Sunday 16 January 2011

Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.

In the UK, many older hospitals were built on the sites of workhouses.(For further information Google 'hospital workhouse')

As late as 1984 I worked in a ‘mental health unit’ that still had one elderly woman who’d been born into that institution when it was a workhouse. The destruction of her entire being was pitiful, not helped by crazed attempts to find some personality with the help of ECT.

If we have any concept of Spirit of Place, then perhaps some of the misery experienced by destitute and despised people, separated from their spouse, parents and children has seeped into bricks, floors and window frames, becoming as much a part of the fabric of these old institutions as the mortar that holds them together.

Hospitals, new and old, are liminal sites, one of the places we go to when we’re not capable of living as part of the Apparent world. Hospitals and religious institutions are surprisingly close in function attended by a priesthood attempting to cure illnesses caused by our sins, whether that’s blasphemy, gluttony or smoking so that we can return to our communities renewed.

Regular readers will know that I resist and contest any nonsense about Communing With The Spirits ™, ‘Healing’, Bringing Into The Light and other dreadful bollocks. Grave upset, often centuries of it, cannot be ‘healed’ by someone warbling breathily with a rattle or by planting crystals. I do wonder, however, about the land under the foundations, the foundations themselves, the accumulated experience – not all of it painful – of the hospital environment. In some of the older hospitals I’ve visited the natural places, places where gardeners spend time, are comfortable and often very pleasant to spend time with. Gardening has been used for centuries as rehabilitation, particularly for people with chronic conditions, and it would seem that these little precious spaces are glad to be tended, will give themselves in return.

One of the hospitals I worked in was set in acres of impeccable grounds, from a commercial golf course to minute atria, duck ponds to wilderness and there’s no doubt that this very old site can absorb suffering and genuinely offer healing to patients, visitors and staff. Simply walking from one unit to another via natural surroundings that are valued and sympathetically tended is more restful than marching down neon-lit corridors or hemmed in alleys lined with dodgy refuse skips and drains. It also demonstrates that the people responsible for the hospital also value things that others might consider peripheral to medicine, like aesthetics, nature, colour and environment.

Personally, I’ve always experienced older hospitals as more accepting, more en-souled than new builds. New hospitals are undoubtedly better designed, probably cleaner, possibly easier to get around but they’re a bit too sterile for my taste, a bit youthful and brash. It’s as if the fabric of an older institution has seen so much kindness and cruelty, pain and healing, care, death, birth, emergency and tedium; has soaked up centuries of therapeutic intent that it has settled down into a kind of positive melancholy. They remind me of landscapes that have been lived with and farmed sympathetically for centuries, interaction between us and the Land creating a new Being that is neither wilderness or slave monoculture, but which has a personality and rhythm of its own.

Just as we can pay attention to the Spirit of Place in woodland or wheat field, so there is something to be learned from the Spirit of Place of a hospital, old or new, and there’re different ways to be present to it. Walking through the corridors at night gives a sense of presence. In all traditions, sleep and dreaming are important for health and for hearing the Gods; the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used dream temples as a kind of hospital

All these people, perhaps hundred of them, dreaming together, entering the Otherworlds together. Those few souls unable to sleep. Still rooms, empty operating theatres, the building breathing out and resting. This is the time to hear the voice of the Genius Loci, the protective spirit of place and to the voices of people, events, history. You don’t need holy water or smudge sticks or to Command Restless Souls or to do anything other than be aware and receptive. Just as you would when wanting to hear the voice of any place, make clear your intent, set your boundaries, make the invitation to all benevolent Beings, and wait.

Later in the day sit quietly in one of the hospital entrances. You are a liminal person sitting within a liminal space, inside of another liminal place. Watch people come and go, people who belong and don’t belong, who don’t want to be there and who are very grateful to come in and to leave. Doorways are sacred to Janus who also rules over beginnings and endings, and to Cardea who is also a Goddess of health. “Her power is to open what is shut; to shut what is open," (Ovid) attributes that have applications in healing. Hecate, too stands in these places, She who cares for women in labour and children being born, the dying and the dead, places that are neither one thing or another which may also include people under anaesthetic or heavily sedated, and Who guards those who ask for Her protection.

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