Healing and the healer…
Part three of a dialogue between Julia Macintosh and Steve Thorp around the issue of healing the psyche in a time of deep ecological and social crisis.
In this dialogue, Julia and Steve are exploring what healing might mean in these times. At the heart of their conversation is the question of whether healing is necessarily an individual process, or needs to happen at a collective level…or, as Julia puts it: ‘both/and’.
In the last piece, the conversation touched on what it means to be human and animal — and whether healing needs to start ‘upstream’, with the individual’s ‘mode of thinking’, or ‘downstream’ in society’s problems. And do we need to go up with spirit or down with soul? Or both/and… At the end of the second dialogue, Steve wrote this:
“…I am wondering what kind of practices for healing we might search for and craft in order to meet and engage with this paradox”.
So this is where this third dialogue begins, with an exploration of the nature of healing in practice.
The first two parts of the dialogue can be found HERE, and HERE. You can find more about Julia Macintosh and Steve Thorp at the top of the first dialogue in this series or go to their respective websites: www.juliamacintosh.uk and www.21soul.co.uk — and if you’d like to contribute to the debate, please use the Medium comment function!
The dialogue continues…
I’ve just returned home from a visit with a very dear friend, someone who is a real blessing in my life. I met this friend when we were at university, and we connected immediately. She makes me laugh more than any other person I know. She is smart, sassy, loving, kind, creative and resourceful and reliable and just fab. She is someone with whom I feel known, as my true self — such an incredible gift! I love her so much.
Now here I am, sitting down to continue our dialogue about healing, and my thoughts are filled with memories of this friendship. There was a difficult period, many years back, when my friend and I moved in different directions, focusing on making our own lives apart from one another. We both had some growing up to do, each in our own ways, and our relationship took a hit for it. For a few years we weren’t in touch, and instead of the love and support we had given each other there was instead a very sore space of regret and sorrow. When we were reunited, it took some time, some particular care and tenderness, to regrow our closeness. I think our friendship holds a different meaning now, it carries a lesson about vulnerability and about cherishing what is precious — and it serves us both as a reminder that healing is possible, and powerful.
So how does healing happen? Here’s what I think: healing is a process, a verb; a journey rather than a destination, a mindset which involves risk and time and effort. Ironically, it can be very painful to heal. Why else do so many people turn to denial or addiction in response to their wounds? Healing demands that you turn toward the pain and move into it. It feels worse before it feels better. The human condition creates the wound, the inevitability of suffering, and healing entails a lifelong commitment to moving into the pain rather than away from it.
Healing happens in layers, and in stages, in false starts and sidelong meanderings through myriad connected issues. It requires self-examination and self-reflection, and the courage to hold onto awareness of one’s innate goodness while facing down the disappointment and shame of one’s inevitable limitations and failures.
Healing grows out of honesty and truth, and again: moving into the pain that honesty and truth uncover.
I don’t think healing ever ends; that is, I don’t think anyone is ever totally and entirely healed, because we are flawed human beings and we live in a complex and perilous world. The opportunities for being wounded are as constant and inevitable as the opportunities for healing. We could say that healing is our orientation. The body heals itself — we can’t see it happening but it does. Perhaps our psyche does as well? What would that look like?
I think of times when I’ve been overcome by grief or misery and have succumbed to weeping: it doesn’t last forever. In fact, the process of weeping offers a catalyst to one’s emotions. Try holding yourself back from it, and you’ll feel the sting of tension throughout yourself, the tightness in your chest and face, right down to your bones. But give in to weeping, surrender to its fierce energy and drama, and eventually it will work its way through your system. In the midst of the most painful weeping, one may feel a release, a sense of peace that then spreads like a warmth inside. It creates a space and a flexibility that one can then work with and maneuver, moving oneself toward healing.
I wonder if we might explore the role of healers — individuals who facilitate the healing process. There are healers in all cultures: what do they do? Doctors, nurses, surgeons, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, shamen, herbalists, chemists — even researchers and priests and social workers could be considered healers in the broader sense, not to mention a good friend or neighbour or colleague who offers their time or attention, listening or helping. Healing is everywhere!
You are yourself a healer, Steve, you work with people and support them in their personal and emotional work. Perhaps this is a good place for me to pause and hand over to you: what do you think the practice of healing looks like?
