Essay Indigenous

Becoming Medicine

We are living in disruptive times, yet there have been other times as equally disruptive. People lived through pandemics, plagues, pestilence, famines, natural disasters, slavery, genocide, oppression, and wars upon wars. How did they do it? I believe there is a secret well of resilience and wisdom within the human being—located in the heart—where we find our medicine.

The name for the current pandemic, the coronavirus, comes from the Latin word corona, meaning “crown” or garland bestowed for distinguished military service.” It derives from the ancient Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root sker, meaning “to turn, bend.” PIE is a common ancestral proto-language, hidden beneath the surface of most modern languages. 

I have been working with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) since 2014. He often speaks of the mother tongue. Joseph is a member of the Southern Ute people and grew up at Picuris Pueblo, speaking English, Spanish, and Tiwa. As a mystic, he looks for underlying unity and likes to read up on science. Since our DNA traces back to Africa, Joseph says, “We all come from there; we are all one.” He also says, “Some people call me a medicine man. I don’t know about that—I just work here.”

Joseph is always telling me that we are all connected. “What comes around, goes around,” he says, explaining how the medicine wheel works. Sometimes listening to him gets my own head spinning in circles, but that is how it is when you are initiated into new ways of thinking and new ways of being. Initiation requires entering into disorientation, letting go of who you thought you were so that you can become the medicine you are meant to be.

Joseph Campbell describes the Hero’s Journey as a wheel too: there is a call to adventure, you enter the disorienting unknown, and, after many trials, you discover a healing medicine which you bring back to society, but society rejects you because they are still coming from the old paradigm. Persisting, you help society re-orient to a new world. The personal and the collective are interconnected. This is one of the teachings of the virus.

The Hero’s Journey, by David R. Kopacz

By 1969, the word “coronavirus” was in use, so-called for the crown-like spikes that protrude from the virus membrane, like a corona. The Sun has a corona. NASA describes it as “the outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere … usually hidden by the bright light of the Sun’s surface.” The corona is something that is there, but difficult to see, or can only be seen at unusual times, like during a total solar eclipse. Paradoxically, there are some things we can only see when the light is obscured. 

“COVID-19” sounds like a king of some ancient dynastic lineage, wreaking havoc. COVID-19 has a crown of receptors around its central circle. You have probably seen the image; people even say it is beautiful. COVID-19 binds to human cells throughout the body. Yet, we can think of this virus having many external binding sites too: the healthcare system, the financial system, materialism, capitalism, fossil fuels, the stock market, racism, xenophobia, politics, globalism. Everything it touches, it reveals the cracks. The virus shows us that many of the systems we thought were strong (maybe even “great”), such as our economy and the US healthcare system, were actually quite vulnerable. 

We are at war with the pandemic, but is the virus our real enemy?

The virus is of the natural world, maybe originating in bats—nocturnal mammals who do not have great vision, but “see” things in the dark through echolocation. Maybe COVID-19 is teaching us to see things we normally do not see. Maybe it is teaching us to sker—to turn or bend. Maybe it is teaching us to live like we are in a monastery, with reverence, and see that the Earth is a beautiful and fragile place we need to care for and respect. Maybe the virus is only the messenger. In the Spring 2020 issue of Kosmos, Hartsell and Edwards ask, “What if the Virus is the Medicine?” What if the virus is here to cure us?

Of course, there currently is no cure for COVID-19. When there is no cure, what kind of medicine can you use?

Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and I have been working on the idea of becoming medicine. Becoming medicine is an initiation of transformation that begins with seeking, then finding/receiving, and lastly giving to others the medicine one has become. Joseph tells me:

“In English, medicine is something that still needs to happen, but in Tiwa medicine is already there; it is a power. Every human being is a power. Originally, when we were brought into being, we were given the instructions. Part of life is that we would be given surprises along the way. It just comes upon you and you can’t prepare for it. …Wah-Mah-Chi, that is God’s name in the Tiwa language and it means Breath-Matter-Movement. All you need to know about the virus is to connect those three things, Breath-Matter-Movement, with your heart and lungs.”

The human heart is our medicine bag. The heart is an empty muscular sack with four chambers that we fill with depleted, deoxygenated blood and which the heart and lungs replenish and rejuvenate into rich, oxygenated blood. The heart willingly accepts the worst blood and the best blood. It does not keep the good oxygenated blood medicine to itself but gives it away to the body. The heart’s wisdom is that we are all connected and that to hoard (money, masks, or toilet paper) is to take away from someone else who is just another part of yourself.

In order to know who we are, we need to let go of who we were, of what we thought was important—to embrace transformation and start a movement for living in balance. Here is what Joseph told me about our life with the virus:

“We are at the right place, being in this pandemic. It may seem like we chose it—that’s why we’re here. I have to be here to balance the other side of the planet. We are very much an integral part of all the other families that exist on the Earth and we have to do the best to be ourselves. We have to do what we can, and help how and when we can.”

Joseph Rael has been teaching me about visions. He’ll start by saying, “I had a dream or a vision.” Then he will tell me the vision and sometimes say what he thinks it means.

Recently, I had a dream or a vision—I was walking down a deserted alley at night and came across a huge bat skeleton trapped in a wall. My first impulse was fear and a desire to get away from it. I was worried I would be crowned with the coronavirus, COVID-19, from the dead bat. I took a breath, felt the matter of my body, stopped my movement, and sat down next to it.

Maybe it would speak to me or give me some wisdom for these unprecedented times. The bat said nothing. It started trying to get out of the wall. I helped pull it out.

Maybe the bat would thank me and give me some wisdom. The bat was silent, though, like a guru, or maybe just like a dead bat skeleton.

We took off flying.

Through the darkness we were flying. I was learning to use senses I did not know I had. I was learning to feel my way through the darkness, avoiding obstacles I could not see, but I could feel.

About David R. Kopacz, MD

David R. Kopacz, MD is a psychiatrist working in the primary care clinic at Seattle VA. He is a whole health education champion with the national VA Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation and an Assistant Professor at University of Washington. He is the author of three books – Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine; and with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD and Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality

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About Joseph E. Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow)

Joseph E. Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), MA,  is a visionary healer and artist whose mother was of the Southern Ute people and his father was from Picuris Pueblo. He had a formative vision in the 1980s that led to the creation of over 60 Sound Peace Chambers worldwide and he was recognized by the UN for this global peace work. Joseph is the author of ten books, including, Being & Vibration: Entering the New World, Sound: Native Teachings & Visionary Art, Ceremonies of the Living Spirit, and his two collaborations with David Kopacz. 

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