My travels into the world of mystics and healers began in 1991, when I ceased being an author, mother, teacher, divorcee, hiker, skier, pilot, dog lover –- and became a statistic: the one woman in eight diagnosed with breast cancer each year over her lifetime, according to the Journal of American Medicine.
I chose the conventional medical route not out of conviction, but out of fear. I knew there were less invasive, less draconian alternatives, but to choose those roads took courage and unshakable faith, and at the time I did not possess enough of either.
And so, in crisis mode, every nerve in my body on high alert, I entered the world of white-coated wizards with their triple threat treatment: surgery (I opted for a lumpectomy), chemo and radiation.
A year-and-a-half later, rounds of treatment completed, the doctor pronounced me cancer free. Chances of a recurrence would begin to decrease after five years, the doctor explained, and reeled off a timetable of percentages, which I could not hear. Recurrence? Five years? Percentages? I don’t call that cancer free; I call that cancer maybe-if-it doesn’t-come-back free.
Fatigued and weak, my head covered with soft, downy fuzz of a baby chick’s, my face naked without eyebrows, I felt like a survivor of a bombed-out city, stumbling around in the rubble of my body.
I knew I needed to get strong, and to improve my immune system so that five or seven years down the road it wouldn’t strike again. New-Agers, with their theories of why it had happened and what lessons cancer had to teach me made me break out in hives. Yet at the same time I think I knew that as long as there were still demons lurking in the dark corners of my soul real healing might not be possible. Mind, body and spirit are one. The white-coated wizards had done what they knew how to do to treat – sometimes even cure the disease. But the soul healing would have to come from me.
My sons who had been flying back and forth to be by my side had gone back to their lives; I had a book to finish, one which entailed criss-crossing the country to interview and record the wisdom of the American Indian -- much of it by car on unpaved and unmarked reservation roads.
Death had nodded in my direction; I nodded back and moved on. At dawn one morning I got up, packed my tape recorder and notebook, tied a scarf around my awful wig, and took off.
Medicine men and women in various tribes I visited, when they learned I had just been through a life-threatening illness, offered me their own medicines to counteract the effects of chemo and radiation: healing herbs, root extracts used for hundreds of years. And ceremonies. Sweat Lodges in the Plains, all-night Medicine Sings with the Hopi. In the Northeast, I learned to draw a Medicine Wheel. In Colorado, I took peyote that turned my insides out.
Over the next year my hair grew back (a different color), strength returned: perhaps due to the Native medicines, or maybe modern Western science had done its job. In any case the white-coated wizards were impressed with my lab results. You’re fine, they said, go forth and multiply (books, that is).
Soon after the publication of my book on Native American elders, my publisher asked me to write a similar book about Tibetans. Since the Chinese communist invasion in 1950 and subsequent occupation, Tibetans have been living in exile, mostly in India. Dharamsala, in the north, is the seat of the government-in-exile and the current home of the Dalai Lama. I had written His Holiness earlier to request a meeting to discuss my project and gave the dates I expected to be in India. Before the appointed day of my interview, I spent a month getting acquainted with the people of Shangri-La, or in Tibetan, Shambala, the Hidden Kingdom, whose teachings had remained secret for thousands of years.
The similarities between Native Americans and Tibetans were striking. Tibetan oracle-priests and Native American shamans both practice dream-travel, similar ceremonies, practice meditation, and telepathy. Both cultures also believe in karma, religion as a way of life, and believe that time is circular, non-linear.
My first encounter with mystical nontraditional or mystical healing was with a seventy-five year-old Tibetan nun who recently escaped the Chinese when they attacked her abbey in Tibet. She lived in a tiny dwelling down the hill from the Dalai Lama's residence. I met her the day before my scheduled appointment with His Holiness, and remember remarking on her apparent good health after such an ordeal. Shaved head, and not a tooth in her mouth, there was something beautiful about her, a radiance, a gleefulness.