With lots of love
…Hi Julia, I love the questions you ask.
You ask me, as a healer, what I think the practice of healing looks like?
In terms of human connection you put it so beautifully when you write about your relationship with your friend; the way facing vulnerability, with another person, can loosen us up to the extent that the tears can fall. And I think you’re right that anyone can be a healer with the right conditions, a good dose of empathy and a goodish state of mind.
Another shorthand response might be that healing is in connection and reconnection, whilst disconnection is at the root of despair and madness.
This disconnection can be physiological too — neuroscience tells us something important about how connections are made in body and mind, and how they can be unmade. The idea of neuroplasticity is an important one for me as a healer. It confirms biologically what good therapists know intuitively: that even when there has been trauma that wounds the psyche, something can still help the gentle remoulding and reconnection of the self — including a genuine self-healing, if the conditions are right.
So, within the professions of counselling and psychotherapy, there has long been a recognition that social connection and relationship are keys to healing; and now the effects of neurological connection and disconnection are coming more into our awareness — but still little is said about the connection with Earth and the ecological self.
For me, this is a big issue. As you know, I’ve worked with a simple formula when thinking about the ’self’ (the ‘me’ that can feel either broken or whole). This says that there are three ‘realms’ of the self that have both experiential and deeper subconscious elements. Connection — and disconnection — can and does occur in all three, with ‘symptoms’ playing out when these are projected, repressed, denied or unintegrated.
The social self is the aspect of ‘me’’ developed (and wounded) through connections (and disconnections) with other human beings — first in our families, then in peer groups, cultures and beyond. It’s well documented, researched and practiced, and is what most relational and humanistic psychotherapy rests upon. The relationship — in this formulation — heals. However, often distress is located by ‘professionals’ within the ‘self’, and so the wider social context — abuse, inequality, injustice etc.— can be deterministically reduced into the construction of individual ‘mental illness’; healing then becomes a ‘clinical’ process of symptom reduction.
Then there’s the intrinsic, deep part of the self we sometimes call ‘soul’, and experience as our personal meaning, purpose or calling. This is recognised in some therapies (for example, existential and transpersonal therapies), but is more often practiced in spiritual and personal development work. The healers here are spiritual gurus, teachers, priests and so on. We might say that a good healer in this area helps us to connect with something ‘beyond’ — something transcendent — whilst also helping us make meaning of our existence.
The third strand — the ecological ‘self — is the part of us that is intrinsically connected to, evolved upon and embedded within the earth. This is a key area in which psychological wounding is directly related to earth-wounding and the ecocide humans have inflicted upon the planet. How can this not lead to disconnection and depression? Yet it’s not (except within the relatively small sub-field of psychology known as ecopsychology) generally considered important or even relevant in the therapeutic conversation.*
In his excellent essay ‘Planetary Hospice — Rebirthing Planet Earth’, Zhiwa Woodbury writes about the psychological consequences of ecocide and our responses to what he calls ‘The Great Dying’ — the strong likelihood that our civilisation, in its current form, will die in the heat and flood of climate change. Like facing the loss of a loved one, we face this greater death of a way of life and of our species as we currently know it, and our response, naturally, is grief, with all its denial, anger, pushing away and despair.
As a healer, I think that what is needed is for healing — as process, journey and mindset, as you put it — to be broad enough to address the wounds of disconnection in all three of these places. Redressing the balance would mean, at the very least, that therapists and healers ask questions that elicit stories from people about their spiritual and ecological lives — as well as their ‘attachments’ and ‘relationships’ — when they present as anxious, depressed, despairing, grieving or even crazy.
As Woodbury writes of the times we have lived in when human ecological damage has been so irreversibly damaging:
“Unfortunately, over this same time period, mental health professionals were not asking all the right questions when their clients presented themselves with symptoms of depression.
They would surely ask about family dynamics, problems at work, or even explore social dynamics, but rarely would they ask the most obvious questions: “How do you see the future of the planet? Does it concern you that so many species are disappearing?” So from an integrated, eco-psychological perspective, the symptoms are addressed, a prescription is issued, the systemic, underlying causes of dis-ease are left untreated, and rates of depression continue to climb”.
