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Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

Improv is Healing

Monday, March 5th, 2018

I just completed a two-month introductory workshop on Improvisational theater. Doing Improv and/or stand-up comedy have always terrified me because the feedback is so immediate.  I am a monologist who likes to tell the story my way, where I have control of the subject material and pace. Improv is the antithesis of this format where the story and characters are co-created with someone else in every moment. It requires giving up control and sharing responsibility for whatever the outcome. This uncertainty (plus the fear of bombing publically and the resulting assault on my ego) has kept me from doing it.

This is a perfect time for me to be letting go of preconceptions that no longer serve me, and to live joyfully in every moment. The workshop met 3 hours every week and lasted 8 weeks. Participants ranged in age from 16 to 78 and included students, waiters, teachers, an ex-cop, assorted entrepreneurs, and one aging psychiatrist.

The class has been an amazing healing experience. I learned how to give up control of the conversation and stop talking so much. I learned to add more oomph (drama and emotion) to my characters; and how to really listen to the words being said and trusting my unconscious mind to roam freely without judgement or restraint. The only other time I can get it out of my head like this is when I clown. I put on my red nose and Flamingo Ballerina costume and it opens a similar channel to such an uninhibited flow.

Last week we had our graduation performance at the Torch Theater, a tiny Improv venue that can squeeze in perhaps 25 people. We were introduced as “Private Spaghetti” and as we ran out my adrenaline surged, and I got a bit short of breath. I don’t know if we were that funny, but we were greeted by our families and friends with unbridled enthusiasm and even moments of hysteria.

I loved the experience; didn’t have to be funny and felt somebody always had my back. I’m not going to become an Improv performer, rather I am coming to it as a life practice. Improv reminds me how to be alive in every moment, and to let go of the illusion that I ever had control of anything.

Talking Circle Project

Friday, February 9th, 2018

It’s hard for old storytellers to tell their stories around this new digital fireplace because the medium demands brevity to meet today’s short attention spans. If you can’t summarize what you have to say in a Tweet or 2-minute YouTube video you won’t get heard; but there are some stories that can’t be summarized.

I can hardly clear my throat in 30 seconds much less set the stage and tell the story; we don’t sit around campfires much anymore watching the dancing flames weave their stroboscopic magic that ignites our imagination…and the stories I tell don’t lend themselves to such abbreviation, they are tales about the eternal existential questions …what is life’s meaning and purpose? Such stories don’t lend themselves to short, easy answers.

Stories are the vehicle through which a culture transmits its values. Our survival as a species is not transmitted through our DNA but through our stories. Stories, myths, legends help us make sense of the life’s ordinary struggles and its catastrophes. Those tales have simply become less believable in an age when justice, honor, and sacrifice have become an archaic myth, when what’s right and wrong is determined solely by what you can get away with.

We need to be telling better stories and come together as a community that respectfully listens to each other’s stories. The Talking Circle Project is based on the Native American Talking Circle; we come together ceremonially to create a healing community that reminds us we are not alone on the journey. Each of us has a story to tell that somebody else needs to hear and each of us need to be listening to the stories of others because they help us make sense of our lives.

I will tell a story and introduce a topic, and then I’ll pass a sacred object around. When you are holding it, that’s your chance to speak. Everyone gets an opportunity, nobody will interrupt you with questions or make interpretations.

Join me around this new digital fireplace:
Tuesday Feb. 13 @ 6 PM MST

The Stories We Leave Behind

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

You know I’ve been downsizing and moved from my two-story 1500 sq. ft. office into a much smaller space in my home. This change has meant sharing my memorabilia with people I know will appreciate them and tell their stories.

One of these objects was a hat given to me by a Huichol shaman deep in the canyons of the Sierra Madre mountains of central Mexico. It’s been hanging in my office as a sacred reminder of the most impactful healing experience I’ve ever participated in. Here is the short story (and if you want all the details see the attached file).

I was invited by a Mexican civil engineer, Fernando Ortiz-Monasterio who’d been working with the Huichol for more than twenty years. He knew of my experience working with the Native tribes in North America and asked me if I could help treat an epidemic among the children who became possessed by an evil spirit that turned them into wild, aggressive animals.

