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Tattoos “R” Us

July 6th, 2018

Toy’s “R” us just went out of business, but tattoos are in, and they are becoming a big business. When I was a kid, tattoos were something sailors got on shore leave or gangbangers as an initiation rite. They featured hearts, daggers, names, fierce animals, and I wondered why anyone would want to be branded for a lifetime with a reminder of the person they once were but may no longer be.

Nowadays, tattoos have emerged as complex works of art, and men and women of every nationality from performers to university professors, athletes, businessmen, and doctors have them (often more than one), and you don’t have to seedy tattoo parlors on the wrong side of town. The NYT (5/13/18) reported that tattoo artists are now invited to wedding receptions where they are provide as a party favors. The host and the artist create a personalized emblem for the event, and guests can get inked in the moment.

I have given up my old perceptions about tattoos and what they say about people who have them…If a tattoo that has powerful meaning for you, makes a statement about who you are and makes you feel good, why not?

The skin is the largest organ in the body, but it’s a limited commodity and sooner or later you’re going to run out of display space; which means you now have to decide whether this event is so memorable (as compared to those that may yet happen) that it’s worthy of immortalization.

And what about the potential for the commercialization of this limited resource. With the burgeoning growth of tattooing, soon big companies will be willing to pay you to use your body as a billboard for their brand; and depending on size and location will determine how much they’ll pay you for these indelible advertisements. What if your body is covered with tattoos of such artistic value that people will bid for your skin as an art piece, and upon your death they get to tan and display it.

Truth be told I also have one; it’s small and discretely placed where few can see it. It’s a turtle, which has been a powerful totemic animal for me since my days in the Indian Health Service and represents my transformative journey from doctor to healer. Now I’m thinking of getting another…a flamingo which symbolizes the last 30 years of my life when in addition to being a physician I became a humanitarian clown. Clowning is the best way I know to get out of my head and into my heart to connect with people at a soulful level. I have clowned in hospitals, prisons, orphanages, street markets, war zones and disaster areas, and doing this work lifts my spirit because it reminds me that even in the most difficult circumstances we are reminded of our shared humanity. Clowning is a play date for my heart.

My clown persona is a flamingo ballerina who wears pink tights, a tutu, and flamingo headdress… it’s ridiculously funny; my question is where to put it, and how big to make it.

P.S. I still think fewer says more than being covered from head to toe with them; the skin is a limited-edition notebook on whose pages we ought to write poetry, not novels.

Untether Your Mind

June 18th, 2018

A dear friend told me I had to read Michael Pollan’s new book “How to Change your Mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence”. Pollan is a best-selling nonfiction author who writes about the natural world and the global state of mind but until he wrote this book he’d never taken a psychedelic substance.

Psychedelics, are a subject I’m interested in and have written about. This is a well written book that makes the brain science understandable and beautifully explains the mysticism and spirituality of the psychedelic experience. However, it’s important to remember that although the brain science may be “new”, the use of psychedelics (I prefer the term entheogens…from entheos, the divine within) have been around since earliest recorded history. Indigenous cultures have used these psychoactive, naturally occurring plants and creatures to transcend ordinary consciousness and communicate with the spiritual world.

Pollan has now taken LSD, psilocybin, and the crystallized venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. He did not come lightly to this transformational journey. He was afraid and anxious and      describes himself as a “reluctant psychonaut”. Each time he participated it was preceded by worry and self-doubt; he realized after that his fear and reluctance were his ego trying to convince him not to do it because it was going to challenge its need for control.

What appears to be happening, is that the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence drops away, and that an older more “primitive” part of the brain emerges that’s analogous to a child’s mind. This is a place in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and the capacity for awe and wonder is stronger. Children are basically tripping all the time in this egoless realm.

Pollan makes the case for its efficacy in treating people with addictions, end-of-life anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is not an advocate for the recreational use of psychedelics but says that in the hands of trained professionals they are a potent adjunctive therapy. I agree that the recreational use of psychedelics is ill advised, but I also think that you don’t have to be diagnosed with an illness in order to have access to them.

