Healing is not an individual event. Healing is a collaboration of energies that come together on behalf of the greater whole, to benefit the many not just the individual. It requires an alignment of the heart and mind with ALL energies—doctors, nurses, technicians, families, animals and elementals, plant spirits, the land and ancestors. Perhaps this is the most basic premise of Village Medicine and the greatest difference from the philosophy of conventional medicine. To neglect the natural world and the invisible realm, and even dismiss its role in our health and healing, is a great and ongoing omission by our medical institutions.
As a physician for the past thirty years, I have long sought what it means to heal. Why do some heal and others do not? What is required for true healing to take place? And what does illness offer as opportunity rather than simply an affliction to be conquered or eradicated?
In conventional medical education these questions are simply not addressed. At a young age I began a quest that has brought me to a new understanding of what it means to heal. I studied many forms of healing before I met medicine woman Deena Metzger in 2004, then the village shaman Valerie Wolf with whom I apprenticed for close to a decade. In order for the medicine woman within me to emerge, a radical change of mind was required. It has taken years of undoing—a rigorous process of dismembering and disassembling a mind steeped in patriarchy and imperialist mores. I had to let go of the need to do battle with the enemy threat—our conventional approach to disease; I had to let go of privileging the individual over the greater ecologic whole without considering the environmental consequences incurred through toxic medications or surgical waste. Remembering the mind of a medicine woman required immersion in village life which came through years of shamanic training that enabled me to experience what it means to live from this changed mind. Our indigenous ancestors lived this way: in relationship with all of the natural world; in reciprocity with and connection to the visible and invisible realms through visions, dreaming, divination (asking questions to receive guidance), and journeying (traveling in trance state to gather wisdom). At the core of these ways of living are collaboration, love, and community. Implicit is an understanding that there is no separation between me and you and the Earth upon which we live, and that when one heals, all others are affected in turn. This is what I mean when I say ‘all our relations,’ from the Obijway or Lakota: “Mitakuye-Oyasin—We are all related.” The mind, body, spirit and heart of the one seeking healing and that of the healer are in harmony with each other and the greater circle of life and death. Healing is a natural consequence when living in these ways.
In many cultures, the spirit- guided indigenous mind resides not in the brain, but in the heart; this heart-mind is aligned with ‘all our relations.’ For years, a number of us had been gathering in both larger and smaller groups to practice living from a heart-mind that includes not only the scientifically based medical knowledge, but also and equally the vast and interconnected web of guidance, wisdom, events and synchronicities that are revealed when we are attuned and receptive to all the energies and realms that are constantly communicating with us. This is ‘the field’ of information from which Village Medicine arises.
Taken by the River
Perhaps this way of living is hard-wired into all of us, our DNA cascading down through time, originating from indigenous ancestors. But it seems that it wasn’t until our dear friend Sharon Simone became gravely ill that the potential and practice of Village Medicine was fully revealed to us. Years of preparation enabled each of us to step in with essential skills that helped facilitate Sharon’s healing, and in turn our own. This is not to say that we knew what we were doing or were following some protocol or course of treatment. No, we were in the terrain of not knowing, the terrain of the Great Mystery and the sacred. This is the territory in which healing happens and which cannot be explained logically or simply through conventional medical language.
When Sharon was unexpectedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2016, it was if a River overflowed her banks and swept us off our feet and into her turbulent waters. We—Lawrie Hartt , Sharon and I—had curtailed a four-day retreat in northwest Connecticut to take Sharon to the hospital after she suffered a long night of abdominal pain. The next day we learned of the large tumor. Within three days, she was transferred to Yale New Haven Smilow Cancer Hospital to have most of her pancreas and her spleen removed. When we initially discovered her condition, we had just been at a larger council with Deena Metzger, Nora Jamieson and thirty women to consider how to meet these times and to uncover the obstacles that kept us from living grounded in the place of indigenous consciousness. The questions were fresh in us. It seemed clear that Sharon’s illness was a direct response somehow to the questions we were holding.
