Our original medicine

IMG_1026Years ago I met a cultural anthropologist and “new age” teacher named Angeles Arrien. Small, earthy, and whimsical, Arrien felt familiar to me like a beloved aunt, and I found the combination in her of scholar, Basque heritage, creativity and open heartedness captivating as well as confidence inducing.   This delightful woman introduced me in a real way to the idea that we might access guidance from indigenous cultures, from ancestral and spirit realms. My encounter with her led to some new ways of thinking, ways of listening and noticing.

Recently I read Arrien’s book The Four Fold Way, a deceptively simple manual drawing from indigenous wisdom and the concept of four archetypes including teacher, healer, warrior, and visionary. Her aim in the book is to provide a guide to accessing our deeper wisdom and power and reclaiming our connection to the earth.

An idea from the book that struck me particularly strongly was that of “original medicine:” Indigenous cultures say that each of us is born with a unique nature, or power, characterized by our individual gifts, talents, and attributes.

Arrien writes, “. . . it is important to bring one’s creative spirit, life dream, or purpose to earth. Not to do so precludes healing from coming into our family and our professional lives. Our work is to come fully forward with our gifts, talents, and resources, and to meet our tests and challenges.” She adds, “Not to be ‘in our medicine’ or bring our power into the world precludes healing from coming to Mother Nature and all her creatures.”

I find this a beautiful idea, one that provides a helpful way through which to view my life, that inspires me to listen for my medicine and bring it into the world. The awareness of my power instills energy and desire to listen and to learn how to be myself and to bring my gifts forward. Following a desire to spend time in nature, learning to be more mindful and present with my own emotions and thoughts and in my daily encounters, practicing yoga and qigong, I become more attuned to my power. I encounter others earnestly seeking to do their work, and life is rich with meaning and daily discovery of the divine dance we humans participate in. These practices, as well as sitting with woundedness, in therapy, have shown me how I how I muted, buried, or lost my own power. I find myself growing more natural, more able to feel and express what I know. More open to community, I find myself a good listener and communicator who helps others reach deeper wisdom. And as I become freer to be myself I feel great joy and gratitude, a desire to dance, to connect more deeply with others and with nature.

In exploring my own particular medicine I started with noticing my natural way of being:  I felt a deep love for life and Mother Nature in the midst of environmental devastation. I realized I have always had a way of observing and fostering process or transformation, a way of being that demanded simplicity and ongoing connection to nature as well as my inner world. I noticed I have an ability to respectfully listen to others and to help them discover what is natural and heartfelt for them, an ability to foster exploration and experimentation in groups that brings forth knowing and inspiration for new action that leads to physical and emotional healing. I recovered a love for song and dance, and a fierce protective instinct for life in others and in the world.

While once I felt like a misfit and failure within this driven, materialistic society, today I see that I am a teacher and change agent, an artist and a lover. I accept and embrace my deep sensitivity and gentleness, my unique way of being in uncertainty as something new emerges, and I realize that I help others to listen for their own medicine. This power in me manifests in the world as I teach yoga, write, and facilitate groups for people with chronic illnesses or in restorative justice.

My hope is that I may bring a little more freedom, love, and care into the world. That more and more of us will bring forth our medicine for each other and the earth, that we may together engage in rediscovery, recognition, and rebirth.









Robin Wall Kimmerer and intimacy with nature

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I like to imagine what it would be like if the Honorable Harvest were the law of the land today, as it was in our past. Imagine if a developer, eyeing open land for a shopping mall, had to ask the golden rod, the meadowlarks, and the monarch butterflies for permission to take their homeland. What if he had to abide by the answer?   Robin Wall Kimmerer

I have read many books in my life, a plethora of novels as well as treatises on psychology, religion, culture, and our relationship with nature. I love to explore various worldviews and ways of living. But there is one author whose work stands out to me in its beauty and in its revelatory power: a woman deeply acquainted with ways of living aligned with nature, a mother, scientist, university professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Robin Wall Kimmerer. A talented writer as well as thinker, she brings alive the science of botany, the ways of her people, and the art of teaching the young while simultaneously educating her readers in a manner that reaches mind, heart, and body.

Kimmerer believes that plants and animals are our oldest teachers and that we live with them in a reciprocal relationship. She is skilled at illustrating nature’s teachings and in helping us understand the generosity of the earth and how to give our own gifts in return. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants revealed to me a dimension of life I had little knowledge of, and it brought that dimension alive in a way that stirred my heart and at times made me weep.

Braiding Sweetgrass tells stories of the basketmakers and the sweetgrass they tend and harvest, of the history of the Potawatomi people, the Thanksgiving Address of the Onondaga, of her adventures studying botany in college, raising her girls and taking her students out into the woods and instructing them in biology as well as intimacy with nature.   Within this rich tapestry, I found the chapter “The Honorable Harvest” to remain with me most palpably, perhaps because I am so keenly aware at the moment of all-out assaults on our natural areas by corporations and their government enablers. At the same time I am wondering about how I live and what role I play in this culture of material profit and plunder.

