A Lesson from Ancient Greece
“We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the story of our lives to someone we trust.”
This quote by Bill George of Harvard Business School in Daniel Goleman’s book, Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence, goes to the heart of all counseling—to offer a safe space for the client to share his or her unique story, skillfully guided by the practitioner toward self-awareness and awakening.
The truth is stark—we don’t see or hear ourselves as others do. The very act of speaking the story of our lives within the therapeutic context can bring about an alchemical change which promotes healing and wellness. Time and again such consultations or sessions allow people’s lives to move forward – a better job, a healed relationship, a sense of renewed direction. How does this work? Why does speaking the story of our lives transform us?
A Legendary Healer
Let’s explore the Greek myth of the legendary healer and soothsayer, Melampus of Pylos, who was known to understand the language of animals. This myth can help us understand how the healing process works. One of the stories told is how he brought a king’s son back to health.
The king’s son was sick and no one knew why. Melampus was asked to find the cause of the illness so he slaughtered an ox and left the best pieces for the vultures and then listened carefully as they talked after gorging themselves: “I haven’t had a feast like this since the king last sacrificed to the gods! Do you remember how his little son was so frightened when he saw his father with a bloody knife in his hand? He started screaming and the king threw the threatening knife into a tree and ran to embrace him. The knife injured the tree spirit so she put a curse on the boy. He has been sick ever since!”
“Yes, look, the tree has grown over the rusty blade. If the king knew what we knew, he would pull the blade out of the tree and make a potion from the bark. His son would be healed if he drunk this rusty brew.” Melampus did as the birds said and thereby healed the prince.
The Healing Process
This myth emphasizes the notion of cause and effect, the karmic cycle that is set in motion by the king’s passionate action. In trying to protect his son, the king inadvertently harms a dryad, who in turn harms his son. This cycle is comparable to those who are suffering from low self-esteem bequeathed to them by an intolerant or abusive parent or individual. They can’t remember directly how they were damaged yet they’re still carrying the wound in the form of outdated and self-sabotaging behaviors – and in turn afflicting their own loved ones and perpetuating the cycle. How fascinating that the king’s intentions were good but ended up doing harm!
Secondly, the very act of listening attentively to the language of the animals reveals both the cause of the problem (why the son became ill) and the solution (how to make him well) to Melampus. Do we listen as attentively to the intuitive language of our body? Do we heed the wisdom of our primal self? Are the causes of our dis-ease (our work, relationship and health concerns) and their solutions closer than we realize?
Thirdly, the alchemy of transformation is pivotal in this tale. The blade has turned rusty over time in the injured tree, yet this affected part of the tree bark is the very part needed to make the brew to cure the king’s son. Over time, old mistakes, regrets and past traumas become enclosed in our hearts like the blade overgrown by bark. When we remove the blade through sharing our story, we can use our accumulated experience (the rust) together with understanding (the water element of the brew) to allow healing to take place. How fascinating that the perpetrator (the knife), the wounded (the tree), and the healer (the brew) have fused into a single entity!
We only can hear the hidden language of our hearts when we are in the presence of a trustworthy listener. The simple act of sharing our story within the therapeutic context can be powerfully awakening and healing.