Swimming with Elephants: My Unexpected Pilgrimage from Physician to Healer

Swimming with Elephants: My Unexpected Pilgrimage from Physician to Healer

by Sarah Bamford Seidelmann


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After two decades in the study and practice of medicine, Sarah Seidelmann took a three month sabbatical to search for a way to feel good again. Having witnessed human suffering early in her career and within her own family, she longed for a way to address more than just the physical needs of her patients and to live in a lighter, more conscious way.

Swimming with Elephants tells the eccentric, sometimes poignant, and occasionally hilarious experience of a working mother undergoing a bewildering vocational shift from physician to shamanic healer. During that tumultuous period of answering her call, Sarah met an elephant who would become an important spirit companion on her journey, had bones thrown for her by a shaman in South Africa, and traveled to India for an ancient Hindu pilgrimage, where she received the blessing she had been longing for. Ultimately, she discovered an entirely different way of healing, one that she had always aspired to, and that enabled her to help those who are suffering.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573247016
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 10/01/2017
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Sarah Bamford Seidelmann is a fourth-generation physician turned shamanic healer and life coach, who deeply enjoys shenanigans. She's a frequent guest blogger at Maria Shriver's site for Architects of Change and has led sold-out retreats combining surfing and shamanism in Hawaii and a sacred pachydermal pilgrimage to Thailand. She loves to help others find their own "feel good" so they can live courageously and enthusiastically. Visit Sarah at followyourfeelgood.com.

Read an Excerpt


Spirit of the Bear

"You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you," said the Lion.

C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

The persistent thrum of the drum urges me forward. In my mind's eye, I go to a canyon in Utah that is walled by soaring cliffs. The ground is dry and covered in low grasses and herbaceous plants. The soft morning air smells of pungent sage. I decide to travel down a gravel-floored tunnel from a cave I conjure up from memory. My bare feet connect with the cool stone tunnel floor. The walls are damp and covered with droplets of water as I feel along them with my hands on the way down, down, down.

As I step out of the tunnel onto soft sand and enter the Lower World, I see a red-winged blackbird — the kind that has surrounded me in the marsh lately. Per-co-cheee! When I ask her silently if she is the animal who can help me, she indicates "no" with a slight head movement but invites me to follow her. She brings me to a bear. I feel her — her large claws and leathery pads. She allows me to place my hands over her broad, upturned paws, and I can sense her immense feminine strength. Then she wraps her arms around me.

In her embrace, I ask this bear: "Why are you here? How are you here to help me?" She takes me into her cave and soothes me, rubs my back, and tells me: "All will be well on this new journey." I feel loved by the divine kind of mother you can only conjure up in dreams, one who loves you for exactly who you are, no matter what. She turns and shows me an image of a huge rhinoceros (on a flip chart, strangely enough) and says: "You're in the process of becoming more like the rhino — thick-skinned and peaceful."

Strangely, I believe in this mother bear. I feel as if my experience with her, on some level, is more legitimate than any experience I've ever had in "real life." As the drumming comes to a close, I return from my first visit to the Lower World feeling calmer and more peaceful. And I find that I also believe a bit more in myself.

I recall a time, decades ago, when I was in college, and my dad and I camped in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. In the fall, the two of us backpacked on the Border Route trail. At night, we scarfed up the freeze-dried food we'd packed, famished after hauling our gear eight or nine miles along the hilly trails. After dinner, we strung our packs up high in the trees for safekeeping and built a fire for warmth against those cold autumn nights.

That year, there had been some alarming and unusual bear attacks in the area and I remember wishing that we had brought a can of mace or something. How was I going to defend myself or my dad if a deranged bear attacked? One night, we saw what we called the "spirit of the bear" — a little glowing face in the embers of the campfire. It was subtle and flickered in and out. A nose, dark ears, and two glowering eyes.

