Kindling Spirit: Chapter 1
I am a physician; my specialty is psychiatry. I have spent my whole life trying to figure out: what's reality, how to separate science from superstition, and understanding the healing mystery. My practice has been a departure from conventional medicine. I spent the first 20 years working exclusively with American Indians; first as a general practitioner and later as Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center.
I've written about that transformational journey from medical doctor to healer in my earlier books. That journey began as first-born son of Holocaust survivors, raised in a traditional Jewish home in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, during World War II. That history has been a seminal influence in my life, and accounts for my identification with the down-trodden, and for my abiding mistrust of people and institutions in entrenched positions of power.
I was a child of the Sixties involved in civil rights demonstrations, and protesting against the war. When I graduated from medical school, I joined the Indian Health Service as my alternative to going to Vietnam. I thought I'd go for a couple of years, serve my obligatory time, and then move on with the rest of my life. But that experience turned out to be the rest of my life. Working with American Indians changed my life; they challenged my medical school assumptions about how people got sick and how they got well.
A Western-trained scientist, I believed everything could be explained. Even if we didn't know the answers now, sooner or later we'd discover them; I believed there was some logical, direct, causal relationship that explained all natural phenomena.
As a physician, I believed in evidence-based medicine; show me the reproducible facts and that will determine my practice. In Indian Country I got to meet some traditional healers (a term I use interchangeably with "medicine man" or "shaman"). Those people looked at my medical genius (the diagnostic machines and sophisticated surgery) in awesome disbelief, because what I saw as scientific they saw as magical. When I saw what the medicine man did, I thought that was magical, but they saw their practice as perfectly logical and explainable. They watched animals heal their bloody and infected wounds rubbing against certain trees and bushes that healed them. So they used the same plants when they were wounded. Of course, those people spent a lot of time studying those animals and plants. All modern pharmaceuticals are rooted in plants that shaman have known about for centuries.
I studied psychiatry at Yale, but I learned a whole new way of seeing into a patient's mind when I returned to Indian Country. I learned ways other than empathic listening to open a patient's mind; how to induce trance states by dancing, drumming, and chanting; the use of awesome psychodynamically powerful drugs opening channels into the unconscious mind. I was interested in working with traditional healers to help provide me with some framework to understand the cultural myths and stories that my patients believed could make them sick.
My credibility with traditional healers had nothing to do with my degrees and credentials; they wanted to know things about my relationship with my father, could I dance, and sing in my own tribal language. The most important thing was that they did not hold my degrees against me. I had diplomas hanging on my walls, but that didn't mean I knew anything about healing; there were no degrees dangling from my ceiling or embedded in the floor which didn't mean there was nothing to be learned by looking up or looking down.
I watched shaman remove blood clots from belly buttons, Elk teeth from armpits, place hot coals in their mouths and blow the sparks onto the patient's sick body. If a psychotic patient did not respond to my talk and drugs, I referred them to a medicine man. For example, I once saw a young pregnant woman with a fixed delusional system; she believed her unborn child had died in her womb, and even though she could hear its heart beating, she believed it was now turning into tar, small pieces of which were now clogging her blood vessels. In this psychotic state, she tried to get her dead baby out by sticking cigarettes into her bellybutton. Her symptoms began shortly after she saw a hummingbird fly into her bedroom and in its frantic attempt to escape break its neck behind a mirror. I gave her drugs, which sedated her into complete isolation, but didn't stop her delusions.
I asked a medicine man what this could be about and he explained that the dead bird was her clan totem and its death a message that some disaster would befall her. I asked him what he would do to treat her condition, and he said he would perform a ceremony in which he would be able to see inside her and get the dead bird out. The Indian Health Service paid a consulting fee to support this all-night ceremony, during which the healer showed her the feathers he had extricated from her belly. She got better and I was awed.
Slowly I came to understand the similarity with my psychiatric language -- symptomatic behaviors are caused by trauma to the psyche, the incorporation of negative introjects, unconscious forces that get inside us and take us over. They are all another name for evil spirits, demons, and witchcraft.
