The Post-Modern Healer
Plutarch tells the famous story of the death of Pan: A ship was sailing among the Ionian islands, and when it passed by the isle of Paxos, a voice was heard from the shore. "Thamus, Thamus, Thamus," the voice rang out. "The great Pan is dead." When the people on board heard this news, they wept and moaned. This strange event happened during the reign of Tiberius, during the lifetime of Jesus.
The roots of the modern way of life could be traced back to this remarkable moment when, it was said, the god of nature's vitality died. Tradition says that Pan died the moment Jesus was crucified, at the birth of Christianity. And it does appear, from a certain point of view, that the death of Pan marked the end of paganism, the victory of Christianity. But it is always a tragedy when one religious sensibility wins out over another, because each spiritual achievement, developed over centuries of intellectual and moral struggle, has its validity and value. Perhaps now is the time to recover, in a new way, compatible with Christianity, the vision and sensibility that accompanied the piety associated with Pan.
Like all mythic deities, Pan had two sides. He represented the intense dance of life but he could also be felt in panic and fear. Ancient writers often punned on his name, which means "all" in Greek. In a way, all the gods and goddesses found life in him.
We are now on the cusp between the philosophy of modernism, with its belief in research, technology, and a materialistic, ego-centered view of the world, and some new development in vision. I believe that some of our depression is a carry-over of the lament for the death of Pan, for the end of vitality in ourselves and in the world around us. Here I'd like to consider what psychotherapy would look like if we pushed further into a new paradigm in which Pan might be resurrected in a certain way. Of course, I'm not talking about a new religion, but a new sensibility, a new way, rooted in the ancient vision, of caring for the life in ourselves and in our world. I'm going to propose a few principles for such a renewed view of psychotherapy or care of the soul.
1. THERAPY IS A TECHNOLOGY OF THE SACRED THAT ADDRESSES THE MYSTERY OF ILLNESS. Modern life is Promethean, or, as Rafael Lopez-Pedraza has said, titanic. We have lost a sense of basic order and limits. We are guilty of hubris, believing that we can do anything and that in real life there are no gods to contend with, no limits, no preordained order. The oracle of the healing god Apollo said "thymou kratei," master your passions. I understand "master" to mean exercise with great skill. Don't let them be either completely repressed or completely unbound.
Today we see symptoms of our blindness to limits in cancer and AIDS, which are still beyond our reach. We also see them in modern terrorism, in which there is no human compassion to set limits on killing. The anonymity in modern warfare-smart bombs and high-flying war machines-is another example of hubris and the absence of humane limits.
Plato's book Euthyphro contains a passage about the meaning of the word "therapy." Socrates defines it as "waiting on the gods." His student Euthyphro adds, "If anyone knows how to say and do tings pleasing to the gods in prayer and sacrifice, that is holiness, and such behavior saves the family in private life together with the common interests of the state. To do the opposite of things pleasing to the gods is impious, and this it is that upsets all and ruins everything."
As Socrates describes it, therapy is a kind of technology (techne). Not the hardware that we think of now as technology, but skill and artfulness. In societies that have not gone secular, technology is a sacred method of dealing with the life of the soul and spirit.
An example is the life and work of the Oglala Sioux Black Elk. As a child he had an overwhelming vision of his grandparents and horses and various symbolic forms. After the vision he became weak and sickly and remained so until he found an old man with whom he could share his experiences. Then he applied the techne of his tradition: he painted his images on his teepee and clothes and organized rituals and dances based on his vision. He said of people who have such visions that they are "not able to use the power of it until after they have performed the vision on earth for the people to see." In particular, he pointed out the importance of seeing the community as a circle in the center of which stands a flowering tree. He makes a remarkable statement: "Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours."
Black Elk teaches how to read the mysterious law of nature and make poetry of it. This is a healing act, a sacred technology for caring for the soul and spirit. As a therapist, I look for the cycles and circles that spiral through a person's life, for the deep mysteries that create an identity and provide security.
I think that modern dis-ease is due to our being out of touch with the cyclical mysteries that define us. We no longer give service to the gods but do whatever we want to do with extreme unconsciousness. In this sense, I see psychotherapy and care of the soul as sacred technologies, a highly skilled and aware art of living based on the deep laws of life rather than on the anxious expectations of society, which are highly neurotic. I turn to dreams, honest stories, and highly symbolic acts to restore the soul and to heal.
2. HEALING BEGINS IN LIBERATING AND FOCUSING, WITH SOME FORM OF CATHARSIS. Religions around the world begin their services with rites of purification. A Sufi master washes his hands; a Catholic priest dips his fingers in water and makes a confession. The Greek scholar Jane Harrison said of the ancient worshiper that he or she had to "drink of Lethe, must present a clean sheet for the revelation to come." Lethe is the river of forgetfulness.
Today a person might well say, "I wish I could start over." They are saying that they want to taste the waters of Lethe and begin again. We say we want change, but the deep wish is for a fundamental, new beginning. Plato describes catharsis as the winnowing of grain and the clearing of land.
A student of mine once asked me to listen to a tape recording she had made of a therapy group. The people were all from families in which alcohol was a severe problem. The therapy session was primarily focused around music improvisation. Their instruments included two pianos, a cello, percussion instruments, and voices. I listened to the music and was mesmerized. I thought I heard insects, birds, leaves, and wind. The student said that her purpose was to release the creative potential in her patients. But I was more interested in the title given to the improvisation-meadow. I felt that these people transcended their immediate concerns in the music and found a clearing in their inner natural environment. I was reminded of paintings by Paul Klee I had just seen of gardens in no way representational and yet cathartic in their won way.
