This is What I Know About Healing

by | Sep 27, 2020 | Anxiety, Highly Sensitive Person, Intrusive Thoughts | 19 comments

“It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

When I read this quote in what has become one of the most influential books of my life it took my breath away. I stopped reading, put the book on my chest, closed my eyes, and breathed into the glimmering, heartbreaking truth of Kimmerer’s wisdom.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to be banished from our sense of belonging, our purpose, our connection to ourselves and others, our birthright as human animals living in right relationship to all other sentient and non-sentient beings.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to be dangling on the cliff of our lives alone, without the anchors of rituals and prayers that helped our ancestors navigate this uncertain world, without the circle of community to guide us across the thresholds of transitions.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to lose touch with our gifts that connect us to our ability to serve, without which the air becomes stale and our lives lose the luster that comes from meaning.

To be banished from the web of reciprocity is to think only for oneself, to forget that we are all – every human and “more-than-human being”, as Kimmerer says – connected in ways that indigenous people and mystics have known for centuries and science is only now starting to “prove.”

When we’re banished from the web of reciprocity, gaps occur where there should have been wholeness. More and more, as I observe myself and the people around me, I see that healing depends on closing the gaps in all of our relationships:

  • with self
  • with others
  • with community
  • with the natural world
  • with our place in the order of things (purpose)
  • with our ancestral line and heritage

Let me explain what I mean by “closing the gaps”. Imagine that there’s an infinity loop that connects you to each of the above bullet points. We’re born with many of these infinity loops intact, but as we grow through life we experience breakdown and disconnect.

We disconnect from ourselves in the four realms of Self: we cut off from our physical body, we shut down our emotional life, we lose touch with the vibrancy and creativity of thoughts as our minds become full of chatter and intrusion, we ignore the needs of the soul until the inner well runs dry.

We disconnect from others as we develop an equation that says love = threat. If being “loved” means being hurt, steamrolled, enmeshed, neglected, abused, bullied then it’s safer to remain behind the barricade of the heart.

If community threatened our sense of self, agency, and autonomy – as is often the case in stringent religious environments and in school – we choose to cut off from community.

With the explosion of city life, we’re increasingly cut off from the natural world.

Many people are divorced from their sense of purpose, especially our mainstream parenting and education models encourage young people to abdicate their self-trust, ignore their natural rhythm, and shame their learning style, all of which result in straying further and further away from intrinsic gifts and passions.

When there’s a break anywhere in these infinity loops, anxiety in all of its manifestations rushes in to fill in the gaps. Energy will fill any void; if the spaces aren’t filled with nourishment and connection, they will fill with anxiety, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, and disconnect.

This is what I know about healing:

It depends on being in healthy, reciprocal relationship with self (body, mind, emotions, soul), others (finding your place of belonging both in terms of community and sacred service/purpose), and the divine (by which I mean something greater than ourselves). 

We are not only isolated electrons orbiting around a nucleus; we are also the nucleus itself, gathered together in one human nest.

We are not only individual raindrops; we are also the gathering of drops in a vast ocean.

Each of us are strands in a glistening web and the web itself, criss-crossing in invisible patterns of dew-laden strands across this globe.

There are some spiritual traditions and psychological modalities that encourage the seeker to become their own healer. And while there is certainly an aspect of healing that requires us to step into the role of loving inner parent as we accept that nobody is going to rescue us or do the work for us, there is also an aspect that recognizes that we heal in relationship.

To close the gaps, we must come back into relationship with ourselves, others, and the world beyond ourselves. We must recognize our shared humanity and our complete, beautiful dependence on the earth herself before. As Kimmerer writes of the Windigo monster that prowls the back woods in Anishinaabe legends:

“The beast has been called an evil spirit that devours mankind. The very word, Windigo, according to Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, can be derived from roots meaning ‘fat excess’ or ‘thinking only of oneself.’ Writer Steve Pitt states that “a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is not longer possible.

“No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices – addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, technology, and more – as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, ‘any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.’ And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know all too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims – in human families as well as in the more-than-human world.”

We can see these destructive, indulgent patterns very much alive both in this country and inside our own selves. Any mindset that banishes one group of people from the web of reciprocity and deems them less worthy of basic human rights – as is being exposed in the Black Lives Matter movement – is a banishment that affects not only this racial group but every single of one of us. There is a dangerous failure to understand that unless we are all free, nobody is free; until my black brothers and sisters have the same sense of safety and access that I have, we all remain imprisoned.

