A 3-part Series by Lewis Mehl-Madrona
Native American medicine has been practiced on the North American continent for at least 10,000 years. When Europeans arrived in North America, Native people of this continent were a healthy lot. Plagues and epidemics from Europe soon changed that, but do not mitigate against the effectiveness of Native American methods for attaining long-term survival and avoiding chronic disease. Conventional medicine has lost this wisdom for transforming illness into health through mind-body- spirit integration – a fundamental concept among Native North Americans and most of the remainder of the indigenous world. Conventional psychotherapies have also fallen short of their ability to transform people’s lives. They have parceled out therapeutic time in hourly increments in frequencies of once or twice weekly. Weekly one-hour appointments or even yoga classes before work allow us to address only our most critical and immediate concerns.
The time needed for inner exploration, for personal transformation, and for the exploration of how personal issues, nutrition, family problems or spiritual matters affect our health is sorely lacking.
Conventional therapies have neglected opportunities to facilitate a profound change within a short period of time. They have also ignored the power of ceremony and ritual in treatment. Ceremonies couple the patient’s intention to heal with the power of belief and faith in the ceremonial process. They lead to peak experiences that kindle insight into our condition and increase our belief in our own abilities and capabilities.
Since medical school graduation, I have been working to integrate the thoughts and techniques of Traditional Native American healing elders with more common behavioral medicine techniques and psychotherapies. I have wanted to find the most effective and most aesthetic way for me to midwife people’s personal transformations and healings.
To improve my approach, I interviewed a number of Native American healers to learn how they conceptualized their work and how they thought it could be translated into modern American culture. The traditional healers told me that time is the first important ingredient in the healing journey, comparing starting this journey to beginning to push a rock up a hill. It takes a lot more effort to get the rock moving at first than to keep it moving. They wondered how seeing someone once or twice weekly could provide enough “oomph” to start the healing process. “How can you push a rock up a hill if you keep stopping and letting it roll back down?” they asked.