Things get inside of us that can eat us apart; those that get inside early in our lives are harder to get out later on. The more ways you can find to help people get rid of what's killing them from within, the better you can heal them. It was only when I studied with Milton Erickson (a genius psychiatrist who I never heard about in my psychiatric training) that I understood how many ways there were to open channels into the unconscious mind.
I now incorporate traditional healing methods in my clinical practice; having discovered that healing is essentially a spiritual expedition, not a physical one. There is a difference between healing and curing. Healing takes place at the soul level and the process has less to do with getting better than it does with getting real. Healing is about learning to better play the hand you've been dealt rather than asking for a new deal.
It's been ten years since my last book; I thought I'd said everything that I had to say, that saying any more would be redundant. But I'm aging, and the person I spent so much time developing is not the man I am now. No matter how much time I spend trying to keep doing what I used to, something reminds me that I can't (my bladder pleads at night, my bones click, and I forget more stuff). I preach about staying open, and that change is good, but sometimes it's hard for me to keep an open mind and keep seeing what was once familiar in a new way.
I'm going to tell you some stories about my own healing journey, the struggles and the triumphs, and even occasional enlightenment. Even though I may have nothing new to say, the old material still needs to get reworked, because there are always new endings to the old stories.
All insight is a matter of perspective . . . a willingness look at the familiar in a new way. I've learned that there is a spiritual aspect to healing. Spiritual mind you, not religious, religions are bridges to the spirit, there are many bridges and they all lead to the same destination.
This is my story. I'm hoping you might see pieces of your own, and be encouraged to embark on your own journeys of discovery -- kindling the spirit, that ineffable quality that moves us beyond what we once thought were limitations.
Chapter 1: Looking Again at What You Know
I didn't learn about health in medical school. I learned a lot about disease and how to diagnose and treat it. When I finished my training I couldn't wait to apply my newly developed skills on adoring patients. I wanted them to trust in me and believe that I had their best interests at heart. All they had to do was place themselves in my hands, I was familiar with the most current diagnostic tools and treatment options, "let me do it to you."
In my first book, The Dancing Healers, I told the story about an old Pueblo Indian man who taught me how to dance. I met Santiago during morning rounds when he was a patient at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital. Santiago had been admitted through the Emergency Room the night before, and when I was introduced as his doctor, he looked me up and down and asked where I learned how to heal. I thought he meant where I'd gone to medical school and received my training, so I recited my litany of academic achievement. When I finished, he asked if I knew how to dance. I looked at him wide-eyed, and asked incredulously, "Do I know how to dance? Do I know how to dance?" He nodded and said, "If you can't dance you can't heal." So, humoring him, I did a little hip-hop at the bedside, which he found amusing. Then I asked him if he knew how to dance. I did not know at that time that he was a traditional medicine man. He said he did, and with the oxygen tube in his nostrils, and an IV in his arm, he got up and proceeded to do a corn dance with vocals, at the bedside.
When he got back into bed I asked him if he would teach me to dance that way. He looked at me and said, "I can teach you my steps, but you have to be able to hear your own music." In Indian Country I learned to listen and look again at the many ways to heal.
I stayed for 20 years, because I kept seeing more ways to do the healing dance. Every time I thought "now I've got it," something would happen (I'd crash emotionally or physically). Nobody gets it; we're always getting it again and again. The key to all growth is being willing to look at what you thought you knew from another perspective. Certainty is a tribute to arrogance and fear, but it's so much easier to hang on to your preconceptions than to make the necessary changes. I had to break my back with multiple surgeries before I gave up competitive athletics.
I require repetitive bludgeoning, more suffering and pain before I move beyond my old certainties.