Through the translator, she said, "Only a week ago I was blind and couldn't walk." Then she told her story: "We crossed the mountain on foot through snow and ice under cover of dark, just like His Holiness had in 1959. It wasn't until we crossed the border into India that we were taken in and fed and given horses. My whole family had been killed by the Chinese, and many nuns at the abbey had been arrested and tortured, but I had to get to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama before I died. For my family. For the other nuns. It was my one wish.
"But when I got here, I was too sick. I couldn't walk, my eyes had gone blind from the snow. And so I just sat here in this little room and meditated. Months went by -– I don't know how long – people brought me tea and tsampa [dried barley] -- then one day a week ago, two men appeared at my door. They said they had come to take me to see His Holiness. They picked me up and carried me to a car and drove me up the hill to the residence.
"His Holiness welcomed me and called me Ani Gomchen, which means, Great Meditator. He stroked my head and recited mantras, and then blew three times on the top of my head.
"All of a sudden I could see! I could look right into his face. And I got up – I stood straight up and walked!" Smiling, her eyes brimming with tears of joy, she stood and took a few long strides to demonstrate. "I walked all the way down the hill to my house."
I remember thinking at the time that the nun's spontaneous healing had been triggered by a state of ecstasy, not unlike the people who throw away their crutches after being tapped on the head by a TV evangelist.
But then the next day, I met with the Dalai Lama. As I sat talking to him and felt the full force of his joy, compassion, and all-encompassing love, I wasn't so sure. And when I got back to my hotel, I noticed the "Dehli-belly" that had felled me the night before, that had me doubled over even into the morning wondering how I would keep my appointment with the Dalai Lama, had completely disappeared. Had my excitement and anticipation of the meeting created an ecstatic state similar to that of the nun's? Or was it in fact the Dalai Lama's famous loving kindness and compassion that caused my healing?
It seemed my nodding acquaintance with cancer and mortality had set me on a path that would take me through a strange and mysterious maze of smoke and mirrors, and bottles of snake oil and at times send me tumbling down the rabbit hole.
Medical miracles or imagined healings born of an intense desire to believe? Hard to say, but I packed up my laptop, my tape recorder, and notebook and once again took to the road, this time the road leading to mystics and healers from around the world, determined to solve the mystery.
I witnessed psychic surgery in Brazil to remove a cancerous tumor without anesthesia from a man’s stomach, sleight-of-hand surgery in the Philippines during which the "healer" palmed a piece of chicken liver purchased at the corner stall, and a simple housewife in Florida who goes into a trance and manifests flakes of gold on her skin and with her second-grade education quotes medieval French verses. I also met a housewife-turned healer in Idaho who commands healings from God.
During my exploration I would experience my own mysterious disappearance of the flu during a healing done over the phone. I would be taken on a shamanic journey to a forest in the 'lower world' and to a cloud in the 'upper world' and to an event buried deep in my past to meet one of my demons.
And hands so skillful, so intuitive they can only have come directly from the gods. I don't mean laying-on of hands either, I mean finding the exact location in the body where fear lives. Or grief. Or anger. Or loss. The place where toxic tears are stored: fertile ground for illness to take root. And then throwing open the windows of all those dark places and flooding them with air and sunlight.
Celebrity healers who had turned their gift into a multi-media business were of little interest to me, due perhaps to my exposure to the teachings of Native American shamen. They believe that to profit from the gift given by the Great Spirit is to have it taken away or worse, suffer personal punishment. Small donations as token of gratitude seemed reasonable, but one healer I came across had people sign a contract promising to pay tens of thousands of dollars in advance.
I also ran across the charlatans (look for the diamond-encrusted Rolex and the Rolls and the misty-eyed groupies often called "students"); and the deluded ones, those who truly believe they are healers, and who with their good intentions and loving natures often do bring about some sort of a healing -- generally not lasting.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere and when least expected, there is the rare gem: the humble and unfailingly honest miracle-maker.