Original Content at
July 5, 2011
Thoughts after Sundance 2011
By Lewis Mehl-Madrona
I reflect upon Sundance 2011 and what I have learned. I realize that Sundance is about love and compassion and following this red road that leads to these directions. Sundance gives us an opportunity to rise to become spiritual warriors, to find all the benefits and none of the detriments of battle, to create a community of fellow warriors within which we can feel strong, and to transcend our natural limits to become more.
I've been absent from blogging for a couple months thanks to needing to help the clinical program where I teach prepare our accreditation application, so I'm resuming my regular blogging on the day after our annual summer ceremony. Enough has been written about the Sundance, that I don't need to dwell on the details. Rather, I want to write about what I learned this year and the implications I see for medicine and for those who don't participate in Sundance.
Our Leader talked frequently about the Sundance being about love, as is the red road that we follow. Of course, people undertake the Sundance for many reasons, some being for healing of family members, and others for self-healing. As I settled into the dance, I thought of all the things I for which I could pray, and none quite fit. I wanted to pray for my son, who is 18 years old, and still figuring out his life, but I received the gentle message from the Tree (the center of the ceremony) that he was fine and all was in motion and had been worked out on many levels. None of the things I wanted seemed all that important in the context of the dance until I realized that the best I could do was to pray to increase my capacity to be helpful and healing to others. I also became more aware than ever before that so much of what we do in the dance is for the benefit of the people present, for their healing, to inspire them. Just as we use prayer and the power of spirit and the power of our own minds to transcend our limitations, we inspire those present and perhaps ill or suffering to take our example and to transcend theirs as well. Sundance is sacred drama in which all involved are lifted to higher levels of spiritual immersion. Within those levels, miracles can and do happen. One of my fellow dancers was a member of the Native American church aspiring to have his own fireplace -- what they call an altar. He told an amazing story about his wife's having been diagnosed with multiple, small tumors in the abdomen that were assumed to be malignant. While they waited for surgery, he and his fellow church members held a ceremony for her in their tradition. When he and his wife returned to the hospital for a follow-up CT scan to determine the best approach to remove the tumors, the physicians were amazed to see that all of them had disappeared. This is the power of ceremony and belief, the power of faith and mind.
What does this mean for our mainstream world? One of my fellow Sundancers had learned that 378 dances take place each summer in the United States. Probably this is an underestimate since many dances are small family affairs that fall below the radar. Even if the average dance has 40 dancers (probably close to accurate, though some, like one in Rosebud, South Dakota, have as many as 200), the number of people is small compared to the population of the United States. Though the cultural practice is clearly being maintained and is growing with signs of persistence, relatively few will be called. What we can learn, however, is the power of faith, belief, and mind in healing and in health care. This power is realized through enactment. We have to do something. It's not often enough to sit quietly in one's room and wish to heal. We need others to participate in healing with us and we need people to witness our performance of wellness. There are other more common practices which can elicit these feelings, though probably not at the intensity of Sundance. They include drama therapy, other spiritual practices, and even the ritualistic practice of new behaviors. The context of the Brazilian healer, John of God, captures these elements, as well. People make pilgrimages to Brazil at great person effort, just as people sometimes drive hundreds of miles to get to a Sundance at great personal expense of time and money. People visiting John of God dress in white and line up for their audience, just as Sundancers wear red and line up. They believe that transformation will occur and it often does. They participate In a ceremonial healing that is witnessed by many others. They are told how to change their lives and often transcend their previous limitations to become able to do what they couldn't do before.
We need more sacred drama in our lives. We need sacred drama sometimes to believe enough, to activate the power of mind, and, I would say (though others might say that I am speaking metaphorically), to engage the spirits and persuade them to help us.
I've been speaking of sacred drama which means to me the ritualistic enactment of a spiritual story. Sundance is based around a cosmology in which the sun is the most powerful of all the Great Spirits, with the power to heal the people. Within this story, people play the roles of spirit beings. We spend four days purifying and when we enter the dance grounds, we enter into spirit world. Fasting and thirsting are ways to bring us closer to spirits who do not need food or water. My fellow dancer, Barbara, said, "It's both reaching to be spiritual and staying spiritually connected while suffering. It's about accepting life as is and refusing to be brought down by it." This is most evident on the fourth day when copious food and water will appear at the end of the dance, and being patient and waiting for the dance to conclude at its own speed and not at the desired pace of an ordinary person who's thirsty and hungry.
