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This is really the fundamental question, the heart of the way of the healer: How do I walk this planet, not as one more person who is collapsing in fear or withdrawing in hopelessness, but as an instrument of something larger, more transcendent?
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The Way of the Healer: Transforming Health Care from Within
In the following dialogue, excerpted and adapted from the recent Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series “Exploring the Noetic Sciences,” IONS President Marilyn Mandala Schlitz talks with Dr. Janet Quinn, a distinguished speaker, educator, nurse, and pioneering advocate of “whole-person health,” who was also the first recipient of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study the effects of therapeutic touch on the immune system.
MS: What are you working onright now? How have you taken your own life experiences and channeled them into training programs for others?
JQ: Over the years I engaged in deep inquiry about fundamental questions of healing, and my interests grew increasingly beyond particular techniques and strategies and much more into the whole realm of what’s possible. What is healing? What can we do? What can we be for each other? That’s really where my passion is now. These are such challenging times, and so many people feel disempowered, as though there’s nothing they can do, the problems are too big. We’ve also given away our sense of power, thinking that solutions come from outside of us, for example, that “the health care system” will take care of healing. It’s just not true. Those models of looking outside – of looking to the government to initiate change, of looking to the health care system to initiate the healing – are no longer sustainable. So everywhere we look, I think we’re being invited to imagine a different way to be in the world. How can I, as just one person, do something in the face of so much crisis and chaos and change? This is really the fundamental question, the heart of the way of the healer: How do I walk this planet, not as one more person who is collapsing in fear or withdrawing in hopelessness, but as an instrument of something larger, more transcendent? How can I serve that which is bigger than all of this?
MS: It’s all about personal work, but also how we blend the personal with the social or the collective. What are some practical ways that you are helping to ground yourself in this time of incredible confusion and complexity?
JQ: If we want to walk the earth as a healer, as one who supports the emergence of right relationships – my definition of what healing is – then it has to start with the self but it also has to move beyond the self. I think there has been the tendency to have it either/or. We can be out there making a difference and doing this work in the world and neglect the cultivation of the intimate, or we can take a dangerous narcissistic turn and completely withdraw from the world. I’ve certainly experienced this tendency in myself as a deep place of nourishment for me, but I’ve had to really look at what is solitude and what is isolating? What is coming into a more contemplative present, and what is avoiding connection with painful realities? Discernment is needed, the willingness to inquire, the willingness to ask ourselves those questions. For me, it’s about staying grounded in the Truth with a capital “T” and knowing what’s Real with a capital “R,” which means I have to be interested in all the places that I’m deceiving myself, where I’m not in alignment with myself, where I’m not engaged in something real. It’s a path of continual reflection and yet not getting totally self-absorbed.
MS: What else can be really helpful as you try to navigate the confusion between that impulse you have for solitude and the call to engage a broader understanding of what’s happening in the world? What are some other tools or technologies that you’ve discovered that are also part of your teaching?
JQ: Having a daily spiritual practice is essential for me and then taking elements of that practice into the world. For example, one of my practices is the “Peace Prayer” of Francis of Assisi that starts, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” It’s a prayer that many people know. I’ve been saying it for most of my life. This is really the prayer of the Bodhisattva in the Buddhist tradition, the one who is open to surrender, the surrender of the false self. It’s one thing to say, “I want peace in the world,” and another to practice it moment-to-moment. Like when I’m driving, and I’m frustrated by the driver in front of me – and I’m almost always frustrated with the driver in front of me! When I leave the solitude of my monastic enclosure and go out into traffic, I turn into something else. That’s really a place of practice for me.
MS: I love your expression of taking your prayer practice into the world, and I’m also thinking about healing. Healing is such a multifaceted concept, and I’ve always seen it in the context of relationship and your definition of right relationships. It’s that healing of ourselves but also the healing of the interpersonal between nature and us and then that spiritual aspect that you just defined. Have years of prayer practice helped you to remember that?
MS: Does it serve other purposes for you, such as grounding, experiencing, embodying? What else does prayer practice stimulate for you?
JQ: It’s a reminder of what the point is for me, why I am on this planet and what I’m doing here. I am here really to be an instrument, and my prayer practice is just one way of putting words to that. It’s also the way of the healer, the ancient way of right relationships. Native peoples talk about “all my relations.” Before the advent of what we now call this health care system, healing took place in community; it wasn’t a private matter. And the first thing that had to happen was to be sure you were in right relations with the rest of the community. Healing is right relation at any level. It is not necessarily about curing, which is about fixing. Some people get completely enamored with the strategies, the technology. I call them the tools, the techniques, the treatments, and the tricks. And so “I want to do healing work” and “I want to be a healer” gets translated into “I need to get as many techniques as I can; I need to take another workshop this weekend with the next healer who is coming into town.” And so they add more and more techniques, more and more strategies. My experience over the years is that healing has nothing to do with this. This is more about the ego feeding its identity, of needing to be the one who can fix things, who can be the source of another person’s healing or curing. This is what drives an enormous amount of the health care system.
