-By Chelsea Papa
Having an immediate family of mostly immigrants from southern Italy, I am no stranger to traditional medicine practices that deviate from the “western” biomedical model prevalent in the United States. Whenever I would express that I had a headache or showed signs of illness, my grandmother would tell me that she would do the “malocchio” (evil eye) for me to make whatever it was go away. She would lead me over to a bowl on the kitchen counter that she would pour oil into and begin whispering in Italian. Then she would cut the oil with a knife, making it swirl around the bowl in a unique pattern, and exclaim, “Chelsea! This is a bad one. Somebody is trying to get you.” When she was finished, she would tell me the discomfort would be gone soon. The idea of the evil eye as a malevolent supernatural force that others can send your way to inflict harm has permeated many cultures of the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Admittedly, I never believed in the evil eye as a cause of misfortune and illness or that it could be cast away by the malocchio ritual, though I will never tell this to my grandmother. I always chuckle when my mom puts on her evil eye bracelet before a family gathering to ward off any malice directed towards her. Despite my disbelief, the ritual often left me transfixed, and I would gaze at my grandmother as if she had a deep connection to another sphere that I was not privy to. For this reason, I have long been interested in alternative healing methods, regardless of my skepticism of their effectiveness.
Over winter break, I watched a documentary entitled “The Sacred Science” which focuses on the plight of eight people who travel to the Amazonian jungle to undergo a 30 day natural treatment regimen formulated by a local indigenous healer and a spiritual leader after western medicine failed to cure their illnesses. In the end, five of these people were considered cured or saw drastic improvements in their health, two returned home without improvements, and one died of advanced endocrine cancer in the jungle. Even if the natural treatment proved effective for all eight, the sample size is too small to generalize. Thus, I focused on the approach of the treatment rather than the results. I asked myself: What can I learn from the methods the indigenous team is using to treat these individuals that can be applied to my own life or to the western biomedical model?
The medicinal value of the many species of plants in the amazon is one component of treatment that The Sacred Science focuses on. According to the documentary, about 25% of modern drugs come from plants in the Amazon. Furthermore, less than 1% of these plants have been studied for their medicinal value. I cannot verify these claims from an actual study; however, if they are true, they are compelling arguments to further study these plants for their ability to treat diseases that western medicine has failed to treat adequately. Interestingly, natural and herbal remedies have become increasingly popular among Americans in recent decades. While I am also intrigued by alternative methods such as these, I intuitively understand that natural remedies may not necessarily be safe and effective as many people falsely believe. Several researchers point out that more studies need to be conducted on the safety and efficacy of herbal treatments to treat certain illnesses.
Though I recognize the knowledge of the shamans and the medicinal value of the plants they use, the most important facet of the healing is that it went beyond the plants and beyond the aim of achieving physical health. Both the team and the patients placed a strong emphasis on the role of mental and spiritual well-being that is achieved by accepting your illness and accepting yourself. The spiritual leader Roman explains the mind’s role in illness in the following quote: “When we get a disease we want to push it away…But by pushing it away psychologically, we are also sending signals to our body not to send the healing agents into that area…it’s all working through subconscious impulses.” I found this concept to be an interesting and appealing in contrast to the beliefs surrounding health and illness that my grandmother holds. While she believes in an outside force that is out of our control, Roman stresses the importance of forces within us that can either make us sick or help us to be healthy. Throughout the 30 days in the jungle, each of the patients were forced to deeply examine their own nature and deal with uncovered truths in order to make amends with themselves and alleviate suffering. A patient who arrived suffering with alcoholism expresses this aspect of his journey in his self-reflection at the end of the film: “The issues that we have are not physical. We feel them physically…but what I see is that they come from here (pointing to head) and here (pointing to heart). You create these things, and if you deal with it here (pointing to head), then the physical will go away. That’s what they work with here…It’s the most significant thing I’ve ever done. Learning how to be at peace with myself.” Here, he is proposing that the source of illness is a wounded mind and spirit. Therefore, alleviating emotional and spiritual suffering is the way to rid ourselves of physical illness. I think it is important to note that sometimes biology takes over people who are mentally healthy and causes disease. For example, someone might have a BRCA mutation and develop breast cancer, something that seems to be beyond the control of their mind. Nevertheless, I believe mental and spiritual well-being is a critical component to a healthy life that the biomedical model largely neglects. We should be focusing on a more holistic model such as this one to improve overall health outcomes of the population.