imone Weil wrote “Love sees what is invisible.”1 But what if you could not make the fullness of your humanness visible to others? What if you cared for your children with the passion of a loving parent but others took your children from you because they failed to recognize this profoundly humanizing quality in you?
This is precisely what happened to the Aboriginal people of Australia; they were made invisible by their colonizers. Maybe the colonizers were unable to classify the continent’s indigenous people because they lacked the tools of cross-cultural analysis. Even today we are by no means free of major blind spots with regard to understanding diverse cultures.
Umberto Eco notes that the early colonizers of Australia somehow squeezed the platypus, an undeniably confusing animal, into the category of mole despite its strange beak and other unusual characteristics. It just didn’t fit any known category for them, thus, in a certain sense they could not see it for what it was. Before we dismiss this as a trivial insight we might want to consider the pervasive problem of inadequate or non-existent cognitive categories for many domains of human experience. Our evolution into more expansive consciousness often requires us to embrace or ‘discover’ new categories which in turn help us to enter new worlds of meaning.
Whether based on false perception, lack of understanding, greed, or all of the above, the native peoples of Australia were dispossessed and oppressed because they were not visible to the colonizers. The indigenous worldview was simply incomprehensible to those who saw themselves as the vanguard of progress and civilization. The notion of belonging to the land rather than owning it and exploiting its resources for one’s own gain somehow fell, for those arriving from the ‘civilized world’, into the category of less intelligent or less evolved. It took a few hundred years for this worldview to begin to appreciate the wounds it had, in its ignorance, inflicted on a peaceful society.
A compelling report to the Australian parliament as recently as 1997, entitled Bringing Them Home???2, described the magnitude of the suffering of Aboriginal families whose children had been forcibly removed by the State up until the 1960s. Half a decade earlier, in 1992, the High Court of Australia delivered a judgment, known as Mabo, which gave aborigines native title to ancestral lands taken from them during the colonization of the continent. Both the report and the court’s decision marked the need for social healing in Australia. They created the context to deal with the wounds carried from the past.
The basis for the acquisition of the aborigine lands had been a legal justification on the basis of terra nullius—a doctrine that the land was empty; uninhabited by humans. At the close of the 20th century the justices in their wisdom made the Aboriginal people fully visible before the law. In a boldly stated judgment they also recognized the full humanity of these ancient peoples and the depth and integrity of a culture that the dominant culture had hitherto been unable or unwilling to recognize.
The justices declared the treatment and dispossession of the aborigines: “the darkest aspect of the history of this nation. The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgement of and retreat from these past injustices.”3
By addressing the past in this manner, the justices were paving the way for a more integrated and, thus healthier, future for all the people who live in Australia today. While the past cannot be altered, there are ways that we can transform our relationship to it so as to prevent the repetition of its most egregious ills and the repetition of cycles of suffering and abuse. The past need not be forever the trigger of patterns that wound us in the present and inhibit our future potential. We can heal.
What is Social Healing?
Social healing is an emerging field that seeks to deal with wounds created by conflict, collective trauma and large-scale oppression. It seeks to identify areas of collective experience, which remain unresolved, neglected and repressed within the psyche of groups and even nations. Its domain is centrally within consciousness rather than politics per se; it is psycho-spiritual in nature and only activist in its consequences. Its primary modalities are truth, reconciliation, forgiveness and restorative justice. It requires individuals to assume the responsibility to become healing agents themselves and as such it is experiential rather than ideological.
Social healing is an affirmation of our power to create meaning, relationship and health from seeking truth and reconciliation with our fellow human beings. It invites us to see our selves as empowered to dialogue with history — and history in the making — and not simply experience it as a series of externalized events or enactments, which are beyond our reach. It is a form of self-actualizing democracy: it requires the participation of our inner lives. It places high value on the quality of being that we manifest together. It begins in our awareness and is an expression of our longing for greater wholeness.
Social healing aligns itself with the emerging consciousness movement that strongly validates subjective lived experience. We have discovered that the world configures itself to our best interpretations of it. And this understanding has brought us into a much more intimate relationship with the universe. We know more clearly now that whatever we describe in the activity of atoms and molecules is threaded with meaning and woven with interpretation from our experience.
We are only beginning to imagine what it might mean for us to really wake up inside evolution and consciously pulse it with new meaning. As yet, it seems, we do not know the extent or the limits of our power either for good or ill. Duane Elgin and others have suggested this is akin to being in the adolescent phase of our species’ development. Maturity brings an understanding of the injury we can cause others through an inappropriate exercise of power. It also brings greater clarity about ways to harness our creative engagement with others as well as the power to heal, transform and generate well-being for ourselves and others.
Much of our lives are spent in exploring the relationship between self and others and, yet, there are such significant variances both within and between cultures as to make this a truly complex issue. In many ways we cannot avoid giving offense and even hurting each other but we can learn not to oppress and exploit each other.
