Psychotherapy, Awakening, and Healing: By Dr. Holly Barrett

This article first appeared in the Winter 2001 Edition of the HS E-zine. The author, Holly Barrett, is a retired psychotherapist and a long time member of the HS community. The image is a courtesy of Alan Larus.

The Magic of Deep Listening As A Spiritual Path
by Holly Barrett, Ph.D.

Listening Instructions

In graduate school, we would-be psychotherapists were instructed in the various ways to listen to another person. This is a little like teaching love, but several suggestions were offered, including “hold evenly-suspended attention” (Freud), “practice the art of unknowing” (Kurtz), and, my personal favorite, “suspend memory and desire” (Bion). Readers will recognize the similarity of these instructions to teachings on meditation. As it turns out, I suspect that a few decades of this kind of listening had a lot to do with the arousal of kundalini in my body, and the subsequent upheaval that, ironically, led me to get out of the therapy business.

Listening to another person over an extended period of time is an awesome, sometimes tedious, joyful, frightening, and ultimately mysterious act – just like meditation or contemplation. Healing, when it occurs, is always reciprocal. Therapists talk among themselves about the weird things that start to happen: how your “client” puts feelings into your body for safekeeping (and for you to feel) till s/he is ready to reclaim them; how you sometimes know what s/he is going to say or do even while you are trying to be reassuring that you cannot read minds; how s/he comes in with the exact same dilemma that you have been struggling with since last week, or this morning. Modern psychoanalysts have a name for this: intersubjectivity. But over time, I found it impossible not to notice that some kind of divine wave motion was moving the therapy along. I decided my most important task, maybe my only one, was to draw a bead on what was alive and shimmering and holy in the person sitting across from me, and hold that jewel in my sight until s/he, too, could see it.

Diagnoses and Boundaries

I was going to title this article “Dual Diagnosis” as a little joke for my enjoyment. In psychology, dual diagnosis refers to a person’s having two presenting difficulties, like addiction plus a character disorder. But to my gradually awakening sensibility all diagnosis, all labels, even I suppose all descriptive language that implies professional “expertise,” pins people down to the dualistic manual. I looked with increasing wonder for the supposed line between the psychological and the spiritual and I could no longer find it. In fact, boundaries were disappearing everywhere. Who was the healer and who the healed? When did a “session” end, or a relationship? What did it mean that I was receiving money for this, especially if I was being paid by an insurance company based on a diagnosis I no longer believed in?

It seemed to me an enormous folly that human beings were trying to control and take credit for an ever-present and divine process. The medicalization of psychotherapy under HMOs leaves no room for the unknown, the empty spaces in life, the eternal presence of mystery. Even the transpersonal psychologists set up structure and hierarchy that can overlook the significance of the tiniest, most miraculous, everyday changes of consciousness that are a consequence of what we call healing.

My Awakening

None of the bells and whistles of my kundalini experiences surpasses witnessing a moment when a woman, for the first time, decides to let THIS anger, THIS wounding, melt away into grace and finds that her heart is cracking open – especially when the woman is myself. Multiply this moment by millions of therapy sessions, millions of people trying to reach for just a little bit more, in offices, in kitchens, wherever people try to dig deeper into life, and the universe starts to look like a big cauldron cooking love. My awakening occurred unexpectedly when I was sitting around morose after my OWN therapy session. The little bits started adding up and bubbling until I was suddenly ablaze.

The epiphanies that burst into life seem to lead to paradoxical statements of: Oh, I never would have guessed! AND: Of course, it is so simple and obvious! They require a hiatus of “knowing” in order to be born. These little pauses in conceptual thinking can be dramatic or scarcely noticeable. I had the privilege of witnessing one that happened to us as a group.

Who is Who?

