Darnell Lamont Walker leading Rituals Writing Workshop
INSIGHTS: Sacred Medicine with Dr. Lissa Rankin

Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Lissa Rankin began a quest to unravel the mysteries of healing. At the time, she defined “sacred” medicine as spiritual, faith, or energy healing.

Ten years later, Dr. Rankin says she sees sacred medicine as “...any healing tools and practices that heal the traumas that cloak the spark of divinity that lives inside each of us. Sacred medicines fuel and strengthen that spark and can make some people miracle prone.”

According to Rankin, we are all our own inner doctors, therapists, good parents, or gurus, but we can’t do it alone. “The healing process needs to be a community experience. When someone is ill, this is not a time to try to be a rugged individualist!”

In advance of her upcoming workshop,  Dr. Rankin addresses how much you need to “believe” in healing to heal and the special attention that trauma-informed healing deserves. 

Christine Chen: Do you have to believe in self-healing to heal?    

Dr. Lissa Rankin: No. Belief — or some sort of faith or hope — can help the nervous system relax by taking people out of the "fight, flight, or freeze" stress response, which can facilitate activating the body's self-healing mechanisms, which only operate optimally when the nervous system is in the ventral vagal parasympathetic state, the "rest and restore" state of the nervous system. But, the self-healing mechanisms of the body don't require belief at all.

CC: What is relational healing? 

LR: In the real world, where relationships trigger past traumas, relational healing is an even deeper spiritual path, especially for those with developmental trauma. Traumas that happen in-relationship must heal in-relationship. And, almost all of us have at least some developmental trauma. 

They say what didn't happen in your childhood can be even more devastating than what did. Fortunately, our nervous systems have neuroplasticity, and these old patterns that groove into our nervous systems can be treated and healed. Sometimes, the body heals with it.

CC: You are an expert in trauma-informed healing. Can you describe this approach and why it is critical? 

LR: The science is clear that psycho-spiritual and environmental trauma cause the majority of diseases, and trauma is dose dependent. The more trauma we experience, the more likely we are to get sick at a younger age and the shorter our longevity. As such, trauma prevention is preventive medicine, and cutting-edge trauma treatment can serve as both prevention and adjunctive treatment for many diseases. 

Trauma leads to chronic nervous system dysfunction, which disables the immune system, impacts the endocrine system and through psychoneuroimmunology, it impacts all organ systems. Trauma causes chronic inflammation in the body, and we now know that inflammation lies at the root of many chronic and terminal illnesses. To treat only the outward manifestations of disease without treating the trauma that makes the nervous system — and via the nervous system, the whole body — vulnerable to disease, makes no sense.

CC: What can come up — emotionally, physically, spiritually —  when one is on a path to seek healing? 

LR: Everyone's healing journey is so unique, so there's no simple answer to this question. I'd say joy tends to come first, like a honeymoon period of the spiritual path. But, just like ecstasy can attract us into a committed partnership, the honeymoon rarely lasts forever. Sacred Medicine has a whole chapter about spiritual bypassing, the tendency for spiritual practitioners to use their spiritual practices or beliefs to try to transcend rather than heal their pain and trauma. 

Spiritual bypassing has been defined as "conflict avoidance in holy drag" by author of Spiritual Bypassing Robert Augustus Masters, PhD. At some point, we have to move beyond blind compassion, neurotic tolerance, premature forgiveness, excessive meditation, prayer, yoga, or kirtan practices, and face whatever we are trying to escape… gently.

CC: How can we prepare for the journey?  

LR: Overdose on compassion for yourself and prepare to go slow. Everyone wants an easy button or a fast track, but the fastest way to heal is by only going as fast as the slowest part of you feels ready to go.

“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.” 

“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”

“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“

“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”

“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“

“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
–David B.

“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”

“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
–David Z.

Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.

What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?

Dr. Rankin’s workshop is Healing with Sacred Medicine, May 23 –27, 2022.

Join the wait list


Christine Chen

Christine Chen is the host of Esalen Live! and Chief Editor of The Journal. She is a two-time Emmy winning journalist, best-selling author, California native, and senior teacher of yoga and Ayurveda on Esalen Faculty.