Thus began a journey of healing and deep immersion in the ways of Village Medicine. In my mind, we were all diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. All of our stories intersected at this juncture. Sharon would carry the burden of the physical and emotional suffering, for certain. But there was never any question that her devoted family and a group of us from the village sanctuary would walk alongside her every step of the way.
Entering the Field
My role as a physician enabled me to be a liaison with regards to the complexities of medical information presented and the decisions to be made. Most of all, I felt compelled to protect Sharon, as much as possible, from the perilous journey of surgery and postoperative complications that can insidiously derail recovery. Though I had been in this position many times before with friends and family, and of course my own patients, this time seemed different. This time, the illusion of separation between us had been lifted. Not just between us as individual humans or as doctor and patient, but also between all living beings. Perhaps this happened because I was called forth not only for my medical acumen but also because of my role as a medicine woman. Though in my heart-mind I felt that these two parts of me had fully blended, it was through this particular experience that a quantum leap of integration occurred.
There was also the fact that Sharon and I had discovered that our paths of personal growth and spiritual evolution were profoundly interwoven. We had both revered the medical institution since childhood and both were finding our way to living from the framework of ‘all our relations.’ We had met similar spirit teachers along the way, and we were part of the family that Deena had coined the Village Sanctuary and of which Sharon was a pillar, a diviner in the old ways and a keeper of the hearth fire.
Walking this journey with Sharon, Lawrie, Deena and the Village meant understanding that we were in a field larger than Sharon’s personal and particular illness—though it is often through the personal act of transformation that the world is transformed. Together, we were continuing our exploration of ‘what is healing?’. Together, we were in a field of giving up old identity, of healing the imperialist within, and of healing within the individual body as a path towards healing the Earth. We knew this in part because of the dreams and visions that came to show us the way.
In the way of Village Medicine, dreams and visions are central to the pool of wisdom available. A dream, like a blood test or X-ray, can provide invaluable information to understand and navigate the field of illness. We had come to understand dreams less from a psychologic perspective- where a dream may mirror or represent some part of our own psyche- and more from an older form of dream tending. In this alternate paradigm, dreams come to us from another world, and the animals and beings in them are real, having come to teach or show us a path not readily obvious to our rational minds’ thinking. A dream may ‘land’ on any one of us, but it can often be for others, as well. Dreams are meant to be carried, retold, and shared so as to understand their multi-layered and sometimes encrypted messages. New understandings about a dream can come years after its arrival. There were dreams and visions from others of the Village that anchored us in the work of meeting each moment. Several dreams that had landed on me the weeks leading up to Sharon’s diagnosis have served as rudders throughout the ensuing months and years and continue to be teachings about what it is to live Village Medicine. I will share two of them here.
In the first dream:
I am in a hospital hallway next to the cafeteria when a fierce, snarling grey wolf approaches me. It is menacing, with gnashing teeth, dripping saliva, and glowing eyes. Despite its appearance, I am unafraid. All I can see is an animal that is frightened, maybe hungry, through this guise of intimidation and threat. I talk to her with great love, cooing to her, only wanting to be close and to calm her. She responds to me by keeping her head low in a submissive way, circling closer and closer, a low growl emanating, and then ultimately dropping down on her side near my feet, an invitation for me to put my hands on her. I crouch down slowly, knowing that this is a wild creature that could rip me apart at any moment. Yet I still do not feel fear as I reach in to make connection. Love flows through me uninhibited as I touch her body, first on her torso around the rib cage, feeling her soft but coarse, thick fur, then moving slowly to her whiter belly. I am fully present with this grey beast, every part of me in complete attention. A family with children enters the hallway and the wolf leaps to her feet, growling again. I am worried that she will attack the two small children, but they walk right past us, not even acknowledging our presence. Then, the wolf disappears as quickly as she appeared.
