Asklepia Foundation
"Journey to the Healing Heart of Your Dreams"


From Ancient Dream Healing Temples to Wilderness Dream Retreat

An Interview with Graywolf Swinney by Patrick Welch

Patrick:  In his book Healing and Wholeness, John Sanford talks about the healing tradition that revolved around dreams in ancient Greece.  I'm wondering what is your healing sanctuary Aesculapia's relationship to the ancient Greek temples?

Graywolf:  One of our main focuses is on actualizing the healing powers within dreams and other visionary consciousness states, which was also the focus at the Asklepian temples in ancient Greece.  In fact, dream healing by the god Asklepios was the apex of Greek healing practice and was highly sought.

Asklepios is the living reality of the important central experience in healing, the meaning in the state of the illness as well as cure for its symptoms.  The Greeks understood disease as being both sent and healed by the creative spiritual force.  Illness contain in itself the instinctive pattern and its inhibition, or the cause and the cure.  The patient too is a healer, who embodies the divine physician.

It is well known that Asklepios was concerned with the whole individual, body and mind, body and soul, or in more scientific language of medicine, soma, and psyche.  The highest value was given to dreams both then and now, listening without interpreting for the subtle voice of divine reality.  Respectful appreciation reveals the wisdom that lives within the dream images and also our symptoms.

There are many other parallels.  Inadvertently we've duplicated many contemporary practices and forms similar to the traditional Asklepian ones.  For example, there is the pilgrimage, the effort required to even get here; contemporary Aesculapia is located about as far from any major city as you can get and it's quite a pilgrimage.  Getting to an ancient Aesculapian dream temple was also a pilgrimage; they were also far from cities and deep in the mountains.  Pilgrimage is a necessary first step in the healing, in ancient times and now.

PW:  Why is it important?

GW:  Committing energy and resources to healing is important because the outcome of healing is proportional to the personal energy put into it and a pilgrimage is a strong personal display of commitment and intention.  This is an important state of mind or attitude for initiating and lubricating a healing process.  It is a logical time to take for self-examination, a personal inventory before arrival at the sanctuary.  It has been said that "the unexamined life is not worth living."  The motto over Plato's Academy was "Know Thyself."  This is actually an experiential, evolutionary process.

In a spiritual journey we move from our old location or attitude in the beginning to an entirely new psychological place.  But often the pilgrimage in search of healing, which alone can lead to wholeness, must involve literal physical effort as well.  The so-called Hero's Quest always begins by setting out on an adventure or journey.  It means you not only possess faith, but exercise it in a positive direction.

The ancient healing temples were also refuges or sanctuaries where the seeker could devote all of their energy to their dreams and healing without worry about the outer world.  We foster that same sense of sanctuary here.  That's important because healing is an act of trust, and being in sanctuary is being in a state of trust.  Healing involves pushing past old boundaries and negating old confining belief systems and that too is best done in trust and safety.  Disease is a state of deep inner fear and pain; it is easier to face fears and pain from a base of safety.

PW:  The natural wooded setting is a lot different from an hour slot in an office in a city.

GW:  Yes and that too is important in our healing model.  To live and survive in the civilized world requires a well structured, strong ego and intellect just to deal with its technological and economic complexity and its threats to our sense of self.  But the ego in defending itself often feels and acts directly opposite to our deeper wisdom.  In a word we go against ourselves, a case of ego vs. higher self.

This creates a state of tension or disease which eventually manifests throughout our whole organism as mental and physical disease which assumes the shape of the inner conflict.  For example, most of us have deep and basic fear and unease over how we're messing up our planet's ecosystems.  We may or may not be aware of it--that depends on our vested interests and whether or not we identify as environmentalists--but it's there.  Yet in our daily battle to survive we burn fossil fuel driving to work in automobiles that deplete resources and generate pollution, and support hundreds of other activities daily that similarly degenerate the eco-system.

This deeply distresses us, puts us out of ease with ourselves; we are torn in opposite directions, often unconsciously.  It may be our of our awareness, but we are distressed by it.  Most degenerative diseases reflect this state of distress; and degenerative is certainly a word that also characterizes what is happening in the ecosystem.

