Life lessons in getting rid of despair

Towards the end of a five-year cycle of Shiva the Destroyer, I tumbled back into a tediously familiar pit of despair. This pit was old, a personal archaeology of pain. My pit had forty-plus years of excavation and habitual occupation, imbuing it with the angsty charm of a well-protected, overused hidey-hole.

Circling tear-slicked walls, crawling along floors littered with pages ripped from agonized journals, I grew weary of couch-surfing, of rearranging the furniture, of trying to figure out the last place I’d hidden the exit.

Yes, I was sick and I was in the pit. But I was also sick of the pit.

I was sick of the stale air, the cramped and desolate interior. After one more excruciating go-round, I realized I wasn’t just seeking a way out. I was ready to be done with the pit. Caput. Finito.

I needed help. But who?

MarTan. Find MarTan. The thought came clearly and quietly, piercing through tangled thoughts as I sat immobilized in the front seat of my car, reflecting on a day of consecutive meltdowns.

I had met MarTan, a much-respected tribal healer, through mutual friends from different local tribes. My people knew his people. But when I tried calling my people, no one seemed to know how to contact MarTan directly: they had his brother’s phone number, or suggested I try his niece, or advised me that he was probably out of town, providing counseling at a state prison, or told me they could never get him on the phone.

Not very promising.

Then someone asked, “why don’t you try him at the tribal office?”

I did. By the time I dialed the number, it was 5:05 pm on a Friday afternoon. MarTan picked up on the third ring, deliberately choosing to answer the call, knowing within himself that the caller was in some sort of crisis. In minutes he was arranging to meet me at a city park, beneath a quiet stand of redwood trees.

MarTan is a really big guy. Every part of him is large: his hands, his eyes, his voice, his physique, his presence, his heart. He can be intimidating, especially if you don’t know how devoted he is to helping others.

I had no idea of what to expect. But at that point in time I was beyond intimidation. If my psyche was a basket, the basket had been pummeled and torn apart, its contents spilt onto the ground.

I joked with MarTan about being a basket case, but we both knew I was way beyond that.

At that moment, hunched over the picnic table, I was stuck in ancient pain. Pain triggered, but not caused by, a recent bout of impassioned seduction followed in short order by abandonment by yet another lover.

After settling across from me at the table, MarTan secured a black bandana around his head, placed his healing instruments on the tabletop, lit a piece of angelica root, and prayed. I waited, hands in my lap, trusting him with the despondent surrender of someone too weary to bang her head against the wall anymore.

MarTan practices a Native/Socratic method of teaching. He guides people — usually at their wits’ end by the time he meets them — through a highly condensed and powerful dose of psychic healing. He uses simple steps, more attuned to a wayward child than a PhD-trained scientist. Which was exactly what I needed.

“What’s going on?” MarTan asked.

Tears flowed in emotive, flash-flood rivulets down my cheeks, coalescing into streams of despondency leaking onto the table while I tried to explain why I was so thoroughly crumpled.

MarTan didn’t interrupt. He let me speak as long as I needed, then took a long, slow look at me, holding me with his eyes. He pulled a clean sheet of paper from a folder, laid it at cross-angles between us, and began.

“When you were born, what were you to your parents?” MarTan asked.

“Something they didn’t know what to do with?” I hazarded, recalling my psychotic mother and absent father, unsure of where he was going with this line of questioning.

“You were a gift,” MarTan declared, writing the word G-I-F-T in the upper left hand corner of the paper, and circling it with his pen.

“And what did your parents give you?” he continued.

“A load of crap?” I responded feebly. After a day replete with breakdowns, my emotional circuitry had burned out, every wire frazzled. My circuit board was no longer capable of coherent thought or action.

MarTan gazed at me levelly and wrote the same word, “G-I-F-T” in the upper right hand corner of the paper. He circled it as well, before saying, “your parents gave you the gift of life. No matter what kind of parents they were, or how much they knew or didn’t know about being parents, they gave you life.”

Then he wrote the word “L-I-F-E” at the top of the page, underlined it and circled it, and instructed, ”and that life is yours. Yours to do whatever you choose to do with it.”

Whoa. My breathing shifted, slowed, calmed.

