by Benig Mauger
The Doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the Wounded Healer heals.
(Jung, in Sedgewick, 2000)
So wrote Carl Jung in the last century. Some say Jung was a visionary, a man before his time whose dreams and immersion into the unconscious, both personal and collective, brought us wisdom and teachings we ignore at our peril. The archetypal wounded healer himself, Jung was the first to state that undergoing one’s own thorough analysis was the path to being able to heal others or, more accurately, to help others heal themselves. His courage to enter the dark night of his own soul left us a legacy we can see and read in his Red Book most particularly.
My own training as a psychoanalytical psychotherapist involved long years of personal analysis. A person can only bring someone to where he has been himself – meaning that unless you have journeyed into your own unconscious and trekked your own soul, you cannot expect to be able to help others do the same. Accepting that we are wounded and healers at the same time is the paradox we must learn to inhabit if we are in the therapeutic profession.
Five years ago now, I stood before a large group of senior psychotherapists at a major conference on mental health in Ireland and spoke about the role of the therapist in today’s world. My talk, one of many at the one-day conference on ‘Healing the Hurt’, was entitled Chiron in the 21st Century: Wounded Healers, Suffering and the Therapeutic Process. In it I questioned the role of the therapist in today’s world where finding the balance between promoting a culture of ‘woundology’ and helping people heal had grown even more urgent. Over half a century after Jung, in an increasingly fragmented world, man is still in search of his soul, and the demand for therapy is on the increase. Despite being told that wholeness lies within and that living soulfully involves accepting our wounds as our greatest gifts, in our ‘quick-fix’ society, we either look for answers and speedy resolutions outside of ourselves, or we remain trapped in our wounds. In this context, what is the role of the psychotherapist? Are we healing hurts or promoting emotional dependency and a culture of ‘woundology’? Modern medicine has eradicated the meaning of pain by aiming a cure for all physical illness and we are imbued with that ethos, somehow. I wondered were we creating a sanitised pain-free world where suffering has lost its meaning? And further, does our instant-gratification culture equip us for suffering or has it eroded our ability to endure?
Although many of these questions remain, I propose that we can find answers and wisdom in understanding the archetype and the myth of Chiron the Wounded Healer. And that incorporating Chiron’s teachings can lead us not simply to learning to heal ourselves but to create a model of psychotherapeutic care that is empowered yet still vulnerable. Chiron was a centaur, half-man, half-horse, and the progeny of Zeus (hence immortal) who was wounded in the leg and whose life-long search to cure himself led him to become a healer. Abandoned by his mother at birth he was reared by the Sun God Apollo and so was versed in the fine arts such as music, poetry and healing. Thus Chiron became known as a wise man, a prophet, physician, musician and teacher. His most famous students were Hercules, Achilles and Asclepius. Chiron suffered a wound to his leg, his animal part, and through his search for herbs, potions and medicines to heal his wound he became a gifted healer as his empathy grew for the suffering of others. In this way he became know as ‘the wounded healer’. Being immortal, Chiron lived on with the terrible, incurable wound. One day, Hercules came upon Prometheus, a Titan who had been punished for stealing fire from the Gods. Prometheus was chained to a rock and condemned to endless torment by having a vulture tear out his liver, which then re-grew at night, allowing the cycle of endless pain to continue. Zeus had decreed that Prometheus could be released if an immortal agreed to go to Tartarus (the underworld) in his place, relinquishing his immortality. Agreeing to take Prometheus’ place, Chiron dies and descends to the underworld. After nine days, Zeus immortalised him as the constellation Centaurus. This sacrifice of his own immortality delivered him from torment.
What can we learn about the therapeutic process from the archetype of the wounded healer? The wounded healer archetype is naturally constellated during the psychotherapeutic process. Therapists need to be in constant touch with their wounded sides in order to prevent a splitting of the archetype occurring, where the patient can get stuck as the wounded one and the therapist as the healer. The more the therapist is aware of and connected to his wounds the more he enables an awakening of the inner healer in his client. In essence, healing is always in the hands of the Divine, belonging to a source outside of, but connected to, both therapist and client. Healers must not be too zealous to heal and allow the patient’s ‘inner healer’ to be constellated.
