Welcome to the sixth installment of the Reality Sandwich series, Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within, the remarkable memoir by Dr. Carl Hammerschlag. Once each month, we will present a new chapter on RS. Please visit the Kindling Spirit homepage to learn
more about the book, and about the accompanying teleseminars led by Carl
and his longtime colleague John Koriath. These Kindling
Spirit Telecircles will extend the dialog raised by Carl's
experiences, related on these pages, and involve your stories as well.
To sign up for the teleseminars, click here. Read Chapter One of Kindling Spirit here. Read Chapter Two here. Read Chapter Three here. Read Chapter Four here. Read Chapter five here.
Everything on the face of the
planet has its own intrinsic value maintaining harmony on the planet. Every
stone, plant, and creature has evolved with its own place and purpose. If such
things hold a special significance for you, then in addition to its intrinsic
value it holds symbolic, even sacramental value. When you feel an intense
connection, a kinship with something, whether it's a stone, scroll, tree,
rattle, animal, or unseen ancestral spirits, then they possess an energy that
can be harnessed to help you through hard times.
When those symbolic objects are
used within the structure of a ritual or ceremony, we intensify the object's
power. These symbols then become sacred because they connect us to something
other than ourselves and remind us that whatever we face we do not face it
In the practice of modern
medicine we dramatically undervalue the ritual and ceremonial aspects of
healing. Even though modern surgery has all the elements of a ceremony — the
preparatory ablutions, special instruments, the induction of trance, and
mastery of a special language — we do not typically see what goes on in that way.
"That's not a ritual," we say, because each of those actions — the hand washing,
the surgical masks, the sophisticated machinery all have a rational reason.
It's not like rattles, feathers, wine, and wafers, that tap into something
irrational, so we say their impact is purely psychological, maybe even magical.
There is no difference between
the psychological and physical body; thoughts and feelings are a real,
measurable force. Thoughts and feelings have a power, and we can use them to
design our reality rather than just react to it.
Quantum physicists and brain
researchers support what mystics have been telling us for millennia: if enough
minds share the same thought, we can create a universal, collective
consciousness. Rituals, ceremonies, and the use of sacred symbolic objects can
promote transformative change. They provide the structure that allows us to get
in touch with the soul of our being. They tell a story that inspires us to see
beyond our limitations.
My sacred objects range from
scrolls, to feathers, rattles, and drums. I also have a special relationship
with turtles and snakes that represent wise messengers for me (maybe even
guardian angels). Their appearances (in my dreams or in reality) are a wakeup
call. And always get myattention.
Turtles are a universally regarded symbol of fertility, growth, and wisdom. It's also a healing symbol; when a turtle is threatened it seeks strength within. We
need to do the same, when something threatens we also need to go inside to get
stronger. Going inside means getting your head, lips and heart in balance,
that's how we mobilize our strength. And then, like the turtle, if we want to
move ahead and get beyond the threat, we have to take a risk and stick out our
My snake messenger came to me
during a pilgrimage to Bear Butte, South Dakota about 30 years ago. This is a
sacred mountain for the Lakota and Cheyenne
tribes of the Great Plains. This is where
Chief Red Cloud came to seek vision and save his people, and where Native
people from many tribes now come for vision quests.
I was in Rapid City for an Indian Health Service
meeting and Bear Butte was so close I took the opportunity to bring my sacred
instruments to this holy mountain to re-energize them. Bear Butte is now a state park open to all, but
the sacred vision quest grounds at the mountaintop are still reserved for
Native Americans. In the parking lot, I spread out the contents of my medicine
box, and picked out those items I intended to carry up. While carefully placing
each item in my backpack, I saw a Native American family watching me from a
distance. They approached me and asked if I was going to pray at the top. I
told them I was, and was told they couldn't all get to the top and asked me if
I would say a prayer up there for their father who had just passed away. I said
I would be honored and they handed me a braid of sweet grass and told me
something about their husband, father and grandfather.
