“A terrifying symptom is usually your greatest dream trying to come through.” Arnold Mindell, PhD
When people draw a connection between their wounds/illnesses and God, it is often by viewing their physical ailments as a form of punishment for real or imagined sins and failings. Much more rarely are wounds and illnesses seen as constructive events that can guide us towards wholeness and a deepened relationship with our spiritual core. Not only can the former perspective place God in an unreasonably punitive light, it can also blind us to the fact that the body is an instrument of our individuation. From a Jungian viewpoint, our wounds and illnesses can be a doorway to greater consciousness and growth.
One psychologist who has intensively studied the language of body symptoms and developed ways of utilizing them for personal transformation is Arnold Mindell. Dr. Mindell, an M.I.T. educated physicist turned Jungian psychologist, introduced the term “dreambody” to the field of psychology and is the founder of process-oriented therapy. In his books Dr. Mindell documents and explains the ways in which the same messages contained in our dreams are also communicated through our physical symptoms, behaviors, and outer relationships. In many ways our body is our personal shaman, helping us to heal and grow, provided that we try to learn from it rather than impose our will and expectations upon it. This article looks at several examples of the unique language and healing qualities of illnesses.
Within a day or two of briefly gagging on a vitamin capsule, a 10 year-old boy developed an excessive fear of choking on his food. As a result, he would take only “baby bites,” chewing each for several minutes before reluctantly swallowing. His parents attempted to educate and reason with him about the improbability of choking again, but this was of no help. His fear was not driven by logic and so was unresponsive to logic. Directives to “just eat normally” were ineffective, as was their attempt to simply ignore his behavior. His struggles persisted for a couple of weeks, and as he began to lose weight, his worried parents sought professional help.
They consulted a psychologist who suggested viewing the swallowing difficulty from a symbolic rather than cause and effect perspective. Specifically, they were urged to explore what in his life might be hard for him to swallow. Discussions between the parents and their son revealed that a sports activity he had once enjoyed with his father no longer held the same interest for him. During the previous two years the sport had become a large part of his identity and a way to emotionally bond with his father. Helping him come to terms with his true feelings, and realize that he would still be loved and have other sources of connection with his father helped him to swallow this suppressed truth. Through this awareness and the experience of his parents’support, his eating and swallowing began to improve within a few days and returned to normal in another week.
In this example we see how the psyche utilized a choking episode–which it probably orchestrated–to accomplish two things: one, alert the child and parents to the presence of an unconscious conflict. And two, symbolize the basic struggle behind the problem: there was something in his life that he could not swallow (i.e., accept). Although a more mainstream approach to the symptoms might have involved the child in cognitive-behavioral therapy which would attempt to modify his thoughts about choking and gradually desensitize him to the feared activity, it would probably also have missed the deeper message and purpose behind his illness. He might have been “cured” of his symptoms, but not his unconscious emotional struggle. The latter would then have to find another means of expression.
In his book, Working with the Dreaming Body, Dr. Mindell shares the case of a female client whose chief complaint was that she had excess milk in her breasts. This rather gruff woman was not psychologically-minded and told him directly, “I don’t know anything about my feelings, and I don’t really care to.” However, because her physician had been unable to help her she reluctantly agreed to see Dr. Mindell. During the course of their interview two key pieces of information were gleaned: she “hated” her husband because he did not spend time with her, touch her, or caress her. Also, she had recently had a dream of being an abandoned child. Suspecting that she was projecting her own lack of self-love onto her husband, and that she had in fact been abandoning herself, Dr. Mindell urged her to be more warm and loving towards herself, to spoil herself even. His advice surprised but also intrigued her. When she later left his office she shared with him a spontaneous insight: “I know why I have too much milk, it’s because I’m not drinking it. I ought to be mothering myself more.”
Dr. Mindell reflects: “You see, this is how psychology came to this woman; it came through her body. Basically, she was a very intelligent woman. She had had a very hard life and had, in turn, become very hard on herself. She no longer had any natural feelings and as a result, her body produced milk to make her be a mother, to find the maternal instinct in herself and to soften up. She had not menstruated in a long time. This could have been because she still needed to remain a child in order to learn how to mother herself. I sent her to a very mothering psychologist. She had a wonderful effect on her. This woman with the milk in her breasts is in some ways a typical medical case whose symptoms were trying to motivate her to completely change her personality.”
Here, again, we see how body symptoms are used by the psyche as an instrument of communication and healing. Probably you have also experienced body symptoms without perceiving their connection to your emotional or psychological process. For example, the next time you have a sore throat, ask yourself if there is something you need to be saying to someone that you haven’t. Perhaps you are angry or hurt about something, but instead of expressing the feelings directly you suppress them. It is as if the feelings have become lodged in your throat and fester there. Or it may even be something that you are very happy or excited about, but you hold your excitement in, or don’t let it all out. Perhaps there is something you need to yell, scream, or sing about. Do it. Not only might you feel better physically, you will most likely feel better emotionally as well.
Along the same vein, we often catch a cold–the runny nose, watery and puffy eyes kind–when we need to cry about something. The next time you develop these symptoms, ask yourself what you need to cry about. Then let yourself cry, for as long as you need to. In this situation, an illness which simulates the effects of a good cry (runny nose and puffy eyes) communicates the characteristics of the underlying cure. This is not magic. It is simply the way that the body symbolizes to us emerging emotional and psychological processes. When the symptoms have served their purpose of bringing forth deepened psychological awareness, they often subside on their own and without medication. Such is the nature of your shaman body.
1. Mindell, Arnold. Dreambody: The Body’s Role in Revealing the Self, 2nd ed. Lao Tse Press: Portland, OR 1998.
2. Mindell, Arnold. The Shaman’s Body. Harper: San Francisco 1993.
3. Mindell, Arnold. Working with the Dreaming Body. Lao Tse Press: Portland, OR 2002.