This is a review of The Spirituality of Imperfection – Storytelling and the Journey to Wholeness by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham (Bantam Books, 1994), written by Steve Simpson, a Healing Journey course leader.
This follows on from the Stories that Heal blog post.
Storytelling is an integral part of the Healing Journey, with group leaders and participants sharing favourite readings that both illuminate and perhaps leaven the intensity of the exercises and self-exploration undertaken. The Spirituality of Imperfection provides a clear well-argued context for the use of story in healing work, whilst offering an original approach to understanding spirituality, embracing human limitation and failings: “the search for spirituality”, the authors state “ is, first of all, a search for reality, for honesty, for true speaking and true thinking”.
Stories help us approach this ‘reality’, not just by illustrating the challenges encountered on life’s path, but through the very act of story-telling itself: in sharing and witnessing our own stories we find that we are not alone in our suffering; edge towards a sense of community; and get to see our lives, struggles and triumphs, within the context of what Jean Houston calls ‘Great Story’, the unfolding collective journey.
For me, though, the chief joy of this book is the stories themselves, taken from an extensive range of spiritual and cultural traditions. These tales – funny, poignant, ironic, compassionate and wise – show us what is to be both a human and spiritual being, suffering the gap between our aspirations and reality.
Rabbi Zusya said, ‘In the coming world, they won’t ask me: why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ (The Spirituality of Imperfection,’ p2)
This is not, directly, a book about confronting serious illness. It draws heavily on the teaching of the Twelve Step Program, which whilst having been transformative for some in tackling addiction, is seen by others as too prescriptive and restrictive. Regardless of its tenets, the principal methodology of Twelve Step, the sharing, hearing and witnessing of each other’s stories of personal ‘imperfection’, within community, demonstrate the power of storytelling to facilitate healing – if, by ‘healing’, we mean becoming more whole, opening to acceptance of and compassion for our limitations.
This is developed in the initial section of the book, ‘Experiencing spirituality’, which focuses on themes that will be familiar to Healing Journeyers: release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, tolerance, forgiveness and what the authors call ‘Being-at-home’.
Pain, with its intense message of ‘unfittingness’ moves us to move on in our pilgrimage, to seek new ways of fitting into our own being and into the community of other (imperfect) beings. (The Spirituality of Imperfection’, p231)
I would highly recommend The Spirituality of Imperfection to anyone seeking to find meaning in suffering or who, like me, just loves a good story!
As a Healing Journey course leader, I was very interested to read about David Servan -Schreiber’s book: Not the Last Goodbye – Reflections on life, death, healing and cancer in Petra Griffiths’ blog post.
Some of the ideas which the book seems to address are very much the stuff of what we explore and discuss on the Healing Journey.
- the idea of illness or recurrence as somehow indicative of personal failure. All the battle metaphors used by both medical professionals and some people who have cancer themselves – “beating it”, “fighting spirit” and “not giving in” – seem to imply that we have a duty to adopt a certain attitude towards our condition and that we have ultimate control over our health. It all becomes about whether we “fight hard enough” to “win the battle”. This seems unhelpful and even a little grandiose to me. Do we have control over what happens to our illness? It can also mean that people experience guilt and self-blame along with all the other stresses they have to contend with. On the Healing Journey, we keep in mind the randomness and arbitrariness of cancer and the fact that we cannot necessarily control either the illness or the incidence of recurrence. What we can do something about is our state of mind and our quality of life while we are here.
- the frank exploration of health, illness and death by someone who is terminally ill and facing it. A dear colleague who worked with us until she died of cancer used to use a phrase “healing into death” which may seem paradoxical. It made and makes a lot of sense to me. So much is possible whilst we are alive as long as we face our own mortality. This is so hard for us mere mortals to do. So often we can grasp things in our intellect but the rest of our being seems to lag behind. We can move in and out of being in touch with the truth. As TS Eliot wrote in his poem Burnt Norton, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”. So it is a privilege to hear the ruminations of David Servan-Schreiber who seemed to have been able to bear maybe more than most. And it is salutary to see what really matters when our end is approaching – in this case, family and friends and, ultimately, love.
