The Rwandan Prescription

Some weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine (who happens to be a yoga teacher) shared a link entitled, “The Rwandan Prescription for Depression: Sun, Drum, Dance, Community.” Immediately after the genocide, Rwanda had been visited by a number of Western health workers, but their presence was by no means unequivocally beneficial. One Rwandan explained: “They would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms, and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”

Now the idea that expressing joy and enjoying companionship might be a remedy for sadness is one that children would easily grasp. In contrast, the adult, educated mind, might be reticent to settle for such a simple proposition. It would raise objections, such as, “It’s not quite that simple; it depends on the nature of the trauma,” and so on. But what if it was that simple? What if engaging in joyful activities that induce happy feelings and physical well-being, while being held and supported by close community, was enough to gradually draw people back up from the darkest depths of pain and grief? I will return to this suggestion. First though, another anecdote: a couple of weeks ago, I was in Saint Jean Pied de Port, a small French town in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, and for many, the starting point of the Camino de Santiago. There, I met a Danish girl who was just setting out on this path of pilgrims – sociable and talkative, she quickly confided in me that she was there while on sick leave. “I’m not right in my mind right now,” she explained without any probing on my part, “But I just need a break from the counseling. I need to be outdoors and moving around, meeting new people, with each day fresh and new and expecting the unexpected.” The Rwandans found their therapists were making them more miserable, and the Danish girl found her sessions were sapping her vitality. And in both cases, the “patients” had their own ideas of what would make them feel better.

Most people would agree that the physical body has an innate wisdom which it puts to good use in order to heal all manner of ailments and injuries. We don’t need to teach the body anything, and indeed, at best we can only assist it during the healing process. What if we also possessed an emotional body, an energy field within us, or perhaps a field in our consciousness, in which we experience and store all our thoughts and feelings? And what if, just like the physical body, the emotional body also had its own innate wisdom, allowing it to know just how to heal even the most profound grief? And what if, sometimes, the best we could do would be to not interfere, and allow it to tell us what is the best therapy for us?

If the model of an emotional body is a bit too esoteric for some, we could also consider the existence of an emotional system – but still with that built-in capacity to restore itself to health. Obviously the physical and emotional dimensions of human experience are inseparable and intimately linked, and indeed emotions can be both stored in the body and manifest as physical symptoms, at times even causing sickness, or, on the contrary, bringing about healing. But this would be a vast topic in itself. Nevertheless, the idea of an emotional body is not a new one. Daoism recognizes a physical body, an energy body, an emotional body, a mental body, and other more subtle bodies. And from the Upanishads, yoga philosophy draws the idea of koshas, or sheaths, layers of Being, one of which is the mental sheath comprising mind and emotions. But I digress.

No doubt from a therapist’s point of view, there is good sense in addressing some trauma while it is still fresh. Sabine Kuegler is a German writer who grew up in Western Papua with the Fayu people, among whom her parents, a linguist father and a nurse/midwife mother, had chosen to live. My memories of her compelling book, “Jungle Child,” have faded somewhat, but I remember her describing the grieving rituals of the Fayu tribe when they had lost loved ones. The mourner (or mourners) would retreat to huts some way away from the village, where they could be alone and vent their grief uninhibitedly – they could weep and wail, scream and shout, lie down and bang the floor with their fists, then fall asleep exhausted and undisturbed. Food and water were brought, and I believe they could receive visitors if they so chose. The idea behind this practice was to expel the greater part of the grief and get it out of their system by expressing it. This release of raw grief would last three days, after which the mourners would return to the village, in a much healed state of mind, if Kuegler’s memoir is to be believed.

But perhaps some trauma is just too great to be dealt with straight away. Perhaps people need time to be able to face even partial memories of the horrors they have experienced or witnessed. A splinter that has embedded itself deep into flesh will slowly work its way up to the surface again of its own accord. If it has sunk in deep, it cannot be rushed or forced without the aid of a sharp tool and an incision. What if some trauma is like such a sub-cutaneous splinter – it needs to emerge slowly, without our interference, and in its own perfect time?

