December 16, 2002
The Healing Environment - Part 1: The Inner Archetype
When humans develop, there is an unconscious inner intelligence that acts as a guide and pathway for change and growth. Babies do not suddenly sprout wings or grow branches. Being aware of this inner wisdom is essential if, as adults, we attempt to get consciously involved in the healing process. In the November 11, 2002, Thought of the Week "The Key to Human Health," I focus in greater depth on this inner intelligence.
In contrast, mainstream medicine, psychiatry, and psychology do not tend to recognize the importance of this inner wisdom. Instead, they follow an outdated, mechanistic Newtonian view of organisms as a sum of their separate parts. In this paradigm, the human "bodymachine" has little or no innate intelligence and has to be cared for, maintained, and fixed by an outside superior or expert - whether it's a doctor or our own directing brain. Since this bodymachine has no innate abilities and intelligence, it can be put aside and left to "idle" with no ill effects. If it fails to function properly, it can be "fixed" by outside intervention - by removing, repairing, and replacing parts, or introducing different "oils and additives."
This mechanistic perception of life represents a disconnected, unfeeling, almost sociopathic attitude. Modern medicine, with its drugs, surgeries, organ replacements, ignorance of nutrition, and lack of patient care has become almost mechanically inhuman.
Fortunately, humans are not remotely like machines. Every second, trillions of intercellular, intermolecular exchanges take place within our bodies with no direction or intervention necessary from our thinking, "controlling" brains. This organic self-regulation is also happening all around us and accounts for the growth and activity of all life on this planet. This innate organic intelligence has been functioning since the beginning of life, and it is unfortunate that we have become so disconnected from ourselves that many of us don't recognize, appreciate, and support it.
Many of our problems and illnesses are due to this disconnected state and our neglect and abuse of ourselves because of it. In the midst of our pain and despair, however, we feel that something is missing, and we begin to look for it. We look to our doctor, our psychiatrist, our therapist, our priest, our lover, our bartender, our therapy group, our support group, our church group, our commune, our political group, our sports team, our social club, or our bar crowd. We are compelled to seek out others, but feel bad because we are told that we should be individuals and solve our own problems. We feel shame for not being stronger. We feel weak and needy when we ask for help. We are told we have to learn to love ourselves before anyone will love us.
It's sad that we are made to feel that way. We are social animals and we need others to be fully ourselves, both emotionally and biologically. When we are ill, our inner "picture of health" directs us to the environment that best suits our healing needs. That environment is not one of stoic isolation. That environment is not one of abuse and neglect. That environment is not one of mechanical, efficient coldness, indifference, impatience, condescension, manipulation, criticism, judgment, shaming, insult, sarcasm, disrespect, ridicule, or contempt. That type of environment is often presented by our doctors, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social agencies, hospitals, and mental institutions - and by our families.
The healing environment our inner nature seeks is a place with kind-hearted people. It is a place where we will not be alone, where we will not be abused again. In this healing environment, regardless of our condition, we are treated with deep respect, appreciation, non-judgment, and equality. Our inner wisdom is recognized and supported.
This type of healing environment is what native people have created since humans walked erect. When tribal members struggle with physical illness or emotional-spiritual challenges, they are always supported and assisted by the larger group. While they work through their illness, they do not have to hunt, gather, plant, take care of others - or even take care of themselves. Within this nurturing, protective embrace, their entire being, from immune system to nervous system, can relax and concentrate on the task of healing.
This ancient memory is often what drives people to commit themselves to mental institutions to get "a break." Unfortunately, the cold, mechanistic, dehumanizing environment of these institutions isn't what they're looking for.
Where is this healing environment we all seek? My clients look to me, but even though I make myself as available as possible, what I offer isn't the total tribal ideal. Sessions of one or two hours out of a 168-hour week is often not enough, especially if, for the rest of the time, they are hounded by unsupportive co-workers, bosses, family members, and "friends."
Critics of client-centered, empathic therapy often criticize these approaches for being too slow. These critics, of course, want to prescribe a quick mechanical "oil additive" or "parts replacement" that won't even touch the cause of the problem. Their criticism, unwittingly, raises a good point - that most therapies do fall short of the ideal environment that would promote the most effective and efficient healing.
This is a real problem, and I often feel frustrated that neither my clients nor I have the money and time to address this need. To help make up the difference, I recommend "Homework That Heals" so that they can continue their healing process in between sessions. I offer intensive retreats to allow them a number of consecutive days for uninterrupted focus and attention. Yet it is hard to replicate the ancient "healing lodge" concept.
A "healing community" is the closest thing to the environment we seek. It has been attempted again and again by spiritual groups, activists, healing arts groups, and alternative lifestyle seekers. Sometimes these communities succeed, but most of the time, they end in factionalism and disintegration.
Regardless of the obstacles, the archetype of the healing community environment persists in our hearts and our bones.