The Gift of Presence

I am in a hospital room with a dear brother, who is very ill. He is on bags of liquids that are streaming into thin plastic tubes that run into his body, seemingly keeping him alive. He is being fed through a tube that goes up his right nostril and into his stomach. He has had his colon rerouted to have his feces empty into a bag, and a catheter to go along with it. He is inundated with Dilaudid, an opiate 7x stronger than morphine, whenever he chooses to push the button connected to his PCA pump to wash his pain away, if only for a short while.

A doctor walks in as I am sitting beside his bed, and he says,

“Not looking so good today, are you?”

A short while later, a nurse outside speaks to his mother in law and says

“He is deteriorating…”

There is confusion and the strongest lack of communication between the multiple doctors and medical workers. One doctor walks in and suggests the use of a suppository while our friend here is with a colostomy. Another doctor comes in and begins to order a CAT scan, when he didn’t know our brother had gone through one 2 days ago (each scan is worth about a year of environmental radiation). Another doctor speaks to him and tells him he will be leaving today. The previous doctor tells him he can’t leave today and will leave tomorrow. Up, down, and all around.


This is a small taste of what it can be like in the chaos of a disease process in our current medical system. There are of course, the multitude of beautiful and kind souls who practice perfect patience and share their hearts… and this is not to be overlooked. Yet, it can pale in comparison to the strange and toxic relationship that some have experienced while in this cold building.

I walked into our brothers room and prior, I prepared myself. I had gathered myself in the car, centered and focused, I began to walk into the hospital. A maze of lefts and rights and elevators to here and there, I finally enter the room. I notice his heart rate is at 157; extremely high. His blood pressure and oxygen levels were also at extreme levels, rising and dropping into the red zones multiple times, letting out a disturbing electronic signal.

I brought a lot of things with me, unaware of his true state of health and consciousness. After feeling out the space and knowing that its potential benefits outweighed whatever strange judgements might come at me from the staff, I decided to ask his permission to sing a medicine song for him. He agreed, maybe a part of him hoping that anything will help him feel a bit of ease.

The shacapa is a bundle of leaves that is collected from a plant in Poaceae family (grass family) in South American traditional medicine. It may be Pariana radiciflora, but I am unsure as most local curanderos don’t know the latin names of the plants they are born knowing (and latin names seem not to affect medicinal potency as much as they help us to classify plants). Regardless, it is used in the ceremony space as a sort of shaker, keeping the rhythm going and also employed at times to touch the person being sung to directly, the leaves themselves having the reputation to wipe away negativity and densely stored emotions. Depending on how it is maneuvered, the energy can be experienced as a blend of cleansing, soothing, revitalizing, and lifting; something like a bird’s wings taking off very close to you.

I pulled a shacapa out of my travel bag and started to bring presence to our brother. I whistled in an icaro, a sacred medicine song, and began to shake the shacapa over his body, bringing myself more and more into a state of deep presence. Dancing the shacapa just over his body, going in circles, I sang like this for about 10 minutes.

When I was done, my body was buzzing and I knew it to be a good sign that I was connecting with what heals. I opened my eyes just as he opened his eyes and seemed to return back to his body… I looked up at his vitals on the LED screen. Everything had begun to normalize. His energy was returning to his face, he was calmer and relaxed. Verification of the invisible can be nice sometimes.

David Winston says “Anything that has the power to change you is medicine…” It can’t be any more true. I am still always moved by the simplicity of finding my center and singing a song that comes to me in that moment, and how effective it can be to myself and those who are in the space of such sounds.

So, do we need to all go out and learn medicine songs? Does everyone need to grab a shaker or make their own bundle of leaves to shake over their friends? Not at all. Coming back to Winston, he speaks to anything that has the power to change someone is medicine… Yes, and even before we start to analyze which gift is the one we can share in our lives, we can remember that there is a foundation! This foundation is presence, and it doesn’t matter what it is that ends up being our tool of transferring such a space, be it singing or speaking or even better, just listening, but just that it is not forgotten.

These doctors that I had experienced with their rushed and anxious energies… it could be that they have forgotten the primary act of their practice; Presence. It is how we do what we do that matters so imperatively! I don’t know that much about cancer. I don’t know that much about surgery or intense health conditions to begin with. Yet, I do know that how I feel and what I decide to say when I am around someone affects the space inevitably, in one way or another. We have a responsibility in this to manage ourselves in a conscious way, taking into consideration how we may influence those who are so very sensitive, and especially in times of illness or distress.

(take away)

How will I choose to hold myself in my daily life, knowing that even my own thoughts affect the space all around me and inevitably, the world at large?

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Two shacapas, freshly bundled and ready to use in ceremony.

5 thoughts on “The Gift of Presence

  1. Wow Ralph thank you so much for taking the time to put your thoughts, actions and medicine into words. I really appreciate you sharing, and wow how true it is!! What medicine actually is, it does not have to be complicated or a special plant, or a special song, but from the heart and in the moment. I love you so much and really miss having moments of reflecting upon life with you. You are my brother


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