These manifestations had been going on for a decade, and the tribe sought help from traditional healers called Marakame, who are also the ceremonial chiefs, and carriers of the sacred stories. They worked their magic, but it did not stop the illness. Psychiatrists were brought in from Mexico City who believed the illness was a psychotic manifestation and prescribed drugs, which also had no impact.

It took us a year to make this healing journey happen, during which the community formally invited us in and we brought together a team of six experienced professionals, who formulated a basic plan (open to all spontaneous revelations) to mobilize a force that was more powerful than the one causing the illness.

After talking to kids, parents, teachers and tribal officials we found a tribe deeply divided between its traditionalists and its more progressive elements. The traditionalists lived deep in the isolated canyons of the Sierra Huichol in villages a day’s walk (sometimes longer) from the boarding schools located on the top of the mesas. The traditionalists were increasingly concerned that their children were often choosing not to come home for ceremonies. Seduced by electricity, television, flush toilets, and hot showers, a powerful seduction. The traditionalists were seeing their children moving away from a traditional path that has sustained them since the beginning of time.

The progressives, also lived on the mesa tops, believed that the future of the tribe would be determined by education and adaptation. It is a matter of fact that compulsory education and boarding schools have been the greatest force for the acculturation of Indigenous people all over the world. The ”illness” was actually a conversion reaction with the children becoming the symptomatic manifestation of this on-going unresolved conflict.

One result of our interventions was that we were led to a well-recognized and powerful Marakame, Eutimio de La Cruz (his portrait, painted by Diego Rivera hangs in the Museum of Art in Mexico City). Eutimio, lived in a village a 3 hour walk from the school, and had been accused, even jailed as being responsible for the illness.

We made plans to meet with him. It was our hope he would make a contribution to the offering we were gathering. We made a powerful connection which turned out to be a critical element in the success of our work.

After 13 years, it was time the Marakame’s hat went home. Fernando will tell its story, and then pass it on to someone else who will. Stories/legends/myths/ told around fireplaces, in ceremony, are how a culture transmits its values. Those tales help us make sense of our lives.

Those who tell the stories define the culture! We live in troubling times, and the stories we are telling (now told in a sentence fragment) are not sustaining us. We are a Nation divided, frightened and demoralized. We need to be telling better stories, it’s the most important thing we leave behind.

DOWNLOAD Huichol Offering A Shamanic Healing Journey PDF

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And if you are interested in exploring more of our stories together. Join me at the next Schlagchat on Mon. Jan. 29 @ 6 PM Phoenix time https://zoom.us/j/342925933

Nickel Head and Knuckle Head

Monday, December 25th, 2017

It’s been an intense few weeks; came down with the flu and pneumonia which slowed me considerably, but I’m on the mend and feeling strong. During this time, I also sponsored a Native American Church healing ceremony for myself and Elaine. Once again, it was an intense opening to the world of my soul.

I have attended NAC meetings for more than 40 years. This is where I learned how to pray, how to say straight with my lips what I was feeling in my heart. But this was the first time that I would be surrounded by both my children and grandchildren. They endured the all-night hardships as a gift to me knowing how important these tipi meetings have been in my spiritual awakening.

Although I acknowledge the importance of the spirit in healing; getting into that space is not always easy for me. I tend to over-think things, spend a lot of my time in my head and can’t always hear the drumbeat that let’s my spirit emerge.

The tipi was packed tipi with friends and relatives, I can’t find the right words to describe the profound sense of love that surrounded me. In spite of my smoldering influenza, I got stronger as the night went on. All that focused energy lifted me beyond my corporeal world and into the celestial one.

At midnight, the ceremonial chief, the Road Man, my Segee Jerry Nelson, goes outside to blow the Eagle bone whistle in the four directions. That sound lifts our prayers to touch the ear of the Great Spirit. He prays for me, for everyone in the tipi, and for all of nature. He prays for everything that grows, for all the creatures not just the two-legged but those who fly, swim, crawl and slithers, on the face of the Earth Mother.

