A Timeless Sanctum

The most famous healing sanctuaries in history were those of ancient Greece. They were found all over the archipelago and ranged in scope from health spas to mystical cults. Most were tiny, but some were the size of small towns and became internationally famous. The great sanctuaries at Epidaurus and Eleusis seemed to have provided state of the art body/mind care for those wealthy enough to use their services.

The sanctuaries were called "asclepions" after Aesculapius, the god of healing. The son of Apollo, he was raised and trained in medicine by Chiron, an old centaur. So why is it that Chiron, half man and half horse, was then regarded as the wisest creature alive?

The Greek mythmakers knew that health demands an integration of our human and animal natures. Human beings are more clever than wise, and are prone to that kind of self destructive arrogance that the Greeks called "hubris". Animals, however, are more in touch with the flesh and blood of life.

Chiron, the half horse, was a great healer because he knew his limits. Though he could help others, he still couldn't heal his own festering wound, and he certainly couldn't defeat death. He thus became the prototype for the "wounded healer" who understands sickness and health within the constraints of his own all-too-mortal body.

In the earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisations, sickness was attributed to supernatural causes, which therefore needed spiritual solutions. But in the Greek sanctuaries it seems the medical advice the priest/doctors gave their patients was eminently practical. While they still dispensed amulets and magical charms, they particularly emphasised moderation, diet, exercise and cleanliness, just as doctors do today. In fact, Hippocrates, the grandfather of modern medicine and the source of the Hippocratic Oath, learnt his craft in the asclepion on his home island of Cos.

However, one of the diagnostic methods used in the sanctuaries was quite extraordinary. It is called dream incubation. It had already been used for thousands of years prior to the Greeks, but has now virtually vanished from human memory.

This is how it worked. If you were sick in body or soul, and sought help at a sanctuary, you would first have cleansed yourself with a few days of simple food, rest, massage and exercise. Only then would you go to the dream incubation chamber.

This might be either a large temple-like dormitory with other sleepers, or a solitary, underground chamber entered through a long tunnel. You would have slept there for as many nights as necessary, reporting your dreams to the priest until the crucial, diagnostic dream appeared. This would reveal what you needed to do to heal yourself.

So how could dreams possibly help? Even today it is hard for doctors to look under the skins of their patients. Despite the miracles of medical technology, tumours can still grow to a huge size before being detected. Dreams, though, emerge directly from the infinitely complex mesh of sensations and feelings that is the body. Dreams are invariably psychosomatic: they are psychic representations of the body or "soma". Despite their imprecision, they can tell us what science cannot see.

Unfortunately, we normally regard dreams as rubbish, or too troublesome to interpret, or as a kind of fascinating but meaningless theatre. While they do take effort to understand, dreams remain the "royal road" to both our emotions and to our bodies. They can tell us what is happening to us and what we feel about it, without the manipulations of language or the smokescreen of action. Behind their bewildering imagery, they are "honest". If we give them the consideration they deserve, and consciously prepare ourselves to dream, they can also help us lead a healthier life.

I suspect the Greek sanctuaries were effective for other reasons as well. Most of these we can readily duplicate in our own lives today if we value them sufficiently enough. Firstly, the patients left family and work behind, and spent weeks in beautiful natural surroundings. In other words, a sanctuary provided solitude - an escape from the people who both delight and stress us - and nature.

Secondly, the patients rested for days and did nothing. In fact, whenever we appear to do nothing - when we sleep, for example - our minds get to work on the housecleaning. If we have whole days of inactivity, our minds systematically review the past. We consciously and unconsciously process the backlog of undigested experiences, giving particular emphasis to what is troubling us. The Greek sanctuaries gave their patients time to clear out the garbage, to reflect on how they felt, and to cultivate that receptive inner space that is necessary for self understanding.

Finally, when the patients achieved some degree of inner balance and awareness, this would have become a yardstick for them in the future. This could happen whether they had a diagnostic dream or not. They would also be more likely to follow the commonsense, healthy living prescriptions of the priests when they could feel why it was so important.

Curing the sick soul is no easy matter. Despite trillions of dollars spent annually on health, the Western world is plagued by anxiety, depression and lifestyle diseases. Nor do religious or spiritual practices seem to offer more than placebos and consolations. In this context, it is worth revisiting what the ancient Greeks used to do for exactly the same problems that we face today.

We know their remedy: a period of solitude, inactivity, clean living, sufficient time to reflect, and a willingness to listen to one's dreams and inner feelings. Although this makes perfect sense, there are excellent reasons why we choose not to do this. We are goal-oriented animals. It seems so unnatural to just stop, do nothing and be right where we are, even for an hour, let alone for a day or a week.

Inactivity is alien to our nature. Human beings are not rocks. We are structured more like weather systems than fortresses. Our bodies and minds are "open systems", reliant on a massive, moment-to-moment, input-output, interchange of energy, molecules, actions and information. We are no more self sufficient than a city is.

We have to move continuously, just to stay where we are. Generally, the bigger the interchange of energy, the more alive we feel. We feel compelled to be active, even if it's just gossiping or channel surfing. In fact, forced inactivity will almost guarantee depression. Human beings, and all warm blooded animals, crave movement, virtually for its own sake, regardless of outcomes.

Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can kill us. Too much stimulation and activity, and the 24/7 society can steadily poison us. We become alienated from our inner horse, the animal part of our nature. There is a right speed at which to eat, to breathe, to talk and to work, and most of us are running too hot for comfort.

And yet, no matter how stressed we feel, it is hard to see any value in stillness and reflection. If the sanctuary at Epidaurus was still functioning today, you can be sure its clients wouldn't want to just sit around and wait for messages from their souls. They would expect cable TV, Internet connections, newspapers and social activities to pass the time between their dream incubation sessions. They would insist on taking their iPods, cameras and cell phones. If they were spending all that money, they would want a satisfying spiritual experience they could discuss with others afterwards. It is not that easy to really do nothing.

Although the great sanctuaries at Eleusis and Epidaurus are now just ruins for tourists to visit, their therapeutic principles are still available to us. Two millennia later, we can build our own inner sanctuaries in the only place available to us: our own bodies. It is not impossible to be alone, mentally silent and sensitive to our dreams and feelings if we want to be. Nor do we need weeks or months of seclusion in some remote place. We just need high quality seconds and minutes exactly where we are.

Inner space operates with a very elastic sense of time. Within the space of a single conscious breath, we can be utterly alone, silent and still. A single breath can dissolve the past and future, and the earth itself, apart from the ground we stand on. In that moment, we also contact nature - the potent, primitive material of our own body.

Of course, one breath only lasts a few seconds, but there can be thousands of such seconds during the day, if we seek them out. These are like grains of sand and drops of water that we can use to make the bricks for our inner sanctuaries.