The Way of Sacred Illness
James Baldwin wrote that to be truly alive is to make love with what you most fear. My lover has arrived in the form of a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The Bantu tradition that I practice medicine relies on sacred illness to initiate its shamans, known as ngangas. The ancestors visit certain illnesses on those called to heal. MS is certainly such an illness because it beckons toward a deeper understanding of healing. When I told Mandaza Kandemwa (the nganga who initiated me into tribal medicine) about my diagnosis, he listened as a dear friend would and then said, “Well, you have your heart and your voice. You can do without your legs. Nothing now should get in the way of spirit coming through you as a healer.” Bless his lack of pity. It was true. Though my legs seemed then to be fading beneath me, I’ve never been so unimpeded.

My apprenticeship with multiple sclerosis began very slowly, retrospect being the only angle from which one might even see its beginnings. I was in Africa in 1996 with my wife Deena Metzger, introducing her to the Bantu people who had initiated and received me as a medicine man. We were in the stony waterlands of Mashvingo, southern Zimbabwe, and Deena was initiating Mandaza into the mysteries of the Hebrew letters, when I noted a garden variety of white male arrogance rising up in me. After all, I was “the expert,” much a part of the tribal world and quite well read on Bantu anthropology. How much I wanted to interfere, be master of ceremonies. So I pulled away to a small pool of water to curl up in and prayed in the traditional way of the ngoma of the water spirits. I yielded to the field of spirits that were carrying the poetry of the moment quite without my advice.

It was then that the snail parasite schistosoma slid through the skin and apparently laid eggs in the lattice of my peripheral nervous system. That night a fever, strange but transient, two weeks later, numb from the waist down. And so I walked eight years with this numbness. Eighty percent of peripheral neuropathies are undiagnosable, I was told. With reluctance, accustomed to a young man’s oblivious vigor, I settled into the perpetual reminder of the frailty of the flesh. I believe it made me a better nurse, a better nganga, a more compassionate human being. All this started changing a few months ago when I lost the full use of my legs. It was then that my apprenticeship with the sacred illness, soon to be named multiple sclerosis, truly began. How fortunate I am that MS insinuated itself into my body at a moment of surrender, and has kept such perfect faith with the teaching of surrender, and surrender, and yet again, surrender. And then there are the gifts that come in the wake of surrender.

Surrender? What do I mean by surrender? Anagarika Sujata says that there is dishonesty in any mind that insists reality occur in a specific way. MS says that healing requires a strange alliance with what I am facing, and so the way of surrender has demanded an uncompromising honesty. Not a passive acceptance, but a very active meeting.
My first serious rendezvous with the spirit of the illness was last August, when I walked to the cave on the Big Sur coast where I’d been blessed to spend two years during my twenties and thirties in solitude and prayer. It took me ten hours to walk what had been a one hour hike. In my two weeks alone I surrendered my legs not knowing if they’d return or even if I’d be able to make my way out of the ravine. Later I surrendered my life. Undiagnosed as yet, I didn’t know if that time had come. Finally, there was surrendering the fetish of certainty, knowing that God is the one who shapes what is before me. Such has been my spiritual practice during this time and through it I have begun to taste freedom.


Surrendering my legs, perplexed that I would be asked to do so, but with whom do I argue? Surrendering my life was a different matter, that truculent fantasy that my life and my death are possessions of mine, God be dammed. Deena is twenty years my senior, and it’s been many years of renewing the vow that I’d see her to the other side, a betrayal of her and God’s betrayal of both of us should fate decide otherwise. But yes the tearful moment five minutes before the New Year’s kiss, insisting that she continue should I go first.

The third lesson from the illness was surrendering the fetish of certainty. A few months ago I was delivered vividly between worlds. I was between lives, one life dead and gone and the next unborn, that place the Tibetans call bardo. Flailing in rage, indulging in an orgiastic fit of self-pity, and Deena, bless her, said, “You have to let go the how you think and talk abut these things.” The space of the bardo echoed with “let go, let go, let go” as if to harangue. I knew that spiritually I seem to be called to let go of most everything, or perhaps merely any shard of certainty.

Ah, the Fool card of the Tarot! My father gave me my first Tarot deck before he died, and I’ve long used it to understand my fate. Did I not see the Fool as a photograph of my soul, satchel at the end of a stick, dog nipping at my heels? Did I not always yearn to dance at the edge of the abyss? And yet quite denying now years of my public and private rhetoric that could well be the fiction of having a self, I’m seduced by the fetish of certainty – that fetish that I’ve always scoffed at with contempt. The Fool at last has the last laugh. Affectionate though he was towards the young man’s flamboyance, now he places the older man’s meditation cushion at the edge of the uncertainty that has become his life and says, “Sit still.”

How little I’ve understood the Fool. A little psychosis, a bit of entertainment, half-time in the rites of surrender. I’m left with the question, stripped bare – what is the authentic and ensouled truth of the story I am in?

Certainly I’d lie if I didn’t say that part of the truth has been hell, nailed to a diagnosis, compelled by the pornography of prognosis. Yet within the nightmare I see Mildred smiling. Mildred was my first patient. I spent four years at her bedside, learning to meditate, learning to be a nurse. One night I came to work (her home) and she asked how I was. (I read her lips and also pressed air through an ambu bag through her tracheotomy and vocal cords for a word or two.)

“Oh, I feel a little sad,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Life just seems sad to me sometimes.”
“I rarely feel sad,” she said.
“That surprises me, Mildred. Some people might think you’d be bitter,” I said.
Mildred had been diagnosed with MS in the 1950’s. “Bitter? Oh no. I just don’t let things bother me.”

And so I finally “saw” her. she was virtually bathed in love. As am I. And she radiated light. I spent those years suctioning, medicating, bathing and giving a bedpan over to an angel.

