What Do Elephants Have To Do With Massage?


About three years ago I decided to go for my PhD in somatic depth psychology. I’d spent the last two years establishing a healthy massage therapy practice in LA, and although I found the bodywork meaningful, I wanted to go deeper. Some folks scratch their heads upon learning that I’ve no intention of becoming a licensed psychologist.   But the whole premise of somatics – mind-body psychology – is that mind and body are intricately interwoven. They affect each other, and express each other, in myriad ways; a degree in somatics is as much about healing the body as healing the mind. Though it might strike some as wacky, this is a premise with firm scientific support. Every muscle, organ, and system of the body is in dialogue with the brain, and psychological factors of emotional and social well-being (and even belief itself!) have been shown to carry significant impact on health outcomes.

It is unfortunately part of the legacy of Western civilization to enshrine the abstract rational mind and denigrate the body as though it were only a machine or a slave. No wonder our bodies complain with aches and pains, and worse! Bodies are in reality vital, sensitive, living things. What’s more, it is through our bodies that we know the world directly, rather than abstractly, and know ourselves, in the moment, as we actually are – through movement, gut reactions, emotions (deeply rooted in the body!), touch, and all the sensual pleasures of being alive.

Our embodiment, and our need for nurturing contact, body-to-body, with others, is so deeply rooted in our being, that children who do not receive touch in early infancy are far more likely to develop severe physical and psychological problems. After three years of study, the vital connection between psyche and body is so clear and obvious to me that I no longer feel much need to defend it against naysayers. And while I’ve doubtless lost a few clients who find this perspective a bit threatening, I’ve found many others who are hungry for it.

Then, last October, I made the decision to complete my PhD fieldwork by researching human-elephant communication in Cambodia.

Mind-body psychology was a big enough leap, but elephants? What do elephants have to do with mind-body psychology? What do elephants have to do with massage?

Lets see if I can connect the dots…

Me and Ruby

Me and Ruby

 Honoring the Body

The unconscious tendency toward denigration of the body in Western thought goes hand in hand with a deeply entrenched Judeo-Christian mythology of human “dominion over nature” (Genesis 1:26). We may not think about this consciously, but it weaves through our culture, so that even secular individuals are largely trained to view the natural world this way from a very young age. It is a popular tendency to think of science and religion as being somewhat opposed, but this is one area where the underlying myth – the myth of dominion – runs straight from one into the other. Scientific tradition attempts to be above and apart from the phenomena it studies. Deeply engrained in early scientific investigations of animals was a profound assumption of animals’ inherent inferiority. That assumption, in itself not verifiable at the time, has skewed the results of animal research ever since.

In this system, animals (much like the body) are seen as aspects of a natural world that is fundamentally beneath us – whether we conceive of animals as mindless biological mechanisms, or slaves that exist solely for our benefit. As we dishonor our bodies, so do we dishonor the animal world. That the body is a source of wisdom, knowledge, vitality, pleasure, and meaning is lost in this perspective. Likewise, that animals are wise, intelligent, sensitive, emotional, and lead meaningful (if imperfect) lives for their own sake – suffice to say there has been very little room for that perspective prior to the 21st century.

Now to be clear and fair, I don’t mean to imply that all Christians and all scientists are anti-body and pro-dominion over nature. There are many scientists actively (if cautiously) challenging these ancient assumptions, and many Christians who interpret Genesis as a call to stewardship of the environment, not exploitative dominion. My purpose here is not to draw political lines in the sand regarding our present situation, but rather to investigate the deep, historical roots of our unconscious assumptions.

By way of contrast, Vine Deloria writes of the Sioux – one of the first peoples of North America – and their relationship with the animal world. According to the Sioux, humans were not above nature, but a part of it. Animals were seen as experts in their own sphere of life, and were understood as teachers and companions, rather than objects to be acquired and consumed. The Soiux ate animals (as animals eat animals), but with a spirit of gratitude and humility, rather than a presumption of privilege and superiority. They regarded all animal species as “peoples” who lived and understood the world in their own unique way.

Elephants around the world “check-in” with each other by placing their sensitive trunks in each others mouths – a combination of gesture, touch, and chemical communication

Navigating how to understand and honor the indigenous notion of animals as “people” is a vast topic worthy of much discussion – and something I’m not going to attempt to address in this essay. Instead I’m going to focus on elephants. Because I believe by our own standards of scientific observation, we now have enough data to conclude that elephants are indeed a nonhuman people.

That elephants have complex emotional and social lives has been well documented for decades. They form intricate social systems and have been known to adopt orphans (an action that flies in the face of theories that animals are merely machines programmed to replicate their own genes). Also well documented is their recognition of death – they mourn lost loved ones, and visit the bones of dead elephants with reverence and ceremony. They have a sense of self, recognizing their own images when presented with a mirror, and they have shown themselves to be tool-users and complex problem solvers. Like humans, they suffer devastating psychological effects from trauma, and have shown clear symptoms of PTSD. Their memories are prodigious and they are as fallible to negative emotions as humans – some elephants have taken revenge on their abusers decades after the fact. They are also complex communicators, using a combination of trumpets, squeals, rumbles, gestures, touch, and infrasonic (low-frequency) vibrational communication that can  take place over vast distances.

