Curing A Symptom Or Healing A Life?
There is an important distinction to be made between curing and healing. To cure is to fix a particular part. Allopathy—Western medicine—is particularly good at doing this, offering drugs and surgery so that disease, illness, or physical problems can be repressed, eliminated, or removed. It plays a vital role in alleviating suffering and is superb at saving lives and applying curative aid. This is invaluable. However, the World Health Organisation defines health as complete physical, mental, and social well-being. This is not the same as simply being without symptoms or illness. Rather, it implies a deeper state of wellness that goes beyond being cured of a particular infirmity.
This is where we enter the realm of healing. “If you look no further than getting rid of what is wrong, you may never deal with what has brought your life to a standstill,” says a patient in Marc Barasch’s The Healing Path. “The thing you want to heal from may be the very thing you need to focus on in order to learn something.” Whereas a patient remains passive when cured by someone else, healing is an involved activity, less dependent on external circumstances than on the work we are prepared to do within ourselves. As Dr. Bernie Siegel explains in Peace, Love and Healing: “It is the body that heals, not the medicine.”
To be healed means to become whole. This is not possible if we are only concerned with the individual part that needs to be cured. “The word salvation is derived from the Latin word salvus, which means heal and whole,” says Paul Tillich in The Meaning of Health. “Salvation is basically and essentially healing, the re-establishment of a whole that was broken, disrupted, disintegrated.” Becoming whole means bringing all of ourselves into the light, leaving nothing in the dark, no matter how disturbing or painful it may be. It is embracing all the parts we have ignored, denied, tried to push away or eliminate. So, to heal is to bring all of this into the conscious mind, into our hearts, into our lives. As long as we reject parts of ourselves, we are not whole and cannot be healed.
Determining Our Priorities
Healing is a journey we all share, for in our own ways we are all wounded. Whether the wounds are visible or not, we each have our story. A psychological wound is no different than a physical one; emotional hurts are real and often just as painful. Most of us become very good at hiding our wounds, not just from others but also from ourselves. When physical difficulties arise, we invariably look for a cure while continuing to repress the inner pain. But when we want to know ourselves better, to find our wholeness, then the journey really begins.
This asks that we look at and question our priorities–the things that are really important to us, that figure most in our lives. Many people feel that their first priority is the welfare and safety of their loved ones, but beyond that our priorities can get a bit vague. For some, making money or succeeding in their career is near the top of the list, for others it is near the bottom. For some, religion and religious activities are important, while others do not mention this aspect of life at all. Beyond family, work, and religion, what else is there? Ourselves?
Society has two contrasting yet deeply ingrained attitudes. One is that we should direct all our energy toward the care of others; to think of ourselves first is self-centred and egotistical. Although this attitude is a very caring one, it can also be very detrimental. It can lead to guilt trips, power games, blame, shame, and resentment. By putting others first and ourselves last we create a situation where we easily become exhausted, unwell, and unable to give; then we pass our own dissatisfaction on to others.
The alternative attitude is that we should always think of ourselves first, focusing our lives on fulfilling our own needs. This would work if, after recognising our own requirements, we then turned our attention to caring for and helping others. Sadly, this is not usually the case. The “me first” syndrome does not often include others; rather it is based on greed, selfishness, prejudice and manipulation. Invariably, this gives rise to anger, loneliness, and fear.
For healing to take place, we have to put ourselves on our list of priorities— not in a self-centred way but as an act of selflessness. When we put ourselves on the list we are saying that our love for others is so strong that we want to be able to really give by being in the most healed state possible. In this sense, healing ourselves is the most selfless thing we can do.
The following is a note written by Irene, a woman who came to a workshop Eddie and I were teaching. She couldn’t talk due to a throat operation, but her eyes spoke volumes:
Hello, I’m Irene. I have been extraordinarily ill and nearly dead on many occasions. I have been unkind to myself and always good to others with no thought of myself. In the last year I have felt bliss three times. I now have the complete set of pain, fear, love, bliss, life and death. I’d like to heal my life this time round. I have felt such love from others while I was ill that it has made me start to love myself.
Looking at priorities means asking why we are really here, what our lives are about, and what gives us our sense of purpose or direction. Is it just to raise a family, make money, retire, play with the grandchildren and then it’s over? This certainly brings great joy, but it can also leave an aching emptiness inside, due to unacknowledged longings and dreams. What happened to the athletic teenager who loved to run across the fields and is now trapped inside an overweight and rarely exercised body? What happened to the paintings you never did, to the musical instrument you never learnt, to the novel you never wrote? What happened to the pain you felt when your mother died? What happened to the anger you felt toward the uncle who fondled you? Why is it so hard to spend time alone?
Illness confronts us with many of these questions. We have choices: we can take a pill and carry on as before; we can have surgery and repress our feelings. Or we can begin to become whole. If we only take a pill or have the surgery then we are ignoring a wonderful opportunity to find a deeper level of joy and freedom within. Are you willing to forgive yourself for a past mistake, or is it easier to feel guilty and suffer the recurring backache?
Healing means letting go of resistance, of the barriers that have been constructed, of the layers of self-protection, of ingrained patterns of thinking and behaviour, of repressive control over our feelings, of all the ways we have held on and to what we have been holding on to. Think about all our habitual ways of being: putting other’s needs first, not thinking about ourselves, staying so busy there is no time in which to be alone, or focusing only on the financial and material aspects of life. Healing is releasing the holds and breathing into the space that is left behind. “So our path becomes a letting go of that which blocks the path,” writes Stephen Levine in Healing Into Life and Death. “Healing is not forcing the sun to shine, but letting go of the personal separatism, the self-images, the resistance to change, the fear and anger, the confusion that forms the opaque armouring around the heart.”