And so the continuing truth of initiation: the affliction itself has drawn me as a healer into a circle of healers, some alive, some spirits. This circle itself is the place of healing, the place of initiation. Healing and initiation are one and the same, the weave of many hands.

The circle of the living.

My community of friends singing, praying, drumming on my behalf as my legs began giving away, as I staggered with my walking stick. The medicine of a prayerful community: the next day I put my stick down only to use it, as Deena said, because the time had come for me to lean on the ancestors.

Dr. Lobsang Dhondup practiced Tibetan medicine for five years in Mongolia, is now in a clinic in San Diego. He met me with silence as he spent ten minutes taking my pulses in both my arms, his eyes closed in deep focus. Then he looked up and said, “You have MS don’t you?” Lobsang collaborated with neurologists at UCSB regarding MS.
My pulses, he told me, showed chronic inflammation, and he prescribed herbs and a rigorous diet to calm my inflamed self. Initially I resisted. No chili! No sugar, wheat, alcohol, mangos! No etc! This diet messed seriously with my inner Mexican.

Because of Lobsang and his kind Buddhist demeanor, I’ve ceased to see MS as an enemy. The diet behooves me to regard it as the Guest, that it be at ease. My meditation is how to be hospitable to this one who has so much to teach me. Again, surrender.

Dr. Bill Gray is a homeopath who knows the poetry of symptoms. In homeopathy there is compassion in the activity of diagnosis, so that my symptoms in their strange peculiarity sing, call and response with the possible remedies: gold, sulfur, falcon’s blood. Bill, like myself, is a refugee from allopathy, a Stanford trained MD, taken almost thirty years by another paradigm. “Laws of cure!” he marvels. “Symptoms as the body’s native wisdom about healing.” This seems close to the understanding in African medicine that with sacred illness one is healed by the spirit of the disease itself.

Multiple sclerosis has drawn me as a healer into this circle of healers, some that I have named, others that I’m just beginning to know. Again, healing and initiation is the medicine of community, the weave of the many hands. MS itself is the subtlest and most deft of healers, a true and vivid spirit ally, the one who knows the intimate cellular truth, undisguised, undeniable and utterly transparent. Among the living and the spirits this Guest turns a face that is not without beauty. Who am I to argue that fate has delivered me here by accident, has called me towards the dance with this one so real in its intelligence, so relentless in its wisdom?

Deena Metzger Opening Keynote Address

Annual National Meeting of the American Holistic Medical Association,
Albuquerque, APRIL 2004

I wish to tell you how deeply honored I am to be here. I have been thinking about what might be said here in this auspicious moment to open the door of extraordinary and unprecedented possibility that emerges because we are meeting in the presence of the Soul of Medicine that we invoked together with the musical and spiritual guidance of Dr. Larry Nussbaum. It is not lost upon me, and probably not lost upon us, that such a meeting is occurring in such horrific times as these in which we are living. Perhaps it takes such times, such desperation, such urgency, to both empower and humble us sufficiently to call upon the Soul for assistance and guidance.

Probably the most important thing that I can say is that when you ally with the Soul of medicine, and understand the alliance as real not metaphoric, you become a medicine man or a medicine woman. This means that you carry medicine. You carry medicine as a sacred practice, you become a healing presence, medicine emanates from you. This is what it means to be a medicine person or a healer. It is not a quality that lives in an office; it lives in the world. And so the soul of medicine as a presence informs, inspires, guides and leads us directly to expand the perspectives of professionalism to investigate what it means to be simultaneously a physician and a healer.

I am not a physician, but I am a medicine woman, and so we meet in the mysterious realm known as healing. Except for a short twelve-year stint as the wife of a physician, my training has been very different from yours but just as challenging and ethically demanding and it extends, as yours does, over my lifetime. Perhaps the greatest difference between us is that I have learned so much of what I know through my own experience, through ordeal and heartbreak. Also, I have had to set aside so much of what I have been taught formally in order to walk this path which has been, as I have come to see over many years and with a great deal of skepticism, a schooling administered by spirit that offers us circumstances, often illness, through which we learn what is required.

My responsibilities as a medicine woman, like yours as physicians and health professionals, are great, greater, like yours, than what I asked for or anticipated. So I am aware of the rare opportunity for us to be collaborating together on matters of urgency, I have been praying every day that the right words might come to call us all forth to meet the tasks that are before us.

Dr. Larry Nussbaum’s questions to all of us are profound questions: what is the gift that the soul of medicine offers us, and what gift is elicited from us in return? Who do we become in the presence of the Soul of Medicine?

These are questions that we are being asked as a community to address and to continue to carry. They imply a relationship between the human and the spirit realms and this dynamic awareness that the practice of being a medicine person is a sacred activity that extends itself to bringing healing to every situation and concern that it encounters. We are being asked to blur the boundaries between our professional and personal lives and live wondering in every moment what offering we can make to the individual beings we encounter, human as well as non-human, and to the world.

Asking these questions thrusts us into new territory, into a world where the profound concerns around healing can truly be addressed.

We do not do this, however, in the abstract. We are gathered tonight in a version of Grand Rounds around a patient who is critically ill, whose symptoms are so extreme, complex and glaring that they overwhelm us and even blind us to the gravity of the situation of this one, whom we all love. And, as you may suspect, this patient, who is not yet moribund, could be soon if we do not intervene with all our resources, skills, training, hearts and souls, no matter what it costs us, this patient is the world.

As a medicine woman, I am no less responsible for the world than I am for the man or woman who seeks my help because she or he has cancer or is suffering from panic attacks. And I am also aware that what I do on behalf of healing any individual or being must also be healing, even if not directly extended, for the world itself. The medicine path into which we are being initiated insists that each word and activity has to be healing by its nature so that the single gesture has consequences in all the realms.