Matriarch Ning Wan leads the herd in an afternoon mud wallow...

Matriarch Ning Wan leads the herd in an afternoon mud wallow…

Pushing against the ancient unconscious bias that animals can’t be people is a mountain of data that elephants have far more in common with us than we ever imagined. And yet as is always the case with scientific breakthroughs, the culture lags far behind. In this instance, there may be more resistance than usual – we are deeply invested, emotionally and financially, in believing ourselves to be the only intelligent form of life on earth. That’s a very hard belief to surrender, evidence or no.

So just as the body, a font of wisdom and vitality, has been relegated to unconscious dominion and slavery, so too have elephants, a wise people in their own right, remained our slaves to this day. Some have challenged me – “if elephants are so intelligent, why are they allowing us to abuse and enslave them?” But such arguments don’t hold up when applied to humans either. The basic intelligence of the human organism has never been an inoculation against slavery – as decades of human slavery attest. Consider instead: a very small number of humans develop certain technologies; a larger number of humans learn how to use those technologies; the humans who were not privy to this development are then easy victims for technological “might-makes-right.” I am using technology in the broadest sense, understanding that written language is a technology – something to keep in mind when faced with the fact that the majority of Cambodian humans remain illiterate to this day. All Cambodians belong to the human species – some are born into environments where they learn to use certain technologies (such as written language), others are not. This is not a reflection on human intelligence, but on privilege and power – and ethics.

Volunteer Nikki and Ning Wan

Furthermore, the ability to use technologies through cultural transmission is only one form of intelligence. Knowing how to effectively navigate a complex ecosystem and manage hundreds of social relationships is another kind. We can pat ourselves on the back for our unique technological accomplishments, but it can equally be argued that our modern lives are riddled with problems and suffering because we no longer know how to navigate our world effectively – why else the dramatic increase of anxiety, depression, mental illness and chronic illness in humans over the last century? Elephants share our complex emotional lives and are equally vulnerable to trauma – but they don’t seem to need anti-depressants. That is, as long as they are left to their own devices.

Attempts to understand elephant language are only just beginning. It is a challenging enterprise, for while they clearly have a complex system of communication with each other, we cannot assume that it has much in common with our human systems of abstract syntax. How then do we bridge the gap?

To answer this question, we have to look at what we have in common with elephants – though perhaps it is an aspect of ourselves that we have long denied.

Despite her history of abuse, Milot is sweet soul,   and easy to approach.

Despite her history of abuse, Milot is sweet soul, and easy to approach.

Embodied Communication

One thing that we share in common with the elephants: we are embodied creatures with bodies forged for the unique conditions of this particular planet. As we become more willing and open toward the deep reality and wisdom of our bodies – as we get back in touch with the sensual body-consciousness that existed on earth before civilization began – we may in fact come to touch a kind of ancient preverbal intelligence that elephants and humans share.

In a culture where mind and body are split, the disembodied conscious ego reigns supreme, attempting to dominate the unconscious body (and perhaps, the unconscious deeper self). From its perceived position of power, the ego, whose constant instinct is toward control, eagerly denies and suppresses this “other intelligence” that resides below. This encultured process of repressing body awareness is alarmingly similar to how we have justified the exploitation and rape of the natural world.

So we come full circle – the struggle to honor the body, and the struggle to honor the natural world, are deeply intertwined. We have become alienated from elephants in much the same way that we remain alienated from our own human bodies.  Healing the one wound may indeed begin with healing the other.

me and Ning Wan

My final encounter with Ning Wan.

At the end of my time at the elephant sanctuary, I stood before Ning Wan, the elephant with whom I had found the deepest connection, and had a final conversation.

I had a different reaction to each of the elephants at the sanctuary – some inspired fear, others seemed dissociated, or simply indifferent to my presence. I had moments of connection with many of them. But my interactions with Ning Wan were on another level entirely. When she approached, I felt honored. She radiated a deep sense of peace, but also authority; like a priestess of a kind. Of all the elephants at the Sanctuary, only Ning Wan had never been used for commercial purposes. I believe I was able to connect most deeply with her because she was psychologically and emotionally the healthiest elephant on the grounds.

There was one seeming point of contention between us, and that was my digital video camera. As a fieldworker, I was somewhat voracious in wanting to “capture” everything that happened at the Sanctuary. It was during my second encounter with Ning Wan that I first got the very strong impression that she didn’t care for the camera at all. She had approached me just after emerging from her river bath – she came right to me and stopped, even as the other elephants were moving past. I was honored, a little frightened by her interest in me. I was also filming. I wonder, when I analyze that footage, if I will be able to pinpoint any particular moment when the camera became an object of her disdain. It is a stretch to imagine Ning Wan somehow understood the camera and its function – thought she’s certainly seen hundreds of cameras in her day, and observed how humans use them. Rather, I think she noticed that my attention was divided between directly encountering her, and focusing on the camera. In that moment, quite pragmatically, my attention was split between the actual embodied relationship, and my relationship to her abstract image (and everything it might signify in the human world back home). If her elephant intuition told her there was something duplicitous in the divided psyche of the human that stood before her, I can’t entirely say she was wrong.

