Recently, I experienced something that distu disturbing things I’ve ever experienced was a group ‘spiritual healing’ session that was facilitated by an apparently ‘frum’ person.
I thought I was going to a demo of psychodrama, which is where a traumatized person asks different people to pretend to be their mum and dad, and then re-enacts certain scenarios with these ‘stand-ins’ where they get to speak up, run away, have a voice etc, often for the first time in their lives.
Bessel Van Der Kolk writes about how useful psychodrama can be for adult trauma victims who experienced very painful childhoods, so I wanted to go and hear about this approach first-hand.
That’s what I thought I was going to.
What I actually went to was something way different, and I want to share my experience with you, as I think it sums up how confusing, cloudy and even sinister things can be in the Jewish alternative health world.
I got there a couple of minutes late, when the ‘volunteer’ had already been picked, and people were sitting down in a circle, waiting for the action to begin. The facilitator asked the volunteer to pick stand-ins, who would represent different family members, and to arrange them in the middle of the circle. So far so good.
Then, the facilitator asked each of the ‘actors’ in turn about how they felt about one another, and of course, they all really loved each other, and everything was just fine and dandy.
In fact, things were so fine and dandy that it started to seem a bit pointless to me – I mean, a group of amateur actors aren’t exactly going to start revealing where all the family’s skeletons are buried, a) because they don’t actually know and b) because we all like a happy ending.
But then, as more people were picked to represent different, additional family members, something very weird started to happen.
One of the actors suddenly started to sob uncontrollably. Another one – a beautiful young girl – underwent a character transformation, that took her from being her sweet, innocent, optimistic self to a very cold, bitter and angry older woman.
It could be there were other things happening too, but because the change in the younger woman was so dramatic, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Long story short, the original volunteer, who’s family life history was now playing out in full colour in front of about 25 other people, was asked to join the tableau, and to start having conversations with all her ‘ancestors’.
It was clearly a very emotionally-charged event and tears were flowing freely.
But here’s the thing: As I was sitting there watching all this, I suddenly started picking up some very strong ‘feelings’ about the personalities of the ‘characters’ in front of me – and that’s when I started to freak out, because while I’m very good at reading people’s characters when they’re enclothed in a physical body and actually talking to me, I’ve never being able to read the character of some person who died a few decades’ ago, and who I’ve never met.
Afterwards, I was told that at least one of the participants also couldn’t describe what had just occurred, and said that the words she found herself saying were not really coming from her.
There were some powerful, powerful spiritual forces being unleashed in that room – and here’s where things get serious, because IF those powerful spiritual forces are mandated and accepted by orthodox Judaism, well, OK then.
But if they aren’t – then they weren’t coming from a good place. Now, I came late. It could be a prayer was said before I got there, or God was somehow involved by the facilitator in a way that wasn’t at all clear to me, I don’t know. But God wasn’t mentioned at all the whole time I was watching this, not even at the end when the facilitator told the volunteer that she’d just ‘fixed’ all her ancestral hurt and issues.
Really, you can have a group of people act like your long-dead family, and that ‘fixes’ the problem, spiritually?
Is that a Jewish idea? What about free choice? What about the idea that spiritual tikunnim actually require a lot of effort, a lot of change, and some truly difficult inner work?
I’m not ‘anti’ spiritual short-cuts if they’re coming from a good place, and they work. But this demonstration bothered me on a number of levels. As someone who’s worked very hard on trying to fix a whole bunch of stuff, I know how hard big tikunim can be sometimes – literally, you can spend years working on things and see very little movement.
So the apparent ‘ease’ of the process was problematic to me, as God very rarely works that way. The ‘other-world’ aspects of this process were also very disturbing to me, as I felt on many levels that in some way, the participants were being ‘possessed’ by spiritual forces that were external to them, and I just can’t see how that can be good, or kosher.
I felt terrible for the poor volunteer.
For all the facilitator was congratulating her on ‘fixing’ all her past and family issues, and telling her how wonderful she was going to feel now, if it was me who’d walked right into that very public display of my family’s dirty washing – in front of so many different people – that would be enough to give me a serious case of trauma, all by itself.
And lastly, I felt really bad about the actors. I mean, no-one asked them, or warned them, that they might have some sort of disembodied spirit taking them over for an hour. These things are serious, spiritually-speaking, and we can’t just mess around with them at a whim, or deal with them superficially, or follow the mores of different religions or different ‘experts’ as to what’s really going on and what long-term damage it might do – because they don’t know!
I came out of that ‘healing experience’ extremely confused and disturbed. I came home, told my daughter what I’d just seen, and she involuntarily shuddered and said:
‘Uggh, that sounds a bit like avoda zara to me,’ holy soul that she is.
After thinking about it a lot, and praying about it, and asking God for some clarity and guidance, I think she’s right.
Yes, Western medicine is corrupt, and drugs and surgery literally kill as much as they cure. Yes, a lot of the more alternative, natural treatments are much closer to the Torah ideal of how we should treat mental and physical illness – but not all of them.
As the alternative movement gathers steam in the world generally, and in the Jewish world more specifically, all of us need to really be on guard to check, double-check and check again that the treatments and therapies we’re engaging in really ARE kosher.
Just because someone looks frum, doesn’t mean things are being done in a genuinely frum way.
There’s a huge amount of clarification that’s required, as we inch forward into this more spiritual way of being before Moshiach. So don’t be scared to ask hard questions, to insist on being shown how God is being included in things, and which rabbis have mandated the approach or practices you’re being offered, and lastly, don’t be scared to stand up and walk away, if you have to.
That’s not always easy, but when you’re dealing with matters where the stakes are just so high, sometimes you simply have no other choice.
Two years later, I happened to bump into the ‘volunteer’ by the grave of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess In Tiveria. I asked her if she thought the ‘family constellation’ experience had helped her at all, to resolve the issues she’d been experienced. She replied that it hadn’t changed a thing. So, caveat emptor.