I was feeling so good as I
walked to my first stop was at the sweat lodge grounds at the base of the
mountain. I loved the idea that this Jewish boy from NYC was asked to pray for
my Native relatives. I tied my prayer bundles to the lodges and continued up
the mountain. Still glowing in my self-satisfied reverie, I didn't see the
rattlesnake right in front of me until I heard it rattle. Two feet in front of
me coiled and ready to strike. It made me catch my breath. I stepped back
slowly, talking to the snake all the time while retreating, "I know you were
here first, this is your place, I'm just visiting, and wasn't paying
attention." I assured it that I was coming here from a good place and finally I
was far enough away that the snake uncoiled and went away.
I reflected on that for a while
when I reached the top of that monolith. I thought about how captivated I had
become by my ego that I
lost sight of where I fit in the scheme of things. This was never about me, I
was picked out as a trustworthy messenger, and I was the instrument not the
creator/architect, a transmitter through which their healing spirit flowed.
This is usually how it is for me, it takes some kind of life-challenging
confrontation to get my attention and change my behavior.
On that holy mountain, my snake
relative reminded me to tame my ego. I have a sculpture of a rattlesnake that
now hangs right in the middle of my diploma wall. When I look at it, it
whispers in my ear…do not to take yourself too seriously.
I prescribe rituals and
ceremonies for patients, students, and friends. I help them put together the
elements that will help them become full participants in their own healing and
in the healing of others.
Teryl Johansson is a native
Oregonian, a professional fly fishing guide, among other things, I call her my
River Sister. "T" learned to fish at her father's knee when she was 3
years old; she once took a 4-month solo fly fishing trip on the West's best
streams and wrote a book about it. I love her reverence of rivers; and we have
been friends for over 20 years connected by this love of the music of a moving
line in the cathedral of nature.
A couple of years ago, T wrote
to me saying that she had just gotten a letter from her friend in Zürich
Switzerland, wondering if she knew anything about a Dr. Hammerschlag who with
Native American healers was conducting a workshop on ceremonial healing. He
wanted to know if he should fly halfway around the world to attend. T said,
"he is a first class schmuck, save your money, bring me to Switzerland
instead and I'll teach you all you need to know about healing."
Only later did she add that if
he came she would come too, because we were brother and sister.
Just before the workshop, T
wrote to say that she wasn't coming because she'd just been diagnosed with anal
cancer. For years she'd been told it was only a persistent fissure, but now so
far advanced, it required aggressive radiation and chemotherapy, almost surely
followed by colostomy surgery. I told her to do what she needed to do at home,
because she would surely be with us in our circle anyway. She would feel our
energy and prayers during her healing journey.
her grueling therapeutic course unfolded, she felt those vibes and got her
community of friends to send her "butt blessings". In her weakest
moments this unseen but heartfelt community showed up; T wrote, "You have
empowered the warrior in me. I have become 98 pounds of hairless, fighting
fury! After 24 doses of radiation it's taking a toll on my tender tushy which
looks as if it's been dipped in a deep fat fryer".
revealed residual cancer, and T was now facing a life and death decision. She
wrote, "pray for me hard, it makes a difference knowing you're out there.
Obviously I'm bummed about this outcome, but I'm going for it (in my own
'alternative' way now) because I wouldn't want you to say I traded my ass for a
hole in the ground". Eight months later her baffled surgeon, whom she
referred to as "the Ass Man" told her " I see no reason to
remove your rectum… things look beautiful down there." T told him "I think
you're working too hard Doc, you need to get out more." She invited him to
come fly-fishing with her.
Five years after the surgery, T
wrote "on the medical front (I guess that would be my back side) The Ass
Man says it's even more beautiful than it was before which means I am once
again the perfect asshole."
At a deep, energetic level,
when people come together to focus on an idea or pray for an individual, it has
an impact. It's hard to explain this phenomenon with reproducible scientific
data because it's hard to measure the effects of prayer. Since there are so
many ways of doing it, it's hard to reproduce all the variables to make the
results reliable. But when science defines the terms of the inquiry it also
defines its conclusions. The language of science is not the language of the
human spirit, which doesn't lend itself to such measurements.
The important thing to remember
is, if you have to be sure before you make a move, you may wait too long.