- finding out what is really important to us is a central theme of the Healing Journey. Whilst he was dying, David Servan-Schreiber was in touch with his need for contact with all members of his immediate and extended family. It sounded as if he had all the opportunities he needed for sharing and speaking about his experience as well as saying goodbye. Of course, people are different and “dying well” might mean different things for others. Conversely “living well” is a question which is raised for those who have a cancer diagnosis and treatment and who recover. What are the aspects of living which fire us, and give us joy and peace? The answer will vary from person to person. For some it is their relationships, for others their creative expression, or their spiritual path, or their relationship to the natural world.
- on the Healing Journey, people often identify being in nature as a source of peace and healing. In our session on “connectedness” on the last level, we include an exploration of what we find healing and ways to feel that sense of “oneness with everything”. Attuning to natural rhythms and allowing ourselves the space and time to just “be” can be deeply healing and restorative. Again, identifying what feeds us and makes life feel “rich” can be a journey in itself.
- overall the Healing Journey affords us the opportunity to explore all of these themes and more in the context of a supportive group and a structured self-help programme.
We’re delighted to announce that our second Coping with Cancer Stress online course will be starting on Wednesday 28th March at 7.30pm. This time it’s open to English speakers around the world and not just to people in the UK.
The purpose of the course is help participants reduce the stress of cancer and improve their quality of life by teaching effective and easy-to-learn techniques that can help people feel in more control of their situation, as well as less anxious and more relaxed.
The course is open to carers as well as to people who have or have had cancer. It will be led by Ella Titman, an experienced counsellor, yoga teacher and Healing Journey course leader.
Only basic computer skills are needed to participate as the technology we use is very easy to learn.
You can find more information about the course here - www.healingjourney.org.uk/onlinecourse.html.
Here are some comments from participants on the previous course.
“I found the programme very interesting and insightful. I also found it extremely helpful in helping to support myself with certain aspects of profound changes that are occurring in my life….
Even though I was sitting alone at home I felt connected, and part of a bigger and very friendly group. It was much more user friendly and very personally supportive than I had imagined would be possible from such a online course. I think this was in great part to do with Ella as the facilitator but also the fact of being able to interact with such easy immediacy through the medium of the webinar. It was such a privilege to hear and share with other’s experiences.”
“I think one of the most important things is the support and sharing with other people on the same quest. It is lovely to feel a whole person and an equal with others and to feel sympathy with them and from them, to feel part of a group…..
I also liked the way things that I initially thought might not be helpful for me surprised me and were helpful, and also the course’s holistic approach to life and its challenges – the way it wasn’t about ‘fixing cancer’ but about helping the person make sense of cancer as a part of their life.”
“Ella clearly knew her material and she delivered it very well indeed. She is a lovely person and this added to it. She built up the course week by week very well, adding in something new every week, which helped us get to grips with one thing at a time.”
For those who would like to have a taste of the webinar experience, we’re putting on a free introductory webinar at 7.30pm on Wednesday 8th February.
Ella Titman, the course leader, will be leading the webinar, joined by myself. We’ll be telling you more about what’s covered on the Coping with Cancer Stress course and you’ll also have a chance to ask any questions you have.
To book your place on the webinar, please fill in the form on this page – www.healingjourney.org.uk/introductorywebinar.html.
One the books that people doing our recent HJ course found most useful was Anti-Cancer by David Servan-Schreiber, which summarises evidence-based approaches to lifestyle factors that help reduce the risk of cancer and of cancer recurrence (two different things).
David Servan-Schreiber, a professor of psychiatry at Pittsburgh and author of the very popular earlier book Healing without Freud or Prozac set up one of first centres of integrative medicine in Pittsburgh. He first had a brain tumour in his early thirties. At 49 he was diagnosed with a further aggressive brain tumour (stage 4 glioblastoma) and, in the summer of 2011, Dr Servan-Schreiber died.