From that moment on, I was intensely aware of Ning Wan’s reaction to my camera, and began to take greater lengths to keep it off my person when she was nearby. On a subsequent visit, she approached me while my camera was some distance off, and after our interaction, she went right towards it, and after sniffing around my bag, she knocked the camera tripod over with her trunk (fortunately it was undamaged). Of course, I can’t prove that she knocked my camera over on purpose. But frankly, I have a hard time accepting otherwise.

Are you here to connect with me, she seemed to be asking, or are you only here to serve your own human purposes?

Ning Wan relishing the cool mud on a hot day...

Ning Wan relishing the cool mud on a hot day…

Fortunately, my relationship with Ning Wan was not confined to the camera dynamic. I was able to attempt many “conversations” with her, each time humbly trying to understand what was working and what wasn’t. My rational mind would spin stories about what something might mean.  But by that stage I understood that the rational ego could not take the lead on this (thought it certainly might help organize the data after the fact). Somatic, embodied communication – sometimes referred to as “attunement” in psychological literature – is more often framed as an implicit process, engaging the global, holistic thinking of the right brain, rather than the more linear syntax of the left. What this means is that just like a human mother and infant, our bodies were communicating meaningfully with each other regardless of the language centers of our brains.

And this brings me to the question at hand – the reason a massage therapist would be interested – perhaps uniquely qualified – to study human-elephant communication: the primacy of touch. Touch is the primal arena of connection and boundary between organisms. In mammals in particular, relationships are mediated, and strengthened, through physical contact. It isn’t only human babies that suffer from lack of contact – all infant mammals suffer when deprived of touch.

Ning Wan and Pearl check in with each other during their morning bath.

Ning Wan and Pearl check in with each other during their morning bath.

Touch is (if you’ll forgive the pun) something of an elephant in the room in our modern western culture. It’s hard to imagine a healthy family without healthy touch. equally important – whatever your sexual mores – touch is the basis of most sexuality and intimacy. And as such, many of us are terrified of touch. We have to ban it in schools and in traditional psychotherapy, because it can mean so much, and yet so many of us don’t know how to handle (or understand) what it means. And yet even the most touch-averse individuals recognize the value of a firm handshake between partners, a gentle hand on the back in solidarity during troubled times, the relief of being embraced and held by a trusted, safe, and beloved other.

Elephants may not share our abstract language brain centers (to be fair, they also have brain structures that humans lack), but they do share our capacity, and our need, for touch. Every time I touched an elephant at the sanctuary, I used my years of experience as a bodyworker to sense into her response. It was messy, inexact work – it had to be. But with every moment of contact, I learned a little bit more.

DSC_5603And every time I touched an elephant with intentional sensitivity – letting her know, body-to-body, that I felt and respected her reactions – the relationship grew a little bit stronger.

Healing the Traumatized Soul

The final piece of my answer to the question, “what do elephants have to do with massage therapy?” is simply this: the elephants of our world, just as much as the humans, are in need of healing. There was not an elephant at the sanctuary that had not been ripped away from its family as an infant, and most of them had been subjected to slavery and other abuses over the long decades of their lives. Imagine: an alien race takes a two year old human away from her family, barring her from any opportunity to learn the language or social conventions of her own people, and “communicating” with her solely for the purpose of dominating her spirit – physically beating her when she does not obey. Imagine coming across this human in late middle age, and trying to have a conversation with her – what would she understand? What would she need? How would you seek to touch her humanity, to comfort her soul?

The African elephants, while not used as slaves, are being slaughtered en masse by poachers to feed the illegal ivory trade, still alive and well in China and the USA. Elephants who witness their families being murdered are psychologically scarred, and as adults are prone to rage and violence. As the elders are murdered, elephant society begins to break down.  We have done this to them, and they need our help.

The aim of massage therapy – as a healing art – is to touch the wounded soul by touching the wounded body. This is so even when we are “only” releasing the tension from muscles gone rigid from navigating this strange modern existence our bodies have been plunged into. The loss of reverence and connection to the wisdom of the body, and our loss of reverence and connection to the elephants, are two expressions of the same wound. The need to touch the wounded, to offer comfort and care to the forgotten and disenfranchised, in ourselves, and in the natural world, is an archetypal call to heal what is broken.

As we touch and hold the forgotten, the rejected, and abused, we take another small step toward wholeness; toward a world dominated not by power, but by love.


Into the Canyon

Planning for the trip began over a year in advance. Phantom Ranch on the Grand Canyon floor takes thirteen months advanced reservation, and even then it’s competitive.  This was going to be a trip with my brother and sisters, but then life happened, and fate had  me descending alone with manuscripts in tow – a kind of extreme writing retreat into one of the world’s most awesome and terrifying wonders.


