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The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I believe that the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms. – Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. – Chief Seattle
Several years ago I had the great privilege and bounty of introducing a traditional Oglala Lakota medicine man to a few hundred modern physicians.
My Baha’i friend Cindy Catches lives on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation with her husband Peter Catches, a 38th-generation medicine man from what the white man calls the Sioux tribe. Peter and I were talking one day, and I asked him if he could tell me something about the Lakota way of healing.
He showed me a book he had written, called Oceti Wakan—which means, roughly translated, the Sacred Fireplace—and explained patiently some of the fundamentals of the Lakota philosophy of health and well-being. His explanations struck me as truly profound, and very, very different from the way our contemporary Western culture views health, disease and how to stay healthy. In fact, learning a little bit about the Lakota way of healing opened up a whole new range of possibilities for me. It re-defined what I had thought of as health.
I asked Peter if he would consider traveling to Los Angeles to speak to the academic medical staff and residents at UCLA Medical Center, where I worked. He agreed, and a few months later he stood in front of a couple hundred doctors of Western medicine and spent an hour explaining the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota from the Spotted Eagle View. The audience listened raptly and respectfully, honoring the long tradition Peter had descended from and the accumulated wisdom of thirty-eight generations of inherited knowledge.
I won’t try to reproduce everything Peter said here in this limited space. Instead, I would recommend, if you’re interested in the details of the Lakota way of healing, that you pick up Peter’s book and peruse it carefully. But I will tell you one fundamental difference between the two traditions, from my limited understanding: in the West, we try to heal the body of the individual person and their specific disease. The Lakota medicine man does exactly the opposite: he tries to heal the spirit of the group. Western medicine focuses on a single body; and the Oglala Lakota tradition focuses on the community.
When the community has health, in other words, so do the individuals in it.
This view of health emphasizes the whole rather than the part; treats the cohesion rather than the lesion; values the macro over the micro. It sees the unit—the family, the tribe, the community—as one unified organism, exactly like modern science has recently come to view the ecosphere. When an individual in that Lakota unit loses the balance and the harmony that characterizes a healthy part of the unit, the treatment involves restoring lost harmony to the entire group. For a Lakota medicine man, true healing comes about through prayer, song and a full restoration of spiritual balance.
After Peter’s talk I realized that the Lakota model of a healthy community, interestingly enough, probably best reflects the Western practices of the discipline of Public Health, which also emphasizes the total well-being of an entire community and the wholesale prevention rather than the singular treatment of disease. Public Health stresses the environmental elements of life that allow large groups of people to stay well: clean water, a thriving ecosystem, the provision of nourishing food and the eradication of major threats to a community’s well-being like violence, endemic poverty, and drugs and alcohol.
This ancient Lakota vision of health—a model that we in the West have yet to fully appreciate, understand or adopt—has enormous, deep wisdom in it. In many ways, the Baha’i teachings present the same message to humanity, saying that only unity can heal the global community of its myriad ills:
That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith. This can in no wise be achieved except through the power of a skilled, an all powerful and inspired Physician. – Baha’u’llah, Tablet to Queen Victoria, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, pp. 39-40.
The Baha’i prescription for the well-being and wholeness of the entire world, which recognizes not only the physical health of the individual body but the collective health of the global community of humanity, incorporates both the material and the mystical, the scientific and the spiritual:
There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first is by the treatment of physicians; the second consisteth in prayers offered by the spiritual ones to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practised.
Illnesses which occur by reason of physical causes should be treated by doctors with medical remedies; those which are due to spiritual causes disappear through spiritual means. Thus an illness caused by affliction, fear, nervous impressions, will be healed more effectively by spiritual rather than by physical treatment. Hence, both kinds of treatment should be followed; they are not contradictory. Therefore thou shouldst also accept physical remedies inasmuch as these too have come from the mercy and favour of God, Who hath revealed and made manifest medical science so that His servants may profit from this kind of treatment also. Thou shouldst give equal attention to spiritual treatments, for they produce marvellous effects.
Now, if thou wishest to know the true remedy which will heal man from all sickness and will give him the health of the divine kingdom, know that it is the precepts and teachings of God. Focus thine attention upon them. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 151-152.
Is your community healthy?