Miracles in Native Medicine
I trained as a conventional physician. I attended Stanford University School of Medicine, completing residencies in family practice and in psychiatry, and achieved added qualifications in geriatrics. I have worked in emergency rooms for over twenty-five years, marveling at the technical wonders we can provide for patients on the verge of death. I loved the drama of saving lives, of using the technology appropriately, of intubating, inserting chest tubes, resuscitating, and stabilizing. I have also studied Native American healing for more than twenty-five years, being a “half-breed”; my ancestors gave me Cherokee, Lakota, Scotch, and French DNA.
I have walked with feet in two different worlds for my entire medical career. I did this because I grew up knowing that “Indian medicine” could help people when conventional medicine had nothing more to offer, and because I was struggling to find myself through finding my ancestors. I so desperately wanted to recapture for my own patients the amazing healings I remembered seeing as a child. Despite this, I couldn’t abandon science and technological medicine, which I also loved with a passion. I simply wanted to know what worked and when to use it.
During medical school I was excited by the possibilities of holistic medicine. Many of my classmates were also. We were an unusual class. We embarrassed Stanford by entering family practice or psychiatry in unprecedented numbers, or by establishing clinics in rural Tibet or Mexico. Others members of my class trained barefoot doctors in Central America. Stanford changed its admissions policies and its entirely elective curriculum thanks to us, for we were too unruly. A decision was made to admit only science majors to the medical school. Other restrictions followed.
I probably would have been admitted anyway; I majored in biophysics in college. But I have pursued the healing traditions of my ancestors, believing that they were the original holistic doctors of North America. I believed that what evolved through Indian medicine has applications in and power for treating patients on this continent.
What did I learn from my studies of medical miracles with Native American healers?
1. The necessity of relationship. People who have experienced medical miracles didn’t heal in isolation. No one heals alone. Relationship is necessary, as are guides--whether we call them healers, medicine women, doctors, or therapists. An island cannot transform itself. The implication of the oft-quoted statement of Jesus that He is there whenever two or more people are gathered is that He is not as powerfully present with only one person in isolation; relationship matters.
2. The importance of acceptance and surrender. A second lesson from exceptional patients is the importance of accepting that what we want may not be what we get. None of the exceptional patients I studied were obsessed with the goal of curing. They kept it in perspective. Learning how to nurture the desire to be well and to accept the lack of guarantee is a meditation unto itself. “Easy desire” is a phrase for contemplation.
3. Focus on the present. The patients who find miracles are largely present-focused, not dwelling excessively in the past or the future. Stress and anxiety are lessened when we remain focused in the present. Worry is about the future; bitterness and resentment come from the past. Emotions in the present are limited to the basic collection of anger, sadness, love, and joy. These are the primary emotions that are easiest to express.
4. The importance of community. Modern medicine lacks an understanding of the importance of community, though my patients who found miracles all found and were nurtured by community. People thrive in community, like the desert blossoming after the rain. I help patients find a community of people who also believe in the possibility of healing. The community members can learn from and support each other, despite having different illnesses or problems. Having a community nurtures hope in times of despair.
5. Transcending blame. People who heal have gotten over the idea of blaming themselves for their illness. They have gotten past finding fault in themselves or others, knowing that blame is counterproductive to creating hope and healing. Similarly, they have forgiven themselves and let go of bitterness and resentment.
6. The importance of the spiritual dimension. Native American philosophy teaches that all healing is first spiritual healing. Whatever else we do--including herbs, diet, radiation, surgery, bodywork, or medications--we need to humbly ask for help from the spiritual realm. This term is sufficiently generally enough to include all religion. People with a spiritual practice do better with any illness than those lacking religious beliefs; we must make ourselves available to the Divine for healing. Spirit is a necessary link in the chain that creates healing and miracles. Spirit cannot be ignored, whether it is to give our pain back to the earth or to accept healing from the earth, angels, or God.
7. Profound change. Profound change means that you must become a different person in some fundamental, recognizable, important way. The extreme version of this is the Cherokee practice of giving the desperate patient a new name, which means a new identity, since name is identity. In this practice the person immediately has a new family, a new role in the community, and new friends, while his old identity was given a funeral.
If all healing is fundamentally spiritual healing, then we must make ourselves available to God or the spiritual realm to be healed. In medieval times the touch of an angel restored health. It still does today. Ceremony and ritual provide the means of making ourselves available for that touch.