Mystery School: An Overview

In 1997, as word of my cancer diagnosis spread, the phrases, meant to be encouraging, that I heard most frequently were “You’ve got to fight this” or “you can beat the ‘Big C’”. (Thank you, John Wayne.) The problem is that I did not have then nor do I now have now more than trace amounts of warrior energy. But I tried. I tried really strict eating regimens, even macrobiotic (although not for long), and came to the conclusion that if this is how I was going to eat for the rest of my life, I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to live.

I spared myself the suffering that comes with the question “Why me?” I’d gone through a different version of the question during the worst years of the AIDs epidemic when I found myself asking, “Why not me?” The best answer I could come up with is that God would never give me a disease that has an unexplained weight loss. I kept that conclusion a secret until I let it slip at a dinner with a couple of HIV-infected friends and they howled with laughter at the gallows humor.

Rather than fight cancer to the death, I made a conscious decision to accept cancer as a teacher. I committed myself to an immersive education with the proviso that I didn’t want to spend every moment of my life in cancer school. It turned out that I hadn’t so much committed to cancer school as to mystery school.

Instantly, and I mean instantly, teachers began to appear.

As soon as possible I made an appointment with my longtime holistic physician, teacher, healer and friend, Dr. Jim Blechman. Jim told me that he had treated a lot of cancer patients and he’d come to the conclusion that a cancer diagnosis challenges us to “be willing to change or die; and a lot of people are more afraid of change than death.”

“I’ll go with change,” I said. The gods hear words like these as vows. Another way of saying, “I’ll go with change,” is “Thy will be done.”

A year and a half later I spent a week at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Medicine, which was run at the time by genius Doctor Lewis Mehl-Madrona, author of Coyote Medicine. During my orientation meeting with Lewis, almost before I could sit down, he repeated Jim Blechman’s words almost verbatim: “You have to change or die.”

In the first month of my diagnosis I consulted with 15 different doctors (I kept a notebook)—urologists, oncologists, radiologists. I had a bone scan, and met with nutritionists. I attended a prostate cancer support group—the most depressed people I’ve ever encountered. If you value the quality of life over the quantity of life, and I do, the group was the most convincing testimony possible in deciding me against prostate surgery.

At the UCLA prostate cancer orientation meeting, I received the wisest, most empowering counsel. The doctor said that if I went to a medical library I would find very few volumes about treating appendicitis because there is consensus in the medical community about its treatment.  If, however, I went to the sections on prostate cancer of AIDs (this was 1997) I would find shelves of books because there was no current consensus about their treatment in the medical community. “Investigate all of them, meet as many doctors as you want, ultimately you’ll have to trust your intuition and go with your gut.”

And so I did. This turned out to be life-saving advice.

The counselor’s comparison of prostate cancer treatments and HIV-AIDs treatments turned on a light bulb in my head. I had watched over the last decade and a half as my friends who were diagnosed with AIDs became acutely aware that their doctors had little more information or expertise than they did. To survive, one had to educate oneself and become one’s own advocate. Submission to the unquestioned wisdom of the fatherly doctor who had graced so many of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers would not do.

I learned from the example of my friends who had revolutionized the patient doctor relationship, who had picketed and chained themselves to the National Institute of Health, that an uninformed patient was likely to be a dead patient. Doctors were my partners not my parents.

The commitments to “change or die,” and to “trust my intuition” have led me to extraordinary healers and teachers. My experiences with them have challenged nearly every assumption of my Western educated rational mind.

A week or so after the diagnosis, I stopped at the venerable Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood thinking I was there to pick up a copy of Yoga Journal because it featured an article by a recent acquaintance.

Directly beneath the magazine section was a shelf devoted to a display of books and cassette tapes promoting, “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can” by Caroline Myss. Although the display had no flashing lights or ringing bells, its effect was just as powerful. I had never heard of Caroline, but I knew without doubt that this is what had brought me to the bookstore. I bought both the book and the cassettes. Incidentally, I don’t recall ever seeing the author of the Yoga Journal again. I had not yet been introduced to the concept of “Sacred Contracts,” but I recognized destiny.

In the first month after my diagnosis I consulted with more than a dozen doctors. I drove as far north as Santa Barbara, as far south as San Diego and as far inland as Riverside. Caroline’s cassettes were my constant companion. I returned to the Bodhi Tree and got cassettes of “Anatomy of the Spirit” and “Spiritual Madness.” I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve gifted with the cassettes or CDs of “Spiritual Madness.” I still review it from time to time myself.

Caroline’s teaching kept me sane amidst the contradictions of the specialists. When I told Doctor A I was consulting with Doctor B, Doctor A said that Doctor B was crazy. I told Doctor B I was going to try treating the cancer with nutrition and he said that was crazy. I told him that was what Doctor A had said about my coming to see him.

I came upon a cover story on Caroline in a now-defunct magazine called Common Boundary. One of my oldest friends, Mark Matousek, was a contributing editor. I contacted Mark and asked him to do some checking on Caroline to see if he thought she was the “real deal.” He called me a week later and said “he’s heard really good things.”  I tried without success to contact her but her assistant Mary told me that if I wanted to speak with Caroline I had to enroll in one of her seminars.

Later when Caroline found out that I knew film stars, she told me that if she’d known that she would have had Mary put the call through.

In February of 1998 I drove to Monterey, CA to participate in a Vision, Creativity & Intuition—a 10 Day Training Program in the Science of Intuition, Part I, which Caroline was teaching with Dr. Norm Shealy.

Thus began my nearly 20 years of adventures with Caroline. It’s not for no reason that Caroline says that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is her favorite book. Spending time with her I akin to stepping through the looking glass. That’s not hyperbole. Ask anyone.