For example cancer is both a symbol and a physical manifestation of our existential conflict.  We describe cancer as living cells in a state of uncontrollable growth destroying their host organism.  This is a perfect metaphor for our relationship as a species to the ecosystem.  Aerial photographs of cities bear a remarkable likeness to photographs of microscope slides of cancer cells.  The outer disease assumes the shape of the inner state of dis-ease.

Nature and wilderness, however, invite flow and merging of the spirit and soul with the ego.  Traditional shamanic journeys are for healing and retrieval of the 'lost soul.'  The same can be said of Dream Journeys.  Nature's threats are not to the ego or sense of self alone, but to the entire organism and require instinctual or intuitive responses involving the whole organism.  This allows the ego self and the deeper instinctual self to cooperate in a dynamic balance that fosters ease.

That ease and the beauty and serenity of wilderness take us back to our grounding, founding state.  Nothing brings our soul and ego-mind so much into harmonic balance as the warbling of wild song birds blended with the babbling of the creek.  Untainted nature or wilderness is possibly one of the least realized yet most valuable healing resources we have.

PW:  What are some of the other synchronicities or parallels?

GW:  Water.  Asklepian dream healing temples were located on or near springs; and in an otherwise very dry area we have several springs.  In fact one of the houses at Aesculapia is built directly over a spring.  Another is my former wife Jeannie's maiden name, Jeannie Kline.  In some version of the myth, Asklepios' wife was named Hygieia and, in the temples, the couches that the people dreamed on were called klines.  Hygieia was said to heal with her hands.

Another was the dream I had the first night I slept here, a vivid dream of a snake in a dream was a sign that Asklepios had visited in the dream.  Animals associated with the healing god and dream temples were the snake, dog, and wolf.  In Greece, the serpent ruled the valleys and the dog reigned above on the mountains.  While in Rome, the impression was rather one of the underworld darkness of the wolf, who guards the borderland realm between earth and the underworld, between life and death.  It guides in either direction in the transitional situation.

PW:  And of course, the snake wrapped around the staff is the symbol of Asklepios.  Are there similarities between the healing practices in the myth and your work at Aesculapia?

GW:  Yes.  The priests did not interpret dreams; they believed that Asklepios healing with the dream and I had reached the point in my dream work where I was by-passing surface dynamics and leading people shamanically into deeper levels of experience in the dream which was producing some remarkable healings.  How that had come about was that one my most powerful psychotherapy tools was Gestalt dream therapy.  Gestalt is experiential rather than interpretive like most contemporary dream therapies.

Each symbol represents a different part of the self or ego.  Many ego parts exist in states of conflict or dis-ease with one another and by experiencing or "becoming" the symbols in the dream--exploring the relationships among them -- one eventually can resolve or move beyond the rifts to a "gestalt" or inner merging, unifying the conflicting parts into a state of wholeness or integrity.  This is a very healing experience for the ego.

Occasionally in doing Gestalt dream work, we would slip past the experience of the symbol into some deeper state of consciousness within the dream.  These slips were confusing initially, and didn't compute with any of my training or experience, but they were intriguing and remained a mystery in my memory.

My explorations of shamanism were also leading me to dreams.  Shamanic cultures recognize the special call of certain people to function as healers, but each individual has a certain calling from the spirit world.  Shamans emerge from their own initiatory healing crises through creative spiritual rebirth; they can guide others through this natural self healing process, often through dreams and dreamlike states.  Sometimes illness comes to the shaman not once but many times, each instance being the call to a further step in consciousness.

The profession has always been open to both sexes, because it is a response to the a calling or vocation by the spirits.  Healing contains an inherent feminine element.  The calling can come through unusually vivid dreams or even symptoms of mental derangement.  However, the crucial call almost always comes through an initiatory illness in which the person is exposed to the spirit world, an intense psychophysical crisis.  These bring sensory images of dismemberment and death, grievous illness, lost consciousness, near-death experiences of frightening and painful nature.  The restoration was a creative renewal, and underlying mystery of illness and health.  He or she could help others find healing because he or she had been ill and recovered and had touched the divine.

