‘Every existence is poison to some and spirit-sweetness to others. Be the friend. Then you can eat from the poison jar and taste only clear discrimination.’(Rumi quoted in Halifax, 1994)


By David Brandon


            There is a headlong rush towards materialism in the Western world, which now recruits even distant countries—both culturally and geographically—like Japan and Korea. Commodities rule O.K. Even the language of social services becomes that of commodities—welfare economy, purchaser/provider splits, and most dominant of all, consumers. These terms reflect the contemporary dominant paradigm, so overwhelming as to make difficult the conception of any alternatives. Even our universities, which should mount an intellectual challenge, turn into factories simply buying and selling educational commodities. (Bunting, 1997)


            Direct experience is devalued. The suffering and poverty of many people is turned into yet another research industry. Anti-discrimination in social work becomes an end in itself, a mantra to be used in assignments, quite separate from any struggle against racism or sexism. We lose sight of any genuine struggle. The living fruit is slowly fossilized. Walsh comments: ‘…[A] tradition no longer focuses on or even appreciates direct experience of the transcendent. Then what is left is an institution largely devoid of direct experience of the sacred…Techniques for inducing altered states then give way to mere symbolic rituals, direct experience is replaced by belief, and living doctrine fossilizes into dogma.’ (Walsh, 1990)


            These suffocating trends have enormous consequences for health and social services in stimulating a culture of fear and competition. The diverse professions compete aggressively with each other, to achieve dominance—nursing versus social work, psychology versus psychiatry. Their very survival seems to depend on the destruction, or at least the disrespectful diminution of, the other rather than in making vital connections to expand common knowledge.


            There is a disturbing tendency to industrialise human helping. Differentness becomes deficiency. Human needs father a business more closely linked to professional ambitions than the wants of distressed service users. People are encouraged to become passive recipients of quasi-monopolistic services, to turn into a cash crop. Vast tensions in socio-economic structures are reframed as the fault of individual ‘consumers.’ (Brandon, 1997)


            The economist Galbraith suggests that this is partly a strong insurance against discomfort. ‘Those so situated, the members of the functional and socially mobilized underclass, must, in some very real way, be seen as the architects of their own fate. If not, they could be, however marginally, on the conscience of the comfortable. There could be a disturbing feeling, however fleeting, of unease, even guilt.’ (Galbraith, 1993) Nowadays, we cannot live side by side with distressed people, unless we are blameless.


            Ironically, major socio-economic changes recruit even more groups for social exclusion and provide the relevant professionals to herd them effectively—social workers, nurses, etc. Wilkinson writes of the ‘unrelenting processes of social differentiation which reflect and amplify social hierarchy…It is these processes which create social exclusion, which stigmatize the most deprived and establish social distances throughout society.’ (Wilkinson, 1996) Such stigmatized and devalued individuals pay the costs.


            Wilkes is rightly concerned about the goat-herding aspects of social work, particularly the growth of behavioristic methods and set objectives. ‘The aim of life is not the achievement of some purpose thought up by others, but the achievement of individuality. If life is for the living, the focus should not be on correction but on appreciation; life must be appreciated even when there is nothing to correct.’ (Wilkes, 1981) Those forces direct people towards so-called desirable lifestyles, but desirable for whom?


            These powerful trends in social manipulation are an essential ingredient of the ‘consumer’ revolution. We gradually leave behind a way of living understood as a series of actions to another perceived as a collection of experiences—more passive than active—from being heroic to tanning on the beach. ‘Tourists, holidaymakers, and others are not doing anything very much: they are simply purchasing and laying down stocks of pleasant memories to be replayed and enjoyed in later years. People are not agents any longer; they are the consumers and the recorders of their own experience. They are their own video-librarians, collecting and arranging shelves of happy memories.’ (Cupitt, 1998)


            Consumers increasingly demand easily accessible services. In an attack on the violinist Nigel Kennedy, Kenyon writes: ‘The fact is that Brahms needs effort, not just on the part of the performer but from the listener. And we underestimate that at our peril. The big classical works—not just the huge symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler and the operas of Wagner, but also Handel operas, Bach cantatase—make demands on the listener just as do a great book or a great picture.’ (Kenyon, 1997) These sorts of demands fit uneasily with the wishes of consumers for glycerined products.


