The Wounded Healer

I went to Gabor Maté’s Compassionate Inquiry workshop in Edmonton last month. It touched me in many ways. Perhaps the biggest hit was experiencing Gabor's personal transparency—more transparency than I've witnessed in any other high-level teacher.

You may already be familiar with the way he shares about his childhood trauma and the addictive patterns that resulted in adulthood. (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts chronicles this beautifully.) He shared some of those experiences at the workshop and in doing so transmitted that we’re in this together. It was like opening a door for everyone in the room who has experienced shame for their own addictive patterns—a possibility to come out from hiding. He showed us how it’s done. 

Gabor also let us in on his triggers in the instant he was experiencing them. The workshop was held in a dark theatre without any windows and he couldn't see the audience very well. He told us how it made him feel very uncomfortable and provoked a strong internal flight response. He did not wish to ignore his own reaction and pretend that he was feeling fine, so he shared it with us. Later, after lots of interaction with participants, he vocalized the shift he felt about the venue once a sense of connection had been built between people in the room. A part of Gabor's message is about how trauma can force us to override our gut reactions to stay safe. By naming our physical and emotional experience we honour ourselves and stay authentic.

Another layer to Gabor's transparency is his relationship to personal change. He talked about how after years of saying “I’m not a yoga person” he decided last year to give it a try and has since taken up a significant daily yoga practice, at age 72. He poked fun at himself about this but the sense of lightness and pleasure shone through. A willingness to change your mind goes hand in hand with transparency.

Most remarkable was the way Gabor faced a challenge from a participant in the room who said, “I felt like you were cornering her” after Gabor had demonstrated the method of Compassionate Inquiry with a volunteer from the audience. He invited the questioner into a gentle examination of her question. “Is cornering familiar from elsewhere in your life?” (She said yes, it was.) Then he polled the audience on their various perceptions (most did not perceive the cornering). He asked the original volunteer for her experience of the exchange (she did not perceive herself as cornered). The tension in the room softened as the range of perceptions was revealed, and “right and wrong” faded. Then lastly, fully undefended, Gabor acknowledged that cornering people has in fact been one of his behaviour habits. I can still feel the transmission of that moment. He dropped an integrity bomb into the theatre. And integrity naturally precipitates trust. It was a complex and subtle exchange that he did not over-simplify and he did not shy away from. 

Gabor's transparency seems to arise out of a tremendous self-compassion. I am so grateful for the Life forces, teachers, family, patients, and hard work that has guided him to such self-compassion. Imagine a world full of people who are willing to be open, accountable, and vulnerable about our shadows, and at the same time, self-loving, self-respecting, self-forgiving. That is a world in which our need for illegitimate and unhealthy ways of gaining and holding power would be drastically reduced—a world flooded with connection and Love.

I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to project my father-need onto my (male) teachers. I lean on them internally and take solace and comfort in the purity of their presence. But this is a set up because over time, as I see more of their humanness and areas of lack, I have felt let down, rejected them, and gone out looking for someone who is…what? A saint, I suppose.

A teacher who freely shows his or her woundedness, and shortcomings, changes the power relations. If everything is on the table, then that prompts me to hold my centre. I have to stay responsible for what happens here because we are both adults, we are both flawed, and we need each other. Transparency, especially when it is self-respecting, does not in any way diminish the expertise of the teacher.

A handful of times over the years my clients have called me on my shit, or as Gabor would say—the ways I am being inauthentic. Like the time a man in a program I was teaching asked, “Why don’t you use your voice? I see you holding back all the time. You have more power than you think.” Luckily, I had just enough good sense to acknowledge the accuracy of what he was seeing, and I opened up. On these occasions, even though I was a correctional officer and therefore operating within a particular structural authority, it was never a boundary violation, it never undermined my authority. On the contrary, it deepened our mutual respect and allowed a true healing exchange to happen.

Gabor is modelling a way forward for the rest of us. As I watch him leading from woundedness, I notice that I am trusting myself more. I absolutely have to continue my own healing work, but I don’t have to stop leading simply because I’m still addicted and wounded and triggered by life. I don't have to be “fixed” to offer my gifts. I just need to start owning it all more.

That insight is a core principle of The Base. The wounded are healers and the healers (physicians, psychotherapists, nurses, correctional officers, probation officers, and others, will finally admit that we) are wounded. May it be so.