Holistic medicine is committed to seeing the patient as a whole and to attending mind, body and spirit in the activity of healing. Now we are required to go another step and see that in healing the patient we are given the opportunity to treat the world as well.

It is no accident that so many of the illnesses that we are suffering at this time in history are analogous to social and global ills and so in treating the individual we are being trained and called to bring healing to the society at large. No matter our politics, philosophy or perspective, we can’t avoid being conscious of the implications of the co-incidence of symptoms and complexes in individuals and in the society. And seeing how different diseases ravage the body, we understand the ways they ravage the soul and the society. This is essential wisdom that the physician can bring to the world.

This and the realization that Healing is a real event. Complex and multi-leveled. To experience its reality is to bring medicine into the realm of spiritual activity. Healing occurs in a harmonious state of joint consciousness. The healer carrying the wisdom, knowledge, skill and energy to harmonize relationships and situations that are disquieted.

When my husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, a writer [Gathering in the Names, Spring Audio and Journal 2003] and healer like myself, trained in part in an African tradition, was diagnosed with MS this year we found it terrifyingly apt that he would be afflicted with an illness which is entirely mysterious in many ways including its enigmatic patterns of affliction and remission, so that he, as a healer, is required to discover through his own suffering, the ways of healing so that he can communicate it to others. He begins to resemble those original physicians who necessarily took their own medicines before giving it to a patient.

Michael speaks sometimes of the spirit of MS. He means that he, as patient and healer, is apprenticing to the disease to learn its character, to learn what healing it brings with it and what it reveals about the needs and nature of the body and the body politic. MS is an inflammatory autoimmune disease of the central nervous system wherein damaged nerve fibers are unable to fully or reliably transmit communication signals to the rest of the body. It is a disease on the rise in a society, a world, that is enraged, violent, and militant. A society in which the means of communication are increasingly damaged and distorted, the media increasingly unbalanced, and the true news distorted and often failing to reach us. A society that attacks its own in so many ways, including the increasing horrifying frequency of friendly fire in Iraq and elsewhere, which Ed Tick, PhD, quoting a Marine veteran, has recently defined, in a disquieting public letter, as fratricide.

When you see the pathology of the body writ large in the society – inflammation, for example, now being investigated as a basic element of many complex illnesses – arthritis, MS, cardiac disease – then you know you also have to heal the social system. This is the opportunity of illness – for the patient and for the physician. As the patient learns that his or her healing affects the society, so then the physician sees that he or she has knowledge and wisdom that is useful to the whole.

No matter our politics, philosophy or perspective, we can’t avoid being conscious of the implications of the co-incidence of symptoms and complexes in individuals and in the society. And seeing how different diseases ravage the body, we understand the ways they ravage the soul and the society. This is essential wisdom that the physician can bring to the world.

We don’t think Michael succumbed to MS because he is an inflamed person or lacking the ability to communicate, though, like so many of us, he has been enraged; the state of the world, for one, often enrages us, though fury prevents exactly the kind of communication we crave. A practice of meditation, then, calms the eruption and restores balance and perspective. Perhaps this kind of internal reflection and adaptation that is the hallmark of consciousness is also involved in the body’s cycles of exacerbation and remission. And how would this kind of self-scrutiny and self-regulation in a conscious society?

We think Michael succumbed to MS because we must learn to heal our inflamed hearts and souls and he has the capacity to address this. The medicine person is not removed from human suffering. We learn our most powerful medicine through our own bodies and lives. The medicine person suffers a common jeopardy, and often carries medicine exactly as the vehicle for an affliction that will provide us with needed teachings. To find a path that calms both the afflicted body and its manifestation in the world is one of his goals. He joins me here today from within a month long meditation retreat, one of the essential medicines that he is pursuing at this time.

Five years ago, Michael and I introduced a form of community healing, based on indigenous healing and contemporary vision called Daré, meaning ‘council’ in the Shona language of Zimbabwe. The participants reflect the professional and ethnic diversity that could be present in any vital community. Last Sunday, in addition to those core members who come each month and include a range from physicians, nurses and physical therapists to energy workers, sound healers and shamanic practitioners, we were gifted by the presence of a Sufi teacher from Afghanistan, a Yogi sound healer, an Armenian woman from Lebanon mourning the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, several Israelis and Arabs, others of very diverse spiritual orientations, each following so many different paths, each seeking and offering healing to each other in their own languages but without imposing their particular forms on each other. Richness of multiplicity without dogma. Originally, Daré attracted people who were looking for healing and couldn’t find it through conventional sources and also healers who felt constrained in conventional society from offering their gifts. Ultimately, it became clear that these were the same individuals – that we all have gifts that are inhibited and that we are all, at different times in our lives, in need of profound healing.

Whoever comes to Daré is included and welcomed. There is no fee; there are no requirements except to respect all the beings that are present. We see that over the years we have come to live by council, by dream, by heart, listening deeply to the stories of each other’s lives to make meaning of them and to support each other in contemplating what a life lived with integrity might be. Although our work is ancillary to and does not replace conventional medical care, Daré is concerned with physical, emotional, spiritual, community and environmental healing, and the range and depth of suffering that we are called to address is daunting. Last Sunday, we worked with a woman poet, a holocaust survivor, who had fallen into deep depression and paranoia after changing medication because of severe lithium side effects. Also with a young woman whose life seemed to be deteriorating after having been disabled in an industrial accident, and another woman who was incapacitated with a variety of symptoms after her rib broke, seemingly spontaneously, while she was shooting a film on the Ark of the Covenant in the pyramids in Egypt. In council we considered such issues as the global privatization of water, 20th and 21st century genocides, and how we might each stay awake in the face of so much suffering and extinction.

