Science and SpiritReprinted with permission from the March/April 2004 issue of Science and Spirit.

Five thousand years ago, in an isolated valley in the Kalahari Desert of Africa, ten bushmen dance in a circle around a blazing night fire. As their black bodies vibrate and tremble, the bone beads wrapped around their ankles hiss like a hundred snakes rattling in the bush. Standing in the fire's shadows, eyes watching a boy who can barely breathe, eight women clap and sing. Feeling the child's sickness floating toward him, the dancer named Bo prays to his ancestors for help. Finally, Bo's long-dead grandfather appears in the flames. The grandfather talks to Modimo, the Big God, and then whispers what must be done. In pain, Bo collapses near the child and begins touching him. As he places his heart next to the boy's heart, he transfers !num (spirit) into the boy's body. Suddenly, Bo leaps up. A white light has appeared, emanating from the dancers and traveling straight up into the sky. Bo's pain disappears. And the bushmen rejoice-the child's lungs are clear. Four thousand years pass. The world changes but some things don't change. Somewhere in the Central Plains of North America, a small, domed sweat lodge is being prepared. When the work is finished, the tribe's Yuwipi man transfers hot stones from the nearby fire into the lodge.
As he sits down inside and begins to chant, twelve other men join him, including one with a serious heart condition. Inside the dark, steaming lodge, as they sing and pray to Wakan Tanka, a brother ties the Yuwipi man's hands behind him with ropes and wraps him in the skin of a black-tailed deer. Within a few hours, small blue lights twinkle in the darkness. Three men hear voices in the north. One sees a vision of an eagle. The prayers continue and then, with a start, the Yuwipi man senses the arrival of the Bear Spirit. Near dawn, the Yuwipi man feels the sharp claw of the Bear Spirit on his arm, the hot breath of the Bear Spirit on his neck. Then the ropes that bind his hands loosen. When the knots are undone and his hands completely free, he cries out in celebration, thanking the Bear. And the sick man sits up, the flow of blood to his heart restored. The First Medicine

As a means of helping communities heal disease, stay in balance with their environment, and remain in the right relationship with each other and spiritual domains, shamanic medicine has survived the winds of time for at least ten thousand years. It was the first medicine mankind had and, in the beginning, it was the only medicine. Still practiced by peoples around the globe, this ancient art of communicating with the spirits has many different cultural colors, but at the core of each tradition is the certainty that knowledge and healing come not from humans, but from God.

Our culture struggles with this concept because in Western medicine, God is not part of the equation. Rather than seeking divine grace, we strive for knowledge, self-reliance, and control. As we busily unravel the "facts" of the physical universe, we are loath to rely on any force that is not subject to our dominion. Yet in cultures that embrace shamanism, even within small pockets of our own nation, these mysterious, grace-filled healings abound. For many years now, anthropologists have been studying the Earth's slowly dying tribal cultures to learn what actually transpires during these healing rituals. Unfortunately, most scholars try to understand tribal beliefs as filtered through their own beliefs. So, when a bushman doctor says he climbs a rope to talk with God, the anthropologist hears that the bushman imagines that he climbs a rope to have an imaginary conversation with God. But the bushman never said the word "imagine." Profiles of Healing, a series edited by anthropologist Bradford Keeney, offers a remarkably filter-free view into the personal worlds of still-living tribal medicine men and shamans. Each of the ten books is actually an intimate conversation-words from a holy person to all humankind. Filled with art and photographs, this exquisitely produced series, which is a project of the Ringing Rocks Foundation, is dedicated to helping the world's most revered healers tell their stories and share their knowledge.

In the first book of the series, Lakota Yuwipi Man, we meet Gary Holy Bull. When needed, the Lakota participate in the Sun Dance, a ceremony that uses pain as a means of separating from and transcending the physical world, and which has been credited with healing such diseases as diabetes and cancer. Gary Holy Bull's initiation reveals the Lakota spiritual landscape through which such healing power comes.

After years of assisting with the dance as an apprentice, Gary Holy Bull asked Fools Crow if he could lead the dance. The elder replied, "Go to the top of the hill and sit, cry, and pray. Talk to God. That's where you'll find the answers." For two days, Gary Holy Bull sat on the hill and prayed. On the third morning, he heard a man singing in the north. When he looked up in the sky, the morning star was dancing in a circle. As the singing continued, a tree spoke: "Look who is singing. They are bringing you a song." When Gary looked at the hill at the far end of a ridge, he saw a lone coyote singing the song. But when he noticed that it was a coyote, the song turned into the animal's natural howl. Then a remarkable transformation took place-the coyote changed into a human. "This is the song you will use to conduct the Sun Dance," the spirit said. Gary Holy Bull uses that song today and has since become a Sun Dance leader and great healer for his people. In any of the Lakota healing ceremonies, be it the Sun Dance, Hambelachia (vision quest), or Yuwipi ceremony (calling the spirits), things happen. Gourds fly about; stars move; animals turn into humans; plants talk; and people are healed. Through these ceremonies, the world shows itself to be fluid, changeable, multidimensional. Through these rituals, spirit reveals its power. In the second installment, Japanese Master of Seiki Jutsu, Keeney presents the life of Ikuko Osumi. As a young girl, Ikuko Osumi was very ill.
When medicine didn't work, her aunt turned to seiki. Using her hands, her aunt instilled seiki (a word referring to the vital life force) into Ikuko. Then she taught Ikuko how to work with seiki on a daily basis by herself. "Put the tips of your fingers together and bring them up to your eyes," her aunt instructed. "Touch your fingers against your closed eyes. Then wait and see what takes place." Within days, Ikuko's health was restored. As Ikuko worked with the seiki movements, she contemplated the relationship between nature and the human body, and how it was possible to relieve various kinds of pain. "I lost contact with the everyday world and felt as if I had entered another dimension of the universe," she says. "I could look inside my own body and observe the inner workings."