Real cure can only take place if the patient gets in touch with and receives help from his ‘inner healer’. And this can happen ONLY if projections of the healer’s Persona is withdrawn. This presupposes that the physician/Healer is in touch with his own wounded side.
It is in the service of this archetypal ‘exchange’ that a therapist’s individual analysis or psychotherapy comes into play. Our profession must be unique in that our training is through becoming aware of our weaknesses! Erich Neumann, points out that:
Creative man is always close to the abyss of sickness where his wounds remain open, NOT being closed by adaptation to the collective. His very suffering is the source, in depth, of
a curative power and this ‘power is the creative process’. For this reason, ‘only a wounded man can be a healer, a physician’
The archetype of the wounded healer has long been recognised as a model for healing. Kerenyi, a colleague of Carl Jung, suggested the myth of the wounded healer refers to the capacity: “To be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery with which, as though by enchantment, to bring forth Asclepius, the sun-like healer” (in Levy, 1999).
Working with the myth
What can the myth of Chiron teach us about healing today?
1. Reconciliation of Opposites. The first thing Chiron can teach us is that wholeness and healing comes through the union of opposites, the healing is in the wound and the wounded becomes the healer. Because born of the nymph Philyra and the God Zeus, he is also half-man and half-god. So he is a creature of opposites and, symbolically, he represents our own duality in being human and also divine, a duality we work hard to reconcile. You could also think of him as representing our instinctive and our rational thinking selves. Since his mother rejected him at birth, his first wound was that of rejection and abandonment. Reared by Apollo, he was taught the finer arts but did not receive the normal nurturing of his ‘human’ side that most mortals need. Additionally, since he was later wounded in the thigh, his animal part, he received a double wounding to his instinctual nature which no amount of rational thinking, singing, poetry or music-making could heal. To heal, Chiron had to connect with his animal side, where the wound lay. He had to suffer.
2. Personal suffering and the capacity to endure. Another lesson from Chiron is that we should value our suffering. Chiron is called the wounded healer because of a wound he received from a poisoned arrow. Because immortal (his God side), he could not die and be free from pain. In his attempts to heal himself he researched far and wide for a cure and so became proficient in being able to heal others. Due to his own incurable wound, he had intimate knowledge of suffering, in all its forms. This enabled him to tap into a deep well of wisdom within himself, to help ease the pain of others. A compassionate healer, his suffering informed him, so that he understood pain and helped heal others. The glyph for Chiron has half of its cross missing, symbolising the broken state which is healed through finding and re-uniting the missing part. This theme of personal suffering, and what awareness and meaning we can derive from it, is a central premise of the myth.
3. Death and letting go. By trading his immortality for the freedom of the titan Prometheus, Chiron dies and thus ends his suffering. Death in this sense signifies death of the old ego attitude, letting go of the struggle and the need to know, to do, and to solve. Chiron’s death and descent into the underworld symbolises a change in attitude from one of ‘doing’ to one of ‘being done to’. This surrender has to happen in order for divine grace to enter and healing to happen. I call it the still point, a place where we suspend thought, suspend judgment, suspend desire, and just be. We await transformation, we do not manufacture it. And we ‘receive’ grace. According to the ancients, sickness was always invested with a healing power and came from a divine, spiritual source. The sick were led to the temple of Asclepius, the ancient god of healing, where they slept and awaited a healing dream. Chiron descends into the underworld, into the dark. Vision is limited in the dark, thus forcing you to face what lies beneath the surface, in the depths of your heart. There is nothing to be done here but endure. The descent into the unconscious, into the dark night of the soul, is like a death before a rebirth. There cannot be a rebirth, or true change, without such a death. Death and life come together, always (Mauger, 2008:253).
4. To value our vulnerability. Another very important lesson of Chiron is that we should value our vulnerability. Our vulnerability can be our greatest asset, because when we are vulnerable we are actually more open, and it is in times of greatest vulnerability that a deeper intelligence comes through. The capacity to endure is what carries us through on the healing journey when we have to wait in the nigredo, in the darkness, in the ‘not knowing’. In our quick-fix society we find it hard to wait for anything. We can’t stand to be in a vulnerable and uncertain position. We are afraid, afraid of descending into a place we will not be able to get out of, so we hang on to what we know. We need our vulnerability – it is a conduit to healing.