Sooner or later all of us face something we don't know much about. We don't
have to come from a place of certainty, we have to come from a place that feels
If it does your heart good to
know that every day somewhere out there someone is thinking about you in a good
way, pulling for you, wanting you to feel peace, comfort and blessing. Go and
seek it out, people will respond and it has no bad side effects.
What happens if your current
life is devoid of ritual and ceremony? Look for kindred spirits in a community
that utilizes them or learn how to create your own. At the soul level we are
Rituals and ceremonies help bind us together in community.
My friend Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
was a pioneer psychiatrist and champion for the terminally ill who changed the
way people talk to each other about death and dying. I knew her during the last
10 years of her life. Shortly after her move to Arizona, Elisabeth sustained her first
stroke. A mutual friend told me she was concerned about Elisabeth's mental
state because she was cursing God in 60 languages, and railing against her
incapacities. Our friend encouraged her to meet me; I said I'd make a home
Elisabeth lived way out in the
desert, a sprawling ranch house with an Indian tipi in front of it. Bird
feeders hung everywhere, javelina and coyote wandered the grounds. When I first
arrived I called through the open screen door and Elisabeth shouted back to
come in. She was in a recliner, surrounded by books and mail that were stacked
in piles on tables all around her. She offered me English Breakfast tea and
directed me to put the water on to make it. In her direct, opinionated, crusty
style, she interrogated me about my German name and added they were a humorless
stock. We talked about Freud, Jung, my work with Indians, and my thoughts about
an afterlife. After the interrogation she answered my questions, and invited me
Over the next decade, we
established our own healing ceremony. I'd bring the bagels with cream cheese,
lox and capers; she'd light up a Dunhill cigarette. We teased each other,
laughed, commiserated, and sometimes quarreled. Our visits always ended with a
goodbye treat, a piece of Swiss chocolate (much better than German).
She had another stroke, some
serious infections, system failures, but survived them all, and our breakfasts
continued. Still mentally alert and angry at God for bringing her so close to
the flight home but always leaving her at the gate. Even while she was
approaching death she was doing what she had done better than almost anybody
else; shine a light on the process of dying. The week before she died when it
came time for our goodbye chocolate, Elisabeth said "I'm giving it to you now,
but I don't want you to eat it; wait and eat it later." It wasn't clear to me
what later meant, but I tucked it away in my office refrigerator. Her memorial
service took place a month after her death over Labor Day weekend. I had
planned to go on a fishing trip with my grandkids. I thought about staying home
and attending but knew Elisabeth would've encouraged me to go.
I brought along that piece of
Swiss chocolate she told me to save. Her memorial service was scheduled at 3 PM
on Saturday afternoon. At that time I reeled in my line and sat down on the
riverbank. From my vest pocket I took out the chocolate, opened the foil
wrapper, and plopped the whole piece in my mouth. As it oozed, I looked up from
the water's edge at blue sky above, and laughed thinking about Elisabeth's last
teaching. Don't eat it now, wait till later. Save a piece of the ones
you love for later; a piece of chocolate, a song, picture, or place, where you
touch the soul of those who've touched you. Every year on Labor Day it is my
ritual to eat a piece of Swiss chocolate to honor my friend's life.
I am a ceremonialist and when a
need arises, find a way to participate in one. The need seems to arise more
often as I get older. In the midst of this aging assault with more groaning in
every organ system, I asked my beloved friend, Rabbi Gershon Winkler to perform
a healing ceremony for me. Gershon is the only Rabbi shaman I know. The rabbi
is a distinguished Torah scholar who reads the Babylonian Talmud in its
original Aramaic and a Kabbalist teaching the lesser-known traditions of
Judaism's rich mystical wisdom and Hebraic shamanism.
I stood outside on a high
desert plateau in New Mexico,
the sun was coming down, and the crisp autumn air was infused with the scent of
piñon pine. Rabbi Gershon drew a large circle on the ground, maybe 10 feet in
diameter with a 7-foot long, hand-carved walking stick. In the center of the
circle he drew mystical symbols of powers and guardian angels; then he
whispered in my ear asking me to tell him what it was I wanted to heal. I told
him about my awareness of my physical decline, my fear of losing control of my
body, and my memory lapses.
