Philosophy of Healing

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Medical procedures, technology and pharmacological products can be powerful and effective health interventions. They can also suggest that healing is externally induced. But an alternative view is that healing comes from within. Belief that healing is innate, and thus may be stimulated but not ‘caused’ by external agents, dates to Hippocrates. It also applies to physical, as well as psychological, complaints. From this perspective, while antibiotics may appear to  have ‘caused’ recovery from, for example, bacterial pneumonia, Andrew Weil (2003:9) points out that such treatment actually ‘facilitated innate mechanisms of defense and regeneration that restored the balance of health’.

While healing comes from within, it is not a solitary process. As social beings, we need and affect others. To require someone in distress to heal ‘alone’ (even if this were possible) would be to deprive them of vital components of healing. It would also risk compounding their distress. Yet it is ironic that a strong belief in our culture is that we should deal with emotional strain ‘by ourselves’. With the possible exceptions of natural disasters and physical accident and injury, the view that we should ‘just get on with it’ tends to prevail.

There are many ways in which healing can be activated, and many methods of assisting it. The underlying philosophy of healing to which I subscribe stems from a view of the person as relational, as distinct from self-sufficient and ‘autonomous’. This might sound basic, and even obvious (we’re all connected, right?) But it is in stark contrast to the scenario described above, in which someone in pain may be expected to heal by themselves.

The philosophy that we are fundamentally and necessarily connected to others is actually at odds with a key tenet of our culture – namely belief (I would say myth) that we should be self-sufficient and independent. By contrast, I see it as the other way around – if we are feeling isolated and detached, that is likely to be a problem.

To coexist in healthy equilibrium – i.e. to function optimally – our various capacities require both individual effort and cultural support. To the extent that the values of our culture are more problematic than we are socialised to believe, they can compromise, as much as facilitate, emotional well-being. For example, self-blame is a common feature of depression. This is despite differences in age, gender, socio-economic status, family experience and so on. Ideas about how we ‘should’ be may be unrealistic, and do not come from ourselves alone. But when we fail to achieve them, we blame ourselves and become depressed. This is about much more than individual misperception. Depression in our society is conceptualised, perceived and experienced as personal, because our taken-for-granted values give us little option than to read ourselves and our symptoms through the individualist lens.

We know – as we cannot help but know – that we are connected to others. But in a culture which remains strongly individualistic, we often feel differently (i.e. that we ‘should’ be autonomous, self-sufficient and independent). There is a frequent gap between how we experience ourselves and how we feel we ‘should’ be. In terms of the unease this generates, the costs to our psychological well-being are high.

A different premise: emotional well-being in a problematic culture

My approach represents a shift of perspective in a society that routinely regards psychological problems and emotional distress as ‘personal’. Despite increased recognition of the extent to which we are relational beings, narrowly individualistic premises remain prevalent in the field of mental health.

For example, it is common in many forms of therapy to uncover and examine the faulty beliefs of the individual client (i.e. with a view to challenging and replacing these with attitudes more conducive to well-being). But I believe we also labour under the faulty beliefs of our culture. This is particularly with respect to how we ‘should’ be, in which distorted conceptions of autonomy, separateness, self-sufficiency and ‘success’ are not only wrongly implied to stem from the individual, but can actually make us ill. Much of the distress experienced in our society is collective and shared, although ‘individualised’ and ‘privatised’ in accordance with an individualistic value system. See Living under Liberalism.

This also extends to the ways in which distress is treated, as well as (mis)understood.

Wholeness and healing in a fragmented culture

So how do we both heal and promote well-being? The ability to integrate our various functions and capacities (i.e. to maintain stability and flexibility) is a key indicator of mental health (Siegel, 2012:A1-40). It has also long been the goal of much therapeutic work. Interestingly and excitingly, the capacity of psychotherapy to foster increased neural integration is now borne out by the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience (Cozolino, 2002).

In recent years, and as popularised by Goleman (1995) the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ (whereby ‘head’ and ‘heart’ operate in a more balanced way) has also gained ground. The challenge of achieving integration and equilibrium – in the wider culture we inhabit as well as taking account of our ‘individual’ specifics – again underlines what we are up against in attempting to maintain and sustain emotional health.

Thinking and feeling, as neuroscientific studies are constantly refining, also correspond to different parts of the brain. Since our neural pathways are interconnected, reference to ‘separate’ parts of the brain is illegitimate. But reference to both a limbic (emotional) and cortical (cognitive) brain is common. Servan-Schreiber (2004:41) points out that emotional intelligence is ‘best expressed when the two systems – the cortical and the limbic brain – constantly co-operate’. The question becomes one of how this might be done; of how coherence and integration of these dimensions can be encouraged.

This is the task in which we need to be proactive, because ‘integration’ and ‘coherence’ are fragile entities in modern society. We need to learn ways to heal the disjunctures which work against integration of our different capacities, and towards the ‘wholeness’ that is emblematic of health. While not ‘caused’ by society, such disjunctures are in many ways compounded by it. Yet there are a range of things we can do to assist integration, and thereby healing.

 

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Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ (New York, Bantam, 1995).
Lee, R. & Wheeler, G., ed. The Voice of Shame: Silence and Connection in Psychotherapy (Cambridge, MA: Gestalt Press, 2003).
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Servan-Schreiber, D. Healing Without Freud or Prozac (London: Rodale, 2004).
Siegel, D.J. Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology (new York: Norton, 2012).
Stavropoulos, P. Living under Liberalism: The Politics of Depression in Western Democracies (FL: Universal, 2008).
Weil, A. Healer: Transforming the Inner and Outer Wounds (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2003).
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