I cannot take this analogy any further however, since once the tip of the splinter has emerged, the rest usually follows shortly afterwards. But in the case of deep trauma, if it all came out at once, perhaps the body-mind would be overwhelmed, leading to the person experiencing a crisis in some form or another. The sufferer might be simply unable to cope with more than they can process at any given time. There are parallels with physical conditions too – if a person in very poor health with lots of toxins stored in their tissues (we could also say “waste products” for those who object to the word toxins) suddenly embarks upon a fast, a great quantity of these can be released into the bloodstream and digestive tract, the person can experience very unpleasant symptoms or even become physically ill. The “quick fix” solution is not the answer, and the cleansing has to be done without system overload. Perhaps emotional pain is similar, it needs to emerge in stages, so that the person has time to integrate the healing, and is able to release the hurt.

Obviously, this is not to say that trauma is best left entirely alone, repressed, run away from, for it to fester in dark places. Sooner or later, in some form or another, it will need the light of awareness, and to be held in the heart in a space of forgiveness and healing. I myself am not qualified to assist people on such a journey. Nevertheless, having been introduced to meditation in my late teens, I am familiar with the practice of facing our fears and inner pain, and know from experience how important this is. I remain convinced, however, that it is possible to overdo this and be excessively zealous. Sometimes, focusing too much on a thing, a thought or a feeling, just makes it grow. There has to be a balance – sometimes you just need to take your mind off unpleasant matters and go out and kick a ball around in the park with your mates. Or out into the sunshine and dance to the drumbeat of your friends until you drop. With the proviso that the activity give us joy, and take us into a space of aliveness in the moment. Whatever it is we enjoy, though, being around others, our community, our people, helps a very great deal.

I should make it very clear that in this blog post I am in no way whatsoever making a case against therapy and counselling! I am not suggesting that they are in appropriate, inefficient or superfluous. I just enjoy the directness and simplicity of the innate wisdom which tells us what is good for us, what can remedy our dis-ease. Both therapy and counselling no doubt play a major part in healing, depending on the individual and the stage in their return journey to harmony and balance they are at. But, if I may, I would like to resort to one, final medical analogy, in my sharing of these few thoughts on healing trauma. One procedure for healing tendon inflammation is the use of ultra-sound. These waves are directed to the affected area for some minutes over a number of sessions, and have a significant effect on reducing the inflammation. Now what if, in a similar way, the vibration of joy, of joyful expression, of sharing and fellowship, of laughter and pleasure and spontaneous dancing, singing and so on, were to have a similar effect on emotional pain as that of ultra-sound on the cells of the body? Forgive me to getting esoteric once again, but what if the energy field of joy in a person’s body-mind actually modified the energy field of the pain? In short, what if joy was not so much a counter-balance to unhappiness, sadness and grief, as a genuine healer? Or, to return to our very first idea, what if the Rwandan prescription was, literally, the right one for depression or worse?

Possibly the best indicator of emotional healing is the return of at least some degree of inner peace. In other articles, I have read accounts of Rwandans who healed and regained their inner peace through forgiving the perpetrators of the atrocities they had suffered. Their extraordinary and inspiring tales, and the role of forgiveness in healing (not just forgiving other, but, on a more subtle level, forgiving the pain itself), are fascinating and uplifting topics, but again, too vast to go into here. So as I draw this post to a close, I would like to turn to one of my favourite teachers, Rupert Spira. If joy can assist emotional healing and the return of a sense of peace, peace, in turn, Rupert suggests, can “bubble over” and manifest as song, dancing, or laughter. His words spoke to me then and they speak to me now: “Joy is peace in action; and peace is joy at rest.”

May all beings find their peace, and attain the freedom to live in joy.


One thought to “The Rwandan Prescription”

  1. James, I have highly enjoyed the variety of subject matter which your blog delivers. This, though, is my favourite!
    Your writing has developed to beautiful heights, (you have always been a clever scribe), but this foray takes it, in my eyes, beyond earlier, also much enjoyed, ‘work’.
    I eagerly await all that follows…


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