I spoke with Jamie Seraphina Capranos, a friend and colleague in August of 2012 about the concept of embodiment in medicine. She practices as a homeopathic physician and a midwife on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia and travels throughout Canada and the US teaching herbalism courses to other practitioners.
GRS: Where do you personally see a hunger for the sacred the most?
JSC: I see that hunger in my medical practice. I work full time as a homeopath and midwife and a large percentage of my patients are between the ages of 45 to 65 years old. Patients come in because they are having a crisis. Something about their physicality gets them in the door and asking for help, but we spend most of our time dealing with what you and I might call their underlying soul crisis. Many people come to Salt Spring Island to escape the grind of the city and live in a slower and more natural environment. At their stage in life, they have already given a lot to the world and after all that they have given, they may be having a kind of existential crisis. They don’t have the exact language for it, but they seem to be wanting something more than work and family life. We often discover in our work together that they are craving an experience of the sacred.
I marvel at how few of us are taught this in all the places we are educated about the world: our families, schools, the media—how to bring some semblance of the sacred to our lives. I try to help people reconnect with their bodies. They are coming in with diagnoses of chronic pain or fibromyalgia for example, but they have no idea what is wrong. They are desperate for the symptoms to go away. Meanwhile, they are drinking twelve cups of coffee everyday, they are hooked to their laptops and when they take a break at all, they are eating white bread with margarine and mountains of sugar. They often do not understand the connection that is broken.
GRS: Where do you start?
JSC: I remind them that we are nature, our bodies are natural. In Chinese medicine, our physical functions change with the seasons. Our cardiovascular system alters depending on where the sun is in the sky, our bodies’ needs change with the seasons. When I begin by just discussing processes that all humans share and our experience of a cycle of seasons, I’m able to enter the sacred with them without getting too “woo-woo”. No one has to join a church or a spiritual group to bring back the rhythm of the life force that animates all beings. Everyone can relate to that rhythm; we all have a heart beat.
I also see the hunger for the sacred in the school system around here. Whether it is young children or university students, people are subjected to a very mechanistic way of teaching. There is a real disregard for individual or even daily rhythms of people’s bodies. Kids with ADHD or kids who are very empathic need something different than what the school system is providing. We need more education around different constitutions of bodies and how that applies to the way that we learn best, incorporate it into what we already know about differences in learning styles. What if we could understand ourselves as natural beings, and really try to connect to that pulse of nature in our decisions about learning? Learning itself could become a sacred practice, not a mechanistic task.
GRS: How did the concept of embodiment come to be a vital part of your life/work? Why is it of value to you?
JSC: I was raised by a mother who was a healer. From an early age, if we were ill, we went outside to heal in the sunshine, get fresh air. We got to run around with bare feet on the earth in the summertime, we built seasonal altars; this was a normal part of life. My grandparents were also herbalists so I grew up knowing that plants could heal our bodies when we became sick. I didn’t realize how vital this was for me until I got older and engaged more with the wider world to see how much separation exists between humans and nature.
I was lucky to have gone through the Waldorf school system for my education which helped me develop a trust in myself. Now, I see kids in that same school system playing outside with nature spirits, who they feel are their friends, developing confidence in their own opinions, in their own experience of the natural world. No one is telling them nature spirits don’t exist, they will decide for themselves what is real about their relationship with the living earth as they get older.
GRS: Indigenous peoples all over the world would believe that to say that to believe anything other than that the earth was alive was crazy.
JSC: Yes, and they would be right. Having an embodied practice must include a physical component and a way to connect to what is natural for human beings living on a planet that is also alive. The separation between mind and body is only 200 years old. There was a time when everyone had basic access to medical information. It is profound for me as a practitioner to be with people who do not trust their bodies and need someone other than themselves to validate their experience. Sometimes people say, “When I eat dairy products, I get diarrhea. Should I stop eating dairy?” I see people who are over forty years old and do not know where their liver is or what their lymphatic system does. These are our bodies, it would be amazing if they were a little more familiar to us.
As I help to educate people about anatomy, and simple health practices, their confidence and personal responsibility for their own bodies increases dramatically. This kind of basic education about human bodies provided for all people could take a tremendous financial burden off of our health care systems. The internet is doing some of this, but it helps to have another human to ask questions that are meaningful to you personally, to have someone with whom to interact.
