Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Wounded Healer

A friend recently sent me the following by Rachel Naomi Remen. It came at a time when I seemed to hearing the phrase "The Wounded Healer" quite a lot. It chimes with many of my recent thoughts...

“We all can influence the life source. The tools and strategies of healing are so innate, so much a part of a common human birthright, that we believers in technology pay very little attention to them. But they have lost none of their power.

“People have been healing each other since the beginning. Long before there were surgeons, psychologists, oncologists, and internists, we were there for each other. The healing of our present woundedness may lie in recognizing and reclaiming the capacity we all have to heal each other, the enormous power in the simplest of human relationships; the strength of a touch, the blessing of forgiveness, the grace of someone else taking you just as you are and finding in you an unsuspected goodness.

“Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal. Becoming expert has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the wholeness in myself and everyone else. Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.”

From “Kitchen Table Wisdom” by Rachel Naomi Remen

I’ve been hearing the phrase the wounded healer a lot recently. It perhaps sounds a little strange and maybe it is. There are those who say that you must be healed yourself before you can hope to help others, otherwise you will pour out your pain onto those you are trying to help. I understand this perspective and I see some truth in it and yet somehow the fear, the lack of faith, in it seems to miss the point. If you wait until you are whole, until you are perfect before being of use to others you may be waiting a long time, until eternity.

My understanding of my self, my own suffering and healing and my observations and experiences with others has shown me that we are all wounded to some degree, we all have cracks within us. Nobody is perfect and who would want to be. In fact I have discovered that it is our very wounds and imperfections that put us into a better position to help others come to terms with who they are. Our own woundedness helps to breed empathy and understanding. Who amongst us is not wounded in some way? Who amongst us does not bear the scars of life? And because we are wounded does this mean we cannot help others? I believe that the opposite is true. It is our very wounds and the scars formed from them that makes us better able to help others heal from their own wounds.

The ancient Greeks understood the power of the “Wounded Healer”. Their mythology tells the story of Chiron, a wise and benevolent centaur and a master of healing.

During one of his adventures Heracles (known as Hercules in Roman Mythology) visited the cave of Chiron. He had been invited to a gathering there. Now as we all know it is impolite to attend a party without bringing something for other guests and so Heracles brought along a flask of extremely potent wine. Now the smell of the wine attracted many of the other centaurs who began to fight over it, nothing much has changed over the centuries it seems. During the melee Chiron was accidently wounded on the knee by an arrow shot by Heracles. Now this was no ordinary arrow, it was poison tipped; this was no ordinary poison either it had come from the Hydra a monster with many heads that was virtually impossible to slay. Now while Chiron could show Heracles how to heal the wound caused by the arrows tip, he could not treat the Hydra’s poison. As he was immortal it could not kill him but neither could he fully recover from the wound. He would have to live on into eternity with his wounded knee. Chiron the greatest of healers could show others how they could heal, but he could never fully recover from this wound. His wound would always show. So he walked on into eternity limping. Chiron is the archetype of the wounded healer.

“The Wounded Healer” was one of the most important archetypes identified by Carl Jung. He viewed Chiron as the ultimate example of how we can all overcome the pain of our own suffering by becoming compassionate teachers and show others how they too can transcend their own pain. You see the wounded healer is someone who has gone through great suffering and learnt from the experience. Through transcending their own suffering they are drawn towards the path of service leading them to help others. This process strips away the selfish ego-based feeling of being alone and isolated in their own suffering and woundedness. Instead through seeing the wound through different eyes they can see this suffering in others and they can therefore lead others to find ways to overcome their own suffering. Their wounds may never fully heal, as Chiron’s didn’t, but they can help heal the wider ailments of humanities shared life.

The question this brings to my mind is how do we create environments where the wounded healer can operate?

In his book “The Wounded Healer”, Henri Nouwen envisioned the creation of religious communities that could become a safe haven where people could be open and honest about their own woundedness, their suffering and loneliness; a safe haven where through recognising ones pain, healing and recovery could begin. Nouwen wrote that people today are “Semitic nomads…(who) live in a desert with many lonely travellers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.” I can really relate to this. One of the reason I became a part of a Unitarian community was for this very reason. Spirituality on an individual level is fine, but it only really comes alive in community as we search for healing and understanding together. Everyone is wounded in one way or another and everyone is looking for healing and understanding at one level or another, even if they are not entirely sure what from. We are all looking for love, understanding, acceptance and meaning. We are the religious animal, to deny this is to deny an important aspect of our shared humanity. None of us though are the experts, I've not yet found anyone with all the answers and I for one am grateful that the Unitarian tradition recognises this. This is why people need to come together in community, to ask questions, seek answers and find ways to heal ourselves and one another. By coming together in our shared suffering we can breed empathy and live more compassionately.