The second dream followed immediately after:
I have left the wolf and returned to a hotel room attached to the hospital. I find the door open and a family, like the one I had seen in the hospital hallway, are in my room. Only now they are African American. Two small children dart past me in chase and run through the open door connecting to the next hotel room. The parents are sitting on the floor next to my opened suitcase through which they are rummaging to take things for themselves. I am surprised and angry to find them all here, invading my space. “Hey! What are you doing? That’s my stuff!” They ignore me completely which makes me feel even less in control. I raise my voice, “If you don’t leave now I am going to call the police” and fumble for my cell phone. They do not respond to this either. Two roommates arrive and I hand them my phone and ask them to call the police. I am flustered, shaken. The man and woman get up, carrying things from my suitcase, and head into the attached room. I follow them inside and see the woman has taken a plastic bag from my suitcase with a vial of B12 and syringes and is injecting herself. Suddenly I wonder if she is sick. My rage melts away and compassion washes over me. As if in response to this sudden change in my emotions, the couple morphs into two white men, one older with grey stubble and one younger, perhaps his son. The older man is staring at me now face to face, and there is sudden knowing that he is the Spirit of Imperialism. I drop to my knees on the floor in front of him, mumbling apologies, that I didn’t know I was with a Spirit, that I meant no disrespect, bowing down in full prostration.
Throughout my medical training, Wolf was with me as a way to embody the posture of the one in charge and in control— a “false bravado” to assure myself and my patients that I could meet whatever arose through the rigorous life and death challenges of becoming a competent physician. By adopting this persona, I assumed the role of the powerful doctor, the one who knows, the conqueror who can and will destroy the enemy threat of illness or disease; it leaves no room for hesitation or letting down one’s guard. While I would not attribute these human behaviors to Wolf today, when I sought healing following my residency training, it was this image of Wolf–fierce and intimidating– that surfaced. In the first dream, when I was fully present and acting from a place of unconditional love, this part of me becomes submissive, helping me to understand that I was no longer to act from that old persona.
While I have long struggled with the inequality and racism in our medical system, meeting the black couple in my hotel room with suspicion and fear and then bowing down to the Spirit of Imperialism forced me to confront the imperialist within me. Only when I thought the woman was sick did my feelings shift from fear and anger to love and compassion. This enabled connection, which is essential to the transformative work of healing. Love and compassion are the medicines that transmute fear, mistrust and anger, especially in the face of a perceived threat, be it a wild animal, illness, or colonized mind.
In the context of Village Medicine, this is what it means to ‘leave an old identity.’ In this country it is nearly impossible to escape indoctrination into thinking and living from imperialist ideals— entrenched values based on assertion of power through domination or conquest. Our country is founded on these values; our schools, government and medical institutions operate from them, and they underpin our economic and environmental policies. The Spirit of Imperialism is tightly woven into the fabric of our culture and lurks within each one of us. I believe it is a societal pandemic. Awakening to this fact and expanding one’s consciousness to that of ‘all our relations’ is a radical act of restoration and the challenge of these times. True healing can emerge when our consciousness changes.
For us, the opportunity to heal came through Sharon’s new diagnosis. We embarked on the journey of her illness accompanied by the questions and wisdom that arose from these dreams: Is healing the natural consequence of being in a state of love, compassion and connection? Can attending to illness serve as a path to access that quality of mind? Deep presence and attunement of all our senses provide the information essential for survival of the whole. Likewise, ongoing attention and self-scrutiny are required to see where the imperialist mind rises up unexpectedly, demanding our allegiance. If we are alert and discerning, then we can choose from which mind to act.
Healing the Divide
I returned to Connecticut for Sharon’s first surgery. Preparation for this trip included a journey to Spirit to ask for help to guide the next step of Village Medicine:
I am met by a large snake, who comes right up in my face. The Snake hisses at me: “You must not trespass. You must ask permission.” Snake takes me to a giant tree who I learn is the Spirit of the Land upon which the hospital complex in New Haven has been built. She is a large and powerful presence, with enormous human limb-like branches and a canopy of silver leaves. She repeats what Snake said: “You must ask permission to enter this place if you are going to be of any help”. In addition, I am given clear instructions to find a particular tree outside of the hospital where I am to pray using my drum and to make specific offerings of cornmeal and water. This is to be done, in no uncertain terms, before I enter the hospital.