In May of the same year, I traveled to South Padre Island, TX for another 10 day training with Caroline and Norm, called Sacred Contracts.

I was seeing a therapist at the time of my diagnosis, a wonderful healer named Jim Fain who later retired from his career as a therapist in Los Angeles and opened an Herbacy in Eureka Springs, AK. (

Jim had recently attended a conference in Santa Fe called Creativity and Madness and had been particularly impressed by one presenter, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona. Jim gifted me with Lewis’s book, Coyote Medicine. I was mesmerized. It took me more than a year to locate Lewis (he doesn’t identify with coyote medicine for nothing) and in January I traveled to Pittsburgh in the dead of winter (I participated with Lewis in a sweat lodge in below freezing temperatures amidst the falling snow) to spend a week with him at the Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Lewis, a family physician, psychiatrist and geriatrician integrates Native American Healing traditions with integrative medicine.

Lewis did a private ritual with me in which the ancestors spoke and guided me to “spend two weeks in the desert before the green grass grows.” I resisted (I don’t like the desert—at least I didn’t). The next morning, as I walked alone down the halls of the center, the ancestors said, in my ear, loud enough to startle me, “Maybe if you obey the spirit you won’t die.”

I told Lewis I would go to the desert. “Cancer means being willing to change or die.”

Lewis sent me to spend two weeks in the Arizona desert with Lench Archuleta, a Yaqui Indian and traditional Native American Healer.  Interestingly enough, the quote at the top of Lench’s website homepage says “To become whole, it is sometimes necessary to change everything . . . this is where the healing begins.”

I showed up at Lench’s with jeans, hiking boots, and insect repellent. He laughed. Our first venture was to the local Walmart to get cargo shorts and sandals. This was truly freaky. Snob that I am, and in some ways continue to be, I had never been in a Walmart store. It was stranger than I had imagined. I felt more at home in the desert.

I would end up returning to the desert and Lench several times. From Lench I learned among other things that “all wounds have the potential to be crippling or initiatory; you choose.”

In Southern California, friends who prefer to remain anonymous invited me to participate in healing rituals with Peruvian shamans who use the plant medicine “ayahuasca,” a practice Quechua people of the Andes.

In Los Angeles, my late friend, Mark Thompson introduced me to yet another teacher, the late Edwin Steinbrecher, author of The Inner Guide Meditation: A Spiritual Technology for the 21st Century. To quote from an introduction to a piece about Ed that appears in Mark’s book Gay Soul, Ed’s book is “a blend of Jungian analytical psychology and Western metaphysics utilizing astrology and images from the tarot;  central to (Ed’s) vision is that we each have an inner guide or guides” who will teach us if we ask them, too.”

All of my teachers—Caroline, Lewis, Lench, Ed, Jim Blechman, Jim Fain, the Ayahuasca shamans, another shaman in Cusco, Peru, who asked me repeatedly if I was a healer; my experience with John of God in Brazil—have led me to implicitly trust the guidance and guardianship of the Spirit World.

When I wrote of Phil Blake, SJ, and my great-aunt, Jean Shea, in the past few weeks, I wasn’t speaking of spirits in the abstract. In my experience they are real, present, and vital to my well-being.

Before I began this cancer pilgrimage, I maintained to some degree, a vague belief in the Guardian Angels of my childhood. Several years ago BC (before cancer) a friend of mine gifted me with an “angel” reading from a man named Andrew Ramer (the deepest voice I’ve ever heard). This gentleman told me that I had three guardian angels, all green, each of whom was more than 10 stories tall. (I know!—let’s talk about “willing suspension of disbelief” as they say in the theatre.) But then he said that the three angels talk to me all the time, amplifying but never contradicting each other. That stopped me in my tracks! Constantly weaving together and integrating pieces of information, observations, stimulus– from movies, song lyrics, TV commercials, overheard conversations (I eavesdrop)—and on and on and on—that’s the way my mind—I guess it’s my mind – works. Those of you who know me have borne witness to this.

During these years, I have never abandoned Western medicine and paid attention to the guidance of two trusted oncologists, Dr. Stephen Tucker and Dr. Tanya Dorff. Tanya who is a teacher and cancer researcher at the University of Southern California, has become a dear and trusted friend.  Under their guidance I’ve undergone chemotherapy, the first time was 16 treatments, the second time 12. I’ve received radiation and, most difficult of all, have made it through three different rounds of hormone deprivation therapy. The effects of this treatment are nearly identical to menopause—hot flashes, unpredictable mood swings including crying jags which happen for no discernable reason, and bone loss. They keep my body alive and functioning. As I turn 76, that becomes more of a challenge.

In plays and epic novels, there is an introduction to the dramatis personae, the faculty of the Mystery School, with more to be revealed later:

Dr. Jim Blechman and his colleague, Dr. Fernando Mata

Jim Fain

Caroline Myss

Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Lench Archuleta

Ed Steinbrecher

The Ayahuasca shamans

John of God (along with Heather Cumming and Mimi Merriweather)

I can, and hope to, devote an essay to each one of them—and others.

I made a choice to focus on the quality of my life rather than the quantity.


I hope to devote at least an essay to each of these and other teachers and healers who have shown up in my path.

Also, teacher is not the only archetypal energy that has presented itself over the years. Perhaps, God willing, we’ll talk about Mystic and Storyteller later.

Quote: “All wounds have the potential to be crippling or initiatory, you choose.” Lench Archuleta

4 thoughts on “Mystery School: An Overview

  1. Jim ,

    Thank you for your life , your friendship and the inspiration that I recieved reading this . I hope to be able to see you soon old friend.
    Thank you for walking the walk .


    Michael Harney

  2. Pingback: Mirror Ball | Jim Curtan

  3. Pingback: Both Angels Do The Will of God | Jim Curtan

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