Nature, Healing and Retreat
by Kennan Elkman MD
After being involved with psychotherapy and analysis in establishment psychology and medicine for many years, I came to a rude awakening: it didn't work. My feelings were further reinforced when a creative leader in the field, James Hillman, wrote a book of conversations with Michael Ventura with the provocative title: ‘We've had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world's getting worse’; whilst not quite an indictment of psychotherapy as such, it did context it within a broader social picture. This was my experience: psychotherapy brought apparent change, but I was frustrated that this remained confined to the therapeutic encounter and maybe the broader culture this existed in - Gestalt or Jungian therapeutic circles for example. Some writers, such as Richard Noll, extend this thesis to hidden motives of a cult and religious nature (particularly with respect to Jung). I think what these reflections indicate is that in the present establishment environment, the broader social, environmental and even spiritual issues have not been fully appreciated in psychotherapy in particular, and the healing process in general.
My personal decision a decade ago was to cease formal psychotherapy unless and until I could unravel this problem at a personal level, at least. The beginnings of the solution were personal retreat: family tragedy took us to a new region and a home away from the city, and medical practice became naturally inclined. This almost instinctual response to the demands of healing and my own illness brought me into contact with a deeper spiritual enquiry, within which I was intrigued by the Buddhist triad of ‘Buddha, Dharma and Sangha’.
Loosely translated this represents the enlightened person, the ‘lore’ and the people or community that surrounds them. As I explored this pattern, I realised it was archetypal and transcended space and time; that is, it is still relevant and appropriate in my own enquiry, as it became clear to me that the missing element I was experiencing in establishment psychotherapy was Sangha: community.
I then started to look at this pattern in more detail. How had it become so imbalanced in our time? Such a question leads to many reflections including the role of institutional religion, which I will not go into here. But what did interest me was how the National Socialist (Nazi) movement had ‘picked up’ on the triad and its archetypal potency, as they had with other aspects of the esoteric. This sociopolitical movement manipulated these forces to their own end, and the magic became black. This has left an unfortunate legacy: we are psychologically blocked from disentangling the darkness from the forces themselves in this cultural setting, and thus reconnecting with aspects of our broader tradition on a social and spiritual level.
What the Hitler movement did was to recognise the potency of the archetypal triad and concretise it into "Volk, Reich and Fuhrer" (People, State and Leader). This process is an inversion of the Buddhist one; an imposition of State on People, and Fuhrer on State. This distortion can create the opposite effect to the one seemingly offered - liberation of the people - as this is now based on power and control. Ultimately it contains the seeds of its own destruction. By contrast the order of the Buddhist triad indicates the Buddha serving the lore, and the law serving the people.
But beyond this darkness and these distortions was an essential truth: the German peoples were wanting to reconnect with their social heritage, and this process goes on beyond the Nazi aberrations, though somewhat retarded by it; as it does for many of the peoples of Northern Europe and Western inclination.
Over the last generation the attempts to reconnect with our traditional and cultural backgrounds have multiplied manyfold. Initially, this process sought solutions in the East, but with increasing psychological maturity we are recognising this need to be in our own cultural background from social and genetic perspectives. From the East the North American Indian traditions have been explored, which in many ways have many points of contact with our Northern European cultures. From here, our own traditions from Celtic backgrounds of druidry and the like are leading us beyond the reconnection phase to one of actual recreation. Is this recreative process valid? There are many arguments for and against, but from a healing perspective it is entirely so.
An interesting feature in this reconnection process is a subtle one in the nature of our contact with the land. We are given the impression that historically the hunter-gatherer phase was succeeded by farming, and this development is one of progress. Rather like the notion that monotheism is a natural progression from paganism and pantheism, we are faced here with an imposition. As recently as the last century in white culture in North America we see the conflict of the cowboy (hunter-gatherer) and farmer, made famous in American culture with musicals like ‘Oklahoma’. Here there is no question of superiority, but one of lifestyle options and ones that are inclined to personal predisposition and reflected in heritage.
In Australia this difference is even more contrasted between the aboriginal culture and the incredibly imposed farming techniques we are suffering. This contrast alone indicates how far away reconciliation is and how fundamental it must be, which I see to be at the spiritual level. In many ways we carry an essential hunter-gatherer in our souls, and our reconnection with the environment attempts to re-establish this with the importance of place from a spiritual, as well as a practical perspective. This latter feature is one lost in modern farming, and it is one we must reconnect with within ourselves as a necessary prerequisite to reconciliation with aboriginal culture.
