Conversation with A Coyote
By Tandy S. Martin
Once upon a time, long long ago, the air was thick with stories. Each tree, rock, stream, sky, and bird... all the creatures that walked the earth... each one had a song... each one had a story. Even creation had a story. More than one.
The stories could be heard by anyone. And a story could be told by anyone. If something was wrong with me, if I were sick, I could tell a story about why I was sick, and my sickness could tell a story back to me. Maybe a third person, a healer perhaps, would tell another story.
Maybe they would ask questions, or help the stories talk to each other. The healer might give me herbs to drink, and do a ceremony. We could ask my sickness, what do you want? Why are you not at ease? And my sickness might say “Make peace with your father” or “The darkness you absorbed has been stalking you for years.”
The healer and others could join me in a circle of strength. They could join me in my story, the new one... and the steps I had to take to tell it. I could tell the new story, find understanding, and on that path I could be free. I could even become well.
As time passed, new stories were told. One of them was medical science. This kind of medicine was powerful and had good things to say, but soon... nobody really knows how it happened... this medicine said “My story is real, and others are false.” “This is the way it is,” it said. “There is no other story. Just this one” and people gradually closed their ears.
The trees and sky, even our dreams, began to lose hope. They started dying off, one by one. Some went to sleep and some went far away. The incredible weaving of all the stories circling the earth was being pulled apart thread by thread. Today it is so transparent you can almost see through it.
Enter Dr. Lewis Mehl-Medrona ...a Stanford-educated M.D. Medicine man, part Cherokee and Lakota, who is currently an Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan, and author of Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and Coyote Medicine. His latest book, Narrative Medicine, will be available in August, and it is that idea, narrative medicine, that we explored in the following conversation.
Tandy: I have been thinking about the idea of narrative medicine. I laughed out loud when I first read that term because I understood it without really understanding it. Do you think we get a lot of the stories in our culture from television and the movies?
Lewis: Yes. As Carl Marx said, when in doubt follow the money. We live in a culture where conspicuous consumption is worshiped — young people are more valuable when they can consume more. Some famous actresses were at Kripalu where I spoke recently, and they were talking about how difficult it is to find parts for older actresses. How they are not valued. How the audience is skewed for 14-24 year olds.
Some of this is also because we live in a culture where the ultimate symbols of power are the knowledge producers, and the story knowledge about how to live in the world is not valued. Older people are not valued because anything you want to know you can find in a book, so who needs them? I think one of the problems in modern U.S. culture is that there are no traditional teaching tales, so wisdom of the ancestors is no longer available to people.
Tandy: In fact in our culture, it is considered embarrassing to get old. Not even a part of the natural process. It is practically considered a disease.
Lewis: When you look at indigenous cultures, Relationships are more important than things. Stories are more important than book learning. There is one thing I love from Bhutan where a warlord on the move decides to kill all the old people because they can’t walk fast. But one son refuses to do that and carries his father with him hidden in a basket on his back. When inexplicable and dangerous events take place on the trek, the son secretly asks his father what to do. His father, of course, tells him what is going on and the son tells the warlord.
After three of these trials, the warlord becomes curious and asks the son how he knows these things. The son answers that he didn’t kill his father, and his father was the one that had figured it out. In spiritual cultures elders are more important because they live the longest. In aboriginal cultures, they are really valuable and powerful... for example, if you need to find something that is lost.
Tandy: What do the aboriginal people think of death?
Lewis: It is more accepted. There is a pro side to that because there is not that desire to keep people alive at all costs. Some people think that is a con side, because perhaps not enough would be done to save someone.
Indigenous people see you as the sum total of all the stories that have ever been or will ever be told about you. If you see yourself that way, you know you would much rather tell positive stories than negative stories about yourself. The story I tell, is that healing is possible; there is more than one story, and you can choose what works for you.
