Roots of Narrative Healing – Part 1

Originally posted on www.teleosis.org August 4, 2015

Many elements of the healing narrative have been around for a long time. We can trace the concept that humans have narrative-making capacity, the freedom to interpret and reinterpret our situation, and the power to focus our attention on what serves us, all the way to The Bhagavad Gita at the very least.  While much of our current language around narrative in the context of healing is contemporary, some foundational elements predate coaching, conventional medicine and modern science itself. Part One, below, of this two-part blog offers a brief review of writing from thousands, hundreds, and just 60-plus years ago, that reveals the value of narrative as a force in healing ourselves and alleviating suffering in others.

Gita“It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control, but it can be conquered… through regular practice and detachment” (6.35) – The Bhagavad Gita, c. 500-200 BCE.

Even if we hesitate a bit at the prospect of “conquering” the mind, we know now that through intentional practice we can create and increase awareness of our mind’s habitual tendencies, learn to interrupt chatter that does not serve us and choose thoughts that do. The move from an illness narrative to a healing narrative inevitably involves increased awareness of habitual thinking. Over 2,000 years ago, the Gita asserts that the mind has a mind of its own, and that we can work with it.

 Boethius“No one finds it easy to accept the lot Fortune has sent him….So nothing is miserable except when you think it so, and vice versa, all luck is good luck to the man who bears it with equanimity.”  (II.iv) – Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, c. 522-524 CE.

In a more focused statement of the Gita’s premise of conquering the mind, Boethius points out that “miserable” (i.e. any adjective) is a judgement based in thought, and that through practice and equanimity we can choose more healing descriptors or even learn to limit our tendency to judge and ascribe meaning to a situation. We can make the move from applying adjectives and hyperbole to our situation, to “simply” noting what is –from “this pain is killing me; it’s excruciating…” to “right now I have pain in my right hip…” To the Gita’s permission to work with our minds through practice, Boethius emphasizes the importance of recognizing our state of mind, and the impact our choice of words has on that state, which in turn impacts our word choice, which impacts our state, which impacts our words, in an ongoing cycle.

Frankl“[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (75).
– Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, 1992 (1946)

Frankl’s remarkable reflections from the concentration camp may lead us to wonder, “Even this? Even in this situation, I am free to choose my response? How is this possible in the face of such suffering?” And the answer – in both behavior and words, comes from examples like the Dalai Lama’s life of love and peace in exile, to Thich Nhat Hanh’s protesting all sides in the Vietnam war, from Malala Yousafzai’s addressing the world after being shot, to  the families of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC as they addressed the shooter, and from those folks each of us knows in our own lives, who have responded to what they could not control with grace, dignity, love and compassion – is a resounding “Yes, you are free to choose, and Yes, you can do this.”

Frankl’s contribution complements the Gita’s permission and practice and Boethius’ emphasis on state of mind and word choice with a terrifying, revelatory and liberating assertion that yes, even under these circumstances, we are free to choose our response. Even under these circumstances we are free to choose a narrative that heals.

Part two of this “historical look” at the roots and ever-extending branches of the healing narrative will touch on the works of late 20th- and early 21st-century writers, including Harold S. Kushner, Mary Catherine Bateson, Philip Simmons, Toni Bernhard and James Pennebaker
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Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. V.E. Watts. New York: Penguin, 1969.

Easwaran, Eknath, trans. The Bhagavad Gita.  Tomales CA: Nilgiri, 1985.

Frankl, Victor E.  Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.  4th ed.  Boston: Beacon, 1992.