5. To be able to live with paradox. So we can see that healing ourselves is to live the paradox of being wounded and healers at the same time. However, as therapists we have a task, we need to dispel the myth that our wounds determine our life. This to me is the most important message of Chiron today. We need to remember that the human spirit does not go to sleep within us because of negative life patterns, nor are most people’s lives only a series of tragedies. Unearthing the positive is as effective a healing process as is clearing out the negative parts of our history. And we need to dispel the idea that everyone needs therapy in order to heal. Many people can heal themselves through inner work, through enduring and suffering their wounds, through journaling, and dream work. Spells in therapy can help, but staying overly long can also be a block to healing.
Chiron in the 21st Century
Astrologically, it is interesting to note the timing of when the planet Chiron was discovered. In the nineteen seventies we were in the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, which represents a movement from individualism to humanitarianism. What does this mean for people trying to heal? It means that we need to move from an individualistic entitlement-based model of healing to a humanitarian, inclusive one. It means that it will no longer work for us to be looking back at what wounded us; we need to move beyond our wounds and be more focussed on how we can help others and ourselves. It means that rather than remaining victim of our pasts, we move on, to compassion.
Our wounds drive us into ourselves, and can genuinely allow us an immediate and intimate contact with our soul. This involves a complete shift in our level of consciousness, in which we literally snap out of the narcissistic, hypnotic trance of the separate self and realize that we have been merely playing a role. In order to awaken the transformative aspect of the archetype of the Wounded Healer, we have to move through our wounds to find the wisdom hidden there. Healing is not about repair or cure; it is about acceptance and endurance. Chiron’s message is about healing through our wounds. It appears that we have integrated part of Chiron’s teachings, we have allowed the consciousness of being wounded in to our awareness, but we have yet to fully integrate the healer. Why is this? Perhaps it is because we have not yet learned to value our suffering. Many of the qualities necessary for healing, such as patience and endurance, are not part of our quick- fix consumer society. Wounds cannot be fully healed without suffering, without the willingness to endure them and, ultimately, learn from them.
The wounded healer’s way of healing is to inhabit the pain and transform it, like the traditional shamans, who energetically take on the pain of their clients and transmute it before returning it as healed. The process of shamanistic healing involves recovery of the healing capacities of the true self that is generally buried in the wounded part of the individual. It means recovering what lies in the unconscious as shadow. Our true self is generally hidden in our shadow along with other elements of our personality we are not aware of. Our ego self we do know about, it is what dictates our everyday life and being. Odd as it may sound, to heal we have to bypass the ego with its value judgments and controlling manner so that we reach a place of soul capable of healing. Chiron the wounded healer reminds us of this since as a shaman and alchemist, he is able to redeem the true self, hidden within the wounded, rejected and marginalized part of the psyche. Shaman is the custodian of a heritage of direct access to realms of the sacred inaccessible to most people, and the guardian of the soul history of a people. In the encounter, both patient and doctor are transformed by entering the timeless nonphysical dimensions of consciousness. Since the suffering of the wounded healer enables him to empathise (rather than sympathise) with his patient, this triggers a transcendent or numinous energy that constellates healing. It is the relationship, where the client is brother and not patient, that triggers a fundamental change in perspective. The learning is through experience, therefore.
Revisiting the myth of Chiron, the Wounded Healer, and outlining the importance of creative suffering in the development of consciousness and the healing process, I suggest that the capacity to endure and transcend is an essential part of adult life, the healing process and the psychotherapeutic model involving both therapist and client. Presenting suffering as training in healing, I propose that Chiron today is about creating a model of psychotherapeutic care that is empowered yet still vulnerable. This is the myth of our time and if we want to heal, we need to embrace it.
Benig Mauger is a psychoanalytical psychotherapist and author at
Groesbeck, C., (1975) The archetypal image of the wounded healer. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 20(2):122-145.
Jung, C. in D. Sedgewick (2000) The Wounded Healer: Countertransference from a Jungian Perspective. Sussex England: Brunner Routledge.
Levy, P. (1999) ‘The Wounded Healer’ <http://newconnexion.net/articles/index.cfm/1999/05/wounded.html>. Accessed November 2011.
Mauger, B., (2008) Love in a Time of broken Heart – Healing From Within. Soul Connections Ireland.
Neumann, E. (1959) Art and the Creative Unconscious: Four Essays. UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
© Benig Mauger, 2013