Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Physician, Heal Thyself

Everyone in the healing professions understands this strange paradox – that they don’t heal their patients. No matter how clever, committed, or well-trained, doctors, nurses, and therapists cannot impose healing from the outside. At their best, they simply co-create the conditions within which our mind-body system can best restore itself to wholeness. We are largely self-regulating systems, in a million ways continually seeking to reset and restore the optimal conditions of our natural design. The only thing healers can do is remove the impediments to this innate process.
            When you cut your finger oozing blood flushes out foreign bodies. As it contacts the air blood begins to coagulate, forming a scab and sealing the wound. White blood cells rush to the area to fight infection. Around the wound blood vessels swell bringing an abundance of oxygen which accelerates healing. Red blood cells help form collagen, a tough connective substance your body uses to build new tissue. As the wound heals beneath the surface, the skin begins to close over the opening. Eventually, it’s as if the cut never happened – we are wholly restored.
And not one single aspect of this complex process is accomplished intentionally.
You do not have to will yourself to heal – it happens without your knowledge or consent. The body restores itself to wholeness. In this sense, we are all physicians.
This same principle is at work in our efforts to heal one another’s broken hearts. When we get the horrible phone call – one of our friends has suffered a sudden and shocking loss – we rush to their side. On the drive over we struggle to find the right words. But how can words buoy us over the depths of our grief? They cannot. Instead, we wander together through the labyrinth of despair and somehow keep breathing. By our presence alone, and through the space we hold together, healing begins to arise.
In Judaism this core principle is formalized in the ritual known as “sitting shiva.” For observant Jews, this shiva (seven) day mourning period ritualizes and facilitates the natural healing that slowly arises after the death of a loved one. For seven days the bereaved stay home and sit in low chairs as close to the ground as possible, signifying the wisdom of coming out of lofty abstraction and settling down into the stability of immediacy. A torn black ribbon is worn, symbolizing the impermanence of forms. All of the mirrors in the home are covered, to shift us away from self-centeredness and toward universal, sacred consciousness. You allow the quiet to envelope you. You let people come and take care of you. Simply being together in the stillness, in a period of focused presence and contemplation, you leave space – space through which the soul’s own healing power can rise up the way ground water seeps into a meadow. Soon, the flowers of our lives will once again bloom.
A century ago missionaries in Africa were on a three-day trek with a group of local tribesmen. On the second day the tribesmen stopped in the early afternoon and began setting up camp.
“Why are we stopping?” asked the missionaries. “It’s still early and everyone appears well.”
“Yes,” replied the tribesman, “but we covered so much ground yesterday, we must rest to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.”
In our increasingly fast-paced and fragmented lives, it’s more important than ever to create rituals in our lives that, in the words of the tribesmen, allow our souls to catch up with our bodies. Practicing conscious stillness whether in formal meditation or in more spontaneous acts allows our natural restorative processes to convey their many blessings. Maybe healing, health, wealth, and wellness are not achieved as much as they are allowed.
It is not our cleverness or ambition that draws infinite richness into our lives – it is our willingness to leave gaps in our busyness through which it may enter. In this way, we heal ourselves.

 [This piece originally appeared in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.] 

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