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6 very influential healing and embodiment traditions from around the world

Across the globe, numerous diverse cultures have evolved during the ages, each with its unique approach to healing. These healing traditions are the result of evolutionary processes in the necessity for health and well-being. (Pesek, 2006) Despite the many differences, there is one underlying common aspect that connects them: the integrated effects of body, mind, and spirit. (Benson, 1975; Chopra, 1993; Weil, 1995) This triad can be found in every healing tradition, however, there are alterations in the incorporation of spirituality and environment. The latter is mainly covered by Western cultures as they see the surroundings as a key component to healing. Other, Eastern cultures tend to include spirituality as an optional tool to achieve healing progress. (Pesek, 2006) This is not surprising based on the fact that the views of illness and health are highly influenced in any society by the culture and worldviews, including spiritual beliefs (Craffert, 1997). In other terms, healing traditions can be viewed as a part of the ’collective unconscious’ of societies in terms of Carl Jung’s theory (Berg, 2003).

In this research paper, we will highlight and compare six different traditions regarding their healing theories and methods. In the case of three Eastern traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are presented together since the aspects discussed show many similarities. Chinese Medicine is presented individually as another Eastern healing tradition. From other continents, we selected Native American culture as an example from the West and African tradition. 

Spiritual beliefs

Spirituality is described by faith, a search for meaning and purpose in life, a sense of connection with others, and a transcendence of self, resulting in a sense of inner peace and well-being. A spiritual connection may enhance the sense of satisfaction with life or support in hardships. (Delgado, 2005)

The impact of spirituality is important in every healing tradition whether it is embedded into the process of healing or not (Pesek, 2006). Probably, there is no more adequate explanation than looking at the origin of modern psychological services. Psychology is a discipline that is influenced by spirituality as a crucial part of well-being. It is also important to clarify that spirituality and religion are not equal. Belief in religion can be a great help to achieve spiritual progress but it is not a necessity. On the other hand, spirituality is not necessary for traditional healing . (Kakar, 2003)

Concepts of health, illness, and self

Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism

In Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist schools, it is taught that the understanding of the true nature of self does not require any religious belief. In many Eastern traditions, spiritual progress is achieved solely through the person’s efforts and there is no need for an intervention of the divine grace. (Kakar, 2003)

The features of spirituality are put in a perspective that allows the individual to feel independent from external norms and responsible for one’s development. The progression of the self is based on internal dynamics. These Eastern philosophies claim that suffering means the production of the human mind due to disturbing thoughts and feelings, leading to emotional distress and disengagement. (Kakar, 2003) 

Speaking in terms of their beliefs, the phenomenal self, which is a subjective product of this realm, affects the absolute self, which is independent of this world, causing distortions and illusions that need to be removed to achieve ’healing’. In Hinduism, suffering’s source is emotional. Five main passions are the source of mental illness: sexual desire, rage, greed, infatuation, and egoism. In Buddhism, suffering is internal to the mind, thus emphasizing cognitive factors that lead to perceptual cloudiness which causes the misperception of objects, meaning that we cannot perceive the world as it is really. Furthermore, affective factors are also considered: anxiety, greed, avarice, and envy. These are the origin of agitation and worry which ends in grasping attachment to objects. Buddhists claim that life does not happen to us rather through us and this is why we need to surrender to these happenings and let go of attachments. Health is equal to mindfulness, the state of consciousness which enables us to accept without judgment. (Kakar, 2003) 

Chinese Medicine

There is less emphasis on the mind in Chinese Medicine as it is considered to be equal to the spirit. The main focus is on the unity of the body and spirit that are connected tightly to each other. The root of illnesses is found in the body or the spirit. An illness can cause depression, and vice versa and emotional depression can cause a blockage in the heart. (Quah, 2003) This is demonstrated in the following famous Chinese saying: Illnesses caused by emotions can only be healed by addressing the emotions. (Ting, 2012) 

Traditional Chinese Medicine originates in Chinese philosophy. According to their world view, three basic elements rule the world that is fundamental to understand health and treat diseases (Keriyana, 1999): Ying-Yang (the oppositions and the representation of harmony), Wu Xing (5 elements of the world), and Qi (also used as Ch’i). (Chan, 1963; Unshuld, 1985; Tiquia, 1996; Lin, 2000) 

Native American Culture

In Native American terminology, spirituality is equal to stay in harmony and balance. It is the main focus of health. Wellness is harmony in the mind, body, and spirit, while unwellness means disharmony in those. Two special terms are used to distinguish two types of unwellness. The reason of a sacred social or natural law of Creation, which is called natural unwellness, and conjuring with harmful intentions, which is called unnatural unwellness. (Garrett, 1998) 