What makes Daré, Daré, is the necessity to consider deeply the Story that is involved in the affliction, for the healing cannot come through attending the physical manifestation without seriously being involved in particularities of the emotional and spiritual content and these are as complex and mysterious as any disease might be. We are also committed to examining the story for its spiritual potential instead of its pathology. [As an aside, here are now seven Darés in North America, and we expect that there will be others soon in Fresno, California, Toronto and North Carolina.]

After Michael was diagnosed, the community gathered to offer him what we call a music daré. Musicians assemble with energy workers and together they jam, as a jazz ensemble might, with each other, the spirits, the patient and his or her affliction. The call to spirit, the love that is transmitted, the complex and specific vibrational activity of the music itself, these become powerful medicines. Afterwards, Michael walked in balance, and without a cane, which he had not done for many weeks. Before the music started, Michael had commented, bewildered, that it appeared that we were throwing a party at the very time that we had gotten a potentially devastating diagnosis. “It is not a party,” I had answered, “it is our indigenous form of a Sing Way Ceremony.”

The Navajo people only gather ceremonially to bring healing to each other. When one is ill, one goes to a hand trembler or crystal gazer or another kind of diagnostician. When the nature of the illness has been established, a Singer is sought who will preside over the appropriate Sing Way Ceremony. As illness is understood to occur when the spirits, the community or the natural world has been violated, healing consists of reconstituting the world, gathering the community, entering into ceremony, reciting the prayers and telling the myths in perfect order. What has been disrupted is healed by the perfection of the sacred. Hozjo is restored. Hozjo often translated as beauty refers to the essential intrinsic harmony of the universe in its undisturbed form.

One of the qualities necessarily connected to healing is beauty. The natural world is inherently beautiful. Beauty like love is a fierce power that restores the world. The healer’s power is greatly diminished if it not associated with beauty. The beauty, for example, of this opening ceremony is part of the medicine that we are involved in at this moment.

Illness, then, from a holistic standpoint can call beauty and harmony to it as part of its meaning. But prior to that, there is a necessary period of break down. The illnesses we suffer break us down, we are called onto a path, and also we learn the medicine. If we do not know suffering, then we cannot really be a healer. Rather than being ashamed of having become ill, we succumb to the necessary ordeal that reveals meaning and leads to our transformation. The breakdown, the illness is the required breakdown to receive the spirit. We have been living lives that are destructive as individuals and as a people. The old forms have to be undermined. That is what illness does. An old way of thinking is shattered. A new way of thinking enters through ways of healing. We create a life through the forms we choose to pursue. It is, for example, not only the accurate placement of the acupuncture needle that creates healing. It is beginning to live within the philosophy of the flow of energy that underlies Chinese medicine that begins to alter our condition. While cure rarely transforms us, healing is a practice; it becomes a way of life. This is its offering to us. When the physician sees the disease as a process through which meaning replaces random suffering, through which someone can be transformed, then we enter a world of possibility. Allies replace enemies. Our consciousness shifts. We are in a different universe.

The soul of medicine assumes that the patient also has a soul and that the physician is called to meet that soul much as the physician is called to meet the stresses and pains of the body and the emotions.

I had breast cancer in 1977. I learned many things from it. It called me forth to be a healer and I learned, ultimately, not to make enemies. I couldn’t persist in considering the cancer as an enemy when it taught me so much, and, in retrospect, gave me my life.

At the time I was diagnosed, I had been associated with a remarkable institution, the first center for the ancillary treatment of cancer, one that in its way mothered such an organization as the AHMA. It was called the Center for the Healing Arts; it was started by Dr. Hal Stone and others, inspired by an MD, Brugh Joy, who turned to healing after curing himself of kidney cancer.

I had been writing a radio play, The Book of Hags, [KPFK, Pacifica], 1976] about women and cancer, asking why so many women had cancer, why at that time in history, and why so young. I finished the book just days before I discovered I also had cancer. So I used the book as a manual to guide me. One of the ideas in the novel was that cancer often flourished in an environment of repression or enforced inner silence. Accordingly, I brought my typewriter to the hospital. There, I started Tree, [Tree: Essays and Pieces, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1997] a journal that investigated a path of healing, that is both personal and global. Asking what the causes of cancer might be in myself and in the world, I was able to look toward what healing might be for myself and for the world. This journal was part of my healing through the writing of it and has also contributed to the healing of many others.

I was stunned when I discovered I had cancer. I had only time to think about the course of treatment. I agreed, ultimately, to have a mastectomy. I knew I didn’t want to undergo radiation. If you asked me what had contributed to my having cancer, and I was not to answer in psychological or spiritual terms, I would say that I had it because our family doctor was in love with the fluoroscope. I could detail for you the many experiences I had behind that machine peeking over the top of the screen to see my organs and bones within. So, of course, I would be wary of radiation. This wariness is one of the gifts of the illness. It leads me to oppose the use of depleted uranium in weapons, to cry out on behalf of those soldiers in Iraq who are already suffering radiation poisoning and to question our dependence on a so called healing technology that assists us on the one hand through diagnosis and radiation therapy and endangers us on the other by irradiating a populace that is, without doubt, showing the consequences of our failure to find ways of healing that don’t also do harm. The doctor, much beloved by the community, died an early death of stomach cancer.

Waiting for a plane some years ago, I was alarmed by the spectre of a man with a cane walking so slowly down the aisles. Frankly, I thought I was, as in myth, seeing death walking toward me. My apprehension increased as he stopped directly in front of me. “You are Deena,” he said. “Don’t you know me?” Is this the way it happens? I wondered solemnly. Then he said, “I’m Saar Porath. I was your radiologist.”

