What Is Healing?

What is healing? This seems like a hard question to answer as healing just happens. I feel like I need an answer but maybe I just need to accept it.

To me, healing has an ethereal quality.

Something I desperately long for and am always surprised when it finally shows up.

I feel like I am constantly asking myself “what is healing?”

I struggle to explain how it is more than its dictionary definition of “returning to health.”

So join me as I try to answer this question.

Our bodies know how to heal

Healing feels like something that happens in the background. You do the work, but you must also wait.

When we scrape our knees, our skin rebuilds itself in a few days. There might be a scar, but the skin would return to its usual colour.

But if they know how to heal, why do they get stuck in chronic illnesses that continue for months, years, and sometimes decades?

Does the body heal itself?

I have always had a fascination with the diseased body. When I was young I read books about disease; fascinated by bubonic plague, cholera and smallpox. I took Biology in high school. I wrote my thesis on Mad Cow’s Disease and international trade law (weird right? Even my professor thought so).

I had my first chronic illness in the my teens. First with recurrent strep throat, after being on antibiotics for months and months, I had my tonsils removed.

Then had chronic fatigue, which may have been the result of undiagnosed mononucleosis (otherwise known as mono, kissing disease or Epstein-Barr.) (Alas, not from kissing but from siting next to someone on a plane for 8 hours who was theoretically “fine.”)

At that time, we never talked about healing. Only about curing. Getting rid of the disease. Removing the dysfunction. Returning to ‘normal.’ Maintaining a pain-free ease in the body.

There was never any discussion of the body healing itself.

There was a sense that medicine knew more, knew better, than the body. That the body needed external expertise to heal.

And now, I think is only part of the story.

Yes, modern medicine has created incredible marvels to support the body to return to health. If I break something, I absolutely want someone to wrap it up tight while it heals.

But healing chronic illness requires more than just considering the physical body.

Separating mind from body

Humans have long been fascinated by the diseased body. But out understanding of that is always seen through the prevailing cultural lens of the era.

In the 17th century during the Age of Enlightenment, spirituality, religious beliefs and magic, slowly gave way to political debate, philosophical discourse and rigorous scientific processes.

There was a shift from seeing the body as a group of humours and spirits, to seeing it as a mechanism. A mechanical object. Which led to a focus of only believing in what could been seen or measured. Of how the heart pumps, how blood is made, and how white cells respond to infection.

That also led to the body being separated out into its component parts. And overlooking the interconnection between the complex systems within us.

An example of this shift is mentioned by Candace Pert, in her book Molecules of Emotion. In this era, philosopher Rene Descartes needed the Pope’s approval to study the mechanics of the body. More specifically, to access humans bodes for dissection.

The Pope gave leave to do so, only if Descartes promised his research would be separate from “the soul, mind or emotions and those aspects of the human experience under the virtual exclusive justification of the church at the time.”

And he did. His research focused solely on the mechanics of the body, not even considering any connection to the mind, the emotions or spirit. So the body was split in two, and has yet to be fully stitched back together.

(I am always amazed how a centuries old decision continues to impact the health of millions today.)

And while we are in the midst of a scientific paradigm shift, those of us with chronic illnesses continue to have to navigate a system that considers ‘psychosomatic’ to be a dirty word.

Pert, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist, goes onto say “I’ve come to believe that virtually all illness, if not psychosomatic in foundation, has a definite psychosomatic component.”

Side note: Psychosomatic is psyche meaning mind or soul, and soma meaning body. Simply meaning, a connection between the mind and the body. Nothing more. Nothing less.

What is healing?

The body is always trying to maintain balance while responding to a vast range of inputs it is constantly receiving. From the food we eat to how stressful our day was, it is constantly responsive while also seeking homeostasis.

From my experience with healing, I have found it is about creating an internal and external environment that supports your healing. And what that looks like for each individual person will be different, and will also change throughout their healing journey.

Internally, that might be things we bring into the body: foods, water, supplements, medications, or things we stop consuming. Or we learn how to meditate or release pent up stress in some way.

Externally, it might mean working with emotionally supportive people we trust, as well as living and working in supportive environments. Again, that will look different for each person.

But in short it means that healing happens when we create a safe, relaxed, supportive environment, inside and out, where the body can do what it’s designed to do.

To go one step further, that would suggest that the role of doctors, nurses, naturopaths, therapists, coaches, energy healers, physical therapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists of all healers, is to create a safe container so that your body do the work of creating balance.

That also means we each have a role to play in creating those containers. We may not always know how to create those containers or what we need at any one time, but we can seek out people who can do that for us.

But this definition also recognises healing as a partnership. Healing is not something that is done to us, or a burden we bear alone. It is something that happens when we work with people we trust.

Healing the four bodies

It’s often easier to see what it means to heal the physical body. The broken leg is put in a cast, the abscess is drained, medication is given, the gallstone is removed. Supplements to support digestion, support for sleeping. It includes safe physical touch such as hugs, massage and dancing.

In the emotion realm, it’s about having a safe container for our emotions to be witnessed, validated and shared. That can be with a therapist, but it can also be through journalling, art therapy or talking with a friend.

In the intellectual or mental realm, it can be creating space from our inner critic and developing an inner witness. It can be identifying the false beliefs we carry around and learning how to shift them. (Also, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, works well in this domain.)

It can also be getting a diagnosis or gaining words to describe our behaviours. Language, frameworks and models can provide useful containers for healing.

In the spiritual level it is having a safe space to explore your connection to something beyond yourself. This can be your creative expression, your connection to nature, how you create meaning for others, or exploring your intuition.

Healing also requires patience

Maybe I’m surprised when healing happens simply because I am so impatient. I expect things to change overnight.

So what is healing?

Here’s my answer:

When we create the conditions that allow our body to heal, healing just happens.

It doesn’t happen overnight but behind the scenes, from our cells to our energetic body, shifts are happening. We don’t notice them immediately, but it does happen.

When you start to feel frustrated by the delay, pause and ask yourself, what safe containers for healing am I in? Who have I partnered with to support me in this process? Is healing likely to be happening but I am not aware of it? Do I need to trust the process I am in?

If not, seek out someone who can support you. If yes, breathe and connect to your patience.