Dad chuckled and reminded me about the Virgin of Suyapa, the patroness of Honduras, a deity revered for her healing abilities, who had first revealed herself to only a few individuals. "Maybe when they first recognized the Suyapa, it was a bit like our little bear here in the campfire," he said, smiling. The moment suddenly felt sacred, as if we had seen a vision.

Until that moment, I had forgotten about Suyapa, a deity to whom, at thirteen, I had felt shyly drawn. While I was working on a medical mission with my dad in Honduras, I bought a tiny gold pendant in her image for myself with money I had saved up from babysitting. Despite years of attending an Episcopal church, Suyapa felt holy to me in a way that Jesus had yet to do.

The campfire spirit wasn't the only bear that had appeared in my life, however. I suddenly remembered that I'd been known as "Sarah Bear" throughout high school, because, for a year, I had played the bear mascot for our sports teams. And while out jogging in my neighborhood just last year, I had come across a mother bear and two cubs. Were these merely coincidences? Was I simply making up this connection? Somehow it felt like more than that. A bear? Yes. In fact, she had been with me all along.

My first visit to the Lower World brought my connection to Mother Bear back into my life. This place, recognized by many shamanic cultures as an earthly realm filled with loving and compassionate spirits, is typically accessed through a tunnel in the ground. In fact, there are three "worlds" recognized by shamans all over the earth. The Upper and Lower Worlds are places where you can seek loving and compassionate spirits. The spirits in the Upper World tend to be in human form, while those in the Lower World tend to be in animal form. The Middle World, which includes the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars — essentially the Universe — holds a mixed bag of spirits, some of whom are suffering, not loving and compassionate. This is not a place you normally go to discover a spirit guide.

The wise men and women known as shamans who purposely journey to communicate with the spirits truly fascinated me. These unique individuals can act as conduits for the spirits, allowing healing and the transmission of information to help themselves and their communities. They can speak with the leaping leopard, the mouse, the trees; they collaborate with each spirit. I found that I was hungry for the kind of knowledge these shamans seemed to possess and eager to bring their wisdom into my life. I was ready to set out on this path — ready to enter the unknown. How had my life brought me to this realization? Like all important journeys, it can only be understood backwards.


Hitched and Launched

Even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

My first day at medical school, I pointed out Mark to my parents in our class photo book. He was six feet four inches tall — a good eight inches taller than I was — reserved and self-possessed, with large and kind blue eyes. I tried to make eye contact with him in the student lounge and in the hallway, but he was tough to reach. This wasn't going to be easy. I joined intramural soccer to stalk him, even though I'd never played the game in my life. At our first practice, I casually asked around — "Where's Seidelmann?" — and was told that he'd hurt his ankle playing volleyball and was out for the season.

I quit soccer on the spot, found Mark in the gym nearby, introduced myself, and helped him hobble to his car. He never really had a chance.

Weeks later, we had an awkward, yet strangely satisfactory, exchange at a Halloween party — I was Peter Pan in green tights; Mark was a Kabuki warrior in a silk robe and white face paint. Invisible sparks flew as we slowly tossed a Nerf ball back and forth while speaking of innocuous things like our shared love of the British New Wave band Modern English. A few days later, he called and asked me out.

He took me to a bar that was filled with tattooed bikers sporting bandanas and chains. We — a khaki- and Shetland sweater–sporting duo — definitely did not belong. The bikers soon returned to pounding their pitchers of beer, perhaps satisfied that we weren't missionaries. Mark's choice of venue startled me, because I'd heard from a friend that Mark's father was a Lutheran pastor. But I enjoyed being surprised like that. When I asked why he'd chosen a biker bar, he shrugged and offered: "The beer is cheap."

Five dates later — I almost gave up — we hadn't even kissed. On our sixth date, over a stir-fry Mark had expertly fixed in his apartment, we spoke of many serious things. Then he abruptly lunged at me. We began kissing and didn't stop, quickly falling from our chairs to the floor and rolling around until we eventually knocked the record player off the shelf. Later, he told me: "I had to do something! You wouldn't stop talking about Gorbachev and Gandhi."

