Kindling the Spirit: Symbols, Rituals and Ceremonies, Chapter 6


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 alone.

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 necks.

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 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.

As 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".

Post-treatment biopsies 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 right.

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 all tribal

people. 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 visit.

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 back.

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.

Gershon 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 me well.

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

next 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 story.

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.