catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 13 :: 2003.06.20 — 2003.07.03


Howling for the master




by Jalal Al-Dio Rumi

One night a man was crying, "Allah! Allah!"

His lips grew sweet with the praising, until a cynic said, "So! I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?"
The man had no answer to that. He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls, in a thick, green foliage.

"Why did you stop praising?"

"Because I've never heard anything back."

"This longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection. There are love dogs no one knows the names of. Give your life to be one of them.


I survived my college years, and periods of disillusionment with the institutional church, because I knew there was medicine for the spirit to be had. After a couple of years in seminary, plumbing the depths of theology, and sometimes spirit, too, we managed to gain some tools with which to moan more eloquently, like love dogs.

After some years as a pastor, I have a new respect for the Spirit. Together, we have howled in longing for our master, in many different ways. And now, convinced that there is more to be had, new and better ways to have that spirit medicine, and impressed by how it has, thus far, kept my child out of the hospital, I go study Oriental medicine in Chicago, and I?m about ready to graduate.

But I haven't gotten the answers I'm looking for yet, and I'm still just a love dog, whining and howling because of separation from my master. Here are a few of my thoughts. May they be helpful to you, all you love dogs.

The Nei Ching, the Yellow emperor's classic, one of the world's first and best known medical texts, says, "Acupuncture must first treat the spirit." Many people, myself included, have romanticized Oriental Medicine, thinking it somehow more "spiritual" than other medicine, and we have imagined that anything is possible with Oriental medicine—in other words, the grass is always greener on the other side. And the grass truly is green and delicious. But so much of it is still undigestible to me.

In one of the books I'm reading, called Nourishing Destiny, there is a lot of talk about "ming"—destiny. The basic idea is that each person is born with a unique destiny, determined by heaven, which doesn't change throughout life. When a person lives and makes choices which align their life more closely with their heavenly destiny, doors open, and the road becomes straight. This is not to say that life becomes easy, but satisfying and meaningful, because this person is working in cooperation with heaven.

On the other hand, when a person chooses a lifestyle, or makes other choices which works against his or her given tendencies, it is like paddling against the flow of the river. Difficulty and dis-ease will be the result. My father hoped that one, or all of his sons would grow to love electronics as much as he does. We didn't—none of us, though all of us learned just about enough to get us in trouble.

I think often of the people who are eased or squeezed into a family business, like Nia Vardalow, the frumpy waitress in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I have learned a lot about parenting from the people around me here who have shown me how to love and cherish, and let your children choose their own way.

Spirit medicine, then—at least the churchy aspect of it—is to pastor souls into THEIR spiritual path, not ours, to let them howl their own tune.

But what about the other part? We go into a doctor's, or an acupuncturist's office, with a twisted ankle, or tendonitis. I know it's important to patch up the damage, the wear and tear of living, so that we can pick ourselves up and keep going. We have things to do.

But imagine this (a true case study, from just last week): A 15-year-old boy, a violin student, comes into the clinic with his supportive father, who never leaves his side. The boy is an insulin-dependent diabetic, his tongue is deep purple, his pulse is what we call really wiry, his shirt is buttoned up tight against the neck, perfectly pressed, as are his slacks. Shoes shined. His demeanor is stiff and withdrawn. His hands are large. Many acupuncture treatments are truly painless, but not this one. And he never flinches.

I am working together with another intern with many years of experience. He checks the pulse, asks the boy about falling on his tailbone when he was eight or nine years old. The boy says yes, he did. I am impressed. We talk about this boy. His problems are severe. What is the root cause of his diabetes? Is it some physical trauma? Genetics? (His family history doesn't indicate this.) Is the root emotional? Spiritual? His prognosis is not real good. Barring the miraculous, he would not be expected to live a long life. But never bar the miraculous. The love dog howls, and howls, and every now and then, the bone comes hurling out the back door.

Who was this boy born to be? Is it important to go through diabetes? I can't imagine. I don't think God wills this sort of suffering for any one. Then, what of his birthright? His destiny? What is going wrong? Is there some pact with heaven which he is not living out? Is there, as I highly suspect, repressed anger that his father, or somebody, is not ready to hear? Can he not howl? Is it culturally, or religiously unacceptable?

Confucius was a great thinker, well known for his gentle and certain spirit. To quote Confucius, on the stages of spiritual development:

At fifteen I had my will (zhi) bent on learning.
At thirty I stood firm.
At forty I had no doubts.
At fifty I knew the decrees of heaven (ming).
At sixty my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
At seventy I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.

In other words, "his first step was to fix his will upon self-discovery. By fifty, he understood his destiny as appointed by heaven; and by sixty, he was able to listen to his heart and the heart of others. By seventy, he felt no more conflict because he had resolved that what heaven had willed for him and what he willed for himself were the same. Confucius' [original nature] was re-established by his seventieth year, a year with numerical significance because seven is the number denoting the loss of, or return to, original nature."


Here's another case history of a real patient. An 84-year-old Jewish woman with a file of treatments at least an inch thick. Very strong and healthy overall. Concert pianist, though she has swollen knuckles and joints on her hands. Swims at the Y several times per week, walks a lot. It wouldn't surprise me to see her run a marathon, just because somebody told her she can't.

But she carries such bitterness that most interns try to avoid her, and will not treat her. She is treated for depression, without success. Each and every week she comes in, she tells anybody that will listen about how she cured herself of arthritis 20 years ago by going vegetarian and changing her diet. She'll also tell everybody who will listen about how her daughters left her and moved out, why did they all move away?

Her break with reality, and her spiritual vacuity are so great that even those sitting down with her for the first time are drawn to the same problem… I've sat with her dozens of times, and saw the door slam shut as many times, but once, before the gates came down and she closed off her wounds, she said, "If there's something up there, then why did my father drop dead at 45, and why do such terrible things happen to people?"

She lived through the Holocaust, too.

For her, there are no love dogs. Only abandonment.

What is the key to unlock the puzzle for her? I can only guess that if the well of her bitterness were tapped, it would drain for the rest of her life, and never be empty, such is the depth of her despair, and she's waited so long. But miracles do happen.

In one of the classic Oriental Medical Texts, there are identified three medicines. Lower medicine treats disease symptoms. Middle medicine helps the body stay healthy and prevent disease. High medicine treats the spirit.

I've wanted to practice high medicine with this old Jewish woman, but, alas, I don't know how. So I treat her fingers, working on the swollen joints so she can dream of someday reaching an octave again when she plays with the orchestra. It brings her some joy to talk about this.

Brian Stauffer told a story once about palpating the abdomen of a young patient, and not feeling anything abnormal, but something nagged him about what he sensed, not felt. And he ordered more tests. Turned out it was some malignancy or something that no one suspected. The tangible revealed nothing. It was the intangible that nagged him, and directed the treatment.
Spirit medicine is not dead for those healers who are willing to be led by unseen hands to treat unseen wounds, be they pastors, farmers, doctors, or garbage truck drivers.

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