The shamans had the job of finding the patient's soul and rejoining it with his body.  With the experiential Gestalt dream work memories, I was prompted to forage deeper into dreams and to try guiding the experience through and beyond the symbols and surface features, into and through their pains and fears.  We ventured deeper and deeper into the "underworld," into the "land of the dead."

Even the mythology of Asklepios is essentially shamanic.  He was "snatched from death," journeyed to the very jaws of death, indeed into the underworld itself, and then returned.  This initiated him into the mysteries of illness and death, healing and life, through firsthand knowledge.  The source of healing energy shares a common source with illness and death.  Illness is not only a shattering, but also a numinous experience with the strength of the divine behind it.

This "Wounded Healer" archetype shows the mysterious connection between illness and health.  The healing power flows often through those who have drawn near the dark land of death, and have found creative healing.  Only through yielding to the flow, through illness or a journey to the underworld can the Wounded Healer come alive in a human being, or become embodied.

The alchemists called this state the solutio, the operation of water, the universal solvent..  Water was the central element of the Asklepian cult.  Everything is dissolved, but in this state of dissolution, which is certainly experienced in a painful way, a new personality develops, a personality formed from within, from the deepest inner Center.  The end result of such an illness is a creative cure.  That is, the person recovers from illness in such a way that he or she becomes a far more conscious and realized person than before, living a life of consciousness and spiritual embodiment.  The ultimate source of healing lies beyond human personalities, as the Asklepians tell us, in a divine source.  The psychophysical self is a self-healing whole which can renew itself under certain conditions of unboundness and flow.

I soon learned that the symbols were actually doorways into profound states of consciousness: very healing states of consciousness.  The real power of process work lies in fully entering the living stream of consciousness, the shared virtuality of co-consciousness, immersion in that flow state.  There were apparently very powerful energies or forces within dreams and just getting to them and experiencing them in waking dream journeys led to profound healings.  What really amazed me was that they seemed to also have effects on somatic levels, physical as well as mental restucturing.  So reading in Sanford about this aspect of the ancient Asklepian dream healing practice confirmed my own growing experiences with dream healing.

PW:  Please continues with the lore of the ancient dream healing temples.

GW:  After pilgrimage, the next step was confession.  The Asklepians believed that you couldn't be healed or visited by the god Asklepios until you were right and at ease with your own soul.  We parallel that practice too, although our confessional is more a case of exploring the state of disease at many levels and from many perspectives.  It usually ends up looking more like psychotherapy -- in that physical and emotional diseases reflect or manifest inner states of dis-ease between ego-personal self and the deeper soul-self.  Identifying these states is the purpose of our psychotherapy.  Like confessional, it's a process of becoming more aware of and intimately acquainted with the disease and one's relationship to it on a very intimate level.

PW:  It's being honest with one's self.

GW:  Yes, and taking personal responsibility in these sense of recognizing one's ability to respond.

PW:  How does the role of a guide relate to the Dream Priest who oversaw the ancient Greek and Roman Aesculapian temples?

GW:  A guide helps you make a trip through unfamiliar territory.  They help you prepare for the trip and guide you to the best routes but they don't make it for you; they just provide guidance.  A friend of mine spells it: Gee - you - I - Dance, and that's how I see my role: a dance in which I lead people on journeys deep into the unfamiliar terrain of the self and to the balancing states of consciousness that ease or heal them.  And that is what I think the dream priests did.

The word priest had different connotations to the Greeks than to us.  The role of the Asklepian priest was to prepare and guide the seekers to meet the healing god in the dream but they didn't claim to speak for or interpret the god.  They facilitated or guided one to experience one's own personal encounter.

The purification is a creative process that takes whatever form is appropriate for the individual.  Incidentally, purification and confession imply relieving one's self of sin, but sin is really just a case of missing the mark.

PW:  In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell mentioned how the confessional is always what you did wrong and he would like to have had it what you did right.  In a way when you say that sin is just missing the mark, it takes the edge off the blame.

GW:  Exactly.  Sin was an old English archery term simply meaning that one had missed the mark on the target.  If you missed, you had sinned.  So if you sin, I think you pull our another arrow and shoot again.

