NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Healing” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Healing: A compendium
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
They say timing is everything and that time heals all wounds.
Timing is not everything. And time alone cannot heal all wounds.
In my experience as both a person and a therapist, what heals wounds is care, and what heals the deepest wounds is persistent, trusted caring. That caring can come from many sources, among them friends, family, professionals, and, with practice, from our own wounded healers.
My deepest wounds have been psychological and emotional more than physical, though I have had my share of those, too. What has helped to heal them has been the people in my life who have been willing to accompany me down the steep, hitherto unexplored tunnels of my being that terminated, finally, in a little boy huddled up in a corner, alone, frightened, and sad.
Friends and, sometimes, family have carried me through the majority of life’s hardships – breakups, illnesses, injuries, periods of financial crisis. Yet the deeper, inner hurt has been largely untouched by even the most caring. For that, as well as for the hardest of external crises, I have looked to more specialized care.
After my brush with death, I felt like the character played by David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, an alien trapped in an unfamiliar world, passing as human. Support groups and group therapy have been pivotal in my recovery.
The poet Mark Nepo, who himself had recently survived a battle with cancer, led me to a Wellness group run by a Catholic priest. Its members all suffered from chronic illness, some potentially fatal. There, for the first time since I’d left St. Peter’s Hospital, I felt I was among people who understood, viscerally, what it was like to be out in the world as an altered version of my former self. One of many vivid memories from the group is of a woman who had survived a near-fatal accident only, later, to get cancer. In one session she described how, when someone was rude to her in a supermarket, she wanted to turn to him and say, “Don’t you understand I have cancer?” Though my unvoiced question would have been, “Don’t you understand I’ve been to the Other Side?” I resonated with her feelings.
Fast forward two years. By then I had recovered sufficiently to move back to Boston, find part-time work as a technical writer, and try to deal with my shattered health and finances. This was still a profoundly disorienting period – despite my long-familiar surroundings, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I had yet to meet anyone who’d had a near-death experience, which by then I understood was more than just coming close to death, and I sought out my own kind.
Through the Journal of Near-Death Studies, I found a group that met weekly in nearby Brookline to explore with each other what it was like to be back from the edge. Its members were of various ages and backgrounds and their near-death experiences had different causes, but each seemed to immediately understand who I had become in ways I had not fully grasped myself. Those whose experiences happened years before gave me a glimpse of integration yet to come. In one meeting, a long-time group member directly addressed my confusion. He made a wide half-circle with his arm and said, “David, I think you’re one of those people who has to take the long way ’round.” He paused, his arm fully outstretched. “But when you get there,” he continued, closing his hand into a fist and pulling it to his chest with a soft thud, “it’ll be important.” His faith in my journey helped me believe that I would eventually find my way.
Fast forward another eight years, however, and I was still hypervigilant, still cut off from joy. Completing the process of recovery from what I by then understood to be PTSD took yet another group experience.
Feelings are static only when they are suppressed. When given a chance, they change to other emotions. In group therapy, over a six-week period I retold the story of what had happened to me that night in Albany. Having the support of people around me, listening, sometimes touching, often crying with me, allowed me to feel, for the first time, the terror, anger, and betrayal I was unable to experience at the time, so focused was I on trying to stay alive. These emotions, which had been buried as if they were toxic waste, could finally surface, then transform into sadness, grief, acceptance, and, finally, relief.
My most recent group experience of personal healing has been what, for many people, is the first: the healing power of a spiritual community.
Nearly ten years after completing the Thich Nhat Hanh retreat, I joined a sangha, a Buddhist study and practice group. On a recent Day of Mindfulness, I spent most of the morning in almost intolerable pain about a recent loss. I came close to going home after lunch, but by the end of a day of meditation, silent walking and eating, and shared warmth, the pain had peaked and then waned, like a fever breaking. I had said nothing to anyone about my pain. I could not understand how this had happened.
I described my experience at our closing discussion. One of the other sangha members explained, “The sangha heals.” The sangha had created an environment that allowed me first to feel the pain – and then to let it go. The healing energy of the sangha took its place.
Though the support of others has been both necessary and helpful to healing from trauma, the deepest healing has come from paying attention first to connecting with my inner child and then to developing what Carl Jung called a wounded healer. This focus has transformed the innermost layers of injury, healed the oldest wounds.
The work began in my early 30s, when I had my first round of serious psychotherapy. As my therapist and I worked through the problems I had originally come to her for, our attention shifted to older issues, unresolved and often unremembered. The process felt like I was on an archeological dig, moving ever inward, seeking artifacts of my past that would help explain my present. I started to see that I’d been cut off from major parts of myself most of my adult life.
