The Last Mask of the Authentic Healer
People who know me might use a number of adjectives to describe my general approach to being in the world, but “New Age” would not be among them.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself participating in a weekend experiential workshop, “The Last Mask of the Authentic Healer,” under the direction of Carl Hammerschlag, a nationally known teacher, author and psychiatrist who happens to be a friend of mine.
To be frank, Carl browbeat me into enrolling – and paying him for the privilege, to boot. “You need this,” he intoned over one of our extended lunches, where we solve all the world’s problems with our usual penetrating insights. “To gain control, you have to be open to losing it. Take a risk. Step outside your comfort zone.”
Well, telling a Master of the Universe that he’s afraid of risk – that’s like giving a match to a pyromaniac and telling him not to start a fire. Of course I had to be there, if only to say that I had consorted with the Strange and could now legitimately classify that experience with my well worn lexicon of world metaphors, models, myths and rational explanations of all sorts.
Psychoneuroimmunology: the integration of mind, body and spirit. Yada, yada, yada. How hard could this be?
Twelve initiates gathered late on a Friday afternoon – a physician, a dentist, several therapists, people in the long-term care industry, health care professionals mostly, and three guides: Carl, a Native American woman with a deep knowledge of her people’s rituals and healing ceremonies, and one of Carl’s students, a psychologist from Germany with expertise in story telling and theatre techniques to illuminate a journey into the recesses of the mind and imagination.
On the first evening, we participated in a “talking circle.” We were encouraged to speak from our heart and be brutally honest. I was.
“I’m just exhausted,” I confessed. “I’ve got bronchitis, my chest hurts and I want to be home in my own bed. I’m only here because Carl asked me to come. That’s what you do when you’re successful. You don’t disappoint your friends.”
The dentist picked up on this. “I hear you,” he agreed. “Running around and around, chasing the Almighty Dollar, pleasing others, and for what? Capitalism just makes you sick.”
Later, Carl added cryptically, “You don’t grow by acquiring things. The snake sheds his skin, the moose sheds his antlers. You grow by giving things up.”
The rest of the weekend we talked to rocks, sang songs, danced around in circles, rubbed Vaseline on each other faces, made and decorated masks, sat cross legged in an ungodly hot sweat lodge and generally became acquainted with dimensions of self, health and healing that lie outside the standard model of clinical diagnosis and treatment.
“You won’t be able to explain to others what went on here,” Carl summarized as we prepared to leave late on Sunday afternoon. “But this will come back to you in all sorts of surprising and powerful ways when you least expect it. You will continue to treat your patients. But now you will be healers, too.”
I had to take a picture of myself as a child and a sacred object to the workshop. I found a picture when my brothers, sisters and I cleaned out our Mother’s possessions following her death several years ago. It was taken during the first six months of my life, and I was beaming joyously into the camera. Whatever happened to that happy child? Is he still connected to the man I say I am today, or is the self nothing but a set of discrete performances stretched along a continuum of fragmented experiences, fabricated into an illusionary whole through the stories we invent about ourselves and tell others?
For my sacred object, I took a letter my father had written to me when I was in college and going through a period of self doubt. In it, he told me that if the only problems I ever had were money problems, I could count myself lucky.
“If it’s something else, it’s a sign that you’re growing, and I wouldn’t worry about it,” he wrote. “The only truly contented people I’ve ever known are the ones who have given themselves in service to others. It’s a lesson in all the world’s great religions. You’d think people would start paying attention.”
That weekend, I placed my letter on the sacred stone in the sweat lodge and sang my song of forgiveness and thanks. Carl was right. I can’t explain it, but I was there to experience it, and that has made all the difference.
A blessing for a peaceful, prosperous and happy New Year to all.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.