This brings to mind a quote I read on my Facebook feed this week by the Buddhist Pema Chodron;

“The Places that Scare You”

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

So how do we begin to heal, to live whole lives? Well first of all we need to know our own pain our own darkness and to not be afraid to show our scars. I always remember the scene from “Jaws” when the great white shark hunters are going out to face the man killer and they begin to drink and sing sea shanties and of course show one another their scars. The scars are marks of experience of having lived the lives of shark hunters.


Now I know that this is an extremely macho setting but I think there is something in it for everyone. Our scars our wounds are symbols of the lives we have lived and we ought not to be afraid to show them. Not in some form of vainglory but as symbol of our shared humanity. To show we have lived and have healed from our wounds, although not without one or two scars.

Sadly there is a growing tendency in our age to cover up our imperfections our blemishes. Some even go as far as having intricate tattoos on their skin to cover up past physical wounds. These though are only superficial and do not really cover up the lives we have lived. Neither do they offer much to others, as we remain locked in our own shame about our own only too human imperfections. As beautiful as the tattoos can be I see a greater beauty in what lies behind the scars.

We are all wounded and we all carry the scars of our wounds, no matter how hard we try to cover them up. These wounds aren't always physical either. they can be be emotional, spiritual and mental too.

Now please do not get me wrong I am not attempting to romanticise suffering here. I know how destructive it can be. I spent enough of my life attempting to flee from it. I am aware of how destructive it can be to people and whole societies. It can lead to anger and deep rooted bitterness.

The point I am trying to make is that our suffering can be transformed. If we allow it to be our suffering can become a powerful force for the development of compassion and empathy. We all suffer and by understanding this it ought to bring us closer to one another and lead us to a place of deeper understanding and healing.

Healing can come, so long as we do not hide from our suffering. The key I believe is to uncover the wounds and get down to what is deep within them. By doing so we may just uncover deeper resources that can bring healing to ourselves and others; by doing so we can tap into that greater reality that lies at the core of everything.

Experience has revealed to me that there exists an inner most place at the core of each of us, that is at the core of all life. By understanding our own woundedness we can tap into this and we can then become better able to serve one another. This is a place of healing that remains untouched by our physical wounds. It is the holy of holies. It is that aspect of each of us that is made in the image of the Divine, the Atman, the Real Self, the Soul, the Divine Spark, the Buddha Nature, that aspect of God in everyone. Jung called this the archetype of the Self and believed that this wonderful healing resource was there deep within us waiting to be mined at any moment.

Experience has revealed to me the truth of Jung's discoveries. I believe that it is our task to unearth this true self and to let it out into our lives and to share it with our brothers and sisters in the communities we inhabit. When we do so we can begin to transform our woundedness and we can bring healing beyond our personal pain and suffering. Surely this is the whole point, to bring about connection and not to simply escape all pain and suffering. We all have the potential, the capacity to heal. It is our very woundedness that qualifies us for the task.

In many ways this is why I became a minister of religion; this is why I became a Unitarian minister, because I believe that this free religious tradition has at its core this belief that community can bring healing and wholeness to all. We say "All are welcome here, come as you are, exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition." surely this is our primary task, our primary purpose. If it is not then why else do we exist? Our communities I believe are not merely here to serve the individuals present within them, but also the wider human community. We are free religious communities. We do not say that you must believe this or that to commune here with us. We say "come as you are exactly as you," but we also say, "but do not expect to leave in the same condition." I know in my time amongst Unitarians I have never left in exactly the same condition. We are here to bring wholeness and not merely freedom.

We are not perfect, but then what in life is. We all bear the scars of life, some inflicted by others and some by own hands. I have discovered that it is only by accepting and fully understanding this that we make ourselves better able to help others come to terms with who they are and live a life of service for the good of all.

I am yet to meet a perfect person anywhere in life, including the communities I serve or have been a part of. That said I have met some of the most beautiful people on God's earth during my time amongst the Unitarians. I like to call them the beautifully strange, or perhaps the strangely beautiful.

We are all beautiful in our own unique ways, but nobody is perfect. By fully understanding and accepting this we can begin to invite other, perfectly imperfect beautiful souls into our lives and by doing we so we might just find ways to bring wholeness to our lives and the lives of all our brothers and sister.

Henri Nouwen wrote “We do not know where we will be two, ten or twenty years from now. What we can know, however, is that human beings suffer and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward.” By sharing our suffering we can begin to move forward and it is this that can begin to bring about the healing and wholeness that we are all searching for, we are hoping for. This can grow from within each of us as we commune together, work together and do the works of compassion that our wounded world needs. We can begin it today, it begins in our own hearts. We are all “The Wounded Healers.”

I will end this little piece with the following beautiful words by Pesah Gertler

"The Healing Time"

Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
holy.


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