Healing vs Curing: Integrating Indigenous Wisdom into Therapy
The heart of my practice is the integration of Indigenous wisdom into a modern psychological and therapeutic context. One of the things that distinguishes Indigenous wisdom from our current medical model is the focus that the Indigenous world places on healing, which is in contrast to the medical model, which for the most part is focused on finding a cure for ailments and disease. While these two words seem similar, there are differences in philosophy, understanding of what suffering is, and goals for treatment based on these different approaches. As my practice is based on the idea of healing, I thought I would offer some thoughts on what healing is and how it pertains to the therapeutic process.
Healing is an often misunderstood concept especially in modern culture. The word healing can call to mind some kind of miraculous or explained cure for an ailment, and this cure is often spiritual in nature. In western culture, the world healer may call up images of faith healers or medicine men and women engaged in ritual practices on behalf of another person. While these very well could be manifestations of healing, what I want to talk about in this blog post is a more fundamental understanding of the world healing as and what this means for anyone engaging in the therapeutic process.
The word healing comes has a German origin and means to make whole. So to engage in a healing process is to come back to a place of wholeness or completeness. It implies some kind of journey from a place of incompleteness to a place of unification and oneness. This gives us some clue as to what true healing looks like and what the process might entail. For something to be whole or complete, it has to include everything without exclusion. There can't be any parts that are missing or excluded.
We all have parts of our experience that we like and other parts of our experience which we wish didn't exist. We may have things about ourselves that we hate, or have had traumatic experiences which we wish didn't happen. We may have done things to others that we find unforgivable and feel tremendous guilt or shame. When these parts of ourselves are too overwhelming, scary or unacceptable, we banish them out of our conscious awareness with the hopes that they will just go away. This creates conflict between the parts of ourselves that we like (and identify with) and the ones that are not accepted. An internal Us vs Them dynamic is created. Instead of being harmonious our internal world becomes a place of discord and strife.
All of us have had experiences where we have been excluded from a group and know how painful this can be, and the same holds true for our inner world as well. Whenever we disconnect or exclude any part of ourselves, this causes a tremendous amount of internal emotional pain. This pain of disconnection then adds to pain that we are already holding from our original overwhelming experiences that we were trying to get away from.
As this pain increases, we try to manage it in a number of different ways: by stuffing it down, numbing it out, trying to distract ourselves from it, or by trying to live our life in such a way that the pain is never touched. All of these strategies come from a positive place of wanting to be free of pain and at some point in our lives they were the best option that we had.
As human beings, we are wired for keeping things as they are and so it can take quite a dramatic wake up call to jolt us out of a state of homeostasis. This wake up call is usually extremely uncomfortable; psychologically it can look like anxiety, depression, feeling out of control or lost, it can show up as an addiction or other experiences which are diagnosed as “mental illness”. A wake up call can also manifest physically in the form of an injury or illness. Far from being experiences which indicate that there is something wrong with us, experiences of dis-ease or suffering are invitations to greater wholeness or healing. Instead of being something to get rid of, they are messages to be explored, embraced and ultimately understood.
Seeing the suffering we are experiencing as having value is in itself a healing. It also serves as the starting point for engaging in the further healing work of integrating the disconnected and painful parts of ourselves. If any of us could make this philosophical and energetic shift entirely by ourselves, we would, but for most of us, we need additional support and help in making this shift until we have the ability to do this on our own. This is where having an experienced ally on our side can be extremely helpful.
The role of the healer in a therapeutic process is to aid another person in their journey by first seeing them as whole and complete as they are, to help them to access the experience of wholeness within themselves, and then to provide expertise, support and the resources that a person needs to compassionately reintegrate the their disconnected parts or painful experiences. Ultimately, healing is a transformational process: the goal is not only the elimination of the symptoms, but by going through the healing process a person becomes more compassionate, more resilient, filled with purpose, and are able to be a healing resource for others.
To circle back to the original question around the nature of a healing process and why this is important in the context of psychotherapy, a healing process involves some kind of transformation, growth and empowerment through the acceptance and compassionate embrace of experiences that were at one point in time disconnected. This is in stark contrast to the idea of curing, in which the goal is return someone to the status quo, or to a previous state before the symptoms manifested, but the person does not fundamentally transform in any meaningful way.
Every counselor or therapist has a different background and way of looking at the experience of suffering and their background will influence the work that you do together. Some take a more curative approach and others will help you engage in a healing process. It is important for to be able to know what you are getting in to and what to expect as the goals of each of these approaches are different and each have their strengths. As I stated before, my approach is to help you engage in a healing process, one which will not only mitigate your symptoms, but will help you connect more deeply with yourself, your world and your deep sense of well being.