In the ’70s, the days of Radical Therapy, I worked in a Day Treatment Center in Vermont with “severely disturbed” people. Few had spent much time out of an institution, let alone the state, but we decided to take a field trip to the ocean. The gigantic pleasure of introducing people for the first time to the expanse of beach, and to the horizon of water and sky, can hardly be described. One of my precious memories of that sacred time-out was a lobster and clam feast where we all sat around a table of towels, eating with our fingers, shouting with laughter as butter dribbled down our chins. However briefly, everyone was lucid, involved, awake and living. An observer would not have been able to tell who was a patient and who was a staff member. We had nothing to define us but salty breezes on our skin and our appetite for life.

It seems to me, as I think of this moment of spontaneous healing, that life is shot through with these little quantum jumps in consciousness. But if we don’t listen and watch deeply enough, we will miss them. I imagine that divinity is always trying to push through the ordinary, as part of the wave motion of God, but our fear and need to know everything lets us ignore the obvious. Healing is nothing more, and nothing less, than listening to what is truly here. And now.

What is the Nature of Light? By Joyce Know_Mystery

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A few years ago, I had a damaged heart and was about to have a stent implanted during cardiac catheterization. At the time I was enrolled in a study of a new treatment to prevent arteries from closing up after surgery (as they so often tend to do) at Mass General Hospital. The new process used a tiny probe with a tiny laser threaded into the heart to do this.

I did a lot of research about heart damage and treatment options and alternatives to the surgery before agreeing to participate. I learned that not a lot of research had been done using women, and the statistics showed that successful outcomes for women were significantly worse than those for men.

Men experience heart symptoms at a younger age than do women, and when women have symptoms, they are often of a different sort. Doctors often don’t consider heart disease when women’s symptoms first occur, which means that women are often initially given the wrong diagnosis and the wrong treatment.

While our spiritual heart is infinite in size, and boundless, women’s physical hearts are significantly smaller than men’s (unless they have become enlarged from disease). The surgical instruments have been designed for use on the larger male hearts and circulatory system, and that may also have a bearing on the poorer outcomes for women and children.

Before concluding that the surgery was necessary, the doctors did many tests – from EKG to echocardiogram to thallium nuclear imaging (cardiac SPECT) to stress tests (which they had to stop when abnormal EKG signs showed up), and others over a period of many weeks. The assorted tests were done by different doctors – not just from one medical practice – and they all showed significant artery damage (and a small valve problem).The language on the results of the thallium SPECT scan used the word “massive” to describe the effects of the blockage. All the doctors interpreting the tests agreed that surgery was necessary. I obtained second and third and fourth opinions.

So there I was – the research showed worse outcomes for women and a significant chance that even with a stent the artery would close up again and it would need to be removed and replaced in time – sometimes as early as 6 months. And the research also showed that an inadequate amount of information was available on women’s heart disease and treatment because most of the research had been done on men. And there I was, with all of these Harvard doctors saying there was no choice for me but to have the surgery. And there I was reading about the possible complications – the worst being an adverse cardiac event, a euphemism for sudden death in the consent forms to enroll for the test of the new procedure.

For me, the decision was pretty straightforward – I decided to go ahead and participate in the experimental trial of the cardiac cath with laser light, despite the risks.

Why?

It was an opportunity to serve other women. It was an opportunity to contribute whatever my heart would tell them to the body of research into heart disease… to do “something” about the fact that the bulk of the research involves the male heart by adding my heart to their studies.

I remember the first time I saw a laser demonstration years ago. One night, I watched as they aimed a laser beam from a big laser in our high school parking lot out across the highway to a target on a hill a mile away. And now they are aiming laser beams from within the arteries of our hearts, using the focused light to heal.

I did a quick search on BrainBoost to find out when lasers were invented. What I found was this:

1958: Arthur L. Schawlow and Charles H. Townes invent the laser, then publish “Infrared and Optical Masers” in the American Physical Society’s Physical Review. The paper describes the basic principles of the laser, initiating this new scientific field.”

In 1958, lasers were considered “a new scientific field”, and now they are accepted, taken for granted and used widely. Before1958, if someone said that one day doctors could thread a wire with a healing light beam from an incision in your groin up into your heart … would anyone have believed them?