Ask permission to enter the hospital? I had never considered such a thing before. I had accepted my privilege to do so from the first time I placed my white coat around my shoulders as a first-year medical student. My teachers told me, and I believed them, that I was entitled to enter the domains of the medical institution, anytime and anywhere. I had earned the right. Had it not been for my years of shamanic training prior to this moment, I would not have believed I needed permission. But I had asked for help and this was the message that came.
When I arrived in Connecticut I explained to Sharon what was being asked of us by Snake and the Spirit of the Land. Do not trespass, we repeated out loud, taking in this teaching and all its possible implications. Asking permission meant we understood that we were not relying on modern medical technology alone in this quest for healing. Asking permission put us into a field of ‘all our relations’, reminding us that we were not in charge of the outcome, that there was more at work than we could possibly see or know. “Of course,” we mused. It seemed obvious, though neither of us had considered this before: asking permission, praying and making an offering upon entering a medical establishment.
On a clear and freezing cold April morning, a caravan of three family-filled cars set out before dawn, carrying Sharon from Greenwich, Connecticut to New Haven. When we arrived at the hospital, I left the group at the front door and went off in search of the tree I had been shown. It took me a full lap around the building, which covered multiple city blocks, to recognize her. She was on a busy city sidewalk across the street and to the right of the entrance of this large urban hospital complex. She was a small tree, maybe fifteen feet high; new buds were just emerging after a long, cold winter and dotted her graceful brown limbs. A small two by two-foot dirt patch was the only earth showing around the tree, the rest swallowed up by worn cement sidewalk and brick buildings. The street bustled with pedestrians and cars as it was just before the seven AM shift change, the sky still pink-orange as the sun was rising. I set my backpack on the ground and pulled out my drum, water bottle and a small pouch filled with cornmeal. I felt nervous and self-conscious. What was I thinking? The doctor in me worried I would be seen as crazy, or worse, stripped of my hard-earned credibility. The towering temple of western medicine rose up before me, reminding me of where I had come from and what I belonged to. I felt its powerful pull. But the medicine woman with the Buffalo drum had been silenced too long. She had never been welcomed within those hallowed halls awaiting across the street—neither her intuition nor her dreams.
I turned to the Tree. Slowly, I bowed to her. I began to drum. I drummed softly at first but then louder, until I drummed with abandon. My awkwardness fell away as I entered the heartbeat of the drum and moved into total focus — into the familiar, ancient and sacred. Eyes closed, rooted to the earth like the tree before me, I drummed on behalf of the entire Village and I felt them with me. My breath was the smoke of a fire as I called in the directions by name. East, South, West, North, Above and Below. I drummed and prayed because our lives depended on it. Not just Sharon’s, though she was in grave danger. In ways large and small, all of us—all living beings including the Earth—are endangered. As I drummed on the sidewalk outside the bastion of modern medicine, I engaged with the larger field on behalf of all healing. It was an act of faith and a restoration of an old form converging at the threshold of the best that medical technology has to offer. I didn’t know it then, but at that threshold, I was made whole again. When I entered the hospital, I had arrived at last, fully embodied.
Joining Sharon’s family in the pre-op waiting area, I settled in, still altered by what had occurred outside on the street. I felt strangely calm. The Tree and the Earth and the drumbeat thrummed through my body. My perception was sharper yet the edges where bodies ended and objects began were softened into a subtle blur. I sat quietly, aware of the juxtaposition of what I had just done outside and the windowless solemnity of the hospital interior. I had made the prescribed offerings and asked permission to enter. I had asked the spirits to accept the offerings made. Would they? Had they? Do we really know what it means to make an offering? Here was that old mind again, needing to know for sure.
