The people who consult me are often scared and distressed. An illness threatens the length and quality of their lives. They want to be well. They want to be cured. They want a miracle.
Unfortunately, miracles cannot be guaranteed or produced on demand. What is more certain is our ability to cultivate a sense of peacefulness and meaning even in the face of illness. This is miraculous in itself given today's world and medical culture. So many people sit namelessly, faceless and alone on nursing home floors, passing the time before death.People typically feel blamed for causing their illness, for we know on some level that we have contributed to our getting sick, if only by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We sense that how we have lived has had some impact, if only through our lack of kindness for ourselves, the diet we have followed, or the resentment we have never given away. We have some deeper, subliminal sense that our illness somehow relates to the way we live. We have some awareness, however unconscious, that the illness makes sense in the context of our relationships and the choices we have made or that our families have made for us. Regardless of how often doctors and others reassure us that the illness is entirely accidental, that sense of blame does not go away. We have an intuitive awareness that we and the illness are related, and that illnesses are not random. This awareness is implicit within Native American medicine and spirituality.
Buddhists call this awareness an appreciation of the causes and conditions of an illness. What torments us and causes us to feel worse about ourselves, is the widespread Western European belief in the power of the individual.
Beyond that, families are embedded in communities and cultures. Families do not consciously choose their values, beliefs, patterns of relating, and habits. The culture expresses itself through the family.
The "New Age" idea that "you caused your cancer, now fix it," doesn't work. If cancer arises, as Native philosophy teaches, from every aspect of our being, including family, community, spirit, emotions, relationships, genetics, diet, environmental exposures, and more than we can imagine; how can anyone say that one person could cause such an event? I struggle to help people understand that they did the best possible given their resources and beliefs.
With rare exceptions, people are always trying to do their best. Limitations come from how we were raised, our economic and political environment, and our continuing relationships, including those to our families and our cultures. Even life's mistakes can be viewed as unsuccessful or partially successful attempts at self-healing.
When a healing elder said, "Every thought is a prayer, and every prayer is answered," he meant to call our attention to the many prayers that are made each moment by each person. Many are contradictory. Two football teams pray for victory. Only one can win. How is this negotiated?
To my academic friends, I joke that God must be a parallel processing, neural network computer. This joke refers to the way that these devises separate, integrate, and respond to conflicting and contradictory input. On a human side, many philosophers, including Native Americans, speculate that our thoughts create our reality. The Native perspective is that the Universe (Creator, God, or other name) must negotiate these thoughts to produce what we see before us. One elder told the story of a community praying for jobs. A power plant was built upriver and people began to get sick from the pollution. The prayers for jobs had been answered, but at a cost.
Therefore, I work to help people see that the world is too big and too complex, to believe that they single-handedly caused the illness. We may have been taught to want something (like jobs) without understanding the consequences (pollution and illness). We may have no choice but to participate in a society that exposes us to toxic wastes in the name of corporate profit. The ways of relating that we have learned from our families may have the side effect of eventually suppressing our immune systems. But we didn't know this consciously. These processes were not under our control.
The healing journey often involves our becoming more aware of those processes (causes and conditions) that contribute to the illness. Why? To change what we can change! To accept response-ability -- the sense that we can respond and change relationships and habits of behavior, even economic and political ones.
Therefore, a healing journey must begin by addressing the blame a person feels for his role (real or imagined) in getting sick. That sense of feeling blamed opposes the sense of peacefulness that is necessary for any possibility of cure. This sense of peacefulness is what one person called the greatest benefit of working with me. It must solidly exist regardless of what the actual medical outcome will be.
This problem of self-blame is rampant in our culture. Doctors ask me if I don't encourage people to feel worse if they don't get well. I respond that my first task is to help them abandon the concept of blame. I aim to nurture compassion and loving kindness. I understand that people are always doing the best they can, given what they have learned (beliefs and experience) and what resources are available to them (income, social class, education). No one would intentionally give herself cancer. No one would purposefully give herself AIDS. No one would press a button to destroy her kidneys, except for the most desperately suicidal, and even they are still doing the best possible given their beliefs and resources.