The willingness to put down all of the tools and to come into right relationship with the self so that you can offer another human being a field – literally an energy field of compassionate, loving, authentic presence – is way more difficult to cultivate than taking another workshop or learning another technique where you can remain in control, in charge, and do the healing. This requires a real shift in what we think healing is and who we think we are in relationship to healing. The source of all healing is within the innate natural capacity of the person sitting in front of you.
MS: And even that implies that the two people are separate, yet there is this intimacy in the exchange, an intimacy that is the healing of relationship.
JQ: If we take this to the fullest understanding of what it means to be healed, which is to be whole, and if you hold this concept in the context of the great wisdom traditions of the world, you realize that to even say there is another is an error. There is no other. And then “the healer” recognizes that “the one being healed” is in fact a mirror of herself. There is only one healing, and it’s our healing, which is a very real concept for Indigenous people.
MS: But this can be seen as antithetical to what’s taught or trained in terms of the conventional medical model, where you can’t reduce health care to any one thing because it’s a lot of things and in many contexts. A mechanical metaphor is embodied in Western medicine, and you’re proposing a kind of organic metaphor that is more about a process than about something being “sick.” You did several projects with us recently that I’m so grateful for. One was looking at continuing education programs for nurses in integral health and thinking about the ways that you can begin to translate this philosophy into a pedagogy that can be useful for people on the front line. How can these principles speak to the practicing nurse and the practicing doctor who are trying to live in both worlds?
JQ: Shifting the medical model – or what’s called the medical model – from fixing and doing to one based on healing relationships is a very serious challenge. I believe that not doing so is behind the profound shortage of nurses that we’re having. Most people enter nursing because they want to tend the whole person. Florence Nightingale, who is really the founder of modern nursing, talks beautifully about these principles, but nurses, physicians, other health care providers have to be almost invited to remember them. When you create such a space and invite them, though, you discover it’s not foreign to them. It’s as though their souls leap in. They’re so happy to talk about healing again and not just fixing and curing. So we have to start to think about how to create these environments, these “habitats of healing.” How do we create practice environments for health care professionals to thrive and at the same time put the patients and families in the best condition for nature to act on them? The natural tendency of a living system is toward order, wholeness, integration, and transcendence.
MS: You’ve had some experience as a consultant in health care settings. What are some of the ways in which you begin to introduce these habitats of healing, helping them to remember, as you say?
JQ: It can start very small. Some hospitals will start with one unit. And then you have to make some of your basic assumptions explicit, which requires education. So you create a staff that says, “We recognize that the way we’re doing this is not sustainable for us. We want to do it differently.” And then you create opportunities for them to learn something more deeply about the nature of healing, including a recognition that self-care is at least as important as everything else that they’re doing. Then an opportunity to learn specific strategies: How can I take care of myself in the midst of my work? How can I work differently?
And what I really love about teaching nurses about this is that we’re talking about the noetic sciences. How can we use what we now know about consciousness to change how we are, who we are, and what we do in our practice environment? We know that changes in consciousness can create a different field, so part of my work is helping nurses identify strategies for working with their own consciousness in the moment, working with the consciousness of the group, and then creating a group field.
MS: This leads me back to the distinction between healing and curing and thinking about the fact that healing can also be dying. How is it beneficial to the healing process to consider this question of what happens when we die? How do we bring that question into the conversation about healing?
JQ: Recall the difference between healing and curing: Curing is about the elimination of the signs and symptoms of illness, and healing is about the emergence of right relationship at any level of the human experience. This can allow for perhaps the deepest work that we do at the end of life, when we recognize that curing isn’t going to happen and indeed that curing isn’t even appropriate. A healing model that assumes that healing is an emergent property of the whole system, something that can and does happen at any time, includes the moment of dying and even the moments after dying. How do we know where the healing is happening? A practitioner who works within that kind of healing framework will be very interested in the person they’re working with – their ideas, their sense of the afterlife, their desire to explore that question. Part of the healing for someone facing death might be to come into new relationship with the fact that they’re dying. That’s the healing moment.
Part of the healing might also be right relationship with family members, with their connection to something larger than themselves, to Source, to God. So the healing continues through the dying process and perhaps beyond. And if we as practitioners have not engaged ourselves in that inquiry, if we haven’t examined what healing means for us, if we haven’t expanded our views, we’re not going to be very helpful to someone who is going through that process. These are important questions for self-inquiry. What do I believe is happening at this moment? What do I believe is possible at this moment? Those answers will inform what we bring – literally – to the bedside of that dying person.
The way of the healer is to be profoundly surrendered, profoundly awed, to what we are privileged to witness, without thinking we know the right way for this individual journey that is coming to closure right in front of us. A true healer stands in this profound surrender and supports that person exactly where they are with gratitude, humility, and hopefully with a deep connection to Source, with a willingness to submit to something larger, to be its servant, its slave, really – a slave to love, a slave to the wisdom of this universe. Being with people who are dying gives us a profound opportunity to bow down to mystery and to kiss the ground that mystery walks on.
Dr. Quinn was instrumental in helping IONS to develop a series of affordable online courses with continuing education credits for family therapists, social workers, counselors, and nurses. For more information, go to http://elearning.noetic.org/.