The Healing Path: A Soul Approach to Illness

The Healing Path: A Soul Approach to Illness

by Marc Ian Barasch
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1994; hardcover, 432 pages.

When Marc Barasch once caught himself shaming his daughter into doing her homework, he noticed that she withdrew into herself. She told him that it hurt her to be spoken to like that and made her want to leave her body. He was shocked to see that she had doodled a head torn from a torso, gushing blood, and he recalled his own similar childhood pain. For him it was a metaphor of the dissociation of mind from body that often occur s when we are made to feel uncomfortable about our selves. This theme is pervasive in Barasch's new book, The Healing Path: A Soul Approach to Illness.

A former editor of New Age Journal, Barasch has spent the past seven years gathering research in an effort to understand the nature of health and the role played by the medical and social communities. With a foreword by Bernie Siegel, this book is a comprehensive guide that is essential reading for anyone interested in health issues.

Barasch himself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Desperate to get well again, but troubled by physicians' advice, he decided to check out the available alternatives. He also made an appointment for surgery, just in case. When he lost his nerve on the way to a rather unorthodox treatment in Brazil, he had the surgery and then wondered if he had made the right decision. The ambiguity plagued him enough to take on the immense project of exploring the world of illness and treatment. What he discovered will alternately anger, amaze, annoy, frighten, and encourage readers who are fed up with the tradition al Western belief that care of the body is rather mechanical while care of the mind is an unnecessary luxury.

One of the most disheartening aspects of illness is how isolating it can be: sympathetic friends often say the wrong things, while others simply leave or withhold their support. A life-threatening illness like cancer or AIDS draws the victim into another sphere. Faced with issues of mortality, one is never quite the same, and the people who were part of one's former realm of health may be unable to cope with the change. Yet a healing community is a significant factor in surviving a disease or increasing life expectancy. Thus, not only do the "journeyers" - people who go forth to encounter their disease rather than struggling to return to the "normal"- have to deal with the greatest challenge of their lives, they often have the added burden of finding new friends as well. Many people in Barasch's study lost the support of loved ones who could not accept the way they chose to fight their illness.

Barasch tackles these issues and others as he struggles to interpret the phenomena of healing. It is clear to him that a "one size fits all" philosophy, characteristic of our culture, makes little sense. A particular diet shrank one person's tumor; for another, it took intensive psychotherapy; for yet another, it was merely the belief in a medical breakthrough. Barasch believes in the wisdom of an integrated approach: don 't dismiss any angle. However, he makes it clear that one must become aware of one's potential emotional involvement in the onset and form of an illness, because therein may lie the key to healing. Although Barasch dismisses theories that find blame, he presents enough cases to indicate that early influences in the formation of our personalities may make us vulnerable to certain types of diseases. Healing, then, involves restoring communication with the self.

What makes this book so readable while also informative are the metaphors of illness and healing from familiar stories such as The Wizard of Oz and A Christmas Carol. Barasch effectively weaves them with research from psychoneuroimmunology to make the complex notion of immune defenses accessible and memorable. The reader is more likely to identify with the Tin Man's story than with scientific jargon. Barasch also makes frequent use of dreams as harbingers of illness and companions in healing. Although some of his interpretations may seem ad hoc, many correlation s are too startling to be dismissed.

Whichever way one chooses to go, it is best to be informed and thus wise; Barasch's book, although slanted toward the alternatives, offers a wealth of information about illness and treatment that should be considered on the path to healing.


Summer 1994