As a teen, I sustained an injury to my spine that a whole lot of doctors declared untreatable and told me I would have a life of chronic pain. My mother took me to every kind of healer you can imagine but nothing worked to “cure” the pain. I began to take tai chi and hatha yoga classes even though at the time, it was painful to move. Something about those practices helped me to trust the strength of my own body and increase my own power, flexibility and stability even while managing pain. It turns out that I needed to hear that I was strong from someone outside my family systems. In yoga classes, I was encouraged by my teachers to breathe into my own strength, the vital life force beyond pain. During one of my classes, I had an intuitive flash that whispered to me that I could heal myself, it was possible to relieve my own pain.
Through my studies of homeopathy, I was able to do this. Even before I went to homeopathy school, my mom helped me find the books about health and healing, we had long discussions together about what the pain could be telling me, teaching me. I really wanted to get the message! I realized during this time that our thoughts actually affect our physical health. I began to consider what could happen if I began to weed the unruly garden of my mind. I started a mindfulness practice which was life changing. I changed my mind, literally. With all of these things, my pain relief grew and I was able to return to more and more function. I was also happier, calmer, and much more embodied than I ever had been before my injury.
GRS: What do you find to be the most interesting part of Homeopathy?
Homeopathy is the medical art of making sense of seemingly disparate symptoms. The things that seem insignificant to the patient are often vital information for the practitioners. It trains us to attend to details, listen to the body in a different way. Patients begin to pay attention over time that maybe digestion is connected to insomnia. This creates a picture we can see and a pattern we can track. Nothing is random, there is an inherent organization in the way the body creates illness, disorganizes tissue, why it produces a tumor at the exact site where it does. This is a very different perspective than the one we generally believe about the body!
As I journey in my own practice, there is a sense that nothing is accidental and a respect for the body’s communication develops. With the increase of this appreciation, there is a desire to know the body more deeply, to know the life force more intimately. It is quite simply the appreciation of the body’s wisdom and the admiration of its intricacies.
GRS: Why is embodiment or this concept you present of finding a better or more intimate relationship with our bodies important to our collective health?
JSC: Embodiment is life promoting on any scale, personal or global. Cultivating a relationship with the life force within us is the ultimate way to honor respect and say yes to life, to live in the most vital way possible. Simply put, it fosters joy. We want this. When I think about it, I feel my cells smiling. It hasn’t been scientifically proven yet, but I think it is on its way, we are studying happiness in more deliberate ways now. Creating a sense of embodiment and practicing it regularly is one of the greatest ways to combat anxiety and depression. As patients foster and develop a relationship with their own body and their own spirituality, their depression ameliorates. We need people on this earth who feel more alive, this would inevitably lead to a more peaceful, generous, and loving society.
GRS: What are the side effects of a world where people don’t value embodiment? What do you see as the major barriers to including these practices in the world we live in?
JSC: Humans are a microcosm; I am an expression of nature. In my medical practice, I see people harming themselves unconsciously through abuse of food, substances, risky situations. They aren’t even aware of causing themselves or other beings harm; this happens when we are disconnected. This harm extends to the earth, the way people poison their lawns with pesticides that end up in their neighbors’ vegetable beds, the way people leave trucks running in parking lot, or clear cut forests that provide habitat for animals, or get oil from the tar sands in northern Alberta. This is destruction but not for any kind of greater good, we are not destroying for a reason. We are living in anti-life, it is an unconscious anti-life spell, and it is apparent on a large scale. These are all side effects of disembodiment.
One barrier to a practice of being present in our bodies is accessibility for people to whom this whole idea might be foreign. I work with folks that you and I might call very mainstream. If I get too abstract in the things I’m talking about, people can glaze over or look at me like I am crazy. As a more mature practitioner, I have learned that inaccessible language and abstract concepts are a barrier. We have to give people a concrete reason to be here now, explain why it is good in our pop-a-pill culture to listen to their bodies. As healers, we have to clarify exactly how being embodied will benefit you and make you feel good.
We are all emotional beings; even human beings who consider themselves very rational are constantly acting from an emotional place. People don’t want to be given abstract rewards , no one can truly stay motivated towards living naturally because it brings something abstract like world peace. People want to hear what will make them feel good, sleep better, ease their constipation, and decrease their anxiety. We are interested in happiness.
GRS: It is a very different frame to consider that perhaps we as a species or a culture are trying to move to a place of ease, that is not always just self serving.
