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The Coming of the Messiah

August 22nd, 2016

I just returned from one of my favorite places in the world, a place that always replenishes my soul; my annual clown trip to the Amazon with my holy brother Patch Adams MD, and 100 clowns from around the world. We go to the Festival de Belen, in Iquitos, Peru where we work with kids conducting workshops, performing street theater, community art projects, health education. For the last 5 years we’ve also been conducting mental health clinics in the streets, staffed by clowns who are also healthcare professionals. We find a suitable location and then walk through the streets with a bullhorn and leaflets announcing our mental health clinic. We say we are health professionals and will talk to anybody about anything that might be troubling them.

I’ve written about the impact that these brief encounters can have (healingdoc.com/articles). Twenty minutes of active listening, where the emphasis is less problem-oriented than it is solution-focused. We focus on strengths and resilience, what you want and how to get there. We prescribe no drugs, but do provide vitamins (for adults and kids), and sometimes give sacred amulets.

I’ve previously described my meeting Maria at such a clinic three years ago; a middle-aged woman who emerged from the church across the street from where we were setting up; she was weeping openly. A clown approached her and suggested she might want to talk to a mental health professional who happened to be here right now. Maria sat and told me her story, and this morning in church, after eight months of prayer without receiving a sign from God for relief, decided that today was the day…and I believed it was possible. There are no hospitals, treatment centers, emergency shelters for the poor, so at the end of our talk Maria promised not to kill herself until she came to see me again at another clinic 2 days later. Indeed she returned along with her 2 daughters and together we made a plan to help move them beyond their suffering.

Last year I revisited Maria, her daughters and new grandson in their new home, where they were happily sustaining themselves. We talked, and when it was time to say goodbye, it was filled with such passion and love that I promised I would make this an annual visit. So last week I visited Maria and the family again, was greeted with passionate hugs and tears of joy, and then sat down to review our lives. She told me that people in her community now come to her for counsel when they’re suicidal. Her neighbors know that she had felt the same and survived. Maria tells them her story, the miraculous appearance of a tall, gringo, clown-doctor, who saved her when she had decided to kill herself. She tells them what she learned about how to build on her strengths, how important it is to stay connected to your children, and how to reach out for support so you don’t have to face your burdens alone. Maria reminds them of hope, she is a credible witness who helps them see possibilities. This is my vision of community mental health!

We always begin and end with hugs, kisses, and tears; and we always remind each other of the miraculous. I told them I’m coming back every year, because feeling such unconditional love reminded me of my Mother who greeted my weekly Sabbath phone calls with the same intensity, as if I were the coming of the Messiah.

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Join the Clown Tribe

July 31st, 2016

While I was clowning at Oregon Country Fair last weekend, the Hopi Indians in Northern Arizona were celebrating their Home Dance, it’s one of the holiest days in their ceremonial calendar and they were also clowning there too. The Home Dance is the time the Kachina’s (the holy messengers of the Great Spirit) return to their homes atop Mt. Humphrey. Even at this most sacred celebration there are clowns, who provoke even these holy angels with their irreverence (singing out of tune, dancing out of step, parodying drunkenness, sexual innuendos) and their antics are considered therapeutic.

It was when I was working in Indian Country that I learned to appreciate the clown as a sacred healer, and came to understand what the distinguished Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called the Clown Archetype. An archtype is a universal character in the unconscious mind, and one that’s been present in every culture in human history. The Clown/Fool/Jester/Trickster has served the purpose of lightening the mood, defusing anxiety, helps us laugh at ourselves, and look at the familiar from another perspective.

I appreciated clowns, but never actually clowned publicly until I was 50 years old and met Patch Adams MD, the world’s most recognized humanitarian clown. Patch was responsible for my coming out as a public clown, and for the last 25 years I have joined him doing so all over the world.

Every year in early August we clown together in Iquitos, Peru with 100 clowns from around the world. For the last decade, we have come to the distressed neighborhood of Belen to energize its citizens’ dreams for a healthier life. We conduct workshops for children, paint murals, conduct public health outreach, and mental health clinics in the streets. We parade, perform street theater, visit hospitals, prisons, shelters, hospices, and leave behind a core group of clowns who continue to work with local organizations in the community.

I love this work; I love getting out of my head and into my spontaneous child mode; I love being with other clowns, we remind each other of what we like best about ourselves… to be able to connect with people from any walk of life and culture at a heartfelt, soulful level.