Over the years, we had had friendly disagreements over the extent of the use and reliance on x-rays, mammograms. We had appeared on a panel together after a theatre piece written by the husband of a patient we had had in common who had died of breast cancer. He had spoken about the tragedy of the woman who had refused conventional treatment; I had defended her right to have her own life and so her own death. In the airport, I put my hand out to him; it was my turn to bring healing to him, to enter the sacred ritual of reciprocity that characterizing healing. But he turned away and made his slow way toward his destination. I called his office a few days later to invite him to Daré, to our healing community. In a few weeks, I heard that he had died and also that the work he began after he was diagnosed was in the field of rehabilitation psychology, seeking to find niches in the health care system to better serve persons with chronic illness and disabling conditions, including cancer.

After diagnosis I had a mastectomy. I was fortunate. No one recommended either chemotherapy or radiation. It took so long to even decide to have surgery, I easily yielded to the earnest entreaty of the surgeon to have reconstructive surgery a few days later. I was referred to a plastic surgeon. He was enthusiastic. I had no reason to question him. As it happened, a freak lightning storm hit LA during the surgery. The electricity at Cedar’s Sinai hospital failed and while emergency equipment functioned, it was not possible to sterilize the implant and so I awakened still flat as a boy on the right side and, because of all the anesthesia I had received, no longer a candidate for reconstruction for at least six months.

It was only later that I learned of all the serious negative consequences of implants and instead I had my flat chest tattooed with sacred symbols. Five years later, when Tree was published, I self-published what is called “The Warrior Poster”, an image that has encouraged and sustained women for almost 20 years. While the publisher had no qualms about the opinions I express in Tree, he was afraid to put the poster on the cover or in the book as I had hoped he would. The current publisher has since remedied this situation, as you will be able to see for yourself.

The point of this story is that cancer designed a path that has been life giving to me and to others. I could not have designed such a program myself; spirit had to intervene. There are more consequences than we can imagine that result from not seeing the illness as an enemy to be vanquished but as a phenomenon that needs to be fathomed.

If we are conscious, it can call us, and the society around us, into a different life.

I recently led a workshop on the relationship between healing and peacemaking. A body at war within itself is like a world at war. In both instances we have to find the way of peacemaking. I asked the participants to speak of the story that was at the core of their illness, identifying what needed to be healed alongside the physical condition. A man suffering with melanoma identified a core moment: As a small child, he had learned that the Russians could send missiles as far as Colorado. He was overtaken by fear. He admitted that the fear never left him. It was at the surface. Always present. Anything could trigger it. He always felt vulnerable in a world filled with enemies who could easily reach him. His treatment, of course, consisted of killing the enemy. Identifying, attacking, and eliminating the enemy before it eliminated him. Cancer treatment is like that. He could change his internal point of view, give up the fear, which he did, but he couldn’t change the way the world looked at illness, so he was still in an embattled situation, a world filled with enemies.

But he began to ask the question, as we all must, what would be the medicine like that isn’t predicated on making enemies? What medicine would we find if we imagined the cancer cell itself victimized, as afflicted, distorted, mutant, deranged, sociopathic as a consequence of the lives we live, as a consequence, for example, of the way we poison, pollute and destroy the environment? What if we, compassionately, sought a medicine that could restore the deformed cell to its previous function, its formerly intrinsically benign and cooperative way of life?

A healer has to consider the consequences of the medicines and treatments used. The conventional medicines we are forced to use are as likely to create illness as to ease them. A medicine that cures one person but afflicts another is ultimately not tenable. In considering the whole person, we must be responsible to the entire society and then to all the other beings. We cannot privilege one over the other. Our medicines like our activities are our mirrors. They are not neutral substances, they reflect and they establish the world in which we live.

Since I had breast cancer in 1977, I have been living by, teaching and working from, the following dictum: heal the life and the life will heal you. We are all familiar with the ways in which people confronted by a life-threatening illness such as cancer, recognize that in addition to all other treatment, they are called to change their lives, and we observe how the lives of those in their community have changed accordingly. Most obviously we have witnessed the ways that first cancer and then AIDS, diseases so debilitating and so exhausting, cohered communities in order for the afflicted ones to be cared for properly. When an increasingly alienated and disconnected society, begins to reform in order to take care of its injured ones, something important is happening. Illness is the opportunity through which one can hear the call that otherwise is inaudible. Everyone who is wounded does not become a full time healer but everyone who is ill has, if assisted, the opportunity to contribute some healing to the world by the changes that are enacted in his or her life.

Certain responses to life-threatening or chronic illness have become familiar, even expected, in the last few years. Individuals often attempt to change employment for something less harried, simpler, more aligned with the ways and values of the natural world. They may want to leave the city. They may take on meditative and creative practices, devote themselves to compassionate activities, honor family, community, spirit. They begin to eat differently, buying organic foods, avoiding pesticides and other destructive elements. Living in such ways they create model fields of health that inspire others and invite them in. In such ways, personal healing leads to community healing. Particle to wave. This may not save their lives entirely, but, statistically, we know it extends them.

RB was diagnosed with pseudomyxoma peritonei, a cancer characterized by extensive spread of a mucin-secreting neoplasm along the peritoneal surfaces. He had surgery for it, the condition reoccurred and he opted after much soul searching to submit to the ordeal of a twelve- hour surgery after which chemotherapy heated to 120 degrees would be placed twice into the stomach cavity. This was to take place across the country from his home and community. Before the surgery, RB was a physical therapist, supervising the therapists locally and nationally of a prominent physical therapy organization.

He and his family prepared extensively for the ordeal. The community rallied around him. Prayer circles were organized. He and wife came to Topanga for healing and support before traveling across the country.