Reading this response back, it feels a little distanced from what I am sitting with right now. You asked for my response as a therapist or ‘healer’, but crucially any healer worth their salt (which could be any of us) cannot separate ourselves out from the grief and disconnection we are working with in others.
So, these days, I often sit with grief and despair. I feel like weeping at the thought of my little granddaughters and the damaged and degraded world they may have to live in. I want to save and protect them, but know that I cannot, beyond simple acts of love that I can and will offer them. And I also feel grief for — and am wounded by — the knowledge I hold of what will unfold for untold other humans and non-humans as a result of the climate change that is already locked in. And I am sometimes scared. Very scared.
And yet I want to be hopeful too, and joyful in the moments in which joy can exist — which is all moments if I am open to it…
In ‘existential’ and ‘archetypal’ psychology, the wounded healer is a well known archetype — and one that is essential at these times. If I cannot or will not face up to my own grief, my own disconnection, my own existential and ecological helplessness — and, yes, my own hope too — then I do no real service to those I profess to help.
There’s a wonderful line by Irvin Yalom in his book, ‘Love’s Executioner’,(who might well be a living prophet of the kind of therapy and healing we will need more of for our future): “This encounter, the very heart of psychotherapy, is a caring, deeply human meeting between two people, one (generally, but not always, the patient) more troubled than the other”.
In fact, it might be true that a true healer, in these days of ‘the great dying’ must be prepared to be more troubled than the person they are helping — to be able to respond to the troubling, vulnerable, despairing shadows within themselves and the even darker shadows in the world — so that the client/patient/friend/colleague/person they are helping can also face these and find their own ways. And this true healer will have a capacity for joy too, I think: a way of being happy, in the moment, even when things are going down. Finding joy where we can will be an essential part of human healing in our uncertain and troubled future.
Back to you, I think…
- Note: as an example of this, in the last two editions of Therapy Today — the journal for UK counsellors and psychotherapists — there are articles on neuroscience, living with loss, evolution and epigenetics, social and economic factors, gender in therapy, pornography, therapeutic blocks and challenges to biomedical thinking: all good stuff, but mostly addressing social, relational and clinical elements of human dysfunction and healing. There’s not one reference to ecological themes — in all the articles, letters, book reviews, news and advertising sections. That’s fairly typical — the ecological ‘self’ is just not a strand in mainstream psychotherapy and counselling thinking and practice.
Dear Steve, that’s a very interesting idea you’ve shared…
…that the healer “must be prepared to be more troubled than the person they are helping.” This follows well with the premise of going toward the pain rather than away from it. The healer recognises from their own knowledge and experience where the pain or trouble lies, and gently and skilfully leads one toward it, and through it.
We might be tempted to idealise the healer as someone who is free from trouble or pain, someone who possesses health and shares it out with others. But the resolution toward healing can only be reached by going through the difficulty — a truth which the Buddhists have articulated as “the obstacle is the path.” A healer will steer you toward the obstacle, and walk by your side as you make your way through it to the other side.
There is of course one thing in life which no healer can solve, and that is death. No matter how healthily we live, no matter how well we face our wounds and move through them toward healing, no matter what we do with our lives, we will eventually die. So let me ask you this: why bother with the healing process? What is the point of it? I think this question is especially important when you are, as you put it, “sitting with grief and despair.”
I recently watched a programme about the Rising Star paleoanthropological excavation in South Africa. Deep inside a labyrinthine cave system scientists have discovered a treasure trove of hominid fossils, which have been established as a new species on the human evolutionary tree. These individuals lived millions of years ago. Pause a moment and think about that: individual lives that were lived millions of years ago — breathing the air, sleeping and waking, faces feeling raindrops splashing upon them, tongues tasting food and water, eyes seeing trees and hills, hands holding a newborn child, hearts racing with fear or beating steadily with contentment. Millions. Of. Years. Ago.
And just think of the millions of individual lives that have been lived from that time to this, over those millions of years between the owners of those fossilised remains and ourselves. Just think of the millions (in fact billions!) of individual lives that currently exist right this moment! And now think of this: every single one of those billions of individual lives has already died or will die. Not a single one has outsmarted the Grim Reaper.