I bow to Kimmerer as a truly wise teacher. She tells us that there is an “indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life” which is known as the “Honorable Harvest.” “They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own.”

Inspired botanist and professor as well as inheritor of Potawatomi tradition, Kimmerer has immersed herself in observing the interaction of people and plants, and she uses examples of basketmakers to show us a relationship and way of living long forgotten by most. Basketmakers gathering sweetgrass ask permission of the plant, take only what they need. They return a gift to the earth and tend to the well-being of the sweetgrass.   Kimmerer tells us that the old stories say that of all the plants, sweetgrass was the first to grow on the earth, and the Potawatomi use sweetgrass as a ceremonial plant as well as material with which to make beautiful baskets.

“Both medicine and a relative,” notes Kimmerer “its value is both material and spiritual.”  In fact, all of nature is material and spiritual, and humans once knew how to honor that truth. Braiding Sweetgrass, in its illustrations of living, celebrating, honoring, and giving, is a radical treatise. I find the message of the honorable harvest to be central if not the theme of every other chapter introduced and brought to life in this beautiful literary work. And its message of what it means to be human on the earth is crucial: “The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.”

This is a book that will turn you inside out and upside down. It will stimulate your brain and change your perceptions. Read it only if you are prepared to have your heart broken and nourished in mysterious and startling ways.

Climbing out of the career box

IMG_1096When I was a child, the adults imparted various ideas about work to us younguns.   School counselors spoke about needs in the economy we should plan to fill, and parents admonished and steered us based on their own experiences and concerns, promoting particular vocations or roles and criticizing others. Our social mores, economic realities, and political arena provided the backdrop.

In my particular case, junior high school teachers told me I should use the Occupational Handbook to learn what careers were in demand and prepare to find my place within them, and Dad relayed the message that I as a female should focus on raising children and not pursue too demanding a career.   Given his religious and medical background, he urged me to find work in which I could serve others.

Dad did send me to college, where I briefly studied science and considered being a doctor, then a physician’s assistant, then ended up studying English and psychology without a clear vocational goal in mind. I was confused. The good news is I have had several jobs that I loved, and I’ve made a living with a combination of skills including health writing and education as well as yoga teaching. This work, however, changes constantly—wellness centers and magazines alike rise and fall, funding comes and goes.

In piecing together a work life I’ve thought and analyzed, tried to find a niche, experimented, taken career tests, and pondered the idea of calling. I’ve come to realize there may be deeper and more mysterious forces at work within us, guidance we may begin to hear if we slow down, soften, and listen.

For example, I notice that I think I could or would or should pursue a particular career like psychotherapy, or digital communications, or patient advocate, such thoughts come from trying to fit in, or from thinking that’s all I can get. And yet if I become quiet, I realize this is an impulse to fit in, make money, find a quick answer while experiencing a gap or a change in my work life. Underneath that impulse lie deeper desires to teach, to help people realize new truths, to write about new ways of healing and living. I find that when I tune in to deeper knowing, to my desires and passion, I am energized to step forward and create. Often I nervously channel my mind into more well-defined career paths, and yet the deeper vocational impulses do not let go.

We are conditioned by existing beliefs and the institutions we grow up in; we live in a busy society within an economy defined by achieving material wealth, status, or an acceptable gender role. The vocational options presented to us are those that support this economy, and though we may at times feel yearnings for some other vocation, we quickly brush these aside to find a niche that will provide security and recognition and perhaps money we can use to placate our other yearnings.

While being a doctor was the established and recognized and monetarily rewarding field presented to me, while nursing or motherhood were suggested, it was being a yoga teacher that called me. It was studying yoga philosophy, archetypal psychology, and wrote a book.

I recently met a woman who told me the story of a friend’s son, a young man who graduated from college with a degree in business. While he was looking for a job, a family friend offered him a position at her company, a manufacturing business that made weaving looms. While working there, this young man learned to weave and became quite skilled at it, discovering an eye for design and relishing creating patterns in his tapestries. During his time there, his mother was doing some genealogy work and learned that their male ancestors from Scotland had been weavers. This young man now works as an artist: He designs and weaves tapestries and also works as a graphic designer.

While we may not all be drawn toward the vocations of ancestors, this story reveals the mystery of our lives and the unconscious forces driving us. Whether there is a soul calling or an ancestral memory passed down through the blood and behaviors of our elders, whether it is a desire to do something unrecognized in our modern society, we should follow it as best we can.