And my perspective widened. Rather than allowing my focus to dwell on a few screwed up pixels in one corner of my life screen, MarTan was big-picture thinking. Actually, he was bigger than big-picture. He was talking about the entire movie, along with the producer, the director, the screenwriter, and the lead actor. He had my full attention.

MarTan wrote four more words on the paper, one beneath the other, circling each word and connecting it to the next one below with arrows.





By now I had stopped crying, and was making an attempt, despite feeling like my soul was weighed down with a ton of lead and ash, to follow what he was saying.

“People and experiences come into your life,” MarTan explained. “They are teachers. They teach you lessons. What do lessons give you?”

“A lot of pain?” I offered.

“Knowledge,” MarTan corrected, pointing to the last word written on the page. “Knowledge comes from the lessons. Knowledge gives us the here-it-comes-again clues.”

“Knowledge allows us to recognize the lessons, to remember, oh, I already had that experience. I don’t want to repeat that experience. I’ve done that already, I’ve felt that already, and I don’t need to feel it again. I can recognize it and walk away.”

He paused and searched my face, checking for understanding.

I sat up a teensy bit straighter.

“We give thanks to the Creator, because we are grateful for the lessons. We bless our teachers for the lessons they brought to us, but we don’t own whatever crap came with the lessons. We can let that go. We keep the knowledge, so that the next time the lesson comes up we can say, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I have a choice. Thank you for showing me how I’m not supposed to feel today.’”

MarTan paused again, letting his reasoning sink in.

“You were born to respect, love, honesty, trust, and a spiritual life. But right now you are completely out of balance,” he declared, fixing me with another penetrating look. I responded with a weak grin, acknowledging his spot-on assessment.

“You’ve been starting your days upside down. Right now you’re starting with your emotional self. Your emotional self affects your physical self, which affects your social self, and you aren’t even getting to your spiritual self because you are so caught up with your emotions.

“You need to turn this around. You need to start each day with your spiritual self, thanking the Creator for the gift of life. Once your spiritual self is in balance, that will help your social, physical, and emotional selves.”

I nodded my head, my psyche tentatively beginning to replace burned-out wires and realign my internal circuit board. MarTan wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t already heard piecemeal countless times before, from a variety of sources.

Yet by using this simple framework, together with the power of prayer and angelica root, MarTan taught me more in one sitting than I had learned during two decades’ worth of highly intellectual, very expensive sessions from countless multi-degreed therapists.

“This is your first session,” MarTan announced, handing the papers over to me. “Come to my office next week, say around Thursday. In the meantime, here’s my cell number. Call me any time.”

MarTan stayed with me at the picnic table until I showed signs of being stable enough to return to the more mundane aspects of my life. He stayed until I was giggling over some light piece of humor, my legs solid enough to pull me up from the bench and walk back to my car.

Driving home that evening, I mulled over MarTan’s words and generosity. Native healers treat whomever and whatever that shows up on their doorsteps, usually sensitive humans tangled up with messy bundles of psychic, emotional, mental, and physical pain.

Often the pain is generations old, composed of tenaciously embedded networks of anguish stretching across lost homelands, abuse, and disenfranchised families. Healers employ powerful and compassionate medicine, spending hours with hurting humans, at no small cost to themselves.

Humbled and grateful, I slept soundly that night, and spent the weekend being my gregarious, ebullient self.

My enlightened state lasted less than a week. I was still in bed with Shiva the Destroyer.

The following Thursday when I showed up at MarTan’s office, I was weak-kneed, weak-hearted, and weepy again. He lit angelica root, he listened, he spoke, he prayed. Until, as he wearily reminded me of everything he had coached me through during our first session, I felt an odd absence in MarTan’s routine: something was missing.

Intuitively, I realized that although MarTan was being as compassionate as he possibly could with me, he was puzzled by why I kept pouring energy into an ugly black hole, and bored with my insistence at staying stuck. If MarTan was bored, I realized I was bored with being stuck, too.

I took my load of crap, metaphorically hauled it over to the edge of the pit, tossed it into the deep darkness where I couldn’t see it anymore, and blew the dang thing up. Then I got up off my knees, washed my hands, and resolutely walked away in the opposite direction.

I’m still walking.

Ethnoecologist and #VanLife Coach exploring humanity, the natural world, and multispecies relationships. More at