The day before departure a routine oil change becomes an 8 hour auto-repair. Stranded at the mechanic with a whole day’s itinerary of trip preparation now under threat, there’s nothing to do but start walking. A couple errands to complete very slowly on foot: an Urban hike through the streets of Pasadena begins. I grew up driving around these streets – how alien to now glimpse their geography one humble step at a time. My $3 rite-aid flip flops keep falling apart and eventually I relent and go barefoot, a deeper level of intimacy with the city streets: feeling the texture of grit and concrete beneath my toes.

There is a relentlessness to urban environments. The land is smothered in asphalt, unable to breathe, and much of it – the land – is forgotten.  Land and nature as conquered afterthought, nevertheless present, whispering. Everywhere in the city there is noise, activity, and the smells of urban refuse. The animal in me is alarmed that there is nowhere to hide in this manufactured environment – no thicket to shelter from the constant stimulation and desert sun.   Temperatures are in the mid-eighties, and I walk for perhaps eight miles total. I don’t know how the Los Angeles homeless do it.

In 48 hours, I will enter an arguably much more strenuous environment. My Urban Hike through Pasadena becomes a practice run; I’m eager to discover for myself how the Grand Canyon will compare.

I arrive at the South Rim early Wednesday afternoon, late in May. Temperatures are comparable to my arid urban hike through Pasadena, and Grand Canyon National Park feels a bit like Disneyland – all spectacle and icecream.

I long ago mastered the fine art of comfort with solitude, but I’m still hopelessly lonely in a crowd. And I harbor a long-standing natural irritation with tourists. In my lexicon, there is a clear difference between tourist and traveler. Tourists pass quickly through a novel space for entertainment as if contained in a bubble, looking at a thing from the outside and from a safe distance, like a spectator in a zoo. A traveler, by contrast, attempts to enter into and merge with the novel environment as much as possible in the time allotted.   We all have a right to tourism and I’ve indulged on more than one occasion – but my passion is for travel, and as a traveler, tourists irritate me to no end. Surrounded by tourists, the Grand Canyon looks like a photograph – far too expansive to fit into normative consciousness, it becomes a 2-dimensional plane, conveniently made flat by the immense distance of the far shore.

Tomorrow a dawn, I will break through the tourist bubble and descend.

 The Descent

I wish I had slept better – maybe 5 hours, largely on account of psychosomatic anticipation. But so be it! Rather than give into anxiety and regret, I give my psyche the benefit of the doubt. A hazy nightmare lingers, an erotic dream spoiled by a tormenting black widow – grist for the mill.

I’ve stuffed my backpack to the gills. Maybe I should paid to send all of these books and food items down by pack mule. I’m also sporting a bag of emergency equipment foisted on me by my mother (like me, she has read Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, a grisly account of the myriad deaths that have occurred in the region). But the pack is full and the die is cast, the shuttle to the trailhead is about to depart – it’s either all going down on my back or going into the trashcan – I decide to bear it.


View from Mather Point at dawn.

23 souls on the 6 AM shuttle for the trailhead, and I imagine an equal number had probably departed an hour before. It’s a brisk and comforting 55 degrees as the shuttle drops us off at the South Kaibob Trailhead shortly before 6:30 AM. There seems to be a general air of confusion as we mill about – it isn’t immediately clear exactly where we are supposed to go. Eager to get well ahead of the crowd, I strike out in what quickly turns out to be the right direction, and cross the threshold.

As the descent begins, an attractive young New Zealand couple catches up and overtakes me, and at first I’m worried: the woman seems to be dealing with the too-massive void before us by trying to make her very loud voice reverberate off the canyon walls, defiantly attempting to fill the space with her chatter. I shouldn’t judge, I have my defense mechanisms too. I whip out my camcorder for one thing, erotically engaging and distancing myself from the yawning chasm all at once through the lens of artistry. Another defense myself and the New Zealanders share: the drive to keep moving forward, one foot quickly after the other, as though by focusing myopically on the goal, we might avoid the uncomfortable present, the realization of ourselves as ants crawling down into an sprawling abyss of two billion year old rocks.


Top of the South Kaibob Trail

The awe and awfulness of the void is punctuated by joy as the apparent arid desolation viewed from the rim turns out to be an illusion. The canyon is teaming with life, green things growing out of every crag, a plethora of birds and reptiles going about their quiet lives. A fellow I pass high on the trail tells me he’s just seen an elk. The descent is a passage through series of unique ecosystems on the way down to the cold, fast Colorado river, almost 5000 feet below.   The Colorado is frigid, but the canyon is hot, the inner rock walls capturing and radiating desert heat, creating temperatures twenty degrees above the already warm rim. 55 Degrees at the top of the trail by morning could easily be 110 degrees come mid-day on the canyon floor.