In their culture, every individual is responsible for the wellness of the self, relations, environment, and the universe (Portman, 2006). Healing is connected to four constructs: the spirituality of the Creator/Mother Earth/Great Father, the community (family, tribe), environment (daily life, nature, balance), and the self (inner passions, thoughts, values). The sacred teachings are the path of love, compassion, wisdom, justice, courage, respect, and modesty. (Four Worlds Development Project, 1989)

Native American spiritual belief is a hierarchical system. Plants, animals, and humans are subordinates to a single, higher power also known as the Creator. Furthermore, they claim that spirits exist prior to the body and will exist after the body dies. In the Native American culture, every living creature is a part of the spirit world. (Portman, 2006)

Traditional African Culture

Tribal African religions believe in the Almighty God and the eternal spirits that are also called ancestors or the living dead. These supernatural beings can interfere in the daily lives of the living. (Van Dyk, 2001) They are superior to the living as well as mediators between God and mortals. God is the Supreme Creator who forms the main pillar of the universe. (Thorpe, 1993) Communication with God is executed through ritual slaughterings. (Gumede, 1990) 

The philosophy of illness or health, in traditional African healing, derives from God, the ancestors, or the universe itself. A disease means being possessed by the spirits of the ancestors (Elenaor, 2007) which also implies that religion, spirituality, and healing are strongly connected in this culture. 

Healing interaction

Eastern spiritual traditions (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism)

In these traditions, healing is a byproduct of the main focus, which is the purification of the mind, removing distortions and illusions. The goal is to reach a purified mind that is mindful, calm, is in a state of flow, and to achieve transcendent consciousness. The body, in this process, is only a tool, a subordinate to the mind. Mental distress and even physical diseases are considered to be the manifestation of the impurities of the mind. (Kakar, 2003) Due to this perspective, in the ’healing’ process, there are no physical medications used. 

This purification requires a teacher or a master. There is a tendency to believe that in practice the spiritual teacher will solve the seeker’s problems immediately. The background, however, of these miraculous cures lies in the belief in the healing but not in the teacher itself. (Jayakar, 1986) Nevertheless, the seeker, who needs help, has to devote his whole person and demonstrate unquestioning faith to the guru/master/rinpoche/roshi. (Kakar, 2003) 

Instead of miracles, in Western Psychoanalytical terms, we would call it a self-object relation (Kohut, 1971, 1977, 1984) that is highly reliable, always available for merging experiences, and empathic. During the progression, the seeker feels one with the teacher, thus enabling him to integrate the master’s greatness, strength, and calmness, like the mother once did when she lifted the anxious infant and held him against her body. (Kakar, 2003) Sai Baba, a guru, described this therapeutic relationship: 

’I am in you, outside you, in front of you, above you, below you. I am all the time around you, in your proximity.’ (Agarval, 2000, p. 54.) 

Another great example is represented in Swami Muktananda’s (1983, p. 3) words: 

The mind that always contemplates the guru eventually becomes the guru.

These merging experiences also appear in practice, for instance, when taking food offerings tasted or touched by the guru, or drinking water used to wash the guru’s feet. As the self boundaries loosen between the seeker and the teacher, the seeker starts to integrate more of the teacher’s qualities. This intense force of idealization is necessary for a strong merging needs into a good, powerful, wise, perfect self-object – the guru. (Karak, 2003)

For this purpose, surrender is dispensable to achieve changes in the self. The seeker has to give up his whole personality to ’be reborn’ into something new, something purified. And it’s not only about accepting the guru’s influence. It is also about surrendering to something greater. 

’There are only two ways to life: one is with constant conflict, and the other is with surrender… When someone surrenders with understanding and equanimity, his house, body, and heart become full. His former feeling of emptiness and lack disappear.’ (Muktananda, 1983, p. 35)

The training is painful and hard and the results are not immediate as the seeker has to release his ego. These progressive stages are supported by the teacher who profoundly understands the seeker from the first encounter: the teacher sees deep into the patient’s heart. This helps the seeker to perceive this full understanding as a strong empathy towards him. (Karak, 2003)

Chinese Medicine

In Chinese Medicine, as the body is one with the spirit, it is important to highlight that healing mental illness is equal to healing the body. Most importantly, they focus on the body sensations attached to those illnesses also known as psychosomatic symptoms nowadays. 

Certain norms in traditional Chinese Medicine are accepted unconditionally. The first one is that the creation of further theoretical knowledge of the principles is unnecessary since they are already provided. Each generation of practitioners in Chinese Medicine contributed with a large amount of empirical data. This historical legacy is enough for them. The impression is that this healing tradition remains rational and based on experimenting. (Quah, 2003) 

The norms on practice are to focus on the unique. It is crucial to identify the unique features of each patient. The same combination of herbs would probably not be equally effective on another patient, not even in acupuncture. (Quah, 2003) These unique features are found using ’The Five Patterns of Temperament’ technique (Xue, 1999). To establish a clinical pattern, five examination techniques are used: looking, listening, smelling, inquiring, and palpating. (Tiquia, 1996) Patients appreciate the significance of direct examination. (Quah, 2003)

Chinese Medicine practitioners must also empathize with, and share the pain of the patient’s anxieties. (Tiquia, 1996) A good medic is kind-hearted and treats the patient as a good parent treats the child. (STCMOCC, 1997) The personal connection between the patient and medic is secondary since the treatment is done mostly on the physical body. 

