What does it mean to heal? How can one heal themselves? The term healing is widely used but poorly understood. Doctors are known as healers and medicine is considered a healing tradition, but within this tradition, there is no objective definition or explanation of the healing process beyond the physiological.
The merge between medicine and science has allowed physicians and doctors to intervene in the spread of disease, prevent illness and cure ailments. And this attention on diagnosis, treatment and prevention has shifted the focus to cure, not care. In the process, something more profound is ignored.
Healing goes beyond the body to encompass the mind, spirit and environment, and these elements are often disregarded within western cultures in the practice of modern medicine. Healing is associated with ideas of wholeness, narrative and spirituality and involves the reordering of an “individual’s sense of position in the universe”. It is defined as “a process in the service of the evolution of the whole personality towards ever greater and more complex wholeness”.
So it can be understood as an intensely personal and subjective experience, but one involving changes in how an individual perceives their life and life events to create meaning in terms of their wholeness as a person. Focus is placed on social organization, identity, purpose and growth. Healing refers to a plethora of variables, not simply on one element or another — the body, or the external — but a combination of body, mind, spirit and environment. Hence, the right conditions arise for healing.
This understanding of healing has an affinity to different cultures, and some cultures focus on specific elements, including connection to nature and environment as the source of healing. Indigenous cultures worldwide particularly share common truths in their healing knowledge, that we are not disconnected from the natural world; we depend on it for our health, well-being, and growth. But we are also interconnected within ourselves and the world around us. The illusion of individuality is erased. Though we are born individually, one cannot forget we grew from another being. Our very existence is tied to the people around us, and as we grow, our well-being is also dependent on the people and environment surrounding us.
Traditional forms of medicine place overwhelming responsibility on the individual. One cannot deny the important role an individual has in their health and well-being, but responsibility also needs to be allocated toward finding other sources of healing. Healing starts within oneself but becomes accelerated with the presence of the right conditions and environment. Responsibility reorients itself away from solving all one’s problems, to actively seeking, creating and re-creating the right conditions for healing to process. Healing comes from understanding one’s place and connection with the world. We certainly do have a place and connection. We are not alone in our journeys of healing and connection.
Research shows there are three aspects to the process of healing: healing comes from within and moves outward, starting initially within the individual and moving towards family and community; to heal is to successfully address all parts of life simultaneously and keep them in balance; and that healing may start from particular programs but must move towards more holistic practices involving the community because it is more than a sum of individual parts.
Often it is also about the readiness to heal. Within an individual, there needs to be a recognition of the problem, motivation to create change, and willingness to take responsibility. But while individuals have feelings and intuition within themselves, how about a community? Who determines whether a society is ready? The only answer that comes is the community itself. It is the responsibility of a community to reach a level of consensus to create social change. A small group within a community may be enough to initiate the process of healing. Society and culture become important spaces for healing.
Neuroscience research shows how cultural practices including dance, art, song and storytelling engage a part of the brain that manages emotion and memory. These influence human cognitive processes including “perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving.” Research from the National Library of Medicine shows:
“Emotion has a powerful influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior … Emotion also facilitates encoding and helps retrieval of information.”
Underlying these cultural activities are core messages and values that derive from cultural knowledge and the knowledge of our ancestors. Being involved in these activities and engaging with others in a meaningful and productive way is secondary to understanding the core values on which these activities are grounded. Values of connection, togetherness, learning and growth are some of these values. By recognizing these values and the importance of cultural knowledge, one can more clearly understand people’s learned experiences and lived realities. A well-connected social system emerges from these foundations.
But in multicultural urban settings, we face a situation where many have only a shallow connection to their culture or access only through parental figures and close family members. There is no awareness outside of these familial spaces. Each tends to keep to themselves, placing walls and boundaries between themselves and the unfamiliar or historically ruptured relations. Even within certain cultures, divisions created are maintained till today. The space for collective healing becomes closed. A social system that should foster connections among all groups becomes ruptured.
Globalization also influences the pace of "cultural confrontation, challenge and change". The world presents to us numerous world views and ways of living that undermine the values and knowledge of certain traditional cultures. We face contradiction, confusion and confrontation navigating through a society that is in constant flux and change. Systems of healing that are particular to culture are dismissed and deemed backward. Ways of knowing, understanding and being are being challenged, stretched and strained. Within these spaces, we become lost.
Where do we turn to when the way we used to live and see the world becomes uprooted? How do we find our way?
Traditional theories of human relations push forward the idea that psychological development means moving toward independence, self-sufficiency and separation. In many ways, this reflects western and Eurocentric thought. Most psychological theories suggest that people change from dependence to independence and that “mature” functioning is the capacity to be logical, rational, separate view from emotion, and independent thinking. But these cultural biases are rarely acknowledged within everyday relations because there is a sense that these elements are empowering, and anything other is wrong.
Relational-cultural theory (RCT) emphasizes that “maturity involves growth toward connection and relationship throughout the life span”. It proposes an alternative way of thinking that starts with the premise that humans are inherently relational beings and that our relational nature drives us to “grow through and toward connection.” Jean Baker Miller created the term “growth-fostering relationships” to symbolize the relationships where active participation by all parties leads to “mutual development”. Dr Judith Jordan stated in a blog there are five characteristics of these growth-fostering relations: zest, clarity, a sense of worth, productivity, and a desire for more connection.
RCT holds that when we honor our authentic feelings and find “respect, responsiveness, and empathic attunement,” we build a sense of trust in our relations with others and within ourselves. The theory describes how when disconnections are disregarded, and a person is treated as if they do not matter, that individual learns to mold themselves according to the powerful others in their life — parents for children, bosses for employees. The misunderstood person becomes less authentic, maturity ebbs and disconnection becomes chronic. Feelings of depression, low energy, confusion, isolation and self-blame ensure. They are a natural reaction to the feelings and experiences the individual dealt with.
Through connection, the impact of childhood experiences becomes radically essential. RCT describes the process of chronic disconnections and how it is built when empathetically failing and non-responsive relationships in childhood shape expectations within all mature relationships. This lack of connection takes an emotional, physical and biological toll. Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT) shows that the pain of social exclusion is equal to physical pain. In other words, relationships are essential to human survival. Though this sentiment is widely shared, sometimes it takes science and research to understand the gravity of this statement.
A study involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants has identified characteristics of a healing society, including involvement in the community, a sense of trust, caring and sharing among community members, positive parenting and sharing of intergenerational knowledge and wisdom, openness and communication without blame or shame, role expectations and taking responsibility, and a sense of connection and sensitivity. Though this study is relatively old, published in 1994 and specific to communities in Canada, there are elements to be learned and adopted.
This way of thinking brings relationships to the forefront of human psychology, as a means of meaning and empowerment. Self-interest becomes a social prescription rather than a biological imperative. When it comes to healing through culture, it becomes about the people. Through connection, culture is created and re-created. It is about embracing the change and flux in culture, society and the world that previously made one feel lost.
These theories are essential in showing us we need relationships like we need air and water. This theory teaches us that when society sets up expectations that do not align with our neurobiology, including glamourizing self-sufficiency and separating thought from emotion, it creates emotional distress and physical illness. So we need to engage and participate in our relationships in a way that goes beyond simply needing others to take care of us, but relations of mutual empathy and resonance. This is a way of building community and learning to heal.
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