The most famous healing sanctuaries in history are those of ancient Greece. They were found all over the archipelago and ranged in scope from health spas to mystical cults. Most were tiny but some were the size of small towns and were internationally famous. The great sanctuaries at Epidaurus and Eleusis provided state-of-the-art care for those wealthy enough to use their services.
The sanctuaries were called ‘asclepions’ after Aesculapius, the god of healing. The son of Apollo, he was raised and trained in medicine by Chiron, the old centaur who was then regarded as the wisest creature alive.
Chiron was a great healer for two reasons. As a half-horse, he was in touch with his animal nature, and he knew his limits. Though he helped others, he still couldn’t heal his own festering wound, and he certainly couldn’t defeat death. He thus became the prototype for the ‘wounded healer’ who understands sickness and health within the constraints of his own mortal body.
In the earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, sickness was attributed to supernatural causes which therefore needed spiritual solutions. It seems that the doctor priests in the Greek sanctuaries gave more practical advice. While they still dispensed amulets and magical charms, they emphasised moderation, diet, exercise and cleanliness, just as doctors do today. In fact, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine and the source of the Hippocratic oath, learnt his craft in the asclepion on his home island of Cos.
The asclepions were famous for one remarkable diagnostic method. It is called dream incubation. It had been used for thousands of years prior to the Greeks, but has now virtually vanished from human memory.
This is how it worked. If you were sick in body or soul, you would first cleanse yourself with a few days of simple food, rest, massage and exercise. Then you would go to the dream incubation chamber. This might be either a large temple-like dormitory with other sleepers, or a solitary, underground chamber entered through a long tunnel. You would sleep there for as many nights as necessary, reporting your dreams to the priest until the crucial, diagnostic dream appeared.
So how could dreams possibly help? Even today it is hard for doctors to look inside their patients. Despite medical technology, tumours can grow to a huge size before being detected. Dreams however, emerge directly from the complex mesh of sensations and feelings that is the body. Dreams are invariably psychosomatic. They give a psychic representation of the body or ‘soma’. Despite their imprecision, they can tell us what science cannot see.
If we regard dreams as rubbish, or too troublesome to interpret, or as a kind of fascinating but meaningless theatre, we will learn nothing from them. If we take them seriously, however they can be the royal road to both our emotions and to our bodies. Their imagery can give us pointers to what is happening inside us, body and mind, and what to do about it.
The Greek sanctuaries were probably effective for other reasons which we could readily duplicate in our own lives today if we saw value in it. Firstly, the patients left family and work behind, and spent weeks in beautiful natural surroundings. The sanctuary provided both solitude – an escape from the people who both delight and stress us – and nature.
Secondly, the patients rested for days and did virtually nothing, which is useful in itself. Whenever we appear to do nothing – when we sleep, for example – our minds get busy with the housecleaning. If we have whole days of inactivity, they review the past. We process the backlog of undigested experiences, giving particular emphasis to what is troubling us. The Greek sanctuaries gave their patients time to clear out the garbage, to reflect on how they felt, and to cultivate that receptive inner space that is necessary for self-understanding.
If the patients attained some degree of inner balance and peace in this fashion, it would have become a yardstick for them in the future. This could happen whether they had a diagnostic dream or not. It would also make them more likely to follow the common- sense, healthy living prescriptions of the priests.
Curing the sick soul is no easy matter. Despite trillions of dollars spent annually on health, the western world is plagued by anxiety, depression and lifestyle diseases. Nor do religious or spiritual practices now seem to offer more than placebos and consolations. It is could be worth revisiting what the ancient Greeks used to do for exactly the same problems.
We know their remedy: a period of solitude, inactivity, clean living, sufficient time to reflect, and a willingness to listen to one’s dreams and feelings. Although this makes perfect sense, there are compelling reasons why we are disinclined to do it.
We are goal-oriented animals. It seems so unnatural to just stop and do nothing, even for an hour, let alone for a day or a week. Inactivity is alien to our nature. Our bodies and minds are open systems, reliant on a massive, moment-to-moment, interchange of energy, molecules, action and information between us and our environments. We are structured more like weather systems than rocks. The individual human is no more self-sufficient than a city is.
Generally, the bigger the interchange of energy, the more alive we feel. We love being active, even if it’s just gossiping or channel surfing. Forced inactivity through sickness or fatigue will almost guarantee depression. Human beings, and all warm-blooded animals, crave movement, virtually for its own sake, regardless of outcomes. No matter how stressed we feel, it is hard to see any value in stillness and reflection.
Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can kill us. Too much stimulation and activity can steadily poison us. We become alienated from our inner horse, the animal part of our nature. There is a right speed at which to eat, to breathe, to talk and to work, and most of us are running too hot for comfort.
If the sanctuary at Epidaurus was still functioning today, we could be sure its clients wouldn’t want to just sit and wait for messages from within. They would expect cable TV, internet connections, and social activities to pass the time between their dream incubation sessions. They would insist on taking their ipods, cameras and cellphones. If they were spending all that money, they would want a satisfying spiritual experience that they could discuss with others afterwards. It is not that easy to really do nothing.
Although the great sanctuaries at Eleusis and Epidaurus are now just ruins for tourists to visit, their therapeutic principles are still available to us. Two millennia later, we can easily build our own inner sanctuaries in the only place readily available to us, namely our own bodies. It is not impossible to be alone, mentally silent and sensitive to our dreams and feelings if we want to be. Nor do we need weeks or months of seclusion in some remote place. We just need high quality seconds and minutes exactly where we are.
Inner space operates with a very elastic sense of time. Within the timespan of a few conscious breaths, we can be utterly alone, silent and still. Even a single breath can dissolve the past and future and the mania of words. In those moments, we also contact nature – the potent, primitive material of our own body. Although a breath only lasts a few seconds, there can be hundreds of such breaths during the day, if we seek them out. These are like the grains of sand and drops of water we can use to build our own inner sanctuaries.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2009