the World as our patients, and then to take them on only for the night, then leave them in an overcrowded ER without anyone who knew how to treat their ailments and a staff who, discovering quickly that neither Medicine nor World had insurance policies, decided there was nothing to be done for them. Leaving the two where? On the street? With the other undocumented and uninsured?
Medical and health practitioners, medicine people and healers who gathered around the crisis continue to meet in council. We have developed a set of 19 questions of concern to guide us:
- How can medical people also be medicine people?
- How can medical people remember their calling to be healers?
- How can spirit and earth-centered ways be fundamental to medical practice?
- How can we restore right relationship with the Earth as essential to all healing?
- How can we incorporate indigenous wisdom traditions, ceremonies and rituals into medical treatment?
- How can we restore the role of community as integral to healing?
- How can physicians and health practitioners serve the community in the best ways that medicine persons served their tribes or indigenous communities?
- How can the patient’s individual and cultural wisdom be central to the healing process?
- How can we recognize that individuals may carry an illness on behalf of family and community and the healing on behalf all beings?
- How can we develop practices where Story is central to revealing the nature of illness and the paths toward healing?
- How can we take the war mindset and language out of medical practice?
- How can we ensure our medical practices and treatments do no harm to people or the environment?
- Can we bear witness to the harm created by Corporate, Big Pharma, Insurance and Government control of the medical system?
- Can we bear witness to iatrogenesis as the third leading cause of death in this country and the cascading harm it creates in our communities?
- How can we cease the recurring reenactment of colonization in medical practices?
- Can we speak openly, honestly and from the heart about the grief and vision we carry about contemporary medical ways?
- Can we examine, together, what we want to change and what we must reject?
- How can we bring ReVisioning understanding to medical training?*
- What is our calling as healing presences at this time in history?
*The next issue of Dark Matter will explore ways we have, as a commuity, come to live Village Medicine. These ways arose out of our on-going involvement in ReVisioning Medicine.
We aren’t the only ones who have taken on these patients, Earth and Medicine, but we are among those who knew we couldn’t abandon them and so my/our lives changed and no matter what and whom else we had to attend, these two and their cries of pain and distress had to be attended. Even if we didn’t know what to do. We had to ask the question: what heals? Carrying this question is a beginning.
At the time of the Keynote in 2004, I had had some thoughts of what heals or what healing is, and so had ended the talk with some encouragement:
Healing is not necessarily restoring the original condition. It is not returning to paradise. Healing is helping to align the individual with the trajectory of the soul. Healing is the field of beauty through which the details of the larger purpose of an individual’s current life in relationship to his//her own history, ancestors, spirits, the present, the future, and global healing are revealed and enacted.
Now, what about our gravely ill patients who are the subject of these grand rounds? As it happens, these patients cannot go through the process of transformation necessary for healing on their own. How shall we assist them? What healing can we offer them?
We have come to their bedside in community. This is pleasing to them. It affirms that we know something of the relationship between all beings. We have come with heartbreak and compassion and offer ourselves for healing on their behalf. This pleases them. We are not separating ourselves from their fate. We have undertaken the healing of every aspect of their beings. We are working on the cellular level. We are taking our lives down to the marrow.
There is a strong possibility that our beloved patients will survive if we continue to call the soul of medicine to us. There is a good possibility that healing will come as we offer to walk the path of a healer and the path of the seeker. Together we stand by our invitation to the soul of medicine, that it enter into us. We provide the soul of medicine a permanent home from which all healing can emerge. The prognosis for the world is good. We see that healing is in our hands.
It is fourteen years later and my/our patients have not improved. Rather, their conditions have worsened. Plagues of mental illness are adding to the physical conditions affecting humans, non-humans, Western Medicine and the Earth. There is little sanity left in the atmosphere, which is increasingly violent and aggressive in all ways. Medical practice as we knew it, or imagined it – kind, compassionate, intimate, caring response to suffering – has been subsumed by robots, drones, formulae, arbitrary standards and regulations, in the service of a bookkeeping system that benefits the few and does great harm. We can call the condition that Western Medicine is suffering in this country soul loss.
The World and Earth are convulsing as a result of a myriad toxins that we secrete relentlessly. And we brainwash ourselves, insisting our way of life is healthy, better than life has ever been, is progress. We are evolving and progressing, we tell ourselves, and so the World and Earth must be doing so, as well. But they are not.
So, then, what is healing? What does it mean to heal? To extend healing to self or others? What is the nature of healing? Or, what modes will heal these conditions? Or, what is the entity that is healing or being healed? What does healing look like? How will we know when our approach is appropriate. Or real? These are not easy questions to answer and so we must address all of them, continuously.
