There is medicine, and then there’s Medicine. There is healing, and then there’s Healing. There is community, and then there’s Community. What I thought I understood about these things, even after many years of studying and practicing traditional medicine and my lifelong search for community was quite limited. This past month, I was blessed with the opportunity to be a patient at a traditional Navajo healing ceremony. What I’ve taken back from that experience is a deeper sense of commitment to healing service and a renewed determination to integrate community and justice into healing.
My journey took me to New Mexico, the land of of painted deserts and painted skies. I was immediately taken by the beauty of the landscape, pulling over on the freeway at sunset just to stare in wonder. Taking in the beauty of nature is an inherent part of the medicine. On the night of the ceremony, seventeen of us settled on the floor in a circle against the walls of a hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling. My eyes were trying to adjust to the light of the lanterns and the coal. I looked around me, taking in all the new faces that came that night to be in ceremony with me, to help me heal. I didn’t quite understand why thirteen Navajo people who didn’t know me would gather to support my healing in an all night vigil. My brain was trying to remember all the instructions that were given me, keeping them in the correct order so that I didn’t offend my hosts. Before us, in the center of the hogan, was a sacred crescent of red earth and a mound of burning coal that I focused my attention on when I felt lost or overwhelmed.
When the ceremony began, I was asked to announce my reason for being there. I reached for some rehearsed words, knowing that this moment would come. The words came, a bit stiffly at first, but as I spoke I eased into a deeper and more natural voice. I told them I was there because I want to be a better healer and in the work that I do, I know that I must start with myself. I spoke about some sense of disquietude that I felt inside me. I spoke a bit about my my childhood and the search for healing and community through my work. I could feel that I was heard as I spoke by the audible sounds that were uttered in return to punctuate and validate the words I was pulling up from deep inside me. From that place I asked for help and when I was done the medicine man, in plain speak, summed up my speech to say that I suffer from loneliness.
It was a bit jarring to hear his diagnosis: loneliness. I don’t think of myself as lonely, being surrounded by community, friends and family most of my day. In fact, in the day to day busy-ness I sometimes crave to be alone. But the simplicity and accuracy of the medicine man’s diagnosis was indisputable. As I considered his meaning, I understood clearly he was addressing a loneliness much deeper, not simply meaning to be alone, but a thread of loneliness that seemed to reach back eternal when I believed that I had to go it alone. After he spoke and the others concurred, I could feel the deep shard of disconnection inside the depths of my being make itself known.
Sitting up into the night, on a desert hill, in a little hogan before coal and ember, beneath the wide expanse of infinite stars scattered into forever with friends and community supporting my healing through song, medicine and prayer, the concept of loneliness disappeared and left a flow of tears that could’ve filled the canyons running through the dry earth.
We have come to consider medicine to be a pill or procedure. Something that is done to us either by chemistry or instrument. Something or someone designated to take the pain and discomfort away. While I had known that healing is much deeper than that, my experience in New Mexico showed me the truly profound depth and breadth of medicine. Medicine isn’t about taking anything away. We are already ill from too many things being taken away from us. If we keep taking things away, there will be nothing left of us. Medicine is about reconnecting with all the things that were taken from us: reconnecting to one another and to community, reconnecting to the land and to the skies, reconnecting to all things that give us life, reconnecting to music and spirit and to our own voices and words, reconnecting to our grief and our loss, reconnecting to fire and water, reconnecting to our human hearts. Our pain, put in the proper perspective of the universe becomes a tiny glint of light in the entire night sky. And that light is there to light the way for others. We do not and cannot heal alone.
My eternal gratitude to the Medicine, to the Healers, to my Companions, to Community, to Mother Earth and to the Great Mystery. May we all light the way for one another.
In Health & Community,
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