Soon we were called into the pre-op holding area where Sharon was resting on a gurney in light blue gown and surgical cap. We all piled into the tiny space cordoned off by beige floor-to-ceiling curtains. Had anyone else noticed that on Sharon’s hospital gown, just over her heart, was the imprint of a bear paw? I gasped in surprise. I made eye contact with Sharon, pointing to my chest and then to hers. Her eyes lit up. Yes, she had seen it. Bear, so important to Sharon’s healing path. I was there the night before, when the medicine woman Terri drummed and sang for Sharon over speaker phone and told us that a bear had come to her land as she prepared to sing songs for healing. I remembered when Sharon had been ill and slept under the bear skin at Deena’s and was taught the bear dance which she ‘performed’ ritually at a medicine council. Now Bear was here at this critical juncture, literally a sign on her chest.
I stepped out of the room as each member of her family went in to have a moment alone with Sharon before her surgery. I was the last to reenter. I was full of emotion as I looked at my friend, who was ready to go into this serious, arduous surgery. I pulled out my pouch of tobacco, opened it widely and without words, held it up to Sharon’s nose. She took a long deep breath and smiled, the tension and worry leaving her face. I lifted the pouch to my nose and took a deep whiff. The intermingling of the sweet aroma of plant and earth with the hospital smells of alcohol and latex gloves bonded us and the journey we were on together, and grounded me in order to be fully present. The power of that moment moves me to this day. I reached into my pouch. I pinched a bit of the dry brown tobacco and sprinkled it on Sharon’s head as we gazed into each other’s eyes. Who was making the offering now? My beloved friend was going off into the wilderness on a vision quest. There was no other way to think about it. She would be stripped down, taken over, and if we were lucky, she would return with wisdom that might restore us all. The sweet scent of tobacco lingered in my nose as she was taken away.
More Allies Appear
Many hours passed before we would know the outcome of Sharon’s surgery. Questions from the family, the gravity of the situation, and the many hours waiting had eroded my earlier calm. So much unknown lay ahead of us. At last we were given instructions to go to Sharon’s room where she had just been transferred after her recovery room stay. We stepped off the elevator on the eleventh floor and I stopped dead in my tracks. There, illuminated by the late day sun streaming in through a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, stood Lion, in the form of a three-foot tall wooden statue. In a lifetime spent working in hospitals, I had never before seen a lion in one of those hallways. I was so startled, both our mouths were open—mine in astonishment, his in a roar. I half expected the Lion to walk towards me, like the grey wolf in my dream. Lion, one of my closest spiritual allies. Lion, so central to our journeys, Sharon’s and mine. Perhaps this was a sign that our offerings and prayers on behalf of all beings had been accepted.
I believed then that in the river that had taken us, healing and restoration had already begun. Sharon had survived the first surgery, the tumor was removed. A long journey still lay ahead and Sharon would endure more surgery and many challenges in and out of hospitals over the next two years. But in the ways of Village Medicine, we would not be alone. Snake, Tree, Earth, Water, Corn, Wolf, Buffalo, Bear, Lion and so many dreams and omens had come and continued in a steady stream to offer their assurances and guidance, and to keep us afloat through the turbulent waters of the days and months ahead.
* * *
Today, Sharon walks this Earth without pancreatic cancer, a miracle we acknowledge every day. All of us who have made this journey with her have been altered in some way by this experience we have shared together; by the immense beauty in which healing unfolds; by the courage that Sharon modeled and which we can all find within ourselves when we shift from a focus on the individual to ‘all our relations’; when instead of acting out of fear, we become vessels of love and compassion. Village Medicine answers so many questions for me about what it means to heal. Today, I swim in a sea of gratitude for all that has been given.
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About the Author
Karen Mutter is a practicing physician in Clearwater, Florida. She founded Integrative Medicine Healing Center in 1998 to pursue the exploration of healing outside the confines of western medicine. Informed by specialty training in internal medicine, she relies on shamanic practices, dreams, the natural world, nutrition, osteopathic practices and principles, compassion and love as her primary healing modalities. She is an aspiring writer, peacemaker and policy changer of medical education and practice.