The most difficult preconception for me to give up has been my feelings about Germans; I am the first-born son of Holocaust survivors. My parents escaped from Germany in 1936, settling in Manhattan along with 100,000 other German Jewish refugees (including Henry Kissinger and Dr. Ruth Westheimer). I was born in 1939, and spoke only German until I was five. I always understood that I was not a German. I was a Jew from Germany, and all those people were complicit in the annihilation of my bloodlines.
As soon as my family learned English, we spoke German only among our relatives. As an adolescent, if I heard Germans speaking German in an elevator, I would ride beyond my stop, certain that if I waited long enough I would catch them in some anti-Semitic slur. We bought no German products; we would not sit in a German-made car.
When I came to Indian Country I had a chance to see myself just as I saw Germans. Native people looked at me and saw just another white man. I wasn't the fellow-sufferer and kindred spirit I fancied myself to be. I may have been a good doctor, but I was still a white man. At some deep unconscious level, I too was responsible for the sins and depredations foisted upon them one hundred years ago. When you see yourself reflected in someone else's eyes, you are forced to face the truth of your own judgementalism. That experience began my journey from doctor to healer; you can't be a healer if you walk around with that much anger. If I were ever to move toward my own healing, I knew I had to go to Germany and face my monsters. I was 40 years old. Forty years of carrying dislike, distrust, a burden-basket full of resentments that was crushing my spirit. The time had come, it was now or never.
My wife and I took the super-ferry from England to Belgium, where we picked up the train. At the border, crisply uniformed Germans replaced the casually dressed Belgian conductors. It didn't take a millisecond before the old mistrust and fear emerged; orderly, clean, well, efficient, and racist, murderous, complicit (it doesn't take long for all the unconscious demons to appear).
In my first few days in Germany I was guarded, I didn't snarl but I was standoffish. I'd been in the country a week when I heard an anti-Semitic remark. I've told this story in detail in The Theft of the Spirit, about being in a public park where a young juggler/comedian was entertaining a circle of about one hundred people. Riding a unicycle, he juggled everything from fire to fruits (which he also ate), all the while delivering a hilarious comedic rap. He was juggling grapefruits,catching with his palms facing downward, when he said: "Wenn Juden es so gemacht haette, dann waere die geschichte der weltveraendert." Which translates, "If Jews had learned how to juggle this way, the whole history of civilization would be different." The audience laughed but I didn't laugh, I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it wasn't funny. A lightning bolt of anger shot up my spine.
After he finished, he passed around the hat and said something to encourage contributions. I waited until everybody left and then walked up to him, still feeling the coursing rage. I told him that something he had said upset me greatly. He looked at me quizzically and asked what he'd said. "When you were juggling those grapefruits," I said. "What did I say?" he asked pleadingly. I told him, and then nodding in recognition he said, "Ich habe nicht Juden gesagt" (I didn't say Juden), "Ich habe Newton gesagt" (I said Newton), "Sir Isaac Newton. If Newton had learned how to juggle upside down he would never have discovered the laws of gravity."
In German the words sound almost identical. He said Newton, I heard Juden. I heard what I wanted to hear, what I was prepared to hear, so I could keep seeing and believing what I once thought I knew. In the old days I would have left right after I'd heard what I perceived to be an anti-Semitic crack. Had I left, I would have taken only my old certainties with me, which had nothing to do with the reality. I could have kept seeing and doing the things I had always seen and done.
I hugged him and thanked him for helping me to continue to do my work. At that moment for some reason I didn't feel like a fool. My mistake seemed to open up a place in my mind that needed illumination. This is how healing happens, you look at something that you thought you knew and then suddenly you see that old certainty from another perspective. All growth is a matter of perspective, looking again at what you thought you knew and seeing it differently.
I needed to look again at my old certainties if I were ever going to come to peace with my unremitting anger and judgment toward Germans. I needed to look at my prejudice toward Germans over and over again. The illumination grows dim from time to time and we need a rekindling of the healing spirit to continue the healing process. Because of the juggler, I have returned to Germany regularly to teach and to continue to learn how to open up more and keep healing myself. The healing task of our lives is to keep on looking at what's familiar with new eyes.