About the outcome of that cardiac adventure? I am still here. In fact, I have a healthy heart – only a couple of electrical problems, but no coronary artery disease today.

And this is a true story:

The day of the surgery, I was all prepped and waiting my turn there on the gurney in the catacombs underneath Mass General, electrodes all over, watching the EKG monitor and the pattern of the green lines and meditating to maintain calm. I was focusing on the idea of “the incredible healingness of light” – it had been a sort of mantra I used for a couple of weeks before then, and I had written about it in my journal letters.

After a while, an intense heat erupted from deep within and I could feel an enormous glowing in my chest, around my heart. There was a profound flushing sensation unlike any I have experienced before or since and my skin from my face to my torso turned bright red, as though I had been exposed to direct sunlight for hours and had a bad sunburn.

The doctors and nurses gathered around and looked at my skin so red and so hot and said “no surgery for you” until whatever is going on stops. That was in the morning. They kept me there and watched. And I kept on with the mantra.

By around 3:30 that afternoon, my skin color was back to normal and they again prepped me for the procedure and wheeled me into the OR. They turned on the overhead monitor – like an old fashioned black and white CRT for a computer – so I could watch. They gave me some morphine for the pain but no sedation. They injected a dye so the circulatory system inside the heart could be seen and then threaded the guide wire up into my heart from a tiny incision in my groin. I watched the wire snaking it’s way up through my upper chest and then into my heart.

And there on the overhead monitor, the two doctors and I saw it at the same time – a healthy heart… no blockages at all, no clogged arteries.

There are things that I have experienced in life that I believe show traces of the hand of God and the beauty and mystery of the universe. Giving birth to my daughter. The sense of connection with “all that is” that I have known standing on the hill watching meteors. Staring eye to eye with that beautiful grey heron last month. And looking inside my own beating heart on that monitor…

So what happened? How could a heart which was diagnosed with a massive blockage suddenly appear healthy and whole? Was the initial diagnosis wrong? We’ve all looked at this.

The fact is that ALL of the standard diagnostic tests pointed to the same thing. It would be easy to say it was a misdiagnosis if one or two of the tests were wrong, but what are the odds that ALL of them were wrong?

The fact is that ALL of the tests were performed over a series of several weeks. If they had all been performed at around the same time, maybe some sort of transient condition had happened and then resolved itself. But what are the odds that separate tests performed over an extended time period and consistently reflecting the same results are ALL wrong?

The fact is that ALL of the tests were performed by different physicians at different facilities and none of them had been informed of the results of any of the other tests by their colleagues, so they could not have been influenced by each other’s diagnoses. My primary care doctor coordinated the assorted tests. What are the odds that doctors at different facilities working independently came up with the same results and they were ALL wrong?

The doctors never did come up with an explanation for how they ALL could have been mistaken. I don’t think they were mistaken, myself. I saw the test results – the EKG strips while they were being done and also afterwards. I saw the images from the echocardiogram. I saw the pics from the nuclear SPECT test. And so did all the doctors afterwards. What we saw there appeared to be real and present.

What do I think explained the suddenly healthy state of my heart? I think it is this: “the incredible healingness of light.”

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joyce know_mystery is an activist and poet and nature photographer. She is a contributing editor to NDHighlights, and some of her poetry and photos can be found on the Deep_Well forum. She is frequently in residence on the HolyGeek forum, home of Spiritual Computing. She has been a practitioner of Vipassana meditation since the early 80s and experienced a profound epiphany in 1983. An admitted astronomy geek, she has said about watching meteor showers “I’m a sucker for the moon and the stars…At moments like that, I’m inevitably drawn to thoughts of people throughout the ages staring heavenward at the mystery unfolding. I feel irrevocably connected with the universe in a way more profound than any religious experience inside any church building.” She lives near Boston, where she works in publishing and talks with the herons and hawks and other things with wings.

Photographs courtesy of Joyce Sweinberg