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I arrive for my first Medicine Reading Ceremony at 6.30 p.m. on a Thursday. It’s precisely start time, but as a person who’s generally 10 minutes early for any appointment, “on time” feels as good as late. Outside the door I slip out of my sneakers, adding them to the rack as instructed by the welcome sign, and enter the room, trying not to bring my flustered energy along with me.
On the floor, inside a communal circle of plump, linen-covered pillows, a candle burns in a shallow bowl of water surrounded by a symmetrical arrangement of pine spruce and shiny crystals. On the far side of the circle, amid an assemblage of singing bowls and shamanic feathered tools, Mama Medicine sits cross-legged, poised and peaceful in silent meditation.
Deborah Hanekamp, as she’s also known, is a New York-based seeress, meaning “one who sees auras”—an ability she’s had since childhood, but that doesn’t quite convey the vast scope of her mystical knowledge.
Hanekamp has always had “a thirst for the divine in all forms”—a preoccupation with philosophy, religion and ritual that’s taken her around the world on spiritual pilgrimages and apprenticeships. She’s trained as a yoga teacher and a reiki healer, a psychic surgeon (which involves identifying and removing energetic blockages from the body) and, in the Amazon, was initiated to lead ayahuasca ceremonies. But none of these modalities alone felt like the perfect fit, so Hanekamp did what any self-respecting seeress would do—she asked the universe for guidance.
“I said ‘OK universe, I don’t know what you want me to do. I know you want me to be helping other people, but how do you want to work through me?’ And I got this channeled message: ‘You’re going to offer something called medicine readings. This is exactly what it’s going to be, and this is the formula for it. It’s an integration of your experience with who you are’.”
These medicine readings have become her signature offering—a life-affirming sensory experience that attracts predominantly female New Yorkers via word of mouth, and has earned her the accolade “fashion’s favorite healer” in Vogue.
This evening, it wasn’t just me who got held up en route. “Mercury is in retrograde,” explains Hanekamp, as her assistant quietly leaves the room to check on a latecomer who’s trapped in the building’s elevator.
Setting cosmic chaos aside, we take a moment to ground, settle and state our intentions for this ceremony—sharing one thing we hope to release, and one we hope to call in. Hanekamp offers each of us individual counsel while deftly identifying common threads where she sees them. It’s holiday season—a time when family dynamics re-emerge and the looming new year inspires reflection—so root chakra-related problems (our anchors of stability: family, home and work) are taking center stage.
With our intentions spoken aloud to the group, and the universe, we lay down to begin the ceremony. Each of us has a kind of nest: pillows, a heated biomat (a healing amethyst-filled mat that combines far infrared rays with something called “negative ion technology”), a chunk of labradorite quartz crystal (said to be a stone that aids transformation), a pink tie-dyed cotton sheet and a silky eye mask.
When one sense is muted, the others become heightened to compensate. Behind the soft black of the eye mask I smell aromatic herbs burning and hear the resonant hum of crystal singing bowls. Occasionally I’m aware of Mama Medicine’s presence over and around me—not only her gentle chants and whistles but a perceptible nurturing energy. It’s like the coziest and most relaxing Savasana imaginable, and when we’re eventually invited to sit up and re-group, everything is in soft focus.
During a medicine reading ceremony, Hanekamp sees visuals for each person that aren’t limited to an aura. For me, she noticed a guardian—a small girl with light hair. (“There’s something about her that very much reminded me of you,” she tells me later. “Like she was family in a way, but she wasn’t of this realm. She was very childlike and a strong teacher of wisdom and innocence.”) Another woman bursts into tears after learning her guardian is an elderly woman with a maternal presence. “I was raised by my grandmother,” she explains, comforted.
As the evening draws to a close, we receive our homework: at some point during the following week we are to prepare a bath containing epson salt, a pot of nettle tea, a can of coconut milk, evergreen spruce and the labradorite quartz crystal from the ceremony. This ritual—inspired by a waterfall shower Hanekamp experienced in Peru under the guidance of her teacher, which she describes as “the clearest moment of healing I’ve ever had”—will seal the intentions of the ceremony. It also helps soothe any energetically tumult that can arise in the wake of a medicine reading.
“Just expect the unexpected, basically,” says Hanekamp. “A lot of weird stuff can happen—you can spend the whole next day crying. It’s a strong shift of energy and any time we go through one of those we experience a bit of a healing crisis.”
As she predicted, a part of me does indeed feel cracked open afterwards. Entering the medicine reading ceremony, my intention was to find some clarity and closure at the end of a complex year, and that’s what I receive as the first snow of winter creates a clean slate across New York.