Sundance is known among those who attend to be amazingly healing for veterans who are suffering the aftereffects of participation in war, and to allow them to return to productive, fulfilling lives. How does this happen? I realized that Sundance allows us to bodily enact the role of spiritual warrior, giving all the positive benefits of doing battle with none of the negatives. We form tight bonds with our comrades, our fellow dancers, in which we support each other to transcend our usual limits. We find love for people that are sometimes so different from us that we would never have bonded with them in any other context. We challenge ourselves physically through not drinking water or eating food for four days while sometimes dancing in harsh conditions of heat and humidity. Through the piercings, we are able to be wounded in ways that inspire pride and build self-esteem. Our bleeding becomes our badge of courage rather than a shameful wound. We return with medals in the form of the small scars that remain after the piercings. Any Sundancer can recognize another simply by noticing the scars on the chest, back, and arms. This opens participation in a community of warriors like none other. In this way, Sundance is far superior to the military because its mission is love and transformation, and the cultivation of kindness and compassion in a challenging context in which no one dies or is seriously wounded.
For these same reasons, Sundance, and the red road which Sundancers follow, has become an alternative to gang membership by providing all the desirable elements to being in a gang with none of the negatives. No crimes need be committed for the dancer to experience that another has his or her back. There is that sense of working together to accomplish a common goal that is done individually and as a group effort.
For me, I was blessed to achieve my commitments, but, had I not, my fellow dancers would have loved and accepted me for trying and for giving my all even if I didn't do what I set out to do. This is where Sundance shines over belonging to the military or to a gang. It is clearly a wholesome antidote for what people are lacking.
Competitive sports have some of these same elements. The task requires preparation, both mental and physical. We strive to overcome our limitations. Pain is involved, or what my Buddhist friends call "voluntary suffering". They say that we grow and transform through choosing to suffer for the benefit of others and to find ourselves and a higher purpose and meaning in the midst of suffering. We are broken and become traumatized through involuntary suffering that is forced upon us against our will. Voluntary suffering prepares us in a way for those times when we must involuntarily suffer by teaching us the strength to maintain our sense of self and meaning and purpose in adverse conditions.
After Sundance, I always want to pen some words to remind me of why I do this. Like many, I enter the dance grounds with some trepidations and fears that I must manage and overcome. I would say to myself reading this in 11 months from now to remember that spirit will pick you up and carry you the distance you need to go, that pain is transient and transformative, quickly over, leaving behind the sense of accomplishment for the good of others and of one's self, and that membership in this community of warriors is worth the pain and suffering involved.
A fellow dancer who had come back from Iraq with what was being called post-traumatic stress disorder was afraid of being pierced. The last time, he had seen the dead from Iraq walking through the dance grounds and had fainted. I told him what I tell myself. "This is not like the pain of an enemy's wound. It's the pain of transmission of knowledge, of spiritual growth. Welcome it and think of it as an interesting, uplifting sensation, and not as pain. It's something you want, something for which you've asked, and not something that's being forced upon you." He liked this idea and said that it helped immensely. He went through the experience and felt that he had healed a huge part of his trauma. "No bodies in the arbor this time," he said. His sense of triumph will carry him through.
Another dancer taught me an important lesson. In the previous year, he had believed it his duty to refuse support and medicine offered to mitigate his suffering fearing this would weaken his purpose and prayers. In doing this, he had barely made it through the dance. This year he told me that he had realized that when someone offers you a gift, it's for their benefit that you accept it; that part of the obligation of being in community is to let others help you even as you help them. He had learned that receiving compassion was not the same as quitting. He was able to accept medicine and support this year and had a much stronger dance.
What helped me to transcend my limits was the encouragement and love of the helpers and my fellow dancers (including my partner). I tried harder and gave my all and more because they knew I could and wanted me to succeed. They encouraged me to do more than I thought I could.
So, here's our challenge to become healthier as a society. Few will ever participate in a Sundance, but how can we use Sundance as a template to create opportunities for people to transcend and grow in the company and camaraderie of fellow seekers and helpers. The helpers in Sundance are personal and participatory as well. They share some of the suffering and have gone through many years of the dance as dancers before being called to help. They have been there and therefore have compassion for the new dancers. They know how to offer encouragement and give support in a Vygotskyian "zone of proximate development", in which their presence allows us to do things we couldn't do without them.
I don't have a simple answer, but to say that we need more compassion and performative ceremony in health care. Health care practitioners would do better to act like the helpers in Sundance -- to convey the sense of having been there, too; to give support and encouragement that allows people to dip inside and find their inner resources as they undergo suffering in order to heal; to assist people to feel empowered and to develop a sense of agency and accomplishment; and to build community in which all feel equal and accepted, even when some have more experience and skills than others. We will do this through dialogue, through many voices talking in order to listen. The point of this essay is to start such a dialogue.
And now, back to my desk job!