Saturday, November 13, 2010
Medicine of the Cherokee: The Way of Right Relationship
Book Review: Medicine of the Cherokee: The Way of Right Relationship
by J.T Garrett and Michael Garrett (Bear & Co/Inner Traditions 1996)
This is a book about the Good Medicine Path of Harmony and Balance – according to the Native American tradition of the Cherokee. The book is filled with stories and personal anecdotes relative to training in the world view of relationship and interconnectedness.
Simple practices and observations of nature are emphasized such as finding special objects for one’s personal medicine bundle. Also emphasized is the development of a reciprocal relationship to the natural world – so when one draws energy from the environment – one returns that energy in another form back to the environment.
The authors tell a few of the Cherokee mythical stories such as the boys who were pulled to the sky vault to become the Pleides. The seventh boy was said to have been retrieved by the mother but hit so hard that he went into the earth and emerged later as a tall pine tree reaching for the heavens to play with his brothers. It is said that if you listen to the sound of pine trees in the wind you might hear messages from the spirits of the boys.
The gist of these teachings regards the Medicine Wheel of the four cardinal directions and the center of the universal circle. Harmonizing one’s relationships in life – and particularly to the natural world are referred to here as the practice of Indian Medicine, or the path of Good Medicine. As well as the four directions and the fire in the center of the universal circle there is also the Sun – the above world – and the Mother Earth below. These are the Sacred Seven.
The four energies associated to the four directions are – physical, mental, natural, and spiritual. The Cherokee and many native tribes see themselves as keepers of the Earth – this destiny then becomes the focus of spiritual practices.
Correspondences for the Cherokee Medicine Wheel are as follows:
South – natural energy; peace path; white; play and be a child; “the key is innocence.”
West – physical energy; introspection path; black; dance and compete; “the key is to help those less fortunate.”
North – mental energy; quiet path; blue or blue-white; learn and share; “the key is sharing and teaching.’
East – spiritual energy; sun path; red; kindness, harmony; prayer/ceremony; “the key is coming together and honoring the Elders.”
The authors give specific herbs and foods related to each direction as well as animal powers and healing styles of each direction with some suggested practices and contemplations. A big part of this book is an emphasis on choices one makes and listening to the hidden voices of nature to guide one in making healthy choices. Keeping a reverent attitude toward the natural world is encouraged over the idea of dominion over nature. One practice given is done when crossing a bridge over a stream. The idea is to try to determine which of the four directions bids you to come in order to balance and heal one’s relationships to nature. The practice is to touch the water then mindfully cross the bridge noting feelings such as whether you are drawn upstream or downstream or whether you feel more contented at the beginning of crossing (which means keep to your current path) or at the end of crossing (which indicates end of a phase and time for a change).
There is an interesting section about the Sacred Fire. Symbolically the fire is in the center of the Universal Circle and is built on the Earth Mother and the light and smoke reaches up to the Star People to remind and renew the connection to the above world of origin and perhaps destination. Cedar wood was considered a special fire wood. They used fleabane – the fire-maker weed and special blends of tobacco. Each spring there was a new-fire ceremony not so unlike the Beltaine Fire rites of some Europeans – where a new fire was kindled by rubbing sticks and lighting golden rod and ashes from last year’s fire. Then all the hearth fires were lit from this fire. The mythic origin of fire is that the Red Thunder beings from the East (direction of the spiritual) first ignited fire through the lightning strikes.
There are some interesting comments about the Bear and the Deer. The bear it is said came down in several forms – black, white, etc – to help the fledgling humans. The bear due to his slowness and laziness somehow got caught between the worlds of animal and human spirits – so it is said the humans and bears share a kinship. An Elder notes that a skinned bear looks like a human with claws. He explains the mind-body connection as it was explained to him by an Elder, “The deer is a cunning animal, considered sacred, because it is the mind of the universe. It hears and sees all things, and you can talk to the deer. The bear, on the other hand, likes to sleep and eat when hungry. The bear is the body of the universe, just doing what comes naturally, without regard to anything or anybody, except for the messages received. Each cell of the body has the messages and memory of all time. We can condition our bodies to listen and to receive those messages as the sacred deer does for Mental Healing.”
The crystal is associated with vision – particularly with the discovery of one’s spiritual purpose. Crystals are said to be spirit beings with sun-energy. so the Crystal Vision refers to finding ones purpose through experience. He mentions an ancient practice where the light of the sunrise was observed through a positioned quartz crystal. The light reflected through the crystal would pass over the people – thus clearing them till the next moon cycle. The Cherokee also say that the crystal energy is connected to the star spirits. There are methods of “clearing” crystals by placing them in unpolluted water for seven days so the spirits within them can better heal. He also describes a healing form similar to reiki where the healers hands were warmed over a sacred fire and then raised toward the sky to receive help from the above world. Then the hands were moved in a circular motion about seven inches from the patient’s body in order to stir or unblock natural energy. Other methods were drumming, smudging, and song/chant.
Part 2 of the book is by the author’s son and is called – To walk in Beauty: The Way of Right Relationship. The power of relation is to see all life and things of nature as relatives. There are the four-legged brothers, the winged brothers, the stone people, the star people, etc. The four stages of life in Cherokee tradition are: first presence of mind symbolized by a child’s first smile; adolescence where we explore and develop talents, strengths, and abilities; adulthood where we have the means to assist family, clan, tribe, and community; Elder-hood where we become keepers of wisdom and come to understand relationships and energy. He tells some traditional stories to illustrate the importance of relationship and interconnectedness. The world is family: the earth is Mother, the sky is Father, the moon is Grandmother, the sun is Grandfather. According to Chief Seattle, “The perfumed flowers are our sisters ..... The rivers are our brothers.....” Since the ashes of the ancestors merge with the land and water it is as if their flesh and blood are part of the land and waters.
He describes the – Harmony Ethic: 1) a non-aggressive and noncompetitive approach to life. 2) the use of intermediaries, or a neutral third person, as away of minimizing face-to-face hostility and disharmony in interpersonal relations. 3) Reciprocity and the practice of generosity --- “It is the act of giving and of receiving that makes the Circle turn.” 4) a belief in immanent justice – this is thought to reduce the perceived need for control and punishment. There is also suggested a practice of – non-interference – or allowing people to make their own mistakes and learn from them (good only to a point methinks). Non-interference can also mean respecting the natural world through being mindful and aware of how one affects it. Humility, patience, and sharing are other valued attitudes.
There is an interesting little section about Squirrel Medicine – that has to do with gathering and our relationships with stuff and supplies. Squirrel Medicine is about finding the balance between gathering and letting go. Too much stuff may weigh us down or scatter us while inadequate preparation may leave us struggling.
This was an easy book to read with some useful practical advice and worthwhile stories and anecdotes. Most of us would do well to keep mindful of our relationship to the world around us.