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The Healer

Posted on September 26, 2013

First, off I would like to welcome our new friends from California.  It was great meeting you all at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council’s Regional Training last week.  Your sunshine was a needed relief from the rains of Colorado.  Also, I’m excited to be going back to Seattle this week to work with the Washington State Department of Health HIV Client Services to bring our Medical Case Management Certificate Program.  Always love being in the Northwest and can’t wait for a great couple days training.
Let’s continue our examination of the Pu’uhonua by looking at the healer.  It is believed that the power of the Pu’uhonua came from two sources.  First, it was supported by the royalty of the community. Often the bones of kings and other valuable objects were stored at the Pu’uhonua.  These powerful symbols helped demonstrate the importance of the Pu’uhonua and the role it played in traditional Hawaiian society.
It is the second source of power I’m more interested in the power of the healer.  While the state could provide physical safety, this is just a small part of true sanctuary.  A fort or even a prison could have easily provided safety.  I believe the true power of the Pu’uhonua came from the healing that happened within it walls.  The state provided the safety but the healer gave the Pu’uhonua a sense of the scared.
Healers have gone by many names over many millennium: psychologist, shaman, case manager, witch doctor, physician, medicine woman, priest, and the list can go on and on throughout human history.  Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what distinguishes the healers of our past from the therapists and medical professionals of today.
Today’s “healers” have segmented themselves by discipline and skill set.  While this might have increased the depth of expertise of the healer, I also have to also wonder whether we lost something in this transition.  To simplify the role of the traditional healer…if you had a problem you went to the healer to help solve it.  Through the use of diverse interventions the healer used herbs, prayer, magic, drugs and many other tools to treat a vast range of “presenting problems.”
As we started specializing our knowledge, we gained a great deal.  The scientific process has improved both the quality and length of our lives. However, I wonder if we are now missing something just as important.  The healers of old could “see” the whole person.  We now go to one place for our medical health, another for dental care, another for our mental well-being and yet another for our spiritual healing.  Somewhere along the line we not only divided the act of healing; we also divided the patient into similar segmented parts. 
On one level, we have seen the error of our ways.  An emerging focus on integrated care has shown the positive outcomes of treating the needs of the person in a more coherent delivery model.  Holistic health has given us alternatives to just taking a pill.  We are starting to get hard data to support the benefits of yoga, meditation and acupuncture. But are we still missing something?
On my recent trip to Orange County I found myself engaged in great conversations with a diverse group medical professionals.  I had just presented a workshop on applying quantum mechanics to how we look at healing and behavioral change. With the mix of my crazy presentation and a few glasses of wine the conversation took an interesting turn. Gradually the conversation shifted to a concept I brought up in my workshop about reexamining our role as healers. As we talked about the word “healing,” stories emerged both personally and professionally of the power of healing that is rarely talked about in open company. 
We took turns giving examples of the impact yoga, meditation, spiritual healing, acupuncture, massage and other “alternative” healing had on our own lives.  Experiences that were difficult to explain or quantify but impossible to ignore or discount.  As doctors, nurses, and researchers, many of us shared similar experiences that had transformed us.
The question then got posed why don’t our clients have the same opportunity to experience the power of these healing methods? We cannot really blame a lack of data; many of these methods have documented outcomes that rival, if not surpass, traditional talk therapies. We could find blame in funding, but more and more foundations and funders are starting to support “alternative” interventions. After we all tossed around a few more ideas about our inability to integrate alternative interventions, we found we were left with one conclusion.  We were not integrating alternative or holistic interventions because we had no idea how to talk about them. 

Our field has a long history of struggling with the spiritual. I can’t help but wonder what we lost that was present in the Pu’uhonua?  Empowered by the state and supported by the community, the healer took in the outcast and performed ceremonies and rituals to cleanse and heal.  We may never fully know the nature of these traditional practices but it was powerful enough on political, social and individual level to transform the outcast into an accepted member of the community.  To me this is magic.