I learned a few things from having had cancer. I learned that cancer, a physical phenomenon in an individual’s life, is also a condition in the world. I learned that humans are living cancerous lives. I learned that cancer is a dynamic in Western culture. An imperialist dynamic. That’s a short hand, we’ll use it for now.
I learned that if I studied the broad, deep and complex etiology of cancer I would find a healing path. I needed to know the nature of it, how the disease manifested in the body and what might ease, heal or cure. But I also needed to understand the illness from other perspectives, how different Native American medicine people from different tribes would understand the nature of the illness, its causes and treatments, or how a Southern African Ndebele or Shona nganga (medicine person) might meet the illness if uninfluenced by Western medicine. Or, most especially, how a patient’s ancestors or lineage understood illness and cancer, in this instance, in particular.
I also needed to consider the roles that my own history, my people’s history, my country’s history, play in this illness. And then the environmental impact, the nature of the air I breathe, the earth I walk on, the food I eat. I needed to consider the state of being of the natural world around me and to consider my spiritual life, the Story I am living, and the dreams that come to me. Everything about my life matters as part of this story and my family’s lives and my ancestors. I had to know everything that affected my life and the lives of others.
Once I brought all of this together the illness itself would dictate the path of its own healing – because that is its desire – and following that path would be answering a call, for which illness was the means, to live my own life to bring healing to the Earth and/or the World. All of this would be possible, if I were faithful to a certain fundamental principle: What I sought or enacted on my own behalf needed to be equally beneficial for my family and community, for the World, for the Earth, for all beings and the future. Cancer that devoured everything taught me to live on behalf of and consider all beings.
I learned that healing required a broad and inclusive view as outlined above and the long view— back into history and forward into the future. If I didn’t examine history and didn’t consider the possible implications of medical treatment for others—the poor fish with lesions, the Earth—I would inevitably be acting against my own health. Five, ten, twenty years is not a long view. Rather, what people have understood, over centuries, about vitality and restoration, about which treatments or responses are effective and harmless is essential knowledge.
Maybe I had cancer because my childhood physician had been fascinated with the fluoroscopy machine and it took many years to discover and take seriously the fact that radiation causes cancer. He needed a long view.
Or maybe it was caused by taking the first birth control pills and it took some years to discover that the dosages I was given caused cancer. I also learned over time that the treatment of cancer—kill all the cancer cells as quickly as possible and try not to kill the patient in the short term or the long term—is not a healing approach.
I learned that trying to kill off all the cancers is in a thousand ways adding to the toxicity and pollution that is destroying the earth and causing cancer. I quickly saw that participating in a culture of killing, which was adding to the increasing melee, when I was trying to prevent the crazed cancer cell from killing me, was not a treatment of choice. I learned that I couldn’t heal from cancer if my life and treatment were causing cancer. I had to stop acting like a deranged cancer cell.
Then, over time, I learned a secret. I learned that the cancer cell didn’t want to be a cancer cell. I learned that the cancer cell is the first victim of pollution, toxicity and environmental degradation. I learned the cancer cell wanted to be healed, restored, returned to its original nature.
What is healing? What does it mean, to heal? What does it mean to heal…?
Restore original nature!
What does that mean?
There is something I gradually came to recognize I had gotten wrong in the speech to the AHMA. Something I had not understood sufficiently:
Healing is not necessarily restoring the original condition. It is not returning to paradise
Healing is restoring the original condition, but it is not seeking some imagined paradise. When I questioned restoring the original condition, the way we were before the illness, or the accident, or when we were young, I meant healing was not having the body at forty that I had had at thirty-nine or twenty-five. It was not having two breasts again after one was removed. It was not being wrinkle free. It was not looking, acting, or thinking like a girl or a young woman.
I was forty years old. I was a mother. I had to know what it meant to be a Mother. I had to understand what the Mother is. I had to think about caring about and caring for and taking care of the world and the Mother. First.
About eight years later, as I was entering the dining room at Omega Institute where I was about to lead a workshop, a young woman approached me and said, “Thank you for being an elder.”
Why did she say that? Did she know me? Was it my graying hair now entirely white? I was taken aback. I haven’t volunteered, I thought. But she had turned away so I couldn’t challenge her and so I was left with that injunction: Be an elder. After all, she was a young woman and I, as an elder—I was already getting the hang of it— was obligated to her and the future.
And so, I have spent the years since trying to understand what it means to be an elder and how to be responsible to it. At such a time. In such a world, a world increasingly influenced by a culture that has no elders and no respect for elders at a time when we need elders if we are going to heal. Original peoples respected elders. Aha, here we are! Restore original nature. Indigenous wisdom. Elders. The old, old ways.
