We are the Keepers

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
— The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.


In describing our inseparable connection to all of life, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about seeing the cloud in a piece of paper. Without clouds, there can be no rain, without rain, there can be no trees, without trees, there can be no paper. So within a piece of paper, there is a cloud. He calls this Interbeing. I’ve been thinking about Thich Nhat Hanh a lot lately, wondering how he is capable of seeing a cloud in a piece of paper after all that he has actually seen with his very eyes: the senseless destruction of his Motherland, the systematic murder of his friends, the bombing and poisoning of women and children. He has developed a sense of seeing beyond what we see with our eyes.

In some ways, the practice of Chinese Medicine is a practice of seeing beyond what is apparent to our eyes. This past month, when I was in the Navajo lands treating patients, many came suffering from layers of pain that burrows in their bodies. A Western doctor might see diabetes, obesity, poor food choices, slipped discs, insomnia and depression. My eyes are trained to see through the diagnostic principles of Chinese Medicine: yin deficiency, excess dampness, qi and blood stagnation. Beyond mere diagnosis, however, I look deeper. And in looking deeper, I see the effects of white supremacy: genocide, rape, poverty, and the systematic attempts to erase Native Peoples. Their bodies carry history of unimaginable pain and profound grief. If pharmaceuticals and surgery are the answer to what the Western doctors see, how do I respond to what I see? What is the medicine for the violence, isolation, destruction around us? Do I offer needles and herbs instead of surgery and pharmaceuticals? What is the medicine that takes into account the whole picture and what is the whole picture?.

For years I’ve advocated Chinese Medicine as not just a set of tools, but a way of seeing. A way of seeing that connects everything around us, much like Thich Nhat Hanh’s thoughts on Interbeing. If we don’t hold steady to that way of seeing, then even with needles and herbs, we may be just trying to fix a symptom. Without seeing deeper into all the connections that make a person, we are not truly practicing Chinese Medicine. To see the Whole person is the beginning of healing. To reclaim all parts and to see the body as not just a set of  symptoms but as witness to history, our shared history and to understand all the forces that are currently affecting us is understanding the Whole person. When we can see that, there is a natural healing response in both the patient and I. The patient’s response may be one of affirming and allowing the flood of held back emotions and in seeing clearly, engaging the whole self in self-care. Often, my response is as witness, to hold space for what comes forward for healing and then through the medicine to honor the body’s innate healing process.

Sometimes, when I see the injustice that gives rise to sick bodies, a great anger grows inside me. When I feel this rage, my response is aggression--to fight a system, a disease, a person that represents those things to me. I have to remind myself that although my response is anger, my responsibility is to heal. They are almost opposites and yet they inform one another. The former gives rise to greater pain, the latter gives rise to true peace. For a long time, I have been trying to figure out the best action as a response and a responsibility towards what I see. For me, when I see a piece of paper, sometimes I see deforestation more readily than I see a cloud.

After the second full day of clinic on Navajo lands and seeing pain and grief in so many bodies of all ages, I felt that I myself was becoming the embodiment of pain, anger and despair. My shoulders felt weighted, my ankles ached, my jaws clenched, and my heart felt like a stone. I took a walk into the desert to shake this feeling. I could feel that the heaviness inside me was going to make me sick if I didn’t do something about it. As I walked, I talked to the Creator and asked for help. The Creator’s response was silence. I suppose She was holding space for me.

I sat beneath the shade of a tree. The Navajo desert is bewitching in its beauty. The mountains and hills, brush and canyons transfixes me in quiet awe. The ball of despair and anger in my chest started to disintegrate and I started to feel the breath come back inside me. I felt the hard smooth rock beneath me and its unwavering support and I felt a great gratitude for the cool shade that sheltered me from the afternoon sun. My body became lighter and lighter, my mind became softer and softer, my heart grew bigger and bigger and I become as light as the clouds in the sky.

I can see the wisdom in seeing the cloud in a piece of paper although I cannot always see it where it is not apparent. To see the cloud is to see what heals. And as long as there are those that see the clouds in everything--the Keepers of wisdom, I believe there is hope for us. The Keepers of wisdom see the clouds, the desert, the mountains and rivers. They are people like Thich Nhat Hanh insistent on peace with every step. They are the Chinese sages who understand the rhythms of Nature and our place in it. They are the Navajo elders and Medicine People who hold onto Native wisdom and knowledge. These Keepers hold steadfast to the Truth for their people and for all of us.

Thinking back on the families that made the trek to see us for healing, I see beautiful people, open, curious and strong.  They trusted our Medicine and allowed us to treat them and listen to their stories. They brought their children, who weaved laughter in and out of clinic, played in the rocks and brush and grabbed us all by the hands, urging us to join them under open desert skies. Medicine is as much a way of seeing as doing. Healing is a coming together, making us Whole again. And the Keepers are not only the Medicine People and the Wise Ones. They are the Children and You and I when we have the courage to open our eyes and see with our hearts.

In Health and Community, 

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