In the right place, with the right people, and used in a ceremonial way, these entheogens can have a life-changing impact, and I see ceremonial use of entheogens as completely different from recreational use. Ceremonies and ritual set the stage for coming to these awesomely powerful substances in a sacred way which magnifies the likelihood that the experience will be enlightening, even if it’s scary.

I have used entheogens infrequently over the last 50 years but after reading Pollan’s book I ‘ve decided to reacquaint myself with these sacred plants. I’m at the stage of my life in which my once familiar landscape has changed profoundly. I want to open my mind and look at my world through the eyes of an untethered child.

Slow Dancing in Mexico

June 4th, 2018

It’s been a year since I’ve done any international travel. I’m feeling good, the summer in Phoenix is already unbearable, and I thought it’s time to go on a little trip. My criteria were, a non-stop flight of not more than a three-hours, one customs line, and a place where we had friends.

I knew just the place and the friends. I met Fernando Ortiz Monasterio at an isolated beach bar in Baja California 13 years ago. He is a mechanical engineer who had worked many years with the Huichol Indians, an isolated Native tribe who live deep in the canyons of central Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.

When he found out that I was a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans, he told me this extraordinary story. For the last decade, hundreds of Huichol children living in boarding schools had become possessed as the result of witchcraft. A sorcerer had cast a spell turning sweet, docile children (some as young as 6) into aggressive, violent animals.

Traditional healers and psychiatrists made attempts at treatment but were unsuccessful. Fernando asked me if I have ever seen such a problem among Native American tribes. I had, and then he asked me if I thought I could be helpful. It took a year to make it happen but from that serendipitous sunset in Baja, emerged what has been the most profound healing that I have ever participated in. A team of 3 Mexican and 3 American professionals created a healing ceremony that eliminated the symptoms within a year. (If you’re interested in reading the whole story follow this link  http://www.healingdoc.com/blogs/2018/06/huichol-offering-a-shamanic-healing-journey/ or read it in my book Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within).

The last time we saw each other I could still climb out of canyons, so I told Fernando that although I was fully mobile I was moving a bit more slowly. He lives in Mexico City at an altitude of 7,200 feet. I asked my cardiologist whom I respect (and who gets me) and she said… live your life but pay attention to what your body is telling you.

I’ve never been really good at listening to what my body tells me, when I hurt I will myself to overcome it. But now my body talks in ways I cannot ignore. And although I’ve been in high places and adapted but with my current limitations, I was pumping hard and breathing heavily.

Fernando was an unending source of loving support, he picked us daily and explored the endless wonder of the city. I climbed less and rested more and learned again; and to live each day to the fullest; to allow myself to be taken care of and saying thank you more, rather than doing more.

On the last day I’m reading on the balcony overlooking the lake at Valle de Bravo and next door the music is rocking; my feet breathe in the rhythm, and I get up to slow dance to the music.

it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you move, if you can dance you can heal.

Huichol Offering A Shamanic Healing Journey

June 3rd, 2018

This article is available as PDF download only.

A Hopeless Romantic

May 21st, 2018

Somewhat shamefacedly, I have to admit that I love royal weddings. I know the Monarchy is a royalist and elitist institution, but I am a sucker for the magic of ceremonies that bring a community together. I love the parades, uniforms, the horse-drawn carriages, and Cinderella stories that immortalize love. I am a hopeless romantic.

It’s not just the pageantry of royal weddings, I feel this way about all weddings; two people coming together to make a public commitment to love each other in the good times and bad, to see in each other’s eyes what we like best about ourselves, and to know that together we are bigger than who we are alone.

This year was exceptional, not only the traditional pomp and jewels, but the palpable energy of a fairytale ending that brings a woman of color, not born to the manor, to become a beacon of hope for the modern world.

The British proudly gathered as Nation of many colors, costumes and creeds, standing together to acknowledge that even in these divisive times it is possible to acknowledge love is a force that brings people together.

It doesn’t matter that it cost the British public $30 million to provide for the security, what they get in return is incalculable. It costs the American people about $3 million for every Trump weekend to Mar a Lago; tens of millions more to provide for the security of Melania, Baron, Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Jared, for which we get no return.