In the lead up to his death he wrote the best selling Not the Last Goodbye – Reflections on life, death, healing and cancer. In this last book, the territory covered is very close to the discussions we have on every Healing Journey course. Like him, many of our participants want to give themselves the best chance they can of extending life and avoiding recurrence.
However, recurrences do occur and it is vital not to see those as in any way a failure. In our experience, much healing can take place at any stage of life, and sometimes the likely approach of the end of life stimulates changes that we have been reluctant to make before but which can bring great peace and fulfillment.
Servan-Schreiber spoke of the absolute necessity of finding a balanced lifestyle, leading to a sense of inner peace and calm. He recommended spending time in nature as a good way of finding balance, aligning oneself with the rhythm of the seasons and finding healing within.
An important aspect of living in a fulfilling way is each person finding their own creativity, and “unique melody”. He talks movingly of the changes that were needed in his outlook in order to be able to relate to people in non-hierarchical modes. He came to the “simple yet fundamental idea that life is the expression of relationships within a network; it is not a series of separate goals pursued by distinct individuals”.
The transformation came along with the cancer diagnosis – discovering that he was fragile, mortal, and frightened opened his eyes to the treasures of life and love, and his priorities changed. His medical practice changed in that he began to feel a bond with his patients that was based on respect in place of control and domination. This meant the relationship with his patients could be a two-way process and “I could be enriched by my patients’ humanity”.
Inevitably, when his cancer returned in a more aggressive form, questions arose about the anti-cancer lifestyle guidance and whether it had failed. Servan-Schreiber engages in an admirably honest discussion about this topic. He first acknowledges that there is no infallible way of curing cancer that always works. The methods outlined in Anti-Cancer have been shown to improve people’s condition, make treatments more effective, lessen side effects, and to lead to longer periods of remissions and a lower risk of relapse. He had lived for much longer than average following an aggressive form of cancer, supporting the idea that he had contributed positively to his own health, and having found a much happier way of being.
However he courageously acknowledges as well that, in the excitement and importance of promoting the approaches in his earlier books, which were considered controversial, he had over a long period been doing a great deal of travelling and lost sight of looking after his own fundamental physical needs - of rest, sleep and a regular routine. As he wrote, “I never managed to find that calm and today I regret it. I didn’t manage to remain close to nature and to its and my natural rhythm.” This is an observation that we can all use as a reminder of the need to examine our own lives, which so easily succumb to external and internal pressures if we don’t maintain a regular practice and rhythm that helps to keep us in balance.
In writing Not the Last Goodbye, Servan-Schreiber acknowledged that he didn’t know how long he would live but that, for him, the task of dying well was very important, whenever that would be. For him, this involved saying goodbye to those he held dear, forgiving and asking to be forgiven, getting his affairs in order and “departing with a feeling of peace and connection”. “I’m still fighting for my health”, he wrote. “I’m simply convinced that being at peace with yourself, and accepting your mortality, means you can direct all your energy towards the healing process.”
The Guardian carried the following article after his death – www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/dec/03/david-servan-schreiber-death – in which his brother Emile talks about the last period of his life and the strong sense of connection with his family members that was present to the end. He believed that life after death would involve a realm where love is of primary importance and that he would still be present in a non-physical form to his family members and young children as they grew up.
Among the topics he covers are:
- what he found attractive about the Healing Journey
- how the programme has helped him become more accepting of himself and has improved his relationship with his sons
- why he made a round trip journey of nine hours every Tuesday in order to attend the Healing Journey sessions in London
- how he has benefitted from the camaraderie, support and friendship of being in a group of people with cancer and carers.
“For me, coming down to London on a Tuesday for the Healing Journey has been the highlight of my week for months and months…. And I look forward to it every week and I have benefitted immensely…. It’s been an absolute joy attending the Healing Journey and I couldn’t have imagined that year and a bit without these Tuesday evenings. They have been really, I think, what’s kept me going and I would recommend the programme to any person with cancer or caring for someone with cancer.”
To listen to the audio, click on the grey arrow or download the mp3 using the link below.
Download link: http://www.healingjourney.org.uk/richardmp3.html