The Ancient Art of Soul Healing

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If your body is ailing, you consult a doctor. If your mind is troubled, you see a therapist. But if your spirit needs healing, where do you go? If you live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you might visit Elena Avila, RN, MSN, a psychiatric nurse specialist who practices curanderismo — a system of Hispanic folk medicine, which combines Spanish medicine, Aztec concepts of health for the mind, body, and spirit, and African spiritual beliefs and healing customs.

Avila’s office is located in her modest home in the quiet desert solitude of the western edge of Albuquerque. She greets you at the door wearing a long, tiered skirt, brightly embroidered blouse, and turquoise and silver jewelry. When she ushers you into her office for a plática (heart-to-heart talk) and you take a seat next to a desk loaded with the usual assortment of office equipment, you might mistake this for just another diagnostic interview. However, you realize it is different when Avila leans in so close that your knees nearly touch and asks, “How can I be of service to you?”

Finding Her Path

Avila’s life journey started on a very different path. She grew up in the barrios of El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border. At 16 she was married, and at 17 she was a mother and had dropped out of high school. But an early job, as a receptionist in a gynecology practice, whetted her appetite for an education. Six years later, she had earned her high school equivalency diploma and was studying for a nursing degree at the University of Texas at El Paso. In 1981, she earned a Master’s in nursing.

And by the 1980s, Avila held the kinds of jobs you might associate with a bright, ambitious nurse: director of maternal/child nursing at an El Paso hospital; clinical nurse specialist at the University of California-Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute; director of the Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center.

Discovering Curanderismo

Around the time Avila was in nursing school, multiculturalism became the buzzword in healthcare circles. When a professor asked Avila to write a report on curanderismo, she dug into her healing heritage. “When I exhausted the literature at the libraries, I began to visit healers in El Paso and over the border in Juárez,” she says. Thus began a long period of apprenticeship in Mexico.

Today, Avila is recognized as a noted curandera in her own right. In 1999, she published a book in which she chronicled her experiences, titled Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health. She has lectured in the United States and internationally, and now has 19 apprentices of her own. Avila’s apprentices come from diverse backgrounds, including nursing and social work. Unlike nursing school, there is no set curriculum to be covered in a specific period of time; it’s a lengthy tutelage directed toward lifelong learning.

A Personal Connection

Curanderas, like other healthcare providers, have their specialties. Some are parteras(midwives) and others specialize in the medicinal use of herbs, massage, or chiropractic-like spinal adjustments. Avila is primarily a consejera or counselor. Her clients come to her with problems ranging from troubled marriages and out-of-control children to difficulty coping with a chronic illness. Most hear about her by word of mouth or through her book; a few are referred by physicians.

Long talks called pláticas are at the core of Avila’s work. While these may resemble psychotherapy sessions in some ways, there are distinct differences. For one thing, says Avila, “I don’t stay detached. The idea is that heart heals heart, so I want you to have a sense of me as another human being.” She will invite you into her home, hold your hands while you talk, and cry with you when you weep. If she thinks a story from her own life might help, she’ll tell it. If you need more than a 50-minute session to unburden yourself, she’ll make time. Avila sees no more than three or four clients a day; a typical session lasts 90 minutes, but some run up to three hours.

Another important distinction is the emphasis on spirituality. “Unlike a psychotherapy session, a plática is sacred, and we invoke the Divine,” Avila says. She is quick, however, to note that there is nothing mystical or even specifically religious about the process. She encourages clients to discuss their beliefs, and she, in turn, will talk about her own mix of Catholicism and native spirituality.

Another defining feature of curanderismo is the use of personalized rituals as healing interventions. The exact nature of a ritual is negotiated with the client. The rituals fall into two main categories: limpias and soul retrievals. Limpias are spiritual cleansings or letting-go ceremonies. Limpias, Avila says, “represent a conscious decision to release a belief system or emotional style that perhaps worked for you in the past, but is no longer working for you.” Soul retrievals are a symbolic way of putting the pieces back together. “If we experience a frightening or traumatic event, this can result in soul loss, a state in which we do not feel fully present or as if we are really ourselves.” One woman, for example, had never allowed herself to fully grieve the loss of her teenage son, who had been fatally stabbed. During a ceremony that Avila and the woman held at the son’s gravesite, the woman suddenly doubled over the grave with intense pain in her womb. The woman began to wail — her first step toward learning to grieve.

Sacred Objects Set the Scene

Avila’s nearly empty living room is the site for many rituals. Clients are asked to bring symbolic objects to place in specific locations around the room. These objects can be anything that is personally meaningful: photographs; memorabilia from a pivotal event; lists of powerful self-messages; or the cremated ashes of a loved one. One woman brought a yellow dress that she had worn as a three-year-old — the age when she was first sexually abused. “When she saw how little she had been at the time, she was able to forgive herself for the incest,” says Avila.

Avila incorporates the trappings of native spirituality and religious iconography into her ceremonies. At various times, she might include candles, feathers, stones, incense, or fragrant oils. The intention, she says, is “to create an atmosphere of healing.” The heart of the process is a very down-to-earth brand of compassion.

In recent years, Avila has begun writing poetry, which she uses in healing rituals or incorporates into her lectures. After decades of study and practice, she continues to be amazed at the incredible self-healing capacity of the human spirit. “Sometimes people will come to me seeking a miracle,” she says. “They may have just been diagnosed with cancer, for example, and they’re hoping I can wave a feather or give them a magic herb and take the cancer away.” She advises such clients to see their physicians. She doesn’t claim to have a cure for the incurable. What she does offer is balm for the soul.