“The hero’s journey always begins with the call. One way or another, a guide must come to say, ‘Look, you’re in Sleepy Land. Wake. Come on a trip. There is a whole aspect of your consciousness, your being, that’s not been touched. So you’re at home here? Well, there’s not enough of you there.’ And so it starts.
― Joseph Campbell
In the last century, the Indian sage Aurobindo wrote and spoke about the perfectibility of the human condition. He specifically referred to what he called the perfection of health. He was not referring to health as we define it in modern times—the absence of the signs and symptoms of physical disease. He was referring to health as a state of being rather than the state of our biology. He did not measure well-being by the fickle materiality of our body but by the character of our human experience. The perfection of health, he wrote, is something that each individual can aspire to and realize through personal effort. It develops when we commit ourselves to a well-defined and time-tested path of inner development that grows consciousness, wisdom, and heart.
Unfortunately, the beliefs and practices of modern medical science have taught us something quite different.
The human capacity for lifelong well-being was no mystery to wise women and men throughout time and across diverse cultures. In our Western tradition, the ancient Greeks called it eudaimonia, or human flourishing.
Lessons from the Past
If you lived in 500 BC and were ill or troubled, physically or emotionally, you would have journeyed to Cos, Epidaurus, Pergamum, or one of the many temples of the Greek god of healing, Aesclepius. For more than one thousand years, a holistic inner and outer medicine was practiced at these centers, which were located throughout Europe, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. During this period, as attested to by the great philosophers and healers of that time, temple medicine was the foremost source of healing.
Your decision to journey to the healing temple would not be made lightly; healing was a sacred process, a communion with self and the gods. After consulting friends and physician, you would prepare for your departure. During your journey of several days, you would meet others returning from their stay at the center. You would likely hear stories of miracle cures and personal transformations. With rising hope and expectation, you would finally arrive at the temple gates.
Upon your arrival, you would begin the process of purification by cleansing and fasting—a symbolic shedding of toxic attitudes and unhealthy habits of daily life. You were about to become part of a dynamic and diverse healing environment. After settling in to your dormitory, you would explore the temple grounds, enjoying the beautiful gardens and the graceful and serene statues of the great Greek sculptors Phidias and Praxiteles. Roaming minstrels would lift your spirit, and you would participate in lively philosophical dialogues, which would stimulate your intellect and challenge you to consider alternative perspectives to your current life situation.
You might attend dramatic performances, such as the tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides, or Sophocles—an ancient form of psychodrama—which portray the cycles and rhythms of human life. Or you might have a massage, participate in athletic competitions, or consult the temple priests regarding diet or the use of herbs or pharmaceuticals.
Each evening, dressed in your ceremonial white robes, you would gather with others in the sacred temple to leave offerings to the healing god Aesclepius, bidding him to visit you at night with a healing dream. In the morning, you or some other petitioner might awaken healed. Others might relate the content of their dreams to priests, who would assist with interpretation and provide further instruction regarding nutrition and the use of medicinals. Night after night, you would go inward to seek insight into the nature of your life. The ancient Greeks called this incubation. In our time, we more commonly use the term meditation.
Day after day, removed from the stress and pulls of daily life, focusing on diet, fitness, relaxation, and self-examination, you would experience a slow return of energy and vitality. Finally, the day would arrive when you felt a restored sense of wholeness, balance, and harmony. Immersed in activities of body, mind, and spirit, you would have begun the process of an integral health and healing, which over time leads to human flourishing and the perfection of health.
Upon your departure, if you had the financial resources, you would likely leave a testimonial etched in stone for others to read. Here is one written in 360 BC:
“Believe me, men, I have been dead all the years I have been alive. The beautiful, the good, the holy, the evil were all the same to me; such it seems was the darkness that formerly enveloped my understanding and concealed and hid from me all these things. But now that I have come here, I have become alive, as if I had lain down in the temple of Aesclepius and been saved. I walk, I talk, I think. The sun, so great, so beautiful. I have now discovered men, for the first time: now I see the clear sky, you, the air, the acropolis, the theater.”
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine this multidimensional inner and outer approach to healing body, mind, and spirit. Imagine yourself separated from your day-to-day life, roaming around the healing temple, participating in its activities, and going inward for guidance each evening. This was the experience of a medicine aimed at human flourishing. It existed in a culture that had access to and valued both the inner and outer aspects of life and that understood the nature of a profound health and well-being.
Ancient Wisdom and the Perfection of Health
by Elliott Dacher, MD