Thinking about Healing

By Deena Metzger

A good question is a great gift.  A good question can cohere a community or transform one’s identity. A good question can change one’s life.

A good question came to me in 1997 or thereabouts and I offered it to the community.  A group of women gathered to address the question, and over time, approximately seventy-five women met regularly with me on Wednesday mornings to consider the question and allow themselves to be changed by the answers.  We became the women who were carrying such a question and our lives reflected it.  We didn’t keep it to ourselves; it was just that we considered it faithfully week after week, in all its dimensions.  Men joined us, of course, in considering it but seemed unable to give the time regularly to it.  Or it was more risky for a man to carry it for there was no way to do so without being changed in every aspect of one’s life.

In 1997, the question was:  What will it mean to be a healer in the 21st century?

In 2000 the question became:  What does it mean to be a healer in the 21st century?

I had been aware that the entire nature of healing was calling to be revisioned and that some of us wanted to be part of that re-imagining.  We were successful, it seems, for our assumptions about illness, distress, disease are so very different now than they were in the 90s and earlier.  Daré, which came some years later in 1999, and equally included men and women, changed the dialogue again and now it is difficult to imagine who we might be without considering how Daré or council mind has entered our consciousness and transformed us.   Daré would probably not exist if the Wednesday morning group had not stepped forward to help me call Daré into being.

1997 was not the first time that such a question was addressed in what we now call the Topanga community, which does not imply an exclusive group, but rather a location that aspires to guarantee sanctuary to and support for certain on-going conversations and investigations on behalf of the community of all beings and the future.

How we might heal and what healing would look like was the focus of the first woman’s group that began gathering in Topanga on Wednesday mornings in 1981.  One question we asked then was: What is the Story of illness and what is the Story of healing?  Recognizing that illness is a complex story and that story provides meaning and that meaning and healing are interconnected, vitalized our lives.  Finding the story in the illness or the affliction and then the story in the healing was essential for women who were being altered and sustained by feminism.  We were searching for our lives.

We were also reeling with the new incidences of cancer and auto-immune diseases, as well as rape, abuse and other social diseases that were requiring us to understand illness differently.  We began to re-examine our understanding of the causes of various illnesses, and so also we re-examined our responses – emotionally, politically, environmentally and spiritually.   With the rise of breast cancer, we considered the image of the many breasted Artemis.  We began to ponder the connection between fragging, friendly fire and auto-immune diseases.  We saw that there might be mysterious connections between inflammation and an enflamed world.

As I write this, I realize that we were taking responsibility for the understanding of health and of illness as we were taking responsibility for our own lives.  We were wrestling such concerns from the hegemony that western medicine had presumed until then.  As the questions we were asking then seemed like personal questions, we could not quite see what the social, political and cultural consequences of asking such questions might turn out to be.  Though many of the women who gathered were professional women and many also involved in the healing arts, being a professional was not a criterion for taking responsibility for one’s life and the lives of those around one.

The questions and concerns centered on circumstances in our own lives.  We were trying to heal from years or centuries of pain and injury.  Only later were we ready to ask what we might offer, and how, to the community and world at large.  This question led to what it means to be a healer in the 21st century.  Daré began in 1999, as did the first Women Healer’s Intensive.  We wanted to become healers in the ways that were opening before us.  We wanted to introduce new ways, forms and understandings of healing to the world.

In Daré we learned that community heals and that community, also, was calling to be healed.  We also learned that becoming a healer is a process of initiation and we began to yield to that strange and unpredictable process; it often took us down and reformulated us, not necessarily with our fullest enthusiasm.  The women in the Wednesday morning group held each other as we entered or were drawn into the inner and spiritual encounters that could well take months and even years to navigate.  Even as we pursued these questions rigorously, a healing group of men and women who were connected with Daré gathered with me on Monday afternoons to carry such questions into their own lives and into the community.

