Healing in the Community

Ever since my experience with breast cancer in the seventies I have been living by the dictum that we heal life and then life heals us. In 1977, when this idea first came to me, it had a relatively simple application. A life-threatening disease forces you to scrutinize your life, heart and soul. It isn’t only the idea of time running out that inspires people who are ill to change jobs or vocations, leave or enter relationships, or sell the city apartment for the move to the country, it is the recognition that there is a mysterious relationship between right living and healing. Right living, however it manifests for an individual, changes the odds: the deepening of your sense of joy, purpose, or meaning seems to extend life, whether it literally does or not. Beginning from my own experience with breast cancer, and later through the work I have done as a healer and medicine woman, I have found that coming alive is sometimes the true medicine for affliction.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was forty. I immediately saw cancer’s imperialistic qualities. A story too long to tell here led me to see that cancer can develop out of silence, out of being silenced. So I considered its relationship to fascism. Then I examined the ways cancer warred against my body. I was forced to pick up the sword, surgery, but refused the modern lethal weapons that endanger the entire planet—the bomb and chemical warfare—that is, radiation and chemotherapy. I needed to find a healing path that would not endanger the world. I could not forswear modern warfare and tolerate it in my body. Accordingly, the healing path I chose had to be anti-imperialistic and anti-fascist, personally and globally. Finally I asked environmental questions: what effects do the manufacture, use, and disposal of medicines and treatments have upon the natural world? Again, I couldn’t choose my own health while endangering other beings. What was good for me had to be good for everyone. Then, I changed my life. Drastically. I stopped teaching in public institutions so that I could work with integrity. I moved to a small house in a rural area. I was lucky. I survived.

People who chose right-living as a way to heal themselves rarely indulge in the kind of hedonism or narcissism that one might expect. The changes that I have witnessed have been, dare I say, “wholesome.” People who undertook this path began to opt for simpler lives rather than luxurious ones, for intimacy rather than adventure, for meaning rather than excitement. And so the healing of their lives had a beneficial effect on those around them. They found that in healing their individual life they could not but positively affect their families and their kin-net, their communities.

Then something else began to occur. As a culture, we began to learn to extend healing and kindness to each other, first with cancer—breast cancer, in particular—and later with AIDS when that disease became epidemic. People began to cultivate communities to care for each other. Many caregivers testified that the year or years they spent caring for their loved one was the most important time in their lives. First illness called forth the essential scrutiny of one’s life, a critique that extended to the culture and the society. Then it called forth a healing culture, communities of caring which were, until that time, unlikely in the urban frenzy that characterized most everyone’s existence.

As a corollary to these changes, the communities afflicted by these diseases began to study the relationship between our society’s assault on the environment, its amoral economic and commercial development, and the illnesses that people were suffering. In the process, a connection between personal illness and public welfare developed. People began to realize that the lives they were living were killing them and others; they turned their attention to the devastation of the natural world, to the increasing toxicity that saturates every aspect of daily life. Despite our culture’s inclination to privatize illness, we gradually came to see that individuals were suffering a common jeopardy. A friend and colleague of mine, a psychologist, commented that she despaired in her work because no sooner was a patient healed than the patient re-entered the fray of daily life and was immediately undone or contaminated again. In order to heal herself, the patient had to heal the circumstances in which she was living, whatever they might be—her family, her place of employment, the land. No one could be healed individually without extending healing to others.

People began to think differently about illness. We no longer focused only on curing the physical body. Confronting illness began to be seen as a profound journey through which the healing of our own soul and the healing of the soul of the community were intertwined. Physical healing is not always possible but the expansion of the heart and the gathering of wisdom seem valuable in themselves, seem also to affect the physical condition, whether through extending one’s life or easing suffering. Healing the soul, contributing to the welfare of the community, we found, had a profound affect on the well-being of the individual.

These are simple ways of speaking about healing and the relationship between individual and community healing. But now, so many years later, something else is becoming visible, subtler and perhaps more profound. A few weeks ago, a woman called me for healing. She said she was depressed. Sometimes suicidal. She wanted a miracle cure. I asked her what she was offering for healing. I was not speaking of a fee. I was speaking of the reciprocity that is at the core of spiritual and wisdom traditions. Before you ask the Divine for a favor, you make an offering as a common courtesy. One person may offer sage or cornmeal, another snuff, while another may give charity.

But I was thinking of yet another kind of offering, one that is exacting and effortful. The intent and devotion of such an offering may be expressed by Jews through saying heenayni (I am here), or by pledging dvaykut (I bind myself to You). The offering we must make to experience full healing is also the very core of healing or prayer. Sometimes the offering is our life. Not that we offer to give up our life, but that we offer to devote it entirely to Divinity. Making such an offering of ourselves changes the nature of the individual. It also creates the ground where healing or response can occur. One can say that it is the offering and not the response that heals.

The individual who is ill or afflicted often feels incapable of giving anything. But that is the point of this work: incapable or not, an offering needs to be made and the effort and discipline of making it, despite the circumstances, transforms the situation. Suddenly, we are someone else—the one who makes the offering. Everything has changed.

Soon we learn that praying for healing is not exactly the right prayer. The right prayer is more likely to be: Please show me the way of healing. Show me the healing path. Now we are closer to the possibility of healing. Healing becoming a way of life, not a single event. A way of life that affects others. And what might the healing path be? A path in alignment with Spirit. Rather than asking the Divine to extend a boon to us, we find ourselves asking to live according to Divine precepts that are beneficial for the whole, in such a way that benefits all beings. This turns out to be the way of our healing. We have started to heal our lives so that our lives can heal us.