For many of you who follow my work, you know the self-destruction that occurs when you indulge in the intrusive thoughts that barrel through your mind and hold you hostage. This, too, is Windigo, and indicates an urgent need to attend to the places internally and externally that are causing disconnect.

As you continue along your healing journey, ask yourself: “Where can I nurture more connection both within and with the world around me, both seen and unseen? When I read this post, what jumps out at me and alights my soul with knowing in terms where the gaps are?”

Is it in relationship to your gifts, your passion, your service to the world?

Is it in your relationship to the natural world or to your ancestral lineage that carries within it roadmaps and rituals that would help you anchor into your stillpoint daily and weekly?

Is it in your relationship to your mind and the ways in which you feed it images and content (news, social media scrolling, reality television) that leave you feeling empty, anxious, and alone?

We’re not meant for a life of anxiety and intrusive thoughts. We’re not meant to be stuck on the hamster wheels in our minds, endlessly spinning on the same track, endlessly attempting to answer unanswerable questions.

We’re meant to shine. We’re meant to step into the fullness of our being and offer our gifts to the world around us. We’re meant to experience a fullness of being that overflows from the inside and out so that we touch others with the truth of who we are, and in so doing, send into motion shimmering circles that ripple further and further into the world, like a sparkling gemstone tossed into a lake.



  1. “If community threatened our sense of self, agency, and autonomy – as is often the case in stringent religious environments and in school – we choose to cut off from community.”
    This is exactly what happened to me. I isolate and I fear other people. How do I make my way back from this place to my true nature?
    Thank you for your weekly emails. I read them every Sunday night.

    • There are many ways, but one is to start with just a few people who you trust and love and from there build outward into a broader sense of community. When working with the wounds inflicted by community it’s essential to connect to your essential nature first and rebuild your self-trust, for it’s when you trust yourself that you can more readily trust others. Here’s the reciprocity of which I wrote in this post: self-trust helps you to trust others, and trusting others helps to repair basic trust.

      • Thank you so much, Sheryl. I took your self trust course, so I’m definitely on the right track.

    • Agreed, Miriam! This is the first thing I thought. Since leaving my religious environment, I haven’t found a suitable replacement for “community/greater service,” so i feel triggered when I see this, like maybe it’s the universe’s way of saying I was wrong and am bad for leaving (I know this isn’t true), but I’d love to now ways that non-religious folks build community.

  2. This post makes me truly believe in a collective human consciousness. I was JUST thinking about this book!

    In my own healing journey, I have recently had the privilege to re-connect with the natural world, my spirituality and lineage, and my creative purpose, while healing some old wounds associated with these things. It’s been incredible! But, while my connection to the greater natural world, all of its species and life forms and its vibrant spirit, my connection to humanity is still suffering. As an empath and a naturally solitary person, I tend to suffer when I’m overwhelmed by the presence of other humans, their needs, their feelings, their noise, their effect on their environment. I also harbor a lot of anger toward human beings—the suffering they cause, the potential for destruction, their greed, their self-centeredness; as Robin says, the Windigo. I look at our history on this earth and the events of recent years, and I am unable to fully open my heart to my fellow human beings. There are those I love and feel intimate with, of course, and my relationship with them is intact, but the greater mass of humanity repels me. I wonder, Sheryl, is it possible to regain connection while harboring these feelings? How might I go about trying to cultivate compassion and connection with a species (ONE species out of millions!) that I distrust so much?


    • I really hear you, Niamh, and it’s actually a conversation we have with our 11-year old highly sensitive son almost daily because he tends to think quite poorly of the human race, especially in our treatment of animals. I don’t have any easy answers (I’m not sure there are any), but I do know in my heart that there are more good people who are kind and just than those who aren’t. The state of our planet may lead to a different assumption, but despite how far we have to go in terms of a creating a just and kind planet, we’re actually headed in the right direction.

      I recommend a couple resources:

      The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
      The new documentary Kiss the Ground

      Also, I don’t know that you need to feel love for our entire species. Being connected to a few trusting and loving people is likely enough to meet your need for community.