People sometimes ask me what tribe I belong to, and I say am a member of the Clown Tribe; I am one with clowns all over the world who connect with people at the heart level, it reminds us of our shared humanity. Join the Clown Tribe, it’ll make you feel better…especially in these hard, divisive times.

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Vacation Stupidity

July 20th, 2016

After our annual family reunion at the Oregon Country Fair last week, my wife and I had a chance to spend some quality alone time with our almost eight-year-old grandson. Friends allowed us to use their mountain cabin in the Cascade mountains near Sisters, Oregon; snuggled amidst tall pines, snow covered peaks, and crystal-clear mountain streams, it was spectacular. On the rear deck was a hot tub in which we soaked in the cool early morning chill and under the sparkling night sky.  My grandson showed me how to shoot a BB gun, and I showed him how to cast a fly line; we kayaked, fished, swam, and stalked deer.

I hadn’t read a newspaper or watched TV in over a week, but the Black Butte general store had a copy of the previous day’s New York Times… I thought how wonderful to welcome tomorrow morning with the paper. The front page featured news about: a deranged man who opened fire in downtown Dallas killing five police officers; the bleak state of race relations in America; and Donald Trump’s mobilization of a disaffected, largely white audience, who were fed up with their powerlessness, and bringing them together by promoting racism disguised as ultra-nationalism. This escalating, divisive rhetoric in this Country is posing potential violence.

Cleveland, Ohio is now hosting the Republican National Convention. Ohio has a lenient, open-carry gun law, that a number of groups plan to exploit by flaunting their military assault rifles in the name of protecting gun rights and free speech.

These times concern me and by the time I finished the paper I was sick to my stomach. I trashed the paper and thought how stupid to choose to escape from this pristine fairyland to such demoralizing rancor. Instead of arming ourselves with weaponry, we need to be arming ourselves morally. We are all Americans, let’s make decisions based on what’s good for most of us, the common good, and come together in ways that reinforce our precious rights and freedoms.

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When in Doubt, Party

June 27th, 2016

My mothers’ philosophy of life included this admonition… when in doubt, party. It didn’t matter how hard times were, you had to find a way to celebrate life. She knew about hard times having survived the Holocaust but to party even during our trials is how we remember that we are still human.

In these last couple of weeks, I’ve not been partying much…Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination and has escalated his divisive rhetoric; 54 people murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history; and the British have exited the European Union. Our divisions, separation, and seething anger, are manifesting confrontations all over the world. People are feeling powerless and frustrated at unresponsive institutions and individuals are demanding change. I’m one of them; I’m angry, resentful, and sickened by our inability to live peacefully in community.

I haven’t felt much like partying until my friend Jack’s wedding last week in which I was invited to participate. The wedding took place on the summer solstice on a full moon in Jerome, Arizona; at the turn of the 20th century it was a thriving copper mining town, precariously perched  on a steep hillside, it is now a tourist town with a hippie, artsy vibe. Since the 60’s Jerome has been a unique Arizona town that’s tolerant of eccentricity.

Jack, has been a friend for over 40 years, we began our careers in Arizona together here in the early 70’s. A dentist by professional training, he organized the first student dental association, became an internationally recognized public health professional, and is now the Dean of an innovative dental school. The wedding ceremony was performed in the garden of the historic Surgeon’s House. Jack and his lovely bride Jami were radiant as they entered to the accompaniment of a classical quartet. The atmosphere was loving and intense; no boundaries between families and friends, only love.

Afterwards we partied and danced to the music of the Jerome Ukulele Orchestra. This funky band actually got through two rounds in the America’s Got Talent competition, and were an absolute riot. Playing “golden oldies”, people danced and I got up to sing with them when they played Bob Marley… Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.

Feeling the music, remembering those times and the hopes, I heard my mother’s voice and smiled…when in doubt, party.

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How Not to Make America Great Again

June 13th, 2016

I try to avoid blogging about politics because it stimulates far too much divisiveness, but the thought that Donald Trump could become President of the United States is more than I can continue to bear silently

It doesn’t matter how ridiculous or incendiary “The Donald’s” words are, the social/print/video media spread them globally and instantaneously. He is a trailblazer in making politics a Reality TV show. The Donald knows what sells, and understands that you can say anything you want to (the more outrageous the better). Fact checkers tell us half the stuff he says is simply untrue, but it has no impact on his popularity. In our society what’s right and wrong is defined by what you can get away with.  The Donald has masterfully tapped into a rising tide of anger and resentment in this Country that is directed at an indecisive, unresponsive government, an economy in which the rich get richer and the disparity between the haves and have not’s is getting bigger and bigger.