6 responses to “The Healer”

  1. yesse says:

    I was helping with some interviews this week for an open position at one of our offices, and the candidates all had their MSW degrees. Not to say everyone with an advanced degree/position is guilty of this, but there was a considerable amount of ego in the room during those interviews. This may be my own organizational culture, rather than the culture of modern healers, but I think it’s relevant 🙂

    Interviewing the MSWs reminded me of how frustrating the ego can be in this line of work we all share, and yet we cling to it to establish ourselves and make our money. From my perspective, we haven’t created as much room in this line of work for the value of meditation, yoga, and holistic healing, as we have for clinicians and experts in specialized topics.

    Yoga & meditation are what I use to find my sanity & healing from the demands of my work, even though (or because) I work in a world of clinicians and experts…but I wonder if folks in our field would find it laughable to assign a yoga teacher the same therapeutic value as a licensed therapist? It seems to me that our ego about the value and worth of our work is a barrier to realizing the wisdom of other healers.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Brilliant point. Just reading this made me think of how our modern art/science has struggled to find our own relevance and place in society. Over time, with some notable exceptions like Jung, we moved against the historical view that mental illness was a primarily spiritual phenomena. In order to move back to a more balanced view we have to have the courage to look at ourselves. As you put so well, our ego, and the ego investment we put in our expertise, can blind us to the holistic needs of our clients.

    • I also practice yoga and meditation. Both practices help me see my ego. Help me see my fear. Help me see and understand the use of power. I have to wonder if the ego we see and our dependence on title and professional degrees isn’t rooted in fear. We choose power-over others rather than creating environments of power-with others (which requires vulnerability).

      I was recently in a yoga workshop with an Iyengar yoga teacher from India. We were practicing inversions that were more advanced than what I practice on a regular basis. The room was full of students from all levels of ability (including many teachers). The teacher had us all watch as she helped a woman get into headstand. The woman succeeded in the pose, the room applauded and congratulated her. There was no sense of ego from any of the advanced students. Being on the spot like this could have been a source of embarrassment and maybe even ostracism for this woman. Instead the entire room was clearly genuinely happy and supportive. It felt like all present understood that we all grow when any one of us grows in our practice. This is what I wish for our services….

  2. yesse says:

    I was helping with some interviews this week for an open position at one of our offices, and the candidates all had their MSW degrees. Not to say everyone with an advanced degree/position is guilty of this, but there was a considerable amount of ego in the room during those interviews. This may be my own organizational culture, rather than the culture of modern healers, but I think it’s relevant 🙂

    Interviewing the MSWs reminded me of how frustrating the ego can be in this line of work we all share, and yet we cling to it to establish ourselves and make our money. From my perspective, we haven’t created as much room in this line of work for the value of meditation, yoga, and holistic healing, as we have for clinicians and experts in specialized topics.

    Yoga & meditation are what I use to find my sanity & healing from the demands of my work, even though (or because) I work in a world of clinicians and experts…but I wonder if folks in our field would find it laughable to assign a yoga teacher the same therapeutic value as a licensed therapist? It seems to me that our ego about the value and worth of our work is a barrier to realizing the wisdom of other healers.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Brilliant point. Just reading this made me think of how our modern art/science has struggled to find our own relevance and place in society. Over time, with some notable exceptions like Jung, we moved against the historical view that mental illness was a primarily spiritual phenomena. In order to move back to a more balanced view we have to have the courage to look at ourselves. As you put so well, our ego, and the ego investment we put in our expertise, can blind us to the holistic needs of our clients.

    • I also practice yoga and meditation. Both practices help me see my ego. Help me see my fear. Help me see and understand the use of power. I have to wonder if the ego we see and our dependence on title and professional degrees isn’t rooted in fear. We choose power-over others rather than creating environments of power-with others (which requires vulnerability).

      I was recently in a yoga workshop with an Iyengar yoga teacher from India. We were practicing inversions that were more advanced than what I practice on a regular basis. The room was full of students from all levels of ability (including many teachers). The teacher had us all watch as she helped a woman get into headstand. The woman succeeded in the pose, the room applauded and congratulated her. There was no sense of ego from any of the advanced students. Being on the spot like this could have been a source of embarrassment and maybe even ostracism for this woman. Instead the entire room was clearly genuinely happy and supportive. It felt like all present understood that we all grow when any one of us grows in our practice. This is what I wish for our services….

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