Summer Solstice

Summer_SunsetHere in the Northern Hemisphere we’ve arrived at the summer solstice, the sun having traveled as far north as it will this year. The days are long and warm, and the nights brief; twilight seems to last forever. In the country, fireflies fill the air above the hay fields.

It’s a good time to gather with others and acknowledge our passage through the warm times. This evening we host a gathering of friends and others who wish to place themselves in community, both with other people and the natural world. Tomorrow we will participate in an interfaith celebration of the solstice, and life’s journeys, at the Unitarian church.

On the Medicine Wheel, as it is understood by many here in the Northeast, we have arrived in the South, the place of summer. The South is the place of noon, fire, and the plants and mammals. Often we just say that we are in the home of the “warm bloodeds and the green ones”.  I like that; generalizing reminds us that we are a part of a much larger community of animals that self-regulate their temperature. We might also remember that our very breath, and thus our lives, is a gift from the plant kingdom.

On the face of it, this is a moment of inclusiveness and community. Like most things, however, it’s complex. We are therapists and ceremonialists, and the demands of these two roles can sometimes be in conflict. There are strong ethical constraints on the actions of clinicians; we are actively discouraged from having more than one kind of relationship with clients. Yet some people come to us because they are called by the spirits to be healers, and are hungry to make sense of their experiences and to find community. Often, we are the only folks in town working with the spirits in a more traditional way. Things can get complicated when the demands of the profession and the needs of individual clients come into conflict.

My cultural frame is multivalent as well. The European frame of reference is one shaped by psychoanalytic “objectivity” and ideas of confidentiality. From this point of view the clinician must strictly limit social interaction with persons who have come to him or her for aid; the frame of reference is inherently individualistic and the clinician is to carefully maintain the therapeutic frame or container. A more Indigenous understanding would be that healing is a matter for the individual, their friends and family, and the entire community. The person requesting aid is understood to be embedded in an extensive matrix of relationships with both the human and nonhuman worlds. In this understanding, confidentiality is shaped by the needs and desires of the clients, and concepts of  individuality are viewed as potentially isolating and highly problematic.

Navigating these complex and frequently conflicting paradigms can be very challenging. We are repeatedly invited to consider the person from an array of cultural and therapeutic frames, while remembering that we are all embedded in a set of power relationships. As healers and clinicians we hold great influence with those who seek aid. We in turn are situated in relationship to our teachers, colleagues, and as clinicians, professional and regulatory organizations, all with unique points of view, and each seeking to influence our attitudes and behaviors via a set of ethical and behavioral codes that are reinforced by practices of power.

In truth, most of the ethical and legal constraints imposed on clinicians have evolved to address imbalances in power relations between practitioners and clients. Given the inherently unequal power between healers and those who come to us, clients are potentially subject to all manner of harmful practices, including sexual and financial abuse. When I began practicing as a clinician and healer, almost forty years ago, such practices were frighteningly common, and many persons who sought healing were egregiously harmed. Now we seem to have gone too far in limiting the ability of clinicians and clients to shape their relationship to meet the needs of each individual client, while protecting clients from harm. It is difficult to even have conversations about life, and therapy, as complex.

After tonight the sun begins to move south once again. Come September and the equinox, days and nights will be of equal duration, and our thoughts and rituals will focus on balance. Not surprisingly, at this high point of summer matters of balance remain very much at play. As we revel in the light and warmth, we are reminded that as a culture we are facing a crisis generated in large part by our over focus on individuality and the concomitant wearing away of community. Here, in the United States, most mental health disciplines, and  quite a few healers, have been very slow to acknowledge and address this, leaving both clients and practitioners in a difficult place.

I hope this time of light, or darkness if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, brings you healing, community, and joy! May we all remember to breath, to feel connected to All That Is, and to return always to a place of balance.

12 thoughts on “Summer Solstice

  1. Hugely important: community and individuality and “safe space” (meaning RESPECT). Where that is healing, there is so much grace. Where that is damaging, there is so much pain.

  2. I am continually grateful for the teacher-student relationship, employer-landscapee relationship, and personal friendship I’ve shared with you and Jennie. I’ve learned so much from both of you in each of these different contexts, but how they all come together to create a whole life, a whole relationship, is really something to be treasured.

  3. Very interesting post, Michael. I wrestled with teaching ethical and legal issues to future social workers – many of whom would be practicing in rural areas and small towns. In many locations it is impossible to have just one role/relationship with a client. I understand what you are saying about native individuals being embedded in relationships within their tribe (and the non-native culture), and I also think it is a travesty of the knowledge of the importance of relationships to good mental and physical health to profess that we can isolate the important healing relationship to just those roles between two people. I appreciate Jean Baker Miller’s thinking on dominate and subordinate relationships that should only be specific to teacher/student, parent/child, and therapist/client (another one?) and that this power differential should be aimed at helping the subordinate develop to the point of equality. This implies that there are specific rules for the use of this power and that there should be ways to be in relationship after the power has become equal. Thanks for activating my brain once again on this important topic.

    1. Hi Pat,
      Yes, creating a sense of equality is so important. I doubt we get to an equal place very often, but the effort remains central. I suspect the most important thing is to refuse to use those who ask for aid, even after they are happy in the world. We try to make ethics so universal……

  4. I love your way of celebrating the solstice Michael and the way you bring in thoughts of the wider community and how this relates to the relationship between healers and those who wish to be healed.

    1. Andrea, thank you! I try to remember that the healer and the person requesting aid are really just two parts of one system, each needed by the other. Therein lies a blessing.

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