One of the things I mean by narrative medicine is that illness can be seen within the context of all the stories that were or could be told about the person’s life… so the illness fits within the context of a story. In medicine we have lost the art of history taking. Nowadays we just ask 20 rapid-fire questions and try to fit people into the right slot. And we have also trained patients not to tell the story of their illness.
Tandy: Can people change their stories?
Lewis: There is a huge industry called healing, or treatment. On some level it is always about changing the story. Even if it is the technology and the doctor is the hero — for example if the doctor changes the patient’s life. What I am trying to do is empower people to be their inner healer, and respect the diversity of stories in healing, respect the stories they don’t prefer, and to use the ones they do prefer. And to remove medicine from its pedestal of being the only knowledge worth having.
When we do that, we see lots of possibilities we can follow. We see so many different things people have done. We can be inspired by other people’s stories and figure out our own ways.
I was with a woman this weekend who was diagnosed with bi-
polar disease. We did a guided-imagery exercise where we removed the label and looked for the spirits behind the symptoms. One of the entities was the whole history of the Jewish people in the 20th century... extermination, pogroms, holocaust and on and on. That was on the one side. On the other side, she came up with a story of her grandmother when she was old. The grandmother was bitter and depressed, and sat looking out the window for years until she died.
The woman saw that she was fighting these two stories, sometimes becoming grandiose, then collapsing back into them. The challenge for her is how to step out of these stories. There is her grandmother’s story, and the history of the Jews... how can she stop carrying those stories on top of her own? What is a manageable human story? She needed to take little steps to find peace and comfort and believe that it is possible.
Tandy: You have talked about presenting a cross-cultural conference where people from different cultures would tell their tales. This conference would include medical doctors. Is that still in the works?
Lewis: My first step is to create a cross-cultural mental health conference and I am moving in that direction. I have attended some conferences where healers and shamans were brought together, but they were a little more New Agey than what I have in mind.
Tandy: I understand what you are saying, because the unknown, the mystery, looking at anything, is often frightening. I have never done anything in my life that I really wanted to do, that didn’t scare me to death.
Lewis: I think you are on to something. The truth can be terrifying and not always polite. When you look at it, it is profoundly uncertain. Even when we recognize familiar beings, we can’t always be sure who they are. The unseen world is unknowable and the new age acts as if they know it. They take away the power, the beauty and the mystery of the unseen, instead of experiencing in ceremony what is actually in one’s heart. I recently heard an Ayervedic Healer claim that you couldn’t get well unless you followed that path. There are many roads to healing.
Tandy: This brings me to another question. You had said that each person’s story is actually a separate spirit.
Lewis: Well, I think that’s true. Each story IS a spirit. Every story has an unseen power to affect people. To be incorporated. So when we put a story out there, it more or less roams the world. We affect others more than we realize.
What I am passionate about right now is looking for ways in which indigenous world views in aboriginal culture could become more mainstream. The mainstream is desperately in need of these ideas, one of which is to see illness as relational instead of as individual. To pull people together instead of isolating them apart. To encourage the growth of healing cultures and people looking after each other, instead of depending on medicine. I am trying to call attention to the notion of treatment.
Tandy: Is there a new generation of doctors coming up who are a little more open to this?
Lewis: Yes I think so. There are some wonderful young people coming up. There are also those who aren’t. The profession follows people who just want to make money. Our medical school is pretty humane but the status goes to those who are the most detached. Objectified, unattached, mechanistic, uninvolved... and in the clinical years students align themselves with those who have status because they want to have status. The guy who transplants hearts etc., not the guy who is different.
Only weird people actually spend hours with patients. Even psychiatrists... but medical school is not the problem. The problem is where the power structure is. Changing where the power structure is would be a huge act of power in itself. That is the story I am working on now. More information can be found on the website: www.Mehlmadrona.mysite.com
I strongly suggest you investigate this sweet and powerful spirit.
Tandy Martin can be reached at email@example.com
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