Notebook: Healing the Whole Person

In this post (one of several I think of as notebook entries) I’ve put together several ideas about healing that underlie the work of Michael Lerner and Rachel Naomi Remen. What sets them apart for me are their insights about the comprehensive process by which people not only learn to live with chronic illness but often change their whole orientation to life.

Their work at the Commonweal Cancer Help Center was featured in the final segment of Bill Moyers’ Healing and the Mind, the book version of the PBS series of the early 1990s. More recently, I’ve been drawn to Rachel Naomi Remen’s stories dramatizing the healing process in her Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings.

Their approach to healing caught my attention when I was dealing with cancer. Since then, I’ve found it especially powerful in helping to heal the severe, chronic depression that has damaged my life far more than cancer ever could – despite all the fear aroused by that diagnosis. But the process of healing from both became for me a life changing experience. That is the focus of their work on healing, addressing the challenge to the will to life itself.

Here are a few of my notes about what I’ve learned from their work. I don’t claim that these interpretations do justice to their ideas, especially those of Rachel Naomi Remen. She expresses her insights through brief yet moving stories rather than abstract explanations. They make an emotional connection that thinking can only catch up with later on.

Those connections have helped keep me going through many years of trying to get my life back from depression. Most important, they’ve given me a broader sense of what recovery is all about. Instead of focusing on symptoms, I’ve learned to see the process in terms of my whole life.

(Page references are to Healing and the Mind, unless otherwise noted.)

  1. Healing and Curing: There’s an important difference between healing and curing. In their view, curing deals with the symptoms of disease at the biological level. That’s the main concern of scientific medicine in the western tradition. Healing, on the other hand, deals with the whole person, at emotional, mental and spiritual as well as physical and biological levels.

    This is like the distinction that is often made between disease and illness. Disease refers to the biomedical symptoms and changes in biological processes within the body. Illness is the human experience of the disease. A hundred people can have the same symptoms of a disease but have completely different experiences of those biological changes in terms of the subjective awareness of the illness. As Michael Lerner puts it:

    For a cure to work in mainstream medicine, the biological and psychobiological healing response of the individual has to be functioning. Healing comes from inner resources. … [A]t the very simple biological level, mainstream medicine does not make a wound heal. It creates the conditions under which the tissue can knit back together. What we bring to the encounter with any life-threatening illness is our healing resources, our healing potential. (p. 324)

    Lerner emphasizes that western scientific medicine and alternative treatments should go hand in hand. In fact, he doesn’t use the word “alternative” but prefers “complementary” or “adjunctive.” By combining western medicine, meditation, acupuncture, exercise and nutrition, for example, healing can take place on many levels. Each person needs to find the right treatments through their own experience rather than automatically ruling anything out.

  2. Empowerment: One of the turning points for me was feeling a sense of empowerment and believing that I needed to make my own decisions about treatment, rather than wait for a medical prescription to make me feel better. I’ve tended to express this in terms of taking charge, fighting back, becoming my own best champion of recovery, etc. Rachel Remen sees that change as an important effect of empowerment but turns her attention to the inner process that makes it possible. Fear has to be taken away first.

    It [the Commonweal program] doesn’t take the cancer away. It takes the fear away. And when the fear is taken away, people are empowered to deal with whatever they need to deal with and to seek and find meaning in the events of their lives.

  3. Letting Go:A strange resistance to healing can also block that sense of inner strength and empowerment. I’ve heard many describe this as a fear of being defeated by depression. Talking about it with a therapist, for example, would only pull them into it more deeply and concede its reality. Referring to it as a disability at work would be a colossal surrender and admission of humiliating weakness. In my case, that resistance usually took the form of denial, even when the stress of dealing with the inner turmoil was unbearable.

    Somehow, the resistance needs to be released so that healing has a chance to begin. In My Grandfather’s Blessings, Remen tells the story of a man who refused treatment because he felt that by accepting the need for it, he’d be surrendering authority over himself to the illness. He thought of the disease as a great black hole, and he resisted being pulled into it with all his strength. However, when he imagined himself letting go and being drawn into this hole, in its darkness he found a profound healing.” (p. 41)

    Too often I hear people talking about “letting go” as a simple decision, like releasing a balloon to float away. This story brings out the great sense of risk involved and the courage to accept the loss of control. Ultimately, I think everyone has to take that chance on the unknown in order to heal.

  4. Trust and Healing Relationships: Though I have usually seen myself as a loner while trying to recover, the process can’t occur solely within the individual. That’s been a hard one for me to recognize, not only because I’m such an introvert, but also because most therapists and natural healers work with me one-on-one and concentrate only on what’s happening during a session. But in a larger sense, recovery is about relationships. Rebuilding trust and the ability to talk openly with my wife, for example, has been critical to getting better.

    Learning from the online community has also been important, largely because we share such deep experiences with depression. We’ve all been there and know exactly what the problems are – no jargon, no theory, no fixing by a professional, just the honest exchanges among people who can trust each other, despite the fact that the relationship is all online. Remen puts it this way.

    Healing is natural. It’s not something I [as a doctor] do to you but something that is mutual, that comes out of the integrity of the relationship between us. So both of us will be healed in the process. … All people are wounded, but the people who come here can’t cover it up the way the rest of us do … And because the participants can’t cover up their woundedness, … they can trust each other. … I can trust another person only if I can sense that they, too, have woundedness, have pain, have fear. Out of that trust we can begin to pay attention to our wounds and to each other’s wounds – and to heal and be healed.

For a long time, I could only think about getting rid of the symptoms of depression. They were slowly killing me off, and stopping them was the only goal I had. Yet, it wasn’t until I shifted my attention to wellbeing and the ways I needed to change my outlook on life as a whole that recovery of any sort started to take hold. Where are you in this long process of trying to end depression?

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