Inside the circle he drew
ancient kabalistic symbols that he explained and then he handed me his walking
stick. He showed me where in the middle of my chest to put one end of the
staff, and how to hold the other end just inches above the circle he inscribed
in the ground.
To the beat of his drum, (whose
hide cover was covered by the same symbols) we started walking around the
circle with me focusing on keeping the stick in the groove. Rabbi Gershon
walked behind me whispering the Hebrew word, "Henainie," "here I am," and
telling me to repeat it after him. Round and round we walked, "Henainie,
Henainie, Here I Am." Slowly, focused on the the path and the keeping it just
inch off the ground, I am in a walking trance acknowledging that indeed this is
the only place I am.
After minutes that seem like
hours, Gershon takes my arm and leads me into the middle of the circle to stand
amidst the symbols He held out his open arms and invited me to give the stick
back to him. While he chanted, we passed the stick back and forth between us.
Finally, he kept it and raised and lowered it in front of me, then walked
around me and stood behind me. When he lifted the stick, the setting sun caused
a shadow of the stick to appear on the ground in front of me. It was a snake;
it was wriggling but not moving anywhere.
walked back in front of me and again handed me the stick and telling me to hold
the stick high and dance with him while he chanted. As I danced around, I saw
the snakes shadow again but this time it was moving and not wriggling
helplessly. In that Henainie moment I understood that as long as I could still
move I did not have to focus on the steps I'd lost.
In appreciation of that healing
moment, I asked a friend to carve a pipestone pendant that incorporated the 3
Hebrew letters of the word Henainie. It's a beautiful reminder that hangs on
the fireplace in my office reminding me to dance in every moment.
I've told this story to
patients who have also struggled with their losses and fears and to whom I've
lent it to aid in their recovery. Harry was crippled by anxiety and despair
after recovering from bypass surgery at the age of 50. I helped him make some
choices about his lifestyle, and Harry did well over the years. At 70 they put
in a pacemaker to control his irregular heartbeat, after which he developed an
infection that almost killed him. He got anxious and depressed again and
doctors put him on tranquilizing drugs which made him less anxious but also
made him sleepy, wobbly, and unable to breathe well at night. They discharged
him on lots of medications, which ultimately left him confused and agitated. He
was readmitted to the hospital within a week because he became aggressively
delusional. The psychiatrist who evaluated him admission wanted to put him on a
potent antipsychotic medication to control his agitation and delusions (he
thought she was trying to kill him and wanted to be discharged from the
hospital). His wife told the doctor no more drugs until they spoke with me.
I told the psychiatrist of my
long-term relationship with Harry over the years and that I thought we might
address his panic and agitation with more behavioral approaches rather than
more medications. She discharged him AMA (against medical advice) if I would
take full responsibility for his aftercare. He and his wife cosigned the
release-form that he was being discharged against medical advice. His wife
brought him from the hospital to my office where we talked. He knew I wasn't
going to kill him so we talked and he calmed down. Looking around, Harry
focused on the Henainie pendant on my fireplace and asked me about it. I told
Harry the whole story of my fearful preoccupations and the ceremony Rabbi
Gershon performed, and my Henainie moment. I told him that I hang it on the
mantel to remind me to give up those ideas and behaviors that no longer served
It was also clear at the moment
that I should give it to Harry for a while. He wanted it and I said it came
with some instructions. The first was, when he got up in the morning he needed
to perform a sunrise ritual of his choosing, that included saying, "Henainie,
Here I Am, Thank you for this day." Then he was to carry it with him during the
day, and at night he was to hang it on the bedroom mirror. He could give it
back to me when he was feeling better.
We saw each other often in
those first weeks and within a month he was weaned from his anxiety drugs. We
tapered our visits but he carried the Henainie amulet around in his pants
pocket for the
six months. By then his heart rhythm was stable, he elected not to have another
pacemaker, was back to work, and he returned it to me. I've since given it to
others; I tell them the symbols history, which of course now includes Harry's
All symbols have power, from
medicines to robotic surgical arms and even to healing amulets (which also have
no untoward side effects).
Image by visualpanic, courtesy of Creative Commons license.