The development of a global curriculum around exploitation and oppression is underway but it would be an understatement to say that it is near completion. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability continue to be arenas of oppression, which result in violent death, extreme poverty, avoidable disease and dehumanizing social rejection.
People are often unsure about how to change systems, cultural patterns or religious beliefs without getting entangled in rancorous dispute, divisiveness and, for some, the justification for violent retaliation.
This is a central challenge for social healing as an emergent field: it must get inside the roots of oppression, feel its emotional texture, its psychological structure and the humanness of victims and perpetrators alike in their numerous guises and settings. It deconstructs systems in order to access the experiential reality that they create. To do so, it attempts to be perceptive, understanding, and compassionate rather than taking a stance of blame and accusation. Social healing requires us to go more deeply into what it means to be human.
Jacob Needleman points out that “western civilization has operated under the assumption that we can understand the universe without understanding ourselves.”4 He suggests that, “Both within and outside the sciences a new sense of the unknown has appeared. The unknown is ourselves.”
What is increasingly known is that we are more interconnected than we had ever imagined. When we shift our awareness towards an appreciation of our deep relatedness we begin at the very least to transform structures which feed off of separation and division. Both the inner and outer discovery and confirmation of the nature and degree of our relatedness may be the path whereby we can transform dysfunctional and oppressive systems from the inside out.
As the world continues to shrink we are beginning to understand that we are relational beings who generate meaning together. The new frontier of social transformation is one in which both scientific and spiritual worldviews meet in confirming the charged, creative and generative nature of great masses of individuals communing together and creating webs of meaning and networks of influence. The World Wide Web is both a vehicle and a symbol for this sea change in human consciousness. Even though there are major forces that seek to make the Internet the new commercial frontier and view it as a kind of prime real estate to capture, it is demonstrating a resilient capacity to be a global commons where a great multiplicity and diversity of voices can be heard. People are participating in a global conversation as never before.
The shift in awareness from being spectators of a collective human drama which is primarily influenced by superstars in the political, intellectual and religious spheres to one in which each of us begins to recognize ourselves as participants and even as ‘players’ is indeed a very significant one.
As many have noted, this shift in consciousness is one where our interior life may still be beautifully private but it is also an arena in which we can source the collective in ways that we had never previously imagined. We can experience a shift from passive spectators to imaginatively and compassionately engaged participants in designing healthier and more sustainable lifestyles. This shift entails a de-conditioning of worldviews that are sustained by artificial constructs that maintain a strict separation between the inner life of individuals and the external or ‘objective’ life of society.
he process of moving from spectator to conscious participant is particularly evident in the field of health with the dramatic rise in complementary and alternative approaches. Take the classic medical model, for example. In the past, crudely speaking, you got ill and something was done to you by a trained professional to make you better. Now, there is widespread understanding that you must take responsibility for promoting your own health and well-being.
“Essential to all complementary and alternative medicine is the point that the intervention or cure does not exist ‘outside’ the individuals, independent of ‘inside’ changes in attitude, lifestyle, and orientation toward self and environment. Such an approach demands internal, psychological transformation and the active ongoing involvement of the individual.”5 (Kenneth Pelletier, PhD, MD)
It is easier to see that the ‘outside’ ‘inside’ analogy holds true for the social body when we are referring to people directly caught up in violent trauma such as brutal conflict, flagrant denial of human rights and various kinds of political oppression. In these contexts they are clearly not spectators watching events in history unfold—as though they were happening on the ‘outside’. They are caught up inside events, which, if they survive, permanently change their basic orientation ‘toward self and the environment’.
It is more difficult to see how internal transformation can come about in relation to events one always perceived as happening on the ‘outside’, or out of a past with which one experiences little connection. Events abstracted from direct experience seem to occur beyond ‘the fragile geometry’ of the self and as such they are the stuff of theories and conjectures, fiction, movies or the evening news.
Social healing has much to say to those who survive the fires of violent trauma and those who inherit or who even inhabit the nightmares of history. But it also addresses itself to those who live at various degrees of separation in time and space from historical trauma; to those who live the illusion that they have no relationship to the suffering of others; and to all who have dreams and longing for better days.
Healing from the Fires of Genocide
Here is a story of social healing from ‘inside’, from a survivor of the fires of genocide.
Arn Chorn Pond was a young child when he was picked up by the Khmer Rouge as they began their genocidal rampage through Cambodia. He survived because the murderous men who smashed the heads of other children a few feet away from him were moved by the beauty of his flute playing. He was forced to witness the killing of hundreds of people on a daily basis for a very prolonged period. Arn eventually fled the killing fields and was fortunate enough to be brought to the United States by his adopted father, Peter Pond.