History moves fast in these times.  Each quick change accelerates the next.  Questions that in the past might have, or should have, been able to linger, to be considered over decades or longer, now demanded quick responses and thrust us toward the next questions. In a very short time it was not sufficient to think about oneself and one’s needs for healing alone.  Soon it was no longer even appropriate to think only of how to be a healer for the members of the community who were coming to us for healing.   We also saw that the healer was as vulnerable as the patient.  The many different walls that we had thought might protect us from the extremity of suffering and disorder came down.  And just when we saw that no one was immune to also realized we could no longer think exclusively about human beings.  Circumstances were changing.  Needs were becoming dire even while our understanding expanded.  Now we were called to think of the future beings and what they require and to think of the earth, and its creatures, to think of the round of all beings:

How do we meet all our relations and bring healing to the world?  How can we be healing presences?  What is the nature of the deep changes we have undergone?  How do we live the lives that we have called into being and that have been called into being through us and the others across the globe who are on similar paths?  What cultural changes are called for through us?

When one is truly successful, the questions one is asking move from the individual to the small groups and then out into the society at large.  We no longer know where all the questions originated but are aware that we are living in and contributing to a vital culture that is asking such questions.  And as these questions are considered globally, the culture changes and we find ourselves living in a different world.

Often when a new mandate comes, it takes precedence, but that does not mean that the prior concerns disappear.  Some individuals may be ready for the new call and some may have other work to do. No one individual, group, circle or society can hold all the questions at once for everyone.  A viable culture is continually developing, changing, revisioning.  A viable culture is always originating new questions and addressing them as if its life and vitality depend on such inquiries.

The questions developed and transformed as if they were living entities.  But they didn’t arise alone out of our own growing understanding and circumstances. They arose out of consideration of how healers had lived in the past and out of a growing appreciation of the remaining healing practices that are still viable in the few indigenous communities that are managing to exist, despite all manner of assaults, around the globe.  Intuitive understanding and innate gifts began to be respected alongside professional training.  Many of us were drawn to study and apprentice with those indigenous healers who are still alive, practicing and healing.  In order to study with such medicine people and truly learn, we have to enter into the cultures that held their teachings for such wisdom cannot exist outside a context.  Appropriately, many of us were drawn into such deep study.  What we have only very recently come to glimpse is that these old ways, in turn, called us to create parallel cultures that can hold the new understanding we have gained about the nature and ways of healing.

These cultures are profoundly informed by many streams of aboriginal wisdom, but healing in the 21st century calls additionally for new cosmologies and new ethical relationships.  We are all called in trustworthy alliances.  Once again, indigenous traditions and aboriginal people are stepping forth to meet the global disasters we are all suffering, becoming leaders in identifying and protesting the grave environmental, social, political and economic practices that are endangering all life.  By doing so they call us to accountability. The specific call for immediate and global change from the Elder Brothers, the Kogi in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Columbia has been echoed by native peoples everywhere concerned with water, air, earth, mining, fertility, global warming, desertification, diseases, radiation poisoning of people and the earth, toxicity, violence, poverty, addiction, mass extinctions  everywhere on the planet.

Parallel to the questions we were considering about healing, was the growing awareness that healing is intrinsically connected with spirit.  Indigenous cultures have always known this; those of us who have sought the ways of healing are grateful to have learned some of the ways of spirit from them.  Even as people began to be drawn away from the exclusive authority of western medicine, they were also drawn away from orthodox religion and / or adamant secularism toward different spiritual traditions or toward a personal spirituality.

When we first began to think about healing in these new ways, we didn’t understand that spirit was such an actor in our lives.  We had thought our relationship with spirit was a private affair, able to be separate from our public, community or work lives. But we soon realized that spirit had been sitting with us in our circle for several years and sitting with us, has been directing our investigations.