When we sit in a garden, or walk through one, we are discovering the Platonic garden, the garden of imagination, of our souls. We find ourselves in two intersecting worlds, outer and inner, and both refresh. Listen to the Eighth Precept of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus (our company Green Table Productions is named for it):
"Use your mind to its full extent and rise from Earth to Heaven, and then descend to Earth and combine the powers of what is above and what is below. Thus you will win glory in the whole world, and obscurity will leave you at once."
The dispelling of obscurity is, of course, the essence of catharsis.
3. POST-MODERN THERAPY IS VERTICAL, NOT LATERAL. The main Greek god of healing was Asklepios. He is often pictured with a snake curled around his staff or on the side of his chair. A coin from 350 B.C. minted in Epidauros shows a dog lying under his chair. The historian C. Kerenyi quotes an ancient interpreter who says, "Dogs are also snakes." Kerenyi explains that "these animals express the same psychic content." A testimony preserved from the temple of Asklepios reads: "A dog has cured a boy from Aigina. He had a growth on his neck. When he came to the god, one of the sacred dogs treated him with its tongue (the boy was awake) and made him well."
In a votive relief from 380 B.D. a physician treats a person's shoulder in the foreground, while a snake in the background has its mouth on the person's shoulder. Here the patient is lying in bed, probably asleep and dreaming.
Kerenyi says that the temple of Asklepios had a winding underground labyrinth at its lowest level, where water was brought up from a spring. The sick spent the night in these temples in a ritual called incubation, which took place in a building called the abaton, which means inaccessible, not to be violated, an inner sanctum.
How important it is even today to find an abaton, where we can incubate our troubles. A post-modern therapist can leave behind the heroics of modern method and use a new techne to evoke the abaton for his patient. Incubation-the conditions for fantasy, memory, dream and reverie-is the condition of healing. The person comes to our office as the patient, but the healing takes place in the background, the doctor not to be seen, the patient lying down on the bed, the snake slipping its tongue into the wound.
The animal's tongue is an image of speech that is not person and heroic. Animals don't speak, so their tongues heal without words, or without the usual forceful words. I thing words can evoke the silence of the animal, provided we don't try to say too much with them. At the temples of Asklepios, scribes carefully wrote down dreams and testimonies of cure, but they offered no interpretations, no explanations. In the post-modern era, we may have to use words to evoke rather than explain, to arrive at the arrheton, the holy secret. Mystery, myth, mystical-these words all come from the Greek word muo, meaning to close the eyes or the mouth.
4. POST-MODERN THERAPY IS THE WORK OF POWER, NOT PASSIVITY. The first surgeon in Greek mythology was known as Machaeon or Aristomachos, "excellent in battle." His son, a physician as well, was Nikomachos, victor (Nike) in battle. The great teacher of medicine was the centaur Cheiron, who came from a race of frenzied fighters. Once, when the oracle was consulted by a wounded soldier, it gave this response: "hotrosos kai iasetai"-the one who heals is a wounder. Apollo, with his powerful bow and arrows was the highest deity of healing.
Healing requires strength. It's important that doctors and therapists approach their work as warriors, but the battle must be deep and subtle.
In modern medicine and psychotherapy, the patient often takes a masochistic position. The word patient, "the one who is passive," suggests this. In modern therapies, we submit to an expert and fall quickly into sado-masochistic patterns of relationship. The cure for the patient's masochism is for both healer and the one to be healed to submit to the laws of nature, not to give up to suffering, but to look deep, as Black Elk did, for the ways of life and learn how to observe them.
Kerenyi calls the fifth book of the Iliad "The Song of the Wounded Gods." Many gods there are shot with arrows and suffer their pain. This is a great mystery, that the immortals suffer wounded. Asklepios was sounded, as was his teacher Cheiron.
When we blame our parents for our problems, the Great Father and the Great Mother suffer. Our depth, pictured as Persephone and Hades, suffer when we neglect them in favor of exclusive upperworld activities. Aphrodite gets an arrow when we overlook the need for beauty and neglect our sexuality. Hermes takes a shot when we collect information by the tons and yet never seek out wisdom or a witty insight into the nature of things.
Our very capacity for healing is wounded constantly by our heroics. Whenever we say, I want to get rid of my problem, instead of saying I want to come to know it, let it do its work, live through it, then we are Herakles taking a shot at Cheiron.
We heal by dying to our hopes and plans, by giving up fantasies of wholeness and complete health, by embracing the particular weaknesses and lacks that are ours, as though they were the wounds of Cheiron. I'm not suggesting wallowing in our suffering but rather listening to our wounds as though they were the speech of our own mysteries, of the gods. Like Black Elk, we could first give them expression in our daily life.
The poet Lorca said that duende, the hot spirit that gives passion to life, loves the rims of our wounds. Jung said that it is precisely at our weakest points that the soul has the opportunity for movement.
Knowing our wounded condition takes care of the weak part of healing. It allows us to be filled with the power that arises from deep within. Personal power comes from the voices we hear inside, from the impulses that drive us and preoccupy us, from the manias and passions that fuel behavior. Paradoxically, these inner powers wound at the same time that they empower. They ask for an openness to them, a degree of surrender, and in turn they empower.
Sacred technologies of healing, based on an honoring of the ways in which being wounded and being healed are not split apart, trust in images and rituals that impress these insights deep into our imaginations. Once we discover the paradoxes and improbably laws that sustain life around us and in us, we can heal ourselves and others. We learn in the same moment how we are wounded and how we can heal.
(This is a condensed form of a talk given March 12, 1987)