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Community -- Why is it hard?

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This weekend I led healing camp in New York City. Healing camp evolved from our need for people learn about about healing in the same time and place as others who wanted to experience healing. We wanted to evolve a non-hierarchical way to do this, which eliminated the distinctions of the mainstream society between doctors and patients, therapists and clients, teachers and students, etc. We wanted to equalize everyone. The first healing camp, inspired by our friend, Kitty Ketner, in Rhode Island, took place on an ashram/horse ranch. We began with a weekend workshop at All That Matters, a Wakefield, Rhode Island yoga studio and workshop boutique, and then moved into the Ashram for six more days of intensive interaction.

The concept is simple we need other people to heal. We cannot do it alone. The more people, the better. Imagine how much more powerful it is for 12 people to work on one person at the same time!

Where else could we find that experience than in healing camp or in a healing circle?

Our New York City healing camp began in the typical way with sage, the herb that stepped forward within the Lakota cosmology to rid areas of evil and bad energy. We burn the sage and wave the smoke over the person. Then we sing a song to honor the Four Directions, the Sky Spirits, the Earth, and all of our relatives. After inviting the spirits to join us, we did a talking circle in which people stated why they had come and what they needed. In a talking circle, a decorated and sacred stick (the talking stick) is passed around the circle. Whoever holds the stick may talk as long as they wish without interruption or response. This non-linear communication holds more potential for going deeply into important concerns than linear, interrupting cross-talking methods. It is more respectful and feels more sacred.

Of course, the people in the group wanted to do more than we could possibly do in the time allotted. That's typical for healing camp. We are so hungry to group experiences that give us a sense of belonging and connectedness, that we jump for it when it becomes possible. We settled upon my leading the group in a guided meditation/visualization that would include a traditional story. Several people had body parts that were "malfunctioning". They wanted to know what to do. One woman had recently had a breast cancer removed. Doctors were insisting on radiation therapy and tamoxifen. Another woman had fallen down some stairs when distractedly worrying and was struggling with shoulder and knee pain.. Three people were suffering from low back pain. Another had serious migraines. I was especially interested in the woman who had a cancer removed being able to dialogue with her breast about what it needed. Of course, on a rational level, I suggested she contact Ralph Moss, whose cancer reports are state of the art for knowing what the research literature supports (often not what doctors are promoting). I also mentioned to her a recent study I had read which revealed that only 1% of women who are prescribed tamoxifen actually take it. I wondered if tamoxifen were perhaps more obnoxious that was being revealed. Otherwise, why were 99% of women not taklng their medicine.

Nevertheless, I remarked to her, these were issues that could be handled outside of healing camp. Within this experience, we would find a way for her to dialogue with her breast to find out what it would recommend she do. We did that as a group experience each person having the opportunity to dialogue with his or her body part that was suffering or in pain. During the middle of this visualization process, I told a story from Coyote Healing. This story was told to me by Maria Yracaburu, a healer from the Apache Nation, and is about a time when an evil Being began to spread fear throughout the land, leading to violence and abuse. Nakia, a snake-human, journeys to the inside of a mountain to confront this evil creature and challenge it to a duel. Nakia is accompagnied by animal guides spider and mole. Both help him overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to vanguish the evil and remove fear from the land, thereby restoring peace and harmony, which is the point of our visuaization. Some organ dialogue did occur for people and then we did what we are calling "group doctoring". I take the word "doctoring" from its use as an English substitute for words that refer to the process of traditional healing. In our "group doctoring" that day in New York City, three people lay down on mats and blankets and everyone else "worked" on them. We are defining "work" in the broadest context as whatever you do that's potentially healing for others. "Work" could consists of drumming, singing, chanting, giving Reiki, meditating on the person's highest good, doing bodywork, leading imagery, doing myofascial release, reflexology, shiatsu, Cherokee massage, Zuni high velocity adjustment, or whatever you know how to do. What's marvelous to experience is the power of a group of 20 people working on three all at once. When everyone feels finished, a new person lies down and absorbs the good energy. It's so fabulous that the immediate first question after we finished was, "Why can't we do this all the time?"

The answer, "You can." That's what community offers you the opportunity to heal and to be healed without having to pay exorbitant fees (or any fees). This is our notion of healing circle or hocokah, which is people getting together for the purpose of being healing for each other without hierarchies, experts, or money exchange. We encouraged our New York City friends to start their hocokah so that they could experience healing camp every week, or at least, as often as they wished.