There were a few hiccups during our courtship. Mark was really worried that, when he introduced me to his parents, my propensity for salty language would put them off. I wasn't known for my verbal restraint. All the way down to Minneapolis, he admonished me to avoid even the words "God" or "damn." I restrained myself as best I could and somehow made it through the weekend. His parents were lovely. Eighteen months later, we were married.

Newly married zeal prompted me to share with Mark my fantastic dream: Now we can go to India! After all, we were free — no kids or real jobs yet. I was only twenty-four. He was twenty-six. A chunk of time off between medical school and residency seemed a perfect opportunity to take the epic journey to India I'd always imagined. Think of it — the birthplace of Gandhi!

"We'll go together!" I exclaimed, after presenting my vision of India to my beloved in our freeway-hugging apartment, frugally adorned with unfinished pine Adirondack chairs. Mark looked at me, bewildered, and said: "What? I have no interest in going to India. Why would you want to go there?"

We'd just returned from our honeymoon, which preceded our clinical rotations as medical students in Minneapolis. I was simultaneously excited about the life we were building together and apprehensive about what lay ahead. I thought India would give me something to look forward to. India was the farthest place I could imagine from where I stood as a freshly minted wife and soon-to-be MD I longed to explore places that were foreign in every way before settling down to a "normal" life. Maybe it was just a longing to be free again — unfettered, even if just for a little while — after the rigors of medical school.

I wasn't yet aware that India was calling to me from a more subtle place — beyond the predictable chicken josh, colorful saris, and winking mirrors. Watching the film Gandhi with a few close friends in high school had struck a deep chord in us. We had dubbed ourselves the "Gandhettes" as a sort of loose show of affiliation with this amazing man and his mission. A part of me wanted never to forget this great leader, his warm smile, and the equanimity that fairly beamed out of him despite all the violence and suffering he saw and endured.

Because of this, I was blindsided and baffled by Mark's response. Who wouldn't want to go to India? Surely this wasn't the adventurous guy I'd married a few weeks before, the man with whom I was to live out my decades in harmony. Mark was still talking, but I had tuned him out, until he said: "It seems odd that you'd actually enjoy a place like India," implying that extreme poverty, crowds, and general disorder didn't seem compatible with who I was. I was crushed. Didn't he know by now that I loved mayhem of all sorts?

In the months that followed, I began to wonder if we had made a huge mistake. Maybe we had rushed into marriage too quickly. In fact, that first year of marriage proved a most difficult year for us.

"This red pepper looks awesome for dinner tonight," I said, tossing it into the cart.

"Did you see the price? I don't think so," Mark said, lifting it out and putting it back on the pile. "We can just do a green pepper — they're half the price."

I wasn't used to conferring over vegetable purchases. In retrospect, I realized that, during our courtship, I had often footed the bill for things Mark didn't deem necessary — new CDs, red peppers, and take-out pizza. After a year of marriage, however, we seemed to pass some significant milestone, and it got a bit easier.


Realization and Refusal

For the hero who refuses the call to adventure, all he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

A few months after our honeymoon, I found myself on the hospital ward with Dean, a second-year resident in internal medicine. I was a third-year medical student, and this particular hospital rotation was pushing me to my limits intellectually, physically, and spiritually.

In order to finish rounds on my patients before Dean arrived, I left our apartment at 4:30 in the morning, arriving in the Intensive Care Unit around 5:00. I did a physical exam on our first patient and then sat at the desk poring over the chart, which was three inches thick, trying to decipher the cryptic notes left by specialists, following up on labs and culture results, noting all recorded vital signs, and making sure that I hadn't missed anything before I wrote up my assessment and plan, which would be reviewed by my resident and the attending physician.

But these routine aspects of medicine weren't what was most difficult for me. What stopped me in my tracks was something for which I'd received no formal training.

