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This weekend I attended a meeting sponsored by Deena Metzger in Topanga Canyon, California, called Medicine at a Crossroads. The meeting was smaller than the Integrative Mental Health Conference I attended last week by an order of magnitude, but was full of the same types of professionals and non-professionals psychiatrists, family doctors, nurses, psychologists, other kinds of psychotherapists, body workers, energy healers, and concerned artists, teachers, actors, environmental activitists, and more. As smaller as the meeting was, so was the scenery better. I'm sure I've seen those hills before in the opening of the TV series M*A*S*H. They were beautiful and green, since the rainy season has not completely ended in Southern California. The only eyesore in site was the house that Alberto Villoldo built across the canyon, which was too large and took off the entire top of a mountain that was still naked all around it. To each his own, I suppose.

Of also great charm was Froggy's Topanga Canyon Fish House, which I encountered while out for a run. I wondered to my partner if Froggy kept his place in a state of funky disrepair because it was good for business or because business wasn't good. We looked inside at the state of the interior and decided it was good for business. Each morning except for Easter Sunday we had breakfast at Pat Burke's Topanga Canyon Grill and admired the signed celebrity photos on the wall. Our favorite, of course, was Paul McCartney and the other members of Wings. Pat told us about a young woman who sat at the counter one morning and said to her friend, "Did you know that Paul McCartney was in another band before Wings?" Her friend hadn't heard that. We were also impressed with Matt Dillon's photo, as well as many other starlets that I pretended to know, but didn't.

We stayed in a wonderful cabin built around an old trailer in the funky style characterizing much of Topanga Canyon from the 70s, in sharp distinction to the modern McMansions built today with Corvettes in their driveways (we saw one of those nearby) and thoroughbred horses in the paddocks. Our host had three yurts, but the City made her tear down two of them since a neighbor from across the canyon had spied them with binoculars and decided that a cult was invading and needed to be stopped. One yurt remained to house our meeting. All the heat was wood, also charming.

In the midst of this funk and charm, we came together with the same purpose as we had one week earlier in the luxury and opulence of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel to proclaim that health care in this country (and especially mental health care) is not working and must be changed. Deena and I were in agreement that the movement must be grassroots, that people must take charge of their health care at every corner and intersection, literally, at every crossroads. A physician was present who was helping people to do that. Dr. Glenn Lopez is a marvellous UCLA physician who runs a mobile clinic in the poor sections of Los Angeles. He receives his funding from hospitals who want him to keep the uninsured and the illegal aliens out of their emergency rooms. He manages to accomplish that by providing anyone who wishes care with help from a mobile RV that's equiped as a medical office. All comers served, no questions asked. The service is win-win. The community benefits, the patients benefits, and the funders benefit, because they were losing enormous amounts of money providing routine services to the under- and uninsured, and, also, wasting money from people waiting until the problem was a crisis and then coming to the emergency room, rather than preventively managing the problem in the early phases. Glenn had started waiting room talking circles in which people could help each other manage their illness while waiting for their appointment. I was touched when he said that I had inspired him to do this with my stories of waiting room talking circles, which I have written about and found incredibly effective and helpful. Glenn was also starting community walking programs for diabetes prevention and management which reminded me of those we did in Pittsburgh in the 90s and those that a colleage is currently doing in Charleston, West Virginia, under the banner, West Virginia Walks.

Also present at the meeting was J'Shams Abdul-Mu'min and Maryanne Galindo, who are working in South Central Los Angeles with SANBI (Success: A New Beginning, Inc.), a youth leadership training project, in which young people are collecting 1,000 stories from elders on behalf of preserving history, culture. Their aim is also to heal individual and community wounds related to the violence happening in that community for years. I was especially impressed with J'Shams' understanding that genuine listening is what really matters and at his capacity to do so. From an entertainment perspective, his capacity to creatively use the word "muthah fuckah" was legion. One had to love him if only for that.

Deena and her husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, have been hosting Dare and various councils on their property on top of a mountain in Topanga for years. They brought the vision of healing circles at every crossroads, which I share. So what is this vision?

