The Meaning of Healing

Smudging is incorporated into some Aboriginal cultures’ healing practices as a method for cleansing and purifying. Northern Journal, Canada.

In 2008, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation of Canada published an important report, Aboriginal Healing in Canada: Studies in Therapeutic Meaning and Practice, based on research in five healing programs across Canada.

One of the aims of this research was to gain an ‘understanding of the meanings and processes of healing in Aboriginal communities. At the outset, it was our sense that, despite the widespread adoption of healing discourse by Aboriginal people and others, what was actually meant by healing was ill-defined, variable, and inherently flexible. It made sense that to study the impact of healing programs one also needed to understand how clients and therapists/healers understood this key concept and employed it to frame their experiences.’ [p. 1]

The report authors noted the following about the clients in the healing programs studied:

‘Most… are dealing with issues of alcohol and substance abuse, interpersonal violence, homelessness, physical illness, criminality, and a concomitant disruption in meaningful social relations as a result of their behaviour. Relatively few had experienced residential schools themselves [many Aboriginal children in Canada were taken from their families and sent to residential schools where they were treated cruelly – DC], yet the lateral and generational consequences of the schools are apparent everywhere. We found, however, each individual client to be unique. Successful treatment programs are able to adjust program goals and therapeutic techniques to individual contingency.’ [p. 4]

Here are some of the key findings of this study in relation to the nature of healing:

‘The first thing that emerges from our work is that healing is a concept that is difficult to articulate, in part, because most seem to feel that there is no need to articulate it and/or simply have never been asked to. There is no dominant treatment paradigm at work here…’

‘… healing is an active, not passive, process: it is something you do, not something you think or that is done to you. In this sense, healing is work, it is ongoing and requires dedication. First and foremost, it requires commitment from the individual. No one can heal you or make you heal. Personal agency is stressed above all else.

The dominant metaphor in our research describes healing as a journey… The journey has a clear direction toward healing, yet it is a journey fraught with challenges. Falling off the path of healing is common, even expected by treatment staff. There is no shame to temporary setbacks, nor are these seen as failures; rather, the individual is welcomed back to continue on his or her journey when he or she feels ready…

No one is ever completely healed. No one speaks of being cured in the same way biomedicine uses this concept. Even those who have been on the healing path for many years and who have become therapists themselves must struggle to remain on the path. Healing remains… “an ongoing process of self-transformation’.

Healing was rarely thought of in biomedical terms, and even conventional psychotherapeutic understandings were largely absent. Rather, what emerged is a common theme that healing is ultimately about the reparation of damaged and disordered social relations. The individual, through outwardly and self-destructive behaviours, has become disconnected from family, friends, community, and even his or her heritage.

The reason for undertaking healing is often found in the clients’ desire to make amends and to be accepted back into the web of relationships. Healing, then, speaks to a form of Aboriginal sociality that reduces the degree of self-indulgence and self-pity and frames one’s problems and the solutions in broader, collective terms.

It does not deny historical processes or the legacy of the residential schools, which have created the conditions for social and psychological discontent; rather, it helps individuals understand why they have problems in a manner that allows them to simultaneously see that, while victims of oppression, they retain the necessary agency to change their lives for the better. Healing, then, is ultimately about hope for the individual, the family, the community, and the future…” Aboriginal Healing in Canada: Studies in Therapeutic Practice and Meaning [pp. 6 – 7]

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