Posters in Grand Canyon Village show athletic young men collapsed on the trail in agony. Apparantly the majority of helicopter rescues are for people like me, healthy and physically fit males who don’t understand the extreme conditions of the canyon and push themselves to heatstroke. Tragic deaths from dehydration have occurred too often. So it isn’t merely ego that drives me downward quickly by the light of dawn, it is also fear of the sun.

In fact, I’m blessed with a perfect day for it. A thick blanket of clouds covers the sky, creating an almost tropical atmosphere for the trek.  It’s tempting to think that going down will not be strenuous, but the constant act of catching and stabilizing the body with each downward step is fatiguing in its own right, asking too much of unfamiliar, undeveloped muscles. Within an hour, some such muscles are already trembling lightly with confusion and fatigue, and I do my best to stay tuned in. Amidst the drive to reach the goal, I know  a weakened ankle twists or sprains much more easily. To make matters worse, I’m wearing the wrong shoes for this kind of rocky, uneven terrain – my worn out gym shoes were not the best choice. The biggest danger, however, turns out to be my camera. More than once I find myself so engaged with the lens that I hover dangerously close to a precipitous drop – what an ironic way to go!

At ninety minutes, I’m shocked to cross the half-way mark. I’ve passed well over a dozen travelers in my race against the sun, and now I realize that its safe to slow down. The cloud cover is holding, and there’s plenty of water left in my too-heavy pack. I pause to eat, replenish my electrolytes, and take the place in. Slowly, tentatively, I loose the grip of ego and dip into the waters of psyche, inviting the Canyon to penetrate my armor.

3260 ft below the Rim, 1520 ft above the Colorado.

3260 ft below the Rim, 1520 ft above the Colorado.

The field of ecopsychology and deep ecology suggest that we have told ourselves a great lie: insisting that we are somehow separate from nature. Rather, these schools suggest that we are ourselves complex expressions of nature, enmeshed in an even greater complexity. As such, psyche isn’t only within us, it is all around us, taking shape in the horizon, encapsulating the individual ego in a magnificent and expansive world. In theological terms, God is experienced not above the world, but immanent and eminent in its folds. The constrictions of social programming begin to fall away, revealing an infinite and dangerous splendor beneath. If God and nature are continuous, than to be immersed in nature is to journey to the heart of the divine.

I think of Colin Fletcher, the first man to travel to length of the Grand Canyon on foot. He remarked that at times, the sheer immensity of the place made him feel small, insignificant and afraid – but that isn’t my experience. To bear witness and partake of this incredible land feels like a sacred privilege. If humans are, at the core, one with the land, then my humble perspective is a lens for the Canyon to experience itself. There is no separation, no bigger or smaller, above or below; the individual human is blessed as a humble cell in the ecstatic fabric of being.

I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive.

Interlude:  Three Days on the Canyon Floor

That night, after a hearty dinner at Phantom Ranch, I perform some deep tissue therapy on an 80 year old woman who descended with her family to celebrate her birthday. She’s strained her tensor fasciae latae muscle, and I gladly offer my services as a professional massage therapist free of charge. The family is lovely, and I regret that in the end she insists on pushing money into my hand, and to be polite I accept. It would have meant much more to me knowing I had helped a fellow traveler simply for the sake of doing so. Funny, the power money has to create distance between us.

The octogenarian birthday girl is crabby the next morning, lamenting that her whole body is cramping, dreading the ascent. I’m tempted to say to her, “look lady, I’m 34 and in excellent shape and my whole body is cramping too. I wouldn’t have even considered climbing out of the Grand Canyon the day after descending, and I’m half your age!” But I bit my tongue and wished her a safe journey instead. I hope she surprised herself.

grand canyon1

The South Rim as viewed from Phantom Ranch.

Sore to the bone, I am amazed to nevertheless find myself out of bed at 5:15 AM the morning after descent, prepping for a 13 mile round trip hike north to Ribbon Falls. The first impression upon waking is that my body is in too much pain to move at all, but some alien force propels me out the door anyway. This mad power driving me onto the pre-dawn trails is neither ego nor soul, but more like a partnership between the two – to which my body graciously relents. So at 5:40 AM I’m trekking up the North Kaibob Trail along Bright Angel Creek, toward the not-so-distant North Rim.

North Kaibob Trail and the distant North Rim.

North Kaibob Trail and the distant North Rim.

There is a method to this madness: the Ribbon Falls hike is potentially quite strenuous, and I definitely want a full day off from strenuous hiking before climbing back out the South Rim in two days. If I’m going to see Ribbon Falls, it has to be today while the sun is still low in the sky, screaming-sore-solid calves or no.

Ribbon Falls is worth it! Like something out of a fairy tail: a great circular gorge of red stone, with a thin, steady torrent of water free-falling onto an enormous pillar of moss and algae below. A hidden gem of natural beauty and abundance, all the more soothing for the unrelenting sun and towering stone walls that guard it. After an hour of leisurely eating and a bit of PhD reading, it’s hard to walk away – but the threat of mid-day heat and a long walk through wide, unshaded canyon walls is quite compelling.