            We also move away from a healthy celebration and wonder in our growth and survival towards an overwhelming culture of disparagement. Smail writes: ‘It is extremely difficult to think of any major text in these fields which does not either belittle those who become the objects of its attention, or patronize them by holding before them an ideal of how they ought to be. At the same time, there is of course absolutely nothing to justify such professional conceit—no evidence that the authors of such texts know better than anyone else how to live their lives, and none that the application of their methods actually leads to a significant amelioration of distress.’ (Smail, 1993)


            That contrasts so markedly with the last words of ‘On the Origin of Species’: ‘Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ (Darwin, 1964) There is nothing disparaging in that.


            We gradually lose contact with this wonder. Wilber comments: ‘…[W]e create a persistent alienation from ourselves, from others, and from the world by fracturing our present experiences into different parts, separated by boundaries. We artificially split our awareness into compartments such as subject vs. object, life vs. death, inside vs. outside, reason vs. instinct—a divorce settlement that sets experience cutting into experience and life fighting with life. The result of such violence, although known by many other names, is simply unhappiness. Life becomes suffering, full of battles.’ (Wilber, 1979) This is a struggle with perceived splits, looking through a glass very darkly.


            Recently I completed a report on a social work student. I commented sardonically about his ‘Clint Eastwood syndrome’. It seemed difficult for him to seek help. I suffer from more than a smidgen of that! The practice report reader slapped my wrists—I should stick to ‘objective’ material and avoid the personal. He was right. We are dealing with competencies and targets in social work training, not any more the disciplined use of self. The questions are no longer about truth but so-called ‘objectivity’. ‘In principle, there is an assumption that all human problems can be converted into technical problems, and if the techniques to solve certain problems do not yet exist, then they will have to be invented. The world becomes ever more “makeable.’” (Berger, 1977)


            Merton comments on the dangers of manipulative introspection. ‘The more “the good” is objectively analyzed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes. As it becomes less real, it recedes further into the distance of abstraction, futurity, unattainability. The more, therefore, one concentrates on the means to be used to attain it. And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally, the mere study of the means becomes so demanding that all one’s effort must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten.’ (Merton, 1965)


            A few years ago a senior probation officer rang me. “You don’t know me but I want some advice. My secretary has been off sick for two weeks with probable leukemia. I am fond of her and wish to know how she is. But if I ring up it will look as if I am wanting to find out when she is going to return. I have no wish to pressurise her. But if I don’t ring, she’ll feel I don’t care…”


            I responded very directly: “Are you fond of her?”

            “Yes,” he replied.

            “Then immediately I put the phone down—ring her.”


            This sort of excessive self-examination, which excludes the heart, can lead to ridiculous complexities, tending towards increased self-serving. Dickens was great at creating characters with an unctuous, self-serving goodness. Uriah Heap springs wonderfully to mind. “I am watching myself appearing to do good to someone else but…” This springs from attempts to manipulate--from hidden agendas, not from genuine empathy. Hoffman defines empathy as the capacity to share the distress of others. (Goleman, 1996)


                        “The world is too much with us; late and soon,

                        Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

                        Little we see in Nature that is ours;

                        We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

                                    (Wordsworth, 1802)


            But at the birth of professional social work in the last century, there was much more vision and respect. Octavia Hill, one of its midwives, wrote in 1869: “By knowledge of character more is meant than whether a man is a drunkard or a woman is dishonest; it means knowledge of the passions, hopes and history of people…what is the little scheme they have made of their lives, or would make if they had the encouragement…how to move, touch and teach them. Our memories and our hopes are more true factors of our lives than we often remember.” (Quoted in Brandon and Atherton, 1997) Some of these schemes were not so little, but at least she was tackling issues of meaning.


            Discussion of healing and spirituality become increasingly uncommon in social work. We move away from the authentic quest for meaning and turn to an interminable series of Hows—the construction of a therapeutic cookbook with a thousand recipes. But Hows without Whys are inherently dangerous. Spiritual questions can be reduced simply to different forms of psychological individualism in which all the essentials evaporate. ‘…[S]ocial workers have secularized the search for the sacred by recodifying the concept as personal transformation, self-fulfillment, or self-esteem.’ (Aguilar, 1997)


            In this reductionism we lose almost everything of any value and joy. We are walled off with increasing numbers of internal boundaries like the entombed mummies of monks in the great Kiev monastery. Lloyd argues fervently against ‘an automatic “sectioning off” of spiritual pain from everything else by social workers’ and notes fairly that ‘nursing literature has paid greatest attention to a spiritual dimension’. (Lloyd, 1997)


            This persistent fracturing reflects a dominant preference within the professions for technical “fixit” approaches to human distress. Even personal growth must be shaped and exploited by the consumerist juggernaut. One American T.V. programme recently introduced ‘emotional makeovers’. (Lake, October 1997) Distressed people from so-called dysfunctional families are taken behind a screen into the waiting arms of banks of counselors and emerge five minutes later looking totally refreshed and renewed. How really wonderful!