When he returns into the tipi, he motions for me to stand up. He picks up the fire stick and presses the blunt, cold end, deep into my solar plexus. I gasped in pain, and he pulls something out of my chest that makes me feel lighter. Then he turned the fire stick around and placed the fiery end close to my chest, and blows the golden sparks directly into my chest; as they flew up my neck, and moved out through the open tipi flaps rose the sparks turned purple. Whatever the explanation, I felt lifted up… free.

At dawn, after ‘Woman brings the morning water, everyone can express themselves. My brother Rupert Encinas, the Cedar Chief spoke first, I call him “Nickel Head” because he has that quintessential Indian face, that profile that you see on the Buffalo Head nickel; the regal cheekbones, penetrating eyes, braids and feathers. In return, he calls me with affection, The Jew Man.

After Rupert spoke, Jerry Nelson got up, pointed at Rupert while looking directly at me said “he may be the Nickelhead, but you are a Knucklehead. He goes on to remind me of what I know is true, that if you want to get healthy you have to be in harmony in mind, body and spirit. “Open yourself to the medicine, get out of your head, feed your spirit, look around you, live your life. I see 3 generations of my bloodline surrounding me and my tears run freely.

The most important things are your family, tribe, your passions, conscience, and soul…even when health declines, if these remained, my life would still be full.  These are difficult times, we are a Nation divided and despairing, I encourage you as you enter this New Year to look around you at what is really important and may the love you see conquer despair that surrounds us.

In this joyous season of birth and renewal I say thank you for walking with me in this life…and send to you my blessings for love and peace.

I say this For all my Relations, Mi Takuye Oyasin.

Gourd Dancing on Veterans Day

Monday, November 13th, 2017

I went to a Gourd dance on Veterans Day, a yearly event at the Pueblo Grande Museum. This gathering honors Native American warriors who have served in our Armed Forces.

Americans represent only 1% of the country’s population, but comprise 3% of our Armed Forces. American Indians have a warrior tradition, and when called to serve, they respond. When warriors return from battle they are welcomed with a returning warrior ceremony which cleanses and purifies them from any dust of war that might still cling to them.

I was the Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center during the Vietnam War. I saw very little PTSD in returning warriors who participated in traditional ceremonies. However, those who returned to an urban environment and were not so welcomed, instead they returned to a Nation that did not welcome them with parades, celebrations, appreciation, and respect, but tried to make them invisible.

15% to 20% of the Veterans who fought in Viet Nam, the Gulf Wars, Iraq, and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. They are treated by a VA system which labels them disabled and heavily medicates them for years. From 2004 to 2009 the Veterans Health Administration spent $3.7 billion treating Vets with PTSD, even though there is little evidence their efforts are working.

If the VA spent a fraction of the money they spend on drugs and instead adapted the Native returning warrior ceremonies, we would see less symptomatology and shorten the traumatic aftermath of war.

We heal better in community; connect with others who respect, appreciate, and remind you of your strengths and resilience, and you will heal.

The Best Day of My Life

Monday, October 30th, 2017

Thirty years ago, my close friend Patch Adams, perhaps the world’s most recognized clown doctor told me this story. As a teenager, he became seriously depressed and was briefly hospitalized. Within the first few days he decided that he would never again have a bad day.

I thought it a bullshit exaggeration. That he was dramatically over emphasizing how much control we had in the unfolding drama of our lives. Things that happen to us that are out of our hands, that influence how we come to every day.

As a younger man, I thought I was doing my life, the sense that I was in control of my destiny; as an older man, I think it’s my life that’s doing me. I am in the midst of lots of changes in my abilities and my life style, and now I finally get that the only control I have in my life is how I choose to come to every day.

A few weeks ago, I was with another beloved friend in Eugene Oregon to celebrate the life of his wife who had just died. One morning we were getting coffee at a drive through coffee stand, and when we got to the window, the barista greeted Jim with a warm “how are you doing”? And Jim responded, “this is the best day of my life”. Once again, just like 30 years ago, that it was a bullshit exaggeration

Jim said it’s real for me… this is who and where I am today. I will treasure every day of my life and say thank you for all that surrounds me. I want to come from that place, and when people ask me how I’m doing, I want to be able to say “this is the best day of my life” with that sense of joyful thanksgiving, even when I am struggling.

