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Sunday, November 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Where mysticism meets medicine

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Mn.)

MINNEAPOLIS — On the second floor of an anonymous building on a side street in St. Louis Park, Minn., a shamana is at work. As cars trundle by outside her office window, she sings and taps a plant rattle across her client's back as she calls for the Great Spirit to heal body, heart and mind.

Connie Grauds, 59, a pharmacist who grew up in Forest Lake, Minn., practices her ancient healing art with one foot in this world and the other in the realm of the irrational. She says she has become a conduit for the life force in nature.

Yes, she knows it all sounds like a lot of exotic "voodoo and woo-woo." But there she is, with her pouf of blond hair and sensible black shoes, calling on energy that is invisible to most of us to heal the people who come to her with emotional and physical troubles.

"I'm not a scary person," she said. "It happens to be my avocation, and as unusual as it is, I didn't ask for it." Rather, she was called to it, she said, when she met a spiritual healer in the Amazon rain forest in Peru. There she trained 13 years to learn about medicinal and spiritual powers in plants and how to use them for healing.

She is teaching some of what she learned to students enrolled in a new two-year program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The topic is clinical herbalism, the use of medicinal plants to promote healing. Grauds, who also teaches at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, is planning a program in shamanism, the belief that life-giving spirits from the natural world can heal.

Gaining appeal

Her efforts are part of the growing demand for nonconventional health care, the kind of holistic and spiritual healing practices rarely found in a doctor's office or via prescription, said Dr. Karen Lawson, who teaches a course on shamanism at the Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Many such complementary health practices "have core philosophies that acknowledge the role of spirit or unifying energy or life that explains how these things are connected," Lawson said. Shamanism is probably the oldest one of all, she said, and is practiced in one form or another by indigenous people worldwide.

"It's based on the understanding that all things are alive, all things are connected, all things are impacted by worlds both seen and unseen," Lawson said.

Grauds does not practice traditional healing in lieu of Western scientific medicine. She sees them as complementary. Her work is called for when scientific medicine has done all that it can. At that point, she said, it's time to turn to the world of the irrational.

"I dispense spiritual medicine," she said.

For most of her life, she dispensed the other kind. Grauds graduated from the University of Minnesota's Pharmacy School in 1969 and became a believer in the pharmaceutical silver bullet. That early belief in hard, skeptical science was formed partly by her mother, who became delusional when Grauds was 3.

"She started seeing things and hearing voices," Grauds said. She was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she had 17 electric-shock treatments. She became functional, but for the rest of Grauds' childhood, "I always thought my mother was about to go crazy."

Total turnaround

Her father, however, was like the farmer with the pitchfork in the painting "American Gothic" — the epitome of stoicism. He was consistent and honorable and supported his family with a dry-cleaning business. Grauds grew up with faith in the hard facts of the known, and a fear of the places her mother went.

Grauds worked for 20 years in San Francisco, handing out the same kinds of pills to the same people over and over, and became disillusioned.

"She recognized the limitations of being a registered pharmacist," said former husband Dean Grauds, who is still close to her. "She realized a lot of our thinking was influenced by the need to sell drugs."

In 1994 she stumbled across an article in a journal on medicinal plants in the Amazon and was intrigued by its description of the ancient healing tradition and natural pharmaceuticals. A few months later she signed up for a pharmacists' excursion to the Iquitos region of Northern Peru to learn about the healing practices of its natives.

Led to a book

Deep in the jungle she was offered the chance to participate in a private healing by one of the local shamans. Grauds described the experience in her book, "Jungle Medicine," published in 2004.

As the shaman blew tobacco smoke over her in a dark hut, her body went into an arching, shaking fit. When she walked out of the hut, she fell over, "infused with some kind of energy that my body didn't know what to do with." When the shaman came out, he touched her neck, and the spasms stopped. She had a block in her neck, the shaman explained.

Bewildered and frightened, she met with a more powerful shaman the next day. She spilled out her story to him, and her frustrations with her job. When she had finished, he said only this: "You have enough energy to be a shaman yourself."

"She had a bona fide spiritual experience," said Dean Grauds, a psychotherapist. "She had a glimpse of the bigger picture and more of a pronounced direction."

In 1996 she returned to Peru and was accepted as an apprentice by the shaman who first hinted at her new calling. The next 10 years she returned several times, opening up to the belief that not all healing can be understood. It is mysterious. But no more mysterious than, say, quantum physics or the placebo effect, she said.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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