The official definition of healing consists of
- To make sound or whole,
- To restore to health or soundness,
- To cure a disease or disorder,
- To cause an undesirable condition to be overcome.
In the Annals of Family Medicine I found an in depth study of "The Meaning of Healing" presented by Thomas R. Egnew, EdD, LICSW. His conclusion was:
Healing may be operationally defined as the personal experience of the transcendence of suffering. Physicians can enhance their abilities as healers by recognizing, diagnosing, minimizing, and relieving suffering, as well as helping patients transcend suffering.
You can check out the entire article, if you wish, at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1466870/
The transcendence of suffering. How does one get there? This definition makes it very obvious that taking a pill, or smoking some weed, is not the path to true healing. Legal or illegal pain medications serve the purpose of temporarily alleviating pain, but the issue is: Temporarily, it is a way to cope with, not to heal, the underlying condition. The pain always comes back as soon as the chemical effect wears off. When we are dealing with a surgical intervention or a broken bone, for example, this temporary pain relief is essential and the humane thing to do. But how do we deal with the long term suffering of chronic pain, whether it is physical or emotional? How do we "make sound or whole" as medical professionals?
Pain, physical or emotional, is a messenger of the body telling us that something is out of balance, not supportive of life sustaining function. Physical pain generally keeps us from doing more damage to an already injured structure. A paraplegic without feeling in her feet can drag her toes across the pavement until they are gone while driving along in her power wheelchair. I have seen the result of this. Pain, generally speaking, is a good thing.
Emotional pain serves the same function. It alerts us to psychological damage occuring at that moment. The damage may be acute, or it may be the result of long standing, damaging belief systems that we aquired years or decades ago. Either way, unless we address the cause of pain, it persists, and the damage continues.
Finding and addressing the root cause of pain may be easy in some cases. An x-ray will show the location and severity of a broken bone. The orthopedic surgeon sets the bone, fixates it with screws and plates, and nature, assisted by physical therapists, does the rest. Pain medications do their job, and while the experience is highly unpleasant, on its own it does not lead to suffering until the medical bills arrive.
Sometimes, however, getting to the bottom requires ingenious medical and/or psychological detective skills. Chronic pain may be caused by some obscure physical damage, or it may be the result of psychological issues that have not been addressed adequately as long as the pain was "only" emotional. In our culture emotional pain is often treated as frivolous and irrelevant. "Suck it up and keep going!", "Just get over it!" is often the advice one gets when demonstrating or expressing psychological pain. If we follow this (bad) advice, the pain gets burried somewhere, not only in the psyche, but also somewhere in the body. Such a blocked message interrupts communication in the location where it is stored, and without adequate communication, the cells cannot do their job properly in coordination with the rest of the body. Disruption of communication leads to dysfunction, and without intervention dysfunction leads to disease. This form of disease is intricately connected to suffering.
As medical practitioners we need to learn to listen, not only with our ears, but also with our hearts and our hands. A purely mechanical approach is not enough to alleviate suffering. "To make sound or whole" must include the emotional and spiritual being, not just the physical body. Human touch and heart felt compassion are absolutely essential in every stage of life. We need to encourage our patients to be kind and compassionate to themselves, and we can demonstrate what that looks like. When we honor the patient as well as ourselves, we can establish a level of trust between us that will make the medical detective work easier to accomplish. Without trust, the most tender and vulnerable places in our mind and body will not yield their secrets, and without knowing what is the cause, we cannot address the problem effectively. We can chase symptoms, which is highly lucrative for the pharmaceutical industry, but it does not help us to "transcend suffering".
My part in healing, in my present understanding, is the restoration of fluid communication within the body-mind-spirit oneness that we are. When all the inner voices are being heard, and all the messages are being received consciously, the body will tell us what it needs to restore balance and soundness.