            So we don’t have to look in the mirror any more, just at the customer. We become completely disconnected, simply servicing and shaping. Cosmetic surgery is for the mind as well as the body. We can have soul jobs as well as nose jobs.


            In mental health, we have already built a high brick wall to protect against a necessary madness—a chaotic and potentially creative disorder. Occidental ideologies are kept far apart from Western ideas and practice. Japanese approaches to personal growth like those of Morita and Naikan remain virtually unknown, in contrast to the great import of martial arts. (Reynolds, 1980) These systems are difficult because they are based on being rather than on getting or becoming.


            The constant denigration of the human condition leads to increased pathology. ‘Mental illness’ becomes a sickness to be managed and sometimes ‘cured’. In great contrast, Jamison sees manic depressive illness (now recategorised as bipolar disorder!) in much more complex ways, comprising both yin and yang. ‘Occasionally an exhilarating and powerfully creative force, more often a destructive one, manic-depressive illness gives a touch of fire to many of those who experience it’. (Jamison, 1993)


            The Norwegian painter Edouard Munch wrote powerfully: ‘My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone to stone. Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back toward the chasm’s edge, and there I shall walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss. For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder’. (Hobson, 1985) Imagine van Gogh taking anti-depressants. How many sunflower paintings would he have created on Prozac?


            Transcendent experiences are usually psychiatrised. Seeing visions and hearing voices are categorized as psychotic. Hallucinations result in more pills. Socrates commented rather more wisely: ‘our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift.’ (Quoted in Walsh, 1990)


            The psychiatrist Grof linked some transpersonal crises not with madness but with strong shamanic traditions. ‘In the experiences of individuals whose transpersonal crises have strong shamanic features, there is a great emphasis on physical suffering and encounter with death followed by rebirth and elements of ascent or magical flight. They also typically sense a special connection with animals or animal spirits. It is also not unusual to feel an upsurge of extraordinary powers and impulses to heal…’ (Grof and Grof, 1986)


            Traditionally, the role of client professional existed in the same person. Shamans experience the wounds of their patients as a conduit to healing. ‘In tribal society, the healer experiences the illnesses of his patients and then heals himself. It is of the essence of the primal healer that through the deepening of his inner consciousness, he is linked with his body and the illness, with himself and the patient.’ (Kalweit, 1992) This involves the establishment of close connections not some white-coated technician standing at a distance. ‘In Shamanism there is ultimately no distinction between helping others and helping yourself. By helping others shamanically, one becomes more powerful, self-fulfilled and joyous’. (Harner, 1982)


            Distancing can be injurious. ‘The power have dwindled away not in size but in presence. They have ceased to be sweating and struggling human beings, real to the senses. For the social worker, they have been transformed into abstract entities to be studied from a distance’. (Richan and Mendelsohn, 1973) More mechanistic attitudes, if we perceive them as wholly other, as objectives of our pity and fear, as a problem to be overcome or a threat to be defended against, these attitudes may evoke the behaviour that we most fear, the rage and violence that do indeed threaten us, our property and our daily acitivities’. (Zohar and Marshall)


            The 17th Century Zen Master Bankei was a shaman whose healing drew directly on experiences of attempted suicide and the death of his father in childhood. His holistic teachings of the Unborn pointed to the dangerous processes of fragmenting. ‘I was still a young man when I came to discover the principle of the Unborn and its relation to thought. I began to tell others about it. What we call a “thought” is something that has already fallen one or more removes from the living reality of the Unborn. If you priests would just live in the Unborn, there wouldn’t be anything for me to tell you about it, and you wouldn’t be listening to me.’ (Waddell, 1984)