I tried it out at a public gathering last week where there were many old friends who asked me how I was doing and I said, “this is the best day of my life”. They looked at me with the same sense of disbelief I once had.

I understand their doubts, but it’s finally become clear that although we might not have control of what happens in our lives, we do have control about how we come to those events…and I’m working on it.

PS: we can talk about this at the next Schlagchat on Thursday, November 9 at 6 PM.


Countdown on Labor Day

Monday, September 4th, 2017

I’m 45 minutes into a video-conferencing call last week, when suddenly a pop-up appears on the screen telling me that I have 10 more minutes before this call will automatically end. BUT, if I buy the upgrade for only $19.95 I could talk to as many people, and for as long as I wanted. Accompanying this announcement was a digital timer ticking off the minutes and seconds I had remaining.

Thought about it afterwards, perhaps because I’m more sensitive nowadays to the fact that my clock is running down, the awareness of this countdown has been enlightening; it has magnified my appreciation of every moment, to love more intensely, to feel the blessings that’s surround me (and have too often taken for granted).

We don’t need a clock counting down our time, and I surely don’t want to know the exact time my screen goes blank. What we do need is to embrace life with fervor every day, to live passionately and without regret. Celebrate the fruits of your labors today, smile, laugh, dance, sing, be ridiculous, and tell those you love how important they are to you.

I say this for all my relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin

P.S. I didn’t buy the upgrade; I figured if it can’t say anything in an hour you need to take a break anyway. But I am doing another SchlagChat on Tues. Sept. 12 @ 6PM and we can talk about this among other things. Join me for an uninhibited 45 minute schmooze.

A Smaller Plate

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

I haven’t been writing much this last month because I’m in the midst of some challenging changes. Changes not just inside my body, but in my surroundings as well. I am a strong believer in embracing change and being present in every moment (even in the hard times), but at this moment I’m just saying, my plate is full…and it’s a smaller plate.

The biggest change is deciding not to sell our home of 47 years and instead making some extensive renovations. Staying here in the ceremonial center of our family life has filled me with unbridled joy, but it means moving out of my office (which is a separate casita attached to the house), and into a smaller space inside. The move has been stressful, and I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of getting rid of much of my library; packing the ceremonial objects collected over a lifetime; and shredding patient files brought lots of nostalgic reflection.

At the same time, I have been learning how to manage a household (management and details are not my strong suit) and it’s a task I have assiduously avoided until now. I’m hiring repairmen, scheduling doctor appointments, making to-do lists, learning how to start the dishwasher, etc. and it’s been a bit overwhelming;

These changes also come at a time when I am usually in Peru. For the last 10 years in the beginning of August I have been in Iquitos Peru for the Festival de Belen; a gathering of clowns from all over the world sharing their gifts with a desperately impoverished community spreading hope, cheer, and health.  This annual pilgrimage has always replenished my soul, restored my faith in humanity, and reminded me of what I like best about who I am. I was surely there in spirit, but my body missed being there.

So, what’s getting me through? I am surrounded by love, and learning a lot about what’s important at this time in my life; moving into this new space is teaching me/ what to hold onto and what to let go of/ how to ask more directly for help/ helped me focus on what I still want to do, what inspires my imagination and dreams of things still to come.

The greatest blessing has been an appreciation of being surrounded by so much love. Love is the essence of a passion-filled life, it is those moments that stand out when you know you really lived. I feel it all around me, and am so grateful, it makes my smaller plate seem bigger.

To all of you, I say thank you…for all my relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin.

If you want to hear more and join the conversation, join my next Schlagchat  on Tuesday , August 22 of 6 PM at zoom.us/j/847539925.

Ashamed to be a Doctor

Monday, July 24th, 2017

The whole world knows that Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with a malignant brain cancer; it’s one that is aggressive and doesn’t have a good prognosis. The world also knows that John McCain was the 2008 Republican Presidential nominee, a six-time Senator, and was captured and tortured for years during the Viet Nam war. The world knows that John McCain will not give up this struggle easily.