At this point, I’m less than 8 miles from the North Rim, and if not for an air-conditioned cabin and a delicious meal pre-paid and waiting back at Phantom Ranch, I might have been crazy enough to just keep going.

Ribbon Falls

Ribbon Falls

I’ll do the North Rim next time. There is no doubt now: there will be many next times. The Grand Canyon is America at it’s best, the Goddess at her most terrifying and resplendent. This is the universe showing off.

There is one moment where my own insignificance hits me. At dinner the second night, I sit with a man and wife who tell me that at 2 AM, the Milky Way is more or less perfectly aligned over Bright Angel Canyon, and with no city lights to interfere, and a recently new moon, it is not a sight to be missed. I set my alarm on the spot.

Laying out on a picnic table under a vast sea of starlight, I feel small and afraid. How long has it been since I have truly gazed into these vast cosmos? Certainly, only a handful of times have I ever glimpsed them with such clarity. I have a practice, when I look at the stars, to try to see them as a three dimensional field, rather than a flat surface. It’s almost impossible with this many stars, but worth my puny human attempts nontheless.

There is a felt sense through which the body can understand what the mind cannot. My body understands and relishes the size and scope of the Grand Canyon, because by traversing its expansive terrain, I become a small part of it. As humans, we become the canyon by entering into it, and through us the canyon partakes of itself.

But my body can’t understand the stars in the same way. Those unfathomable distances are glimpsed briefly, only by the imagination, by soul, and neither mind nor body know what to do with them. Here the enigmatic universe extends beyond what my eyes can tell me (and my mind simply doesn’t believe that the human scientists with their human telescopes and human astrophysics have it all figured out either). We are perched on the edge of a cosmic ocean of which we can barely conceive, much less master with our myopic, rational minds.

To these cosmos, the Grand Canyon is a microscopic crevice in a grain of sand.

Contemplating these things, I feel what a little thing I truly am, how truly vulnerable. Crawling back into bed, some twenty minutes later, I hear the surprising sound of hikers on the Kaibob trail, laughing as they make their way through the canyon in the dead of night.

I find them deeply comforting.


South Rim viewed from North Kaibob Trail

A third lazy day to focus on writing – I’ve carried my laptop and manuscripts all the way to the bottom. The cabin is too cramped for proper writing, but shady picnic tables and the bustling canteen do nicely. Eventually the temperatures climb towards 120 degrees and there is nothing to do but nothing. I’ve produced an entire chapter on the Canyon floor, and I’m quite pleased with it. If only I didn’t have to go back.

Wandering the banks of the Colorado in the worst of the heat, still the icy waters are too painful for more than a few minutes wading. Swimming is forbidden in the Colorado. It is cold, fast, and too often deadly.

But I don’t want to leave it.


Crazy as it sounds, I am actually excited to be on the Bright Angel Trail by 5 AM. Under any other circumstances, getting up before daylight would feel like a minor form of torture. But after days of early waking in a hiking culture that relishes rising before the dawn, it feels perfectly normal –moreso, it feels deeply right.  When my alarm goes off at 4:40 AM, I practically leap out of bed with joy.

Opening the cabin door, I have the impression that all of Phantom Ranch is already awake, as if “normal” hours of sleeping and waking are a mere arbitrary cultural construct. Bless their hearts, the staff has coffee out for the early ascenders, long before the sun rises.


The inner gorge at dawn.

As on the night before the descent, I haven’t sleep as well as I would have liked. Body and psyche were bracing themselves, it seems, for some great ordeal. It was just luck, having no sun on the descent, they seemed to agree. This will be an awful ordeal of endless climbing in overbearing heat, they are convinced. Part of this fear is no doubt due to having spent far too much time reading Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, but I also suspect that somewhere within me lurks a fat, out of shape thirteen-year-old with low self-esteem. He cannot imagine that climbing out of the Grand Canyon might actually be a good experience.

But it doesn’t mater that I haven’t slept – I seem to be thriving on the energy of the Canyon itself, determined to show that thirteen-year old exactly who he has become. 10 Miles and a 4,380 foot climb await.


Pre-dawn mule deer at Bright Angel Campground

Passing a herd of grazing mule deer in Bright Angel Campground, I note the temperature is already 73 degrees, and cross the Colorado at 5:23 AM. The first few miles of Bright Angel Trail along the river are disappointingly drab – the inner gorge is so narrow and deep that along much of the River, there isn’t much to see. But soon enough the climb begins, and with it, the Canyon reveals its manifold faces once more.


By the time I reach Indian Garden Campground, a little after 7 AM, the beauty of the place takes my breath away. Indian Garden in particular, a verdant stream thick with trees, offers the marvelous contrast of emerald green against the pinks and orange tones of the towering cliffs.

