Native Healing

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 2.20.33 PMWhen the Seattle Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl, head coach Pete Carroll didn’t talk about strength or power, as one might expect in regards to the brute sport of football. Rather, he cited mindfulness and meditation as two of the key components to his team’s success. In an interview, Carroll summarized, “Simply put, mindfulness occurs when you become more aware of your thoughts.”

Carroll and his team meditated several times a week, as well as coordinated yoga (a mode of mindfulness practice) into their workout schedule. They cultivated the ability to quiet their minds, focus and be fully engaged in the game, and the results were impressive. These types of old teachings are certainly not exclusive to professional athletes; the purity and simplicity of mindfulness is quite democratic—all one needs is a quiet space and a span of time. We’ve all got that, right? Regardless, how many of us choose to spend ten minutes looking at our electronic devices rather than just sit in silence and pay attention to our breath?

Despite stacks of research touting the benefits of meditation, Karen Waconda-Lewis, Director at the Center for Native American Integrative Healing (CNAIH), believes “that root of thought and intention has been lost.” Karen, a healer like her grandparents and their grandparents, has been working in the Albuquerque area for more than 20 years, the past seven at the center’s current location on Dartmouth and Silver (though by the time this article goes to press, it will be at its new location in Old Town). There, she offers a place for spiritual renewal, relaxation and mindfulness, where the Buddhist teachings are blended with Native traditions, as the two indigenous cultures have always integrated meditation as a way “to take you to another level to understand the sacredness of life.” As she further explains, “There are times [that] the medicine of talking out is needed … but a lot of times the body just wants it to be quiet, to go back to what is the root and what is the internal space, because it’s covered up.”

Karen, a licensed massage therapist, has also been trained in Buddhist meditation by Joseph Goldstein, one of the first American vipassana (insight meditation) teachers; he is also co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. People from all ethnicities and cultures come to her for a wide range of ailments: physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual. The healing offered is always personal and varied. She gets a lot of calls for either a blessing or a prayer—for, say, young mothers preparing to give birth, for those who have passed or for those moving from the reservations to a new home in the city. It is important to acknowledge these times of transition that happen in everyone’s lives. Those are the times, she says, when we end up using flowers and aromatherapy, modalities that help to connect and ground people.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 2.20.48 PMThen of course, there are those who are physically ill with cancer or diabetes, muscular aches and pains, migraines or bad dreams. Karen was taught by her mother and grandmother (who are from Laguna Pueblo) about flower essences and essential oils, and for these ailments she uses all her own organic oils. Her grandparents had a huge garden, and she recalls how her grandmother would boil her plants then skim off the oils and use them for healing. Karen also used to spend a lot of time with her grandfather, who is from Isleta Pueblo. As she recalls, “He used to take me to mines across the Southwest, and he’d put a rock in my hand in like, Silver City, the copper mines down there, and he’d say, ‘Close your eyes. What’s the first thing you feel? Don’t think about it, just what’s the first thing?’ And I’d say it, then he’d put another, sandstone, turquoise or whatever, and I’d say it from my body—what I was feeling—and that’s it.” Pretty soon, she was saving her money and traveling to mines all around the world, like Tanzania, which is how she ended up obtaining a lot of her minerals.  As Karen explains it, the sensations she felt from the minerals guided her in knowing which ailments they were used for.

In addition to the many types of integrative healing she practices, Karen also hosts Monday evening sessions at the healing center, when the massage table gets moved aside and folks gather to practice their meditation in a group setting for 30 to 40 minutes. Now and then, she says, “I may bring in other things to meditate with. I may bring in a crystal or an essential oil, a stone or an object, and they can meditate with that if they choose.”

Depending on the depth and breadth of one’s practice, there are also monthly teachings offered at the center, some of which are more specifically focused on the Buddhist perspective. “For example,” Waconda-Lewis explains, “we had an activity where we paired up and asked ‘What inhibits or what blocks your full expression of compassion?’ Whatever the person responds, the partner says, ‘Thank you.’ This exchange is repeated for three minutes, and at first people reveal generic stuff, but then you start really expressing what blocks your compassion. Then the next question is, ‘What fully allows you to express compassion?’ And to have someone just hear you and honor your space without any verbal or nonverbal judgment just opens someone up. They were able to see and feel on different levels what it means to express compassion.”

Four times a year for four days, during the solstice and equinox, there are also retreats, where people from as far away as Japan and gather outside of Albuquerque to sit in silence. Each solstice and equinox is aligned with an element: water, fire, earth or air. The food consumed during the retreats, all vegetarian, is also aligned to cleanse and rejuvenate the organs aligned with the respective element. For example, based on Chinese culture, water was the element for the winter solstice, and dark red, purple and black foods such beans and beets were used to cleanse and rejuvenate the kidneys and bladder.  “We eat in silence as well, and you’re really feeling the movement of chewing and swallowing and walking and sitting and following the breath and knowing the intentions.” This type of mindfulness brings awareness that all beings—whether plants or humans or animals—are all in this together. It simplifies the elements and reminds us that earth, air, fire and water are what we all share.

And the cost for any and all of this integrative healing? If an institution such as the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, or a hospital, is referring a patient, generally it will pick up the cost for that patient. But with the exception of massages, patients pay strictly by donation, and this, Waconda-Lewis says, is part of the healing for them. “We say, there is no cost with healing, but we also say, whatever comes from your heart, you’ll know that stretch. And don’t stretch it too far, but you’ve got to feel the stretch.” She doesn’t suggest what that “stretch” is (unless requested); she’ll just tell patients, “Whatever comes to you.”

In so many important ways, the healing center serves as a liaison for Native people to access traditional resources that are not typically available in the city. “At first,” Karen admits, “I didn’t want to do it. I just wanted a job, but it’s for the child within ourselves. And if we can learn to detox—we often think of detoxing our body, but we can learn to detox the mind and get to our pure nature.”

The pull to be a part of that healing process for others seemed to be something she could not deny. She also understood the difficulty of getting back to the reservation, and so, she says, “Here’s a place to turn to when there’s illness or when there’s transition. It’s just a place for people to really come back to their true home and their child nature and who they are born for.”

 The Center for Integrative Native American Healing. 505.503.5093. The director, Karen Waconda-Lewis (Isleta/Laguna) can be reached at

Story by Emily Beenen; photos by Kitty Leaken


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