The surgery went well. But some hours after the surgery he was losing a great deal of blood. His wife who had been sent to the hotel to sleep was awakened from her sleep by an inner alarm. Not knowing why, she rushed to the hospital and was reassured that everything was ok, but she didn’t believe it. An alarm went out. The community organized to pray. When she called me, I offered to journey on RB’s behalf to see if he was endangered and if I could retrieve his soul. It was a long and difficult journey, I found him far away from the ordeal his body was suffering, but finally I could bring him back. What enabled me to retrieve him was an image of the surgeon after he had had to initiate a second surgery to close off a nicked blood vessel. The surgeon had cared deeply about RB; I knew he could not bear the grief of losing a beloved patient. Frankly, the focus of my prayers was, ultimately, for the physician. When I finally saw the surgeon leaving the hospital confident that RB would survive, I went to sleep. This coincided with RB’s condition turning for the better. It quickly became evident that the physician, the family and the healers were in alliance, their fates intertwined. And that it was proper to extend prayers to the physician as well as to the patient.

When RB and his wife returned to Southern California the healing process proceeded well except that RB suffered severe memory losses. Despite the spiritual support he was receiving he and his wife were restless and agitated. The hospital had been, they said, like a MASH unit and they were still unnerved by the sounds of ambulances, medical helicopters, the constant state of emergency. We did not know how to respond until we had the crazy idea that the presence of a meditator in their home to create a circle of calm might heal the earlier agitation. The hospital had been like a war zone they needed peace. Once again, spirit intervened. As it happened, next door to the High School that RB’s daughter was attending, were a group of Tibetan Monks creating a sand painting for peace. Though the Lama said that he never ever made house calls, he agreed to come to Richard’s home and offer them a blessing. His presence calmed everyone profoundly, in part, we assume by his prayers and, in part, we suspect because of the clear evidence of the reality of spirit implied in his appearance exactly at that time in that place and in his willingness to be of assistance.

RB’s recovery continued but without entirely healing the short term and long term memory loss. What began to concern him most was his inability, he thought, to support his family. But it was also becoming evident that while he had lost some of his ability to language what he knows, he is still an intuitive healer and his hands are able to diagnose and treat injuries. This means that he may no longer be able to supervise, a role he had not entirely enjoyed, but that he can still bring healing to his patients. It is the hands-on work that he was so skilled at and that he had had to set aside to be an administrator that is still intact. Studying diligently the physiology texts that he had once known so well, seems to be helping but the bulk of the recall seems to be coming thorough working on friends and members of the community. From time to time, when he feels despondent, we have to remind him that he offered himself to Spirit as a full time healer when praying for his recovery and his life.

There have been other mental changes that have come with the memory loss. RB now carries a deep calm, similar to that carried by the monks who came to meditate with him. He has found unexpected contentment. The dictum that one should not heal to quickly before understanding the nature of the affliction seems important here. It maybe that what appears to be a disability is, in fact, a profound healing of a chronic, systemic unease, an affliction at the root of RB’s illness; an affliction that affects most of us who live professional lives. Some weeks ago, we were made aware of new research that indicates a possible connection between memory loss and chemotherapy. The article naturally addressed what medications might be given to prevent the memory loss and what might be used to treat it. But, I was interested in the spiritual aspects of these circumstances. If one loses one’s memory, one cannot return fully to one’s former life. One must create a new life around the new circumstances. Illness calls us to a new life. Cure intervenes in the process. Memory loss may be one of the factors that insist on the transformations that the world requires for its survival. Healing would recognize Spirit’s call to a sane and harmonious life.

Illness has become the spiritual challenge and trial that leads to enlightenment in our society. It has become our hero’s journey. It calls us on to the sacred path. It provides the ordeal that allows for transformation.

Consider, for example, the number of people who have and will in the near future endure the mythic ordeal of bone marrow transplant, who will be taken down, in effect, to the moment before death. What sacred theatre are we involved in while oblivious to its import? Consider the frequency that people claim to be altered psychically or spiritually by the organs that they have received as transplants, by a “change of heart.” What people underwent in the past through voluntary spiritual ordeals, meditating for years in a cave, making a pilgrimage, confronting danger, climbing a mountain, offering sacrifice, engaging in war, is now encountered through the consequences of the illness AND the treatment. The trial that was met essentially by the rich, the brave or the eccentric, has been democratized and will be endured by the majority.

An unusual percentage of individuals will accept their fate to be altered down to the cellular level. The question is who will guide them so that their suffering will lead to transformation? Who will accompany them to see that what has been pervasive and life threatening is removed in favor of that which is vital? Who will provide the guidance so that the ordeal and concomitant revitalization occur simultaneously on a personal, physical and cosmic level, so that the healing of the patient implies the healing of the culture and so the world?

For twenty years or so, my tenet, “heal the life and the life will heal you” seemed more than sufficient as a guideline. But now as life becomes even more dangerous and extreme, it no longer fully serves. Perhaps what is required is not unlike the process of bone marrow transplant, to change our lives down to the cellular level so that beginning again, we are free of what is malignant, devouring, uncooperative. So that we work from the very core to create lives that are nurturing, self-sustaining, ecological, benevolent, harmonious and beautiful. Medicine devoted to the installation and maintenance of what is vital.

The holistic physician as healer, as a medicine person, has a sacred role to play in the complete healing of the individual and the society. What is possible when the physician imagines that each individual is living within a context, a circle of meaning and that the illness or condition the patient has brought to heal is both part of that meaning and reveals it? The illness, then, is not the center or the essential focus, but a means of understanding, a means through which we are brought to a path. Healing the illness and walking the path become fused and both, together, carry us where we must go. So even as the physician treats the patient hoping to ease, relieve, diminish the symptoms, hoping to cure the condition, still there is the opportunity for the physician and the patient to collaborate on understanding and articulating the greater meanings.