            My own practice is firmly based on the personal experience of being battered as a child and the ensuing homelessness. (Brandon, 1997) It has forged a desire to work with those who are socially excluded and marginalized. Social work has been a quest for meaning through clumsy attempts to serve others. ‘Our suffering is a sacrifice, but often what we suffer from can be a gift of strength, like the shaman’s wound becomes the source of his or her compassion’. (Halifax, 1994)


            In this century, we have tended to problemise features like the loss of parents in childhood. Cooper suggests a link between personal success and such losses. ‘Memories of loss, whether of parents or place, were recalled vividly by many and were held to be a key factor in their development…The extraordinary in our society also seemed to have gained a resilience to catastrophic failure’. (Cooper, 1997) They are finding a way to use their wounds. They have had a direct experience of what is behind the stage, of the ephemeral and flimsy nature of ordinary life like the painter Munch. They are deeply aware of how thin life is.


            These experiences are central to becoming a shaman—a form of awakening. ‘At some stage the hero’s conventional slumber is challenged by a crisis of life-shattering proportions, an existential slumber that calls all previously held beliefs into question. It may be personal sickness, as with the shaman; it may be confrontation with sickness in others, as with the Buddha. It may be a sudden confrontation with death’. (Walsh, 1990)


            My long experience of violence sometimes enables a direct communication with those getting battered and especially with those who are homeless. It is a familiar arena for both me and some clients. We can work in ways impossible for outsiders to those particular clusters of experiences. We can travel together along the edge of a dangerous chaos, and hold each other’s hands to stop from falling in. We can learn to rejoice in our mutual survival.


            Shamanism involves the central exploration of personal vulnerability; a continuous contact with our damaged side, the wounds stemming from isolation, the lack of love, all the fears and anxieties, developing ways of using these wounds to reach out lovingly to others. These are strengths in the work with those who are distressed, in becoming a vehicle of loving kindness. Professional training usually strives to suppress and hide these wounds. For example, books about social work practice mostly discourage self-revelation whilst shamanic forms use ‘wounds’ as a primary source of healing. This vulnerability involves ‘the dissolution of the boundary between self and the world…’ (Kalweit, 1992)


            Shamanism means returning to the essential process of being human rather than simply acquiring and using masses of techniques which seem to offer radical improvements and moving ever closer to some images of perfection. Shamanic practice gives up the struggle to be superman or woman. Instead it undertakes a paradoxical journey, arriving back at the starting place. The abbot answered my question on the day of ordination: ‘What does it mean to be a monk?’ ‘Tomorrow morning, a Zen monk will wake up in your bed and get some breakfast’.


            The shaman’s art lies in profound inter-connectedness, a move from independence to inter-dependence. ‘In old Earth cultures, the shaman is the servant of the people, the gods and ancestors, the creatures, plants, and elements. When the world is out of balance, the shaman redresses this disequilibrium. In these cultures, illness is understood as a loss of the sense of connectedness, of relatedness, of continuity—the experience of a kind of existential alienation’. (Halifax, 1994)


            We need to find allies, usually animals, to take us away from this fragmenting, to help realize the essential unity. Kingfishers are allies from me:


                        On the very edge

                        of one sort of reality

                        at certain places and times,

                        robust boundaries become skin thin

                        as when an electric blue bird

                        flies low over ponds and streams

                        seeking fish

                        and catching me.


            This sort of approach calls for a different posture—‘Beginner’s Mind’. (Brandon, 1982) ‘How might an empty mind be used in psychiatric nursing practice? I can only speak from my own experience. For some time I have been part of a family team offering to meet with people characterized as having severe and enduring mental health problems who are also usually veterans of psychiatric services. Rather than ‘therapying’, we try to offer speculative comments to the people, which they may, or may not, find interesting. Early in my new theories that had been part of my professional socialization were more real, helpful, truthful than other, more vicariously adopted ideas. By doing so, I found that I could be more creative, playful, and interesting for the people who were listening. (Stevenson, 1996)


            Our social work practice has fundamental difficulties suspended rather like Milton’s mankind between Heaven and Hell, but in our case between the individual and society. (Milton, 1667) A shamanic social work training would involve these various stages:




                                    *Loving kindness



                                    *Mutual transformation


            *Wounds: the shaman explores and uncovers his or her various wounds and stigma. For me, it was a long experience of violence, humiliation, anger. How to use these experiences so that the suffering can be forged on an anvil for healing? Newly forged, it becomes the core of the healing work.


            ‘King Lear’ is a play about a monarch in deep pain, struggling to deal with the ignominies that life heaps on him, with not a little help from himself.