      • Thank you for those resources, and thank you for that insight, Sheryl. I agree, we ARE headed in the right direction as far as the majority is concerned, and the kind, wise people I have encountered throughout my life definitely support this. Awareness is certainly growing as it never has before. I also think you’re right, loving and accepting the whole species might be simply impossible, and not the way human beings were meant to connect. After all, our ancestors didn’t have a concept of humanity as a whole (they didn’t have the internet), only those they came into contact with day to day. I think the notion that I have to connect to everyone or no one (black-and-white thinking!) is coming from my anxiety response, the need to do everything perfectly and in absolutes.

        Again, thank you 🙂

    • I really hear you. I am also an empath and find it very difficult dealing with humanity!

  3. Thank you Sheryl,

    I recently took your grace through uncertainty course and have been able to continue with some of the practices that I started during it But..
    I am struggling with connecting with community and purpose as I retired just before the lockdown began and had not got started on the things I wanted to do. I have joined some groups on zoom but I crave more personal connection.
    I also found help with some of your relationship anxiety blogs and thought I had dealt with the intrusive thoughts but they are still a struggle-when you say anxiety and intrusive thoughts rush in to any void caused by a break in these loops it makes sense.
    I have felt shame for being in the anxious state I gave been in but have found some comfort in your webinar and reading the comments to your blogs, knowing that I am not alone and that you really do reach out to people as equals who you respect and want to help.
    Kindest Regards,

  4. Your best post yet. Thank you, Sheryl

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it :).

  5. Wow, only the best from the best woman!

    Sheryl- I have been struggling, I genuinely feel like I am the red flag in the relationship, is this a common thought? Please any words of wisdom would be great!

    • Yes, highly common. What makes you think that?

  6. What happens the very community of friends avoid you? Especially if your at a new city, trying to make friends and find your footing!!?

  7. Is it possible to be a deeply connected person, with no at least obvious fear of love, to then have an event occur that causes the disconnect and what appears to be a sudden fear of love (in any form; self-love, loving someone else, love from the universe, whatever it might be). Part of my struggle is that certain signs point to some kind of fear of love, but I’ve never been like that before, so it’s confusing.

  8. Dear Sheryl, my comment is about the text of your weekly email that preceded the link for this blog post. It spoke to my heart.

    You wrote:
    “Action diffuses not only fear but also stagnation”
    “It’s so easy to feel caught under the pall of stuckness or stagnation and allow ourselves to succumb to the voice that says, “What’s the point? It’s all been said or done anyway.”
    “Feeling stuck behind the brick wall of self-doubt that says you have nothing new to offer the world? Sit down at your desk and take one small step toward whatever it is that longs to be born inside of you, whatever shimmering gift is waiting to emerge.
    You’ll be so glad you did.”

    I feel these places of stagnation daily.
    It is very much related to the world situation (the segregation, racism, violence, authoritarianism that is being performed all around the world). Sadness and hopelesness overtake me.
    It is also related to a personal transition of mine: I have just finished my master’s degree and I am at a loss in my new professional phase.

    Sometimes I manage to engage in nourishing actions, but the sadness and a lack of sense is on the background. It is like I can’t taste the flavour of things till I don’t figure out how I will be part of the solution to our terrible state as a society.

    Action. Sometimes I feel that I am missing a “fire element” inside me, a “fiery particle” that ignates the motion.
    I have all these feelings about wanting to be part of the change but I don’t manage to move.

    You said that you will write more about this topic next week, so I wanted to share what resonated in me. I’m looking forward to your next weekly email. Thank you!

    • Please see tomorrow’s blog post :).

  9. Sheryl! Wow this post is so powerful. Thank you thank you. Your words resonated deeply. Maybe a little too much – since I can see gaps in nearly all the domains you mentioned —self, others, community. Figuring out my purpose and sacred work. A lot of this still feels murky but I have been on healing path for the last several years and this just pushes me to keep going. I often feel like I’m getting closer and closer closing the gaps, just not quite there. I have learned so much along the way. This is a good reminder to stick with it, to re-commit to the practices and rituals that serve me. I wish our culture and society didn’t make it so hard sometimes. Still, your words compel me to push forward. Thank you!!!

    • I love reading this, Cassie! I, too, wish our culture and society didn’t make it so hard, and I do believe that this is part of the problem: we’re left to navigate so much alone when we’re meant to be guided and held in a web of community. I see this changing over the next couple of decades, but in the meantime we’re left to do the best we can with the tools we have. So YES to recommitting to the practices and rituals that serve you!


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