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The Independent Critic

 Book Review: Sacred Medicine by Lissa Rankin, MD 
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"Sacred Medicine: A Doctor's Quest to Unravel the Mysteries of Healing" is my introduction to the world of Lissa Rankin, MD, a New York Times bestselling author and acclaimed physician, activist, speaker, visionary, and mystic.

"Sacred Medicine" is built upon key questions that I believe most of us, and certainly the healers of the world and those who seek healing, ask on a regular basis - When it comes to healing from illness and injury, how is it that some people do everything right and stay sick, while others seem to do nothing extraordinary yet fully recover?

How does faith healing work—or does it?

What’s behind the phenomenon of spontaneous remission—and is this something we can influence?

Can we make ourselves miracle-prone?

Dr. Rankin spent the better part of a decade exploring these questions and the world of sacred medicine at large. The result, this book called "Sacred Medicine," transcends the description that it's been given and become a rather unusual beast of a book. "Sacred Medicine" is simultaneously a rather stunningly nurturing book while also, with equal passion, being relentless in its confrontation of those who would do harm in the name of sacred medicine.

There are moments when it practically feels like Dr. Rankin is cooing in your ear. There are other times when you can't help but feel like she's tearing down the idolatrous temples of sacred medicine where those who heal often stroke themselves with cult-like adoration and self-interest.

The truth is that "Sacred Medicine" is not the book that I expected and the truth is I think it's even better than the book as it's currently marketed and that I expected.

Dr. Rankin is refreshingly honest about a variety of things that for me enhances her credibility.

For example, Dr. Rankin writes openly about her own privilege and ability to travel the world exploring the many types of sacred medicine. Dr. Rankin has both the time and financial means to globe-hop, a privilege that gives her access to a deeper, more immersive exploration of these issues.

It reminded me of a feature doc I once viewed that was your usual inspirational healing doc about a young man who'd been diagnosed with ALS and who worked hard to maintain a quality of life. However, as the doc continued I became troubled by simultaneous images of his ability to travel the globe seeking out gurus while also applying for Medicaid. Given the extensive nature of his medical bills, I didn't doubt his financial need. I just knew that he came from a family of privilege and this family afforded him the opportunity to do things your usual Medicaid recipient couldn't possibly do. I desperately wanted that acknowledged in the film yet it never was acknowledged.

Rankin, on the other hand, is fully aware of her privilege and yet, also refreshingly, not apologetic about it. It's an important part of the foundation of this book and I appreciated that Dr. Rankin acknowledged it.

While the word "privilege" is often used condescendingly or even as a weapon, in Dr. Rankin's case it provides access to a world provides the roots for contemporary sacred medicine. Dr. Rankin's ability to access the very people, places, and things that are the roots of these practices helps to shed light on the benefits and risks, the wonders and the flaws of these practices, those who develop them, and those who practice them.

Dr. Rankin seems acutely aware of the extraordinary vulnerability involved in a person's having reached a stage with illness where there is seemingly no sense of tangible hope. There are a myriad of times here when Dr. Rankin comes off as that friend we all want to have - the fierce protector who both nurtures and challenges, nurtures yet empowers with knowledge and practical tools and skills.

"Sacred Medicine" strikes me as a bit of a literary cousin to the more evangelical-tinged Kate Bowler book "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel." Both authors have a remarkable ability to weed out fact from fiction and to discern truth amidst a sea of illusion. Both authors are neither completely dismissive nor utterly embracing of the worlds they explore and, as a result, both authors write with exceptional intelligence yet also tenderness.

Tenderness. If you know me, you know that's my favorite word. It's a word I thought of often throughout "Sacred Medicine." As a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida, and one who recently lost even more of my left leg, my life has been devoted to creating a world of tenderness through my own work in creating a more peaceful world for every child. I've long associated trauma and illness, a relationship that is explored by Dr. Rankin in ways that are surprisingly devoid of victim-blaming and judgment.

I will never forget going to a faith healer and being told that if I "believed" enough, my feet would grow back.

Obviously, they never did. I did, however, get restored my sense of wholeness...a miracle itself that seemed to completely escape this agenda-driven, abusive faith healer.

At times, I felt like "Sacred Medicine" detoured away from its stated mission as certain sections are immersed more in biography/memoir than a quest to unravel the mysteries of healing. Yet, I also can't deny that by book's end I was appreciating the ways in which Dr. Rankin was able to cohesively quilt a tapestry of personal experience, intellectual pursuit, and wellness advocacy.

With "Sacred Medicine," Dr. Rankin takes us around the world to meet the healers, gifted and flawed, and to explore their practices and their worlds. She takes us on a pilgrimage of sorts, providing us a glimpse into a world that most of us will never experience directly. Dr. Rankin accessibly investigates the science of healing and dives into very cutting edge of trauma research with precision and clarity. She explores indigenous cultures with a reverence and respect rarely found among trained physicians and illuminates certain practices she herself has found particularly effective in empowering our own capacity to heal.

She does all of this with, well, tenderness.

"Sacred Medicine" is a remarkably hopeful effort yet not in an "I've got your answers" kind of way. In fact, Dr. Rankin makes a remarkable effort to avoid such an approach. Instead, Dr. Rankin serves as a guide as she helps us unravel the mysteries of healing and gain better skills to protect ourselves in our healing journeys and to explore the healing practices that will most empower our lives whether we're perfectly healthy or considered terminally ill.

"Sacred Medicine" may not be the book I expected, but it's much more and I'm incredibly glad I read it.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic