A dear friend, Rob Rossel, sent me a link last week to a three-part blog post he had written about his first sweat lodge, way back in 1984. There was much in the post that was familiar: discomfort, visits by Spirit, and long reverberations. One of the many lessons Rob carried away from the experience was the following:
I often remind clients to tell themselves, “Things are not as they seem,” when they feel caught in a particularly tough spot and can’t see a way out, This is one way I express the gift of the sweat lodge. I have been through enough ordeals with these people to confidently remind them to look further, to help them let go of their investment in a particular point of view.
Reading Rob’s post, I found myself thinking I probably don’t remind patients often enough that whatever we may be going through in the moment, the reality is more nuanced and complex than we are likely to see. In other words, “Things are not ONLY as they seem.”
Rob’s reminder came along about the same time I began reading Big Medicine From Six Nations by Ted Williams, a Tuscarora from upstate New York. The book is filled with a richly lived life’s insights, one of which, “There are no mistakes, only lessons,” I am immensely grateful for. I do not remember, or remind my patients of this, often enough.
Lessons come along to aid us to learn about Self. It’s as though the spirits are always looking for opportunities to enlighten us as to our own beauty and depth. We are complex creatures! When I think about this, I imagine these teaching moments are less about Karma, or some grand test, and more about learning about oneself from the view of the Great Spirit, as a reflection of All That Is. (In our culture, lessons often carry a heavy weight of shame or punishment, a burden that is best left behind.) The deepest learning comes out of an awareness of connection to everything that is.
Part of my learning is around connection and safety. I contracted Polio at age 7, a few months shy of my 8th birthday, a day I celebrated briefly, in the hospital. Age 7 is a crucial time for human attachment. At 7, children are standing in the doorway between being deeply embedded in the family, and moving out into the larger world. This is sacred space. With luck, the child steps into a larger world feeling securely connected to family, and free to explore and play. For what seemed a long time, I couldn’t walk, let alone explore. I’m still working on feeling comfortably attached and secure. These issues crop up at the oddest times, and bring with them a profound desire to run away from the discomfort.
That shamans and healers struggle with their own learnings is news to many people. Yet, my best teachers have freely shared their own struggles and learnings with me. Their willingness to be “just another human being” has felt like a great gift. Their persistence in overcoming life’s challenges has been, and continues to be, both a reminder of their, and my, humanity, and a source of inspiration. Their lives remind me, “Things are more complex, and interesting, than they seem.”
There is a paradox hidden in this. (There is usually a paradox in things worth exploring.) On one hand, my most loved teachers have been vulnerable human beings who struggled with all manner of things. On the other, their ability to be fully human, allowed them to touch, and share, the Divine. Reading Ted Williams book, I imagine he was one of those rare people whose ability to heal arose from their willingness to embrace all their humanity. I’m working on it.