One morning, I was faced with a patient — a recently divorced twenty-nine-year-old mother of three — who was on an experimental bone-marrow transplant protocol for Stage IV breast cancer. We'd flooded her body with incredibly toxic chemotherapy to obliterate her tumor, but the destruction was nonselective. For the treatment to succeed, her native bone-marrow elements had to regenerate in order for her to survive. But her platelets (the tiny cell fragments that help blood to clot) had dropped to almost nil and were refusing to recover.

Dean and I stood by her bed and stared at her frail frame covered in heavy blankets. We were fairly close as we spoke with her, maybe three feet away, but I felt as if we might just as well have been talking to her from behind a thick glass wall. "Your platelets remain low," Dean said. "But we're hoping to get a bigger bump with today's transfusion." I had no words, so I just smiled weakly. I felt so separate, as if I couldn't really touch the problems she was facing. Or was it that she was feeling the distance that separated us? Had she already given up?

Despite the thousands of memorized medical facts and concepts that swam through my brain, the skills of my admirable resident, and the collective wisdom of modern medicine, it seemed to me that we were missing the point. She could very well be dying. How could we help her with that?

This patient haunted me all the way home that night, and I began to question everything, including what I was doing and what modern medicine dictated we do. I found myself wondering what it would be like if it were my job to talk with this patient about death. What would I say to her?

I was reassured by the way Dean had spoken to her in a soft, measured voice. I loved him for that. He had a quiet stillness. His bustling-physician self seemed to recede, and he was able to line up with thepatient perfectly, the way a lake merges with its shore. Though we didn't talk about it, I could feel that he sensed a need to treat her with all the tenderness he could muster. I wanted to ask him what he was feeling about her, but we were so busy that the time never came.

Days later, while Dean and I were sprinting toward a new consultation through an echo-filled stairwell that reeked of linoleum and fresh paint, we received a voice page from the ward. Our frail patient had bled to death early that morning. Though her recovery had been very uncertain, it still caught us off guard. We paused for a moment, sitting down on the rubbery stairs, and allowed our tears to come. For this, I was grateful. I later learned that this was rare. Most rotations I would do, and most residents, didn't allow you to stop for a moment of humanity like this.


Excerpted from "Swimming with Elephants"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Sarah Bamford Seidelmann.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Introduction 1

Part 1 Angry Bears

Chapter 1 Spirit of the Bear 5

Chapter 2 Hitched and Launched 9

Chapter 3 Realization and Refusal 13

Chapter 4 Lightening the Load 19

Chapter 5 The Unraveling Begins 23

Chapter 6 Breathing Lessons 31

Chapter 7 Sick Leave 37

Chapter 8 Feeding the Bears 43

Chapter 9 Needle in a Haystack 49

Chapter 10 Radical Sabbatical 53

Chapter 11 Slam-Dunk Diagnosis 61

Part 2 Heeding the Call

Chapter 12 Throwing Bones 69

Chapter 13 Ecstatic Encounters 83

Chapter 14 Doin' the Mamba 89

Chapter 15 Alice Arrives 97

Chapter 16 Hugging Horses 103

Chapter 17 The Healing Stones 109

Chapter 18 Family Healing 115

Chapter 19 Everything Is Alive 123

Chapter 20 Soul Retrieval 127

Chapter 21 Sunglasses and Brass Knuckles 131

Chapter 22 Emergency Sabbatical 139

Chapter 23 India Calling 149

Chapter 24 Laid by the Universe 157

Chapter 25 Saint Teresa 165

Chapter 26 Into the Shadows 173

Chapter 27 Hellbent on Honey 179

Part 3 India

Chapter 28 Agra 185

Chapter 29 Mela-Mobile 193

Chapter 30 Light Karmic Rinse 203

Chapter 31 Troubled 213

Chapter 32 Kumbh Mela Redux 221

Chapter 33 The River 227

Chapter 34 The Grove and the Jungle 235

Chapter 35 Temples in the Rain 247

Part 4 Return Home

Chapter 36 The Way Back 259

Chapter 37 Mollie 267

Chapter 38 Back to the River 277

Chapter 39 Into the Woods-Then Home 281

Acknowledgments 287

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