What The Donald is selling is religious intolerance, fear of strangers, xenophobia, ultra-nationalism disguised as protectionism. American’s are arming themselves like never before, and now with assault weapons. The Donald’s political reality show is fueling the flames of mayhem.

It’s a slippery slope from protectionism to ultra-nationalism, racism and fascism; they all thrive on hardening the lines between groups, and they all promote antagonism under the guise of protecting boundaries. “Trumpism” is happening everywhere; the world is shifting to a more belligerent, intolerant, ultra-nationalistic sentiments that suspects immigrants and minorities. The Austrians almost elected a neo-Nazi as their head of state… he lost by less than 0.3%. The French, Germans, Greeks, the entire Middle East is moving toward isolationism.

This narcissistic, loud-mouthed, bullying, lying, litigious, racist, misogynist will not make America great again. America will become great again when we become the change we want to see in the world; an open, welcoming society that practices liberty and justice for all, that is a beacon of hope inspiring its people to imagine what they dare to dream can be achieved.

We will make America great again, when we lead not by building walls that divide us, but bridges that connect us. Now is the time! We either come together as a people and planet or we will continue to annihilate ourselves and our planet.

Dump Trumpism!

Clown therapy helps people find answers within

June 6th, 2016

The inaugural Clown Town Healing Fest, a visionary health care festival, proved to be a practical demonstration of the future of health care. One of its many innovative aspects is the promotion of the shift from the current model of intervention to one focused on prediction and prevention.

Humanitarian clowns mobilized the community’s healing resources: All the established providers came (dentists, nurses, doctors, hospitals, hospice); and the often untapped and underused resources also came (bodyworkers, art/dance/music/pet therapists, energy workers, traditional healers, and clowns). All of them shared their healing stories to inspire people to actively participate in living healthier lives.

The fest was held in a lovely, green public space Feb. 26-28, 2016, in downtown Phoenix and featured speakers, panels, interactive demonstrations (including CPR, injury prevention, exercise). There was massage, Tibetan gong players, a theater/choral group comprised of developmentally challenged adults, yogis, mask makers, Native American blessing ceremonies, and an area reserved for the Truth Clinic staffed by Truth Fairies.

The Truth Fairies were health care professionals who had completed a workshop on clown therapy the day before. We explored the clown/fool/jester archetype – that universal character in the unconscious mind whose purpose it is to lighten the mood, diffuse anxiety, and help us look at the familiar landscape with new eyes. In many cultures, the clown also is the keeper of sacred wisdom and healing. We participated in interactive exercises designed to promote heartfelt connections, active listening, and opening the intuitive mind.

Clown therapy is just another manifestation of solution-focused psychotherapy, resilience-based therapy, positive psychology, existential psychotherapy, and logotherapy that happens in brief encounters. The focus of those solution-based approaches always is about helping people identify their strengths rather than focusing on the problems. It’s about asking the question: “What do you want, and what’s keeping you from getting it?” It’s active and involves listening to people talk about their dreams and imagining that they have the answers within to solve their problems. They all focus on people’s strengths and getting them to think about what they want to change (1-4).

The Truth Fairies sat in a wide-open space, with chairs facing in such a way that participants would be out of listening range of anybody else. People were invited to talk to a health professional for 15 minutes about any health-related issue or personal questions that they might have. The Truth Fairies did not make diagnoses or prescribe drugs.

Courtesy Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag says the Clown Town Healing Fest in Phoenix included health professionals, yogis, mask makers, and people who performed Native American blessing ceremonies.

People signed in (first names only; there were no release forms). This statement appeared at the top of the sign-up sheet: “To Our Friends in the Community: we come to you with open hearts and our talent as health care professionals; we will never do anything intentional to hurt you and know that you come to us with the same understanding.”

A critical element in all treatment is the therapeutic relationship. If a patient likes you, trusts you, and believes in the system you practice, he or she will get better faster. When you help people focus on their strengths, resilience, and dreams rather than their problems, it actually allows them to imagine that they hold the solution to whatever they are facing. People waited in line to visit with the Truth Fairies; here are some of their observations:

  • “It’s amazing how much people will share when you wear a red nose. After I introduced myself, I had a woman tell me a secret that she never shared with anyone in her life. I hardly said anything, and at the end of 15 minutes, she thanked me for listening and said: ‘I don’t know what came over me to tell you my secret, but I’m glad I did. I feel good!’ ”
  • “This woman sat down in the chair looking at me with tears rolling down her cheeks. She said to me, ‘I have a terminal brain cancer, and I want to die now.’ I was taken aback and didn’t say anything for a moment, and then spontaneously blurted out, “You know we are all terminal; none of us is going to get out of here alive.’ She laughed out loud and asked me if she could use the line. It was an amazing connection.”
  • “I didn’t even wait until I got to the Truth Fairy grounds. For me, it started during the opening Clown Parade. A young man walked up to me and started talking (where are you from? what are you all doing here?). I told him, and then he told me his story: that he’d just been released from jail and had shared his dream that he wanted to be a chef. He stayed with me for the whole parade, and when we entered the festival grounds, he was welcomed by a Native American woman who was blessing all the clowns. She waved fragrant smoke over him with an eagle feather, [and] said she was happy to see him here and that good things would be happening for him. He told me afterward he was an Apache Indian and that being with me this morning has changed his life.”

This is how we heal in community, open ourselves to making heartfelt connection with someone who can be with you, listen empathetically, help you look at what’s familiar and see it from a new perspective. Let’s get away from today’s cultural imperative that if you are feeling anything other than wonderful in every moment that you’re suffering from a disease for which there is a pill that can cure you. Let’s listen more and prescribe less. Connecting in this way reminds us not only of our therapeutic skills, but of our shared humanity.

REFERENCES

1. “When All Else Fails: Some New and Some Old Tools for Doing Very Brief Therapy,” United Kingdom: Crown House Publishing, 2014.

2. “Solution-Focused Interviewing,” University of Toronto Press, 2013.

3. “Hypnotic Realities,” New York: Irvington Publishers, 1976.

4. “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

Dr. Hammerschlag is chief of community mental health at the Gesundheit! Institute. He is also the author of several books on healing and spirituality, including “Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within” (New York: Turtle Island Press, 2012) and “The Dancing Healers: A Doctor’s Journey of Healing With Native Americans” (San Francisco: Harper, 1988). Dr. Hammerschlag’s website is healingdoc.com.

Living Life on Memorial Day 

May 29th, 2016

Today is reserved for thinking about the dead…of course it’s not the only day we think about death and dying. As a matter of fact, in contemporary life we often think more about dying than we do about living. We are forever seeking new ways to avoid it, to reverse the aging process and extend life. We pride ourselves in our ability to cheat death and disability with all kinds of pills, procedures and manufactured body parts.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing it to; I’m increasingly focused on my escalating debilities and limitations., struggling to keep them in check. In the past couple of years, I’ve had dental implants, a prostate surgery, new hearing aids, glasses, and last week fitted for a leg brace to lift my drooping foot.

Just spoke with some college friends and as usual started with “what’s new” and I started with my newfound limitations. I am becoming what I used to laugh at; another old person talking about dribbling’s, drooping’s, and dumping’s.  It was only when our conversation was ending that we finally got to was happening in our lives that brought us joy and fulfillment.

This Memorial Day I am making a vow to start every “What’s New?”  conversation with what’s happening in my life that’s nurturing my soul; what’s bringing me joy and fulfillment. And I’m going to get away on more mini-vacations, sit by a stream, wet a line and  listen to the music of that fly line whipping by my ear; feel the drumbeat of my beating heart with a fish on the line, maybe even spend a night watching the flames of a campfire on a starry night feeling grateful for all that surrounds me, and saying thank you..

The art of living a meaningful life is to come to peace with the fact that it will end. Everything comes and goes, whether in milliseconds or millennia, life and death are our partners in the infinite recycling of our universe. Once we come to peace with that fact we can get on to the task of living. The process of dying is not about leaving life it is about living it fully in every moment.

And today….remember the richness of the lives of those now dead who have made it possible for us to live.

Opiate Epidemic and Overprescribing

May 16th, 2016

There is a national opioid epidemic. Opiate related deaths have surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of injury-related fatality in the US. Since 1999 the prescribing and sales of opioids has quadrupled. The director of the CDC says that there is no other medication that’s routinely used for nonfatal conditions that kills patients so frequently. Doctors are overprescribing opiates for people with chronic pain outside of those who have active cancer, palliative, and end-of-life care.

The CDC and the FDA’s answer to this is to call for more warnings and guidelines… but they’ve had no demonstrable impact; doctors are not writing fewer prescriptions, and even if they follow the guidelines and tell patients all the potential complications, and even if they only prescribe them for short periods of time, the vulnerable will become dependent and find other prescribers.