In a guided visualization, I encountered an image of a sealed, bomb-like container at my core. It had a six-inch-thick titanium shell and at first I imagined it held rage, for anger was the first strong feeling I remembered. But as therapy progressed, the titanium casing gradually grew translucent, then transparent, and I could see that inside it was not a bomb but a frightened, sad little boy. Later, in a dream, I envisioned an imaginary landscape dotted with similar translucent capsules half-buried in a field. I understood them to be parts of myself that I had concealed there long before. My years of inner work had blown away the covering soil and these time capsules, glowing in the twilight, were waiting to be reopened.
Since then I have used several strategies to become intimate with my inner child. In another visualization, I imagined being on a walk and seeing, coming toward me, a little boy. As he came closer, I saw that he was a five- or six-year-old version of me. He seemed lost and unhappy. When I tried to find out where he belonged, he said nothing and stared at the ground. I noticed an interesting rock on the path, picked it up, and offered it to him. He took it, and a silent dialog between my adult self and my inner child began.
Later, I incorporated this visualization into a technique that uses writing with both hands to create a more explicit dialog. When I felt troubled in a way that seemed disproportionate to what was happening in the present, I would close my eyes and imagine encountering this boy again. Then I would open my eyes and write, on a piece of paper, “Are you okay?” with my dominant hand. I would switch the pen to the opposite hand and write an answer as if I were that little boy. A conversation ensued as I went back and forth between dominant and non-dominant hands, being first the adult and then the inner child.
The more I worked with the inner child, the further back I went. The earliest version I encountered in a Focusing session. With a colleague as my Focusing partner, I traveled half a mile beneath the surface of an imaginary earth and found the boy, now no older than 4, hiding at the end of a long tunnel. There, my partner’s inner child offered to play with him. My heart opened.
While getting assistance from therapists has also been essential to my growth, developing a wounded healer and learning to directly assist my inner child has been critical to completing the healing process.
I began to consciously develop a relationship between these two parts at the end of a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat. A fellow retreatant, from whom I had felt a great deal of warmth during our five days together, approached to say goodbye. She hugged me, then gave me some parting advice. “David, when you feel like you need something from someone else, try giving it to yourself first,” she said. Her remark flipped an internal switch. Implicit in her words was the idea that I had, inside me, what I needed to heal. I just had to cultivate it.
Many of us have inside us a child who has been injured. We also have, often unrecognized, a healer who has the ability to respond to the needs of that child. Although these inner healers, because they contain the child, are also wounded, instead of being disabled by their injuries, they use them to tune in to the pain of others and help to ease it. The wounded healer is most attuned to the needs of his or her own inner child. It is this inner child / wounded healer relationship that allows us to experience the most profound healing.
In a later Focusing session, when I was in the midst of a health crisis, I imagined my inner child as an embryo bird in its shell, hungry and alone. The bird knew that nourishment was on the outside but was too weak to break free and seek it out. My wounded healer self helped me imagine the two people I most trusted joining the bird in the shell, and I immediately felt some relief. Later, advocating on behalf of my inner child, I talked with both of these friends and availed myself of their support.
Over the years, my wounded healer has also paid attention to other, less serious, lacks from my childhood. As a boy, I loved science and often saw things in the Buffalo Science Museum gift shop that I would have liked to play with but could not afford to buy. Now, from time to time, my wounded healer still buys gadgets and toys I, as an adult, don’t need, but that my little boy enjoys. The healer in me also pick up interesting rocks and takes them home for the boy I used to be. And in my office, I have a collection of toy dinosaurs; it is not only the kids I work with who enjoy them.
Art and healing
My creative work has been part of the inner child / wounded healer relationship.
I began making Flower Mandalas shortly after the Thich Nhat Hanh retreat. Early on, I showed some of them to a painter who suggested that each of my mandalas was telling me something. “Look at them. Listen to what they have to say,” she advised.
I hung prints around my house and used mandala images as desktop wallpaper on my computer. What I found was that the act of creating mandalas and then looking deeply at them resulted in a feedback loop:
- The original flower moved me enough to photograph it.
- The mandala-making process distilled that initial feeling into something more strongly felt.
- Looking at the mandalas brought the enhanced feeling back into me.
With each iteration of the creating/receiving cycle, I felt more whole.
Wounded healer / healing child
As I have continued to use art, meditation, and psychotherapeutic techniques, and especially since I have become a therapist myself, I’ve begun to see that inside me is not only the injured little boy, but also a troubled adolescent, an angry teenager, a fiery and adventurous college student, a twenty-something young man adrift, and numerous other incarnations. They are like Russian nesting dolls, each containing his younger selves, at their core a very young boy who holds not only my deepest pain but also my greatest joy.
Now, when I put my attention to connecting any of my younger selves with my wounded healer, the effect is an almost instantaneous sense of being soothed and loved. Regardless of what happens in my life, I have a trusted companion I can count on, 24/7, to attend to the needs of these inner children.
With clients, I use many of the same techniques I have found helpful in getting to know my inner child and activating my wounded healer. Through their own, similar processes, clients learn to gently brush aside the layers. When they are ready, they open the time capsules in which precious parts of themselves have been preserved and bring them back into their world.