Health care reform is doomed to fail in the United States if we don't change our orientation. These days, we doctors compensate for short office visits by ordering more laboratory tests to make sure we haven't missed anything. Laboratory tests are much more expensive than time. The United States has managed health care costs by keeping 43,000,000 people uninsured. If all those people are insured and have access to care and especially to laboratory tests, then our current system will not be able to afford itself. Our only solution is to replace laboratory tests with human contact and to help people to get much of what they need from each other. We did that in our meeting. On Sunday afternoon, we did what I have learned to call "doctoring", in which people who want healing lie on the floor and people who feel compelled to do healing, do so. We were about 20 people in a small room, some playing the drums, some rattling, some singing, some doing the various systems of healing they have learned, and others being guided to do healing without benefit of any formal training. We started the drums and the healing began. I played both roles healer and person being healed. Being healed was a tremendous experience. I journeyed to places that I can't begin to describe and felt well beyond myself. When the drumming and singing stopped, I returned. I don't know what happened, and I didn't really have an ailment as a bench mark from which to judge effectiveness, but I felt transformed and nurtured in a powerful way much more than I have felt from paid massages and paid healing sessions. I worked on a man with low back pain. The muscles in his lower back were tight as steel bands. I rubbed and shook these areas to release some of the rigidity. Afterwards, he felt better. Women wailed. I envy that capacity to wail and sob and cry. I can't remember ever having done that, though I have had intense emotion. Perhaps one of my students was right when she wrote that women's bodies are closer to the earth, that their softness and curves and caverns and rivers and ability to give birth makes them more like the earth itself, while we men are more like the animals that wander on the surface of the earth -- climbing hills, riding rivers, entering caves. In Lakota cosmology, earth is female, while rock is male. However that relates, a few women did powerful wailing and looked so much the better for it afterwards. Perhaps those who knew them could have guessed about what they were wailing, but I couldn't and it didn't matter. The signs of release and of healing were clear for all to see. I loved watching some do various bodywork methods, some do energy healing with hands on, with hands above the body, some sit and channel energy, some do craniosacral therapy, and some do things I had never seen before. This is the beauty of doctoring and of a healing circle in which we can all get doctored things can happen that could happen nowhere else. The stiffness in a man's shoulder disappeared, a woman's abdominal pain improved, a woman's cramps diminished, a man's back pain softened and was relieved, emotional suffering was reduced. And, most important, we did this without rehearsal. Some of us had no formal training, some of us did, and it didn't matter. To me, this is the essence of healing circle that the healing occurring is freely given and received in a non-hierarchical manner. Each gives what they have. Some are challenged and channeled to give more than she knew she had. All are free to take what they wish.

In more distant times, healing circles were organized around elders. I suppose ours was in the sense that Deena is the elder of that particular community. Nevertheless, once we started, the process was truly non-hierarchical.

Healing circles always teach me, and this day was no exception, how much we can help each other without the benefit of professional experts and without having to pay exorbitant fees. Imagine what would happen to health care costs, if we all belonged to healing circles and used them. Perhaps we could grow our own elders in areas in which none are available.

Our Easter Sunday healing circle was an all day affair, though most of the healing circles with which I am acquainted are two hours or so on a weekly basis. Our healing circle began at sunrise with a calling of the spirits and a greeting of the sun. We used the talking circle format to address the sun and to make the sun aware of our needs. This led to a process in which we acted out the voices inside one woman's head about whether to return to the East or to stay in Los Angeles. This process arises from the indigenous concept of relational mind and gives the voices in our heads to people in our environment. Then we can see the dialogue from inside our heads made concrete in the world. In this case, the woman gained greater awareness of the issues behind her desire to move and realized the path she needed to follow in a more certain, embodied way, as opposed to an intellectual decision. This process led to a ceremony in which we requested what we needed to feel abundant. People needed jobs, refinanced loans to prevent foreeclosure, a place to live, rent money, meaning and purpose, healing of various maladies prostatis, arthritis, back pain, gallstones, asthma. It felt so meaningful to hear the needs of each person and to realize they were not so different from mine. Talking circles inevitably help us discover our own similarities in the human condition. Next came the doctoring that I have already described. Then we closed with a formal prayer using the sacred pipe or channupa.

Healing circles come in all shapes and sizes. I have seen Quaker healing circles in which people sit in silence until someone is moved to stand and speak. I have seen healing circles take the form of drumming circles, the sharing of reiki, and, in Christina communities, the reading of Scripture and the offering of prayer. I have seen a healing circle take the form of Roman Catholic Contemplative Meditation. Healing comes in many forms and sizes and is appropriate to the community in which it occurs. Our belief is that we all need to be in a healing circle and that this grassroots movement at the crossroads where people meet and interact is what will save health care, but reducing greatly the number of people who use professional health care services.

My image was a door floating in space. I recognized this door from one that I have seen from the Coyote Cantina. Across the street, bathed in the richness of New Mexico sunset, is a second floor door. It is merely there, without balcony, without stairs, simply a door in the wall. I've speculated about that door and what it's for, about the balcony that used to be there, or the stairs that used to climb to that door, or maybe that it was always a spirit door for the shifting shadows to enter. I remember its blue frame set against the deep rich browns of Santa Fe adobe. The door hangs in the air at the crossroads where humans meet and greet, enter and leave, find sacred space and depart from that space.


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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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