It will be tragic if the physician relinquishes the sacred task of healing that could also, when appropriate be his or hers. To do so is to reify the divisions that already exist between the physical world and the spiritual world. The physician is as much on such a journey of transformation as any patient. If the physician can enter this dialogue, by extending his or her understanding of the disease, its process and what heals it, to archetypal and global levels then the healing collaboration that sees disease, as is appropriate, as an opportunity for social change and vision begins to occur.

If the patient does not know that she or he is undergoing such a mythic ordeal and if the physician ignores the greater implications and opportunities of illness, then we are trapped in the hopelessness of pain and illness, trying desperately to cure it without entering into the practice of healing. One possible consequence of our inattention is that we may find one or another cure for what afflicts us only to be confronted by a new disease that mirrors the illness of our souls. Another consequences of such inattention may well be the greater likelihood of recurrence of the affliction. Recurrence repeating as long as the soul has not been awakened to participate in the greater purpose of the healing process. Recurrence because, as they say in the African healing tradition with which I am also familiar, ‘the spirits are heavy upon us until we meet the call.”

Last year, while initiating a colleague as an elder, I fell down a non-existent incline and tore three tendons off the rotator cuff. Some hours before this happened, she and I had been at the ocean feeding the gulls as an offering for her ritual. A pelican with a wounded wing dragging on the sand perched very close to us. Too close. We felt it remained in our proximity because it couldn’t fly. We tried to feed it but the gulls came quickly and took the bread and fish offerings. I don’t know what possessed us to pray for the bird’s healing but we both dropped to our knees to do so. Within a short time, it gathered itself and flew. Some weeks later, prior to surgery, I told the story to the anesthesiologist as an image of healing I wanted to enter my subconscious in order to deepen the healing process. He countered with another story. When he had been at the Galapagos Islands a pelican landed on the prow of the small boat and surveyed the passengers. After a long while it flew away but another pelican came, as if sent, only this one had a fishhook through its beak. The captain of the boat approached the pelican most carefully. It stayed still while he removed the hook. These are the visions that took me as I descended. I awakened as if from a dream with a vision of peace activists and veterans dialoguing on behalf of the soldiers who would soon be sent to Iraq. The dialogue I had had with the anesthesiologist inspired another kind of healing. I spent the weeks of recovery establishing a website,, where the participants in war, veterans, civilians, journalists, soldiers can record the real stories of war. I was inspired to create this site [] by the belief that if we really knew the true face of war, were aware of the suffering we were about to inflict, we might desist, or at least, we could not claim innocence.

From the beginning, I called the injury to my arm, “Pelican illness”. I did not know, initially, what its meaning was, but I believed that time would reveal in it. In the meantime, I used the down time for peacemaking activities. It was an ordeal, when so incapacitated, to set up the site, to speak to veterans, to try to foster alliances between those veterans who had once fought in Vietnam and the peacemakers who had opposed them at that time. But, I continued. Within weeks, we had invaded Iraq. There were now so many who were suffering so much more than I was suffering and many without medical attention, without the hope that I felt. I knew that I was going through initiation. I knew that to be a conscious person I needed to know something of the pain that others were suffering. I knew then that I would never be the same. That I had God sickness – the spirits calling me forth. A sacred illness.

A sacred illness is one that calls us to a transformational path that serves our lives and the lives of those around us, and, so, ultimately, the world. It means so much when physicians consider as part of the diagnosis, the possibility that the patient is suffering a sacred illness. It changes, deepens and ensouls the practice of medicine, transforming the medicine that one carries and who one is. When considered seriously, the patient and the physician partner on a journey toward vision, transformation, creating between themselves a culture that is good for the world.

Healing is not necessarily restoring the original condition. It is not returning to paradise. Healing is helping to align the individual with the trajectory of the soul. Healing is the field of beauty through which the details of the larger purpose of an individual’s current life in relationship to his/her own history, ancestors, spirits, the present, the future, and global healing are revealed and enacted.

Now, what about our gravely ill patient who is the subject of these grand rounds? As it happens, this patient cannot go through the process of transformation necessary for healing on her own. How shall we assist her? What healing can we offer her?

We have come to her bedside in community. This is pleasing to her. It affirms that we know something of the relationship between all beings. We have come with heartbreak and compassion and offer ourselves for healing on her behalf. This pleases her. We are not separating ourselves from her fate. We have undertaken the healing of her parts. We are working on the cellular level. We are taking our lives down to the marrow.

There is a strong possibility that our beloved patient will survive if we continue to call the soul of medicine to us. There is a good possibility that healing will come as we offer to walk the path of a healer and the path of the seeker. Together we stand by our invitation to the soul of medicine, that it enter into us. We provide the soul of medicine a permanent home from which all healing can emerge. The prognosis for the world is good. We see that healing is in our hands.

Sacred Illness

The initiation of a healer in Africa is about being
stripped to the bone so presence can shine, so that one can begin
to rely on its intelligence. For myself, the path that led to
initiation was curiously direct. The unrest following the Rodney
King verdict in 1992 led me to ask hard questions about racism
and interracial reconciliation. I began exploring the dreams
blacks and whites have about one another and was intrigued to
note that African-Americans carried the same core images of
whites that Bantu people have borne since the Portuguese arrived
in Central Africa in the late 17th Century. Further studies
showed me how important the water spirit tradition was among
those who were taken as slaves. Eventually I went to Africa to
talk to a native dream teller about the patterns I was seeing.
Augustine Kandemwa, a healer who works with the water spirits,
understood my intent from our first meeting in 1996. A child of
apartheid Rhodesia, my questions touched his own longings. "The
water spirits are peacemakers," he explained. That very night he
began my first initiation into the way of the ancestors.
Stripped them to the bone and stripped again and again: My
apprenticeship continues.

