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Day 1 of Australia 2013: The Autobiographical Narrative

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We began our cross-cultural tour with an invitation for me to tell my story as a kick-off for a writing workshop in the town of Warburton, which is a Victorian hamlet that reminds me much of Topanga Canyon, California.   The landscape is similar, though the trees are very different with the exception of the mighty eucalyptus.   Warby, as it's called in the area, was kicking off its first and annual transformative writing series of events, readings, workshops, and seminars.   (If you want to speak Australian, the general rule of thumb is to take the first syllable of any word and add a --y, e.g., barby, brekky, kangy, etc.   The exception is that there's no --y in croc -- he ate it.).   People there had read my autobiographical book, Coyote Medicine, and wanted me to speak to the notion of writing an autobiography even as I told my own story.

Autobiography is important because we all have one, whether it's formally written or not.   These stories are also called identity narratives and are the stories we tell ourselves to explain ourselves to ourselves and others.   Mostly when we tell ourselves our stories about what we are, we imagine telling them to others.   Neuroscience suggests that we form our idea of self through watching others watching us.   We become self-aware through awareness of others being aware of us.  

I began by sharing these ideas with the audience and reflected on the idea that a good story requires a theme.   The theme of the version of my life story that I will share with you is "the search for what works".   I told how my career aspirations oscillated from astrophysics to biophysics to theology to psychology, so I chose medicine as the closest integration of all these fields.   Little did I realize that medicine didn't see itself as having any theology or astrophysics -- pure biology without even much in the way of psychology.   I shared my great grandmother's being a healer and imagining that I had absorbed a way of thinking about "doctoring" from her, which was inclusive of spirituality and psychology and quantum physics (though she wouldn't have known that she was talking quantum physics ideas).

All stories need turning points, I said, and mine occurred in pharmacology class when a famous professor lectured to us that "life is a relentless progression toward death, disease, and decay.   The physician's job," he said, "was to slow the rate of decline."   This idea was so antithetical to what I had absorbed from my children that it shocked me into awareness.   As soon as class finished, I ran across the Stanford campus to the Indian Center where Henrietta Blue Eyes was sitting at the reception desk.   I told her I was Cherokee from Kentucky and I needed to see a healer right away.   She gave me the name of one in Ukiah, which is up the road from Sonoma.   I was visiting him by the next weekend.  

So this is the theme of my story, I said -- looking for what works to facilitate people changing and transforming, especially the idea of healing in the face of illness and healing from illness.   I was interested in cures.   Slowing the rate of decline wasn't my idea of recovery and cure or even healing, though I recognize that healing can occur even as a person dies of their illness (though my grandmother and great-grandmother wouldn't have linked their dying to their having an illness.   They would have thought of the illness as being coincidental to it being that person's time to die).   I knew that I needed to study healing alongside studying medicine since the two were apparently not as connected as I had anticipated.   I talked about the efforts made by every culture to get the spirits attention -- the elaborate ceremonies of North America like the sundance, the ghostdance, the dance of the Deer, the Dine CoyoteWay, BlessingWay, etc.   Then there were the Roman Catholic and Anglican high masses which certainly were impressive.   Buddhists from Tibet and elsewhere had their own collection of highly dramatic rituals.   All over the world, people were seeking the spirits to pay attention and to help out.

Then I talked about my life experiences in medicine and in Native American culture in which I learned what worked.   Spirituality works, I said, though it doesn't always cure, but when it does, it's quite impressive.   I acknowledged that elders had told me that I wouldn't be so impressed if I actually had faith because I would think miracles were commonplace and wouldn't get excited when once occurred. That was true, I said, because I've gone to medical school.   Contemporary education erodes our faith.   Based upon my medical education, I get excited about miracles because I was trained that they don't occur, or, if they do, it's spontaneous remission, and not healing.

I talked about my disappointment with pharmacology -- that it never worked as well as it did in pharmacology class and with more side effects than we were led to expect.   Mostly the complaints people bring to a family doctor don't line up with the diseases that drugs were designed to treat with the exception of the SSRI's (like fluoxetine or Prozac) which are marketed to treat everything.   When I was in medical school in the 1970's, when we didn't know what else to do, we gave prednisone.   Now we give Prozac.   I'm not sure which one has the worse side effects.   When pharmacology works, it's impressive.   When it doesn't, it's not.

I talked about the power of mind to heal, which medicine usually dismisses as the placebo effect.   Herbert Benson rightfully renamed it the self-healing response, and it is powerful.   Over one million studies support it, though many physicians minimize it or ignore it.   Unfortunately, we doctors often use the power of suggestion to the patient's detriment, telling him or her the worst prognosis, or casually mentioning our suspicions that he or she has the worst possible diagnosis of the several that are being considered, or using the power of the label to demoralize the patient, such as what happened to the composer Mahler when he was told he had a heart murmur that probably represented rheumatic fever.   Healthy at the time of diagnosis, Mahler immediately stopped exercising, dieting, and playing music, and died two years later.   Had he never seen a physician, he would certainly have lived much longer.   So the power of the mind works.

Taking care of you works, I said.   Exercising, eating well, having fun, spending time with friends, laughing, doing yoga, and on and on, all work, though it's usually hard to convince patients to do these things when they're not.   All these things work.

I closed with a summary of what Coyote had done in the last 5 years in Australia.   I talked about what had worked that we had done.   We began as a vision that an aboriginal cooperative that had little culture in their programming and health care could change that.    During the first year, we spent time with their leadership and proposed a healing camp in the spirit of Richard Harris, who brought ceremony to the Canadian prairies.   Harris was a Shoshone man from Wyoming who came to the prairie people in the 1960's once ceremony was legal again and taught them his ceremonies.   He was convinced that if the people started doing ceremony, in their dreams and vision, their ways would return to them.   All that was necessary was to start.   He advised them to start doing his ceremonies and assured them that there's would come.   The proposal was to do a healing camp.   We would offer some of our ceremonies.   They would invite some of their colleagues from the Northern Territories who culture was more intact to come.   Elders from their community would come.   The question arose of where to do the camp.   They realized that they owned a run-down house on a peninsula of a brackish lake opening into the ocean next to one of their ancient burial grounds.   They had the inspiration to fix-up this house for the event.   They began the work using people's labor who had been court ordered to do community service.   Many of these aboriginal men continued to work on the property long after their community service was over for it gave them a sense of value and meaning.   Some prejudice of non-aboriginal staff for aboriginal staff began to dissipate.

The first healing camp was a grand success and a wonderful time and marked our second year of coming to Australia.   We shared our ceremonies and the people from the Northern Territories shared theirs.   The local elders began to admit to their own memories of healing practices and began to remember.   This cultural sharing continued after we left and the next and third year was even fuller of meaning.   After this year, they began to organize smaller healing camps with other aboriginal colleagues from around the country, including some from Alice Springs, Western Australia, and more Northern Territory folks.   By our third healing camp and fourth year in Australia much had changed, though the challenge remained to incorporate culture into health care.   One of our group, Rocky Crocker, has been coming a second time each year by himself to meet with the medical staff to accomplish that.

This year is our transition year.   We may no longer be needed for healing camp for it can be now an entirely Australian aboriginal event.   Perhaps a role will continue for us with the medical staff or in other areas of programming, but the goals for which we began coming have been reached.   Time will tell if there will be a sixth year, but much has been accomplished in these five years for which we are grateful.   With that, I ended my presentation and returned to the Catholic spiritual retreat where we have stayed for some brief time each year for a lively discussion with the sister and father who run it about diversity and spirituality.


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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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