Book review of ‘The Myth of Normal’, Part 5 (final)

Last week, we posted Part 4 in this blog series and this week we finish the sequence by sharing our thoughts on the fifth part of the book, called ‘Pathways to Wholeness’. This part of the book is full of beautiful personal stories of healing. Again, Gabor does not elude his own difficulties in walking the healing path and from his explicit vulnerability, we can all gain courage: even when you have a lot of knowledge in your head, it can be quite a challenge to first hear and then follow the call of your heart.

Chapter 25 speaks about ‘healing’, how it is not a destination, but a direction, aimed ad “self-retrieval”, finding back the lost connections to ourselves. The authors make an important distinction between ‘being healed’ and ‘being cured’. If we are being cured, our physical issues have been dealt with and the disease is gone, whereas being healed is much more about finding wholeness and being at peace with everything inside us, our qualities, our possibilities, and “the truth of our lives” (p. 362, 363). Sometimes we ‘suffer ourselves into healing’, meaning that we first need serious setbacks before feeling the urgency of finding a way out of the darkness and step back into the light. In other instances, the healing process comes as a calling. Some people may feel that healing is attainable for everyone, except themselves, which only shows how deep the pain can be etched into your being.
Then again: “Anyone, no matter their history, can begin to hear wholeness beckoning, whether in a shout or whisper, and resolve to move in its direction. With the heart as a guide and the mind as a willing and curious partner, we follow whatever path most resonates with that call” (p. 373).

Chapter 26 deals with a number of healing principles, among which are four important qualities:
1. Authenticity: we fully accept ourselves and learn to notice when we stray from it.
2. Agency: we exercise “response ability” (p. 377), have choice and take control of our own healing.
3. Anger: we are able to feel and express healthy anger as “a boundary defense” to protect our integrity and equilibrium (p. 378, 379), and do not suppress or judge, nor nourish it.
4. Acceptance: we recognise that right now, things can only be as they are and “we endeavour to just be with it” (p. 381), which is very different from tolerating the untolerable (e.g injustice).

The chapter continues with five forms of compassion: human compassion, compassion of curiosity and understanding, of recognition, of truth, and of possibility, all with their own characteristics and foci. It also contains a quote from A.H. Almaas, often cited by Gabor: “Only when compassion is present, do people allow themselves to see the truth.” This is a very beautiful citation; it somehow invites all of us to listen with compassion, because the other person will have a hard time diving into their deepest insecurities and life questions, if we as a listener do not have compassion for whatever it is they might come up with.

Chapter 27 broaches a tough topic: disease as teacher, as an opportunity for learning and growth. Some people tell that their disease felt as a wake-up call: “Symptoms and illness are the body’s way of letting us know when we have strayed from that [authentic] core” (p. 393). Several cases of serious disease are discussed and the ways people dealt with them. Often, people somehow sensed that their ‘dis-ease’ was a factor in the genesis of their disease, but in general, both many healthcare providers and many lay people may find this a difficult topic to deal with. This chapter tells how some people are not cured, but healed nevertheless, dissolving the fragmentation felt earlier in their lives.

Chapter 28 provides a compassionate inquiry exercise, a way to learn an attitude of compassionately inquiring about yourself and the choices you make in life. Do they support your authenticity or do they stimulate self-hatred and pushing the body and its physiology across unhealthy boundaries? The exercise consists of answering six questions on a very regular, preferably daily basis. Part of the exercise, in fact, is the discipline of doing it regularly. I read this exercise a while ago and felt like starting, but initially postponed doing so, despite my conviction that it would, indeed, be truly helpful. It is about the stories we believe in and how they are “neither objective nor accurate, [but] always internally consistent with our behavior and our experience” (p. 418). These stories are learned very early in life and may stifle our authentic expression. The creativity in us must, however, be able to come out, “otherwise we may explode at the wrong places or become hopelessly hemmed in by frustrations” (p. 421).

Chapter 29 explains how we might work through these self-limiting stories that make us believe we are not enough. To achieve this, five processes are described: relabel, reattribute, refocus, revalue, and re-create. To do this may require self-discipline, courage, and determination. The authors see much potential in them, however: “The more you relabel, reattribute, refocus, and revalue, the freer you will be to re-create”, both in the sense of ‘creating anew’ and of ‘playfully relax’ (p. 429).

Chapter 30 acknowledges the fact that our healing journey will not always be smooth. Moving away from “I’m unworthy” and “I am defective” is hard, because convictions like these are stored in the body’s neurophysiology. This is where the approach of unhealthy beliefs and practices deserves a compassionate inquiry: “The question thus shifts from ‘How do I get rid of this?’ to ‘What is this for? Why is this here?’ (…,) to turn these [aspects] from foes to friends”, once we realise that they are there for a reason (p. 431). They helped us through the hard times and deserve our compassion. The whole chapter deals with all kinds of obstacles to healing and about the importance of becoming aware of them. Unhealthy beliefs arose for the purpose of harm reduction in the first place, despite the harm they may cause later on, when something triggers us (a very descriptive word for what truly happens).

Chapter 31 is a powerful, gripping story of Gabor’s personal experience with the use of psychedelics, and also about him always working to help others in their healing, but deep down inside believing that he himself was “beyond all hope of healing” (p. 371, Chapter 25) – an amazing story.

Chapter 32 elaborates on this experience of spirituality and what it taught him, part of which is the fact that, again, psychedelics show the mindbody unity: “what happens to the body reflects what is happening in the mind and the spirit” (p. 474). This spirit, which is aeons old, has mythical proportions and the authors state that being more open to myth, more in the sense of ‘mystical’, “as a fount of knowledge, a portal to spirit, and one of the fundaments of any healthy culture” would do our societies really well (p. 478).

Chapter 33, the last one, leaves us with a number of suggestions for how to create trauma-conscious societies, in medicine and the law as well as in education, so that “the adult community [can] hold space for the development of the young” (p. 491). This chapter is filled with intriguing thoughts and comments about the “malignant normality” of present practices and convictions and the way young people pay the price for this “toxic culture” (p. 495), created and maintained by “the barbarians of civilization”. In such a setting, “it is often individuals who defy conventional normality who are the healthy ones” (p. 496). This, once over, requires authenticity, the strength to stay true to one’s inner truths and to a purpose bigger than ourselves. The challenge the book ends with is to wake up and become aware of what has to be done: “Shedding toxic myths of disconnection from ourselves, from one another, and from the planet, we can bring what is normal and what is natural, bit by bit, closer together” (p. 497).

Quite a journey it was, reading this 500 page book from cover to cover. What a wealth of wisdom we have encountered in it! The authors masterfully and beautifully incorporate a plethora of topics in order to illustrate what needs to change if we truly aim to prevent and heal trauma and illness. It succeeds in offering a genuinely holistic approach and shows beyond any doubt that depoliticization of health does no justice to the influence of the biopsychosocial context we all grow up in. As much as we may try, we cannot be healthy on our own, walled off from those around us. Their joy and their pain are contagious to our neurophysiology, our interpersonal biology. That means that the more we succeed in nurturing healthy connection to ourselves and others, the more healed and healing we can become. “It is our most daunting challenge and greatest possibility.”

Posted in Book and movie reviews.