Immediately questions arose. A colleague wondered how we felt about the autistic young man who had been present. Occasionally he was disruptive. Should such people be allowed? Or what about the young man with the penetrating stare who seemed like he could be a little creepy? Or what about the woman who came to another presenter's workshop and stared at each person in the circle for a minute each before rambling for 10 minutes?

"You can't exclude people if you're going to have community," I answered. "That's why people in New York are having such trouble finding community (this is what all my friends had told me). You want only perfect people in your community, so you could switching groups, thinking that you will find the perfect match with only people with whom you resonate. If we're serious about community," said, "we have to accept all comers. We have to accept the autistic people, the crazy people, the annoying people, the irritating people. We have to understand that these people are part of us, that whatever they have that we don't like is shared with us. We can't exclude the annoying and the nuissances because that exclusion breaks down community."

I suggested that rather than roll one's eyes at the woman who stared and rambled, and then find ways to exclude her from future gatherings, it would be preferable to accept her and to tell her that she stared too long at people and that she had to talk less, than to exclude her. I told her about a member of my healing circle who carries a label of schizophrenia and can sometimes act objectionably. "We tell him to dial it down," I said. "We tell him he's acting inappropriate. We tell him that we love him, but he can't act so weird if he wants people to react normally toward him (which he desperately wants). We give him the feedback he needs to be part of the group. It's that problem with confrontation," I said. "It's hard, but it's necessary. It's easier to just leave and find a new group, than to confront the annoying and irritating people in old groups to give them the opportunity to change or at least to share that they find us just as annoying and irritating." I'm well aware that I can be annoying and irritating. I can stubbornly insist that I'm write (like about where to find a cab in the New Orleans airport) when I'm completely wrong. I don't have all the social graces quite mastered, especially when I'm tired. But, I try to make up for it in other ways. We are all irritating and annoying at some time to some one and we need the feedback when we are and we all need to be accepted anyway. That's community, and that's healing through community. It's how "Melvin Grey Fox cured a schizophrenic", a story in my book, Coyote Wisdom.

So community is hard because confrontation is hard. Community is hard because we have to accept and embrace annoying and irritating people. Community is hard because we have to stand up and tell people who care about us and who love us that we won't do what they want, sometimes. Community is hard because we are all continually accountable to each other, and, like a monkey troup, have to continually worry about whether or not we hurt Phil's feelings, or whether we offended Nancy, or whether we asked too much from Ralph, and the like. When we're anonymous, we don't have to worry about other people's feelings. When we're anonymous, we don't have to worry about accountability. We've heard stories about people coming to the city to become anonymous because of the burdens of community life, and we understand those sentiments, but suspect that they're not compatible with long-term sustainability. When we're accountable to each other, we don't need police or policing. When we're anonymous, we need a strong police presence. Crime is less in small communities because of that accountability factor (in part).

Community is hard because we can't escape. And, when we can't escape, in order to make community work, we have to strongly advocate for our point of view and allow others to disagree and to be annoying and irritating, just as they allow us that same privilege. People who are being abused in the presence of strong power differentials can't do that, and do have to flee community. A woman in our Toronto workshop told her story of being a woman in a Taliban family and having to flee Iran in order to survive. This is the point of our friend, Thomas Vietoricz' new book (still being written) that hierarchical, power-dominating communities (like that of the Taliban, for example, or those of some polygamist, LDS families reported in the news recently) are not sustainable. Sustainability requires low power differentials. Highly structured power hierarchies are doomed to collapse under their own weight, be overthrown through revolution (or strike or financial collapse), or be conquired by a neighboring more powerful hierarchical entity. Excess power differentials are not sustainable; people do need to escape.

I suspect this is the great idea of democracy (which we have yet to achieve). I the ideal of democracy, power differentials are eliminated and people are equal, as in the phrase, "one man, one vote". In practice, of course, people with more money control more votes. Political candidates require campaign contributions to run, and the democratic process is subverted. Nevertheless, we can dream about democracy as an ideal for sustainable community.

So that's why community is hard. It's hard to avoid power building hierarchies. It's hard to accept others when they are annoying and irritating. It's hard be annoying and irritating and then apologize. It's hard to share. It's hard to be generous. It's hard to be accountable. But the benefits are enormous for health, for wellness, for wellbeing. So let's just "gird our loins" and try harder to build community wherever we can.


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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)

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