Every year I do a 3-day retreat on Shamanic Healing entitled “From Torah to Tipi,” with my friend and brother, Rabbi Gershon Winkler, as well as Native American relatives. We talk about ancient healing wisdom, how to incorporate ritual, ceremony, chanting, drumming, movement, sacred objects and stories as powerful adjuncts in the healing process.
This year we met at Reb Gershon’s Walkingstick Foundation, a retreat center in Cuba, New Mexico. Just getting there required an hour’s van trip from the Albuquerque airport that ended on a dirt road on top of a desolate, high-desert mesa.
Walkingstick made our previous location, the Franciscan Renewal Center, look like Canyon Ranch; here people slept in tents, on air mattresses, used Port-a Potty’s, and had no running water or showers. But people still came, and it turned out that making it hard had its own advantages. In this primitive set up, people had to depend on each other more; sharing hardships made us appreciate every amenity, especially water, in a whole different way. Camping outside in such isolation makes you appreciate the awesome splendor of the night sky. Shooting stars fell in a silence so deafening you could hear the voice of the Great Spirit pulsing in your eardrums.
One day Gershon performed a Kabbalistic healing ceremony for me. He drew a circle on the ground with his 6-foot long walkingstick that had ancient Hebrew letters carved into it. In the middle of the circle he drew Kabbalistic healing symbols and explained them. He asked me to whisper in his ear what I was seeking to heal. I told him I sought the courage to face my growing awareness of mortality with a greater sense of peace.
He gave me the stick, told me to put one end in the middle of my chest, directly over my heart, and to hold the other end inches above the circle. He directed me to walk around the circle, while he walked behind me whispering Hebrew words that he had me repeat. He began with Henaini, the Hebrew word meaning “here I am.” I understood the importance of acknowledging the truth of the present in my mind, but it didn’t come with any new insightful flash. After many turns, he finally had me stop and come into the middle of the circle. It felt like I imagined a Navajo patient would feel stepping into the symbols and myths of a sand-painting.
Gershon stood in front of me, took the walkingstick from my hand, and we passed it back and forth, just like the pipe exchange at a Sun Dance ceremony. He took it from me, raised and lowered it in front of me, while chanting in Aramaic. He then walked behind me and again lifted the stick. Suddenly, I saw the stick as a snake-like shadow on the ground in front of me. I immediately recognized it as my wounded spirit. Unconsciously I closed my eyes, not wanting to look at my shadow with its fearful infirmities. At the same time, I knew it was what I needed to see, because it is the truth of where I am. I forced myself to open my eyes and when I did, the shadow had disappeared and there was only light.
In that moment, I experienced that spiritual epiphany when what you know in your head finally connects to your heart. Henaini, here I am, no idealized myth of yesteryear, I am in a state of perpetual repair. Stop running away from your shadow, face your fears and see your light. This isn’t so bad . . . I’m still standing up, thinking clearly, active, bearing witness.
When you open your eyes and look at your shadow straight, it’s not the darkness that overwhelms you it’s the awareness of the light of your blessings. Here I am, and it’s perfect as it is.