We were not the only ones engaged in such questioning.  What seemed like – and were indeed unique investigations  – were in their own ways occurring in many different places.   We were certainly not the only ones carrying deep concern for the state of the world, western medicine included.  And so there was ferment, excitement, cross-fertilization and inspiration.  We found ourselves in fields of questions and concerns that in the professional worlds would be identified and institutionalized, more quickly than expected, as alternative or complementary medicine.  The practitioners of these different ways were gradually earning the respect of conventional medicine and often practicing in professional settings including medical clinics and hospitals.  And if all people from different cultures and ethnicities were not able to avail themselves regularly of the medicines from their particular tradition that had developed over centuries, as we had hoped, many were able, at least, to supplement conventional medical practice with some forms of the old ways.  And if we cannot yet find zoes, ngangas, medicine people, hataa’lii, singers, shamans and curanderos in doctor’s offices, or Chinese medicines, homeopathic remedies and botanicas in our major hospitals and in pharmacies, it is at least more frequently suggested that acupuncture, biofeedback, cranial sacral work, massage, therapeutic touch, journal writing, meditation, music therapy, yoga, movement, sound healing, herbal and vitamin supplements, etc. become part of the treatment for illness.  These are not quite spiritual healing practices. Alternative and complementary medicine may supplement conventional medicine but they have not yielded fully to those insights and values of indigenous wisdom that can be so healing to medicine itself.   When I asked an eminent physician, associated with a world renowned medical school and hospital, why he valued indigenous healers, he responded immediately, “First of all, they are so kind and so devoted and this changes everything.”

Further, what has not yet occurred in the world at large are the redefinitions of illness that accord with more aboriginal ways of knowing.  These old ways consider the interactions of body, soul, community, earth and the spirits in trying to understand any disease and any way of healing.  Only to consider the body, or one’s chemistry, must be seen as extremely naïve and limited.  Disease rather describes a vastly complex and interactive world, particular to the circumstances of each suffering individual.  In our circles we were beginning to see the parallels between the afflictions in our bodies and the afflictions in our communities, nationally, and of the earth.

Though it may have become a cliché among some of us to think metaphorically and pragmatically, of wars and imperialist expansion as cancers, as I first described this in Tree in 1977, standard medical practice still does not specifically consider war, war trauma and war-mentality in the etiology of illness.  We do not acknowledge that we are afflicted by the violations our ancestors both perpetrated and suffered, that much of our illness may not be our own, or that disease is as much the consequence of violating our hearts and souls as it may be the result of an invading microbe or virus.  We are ostrich-postured in relationship to PTSD, agent orange, DU, chemical warfare, etc.  We do not respect the horrific effects on the psyche of afflicting extreme pain, torture, and devastation on others, especially  civilians and children.  Ed Tick author of the remarkable War and the Soul, calls these the moral wounds that combatants suffer when they act against their conscience.  Countless physical illnesses occurring in military and civilian populations related to chemical and nuclear weaponry have not received the extreme attention and concern that is required.  At least, however, in our communities, we are acting on the understanding that many diseases are reflections of global distress and so we are seeking those single gestures and activities that can simultaneously bring healing to ourselves, the community and the earth.

As often happens when great and significant change is occurring, resistance to change becomes even more entrenched.  In certain areas, a greater breach began to form between conventional medical practices, pharmaceutical hegemonies and professional definitions of illness that held that treatment must be limited to trained and recognized professionals, while many of us were moved by the patients’ and our own ability to understand our conditions and heal ourselves through enhancing our own innate healing abilities.  Several years later, I learned that we were following the intelligence inherent in cranial sacral work – find the intrinsic health in the body and ally with it.

At this juncture, we also see that many of the rampant and extreme modern diseases have environmental causes. Therefore, we are responsible.  This understanding calls us again, even more desperately, to changing our lives and so the culture and thus acting to heal ourselves and the earth simultaneously.  Too often medicine and medical treatments are a primary cause of environmental contamination.  Medicine can be said to have run amuck.  It has not developed immunity to the global madness.  Commercial and power interests determinedly challenge ideas of generosity, gift-giving, interconnection, inter-dependency, kin and village relationships – these latter being the very foundation of Daré and Daré mind.  The conflict between iatrogenesis and healing has become extreme. And so it has become obvious to many of us that western medicine itself needs healing.  “Physician heal thyself” and “First do no harm” has new implications and some of us are stepping forward to revision medicine itself.

