In my search for a cure for the interminable depression that had consumed most of my energy for the past four years, I finally turned to shamanism. Shaman and his assistant Lori, took me up toward Bogus Basin to perform a shamanic healing ceremony with me.
On the drive up, Shaman discussed the details of how the ceremony would proceed.
“We’re going to build a fire,” Shaman said. “Fire is cleansing. It can burn away sadness, anger, grief. You can have a conversation with the fire. Let the fire know what you would like it to do. But also listen to the fire. There will definitely be times where the fire will talk to you. Sit back and absorb what the fire has to say.”
We had gained about 1500 ft in elevation when Shaman pulled off the main road onto a dirt road. He drove a short distance, then parked. “This is it,” he said.
I jumped out of the car and began walking up the trail while Lori and Shaman began to unpack the car. They had brought a box with firewood, camp chairs, an ice chest, and a blanket. They hauled them a short distance, to the other side of a large rock outcropping, where there was a natural clearing and a spot that had been used for a campfire before. Shaman and Lori argued briefly about the best way to start the fire. Shaman got it started, but then it died out. Lori took over. “Takes a girl scout,” she said.
Her fire caught and continued to burn. While Shaman and Lori were getting the fire going, I wandered around and explored the area. There were a number of large boulders I could climb on, and I looked down into the valley. It was a clear fall day with only a few wispy clouds and we could easily see the city below. The temperature was in the low 70′s.
I came back from my exploration and I sat in a camp chair that was positioned close to the fire. The ceremony began with prayers to Mother-Father God and offerings of burnt sage to the four directions. Chanting and dancing interrupted large spaces of silence.
Lori put a few sticks of wood next to me. “When you think of something you would like the fire to burn up for you, name it and put one of these in,” she said.
“OK,” I replied. I grabbed a stick of wood. “Shame,” I said. I gently tossed the stick onto the fire. “Here fire,” I said. “I want you to burn up all this shame. I have no need for it anymore.”
I stared at the fire as the stick began to catch. The colors of the fire were intense: blue and orange, in elaborate moving patterns. I glanced up at the enormous boulder that was on the other side of the campfire. Someone had sketched an outline of a face: large eyes, a mouth and a nose stared back at me. The face seemed alive. The expression was subtly changing. I looked back at the campfire. The small log that I had placed for shame was engulfed in flames now.
“Here, fire,” I said as I pushed another stick of wood onto it. “burn up this GRIEF. I am tired of it.” Sadness washed over me as I watched the fire burn.
I remembered Shaman had suggested that I have a conversation with the fire. “Why did I have to be raped so many times?” I asked. The fire said nothing. “Just karma, I guess,” I mumbled to myself. I looked at the fire; it crackled, then a loud pop. “I’ll take that as a yes,” I said.
“How did the rapes affect me” I asked the fire.
“Stronger and more compassionate,” the fire said softly.
“What?” I asked.
“STRONGER AND MORE COMPASSIONATE!” the fire said firmly.
The words reverberated in my head. Stronger and more compassionate. Yes, I was stronger and more compassionate. Stronger and more compassionate than most people. I felt it and knew it was true, so I said it out loud, “I am stronger and more compassionate.” The words did not sound substantial enough.
I was strong, like Half Dome in Yosemite, like the 800 year-old Bristle Cone Pine that clings to a craggy outcropping of granite, like the Caterpillar DC-979, a huge earth mover that works in strip mines.
I was a warrior for peace and justice. As a 19 year-old college student, when I’d stood up for justice, I’d been spit on by a bully. But I never crumbled, never cried, didn’t scream or fight, just closed the door and walked away.
During my training as a young psychiatrist, I’d separated two young bucks bent on violence, a table flying across the room. Just risen from my chair and gave the command, “Steve, you sit down. John, leave the room.” They looked at me defiantly, then they obeyed.
In my years at the VA. I’d advocated for my patients with everything I had. If someone needed a medication and it wasn’t on the formulary, I fought with the pharmacy department. Once the Chief of Psychiatry came to my office to tell me that my patient, Ben, would no longer receive the treatment I had prescribed for him for the last two years. It was too expensive, a waste of resources. I had discussed the treatment with Ben. He was still benefiting from it and he wanted to continue. When Chief and I finished our discussion, Chief looked down sheepishly, said “you’re right,” turned and fled from my office.
I was compassionate too. Maybe Mother Teresa had me beat in this department, but not many other people did. One cannot listen to death and destruction and the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man day after day without a huge dose of compassion. One of my patients said, “I know you understand, not by what you say, but because I can see the tears in your eyes.”
I looked at the fire. “I am stronger and more compassionate,” I said again.
The words did still not feel forceful enough, but I knew it was true.