In 2004, I returned for my yearly visit a week after my mother died. My mother had been in chronic congestive heart failure for years, and with escalating symptoms her doctor hospitalized her. My wife and I were planning on vacationing in Italy the following week. The new medications failed to improve her, and the day before our anticipated departure my mother called and said, "I hope you won't be angry with me, if I'm not here when you return." I knew my mother pretty well, and this was as close as she could come to asking me not to go. I felt my breath catch in my throat; I believe in inner voices that speak to us, and the one within me knew I couldn't leave her now.
We cancelled our plans and went to see her in the Southern California hospital room. My diminutive 5'2" Mama seemed even smaller; she was hooked up to IVs, oxygen, and still labored to breathe. We sat by her bedside as she described her previous night, gasping for breath and hallucinating. She said, "When the only thing I have to look forward to in life is my next breath, then living no longer makes sense. I don't want to live this way. I want to stop these medicines; they're not helping and make me feel worse."
She told this to her longtime physician when he came by to make evening rounds, and when she finished, Dr. Rudy assured her that she was calling the shots, and that he could stop her heart medications, and only give her what made her feel comfortable. It took a while before the orders were transcribed, and during this time my mother gave Elaine the last ring from her finger. Running her hand through her hair, she asked how I thought she looked. I told her she looked beautiful, and then she motioned for me to bend down. I am 6 foot 6 inches tall, so I sat down for her to place her hands on my head, and she recited the Jewish mother's Sabbath blessing to her son: "May you be like the prophets Ephraim and Manasseh...a source of blessing and pride." By now she could barely catch her breath after only a couple of words. When she finished, she whispered in my ear, "Will you still call me every Shabbat even when I'm not here?" I promised her that I would, and for the first time since I was a child, I did not turn my head away to hide my tears.
They gave her morphine to keep her comfortable, and she nodded off periodically. It was after midnight, we were alone, talking in that special "nothing left to lose" intimacy. They kept her comfortable and then she rarely aroused herself and her breathing became more irregular. In her sleep, I sang to her a beautiful Hasidic melody she loved, about crossing a narrow bridge without fear. I sang it over and over, and knew she was singing it to me. She died in my hands.
The Hopi Indians believe that one's last breath becomes a cloud, a rain-giving symbol of everlasting life; every newborn cloud is the spirit of your relatives. After they came for her body, I walked out of the hospital into the cool night air and looked up at the night sky to see if she was there.
The week after my Mother's funeral, I went to Germany to conduct a workshop for mental health professionals which began on a Friday afternoon. It began with a lecture and moved into an experiential exercise. Participants sat in a traditional Native American talking-circle; everyone would have an opportunity to speak without interruption, and speak spontaneously from the heart without thinking about what they were going to say beforehand.
By the time it came full-circle back to me, it was dark and the Sabbath had arrived. The workshop was being held in a building just across the street from where the town's only synagogue stood until its closure in 1938. I was moved to speak about what it was like to be in Germany at this moment, and told them of my Mother's death the week before. I told them she loved the Germany of her childhood, and knew the difference between Germans and Nazis long before I did. As I talked about her, I could feel my tears welling up and stood up saying I wanted to recite Kaddish, the traditional mourner's prayer, for my mother here in her homeland. When I rose to my feet, the whole audience stood with me. The tears, which I have always kept tightly wrapped in public, flowed freely. I promised my mother I would call her on Shabbat and here I was in Germany, surrounded by Germans who were standing with me.
A couple of days later, at the workshop's conclusion, I told the group I felt fortunate to be with them at this special time, and asked for their blessing in continuing to do my healing work. I pulled my chair into the middle of the circle and invited anyone who wanted to come forward to place their German hands on my head and give me a blessing.