Opiates are not the only thing that doctors are over-prescribing. The CDC has also just reported that about a third of children suffering from ADHD have the diagnosis made by the time they’re six years old; and three out of four children diagnosed are put on medicine even though research finds the behavior therapy is as effective and doesn’t give them stomach aches, sleep problems, other side effects (and whose long-term impact are still unknown).  But the work of modifying one’s thoughts and behaviors seems so much harder than the seductive promise of immediate relief.

The answer to this problem is not in issuing more warnings and packaging guidelines, it is in changing a healthcare culture that promotes the idea that if you’re feeling anything other than wonderful in every moment there is a pill to cure you. Everyone wants immediate relief from whatever ails them… but chronic pain and behavioral problems are generally not eliminated by pills, but by the hard work of learning how to change your behavior.

It doesn’t matter what you are suffering from, the critical issue is recognizing that whatever it is, it is you who have got it…not it that’s got you. You can make better choices than believing the answers are in pills; find the answers within… explore all the alternatives to medications that exist from herbal medicine to CBT, find something and then commit yourself to doing the healing work that’s necessary… and you will overcome.

P.S. If you want some ideas about how to create a new ending to old painful stories,  read my mini e-book Stop Your Sh*t Shoveling (available at healingdoc.com )

The Greatest Tenor

May 2nd, 2016

On my recent birthday I took a stroll down memory lane and treated myself to a Roy Orbison concert; performed by a great tribute band called Wiley Ray & The Big O Band. They did an amazing performance of one of the great tenors and songwriters of all times. Roy opened for the Beatles in London, toured with the Traveling Wilburys (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Tom Petty), but I loved him most because my entire adolescence was spent in a chronic state of arousal slow dancing to those extraordinary high notes.

Thinking about his coming reminded me of a somewhat self-inflated patient I’d seen years ago, whose daughter was an opera star. The patient delighted in regaling me with her travels and dinners with operatic luminaries the world over, who she invariably called by their first names. Describing an evening with “Luciano”, she asked me who I thought was the greatest tenor in the world, and without hesitation responded, Roy Orbison. She was stunned, incomprehensibly muttering to herself… Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison? Until she laughed and acknowledged, “I am such a snob”.

Wiley was a ringer for Roy, wore a black wig and dark glasses, and his range included the stunning high notes. He was accompanied by a bassist, lead guitarist, drummer, keyboardist, and two fully-fleshed, backup singers in red satin dresses who weren’t quite the Supremes but fit in perfectly. I didn’t see many people under 65, and the nostalgia factor was on overload.

If you want to remind yourself of how intact your mind still is, go to a favorite oldies concert, you’ll remember every song on the playlist. People were tapping their feet, singing along, and when he sang Only the Lonely I was a teen holding the soft underbelly of Florence’s upper arm imagining it was her breast, and remembering how exciting it was to slow dance to the greatest tenor in the world.

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The Secret of Life

April 16th, 2016

It’s that time of year that I think about getting older. I’m aware of the less than subtle changes in my body, tire more easily, my knuckles hurt if I fist-bump somebody, have trouble with a twist open a bottle, and sometimes I forget what I walked into the kitchen for. Still, I’m enormously grateful that I’m moving because that’s the secret of life.

Last months Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (March, 2016) says you have to keep on moving if you want to keep your mind functioning well. Since 1989 6,000 older men and women have had medical and cognitive testing (including MRIs) and have shown us that if you walk, cycle, swim, dance, even garden a few times a week, you have a 50% less risk of experiencing memory decline or developing Alzheimer’s.

The incidence of dementia doubles every 5 years from 65-90, and the oldest old are the fastest growing segment of the population. The public health burden of this disease is enormous and we must reduce the risk factors.

Dementia’s are going to expand exponentially as we age; from and estimated     today, we will triple let in 30 years. You have to keep moving as you age if you want to keep your memories and hold on to your basic self. That means being active in mind, body and spirit. Make relationships, keep your mind and body moving.

I learned this 40 years ago, when I met a tiny old lady in the primitive art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I wrote about Pearl in my first book “The Dancing Healers” who came up to me and began a conversation. She had an appointment, they were late, and she was ready to engage. I listened more from politeness than interest, impatiently shifting uncomfortably from flight delayed until I heard her say I think that’s the secret of life”. I knew I had missed something and I asked her what was the secret of life and she repeated that sneakers were the secret of life.

It was only then that I noticed in addition to her  blue suit, gloves, and small pillbox hat she was wearing sneakers. So I asked her how her sneakers the secret of life and she said they’re not need to be comfortable unless you’re moving.

If you want to keep on memories and basic self intact you have to keep moving Relatives, it’s the secret to life.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.