My heart sings with the glorious land unfolding in three dimensions, and my inner thirteen-year-old is delighted at the rapid progress.   Even with a 25 minute rest at Indian Garden, I reach the Three-Mile Resthouse by 8:17 AM – just three miles from the South Rim!   Really, though, this is precisely where the true challenge begins, because those three miles include a relentless 3000 foot ascent to the lip of the rim. I’ve been told that this final stretch is the real monster, a monotonous climb without shade. And yet with such an early start, pools of shade remained in ample pockets during the final hour of the climb. Amazing that in the end, that urban hike through Pasadena five days ago was a far greater strain on my body than this magnificent ascent.

And then suddenly it’s over.


Indian Garden and the inner gorge seen from the Bright Angel Trailhead.

It is a heart sinking realization that I’ve just reached the end. The vector of forward and upward motion abruptly merges with the trickle of tourists trafficking the South Rim on this warm Sunday morning. My pride at completing the ascent in under five hours is abruptly replaced by deep sadness that the journey is finished.   I had touched raw life down there, tapped into a simplicity somehow not at odds with the epic spirit of the place. I’m a man of many words, but I can’t quite pin down in language what made this experience so numinous; what’s more, I don’t want to.

That’s the piece I keep for myself.

Sitting on the south rim for a long time, looking out into the vast expanse from which I emerged, watching birds dance on thermal currents. The Canyon’s twists and turns, peaks and vales, present themselves pregnant with new meaning; they are places that my body knows, though I’ve only inhabited their smallest fractions. As I was inside the canyon, a part of it, so now I carry the canyon as a part of me.

I look out across the chasm and glimpse it for the first time.

(Digital film of the journey to follow)

Can Belief in the Supernatural Heal?

I recently had a very good conversation with a leader from the local atheist movement.  He told me that a primary concern of his tribe is to expose and prevent the harm that comes about from belief in the ‘supernatural.’  He regaled a story of a married couple at the emergency room who refused to allow their dying child to have a blood transfusion, because it interfered with their religious beliefs.  The child was saved only because the physician on duty invoked the law to make the transfusion take place.  This is a useful example – it is an instance of faith, religion, and spirituality taken to a dangerous extreme, and how those extremes may harm innocents who have not chosen such extremism for themselves.

There is a shadow here that we must contend with:  in its darkest aspects, religion becomes dogmatic, legalistic, ideological; faith becomes an excuse to abandon ethics, and spirituality can be dissociative and downright delusional.  Every organization, philosophical system, lifestyle, group, and individual has a shadow, and it is worthy work indeed to bring it to light, and guard against its mischief.

So I’ll be the first to admit that belief in the ‘supernatural’ has a shadow, and that countless lives have been damaged and destroyed as the result.

But, my friends, what about the light?

One of the foundational courses in my Somatic Psychology PhD program is a course on the healing traditions of ancient Greece.  We are reading not only the original Hippocratic writings, which detail the sloppy beginnings of Western medicine – we are also looking in detail at the healing that took place at the temples of physician-god Asklepios.   For centuries, the sickest of the sick, those whom the physicians could not help, took pilgrimages to these temples, to seek direct healing from Asklepios himself.  Once arrived, they would go through ritual purification, and then descend into the abaton, an underground sacred chamber, and await a healing dream from the Divine Physician.

Although any healing was understood to come at the discretion of Asklepios, and never guaranteed, the surviving accounts of miracle cures at these temples are too numerous to dismiss out of hand.  At a time when belief in the mythic gods was waning and rationality was on the rise, Asklepios remained widely beloved.  Indeed, as our understanding of neuroscience slowly blossoms in the 21st century, many scholars are now considering whether the dream healing that took place in the ancient Asklepieia might not best be understood as the earliest working model for integrative medicine.

In deference to the skeptics, let us evaluate the temple medicine in terms of what we now know about human health:  first, exercise, diet, and stress reduction were prominent aspects of temple medicine, and modern medical research increasingly corroborates how essential these factors are to good health.  But more important, let us consider the psychological aspects of this cure: it represented a retreat from the mundane world into psychologically sacred space, it represented a culturally acceptable healing method, and it operated through accessing the deepest levels of the personality – an encounter with the unconscious mind that invites a direct imaginal experience of a divine, healing presence.

The words “psychosomatic” and “placebo” have been unfortunately somewhat dragged through the mud in previous decades – we often take these words to connote imagined illness, false cures, and hypochondria.  But on the frontiers of neuroscience and integrative medicine, these concepts have transformed into a cornucopia of information about where healing comes from – how the mind can be harnessed to heal the body, and the body harnessed to heal the mind.  There is something deep within the mind-body connection – a place we have not learned to access consciously, where powerful healing can take place.  With this in mind, we can use models from somatic psychology and placebo research to explain the miracle cures at the temples, and still recognize those cures as legitimate medicine.  After all, what could be more real to an individual than being given another 20 years of life, when all the doctors of his age have given him up for dead?

It’s important to note that during the time of Asklepios, there was almost none of our modern contention that somehow science and spirituality should be at odds.  Those early greek physicians and the temple healers of Asklepios (called therapuetes, from which we derive our modern word therapist) were allies in the art of healing!  What the doctors could not cure, they sent to the priests.  In fact, the original Hippocratic Oath is sworn in part to Asklepios, who represented to these early doctors the pinnacle of medical practice.