I also recently watched a programme about the maths and physics concerning parallel universes. So there are various theories about how the cosmos is shaped, what lies beyond it, and the implications around the infinity of space and time. It is utterly staggering to consider the billions upon billions of solar systems that exist ‘out there’ beyond our reach — each with their own potential forms of life, teeming with individuals who exist and experience their surroundings and also die.
And then I watched a programme (you can see what I’ve been doing this weekend!) about the physics of time and space, and the way that we perceive time. The science tells us that our individual perception of time is an illusion, and that while we experience time as a flow from past to future, it isn’t actually a linear phenomenon. According to the maths, the past, present and future all coexist simultaneously within the context of spacetime. Time happens faster or slower, according to factors such as perception, gravity and physical movement. Or as the Tenth Dr Who would say, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”
Okay. So back to my question: why bother healing?
Given the immensity and infinity of everything beyond us, and given our inevitable smallness and impermanence, why do we feel our wounds so deeply and why are we oriented toward healing? Given that our sun will eventually go cold and the human race will inevitably cease to exist, why do we grieve so fiercely over the prospect of human suffering and civilisation’s demise?
Let me pose another question: why do we agonise over the potential suffering of the future, when there is already tremendous suffering occurring in the present? Why are we getting so stressed about the impact of climate change when millions of people are already living right now in situations of awful existential challenge, without adequate food or clean water, with profound illness or disability, in places where violent conflict has produced upheaval, chaos and immense physical suffering?
I think the answer to this question lies in what Eckhart Tolle has coined ‘the power of now’ and is connected to the conundrum of time. We can only exist within our individual point of view, from the perspective created by our own individual mind — and this only exists in the moment of now. These terrible problems we are creating for human societies — the devastation and ecological damage and species extinction that we have wrought upon our surroundings — these are the inevitable products of projecting our thinking into the past or the future. The ambition and greed and ignorance that drive people into these destructive practices are human limitations, bound up in an un-healed present. They arise in minds moving away from the pain rather than into it, minds casting backwards into misleading nostalgia and forwards into craved relief. The only way to change the destructive behaviour is to change the state of mind, return it to the present moment and pay attention to what is rather than what was or could be.
We have arrived back at the point we started: can the collective suffering of the world be healed one person at a time? How else can minds (plural) be changed, unless we begin with a change of mind (singular)? There is only one mind over which we have responsibility: our own. If we make the choice to move into our own pain rather than away from it, if we then use our experience and wisdom to encourage and walk beside others on the healing path, what happens? If we heal individually, we become able to participate as healers. We become able to participate in the collective facing of pain which will be necessary to arrive at a collective experience of healing.
Well that’s quite enough from me! I’m getting a bit lost in the wibbly-wobbly of it all. I hand back over to you, with love.
I’ve written this response on a gorgeous sunny day in late-April. The beach was blue, still and wonderful. The birds have been singing their hearts out, and the flowers are beginning to explode in that way they do here in Pembrokeshire. So, it feels a little weird writing about healing and fracture when the world seems so lovely!
Yet, that is the paradox we’re faced with. Things often seem, on the surface, to be all right with the world and then the storms come again.
I like the expansiveness of your last piece, and particularly the realisation you end with. That healing ourselves and other individuals spreads the healing somehow. Makes it collective. Grows it exponentially. Taps into something universal. Makes us all healers.
I think you’re right, but I also find myself wanting there to be a rider to this— a set of conditions, maybe — that says something about what healing is for. I am suspicious, as I think you realise, of simply taking the pain away. However, that is often why people come to therapy. Or that’s what they say they want! “Take the pain away” they say; “it’s too much. I can’t bear it”. And that’s what a lot of therapists and psy-professionals see their job being — to take away or reduce pain. But I think we’re saying, aren’t we, that this isn’t enough; that some other things— meaning, wisdom, understanding, connection, presence — are also necessary?
And, of course, many people also seek their own route out of pain: through various types of spiritual development, alternative therapies, conspiracy theories — and often a combination of all these! They are looking for meaning, but what they sometimes find is — in my view — twisted, shallow, adolescent (and not in a good way!), human-centred and narcissistic — the very opposite of wisdom!
