How much surgery should you have? How much chemotherapy? How much radiation therapy? How much alternative therapy? How do we know what to do in the face of uncertainty?
The destination of the journey is not always clear, as in the first Rumi story. Would we make the effort if we knew that cure wasn't possible? To be effective, personal transformation must become a goal on its own. The road to the frame of mind necessary for healing necessarily begins with the road to peacefulness. Transformation requires many changes, including alterations of our sense of meaning and purpose, deepening the quality of our interpersonal relationships, and finding joy in a new identity that encompasses the illness as stimulus for transformation.
Beginning the healing journey requires (1) openness to making profound life changes including relationships, (2) willingness to embark on a journey into the inner world, and (3) a community including healers who will both bear witness to the journey and aid in its completion, and (4) an accurate appraisal of the threat we are up against.
What drives people to brave a war-torn country to make the pilgrimage to the Church at Medugory? What takes them to Lourdes, or to seedy clinics in the Dominican Republic? What sent comedian Andy Kaufman to the Philippines to a psychic surgeon to cure his cancer? We have an impulse to make the healing journey, the pilgrimage of the soul. This same impulse toward healing also leads people to the hallowed halls of our major Cancer Institutes, where some will recover and others will suffer tremendous insults to their bodies, for a mere 4% or less improvement in their 5 year survival -- all the benefit that some chemotherapy studies report. This is not to criticize what is often a desperate response of concerned doctors to hopeless patients crying out for cure when there is none; nor to diminish the areas in which oncology has actually made great progress. I merely call attention to the need for health practitioners everywhere to give patients something in which to believe, even when that something poses more risks than benefits. This can happen as often in alternative medicine as in conventional oncology.
Stories best explain the inspiration and beauty arising when we pursue the miraculous even when we are not blessed by its appearance. Suffering diminishes when we embrace the journey and do whatever we can to move toward wellness.
As a side benefit of making the healing journey, our sense of love for our self and for others deepens, giving additional meaning to our lives. Love gives value to being human. Great playwrights and ancient Native American storytellers recognized that love transcends questions of life and death, incorporating this insight into marvelously woven tales.
The practice of being in retreat without distractions, isolated from family and culture, bereft of newspapers, telephones, computers, books, radios, music, and all of our other forms of entertainment, has become a keystone of my approach. Riding on top of this foundation of retreat and isolation, comes the mind-body-spirit therapy that I use to start people on their own healing journey.
Diedrick's story illustrates the beginning of one healing journey. I saw him first in New Mexico, after his father called me. Diedrick was 18 years old and had been hospitalized 20 times in the past three years with bipolar disorder (what we used to call manic-depression). Diedrick knew we were going to meet, "since he was the world's best basketball player." He proceeded to elaborate a pressured stream of loose associations, keeping me from saying anything or asking prying questions. I opened my ceremonial bag and began to sing. At the start of the song, Diedrick became more subdued. He eventually started crying. His body trembled.
"If you felt like me," he said, "you would kill yourself. The pain is too great to bear." That moment marked the beginning of Diedrick's healing journey. Through ceremony, we began our first real communication. Ceremony made Diedrick able to communicate his pain and suffering. When the ceremony ended, Diedrick returned to psychotic communication. But even then, sentences were embedded in his crazy talk that made clear the deep meaning of our communication during ceremony.