Stone circles carry such a reverence, as we all recognise at an archetypal level. We are drawn to their power and energy that reflects a bygone era when the connection between man and god was more potent. These are holy places, and precisely because they reflect man working in cooperation with nature - both the land and the cosmos beyond.
When we retreat from the world, it is not simply an escape or ‘avoidance’, though this may be the case. It is an attempt to reconnect with ourselves inwardly and outwardly, where these opposites dissolve into unity. It is here that true healing begins, when this essential reconnection is undertaken in an atmosphere that reflects the natural environment in our souls.
This is our task which is already in progress. There is an increasing reconnection of nature and healing in many areas. In medicine we are seeing the scientific and rational paradigm decline as natural medicine waxes, because nature doesn't stop with our view of our body, it forms a seamless whole that includes it. We are seeing the importance of what we eat; our diets. Trends such as blood groups and diet patterns reflect the need for our food intake to be compatible with our traditional backgrounds: if we are Northern European hunter-gatherers then quantities of grain will upset our physical equilibrium and lead to sickness, for example.
Herbal medicine is ancient lore for peoples of a pantheistic persuasion, though disguised and distorted in the pharmaceutical phenomenon, and creates a spectrum between food and healing. Herbs can be ambivalent, paradoxical and magical; one dose may cure us, another kill. They reflect the fundamental paradoxical nature of our existence so often espoused by people like Jung, but greatly resisted by our rational minds.
In the broader social sphere we are becoming more connected with ‘like’ minds and souls, disengaging from religious structures that no longer serve us and we them. This separation is recent and works in a healing manner not by rejection, but acknowledgement that if one form of religious institution does not work for us, then which one does? Today we are blessed with many avenues in this enquiry, and such modern phenomena as the internet can be of assistance in this process as we reach out to connect with others who mirror our feelings and our ways.
This process is also reconnecting us with ritual and ceremony as essential ingredients in the psychosocial sphere. It is not that rituals have always been absent - indeed they are tantalisingly present in many institutions - however, they are being removed from the power and control of others and brought into our personal sphere of control. This represents a challenge for many, because ritual practice is now so unfamiliar. Yet its necessity calls out to us in such realms as the rites of passage, the union of wedding and the transition of death, and is fundamental in dealing with problems such as youth suicide and drug addiction.
Then there is the power of place. As I've indicated, retreat is fundamentally an inward process. But as nature and the environment are a reflection of and a connection with this inner process they form an integral part of the whole. This may be as simple as a place to go to in natural surroundings, or a room of the house that is sanctified and consecrated. Extant traditional cultures demonstrate to us the depth and range of place in nature, and we intuit it within the structures that are left within the British landscape.
As much as this is a process of retrieval and reconnection, it is also one of recreation, as I have indicated. There is a flowering of ‘retreats’ in natural medicine throughout the globe, often based on traditional healing techniques. In the East, such places have never died, as the ashrams house these differing yet unified aspects and current within our own culture there are places like Lourdes that espouse similar healing virtues.
The modern healing retreats of the West, whilst containing natural techniques and approaches, often lack the depth that is all too obvious in the Eastern ashram. Too often then the approaches, though natural in themselves, become contexted in the dying Western medical paradigm and are thus prescriptive on one level and potentially guilt engendering at another.
There is a place for Western ashrams, where traditional and modern healing techniques can be offered and delivered within an environment that reflects our natural spirituality. It may not even be clear what form this spirituality takes, it may be druidic and reflect our deep Northern European past, or it may be as yet undefined and be part of the creative process itself. This represents a challenge in and of itself, to decipher from the dross of the new age, alternative and regressive movements what is still fundamentally current - archetypally active - and to formulate it into a structure and direction that reflects the new millennium and the challenges of the epochal change into the age of Aquarius.
It will be a cooperative effort, where leaders and innovators in the field work with clients and customers to define these patterns and trends. However, I have observed that too often these same leaders and innovators become lost in their own structure with its mixture of the old and new, and here I see the power of place and retreat. For it is not only for the ill, lost and depressed that such places can offer the power of healing. It is also for the healers themselves, who as shamans must undergo their own wounding and renewal to be true practitioners of their art. And where do they go, who supports them? These shamans may also be the Buddhas of the new age, they also need a Sangha to support them and which to serve, as well as a Dharma to guide them.