In 2010, my soul brother Nick Polizzi dared to take eight sick people who had failed to respond to Western medicine to the Amazonian jungle to put them under the care of three shamans. They filmed what happened in his documentary The Sacred Science. The trailer for the movie recapped the results (cue dramatic music)—“Five will return with real results, two will return disappointed, and one won’t come back at all.”
Many years ago now, Nick filmed he and I talking about shamanism and what we in the West might learn from ancient healing traditions. Now he has written a memoir The Sacred Science, about the experience of what actually happened behind the scenes with those eight patients—and very transparently—with Nick himself.
One of the many areas where Nick’s interests and mine overlap is expressed in his book in a sidebox “Everything Is Medicine.” After spending several years researching my book Mind Over Medicine, which focused on the scientific proof that the body can heal itself, I kept bumping into stories and phenomenology that I couldn’t find science to prove. I tucked these stray bits and pieces of anecdotal data away for a future book—Sacred Medicine—which has sent me far down the rabbit hole, studying with shamans in Peru, Qigong masters from China, energy healers from the U.S., Balinese healers—and in May, a trip to Lourdes, to explore what really predisposes us to disease and what really facilitates the healing process. The idea that everything is medicine if we get curious about what our bodies are trying to communicate to us transcends all of these traditions. Instead of perceiving our bodies as biochemical machines void of consciousness which break down when the parts get broken, we can choose to perceive our bodies as consciousness embodied, equipped with natural self-healing mechanisms, which only function when the nervous system is in the parasympathetic state, or what Herbert Benson at Harvard called the “relaxation response.”
With a relaxed nervous system, free of our culture’s disease-causing perpetual “fight or flight” stress responses, we can get curious about why disease has arisen. What traumas may have deactivated the body’s natural self-healing mechanisms? Where are you living out of alignment with your truth? How is the soul growing here? What is your body saying “No” to? What would it take to live a life your body would love? What does your body need in order to heal? Through the lens of “everything is medicine,” physical symptoms may even be perceived as a gift, a message from the Universe that helps you get back on track.
This isn’t to say that you caused your illness or that all illness has psycho-spiritual roots. Some traumas to the system are external, like when you live next to a toxic waste dump or are filling your body with toxic food or poisoning substances. But this opens a portal of inquiry that allows your physical illnesses and accidents to become messages from your soul. If disease or pain is here with a message for you, are you receiving the message?
I resonated with many parts of Nick’s new book The Sacred Science but the part I feel called to share with those of you who have been attracted to my exploration of Sacred Medicine is this excerpt.
Everything Is Medicine
By Nick Polizzi, excerpt from The Sacred Science
There is a principle I learned from the shamans that I’ve retooled, souped-up, and morphed into my own code for walking the sacred path, not in spite of but at the hands of the modern world around us. It’s based on a three-word bit of knowledge from the Amazon: Everything is medicine.
I’m not saying you should take a spoonful of Elmer’s Glue to cure your cold. It’s more figurative than that. What native healers are getting at is that everything that happens to you in this life, every single moment, good or bad, has a lesson to teach you.
If you don’t take anything else away from this book, I would consider my job complete if you just absorbed and integrated this one understanding. It will transform the world around you from a place of good, bad, and eh to an immeasurably rich incubator for personal evolution.
Everything that has ever happened to you and will ever occur around you can be seen through one of two lenses: medicine or poison. It’s totally your choice, but your mindset will determine which choice you make. It’s in keeping with an ancient observation by the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
There is an overall approach to healing disease in the jungle that I think might interest you. Many tribes in the Upper Amazon basin consider diseases the bot “mothers.” When someone falls ill and begins to undergo their healing journey, it is believed by the shamans that the spirit of that disease, or mother, has become pregnant with this individual. During this gestation period, the mother has much to teach through her effects on the body and mind: the physical weakness, the pain, the need to rely on others, to trust in others, to let go of our hold on what we expected this life to look like, to confront our own mortality. These opportunities for surrender and humility are all packaged perfectly within a serious disease and presented as a lesson for the soul.
The shamans teach that if we humans can walk with the disease mother, with eyes wide-open, and learn the hidden lessons she has to offer, we will be reborn from her womb as a healthy, more spiritually harmonious being, taking with us the boatload of wisdom gleaned from the experience. Those who close up and resist the disease, shutting themselves off from the experience, may very well be reborn, but onto a different plan of existence—the next life. Every challenge in life can be looked at in this way. Either medicine (mother) or poison . . .
The shamanic lens for examining and overcoming illness can also be applied to any challenge that we encounter as we walk through this life. Medicine folk approach everything that life brings them with full openness to the wisdom it holds. Like our immune systems, our souls and psyches become stronger and more adaptable through exposure to external attack. In this way, shamans and their pupils are constantly strengthening and stretching the inner muscles of awareness, unflinchingly witnessing all that unfolds in order to learn and evolve.
What challenge in your life, illness or otherwise, is tugging at your sleeve, asking to be re-examined as a catalyst for your spiritual growth?
This is how I choose to approach my life. I counted recently, and in the past three years, I experienced 11 back to back losses and traumas, including losing my mother and two physical challenges (you can read about how I approached getting mauled by a pit bull here). I could have chosen to spiral into a self-pitying story that casts me as a helpless victim at the mercy of a hostile universe, but instead, I chose to see it as an initiation. I don’t buy into the “I create my whole reality” story, which would make me responsible for everything that happens to me. I can’t believe life is as ego-centric as that. (What makes me think I control the whole universe when there are so many other forces of life and nature out there!) I also don’t believe we’re solely at the mercy of chance. I believe we participate in the co-creation process, that we can cast our vote, that we can be curious about how we might be blocking an outcome we desire with our limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behavior or how we might be exercising our worldly and spiritual power to “manifest” what our hearts yearn for. I appreciate the “Everything is medicine” worldview, because it neither blames the victim or suggests that we can control the outcome, nor does it suggest that we are vulnerable feathers tossed around in a meaningless world full of traumas we can’t avoid.
If “Everything is medicine,” the primary focus is on how we respond to what life puts in our path, trusting that what arises is here as a lesson. If we can glean the lessons, perhaps we can change the outcome. Perhaps the disease can disappear because the lesson has been learned. Or perhaps the lesson requires humbling ourselves and adjusting to a new way of being in the face of chronic disability or illness. I don’t know why some people get cured and some don’t. That question is what led me down the inquiry that is becoming the future book Sacred Medicine. I suspect some questions do not wish to be answered but are better left in the category of “Mystery.” My curious intellect initially hoped I would dive down this rabbit hole and emerge with a holy grail of answers, synthesized from different traditions and processed into easy steps patients and doctors could incorporate from ancient healing traditions in order to offer ourselves and our patients better care. I am no longer so idealistic or so arrogant.
What I can offer to those of you who may be struggling with adversity—whether illness, injury or another loss or trauma—is the invitation to walk through the portal of transformation that such initiations offer us. Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to be curious. To let life teach you. To enter into humble inquiry and receive the medicine life is offering, without blaming yourself or anyone else. Let love and acceptance heal. Let yourself be needy and interdependent upon those in your tribe who are here to help you. Receive the lessons your illness or adversity are here to offer you—with radical gratitude, if you can muster it up.
Then bow to the Mystery of life. Offer yourself to the lessons. Trust the process. Drink in the love and blessings that are available in this humble place. And receive the shamanic offering. “Everything Is Medicine.”
Many thanks to the indigenous healers and the masters of the ancient healing traditions who still carry the seeds of transformation so many of us have forgotten. May we humble ourselves before your great wisdom.
With love and medicine,
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