I sat with my eyes closed, hands opened on my lap, and one by one, dozens came forward to place their hands on me and bless me. Some offered scriptural blessings, others poems, some spoken words, others songs. When I felt no more hands I opened my eyes and looked up to find myself surrounded by the group. Fifty people had joined hands in the circle and began dancing in a circle while singing "Hava Nagila" in Hebrew. I was overwhelmed and could feel the tears flow again. As they danced around me, I stood up and danced in the middle. Slowly the circle spiraled inward until I was hugged in a communal embrace, and then they moved out and danced around me again. In that moment I swear I saw my mother smile and felt my spirit lifted. Love, not time, heals all wounds.
Before I left, Brigitta, a psychologist, came up to me and said, "You know that juggler story you told? I think I know who the juggler is." I told Brigitta that I didn't know his name and couldn't even describe his face anymore, but she said the way I had described him eating apples while juggling on a unicycle was unique, and she actually knew such a guy. She wanted to check it out. I said that'd be great, and to let me know. By the time I flew home, it had dropped from my consciousness. Brigitta wrote to me she'd found one of his old teachers, and when she told him my story, he said that it sounded very much like Holger "Ernst" Riekers. He had dropped out of the University and became a quite well known street performer, perhaps I would remember his signature closing to every performance. When he passed the hat around, he always said, "Don't just throw in coins, because I'm not using the money to make telephone calls, this is how I make a living." When Brigitta wrote this to me, I remembered it immediately and also that I hadn't laughed, because at that point I had been so angry with him. Ernst was the guy
The teacher said Ernst had married, had two children, and then developed stomach cancer and died four years ago at age 41. At the teacher's suggestion she got in touch with his widow Anne, and shared the whole story. Anne said it would be nice to have a chance to meet me and maybe when I came back to Germany, I could tell his daughters something about him.
The following year I met Anne in a café in Muenster. She brought her two young daughters Amalia and Cecilia with her on the train from Bremerhaven. My childhood command of the German language was perfect for their age, and I told them their father once saved my life. "I was a very angry man, with bitterness in my heart." I said I was bitter even about their father. I told the whole story about the grapefruits and how he showed me another way of hearing the music and that it helped heal me. "Because of your father I have come back to Germany again and again."
Each time I think, "now I've got it," something always happens to remind me I'm still getting it. I was in Germany again in 2006 at the time of the World Cup Games, the world's greatest sport exhibition. The host country always puts on a colorful display of national pride, and Germany had a top-contending team. German flags were flying from balconies, stuck on cars, painted on faces, the country was an energized, moving tapestry of black, red and gold.
Expressions of nationalism generally leave me cold, and when I see them in Germany, it's painfully uncomfortable. It takes so little provocation, the raised beer steins, the songs, and I get chills. After World War II, Germans did not make public displays of love for their country; it seemed bad form to express one's German-ness. That year, it was like the Fourth of July; young people their faces painted, wearing Mohawk wigs in the national colors, were singing in the streets by the thousands. Three generations removed from the Nazi era, these young people were standing up to say, "I am proud to be German." After the initial uneasiness, I got caught up in the celebration.
I was in the small town of Freudenstadt (Happy Town), in the middle of the Black Forest on the afternoon Germany played Argentina in the quarter finals. Lots of people were gathered in the central square, which was dominated by a huge television screen. When Germany tied the score at the end of regulation play, I stood amidst hundreds of chanting Germans, chanting with them. After a scoreless double-overtime, the game was decided by penalty kicks and Germany won the shootout. It was pandemonium; a flag-draped young man slapped me on the shoulder and invited me to dance with him. I didn't hesitate; we linked arms, hopping, stomping, twirling, we danced with abandon. For the first time in my life I felt at home in my parents' homeland.
That old Pueblo Indian medicine man's voice came to me: "if you want to be able to heal you have to be able to dance, but you have to be able to hear your own music." On the plaza in Happy Town that afternoon, I danced with a German teenager and for the first time felt the chains of my own enslavement drop away. Look again at what you know; and you will create new endings to your old stories.
Carl Hammershlag and John Koriath for Kindling
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