An old friend calls. Her life has fallen apart. She does not know whether her suffering comes from not using her gifts the way she dreamed or whether she simply can no longer bear the wretchedness of the world. Everything that was beautiful and hopeful has turned to dust. I remember that among her many gifts, all of which seem useless to her now, she has a beautiful voice. I do not listen very long to the litany of her grief. Instead, I ask her, exhausted though she is, to jump on a plane and come to Los Angeles. “We can teach you how to heal others with the beauty of your voice.” Surprisingly she comes. She spends the entire day praying and then making an offering to others. When she leaves, she is still aware of the unbearable suffering that is around her, yet now she is enlivened and can feel the presence of Spirit.

The healing path does not save us from suffering. But it shows a way of carrying what is otherwise insupportable.

In the last year I have been anguished by the policies of the Bush administration. The unelected president is speaking of “the axis of evil” and bombing the innocent people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Muslims in this country are being terrorized while in Israel the IDF has invaded Jenin and there are rumors of atrocities.

I am a Jewish woman. I studied the Holocaust for ten years. I made a pilgrimage to the death camps. I wrote a novel, The Other Hand, about the Holocaust and the Bomb. I am Jewish and I cannot bear what is happening in Israel. Like my friend, I suddenly feel the world is too full of suffering. I look for a healing path.

I begin by donning a kaffiyeh (scarf) in solidarity with the Palestinian people. I cannot support these wars. There has to be a way of peace and reconciliation, a way of living on the land that honors all the beings of the land. Even if I do not know the way yet, still I am determined to stand there and insist we search it out. I cannot bear the way of making enemies. But the act of putting on a kaffiyeh creates antagonism around me. Bitterness. Accusations. Fear. Anger. This peacemaking gesture arouses ire in the community. Not peace, but war.

Sometime afterwards I become ill. Esophageal spasms and ulcerations. I begin to suffer pain and weakness in my spine. Simultaneously, I am devoured and broken down. The medical approach brings relief and then it doesn’t. I begin to experience side effects. Something else is required. I scrutinize myself. I turn to the healers in my community, my students, friends and colleagues. Against my inclinations, I allow the boundaries between us to disappear. Healer and healed become equals in a healing community. We return healing to the center of the community where it belongs. The reality of affliction calls us into different relationships with each other and calls forth new skills and abilities. Spontaneously, we treat each other with extraordinary gentleness in reverse proportion to the violence being enacted in our names. This circle of healing will become important for my own healing.

I also consult another healer, Elliot Cowan, who is Jewish and from New York like myself, and affiliated, also, with another tribal healing tradition. I convey what I understand of my condition. He asks what I have been dreaming. I tell him:

I was on the subway. It was dark in the train station and murky. The station is Gravesend Bay. I’ve gone too far. I must go back though I fear the men in the station. They are dressed the way my father and his friends dressed in the Thirties. Woolen caps, small peaks. Wool tweed jackets. Arbeitering. The way a poor writer like my father might dress before World War II. A man looks me in the eye. Somehow, I know his name: Yankel Peretz. Isaac Peretz was the poet my father loved best.

Cowan says, “These Jewish ancestors are concerned that you are forgetting them. You have not been skillful. You wanted to act peaceably, but you created disharmony. And so you are being torn apart.”

He advises me to do a peace ritual of reconciliation that will bring peace to all. He stares at me knowingly and says, “You know how to do this.”

A friend dreams that I am of a tribe called Brooklyn Indigenous. She dreams that my ancestors are afraid that I will forget them. An African medicine man does a ceremony to dispel the anxiety between my people and myself.

I say prayers. I do the rituals. I wear a tallit and use the kaffiyeh as my altar cloth. I make offerings. The first offering is the willingness to listen. The second is that I will learn and practice peaceableness wherever I go. Thirdly, I create a text that invokes the Holy Letters as peacemakers. I speak with an Arab scholar about writing a parallel text in Arabic to my text of the Holy Letters as peacemakers.

Entering the Ghost River: Meditation on the Theory and Practice of Healing, is the book I am writing about healing and peacemaking. As the text develops, I see that they are the same. The text of the Holy Letters becomes part of the book. The Holy Letter that holds this connection is Samech, round like an “O.” I place Samech on each page to invoke peace and healing for the community. I place Samech on each page to remind us that we are all part of the endless circle: Jews, Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Americans, all of us, one.

I write these words: Samech—The circle. The sacred circle. Everyone and everything is within and necessary for the circle’s completion. No one and no thing are above another.… We search out the stories of peacemaking. We are all, in our different ways and languages, the servants of the sacred and the endless cycle of life. Samech verifies the completeness that we feel when we are dancing with each other. The endless cycle. The ways and shapes of Divinity entering the world and Creation rising toward Spirit. Samech is the shape of the future.

So, at the moment when the IDF entered Jenin, I began, as a counter measure, to think about the Holy Letters as agents, as angels of peacemaking: “In the ancient tradition of Kabbalah, the quality and spiritual energy of the Holy Letters can be invoked for the sake of Creation. To do this with a pure heart, is to humbly pray that a door be opened so that the Divine can enter and suffuse the world.” As I enter into this ritual work, my body is restored. I rely less and less on medical treatments and prescriptions. I try to be peaceable in my heart and soul. I pray for a vision of the healing path. I study what it really means to be a peacemaker. I look for the ways of peacemaking in every tradition. I pray for the world and offer myself to it. Slowly, I am healing. Call it a miracle.

In my mind, there is a direct relationship between the healing of my body and the healing of the world. Where healing and peacemaking are one, they are the bridge between individual healing and the healing of the community. I do not ask for my healing without committing entirely to the healing of the other as the small possibilities of the healing of the world are sacred gifts extended to me as well. The world’s body. My body. The same. This is the very nature of healing.