We do not know where we are being led now.  We cannot know what the next questions will be until they arrive.  It may be that we will be called to question beyond the health and healing of our own individual bodies.  It may be we will learn to see and feel the body of the communities we are part of with as much awareness and sensitivity as we now experience our own selves, and to see and feel the body of the earth that we are part of, as vividly and sympathetically as we perceive our own selves.  If a group or community recognizes itself as both an injured and healing body, how might that lead us to entirely new understandings? What might it mean that healing must begin before the symptoms of illness appear and that healing is a way of life not a treatment?

I write this at a juncture in my own life where I am called to review the work I have innovated and completed and to scrutinize the life I have lived in order to determine exactly how I am called to proceed now.  What requires attention at this time?  Aging can offer the gift of an imperative to step out of habits of mind and life, to meet each moment freshly, to see what one is called to do and be in the remaining time. This same thoughtful urgency can accompany someone whose life is threatened by illness as it can awaken all of us to see that the overwhelming threat to all life necessarily includes ourselves.  This is the time, then, for all of us to examine the field and see how we can best bring to fulfillment what calls to be revisioned, developed and sustained.

As I write this, I feel the natural limitation of my own life but I am more concerned with the state of the world and the threat to the lives of all beings.  I wish it were different, as the mother does not want to survive her children, nor does the grandmother want to survive her grandchildren, but I do not feel my own life is more limited than the lives of the other beings around me.  It seems I will have the privilege of dying of old age which does not seem to be the privilege extended to most people and creatures on the planet, and to the planet itself.  I cannot preference my concern with my own life and my longevity. I must preference, and consider personal, the threat to and extinction of different species and the extreme suffering of almost all animal and plant life everywhere on the planet.

Therefore, as we are all equally threatened, we cannot, any of us, indulge naiveté about what we are being called to exactly because of the universal threat to all life.  Also we need to be aware that such questions as we have been considering have the possibility, as we have seen in the last decades, of leading to the changes, the new structures, the new visions, the new vital medicines that can heal the earth and all its creatures, including the human.

The questions I began asking in 1977 when I had cancer have developed and guided my life as I write this more than thirty years later.  Then I understood that “Disease is a messenger that advises us to change our lives.”  The messenger came in the form of story and we began to expand the process of diagnosis to include the story of the illness, the story the illness was involving us in, its historic, familial, ancestral, circumstantial, political, environmental, metaphoric, spiritual components.  We looked at dreams and synchronicities as rigorously as we looked at imbalances, growths and pain.  We also began to understand the full spiritual implications of “imbalance,” “unlimited growth” and “pain and suffering.” The particular illnesses we were suffering and the circumstances of our lives constituted and revealed the paths we were being called to walk.  Illness became initiation and a journey.  Accordingly we were called to ‘Heal the life so the life can heal us.”

The life that we are to heal, however, is not only our personal life.   Our lives exist in a context.  We have to live in the ways that are healing for ourselves, our families, our human and non-human communities and the earth – then we can heal – otherwise, really, it isn’t possible.  Healing  can be as ‘contagious’ as illness; this is one of its great strengths.  Healing depends upon vital interdependency while ecologies are the best models for healing systems.

These dictums are as true now as they were then; they repeatedly call us to new ways of being.  Even as I ask each one of you who is reading this to articulate the questions that you are carrying now for your own sake and for the sake of all beings, of all our relations, I am scrutinizing my own life, by writing this, and I am asking what questions need to be addressed in the narrowing time we have to transform.  This is a prayer and a quest that the process of life continue on this planet, be renewed and be restored to its natural and so blessed round of birth, life and death.