JSC- Humans seek pleasure, sometimes by whatever means necessary! As a healer, I use that understanding as a tool. I remember working with a patient who was an investment banker who didn’t know what I meant by the question, what do you do for extracurricular fun? He didn’t have an answer. In these healing processes, we work on physical issues but we also work on the whole person. In this particular situation, part of my job as his practitioner was to ask him to find activities that he experiences as fun in the present moment and that inquiry has the potential to bring him home to his body. We have to learn how to literally speak to someone in their language, find a way into their whole psyche, find out what they long for. That is what actually heals us.
GRS: What do you think would change in the world if placing a high value on embodiment became integrated in our culture or practices to cultivate embodiment became available within our systems of medicine?
JSC: I think that one piece of this solution is that it would take millions of dollars off our health care and welfare systems. This kind of treatment lasts longer, is more preventative and leaves patients happier. Helping someone find their own form of embodiment is synonymous to helping someone tune in deeper to their purpose, not in a lofty sense, in a very practical way. I have had patients who were gardeners and as they are deepening their embodiment practice, they decide hey, wait, I actually want to grow wildflowers, not garlic; through embodiment and the beginnings of self awareness, people come into contact with their bliss. It can be practical, subtle and profound. This is true not just in the example of the overworked doctor who drops out and becomes a violinist because that was her true bliss, but even in less dramatic changes, we can always see the benefit of people being able to tune in to themselves. Then they are able to notice: I want to turn my computer off at 6p because when I don’t, it keeps me up all night. I think that folks having an internal silent check in with themselves could be amazing. We have so little time, we make so little time to just see what is going on inside ourselves. I would like to think we would see less violence, less pollution if people were willing to make the space for a little self awareness.
GRS: What do you think would be altered if medical practitioners included the development of a sacred relationship with the body as an important factor in their recommendations for the treatment of illness?
JSC: I think it would be quite profound. Again, I think fewer drugs would be prescribed because the body wouldn’t be shouting its symptoms in the same way. Our water supply would be incredibly altered if fewer medications were flushed into oceans and streams. Development of a relationship with our bodies would also be much cheaper than the kind of medicine we are currently practicing, suppressing symptoms so we can keep doing what we are doing. The impact of these practices on our personal and familial relationships would be amazing. The 12 year old girl whose mother can get out of bed because she no longer suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome because she is more aware of what happens when she gets overtired or she sees the connection between a gluten sensitivity and her energy levels and changes her diet for a while. We might have people who are happier and feeling more in alignment with their life’s purpose. Humans are relational creatures, not solitary animals. We need each other. As one individual in a relationship becomes healthier and more embodied, it improves all the relationships that person has. People speak to each other more respectfully when they are present and in their bodies.
Ultimately, as romantic as it might sound, the effect of embodiment practices on a large scale becomes a happier nation making life-promoting decisions instead of death-promoting decisions. If medical practitioners could include the development of this kind of plan in all their treatment protocols, it might even inspire the healers themselves to have a more embodied practice. What if healers made time to care for themselves, paid attention to their own bodies? It would be a complete attitudinal shift; I liken it to a shift of axis point that would have a domino effect that we can’t even begin to understand.
GRS: What is your offering to these interesting times in terms of your work? What does the world/what do humans need most right now in order to return to healthy culture?
JSC: I’m offering all the people I work with an opportunity to remember the conversation that is always going on with the mind and the body. We do this in a simple way, through using herbs and homeopathy and counseling, the medicines I use are clearing the obstacles between mind and body, creating a more unified holism.
I also offer the chance for people to appreciate that they are never alone in their despair. It is incredibly hard to break through the solitude because people feel so alone in their health problems, in their loss and suffering. Step one in this breakthrough would be accepting that even in the worst crisis, we are not alone. Most of us go through this disconnection or feeling of abandonment by a higher power at some point in our lives, or even at several points. Humans need most a deep empathy first for self and then for one another. We are united by our pain and also united in this journey of seeking joy even through the pain. We also need to learn to help each other. Returning to healthy culture includes sharing our experiences, ourselves, our ecstasy, our struggle, our wisdom, even with people who are not in our immediate circles.
I always come back to our involvement in the cycles of the seasons, of the natural world around us. We need to see our reflection in nature, not just poetic and abstract but seeing the practical applications that like many animals, we too need more sleep in the winter. As the plants die back, we might need to let go of extra responsibilities in the winter. We are made of the same life force and we can’t ignore it any longer. The first step towards embodiment on a large scale and the kind of changes that would bring is for us to finally see that we are in fact, natural.