Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The swan's cure: imaginal healing in Aldous Huxley

Swans ring the bell at the bishop's palace in Wells
He's a cynical, worldly Englishman and right now his body is broken and screaming with pain. He's fallen from a cliff and he's on his back in a hut on an island in Southeast Asia, racked with fever. He is visited by a beautiful bronze-colored girl in a sarong who talks like she's been educated at Oxford before or after spending a year as assistant to a bodhisattva. She knows things about healing that his culture doesn't know and his mind is absolutely unwilling to accept. But she finds a chink in the closed door of that cynical mind, using memory.
     He is from England. Does he know the city of Wells? Of course he knows Wells, he snaps back at her.  She says she used to go walking there, by the water. There was an extraordinary sense of peace. And when she closes her eyes now she can see it all so clearly, green grass and golden sunlight on the stones of the church across the moat, and she can hear the bells and the jackdaws in the tower. Can he hear them too? Yes, he can hear the birds.
    In this way, in her soft lilting voice, chanting more than speaking, she leads the patient inside a scene he remembers until he is there as well as on his sickbed. He can see the daisies and dandelions in the grass, the austere geometry of the cathedral tower challenging the tender blue of the sky.
    "And the swans."
    Yes, the swans. Impossibly beautiful, yet entirely real. He sees the curve of the swans' white breasts lifting and parting dark waters.
    "Effortlessly floating."
    The words give him deep satisfaction. As the dreamy voice leads him, he finds himself floating with the swans, on that smooth surface between darkness below and tender blue above, between here and far away, between one world and another.
    Floating like a white bird on the water, he allows himself to slip into the flow of a great smooth silent river, allowing the sleeping river of life to carry him into a profound peace.
    The patient drifts off, contented, as the voice continues to chant. Above the river, he sees huge white clouds and at her suggestion, he floats up towards them until he is streaming on a river of air, up into the freshness of high mountains.He feels a delicious cool wind on his skin, and falls deeper into sleep, his fever broken.

I have paraphrased an extraordinary passage in Aldous Huxley's last novel, Island (first published in 1962) that is a magnificent description of imaginal healing. When Susila, the beautiful young healer, reports to her doctor father on what she did with the patient (the cynical journalist Will Farnaby) she says "he went off more quickly than expected" because she opened his imagination by calling him to a place in England that he knew. She explains that she worked with indirect rather than direct suggestions. "They're always better." She gave him a different body image, one that suggested grace and strength to carry him beyond his present injury, so it became "a miserable thing in revolt against a huge and splendid thing."
     There is a model here for how to grow a vision of healing for someone who is in need of images to make the body well. Start by taking them through the doorway of a life memory. Don't harp on physical symptoms. Give the body - as well as the mind - of the patient living images strong and graceful and fresh enough to shift it beyond its current complaints, as the swan glides on the water or lifts off to claim the sky.


DREGstudios! The Art of Brandt Hardin said...

Island was definitely his best work. Huxley indeed is turning in his grave. He is one of my favorite authors and raised serious issues and made world-wide breakthroughs in the research of psychedelics as well as our cognitive liberties. I drew a portrait as homage to the man and his works. Let me know what you think of it at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2010/07/aldous-huxley-rolls-in-his-grave.html

Carol Davis said...

Robert, this is such a beautiful description. The invitation, the remembering that includes the senses, the soul-sense of the place that continues to beckon brings peace and healing. This post also reminds me that a well-told story can draw us toward fresh vitality. I have not visited this place in England, however, I read this post and I remember a particular day by a river and the swan who came when I sang over the waters and who generously gave me a feather when I dared to ask, if it was possible, might I have feather in memory of our meeting. (I even apologized if I was asking too much.) With a wave of outstretched wings a small feather fell loose and floated toward me, carried by the currents of the river.

Through the doorways of life memories we can remember who we are and bring healing through for the body and mind

Robert Moss said...

Thanks, Carol. Memory and imagination, when creatively harnessed, open wonderful gateways to healing and inner adventure.

Robert Moss said...

Brandt - Interesting image. You might try to ask Aldous, in dreaming, what he thinks about it. I'm sure he has learned on the Other Side that we don't have to stay in a body image from this life, and don't need psychedelics to get to the best addresses in the imaginal realm.