Much of my training the past few years has involved
assisting Augustine in the healing of sacred illness -- those
diseases caused by the ancestors themselves so that the afflicted
might be a vehicle for spirit's efforts to serve the living. A
young healer such as myself had to learn how to bridge the world
of the invisibles with the village, for only the invisibles are
able to heal sacred illness and their way is initiation.
At first one might think nothing could be further from
the ambience of a modern American hospital than a little African
community wrestling with spirits, but once I started seeing UCLA
Medical Center as a village, the differences became less and less

An anthropological oddity I face whenever I return to
work is that in Western medicine, doctors and patients live in
distinctly different cultures. Matters of the sacred haven't
been a medical concern in the West since the Renaissance, but the
majority of my patients and their families see healing as
intrinsically tied up with spirit. I don't expect "sacred
disease" to enter into the Western lexicon any time soon, but
there is no doubt that for many the ordeal of illness and the
possibility of healing call up the deepest questions of faith. I
see the hospital as a hive of initiatory dramas that I meet as
well as I can.

A few milligrams of morphine sulfate to take the edge
off the pain; a little conversation to take the edge off the
fear; coffee for sister, or father at the bedside -- these
ritual acts in a different key are familiar from Africa:
circling the sacred grove to protect the heart of vulnerability
in which the soul is transformed. Sometimes I'm asked to pray,
sometimes merely pose the pregnant questions. "How do you make
sense out of all this?" or "You've been through hell. What is it that sustains you?"

This last question is almost always answered in the
same way: "My faith keeps me going," and "My kin or community
hold me up." If I had to name the essence of the rite of
initiation that happens in a thousand ways in the hospital, it's
about being undone by fate and reimagining one's life within a
web of human interconnection which is in turn sustained by an
unseen source. Again, this is familiar from Africa -- but
Americans bring their own wild poetry to it.

Mike DePonce, for example. At 29, Mike was diagnosed
with a rare form of bone cancer. Months of chemotherapy and
radiation, bleeding gums, nausea, unit after unit of blood, the
loss of a third of his femur, he and his wife Sheba finally
entered that mysterious country called "remission" where they
lingered for two years.

There is something unsinkable about Mike and Sheba
which I can only describe as the appetite of life for life.
Together for only nine months before Mike's diagnosis, when I ask
what keeps them going, it seems to boil down to loving each other
passionately, wanting to bring a child into the world, faith,
prayer and a rather astonishing community of support.
Mike is a firefighter by profession. He explained,
"When there's a problem, firefighters just go in and fix it. But
when I got sick, it's the first time nobody knew what to do. My
hair was all gone from chemotherapy, and a buddy came up with an
idea for a fundraiser -- The Great American Shave Off. For a
$20.00 donation, folks had their heads shaved. They also sold
baseball caps with my badge number on them. Guys on duty would
drive up in the truck, jump off and in five minutes drive away
bald." Firefighters, some of their sons, friends from high
school -- all together about 170 bald heads became a public event
on the streets of Santa Barbara. In addition, for well over a
year, Mike's buddies have been working his shifts, protecting his
medical benefits.

I confess I've known Sheba since she was a girl. A
"daughter-once-removed," I've watched her become a woman of great presence and integrity. When things get dark, the prayer she has
come to rely on is, "Teach me what I need to know."
"What we are going through is so life changing. The
prayer is not about a cure exactly. Of course we want that. But
the prayer is deeper. It's about faith, about listening, paying
attention to what God might want."

There are very few tribal rites that equal the
intensity and risk of a bone marrow transplant -- the
obliteration of the immune system and the razing of the body's
capacity to produce its own red blood cells -- and then, the
regeneration of this fluid world that makes life possible. Many
don't survive. When I heard that Mike and Sheba had made the
choice, I knew we were at the threshold of what Augustine calls
"proper initiation."

Every night at work I would gaze stolidly at the
computer, watching Mike's lab values crumble as intended. When
his already low white blood cell count dropped to a twentieth of
what it had been the previous morning, he was in danger. I knew
it was time to sing.

The threshold songs are songs of support and
protection, the invisibles in a circle around the bed. They are
also songs that the spirits might reveal what God intends so the
soul is fed by the mysteries. Mike had been asleep much of the
day, but when I sang, he roused, soft and lucid. I took a drop
of blood from Sheba's finger, mixed it in water with Mike's fever
sweat and called the ancestors -- a traditional offering in a
styrofoam cup. I called also the spirit of fire to this man who
knows something of fire. An incomparable ally, that one, a
fierce warrior. Finally Mike and Sheba cast the oracle to
discern the path through: challenging but ultimately benevolent.
When the clock said 7:00, I saw I must step back into time. Down
the hall, my night shift was starting.

As Mike prepared for his bone marrow transplant, his
community once again came to the fore, eagerly donating more than
enough blood and platelets to carry Mike through his descent. At
this writing I leave an orange, a little honey, sweet wild lilac
at a creek and sing her a song on Mike's behalf. The blood of
Mike's community will soon be his life's blood. Such is the
mystery that his life has delivered him to.

In traditional societies initiation is never a private
matter: It renews the culture itself. When Sheba quoted a poem
by one of Mike's friends, "Stand together we stand tall/We will
not let a brother fall," I hear the vigor of a loving community
but also an echo of the Yoruba proverb: "If we stand tall, it is
because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors." And I
imagine the young men fresh from the forest, their heads shaved
and the ritual white clay washed from their bodies. They have
returned to the village, these ones, and now they are men and
greeted with drumming and song. The elders smile because they
know the world will continue.

All proceeds from the publication of this essay go to the Nganga Project.

Michael Ortiz Hill is a registered nurse and tribal healer among the Bantu people in South Central Africa. His books include Gathering in the Names (Co-authored with Augustine Kandemwa), Spring Audio and Journal, 2003, and the soon to be reissued Dreaming the End of theWorld (Spring Publications, 2004). Both are available at Read more about Michael’s work and writings at