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Tom Soloway Pinkson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, ceremonial retreat and vision-fast leader, sacred storyteller, and shaman. For 32 years he worked with terminally ill children at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in California, successfully integrating the wisdom teachings of the Huichol and other medicine teachers into the world of the practicing psychologist. His most recent work includes training in the Hardiness Factor (training for emotional resilience) and A New Vision of Aging (working consciously with the challenges and opportunities of the elder years). The founder of Wakan, a nonprofit organization committed to restoring the sacred in daily life, he lives in northern California.
IDENTITY AND PURPOSE
I asked Dr. William Lamers, who was also on my doctoral committee and knew me quite well, what kind of people he thought I should work with, and his reply shocked me: “People that are dying. They are on a vision quest although they would not articulate it as such. They are seeking a deeper vision for the meaning of their lives as they prepare to face their death.” I was speechless. Bill went on, “You have been taking people out on vision quests for years now. I think you would work very well with the dying.” I knew intuitively that what he was saying was right, but I didn’t feel capable or confident that I was up for meeting the demands that working with the dying would entail. I told him I needed to think about it.
Not long after that, on the July Fourth weekend of 1976, I was driving down a curvy, country road and ran in to a traffic jam. People were standing by their cars trying to see what was going on. I got out and walked the quarter of a mile to where a crowd stood in the middle of the road. I edged in to see what they were looking at. A young man had been in a motorcycle crash. He lay unconscious in the road, his boots knocked off by the force of the impact. One man was holding his head up, another was looking at his chest. I could see immediately that he was losing life-force energy through the bottom of his feet. Someone needs to go up there and block up his feet so he stops losing that energy, I thought, but I was reluctant to act--I looked like a bum, unshaven and dirty from being in the woods. How would people react to this shadylooking character coming up to the fallen cyclist and doing something weird like holding his feet? How would I react if he died while I was holding him?
I thought about the synchronicity of this accident with the fact that I had been seeking guidance on what to do about Bill Lamers’s feedback to me several weeks prior. Bill had also asked me to teach a class with him on death and dying and join with him and a small group of others who had been meeting for several years in preparation for starting the second hospice program in the United States. I was flattered but hesitant there, too. Could I handle being in such intimate contact with dying people? Now I was faced with the possibility of someone dying right in front of me.
I realized that if I didn’t do something about the motorcyclist on the ground, it wouldn’t be done. Let people think whatever they want of me. I walked over to the prostrate figure. The two men looked at me curiously. I gestured to them to go on with the ministrations. Then I bent down and placed my hands against the motorcyclist’s feet. I closed my eyes and imagined my hands were dams, completely closing off the leaks. To my surprise, I felt very calm, and I knew that even if he died while I was there, I was doing just what I needed to be doing. Shortly thereafter, an ambulance arrived. I walked back to my car and continued on my way. Yes to Bill, to the class, and to the hospice work.
Yet, the Mystery wasn’t finished. Back at the retreat I was attending, I did a meditation taught to me by a spiritual teacher in the spring of 1974, a shaman woman who was part Mohawk, part Apache, and part Scottish. It involved raising and lowering the arms while seated on the earth, maintaining synchronized breathing, and building up an intensified energy charge. The final movement releases all the built-up energy into the center of the earth as your forehead touches the ground in an act of surrender. You remain in this position as long as you can, then sit upright and continue meditating, allowing the energy of the earth to enter your body.
After having great success with this meditation previously, I used it whenever I went on quest or whenever I needed guidance on a big decision in my life. Now, back at the quest site after my experience with the injured motorcyclist, I decided to use the meditation to help me integrate the information I had received about work with the dying. As I reached the point where I placed my forehead to the earth, a voice boomed up from the depths, You are supposed to work with people who have cancer! It was so loud I was shocked. I sat up and looked around. No one. I knelt back into the meditation position with my head touching the ground. The voice boomed again. I tried to ignore it. Working with cancer patients wasn’t my plan for my life; I didn’t know anything about the process. I hoped the voice would go away. It didn’t. It only got louder and louder. Finally, I surrendered. “Okay, okay,” I said aloud. “I’ll do it. But you will have to show me what to do because I sure as hell don’t know.”
The voice stopped. I was relieved but mystified. When I got home two days later, Andrea told me someone had called from Los Angeles and wanted me to call them back as soon as I got in. “It sounded urgent,” she said. I dialed the number. A woman answered and I identified myself. A chill went through me when she said, “I hear you work with cancer patients. My brother has a brain tumor and we want to come up and see you.” You sure didn’t waste any time with that one, Great Spirit! I thought to myself in amazement.
Posted January 27, 2011
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