I didn’t get up at 4:30 to watch the processional from the beginning, but I did sit in front of the TV with my breakfast looking at the pageantry that only the British can pull off, watching a Monarchy moving toward a more inclusive future.

I loved the show and the storyline; a descendant of slaves marries a royal whose forbearers supports slavery, An African-American Bishop and a gospel choir that sang the civil rights anthem “This Little Light of Mine” as the couple exited the chapel… it’s made for Hollywood.

Whatever else I am (physician, author, clown, healer), I am at the soul level a hopeless romantic.

My Family Circus

May 7th, 2018

On my recent birthday I was presented with this incredible, hand-carved 3- ring circus. It was gifted to me by a wonderful young man, whom I call Grandson.

Tonto arrived at the house carrying a large box, and said “I’m going out to bring in a couple more boxes, read this while I get them; it was a letter of authenticity from the artist which began:

Dear New Circus Owner:

Welcome to the wonderful world of the circus. You, in some small way, are now part of an American tradition which had its start in Philadelphia in 1793 which George Washington attended. Your circle travels in one large truck which when unpacked and set up, you will have: the ring/trapeze/ horse/elephant/ringmaster/clown/Acrobats…

I hope you enjoy your circus. I certainly enjoyed building it as did my wife FiFi who painted it. Be happy, stay well and perhaps we will meet someday on a real circus lot”.

                                                                                                               Fred Reed “The Ringmaster”.

While assembling it he told me how he came to get it. His neighbor, who acquired it at a charity auction years ago, was downsizing and the piece was just too big to move. Tonto took one look at it and said “I knew it had your name on it; several years ago I became a part of your family circus, and I want to say thank you for welcoming me into it”…touched me deeply.

I started getting queasy though immediately recognizing that I would never be able to put it together again or fit it back in the truck. This meant finding a place where I could leave this extraordinary work of art on permanent display. We found a perfect place next to the fireplace in the living room and below the shelves holding my Native American carving collection.

I started playing with them and I still am. When I downsize I’m going to pass it along to a new circus owner along with Fred’s letter (to which I might add these words).

“I hope this extraordinary piece brings you as much joy as it has to me. It is a continual reminder that laughter, humor and letting the child within get out to play is how we make it through the circus of life (and it’s getting me through the Trump Circus too).

Expand your family, make new relationships, and remember there is nothing we face that isn’t made better by laughter.

Play in your circus, bring on the clowns.

Paddling in Tandem at Passover

April 8th, 2018

I love the Passover holiday; the Exodus from Egypt is the defining story of the emergence of the Jewish people. We do the traditional Seder and in addition a nontraditional Native American sweat lodge (Inipi) ceremony.  Crawling into this tight, dark space, and feeling the steam rise from the red-hot lava stones, this is the best place I know to let go of the shackles that chain me to thoughts and behaviors that no longer serve me. Huddled together in the darkness and intense heat with a dozen other people, always helps me find a way through my struggles, and see some new light at the end of the tunnel.

This year however, my struggles were intensified because my participation caused a bit of a stir. My wife and children were less enamored of my participation because they have a different perspective on the risk/value scale. For me, the value of participating in Native ceremonies far exceeds the risk…but they remember vividly the last time I participated 6 months ago when I got lightheaded, unsteady, and short of breath. I am much better now, and my cardiologist said I could do it but needed to pay attention to what my body was telling me and make some accommodations. I promised my family I would use fewer stones, make the rounds shorter, and felt good about letting go of the way I’ve always done it.

My self-congratulatory kudos were premature, because my accommodations did nothing to allay their anxieties. It was not fewer stones and shorter rounds they wanted, but to be more involved in my decision-making in the future. This triggered a fear that this was the first step on the slippery slope of losing my autonomy and being told what I can and can’t do with my life.

I have never responded well to being told what to do or handing the paddle to my canoe to somebody else hoping they will take me where I want to go.  I know they love me deeply, and do not want to rob me of my free will, and in the lodge at Passover it became clear it was not my paddle they wanted, but rather to be more involved in the decision-making process.

I can live with that; they know I will live my life as I always have, coming to every day with passion, purpose, spontaneity, and laughter, but I can paddle in tandem without feeling minimized.                                           

Improv is Healing

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

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

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

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.