“Health Narratives and Healing” published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Intima by Emmanuelle Descours describes the relational and co-constructive architecture of her own health narrative: a car wreck which resulted in a life-changing period of multiple surgeries, procedures, and conditions. Health narratives embrace and convey the qualitative and reflective elements inherent within an illness experience by utilizing the principles of storytelling. By being placed into the framework of a story, an illness narrative can be told with imagination, plot, imagery, metaphor, and convey even some of the most subtle, hidden, and often contradictory, ideas that can surround and color an illness.
In my piece, published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Intima titled “Narrative Mindfulness”, I too discuss the important role storytelling plays in healing both mind and body when faced with a life-threatening illness. However, my piece is in regards to the listener of the health narrative (i.e. the doctor) who stands before the patient storyteller and how that listener my engage in what I call narrative mindfulness: the act of listening to a patient’s illness narrative with a mindful (i.e. nonjudgmental, receptive, attentive, and unknowing) ear. When I contemplate the relationship between my piece and Emmanuelle Descours’ I can’t help but recognize the two essential pillars upon which a healthy, ethical, personal, and effective clinical encounter may occur: 1) the act of telling and 2) the act of listening.
Both the illness narrative telling and the illness narrative listening are verbal, flowing, and active elements that catalyze the clinical encounter. These practices transform what was once intra-relational (i.e. one’s silent relationship to one’s own ideas and thoughts, whether that be the thought the patient has in regard to their own illness or the thoughts the caregiver has in regard to the patient’s illness) into what can be considered inter-relational. Healing is based upon that which occurs inter-relationally. It is a process dependent upon what is written, what is spoken, what is expressed, and what is recognized.
Emmanuelle tells the story of a car accident that changed her mind, body, and life forever. Her story of painful recovery, hope, and acceptance speaks directly to our human condition that is both fragile and resilient all at the same time. How can we as caregivers come prepared to offer the space and recognition that such a story asks for?
Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th century Turkish poet once wrote: “...Listen. Keep silent. You are not God's mouthpiece. Try to be an ear, And if you do speak, ask for explanations.”
I think this may provide us with a hint to how one may take part in the practice of listening to an illness narrative. Being silent can help recognize one’s own and each other’s experiences as stories. And when we talk, speak with interest, compassion, and a willingness to not fully understand, because it is this oratory medicine in which healing can take place.
Charles Ethan Paccione has always been interested in the strong bidirectional communication between the mind and the body. He performed contemplative neuroscience research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he took part in studies using meditation to express cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes in toddlers. In New York he developed the Contemplative Therapy for Cancer Care program for cancer patients suffering from anxiety and depression at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He has published several articles in various neuroscience journals and in April of 2013 gave a TEDx Talk titled Mindful Medicine about his research and work with patients. Paccione, M.S., Narrative Medicine, Columbia University, is studying for his second Masters Degree in the Spirituality Mind-Body Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University ́s Teachers College.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine