Healing, by design

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The concept of healing plays an integral part of healthy human development in many cultures, yet is largely unknown or misunderstood in its practice. If we seek to develop, evolve, innovate and grown as individuals, organizations and societies wisely we would do well to better grasp what healing is and how its done, by design. 

To develop, is to heal.

That’s a bold assertion, but one that is integral to understanding how we develop ourselves, our organizations and our communities and societies successfully.

Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us on our journey. It can create character and strength, while it can also can weigh us down if we take too much of something or unhelpful things. Healing is one of the ways we deal with things to ensure that what we pack on a journey is the most useful for where we want to go and who or what we want to become. Because every journey is different, what is useful or not is relative, which is why a ‘one-sized fits all’ approach won’t work.

For those in developmental psychology,  developmental evaluation or any innovation-related field you’ll recognize this as the norm. But the means in which development takes place is often viewed as rational, logical and linear, despite talk to the contrary. Design thinking is a perfect example of this: it’s an approach that is, in practice highly unpredictable and non-linear, but is often taught as a straightforward method.

Healing across cultures

The traditional Western term for healing is defined around terms like making whole again, restorative, or therapeutic: terms that focus on a return to the status quo. There are other perspectives that view healing as a developmental concept focused on transformation that has greater utility for those interested in change-making. This perspective on healing comes largely from aboriginal contexts worldwide. This approach has been well-documented as part of the !Kung and Ju!hoansi peoples of central Africa, Fijian aboriginal tribes, and many of the First Nations in North America by Dr. Richard Katz. Katz has been interested in the ways in which the practice of healing supports community development and social transformation as well as serving as a vital part of the psycho-social and spiritual life of these cultures.

Within each of these cultures are a series of practices, tools, methods and approaches to healing that are employed by individuals as well as the collective society to not only address injuries and wounds, but use the experience as a means to growth and connection to the world.

The most obvious Western parallel is not psychological, but physiological. Consider muscle growth and development. For muscles to build, they must be stretched and worked in a manner that causes minor trauma to them. Without the traumas, no growth can occur. Healthy muscle development is partly conscious, but also involves the interaction with other muscles and can be a process that is designed (i.e., developing a weight training routine or fitness regimen) or not. One will yield a particular set of intentional results, while the other does not.

An old new design for healing

What Katz’s work does is show us how things are done elsewhere, but also points to how this process is similar across cultures and can be applied elsewhere. This is not about cultural appropriation, but rather an acknowledgement of some common ways in which people relate to the experience of healing that can be designed for different contexts, using local knowledge and wisdom from that cultural situation.

What might that look like? Katz’s work points to a few common characteristics that could form the basis for a healing context. If one were to design such a context, what might that include?

  1. Mind, body, spirit. No matter what the source of ill-health, dis-ease, or mental unwellness, the mind, body and spirit are all assigned a role, even if those roles might be uneven in their contribution to the problem and solution. Further, these three elements are not disconnected from the environment in which they exist. Personal problems are always, to some extent, social problems and vice versa. This acknowledges the systemic effects of the environments we create and the interconnection between mind-body-spirit and our world around us. This thinking is the forerunner to what we often consider as the psycho- and social determinants of health and the biopsychosocial model of health that is now widely applied within health sciences.
  2. Participation and engagement. The most central distinction between the indigenous approaches to healing that Katz has explored and Western ones is the role of the community in the healing process. Unlike Western allopathic approaches, the healing process is not viewed as the responsibility of the patient and healthcare provider alone, but the family, community and beyond. This perspective acknowledges that, if one is to believe that the environment is a contributor to illness and recovery, there must be engagement from that domain in the healing process. Across the examples that Katz explores we see the involvement of the community in the prevention, treatment, post-incident care and development and as one solid continuum of practice. Healing is social and therefore the benefits are accrued to everyone.
  3. Ceremony & ritual. This engagement through the healing process is guided through the use of ceremony and ritual. This is part of every healing practice, even allopathic medicine, but the role of these is made explicit.  In this case, healing is a conscious act that is shared with everyone involved. In Western societies, we too often fail to acknowledge ‘developmental moments’ properly, because we’ve not built in the spaces to do this. I’ve written about this in other places looking at the role of mindfulness in developmental evaluation and how there needs to be spaces for that to be built into regular practice — through ceremony and ritual, if you will — for it to work, otherwise things pass by.
  4. Mindfulness / data gathering. The act of paying attention is a prime source of data in healing practice. This goes beyond the simplistic view of diagnosis, which is not an appropriate means of viewing a problem if it takes place in a complex environment anyway — see the Cynefin Framework for reasons why. These cultures are using sophisticated means of assessing situations that are highly social, involve much sensemaking and, in keeping with appropriate practice for complex conditions, using multiple means and methods for capturing data about the source and context of a problem.
  5. Wisdom. While healing is done in the present, the cause and consequence have some roots back to the past. All of the cultures that Katz spent time with drew on wisdom from the elders, understanding of the past, and how what happened before sets the stage for what is happening now to some extent. This is where baggage can come in, personal history (including genetics) and ‘institutional memory’ in the case of organizations or communities. While we may think something is long finished and wrapped up, that might not be the case and if we’re not aware of our history we might be doomed not necessarily to repeat it, but to create a future we don’t want.
  6. Artifacts. The tools of ceremony and healing involve artifacts. While we might think of things like the couch, the medical bed, or the white coat as artifacts, so too does any healing situation have theirs are means to connect to the process and support healing. Many people, regardless of their background, draw on indigenous artifacts like burning sacred woods such as palo santo, or sage brush or sweetgrass, or perhaps incense of different types. More Westernized models such as candles or prayers might be involved. Used out of context without skill, these artifacts may not have the full perceived influence, but they allow those healing to recognize the act of healing as it takes place, creating a sacred space among the ordinary, transforming a space like a home or office into one that is suited for healing, demarcating the intentionality of healing. Whatever the artifact, even a mascot (e.g., toy) these things can create a space of sacredness where one didn’t exist before if used consistently and respectfully.
  7. Ongoing practice. Healing is not something that just happens and goes away. While the ritual and intensity of the healing act might change, there is a culture of healing that is created, just as we would seek to create a culture of learning, evaluation or innovation in an organization.
  8. Positivity. Richard Katz’s 1997 book looking at the Kalahari Ju!honansi peoples was entitled Healing Makes our Hearts Happy. The book details how the act of healing is a positive force in the community, despite the many challenges and pain that is experienced at times. The process of coming together, sharing and working on the process of creating a world for their people, not just reacting to things as they happen, allows for something that Rumi called ‘unfolding your own myth’. It provides agency and focus and keeps the community attuned to what is and what it wants to be on a regular basis. The process of coming back from dis-ease or dis-ability and creating a stronger next step is something that is always done from a place of positivity. In tactical terms, this is acknowledging what we know from psychology that it is more effective to ask for what you want, rather than what you don’t want. 
  9. Energy. The final piece is energy. This can take the form of some spiritual force, but also reflects an intensity and active engagement with healing. It’s not a passive thing, but something active that requires work and focus. The cultures Katz spent time with put this as a priority, not as a ‘nice to have’. How often have we decided to ‘just put things behind us’ not facing the real implications of something traumatic? I knew someone who lived with terrible emotional and social abuse who, upon leaving a harmful environment, decided to seek some therapy to work through the issues. This brought insight and clarity and that convinced her that only a few sessions would be needed and left therapy (the healing space), claiming she was all worked through that stuff and could manage on her own. Sadly, before long, that dark shadow from her past came back only not at a time of her choosing and only re-imposed the traumas of the past in a way that she wasn’t prepared to deal with. The process of healing requires a lot of energy and focus, but the benefits are enormous if they are sustained. Sustaining the energy is perhaps the hardest part.
  10. The role of the healer. Involved in all of the approaches explored was a healer (or two). These are usually wise, well-skilled, and compassionate individuals with expertise and experience in guiding the healing process. Like Western approaches, these healers bring tremendous assets to the healing encounter, but unlike them they are more conductors of the symphony — integral and important, but only one part of a larger whole. We are seeing more nurses, doctor, psychotherapists recognizing this, but more is needed. The healing approach is truly done from a systems perspective in many of these indigenous cultures, where the healer plays a critical, connected role, yet is impotent without the system’s engagement around her or him. This is also true for the self-as-healer. While we can do a lot, we can’t do it all on our own, no matter much we try.

Healing our perspectives on healing

This approach to healing is something that we can all engage in. What we need to do is find the means — personal, social, organizational — to fit into the context we live in. That’s not a simple task and the easy, simple – and wrong — approach is to simply copy the Indigenous cultures’ practices, tools and traditions. What is necessary is to create a healing culture that is appropriate to the context it’s used.

In a pluralistic, diverse, largely urbanized, secular, Westernized world, this is a challenge that isn’t easily addressed. It means getting to know yourself and the environment we work in. The ‘model’ of healing above may share common features with those of many indigenous cultures and, as Katz has noted in his forthcoming book, these are often connected deeply to healing practices that were overrun and buried by modern allopathic approaches to medicine — denying that these practices are part of all of our history to some extent.

It’s worth also adding some subtext to what has been mentioned above with a personal note. I’ve met Richard Katz on many occasions. He was the mentor to a brilliant psychologist who mentored me and taught me many approaches to healing that I’ve had the privilege to work with and through in my work. Dick would always say: “speak about what you know” meaning that your stories are yours, not others and vice versa. Be humble.

Richard has lived and worked among healers his entire professional life and told the stories through his books at invitation of the communities he’s worked in. He fully acknowledges the cultural problems that this introduces, the timing and clash of worldviews they embody, the role of colonialism and the Westernization / sanitization / dramatization that often comes from Western scholars reporting on indigenous affairs and has been cautious about claiming anything about these communities worlds as his own. It’s a delicate situation and one that, when we engage in healing work, is one that needs discussion. It’s important to respect and honour the sources of our wisdom and knowledge and the means in which we come to know what we know.

Get in touch with what you know and may it help with your — and our — healing work, by design.

References of note: 

Katz, R. (2017, forthcoming). Indigenous healing psychology: Honoring the wisdom of the first peoples. Healing Arts Press.

Katz, R., Biesele, M. & St. Denis, V. (1997). Healing makes our hearts happy.  Inner Traditions.

Katz, R. (1989). The straight path: Ancestral wisdom and healing traditions in Fiji. Park Street Press.

Katz, R. (1984). Boiling energy: Community healing among the Kalahari Kung. Harvard University Press.

 

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