It’s interesting that you’ve been exploring those videos. The thing I find when I’m exploring these big scientific issues — the strangeness of time, the vastness of the universe, the evolved animal-ness of humans — is that it offers me perspective. When faced with the amazing stuff that science has discovered and is still doing, I almost breathe a sigh of relief that there are no ultimate answers — just breathtaking wonders that accumulate and coalesce as science confirms some ancient wisdoms and bats others away!
The best science, and the best science writing (my most recent reads have been Adam Rutherford’s ‘A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived’; Caleb Scharf’s ‘The Copernicus Complex’ and the extraordinary ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ by Carlo Rovelli) brings such depth and meaning for me. However, of course I love ideas of spirit too — the kind that, like Tolle’s ‘power of now’, and some others, don’t depend on magical thinking, but acknowledge the immanent experience of a deep, archetypal human psyche that evolved on Earth and is animal at heart.
So, with this perspective, I might go back to my original point about healing being about reconnection. You make the point that pain is about the fear of death, and no healing can possibly change that! Widen it out, as you do, and we have a culture that conflates the death of a way of life with our individual death, yet faces up to neither!
When we are talking about climate change, there’s a strand of thought that goes into a doom-laden, apocalyptic mode. In his recent book, ‘Climate Sense: Changing The Way We Think & Feel About Our Climate in Crisis’, Zhiwa Woodbury writes something quite similar to your sentiments above:
“After all, people, we already know that we’re all going to die, don’t we? Every human being who has ever lived has died — except those of us alive today. And a tomorrow will surely come that does not include me or you. Sometimes I wonder if those who are jumping to the conclusion that we are doomed as a species are not projecting their own fear of mortality onto the entire human species. But that is mere speculation on my part. I’m not here to judge others’ fear.”
Whether Woodbury’s judgement is right or not, you and he both challenge the idea that ‘healing’ is somehow about turning away from the thing that is — the state of things. As you write above: “The only way to change the destructive behaviour is to change the state of mind, return it to the present moment and pay attention to what is rather than what was or could be.”
So let’s try this one out for size: The thing we are living with — our ‘what is’ — is the fact that our ‘souls’ have been wrest apart — in our minds, societies and cultures — from the very fabric of our evolved existence. The Earth has become ‘other’ and, in the process, so have other lifeforms, other human beings, our own bodies — the material world itself. And if Earth is other, then it can be exploited and degraded — which is exactly what has been done.
Every drill, every oil spill, every degree of warming, every metre of sea-rise is a symptom of this disconnection — of this dis-ease. Perhaps there is an analogy between the abusive and insecurely attached childhoods that some people experience, that have such deep effects on their adult social psyche, and the violence that has been imposed on the world, and experienced as wounding in the ecological self?
So, to some extent, when I’m sitting with pain — grief, despair and fear — perhaps I am acknowledging this? In a similar way to how I may empathetically experience the torment and loss of a client sitting in front of me whose social and relational world has been fractured; so I am aware of the ecological disconnection that has become the legacy of our generation. And just as the symptoms of the individual client may be depression, anxiety, self-harming, madness and so on; so the ecological symptomology is in the world AND in the individual, because we are intimately embedded parts of the world; and the world is deep in the very makings of our psyche.
Which says something a little more about healing.
Starting upstream, with the individual, means that there is a possibility that we miss the ecological disconnection, and hear in the client’s story only their clinical symptoms or relational pain (which is, in turn, told that way because that’s what our culture tells people their pain is about!). On the other hand, starting downstream, in ‘society’s problems’ risks staying on the surface. We tackle the politics of the day with exactly the same mindset that created the problems in the first place!
So, I think there’s more to say about this (perhaps in a fourth dialogue!) but what I’m sitting with is a kind of comfortable realisation that there is something to be done in individual therapeutic work — but with a far great emphasis on the existential contexts in which people are coming to therapy (and other forms of healing); and something also to be done on a wider scale — at the level of communities, politics, culture, society etc. — an activism that nevertheless needs to be imbued much more deeply with the subtle awareness of psyche, soul and how these are embedded in the material earth, and not just in the mock-certainty and side-taking inherent in the modern human gameplay.
In short, in both places, a paradigm shift is required. Both/and.