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Articles    H3'ed 4/27/10

Using Creation Stories In Healing

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona
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Excerpted from Coyote Wisdom: The Power of Story in Healing , chapter 1.

Creation stories are ubiquitous in life. Our families tell us stories of our birth. At family gatherings and holidays across the world, families love to tell memorable, hilarious, and embarrassing stories of our childhood. At business meetings, on airplanes, and at parties, we tell stories about how we got to be where we are today. We have the short version for acquaintances, the long version for our closest friends, and the cleaned-up version for first dates and potential in-laws.

Cultures also tell stories about their own creation, and people tell stories about how they got sick and how they got well. The story about how an illness arose is particularly powerful and has multiple versions. In Western society, the doctor's version is called the diagnosis, and it is a compelling story to which all members of society pay homage. People's own stories about how they got sick may or may not parallel the official medical story, and this seems like the logical place to begin a book about the healing power of stories.


Thus we begin with the idea that everyone needs a creation story, just as much as cultures need stories about their origins. And all people require a story about the appearance of their illness, whether or not that story matches the medical version. The power of the creation story lies in its predictions. The medical diagnostic story predicts what treatments will work and what the results of those treatments will be. Similarly, the sick person's story about the birth of his or her illness predicts the likelihood of healing or cure and contains clues as to what treatments will work and what treatments will not work.

I begin with creation stories, just as medical care begins with diagnosis. I want to draw out the person's own illness-creation story, and then, over time, as I shall show in subsequent chapters, I try to influence that story so that the chance for healing and cure increases. As many Native healers have told me, the limits to healing and curing are a great mystery, known only to the Divine; we are required to do our best to strive for wellness in every way possible, knowing that healing is always possible, but cure is up to the Divine.

Creation stories are important, because the final story about how you or I got well must be compatible with the story about how we got sick, or the treatment will never work. In my studies of remarkable healings, I found that every person had a plausible story (to them) for how their illness occurred and how they got well.1 Invariably, the wellness story was logically consistent with the "how I got sick" story, even if neither story made sense in terms of my biological understanding of sickness and disease. In addition, everyone in their immediate, closest circle of family, friends, and acquaintances also believed these stories of how the person got sick and got well, buffering the person from larger groups who might challenge or question either story.

Communities of believers are powerful, and are created and maintained through shared stories. Recently I met a small group of people who had experienced miracle-level healings with a particular vitamin product. Others I knew had tried the same product and had succumbed anyway to their disease. I suspected that, helpful as it was, the vitamin product was not the actual healing agent.

When I looked closer, I found that the phenomenon mirrored what I had observed among people healed by Native medicine people. In both cases, the people had a plausible theory to explain their healing (the product or Spirit), they isolated themselves in a tight fellowship group (in the case of the vitamin product, a group of fellow product consumers within an enthusiastic multi-level marketing pyramid structure), and everyone around them believed with fervor in the power of the product (or Spirit) to heal them, thereby reinforcing the stories. The vitamin users who were healed loudly proclaimed testimonials about the product; they had absolute faith in it. Their involvement with marketing the product and with others who marketed the product had forced an intense, present-centered mindfulness upon them. They had no time to be bothered by the past or worry about the future--the immediate needs of marketing the product and giving testimonials about it consumed every waking moment. I had to be happy about their healing. Some people in their group had recovered from documented lupus, metastatic cancer, and other serious illnesses. Naturally, since I didn't share their absolute faith in the product, I worried about what would happen to any of them if their complete committed involvement with the product faltered, but I realized that could happen to any of us. We can all have crises of faith and lose our way.

Their culture, created and maintained through shared stories about the product, had a creation story--the story about the genius who formulated the product and his trials and tribulations in getting it out to the public. The story included his persecution by the Food and Drug Administration and by medical authorities. The stories shared by this community informed its members about how to perceive themselves and their environment, including how to view people who didn't use the product and those who were outright skeptical of it.

I found these followers of the vitamin product fascinating for their collective creation of a subculture through telling stories and sharing an understanding for the meaning of those stories. How did this shared culture and understanding translate into physiological healing? What are the biological principles behind this transformation of the vitamin product into an agent for healing and curing? The followers of the product would never ask these questions, of such interest to me. Such questions lie outside their worldview. They would have never imagined that their social network and the beliefs that it sustained and nurtured could have brought out the biological activity of healing, related in part to their complete and total faith in the vitamin product. Their faith in the product appeared to prevent them from creating alternate stories that would take the power of healing away from the product and give it back to the community.

In my studies of extraordinary healing, I didn't encounter a single person who had healed in isolation. Perhaps such people exist, but I could never have found them if they existed in that much isolation. The philosopher Ervin Laszlo believes that communities of people are connected by fields of energy.2 He provides an explanation within the realm of contemporary physics for Jesus's statement that "I am there whenever two or more are gathered in my name." People create systems that generate an energy field, which feeds back to make the people within the system more connected to each other and more coherent in their thoughts and feelings. Ancient tradition teaches us that when two or more people gather to pray and worship, over time their prayers become more powerful. Modern research shows greater energy field strength when more people are praying together, with increased coherence among their brain wave patterns. These energy fields are generated by the relationships formed through the telling of shared stories. Powerful healing is created through the telling and retelling of shared stories that build the energy field connecting the people involved, as has happened within Native American communities throughout the ages. When the same people do ceremony together week after week for years, great healing power is created. This process can also happen outside of church or ceremony.

The sociologist Erving Goffman wrote that language allows us to create any story or explanatory framework through our conversations.3 He compared this to the freedom of a playwright to first create a stage and then to people it with characters of his or her choosing. Goffman asserted that "talk" embeds, insets and intermingles." This line of thinking would imply that the talk about the product created, in a very real sense, its healing power, which increases in strength the closer one gets to the source of that dialogue--the inner sanctum around its "creator." Without the story of how the product was created, accompanied by the heart-felt testimonials about its use and effectiveness, the product would fail to have anywhere near the healing power that it demonstrated in the collection of stories told about it.

In Ervin Laszlo's systems philosophy, these physical conversations affect and become embedded within a larger energy field (the quantum waveform), which, in turn, feeds back to "in-form" the people creating the conversation about a more comprehensive version that includes everyone's ideas and contributions. The field contains the entire conversation, while each individual holds only a small part of it. Rupert Sheldrake called this energy field the morphogenic field, arguing that it contains ideas that become accessible to everyone.4 What this means is that our explanatory stories, our creation stories, really do feed back to create us. They become larger than we are, even develop biological effects. Imagine that the followers of the vitamin product, through their constant living of the story about the miracle of the product and their ongoing conversations about the product, embed this information about the product into an energy field that informs their community about how to be even more effective in service to the vitamin product. Membership in the community makes one an "actor" on a stage in which the product works phenomenally well. The more central you are as an actor in that "play" about the product, the more powerful it will be for you.

Peripheral characters may not get nearly the benefit that comes to true believers. This means that the power of any substance (even a conventional pharmaceutical drug) is not separable from the stories told about the substance--stories about where and how it was created, accompanied by testimonials, told perhaps in the language of science, perhaps in the language of television commercials. Biological activity is inseparable from stories about how useful something is in practice. This makes perfect sense if biology and consciousness are inseparable. The creation stories and the biological effect inform one other, building progressively greater power.

Erving Goffman would further say that the followers of the product accomplished a creative act through their interaction, in which they produced a frame (like a stage) to contain and support their continued dialogue.5 Participating together within the frame makes people more attuned in purpose and understanding.

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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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