For Arn, his journey inside the cauldron of these events left him with deep psychological scars and emotional wounds. The world had violently invaded his inner space and he knew that he would self-destruct unless he found healing. Initially he did so by telling the truth of what happened in his country to audiences across the United States. Eventually, he was able to say:
“I’m not just alive today because bullets failed to reach my brain or because I wasn’t butchered by the awful Khmer Rouge genocide. I’m alive, finally, after all these years because I love again. I can feel the pain of others, not just my own, who are suffering the pain of human madness.”6
Arn would not say that his healing is complete; his own healing has become inextricably linked to healing others including those who experienced the genocide and those who were born into its aftermath. His capacity for love has translated itself into work with gang kids in some of America’s cities; he has co-founded one of the largest youth volunteer organizations in Cambodia and has spearheaded remarkable work to save the work of masters of traditional Cambodian music. His story is told in a contemporary documentary entitled The Flute Player.
A Social Healing Movement Emerges
The movement towards a healing paradigm in the social domain in the last century was stimulated by charismatic leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their emphasis on nonviolent approaches to conflict, their efforts to diffuse hatred, their refusal to demonize opponents and their ability to affirm unifying principles under girded their life long efforts to promote social harmony and reconciliation. Their passionate quest for justice was held within a ground of being suffused with creativity and compassion. They were not so much concerned with blame and retribution as with more healing forms of restoring fairness and justice. They stand in marked contrast to the divisive tactics of mere ideologues and demagogues.
Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have taken on their mantle in our time to demonstrate the power of forgiveness and reconciliation in the social domain. They recognized that forgiveness and reconciliation require truth telling. And for the truth to really be told it has to be so much more than the official story. People must be able to speak the truth of events as they experienced them. Their work gave potent affirmation to the significance of individual human experience. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set a new benchmark in human affairs by placing such great value to the expression of raw experience. Through its work South Africa stands a far greater chance of healing the wounds of the past than if it had simply adopted the model of triumphalism still so dominant in global politics.
Through the Commission’s work South Africans were able to explore and describe the nature of their wounds and by so doing begin to address them. Social healing concerns itself particularly with the inter-generational transfer of wounds. If unaddressed these wounds are fed rather than healed and can become an unhealthy aspect of an individual’s or a group’s self-definition. They can also be submerged in the collective psyche only to be triggered by historical events. Tito, for example, was able to repress the wounds and divisions between ethnic and religious rivals in the former Yugoslavia, which had stretched back hundreds of years. But once the repressive lid was removed the old unhealed wounds surfaced with vengeance.
People have different narratives of the past. Social healing accepts the complexity created by the impact of lived experience, and subsequently influenced by the screens of collective perception, and potentially selective memory. Nonetheless narratives are often sacred and core to individual and group identity; as such they are not susceptible to casual revision. If anything, an exploration of our narratives leads more to an understanding of mass psychology, deeper motivations and the power and influence of myths and worldviews.
It appears, however, that if we feel heard we are more likely to listen to others. Initiatives such as One by One, which brings together Holocaust survivors and former Nazis, and the Compassionate Listening Project, which facilitates the sharing of experience by Israelis and Palestinians, demonstrate that profound understanding can flow from hearing each other’s stories. In these examples truth is not made relative in a moral sense but in an experiential sense. Social healing does not seek to arbitrate moral questions and make determinations about who is right and who is wrong. It concerns itself with revealing our capacities to restore community and create the basis for future peace and harmony.
There may be hope for an evolutionary shift in consciousness that will both heal and transform our relationship to the past. It is a shift that requires humility and an exploration of the science of being itself.
“Now fitfully, and with great uncertainty, it seems we are being called back from the impulse to believe we can stride into nature with our mind pointed like an unsheathed sword.
“And the discoveries of science about the organic interconnection of all things, from the atomic nucleus to the unfathomed psyche of man [sic] to the inconceivable entities of cosmic space, in a like manner invite us to something greater than the search for additional facts and information.”??7
“Additional facts and information” will not suffice to help us heal.
For that we will also need heart and soul and the love that sees beyond the visible surfaces of our existence into the deep space of our individual and collective being. Even the idea that social healing is beginning in various parts of our planet allows us to imagine that a future without brutality and oppression is a real possibility. Even more dizzying for me, is the notion that I as an individual can make a contribution to that future and that we all can: a healing by the whole system, for the whole system.
This article from by James O Dea, President, The Institute of Noetic Sciences. James O’Dea appears in the IONS-supported book, Consciousness & Healing: An Anthology of Integral Approaches to Mind-Body Medicine, from Churchill Livingstone and Elsevier Press, 2005.
1. Weil, Simone, Waiting on God, Collins, Glasgow, 1977.
2. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), Bringing Them Home, AGPS, Canberra, 1997.
4. Needleman, Jacob, A Sense of the Cosmos, Monkfish Book Publishing, Rhinebeck. 2003.
5. Pelletier, Kenneth, Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer: MindBody Medicine Comes of Age, Advances in Medicine. 2002; 18(1):4-15.
6. Transcript of unpublished speech, Washington National Cathedral, 1992.
7. Needleman, 2003.