The cancer cell was once a functional, cooperative, life-giving entity. It was a breast cell, a kidney cell, a prostate, a bone or pancreatic cell, working with other like-minded cells, giving and sustaining a larger life. It did its work and the larger organism, composed of its kin, survived. Until the organism tired, wore out, as it must in all of us in its own time. Until then, the cell did its work together with the others—it could accomplish nothing, nothing, nothing, on its own. And maybe we can even say the cells, together, did it joyously. That joy is what we call the life force.
And then the cells, our bodies, our lives, our culture, our world, all were undone. The life force, the natural world, original nature was attacked, distorted, diminished and abandoned in favor of ways that are human-centered, artificial, inorganic, manufactured, manipulated, all life threatened.
There we have it. When I had cancer, I didn’t know how to transform the cancer cell, so I cut it out. Surgery on my body, a mastectomy. Then I sought out the cancers in my thinking and in actions and did my best to change my life.
I developed a mantra: Heal the life and the life will heal you. I was only thinking of that for myself, for individuals, in the beginning. As if I/anyone could heal without considering the whole field in which I was living and from which cancer emanates. The cancerous world that, without my knowledge, emanated also from my activities and was making me ill.
So at first it was simple, like self-help steps: exercise, eat differently, give up stress, find other work, leave the city etc. etc. But then it deepened. So many had cancer, more each day, why? Could I possibly be well if the field was profoundly injured? While I was exercising, the poisons were accumulating. While I was meditating, a thousand ways of killing were being developed. While I was worrying about the balance of supplements, you were being diagnosed with cancer. How could I possibly think I could heal separately from you?
I listened more deeply. I hadn’t said, Heal my life and my life will heal me. I had said, Heal the life and the (healed) life will heal us. So I had to examine my life. Examine our lives. Examine the culture? Bear witness. Look at the suffering of the Earth and the World. Humans and non-humans. Those living now and in the future.
What are the cancerous forces? From what do they originate? How do I collude with the destructive forces in the culture? What is the antidote?
Divest. Detach. Undo.
Tobi Fishel, Ph.D, a colleague who participates in ReVisioniong Medicine, dreams billboards. One billboard which now directs our lives is “Stop all poisons.”
Easy and noble to say – damned hard to practice.
The spirits upped the ante and sent her/us another billboard: “No compromises.”
I get it.
What does it mean to heal?
It means, Stop All Poisons.
To heal, to heal self and others, to heal World and Earth, means stop making ourselves and each other and all beings ill.
Stop all poisons. No compromises.
MEDICINE WAYS FOR THE WORST OF TIMES
There is no way we can win against the elementals.
They will take us down by our own hands.
Uranium belongs to the realm of Oya. Everyone knows
you don’t mess with Oya.
Earthquake. Tornado. Lightning.
Storms of all sorts describe her even temperament.
The EarthSea Mother rises up, despite her pain.
There is no telling what will occur and no restraint. It is all herself.
She does not make those divisions we insist are there.
EarthSea Mother, Fukushima and the waters at the Columbia Gorge.
Fire next time? Burning waters.
“If you eat a hundred pounds of fish from the Columbia river a year, one pound every three or four day, the normal and sacred diet … ”
Cancer is one name for her rage.
There is nowhere we can go.
She is everywhere. Didn’t you know?
The Spirits are sassy. That line in the water
between Japan and the USA isn’t firm enough to stop her,
nor the legal border between Oregon and Washington.
And, temporarily, or forever, she is in this body. See?
If and when she rises and tries to rid herself of the fires …
Sometimes a cloud is just a cloud,
and sometimes it’s the entire sky racking down endlessly.
Don’t get lost in minutiae while the world is destructing,
Be aware that you are destroying your little life,
and also the ten gold finches on the arc of the metal chair,
and the humming bird dipping
into the waters bubbling from the Buddha fountain.
Another thing: let us not argue so that peace can descend.
The best medicine has not been invented yet,
but you know what it is and it takes you
completely by surprise. All the fevers,
tumors and agonies were created just for it to emerge.
How else will it get into the world?
Do you want to wait until you are struck down?
Or do you want to try to carry it now
on behalf of what you love inconsolably – the Earth.
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About the Author
Deena Metzger has been writing for fifty years. Story is her medicine. Her latest novel, A Rain of Night Birds, a confrontation between indigenous knowledge and the modern scientific mind, bears witness: climate change arises from the same colonial mind that enacted genocide on the Native people of this country. It was published on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Her other books include the novels La Negra y Blanca (2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature), Feral; Ruin and Beauty: New and Selected Poems; Doors: A Fiction for Jazz Horn; Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing and Tree: Essays and Pieces.