How can we Transform Suffering, Fragmentation, and Painful Inner & Outer Separation? An Overview of Becoming Medicine – Part I

How can we transform suffering, fragmentation, and painful inner & outer separation? This is the central question that Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and I address in our new book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality. Suffering is the flip side of initiation and enlightenment. If you are seeking to become enlightened, the door that you often enter through is some form of suffering, separation, and fragmentation.

Initiation is the process of becoming more fully human. It is a common process in indigenous societies and in religious traditions. Anthropologists, such as Victor Turner studied initiation, as well as scholars of world religions, for instance, Mircea Eliade. Joseph Campbell popularized the process of initiation as the Hero’s Journey, comprising three primary stages of separation, initiation, and return.  Campbell sought to find a way that we “modern” people, who lack religious and sociocultural ritual frameworks for initiation, could transform suffering into personal and spiritual growth. Psychologists and psychiatrists became interested in the concept, as it applies to the presenting common concerns of those seeking psychotherapy. Carl Jung saw the need for initiation and transformation, as he wrote about throughout his career in books such as Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and his posthumous journal, The Red Book.

We live in a disorienting time and we seek to get our bearings again. In our first book together, Joseph Rael and I wrote about his practices of using the medicine wheel as a kind of compass for inner and outer orientation. When we find ourselves disoriented, we need some organizing framework to help us re-orient. The outer directions are North, South, East, and West. There are also the inner directions of spirit, emotion, mind, and body. Joseph also teaches that the center of the medicine wheel is the heart and embodies the principle of carrying. When we enter into the center of the medicine wheel, we realize that our hearts are medicine bags and they are filled with sacred objects. The initiation is the process of “finding the held-back place of goodness,” as Joseph called it in our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. Initiation is when we go into the center of the medicine wheel to find our medicine, which we come to realize is an ongoing process of becoming medicine – becoming the very thing that we so desperately need.

David Kopacz’s adaptation of Joseph Rael’s Medicine Wheel

We structure the book around the framework of initiation that Joseph Campbell, Victor Turner, Mircea Eliade, and others have described: separation, initiation, return. However, Joseph Rael comes from what he calls a verb language tradition – a language that is full of verbs like breathing, transforming, and becoming. It is a language of connecting, rather than how he describes noun language (English and German, for example) as languages that separate our living and interconnecting world into separate and discrete: people, places, and things. (The process of turning people into things is the topic of dehumanization that I explored in my first book, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine). Given Joseph’s predilection for verb language, we adapted separation, initiation, return into: seeking, finding/receiving, and giving. What one seeks with and within one’s heart, one eventually finds and receives, becoming healing medicine, and then as one is fulfilled with this, one overflows with fullness, giving to others what it was that we were seeking. In part III we examine how the personal medicine is also the universal medicine. The medicine that we become is the medicine that the world needs, and we find it through the journey of initiation into our hearts.

We live in a disorienting time and yet maybe instead of trying to go back to the way things were, we can go deeper into transformation, into the way things might be. The idea of initiation is consistent with Jack Mezirow’s model of transformative learning – that one enters into transformation through first becoming disoriented. And we have plenty of disorientation that we find ourselves in the midst of at this present time. Mezirow studied ten stages of transformation and we can break these down into three stages that parallel the stages of separation, initiation, and return. One way to understand transformation is that it is a change of who you are. This can be contrasted with simple change – where you remain the same, but you just change something you do. One can change without being transformed, but transformation is the ultimate change. Disorientation is the first step, according to Mezirow, for transformation. In that sense, maybe we are exactly where we need to be and things are exactly as they should be in order for us, as individuals and collectively, transform.

Adapted from Mezirow, Jack. “Transformational Learning Theory,” in Jack Mezirow, Edward Taylor, and Associates eds., Transformative Learning in Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Here is the table of contents of Part I of Becoming Medicine:

Part I: Separation (Seeking)
1 / Becoming Medicine
2 / Circle Medicine
3 / Separation
4 / Becoming a Visionary
5 / Becoming a Shaman 
6 / Becoming a Mystic

After studying the various forms of separation/seeking, we look at how ancient and modern people have gone through the process of initiation of becoming visionaries, mystics, and shamans. We define visionaries, shamans, and mystics broadly, with the understanding that anyone can develop these human capacities. We examine my experiences learning from Joseph, as well as Joseph’s life experiences. We review a number of different spiritual teachers, musicians, and healers and their processes of initiation and becoming, including Carl Jung, Henry Corbin, Hildegard of Bingen, Miles Davis, Ben Lee, Evelyn Underhill, Dorothee Soelle, Juan Mascaró, Krishnamurti, and Matthew Fox.

In the next blog post, I will give a brief overview of Part II: Initiation (Finding/Receiving).

2 thoughts on “How can we Transform Suffering, Fragmentation, and Painful Inner & Outer Separation? An Overview of Becoming Medicine – Part I

  1. This is wonderful. I love this! Thank you for this integration of so many traditions and perspepectives with a common “meta” perspective and description. So valuable and full of heart…

  2. Thanks for this wonderful summary. Though disorientation may often precede transformation, I wonder if openness and curiosity can lead to a gentler transformative process, since the mind and heart are aligned with and prepared for change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s