Now, I’ll be honest:  I’m not ruling out some sort of ‘supernatural’ phenomena at work in the temples of Asklepios.  My personal understanding of the word ‘supernatural’ is that it references anything that is outside of our understanding of ‘nature.”  One piece of data clearly evidenced by the history of science is that science itself is always revising itself with better information, better theories, whole new paradigms for understanding the universe (one brief example: according to science, bisexual attraction didn’t exist in human males prior to last year when someone at Northwestern University finally devised a study that could measure it – tell that to bisexual men! – one of thousands of examples of the dangers inherent in treating science as gospel!).  Thus, the word ‘nature’ is best apprehended as something that changes its meaning over time.  Our understanding of ‘nature’ 200 years ago is radically different from what it is today, and we have every reason to believe that in another 200 years our understanding of ‘nature’ will change even more dramatically.  So in speaking of the existence of the ‘supernatural’ I am merely acknowledging that human knowledge is limited, that there are things outside of it, beyond our understanding, things that don’t fit inside our language now, and might not fit for hundreds or even thousands of years to come.  I see this as a matter of common sense.  Science must remain extremely conservative to maintain its integrity, but common sense, I think, must remain firmly moderate if it is to be of any use at all.

In the meantime, let us leave speculation aside, and look at the psychological, and yes, somatic benefits that supernatural belief may engender.   For this is not a tale of sick people learning how to “think positive” and miraculously cure themselves in the comfort of their own homes, during their spare time, by simply wishing it so.  The story of the Asklepieia represents an intensive journey of psychological transformation.  These terribly sick and impaired individuals of yore took a pilgrimage across vast distances, in an era without motor engines, to surrender themselves before a psychologically sacred image, an image that was culturally reinforced as a divine source of healing, and on this foundation they were invited to engage directly and deeply with the most primal, and perhaps most powerful, forces of their own unconscious minds – they met Asklepios in the realm of dreams.

My point in rendering this dramatic portrait is that for the asklepieian model to work, belief in the ‘supernatural’ is an essential factor in affecting a cure.  This goes deeper than conscious belief and cognitive processing – this is healing that engages the core of the psyche.  One must believe and believe deeply, believing in the bones, in the nervous system, in the cells themselves, or the cure would surely fail.

Asklepios may be lost to us, but the potential for this deep healing is not.  And indeed, those who have studied these matters scientifically have had to admit an astonishing truth – that deeply held beliefs are a very real factor in health.  Harold Koenig of Duke University has found in large epidemiological studies that religious observance is associated with less medical illness and lower rates of hospital admission.  Frontier science is largely corroborating that, whether objectively true or false, beliefs, spiritual practices, and alternative healing methods seem to have a tangible, measurable impact on health outcomes.  This is one of the primary reasons that integrative medicine has exploded in the united states – and with great results.

Given this evidence, are we not bound to question the ethics of not only religious extremism that denies western medicine – but also materialist extremism which attempts to eradicate all belief in the supernatural?  If holding a space for the divine has even a small chance of effecting psychological and physiological healing and transformation, are we not doing violence to humanity by attacking such beliefs ubiquitously?  Nor can we expect the same degree of healing and transformation once we have disemboweled these beliefs by insisting they are a purely imaginary affair  (i.e. it’s all in your head) – one did not go to the Asklepieia to think about pleasant concepts and dialog with inner figures – one went to have a direct encounter with the living God!  As we move deeply into the mysterious contents of the subjective psyche, we by nature come into a realm that science cannot exactly measure, and scientific language can only partially describe.  This is a realm of uncertainties – that life should be uncertain is a difficult truth that we all must face at some point in our lives – but in uncertainty also lies extraordinary potentials, to which our rote ideological certainties may blind us.

I began by acknowledging the shadows of supernatural beliefs, and it is only fair to point out that the shadows of conventional medicine are also considerable.  According to Barbara Starfield, MD, writing on data gathered by the American Medical Association, over 225,000 deaths  every year are due to iatrogenic causes –i.e. deaths caused by medical treatment.  By this account, medical treatment is arguably the third leading cause of death in America, and others have placed that number much higher.  These figures are truly shocking!  But in contemplating the shadow of the medical establishment, let us here too not forget the light: how many dear loved ones have been saved by traditional medical intervention?

As always, my plea is for balance and integration.  I do not mean to endorse spiritual healing over Western Medicine, but rather to suggest that the two must find a way to coexist.  If we are going to heal ourselves, not just as individuals but as a species and as a planet, we owe it to ourselves – and each other – to accept all the help we can get.

*For more information on Asklepios, frontier science of the placebo effect, the role of belief in health and the role of spiritual healing in integrative medicine, I recommend the wonderful book Imagination and Medicine: The Future of Healing in an Age of Neuroscience, a collection of  scholarly & scientific papers presented at the conference of the same name, edited by Stephen Aisenstat and Robert Bosnak.