In response to McCain’s serious medical challenge Kelli Ward, the Republican who ran against him in the last Arizona election, she threw her hat in the ring, and asked the Governor to appoint her to complete McCain’s remaining term. Kelli Ward, is also a physician, and she warned that because of the seriousness of what McCain was facing that he should quit now and “step away as quickly as possible”. Anyone who knows John McCain, knows that he will not “go gently into that good night”.

I get that the history of politics is rife with its practitioners stepping over people’s dead bodies to get ahead, but stepping over live ones seems especially callous. Kelli Ward is a doctor, a member of a sacred profession whose practitioners swear an oath to this cardinal rule,  “Primum non nocere” (first, do no harm); I find Kelli Ward an insult to my profession.

Dr. Kelli Ward’s recommendation that McCain walk away from what he loves doing (and still does well), and what gives meaning to his life, to be harmful and demoralizing. I want a Dr. who can tell me the truth, but also inspire me; to remind me that I’ve got “it”, but “it” does not have me. I want a doctor who will explain the choices, explore the options, and help me make a choice about how I want to come to “it” now.

I’m putting my money on John McCain walking down the Senate aisle again, and I think that

Kelli Ward may become a great politician, but to call her a colleague, makes me ashamed to be a doctor.

Lot’s of people with you in prayer and blessing on the journey John, I add mine


Restoring My Balance

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Just back from our annual Oregon Country Fair (OCF) reunion and it’s always sustaining energy…. couldn’t have come at a better time because I needed it to restore some sense of joyful balance to my life. My recent diagnosis of chronic heart disease was keeping me focused on my limitations; in the practice of medicine, as soon as you give something a name it intensifies its power because it comes with its own language, procedures, and probabilities.

As lay people we surrender to the doctors considerable knowledge, and trust they will help us make good decisions that achieve favorable outcomes. As a physician who understands the basic dynamics I started taking my blood pressure, monitoring my heart rate and slowly my focus became preoccupied with what might happen tomorrow and not what I was living today. At OCF the moment is all there is.

While I was in Eugene I visited my friend David Oaks, a 62-year-old disability activist, and the legendary founder of Mind Freedom International, an international advocacy group for psychiatric survivors. In midlife, David was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis which results in the body becoming severely hunched over; despite his condition and chronic pain he worked every day. Five years ago while he was doing some repair work on the roof when he fell off and broke his neck. He was rendered wheelchair-bound and quadriplegic. He manipulates his wheelchair with his right hand, speaks with assisted amplification because his diaphragm is too weak to sustain conversation, and he still works every day. I asked David how he managed to come to every day with such joy and he said, “I don’t look at my life as behind me, and want to create a revolution that illuminate’s injustice in the world”; he helped restore my balance.

Then I dropped my wife off at her sister’s home in Olympia, WA. and I took a 3-day fishing trip with my beloved friend John Koriath. A psychobiologist, learning theorist, and co-founder of the Turtle Island Project, we fished a little, and talked and walked endlessly. We were on the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington, and decided to walk one of the great scenic trails in America and stand at Cape Flattery, the Western-most point in the continental United States. The trail is about a mile long with some steep inclines, on a very uneven footpath. Knowing I had to walk back, and puffing heavily I decided to stop just before the Trails end. I felt a bit disappointed that I couldn’t finish, but lay down on a bench that overlooked an exquisite scene. Tree-topped cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet down into the rolling surf. Enormous stone monolith’s that from the sea floor etched by wind and water into arches and caves; spectacularly beautiful.

John continued on, and when he returned I said “ I can probably make it down now”. He looked at me incredulously and asked if I was out of my mind. “Take a look around you, have you ever seen anything more beautiful, and look at how far you’ve come; you better pray that you make it back up because I don’t want to have to call Elaine”.

I’m in better balance now; say “thank you” more; ask for support when I’m light-headed getting up. I am grateful that I can still walk, flap my lips and still tell stories. It’s the same old story about facing whatever you’ve got and understanding it is you who have it, not it that has you.

Choose to live in the now and surround yourself with joyful, loving people who’ll make because they’ll restore your balance and fill your cup with joy, today.

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.