Our callings are deep and mysterious, and they are difficult for we moderns to discern. Often it is in the inbetween times, after losing a job, finishing school, etc., that we may begin to hear them at last. And following them may not lead to riches or niches but to meaning and joy. I believe they may just lead to the renewal of our institutions and our society itself.

Learning to see

iStock_000002547960SmallTwenty-five years ago I heard terrifying words from a doctor:  “You have a degenerative condition that will cause severe vision loss.”   Delivered in a cool and distant manner, those few words prompted me to ask several questions.   What caused this?  What could we do to treat the condition?  “I don’t know” said the eye doc, as she ushered me out of her office.

I never went back to that doctor.  Instead I sought a referral for an ophthalmologist from family members, hoping to find one who had a better “bedside manner,” one who could do more testing.  The new doc confirmed that I had keratoconus, but her only “prescription” was to avoid excessive eye rubbing:  She said there was no known cause or way to treat the disorder beyond corneal transplant.  And while I was glad to know there was a surgical option if I were to lose most of my sight, I decided to consult an acupuncturist to see if it was possible to slow or stop the spreading distortion in my cornea.  He covered my body with needles, confident in the medicine to restore balance in my body.

Being an inquisitive person, I also began to wonder what might be behind my development of keratoconus.  What did I not want to see?, I asked myself.  While I couldn’t answer definitively, I sensed that I had not been honest with myself about a destructive relationship and weak sense of self.  When a second acupuncturist told me Chinese medicine views eye conditions such as mine to stem from unexpressed anger blocking the liver meridian, I searched my heart for anger and realized I certainly had squelched any trace of that particular emotion.  I am not certain I plumbed the depths of my disease or had THE answer, but I continued to mull over questions about my diagnosis and messages it might be conveying about myself and my life.  I remained curious and open to what I might learn.

These days I still see perfectly well with the aid of regular glasses.  I can’t say if the acupuncture, or mindfulness and self-growth worked or if I was just lucky, but I am grateful to be where I am.   By chance my eye condition led, after a layoff during the 2008 downturn, to a job working with people with vision impairments that I held for five years and a subsequent position in the same field that I still hold today.  In my current job I work with people struggling to adapt to vision loss, and I now encounter people who do not see literally or figuratively or both.   Sometimes organic or traumatic reasons have affected the eye, and on the other hand, people do not admit they are losing vision or that their doctor can no longer help them.

I encounter both denial of the condition and  the reluctance to open one’s mind to the loss, to a new way of living, to learning about the continuum of care available and the resources that can help begin life anew.  I have seen people withdraw and become isolated or wholly dependent on others’ help, others who sought help only after years of such behavior, and still others who dive in to learn all their options and gain skills to do tasks in entirely new ways.

I speak, present, teach, make referrals, but most of all I listen.  People tell me their doctors say there is nothing they can do so why bother, while others relate stories about amazing transformations.  I feel there is something in this work for me to learn, something about life and healthcare that may benefit us all.   Much like having a chronic illness or living with an injury, living with vision loss entails experiencing fear, grief, and sometimes helplessness.  Yet when we acknowledge the reality of our loss and our condition, when we let go of wishing for another outcome, we can begin to live in new ways.  None of us deliberately and consciously chooses these “disabilities,” and yet they remind us of who we are.  We are all vulnerable, we are all conditioned by the society and institutions we were born into, and part of our development entails coming to terms with who we are beyond all that.

Losing sight means having to reorient entirely–to use touch, hearing, smell, and intuition more intensely, to relearn old skills in new ways.  In short to see differently.  We learn to advocate for ourselves, to deliberately seek what is possible for us and ways we most want to engage in life.  We learn to listen within and to go beyond what our doctor says when we suspect that other realms and possibilities await us.

We might all might benefit from questioning whether we are really seeing reality–our own or that of the human condition.  How much of the way we see is defined by the society within which we are enmeshed, and is that definition accurate?  Have we perhaps limited ourselves or been blind to the possibilities of life?   Are we seeing others as they really are,or do we realize that we may not really see them accurately?   Can we move beyond some core beliefs we hold about ourselves or the world and discover a new way of being?

What will we do if we become sick, or lose a career that has defined us, or a person who has shaped our own world?  Much of life–certainly the challenges–asks us to consider how accurately we are seeing, whether the stories we tell ourselves are true, whether we are willing to learn to perceive and to behave in new ways.

We live in times in which the institutions and work world are dramatically changing.  These are times that ask all of us to see in new ways.  I am grateful for my experience with my own diagnosis and for the honest sharing I have heard from many people of all ages who live without sight and yet who have chosen to set out into the world in all their vulnerability and strength.  People who learn they are both dependent on others and free to do and be all they can be, who let go of the old and learn from necessity as well as from a renewed sense of self.   In truth, through their experience with loss, interdependence, and starting anew, they may see more clearly than we.