Native American Healing

Harmony with the self, others, and surroundings, which involves the spiritual world as well, is crucial. Many traditional healing practices are considered ineffective without spiritual rituals amongst Native American Healing (Portman, 2006), meaning that healing is one with spiritual beliefs. The healing process is mainly executed in group ceremonies. 

The relationship with the environment holds great importance in this tradition. The so-called Circle is a symbol of power which represents the circle of life, and the four directions (North, South, East, West). Ceremonies are a part of everyday life. For Native Americans, healing means preventing and not treating. (Portman, 2006)

Balance is the key aspect for harmony with the universe is considered ’Good Medicine’ while disharmony is ’Bad Medicine’. The state of out of balance occurs when one is low on energy, unfocused or poorly focused, and loses sight of one’s place in the universe. Everyone and everything was created with a purpose to fulfill. (Portman, 2006) 

To maintain the balance, one must find a vision or continue honoring it. The vision is the inner knowledge of one’s own Medicine and purpose in the Great Circle. This can be achieved through the help of the spirits by opening yourself to the guidance of them. Medicine means ’the essence of life or inner power’. Everyone has their own way of life and presence which is decided in the spirit itself. Emotional experiences and also physical remedies such as herbs, teas, and poultices help to find that Medicine. (Portman, 2006)

Thus, Medicine is the very essence of a person’s inner being. It is in every plant, rock, animal, person, light, soil, and water. It can also be something that happened ten years ago but still makes the person smile. Even painful or hurtful experiences are considered an opportunity to see the place in the great flow. (Portman, 2006)

Gratitude has an important role in practices. For instance, upon waking up, it is a habit to give thanks to the Creator. Additionally, other norms aim to maintain the balance: treating every person with respect, remembering that everything has a purpose, and living each day as it comes. (Portman, 2006)

Ceremonies are practiced every day to give thanks, heal, celebrate, clear the way, and for blessings. The goal of these is to reach a strong sense of connection through harmony. Healing ceremonies are preventive as their aim is to keep the good relations (not only with people but also the environment). The group is always available to help reaffirm the connections. Some ceremonies, like the ’Vision Quest’ requires isolation. This healing ritual demands ceasing all daily activities and retreating to an internal state of self-reflection. (Portman, 2006)

Traditional African Culture

The treatment in traditional African Culture is holistic. The mind, body, and soul are being healed in different contexts such as family, community, and religion. (Muller & Steyn, 2002) Many Black African cultures consider disease as spiritual pollution that needs to be ritually cleansed (Ellis, 1996). 

African communities are tribal, meaning that the traditional society consists of family and community that are social, religious, and blood tied. (Pearsall, 2001) Traditional healers have an esteemed position in this society. They lend aid in physical, social, and emotional problems. (Erasmus, 1992) 

The Diviner (a.k.a. ’Sanusi’) diagnose people via reading bones and talking to the spirits of the ancestors to prescribe medication. The ’Sanusi’ is a diviner, herbalist, and prophet, previously possessed by the Holy Spirit. For physiological, psychiatric, and spiritual conditions, they established categories to describe mental diseases. There is ’mafofonyane’ which relates to schizophrenia, and ’malopo’, possession by the spirits of the ancestors. The latter can be healed with a combination of therapies that also include dancing rituals. (Hammond-Tooke, 1989) 

A special calling is required to become a traditional healer which would be seen as an ’’illness’’ in Western society (schizophrenia and psychosis). During these callings, the person experiences visitations in dreams by the ancestors which have to be verified by a diviner. (MOKGOBI, 2014) The training includes living with the trainer and the apprentices learn how to use medicinal plants, animal extracts, interpreting bones as well as dream analysis (Rudnick, 2002).

Summary Table

TraditionsEastern ReligionsChinese MedicineNative American CultureAfrican Culture
Perspective of the triadMind is above allBody and mind are equalsBody, mind, and spirits are equals with the environmentThe body and mind are subordinated to the spiritual world
Health and diseaseHealth means a pure mind, disease is an impure mindThe diseases in the body can derive from emotions and vice versaHealth is harmony, disease is disharmonyDisease is a spiritual pollution
Role of the healerSelf-object, teacherMedic, a regular human with practical knowledgeThe community is the healer in ritualsEsteemed position
Spiritual beliefNo importanceAncient Chinese PhilosophyEverything has a purpose, the Creator is above allOne Almighty God along with the spirits of the Ancestors

1. Table: A comparison table of the discussed traditions

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