                                    To willful men,

                                    The injuries that they themselves procure

                                    Must be their schoolmasters.



            *Empathy: the connections between us, the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the distressed other. Bertrand Russell encounters the novelist Joseph Conrad: ‘At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other that I have known. We looked into each other’s eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as any passionate love, and at the same time all embracing. I came away bewildered and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs’. (Quoted in Hobson, 1985)


            *Loving kindness: to be a vehicle for the affection for the world and the people in it; to manifest the connectedness of all things. Albert Schweitzer commented: ‘the only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve’. (Quoted in Walsh, 1990)


                                    Can I see another’s woe

                                    And not be in sorrow too?

                                    Can I see another’s grief,

                                    And not seek for kind relief?



            *Rituals: the silence and preparation in the car before entering the house or centre to start the interview. The warm greetings and obligatory discourse about the British weather. Drinking any tea which is offered. Leaving the various bureaucratic forms for the end so that they can be completed together, a practical act of unity. Summarising what has been agreed and saying goodbye. These rituals are important for the healing process, as well as for focusing the mind. These rituals must be jointly accomplished. It is vital for the client to be centrally involved.


            Many rituals have a cultural significance. This involves developing increasing sensitivity to different cultures and diverse beliefs about sickness and recovery. Based on a study of the Bedouin the authors comment: ‘…in working with any traditional culture social workers must appreciate rituals’ helping significance, giving greater latitude to the concurrent use of traditional and modern models of helping within the client’s community…’ (Al-Krenawi and Graham, 1996)


            *Mindfulness: quieting the mind; daily discipline turning interviews into a meditative experience. Concentrate on keeping in the now, keeping the mind single-pointed. This sort of learning means giving up what we though we knew already. It means putting down our excess, and often discriminatory baggage: Beginner’s Mind.


            Two monks were crossing rough terrain on their way to a far monastery. At a river ford, they found a young woman stranded at the near side because the river was exceptionally high. The older monk lifted her over the river and put her down. The monks continued silently for another ten miles until in sight of the monastery. The younger monk broke his silence. ‘Why did you violate the rules of our Order by having contact with a female?’ Replied the older monk: ‘I put her down ten miles back. I see that you are still carrying her’.


            ‘What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale…When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no ‘I’, no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door’. (Shunryu Suzuki, quoted in Buksbazen, 1977)

*Mutual transformation: this process of disciplined helping transforms both sides, becoming one. We are not helping so much as both being helped. Both shaman and client are students learning to uncover the mysterious elements. ‘All psychotherapeutic methods are elaborations and variations of age-old procedures of psychological healing’. (Quoted in Walsh, 1990)


           Some users make that vital journey largely under their own steam. A recent Mental Health Foundation study (MHF 1997) shows that some mental health service users increasingly prefer the perceived holism of complementary therapies to psychiatric drug treatment. One user comments: ‘I have developed a style which combines a spiritual grounding with a variety of therapies, such as the use of art, music, verse and knowledge of stress management to help gain control over my emotions’. Imagine what great healing a genuine collaboration between nurses, social workers and many other professionals, combined with the experience and vision of users, could bring.


           The traditional scientific methodologies have dangers but so do the excesses of subjectivity—expressed in the contemporary self-indulgence of popular New Age systems. We are asked to trust in all manner of snake oils—reflexology; camomile teas; aromatherapy; fifty-seven varieties of counseling, often peppered with a strong dash of astrology and tarot cards. They symbolise a worrying and powerful flight from reason as well as a genuine quest for non-existent certainties, answers to ordinary living coming from a profound dissatisfaction with the aridity of much contemporary psychiatry and other professional disciplines no longer speaking to people’s condition. But just because we don’t like the shadows in Plato’s ancient and draughty cave doesn’t mean we want to rent rooms in Disneyworld.


           At the base of all our healing is increasing self-awareness and compassion towards others--nothing very special. This asks that we are increasingly gentle with ourselves and each other, that we surrender our different images of perfection as a deluded measure of the world and see it with honesty and love. There is a relevant and modern story of the holy fool Nasrudin going to a bank to cash a cheque. The bank teller asks for some identification. Nasrudin reaches in his pocket and pulls out a small mirror. Looking at it he says: ‘Yep, that’s me all right’. (Kornfield, 1993) Now that is genuine self-knowledge!




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