Another parallel between ancient and contemporary Asklepia is the offering.

PW: Which is a ceremony?

GW:  Ceremonial offering invokes a deeper and more personal commitment.  No matter what form of ceremony, the seeker at some point is asked to offer something of themselves to help induce a healing dream.  It is another personal energy commitment to healing, like the pilgrimage.  For example, one might offer to devote time every day to working to alleviate the homeless' plight, or commit to picking up three pieces of litter every day, or offer some form of community service.  The offering is committing to give some form of service beyond one's self for the collective good.

PW:  Why is the offering so important?

GW:  Well, several reasons.  In line with what I mentioned earlier, it places value on the healing; it helps satisfy or ease the soul-ego conflicts; and following through on the offering puts ongoing energy into the healing process to prevent the dis-ease creeping back.  Healing is a mindful journey and so you have to help the mind to prepare and execute it.  The offering helps invoke that state of mind.  In ancient Greece contributions to the operating expenses of the sanctuaries was considered essential for preventing relapse.  It simply makes the same services available for the next person who needs them.

PW:  What do you mean by a "mindful journey?"

GW:  It is a journey to our ultimate creative state of mind which is the source of our dreams and imagination.  If you are so minded, you might even consider this state to be "The Creator" or "God force" within.  Healing then becomes an epiphany.  I believe that healing is an act of creation and that part of us, our creative spirit or the god within, speaks most vividly through dreams and imagination.  A dream is a mystical expression of imagination and creative mind which is what ritual and ceremony helps invoke.  There's safety in ritual and ceremony, security in it.  It's a symbolic act of commitment to an inner faith.

PW:  So is that why it's important?

GW:  Yes, and in the sense that it boggles the mind or intellect, it's a way of opening to a state of grace or faith, and these are integral aspects of mystical healing.  Ceremony reminds you of something you already have within you, but don't usually notice; it brings it to surface awareness.

PW:  These rituals work because they boggle the mind?

GW:  Yes, they are not rational but appeal to the senses; they create a positive expectation, a pregnant atmosphere.  They take us outside of our usual ego experiences and beyond the expertise of the rational or intellectual ego mind.  This is where you find these healing states of consciousness: beyond the rational ego mind into the mystic.

PW:  The ego mind?

GW:  The ego mind is formed from the sum accumulation of our life's experiences and our reactions to them.  It sets the limits or boundaries of our usual thinking, feeling, and behaving patterns.  Based on our experiences, at deep levels of mind we form multi-sensory images of self and world; images that capture their essence and shape our belief systems which in turn shape our ego and personality.  Not only do these primal sensory energy images and beliefs limit us, but they also contain the "psychic" distortions which form the nuclei of our dis-eases.  This structure is what I mean by ego mind.  It is limited but what lies beyond is infinite mind or consciousness and that is our source of energy for re-imaging ourselves and healing.

New or unfamiliar experiences, irrational ones like ancient dream incubation and ritual that don't compute or match with one's normal experiences cause confusion and disorientation in the ego mind--can even turn it off.  In fact most of the techniques I use in dream guiding are based on fooling the mind.  The ego structure gets shaky, not so much in control, more vulnerable and open, particularly if the environment is safe and supportive.  That's when the deep wisdom, the collective infinite consciousness tapped into through dreams and visions, helps transform the old beliefs and images into more easeful, less limiting, free and flowing states of mind.  Experiences such as these are neither encouraged nor allowed in our culture by most of its healing and religious institutions.  They can truly boggle the mind!

PW:  What goes into your preparation for guiding or mentoring people in their dream journeys?

GW:  Certainly mostly: breathing, emptying.  The primary skill shamans learn is the capacity for ecstasy.  It literally means to be out of oneself.  We learn to shift our center of consciousness out of the ordinary here-now framework, and stand apart from our literal selves in a different frame of reference.

I don't want to be there if you know what I mean, but yet by not being there I'm more totally there.  I'll meditate by the creek, contemplate the moon, or even read science fiction to distract myself.  I want to shed any attachments to the meaning of the dreams or the outcome of the work, to get rid of any preconceptions about the journey or the mentored.  It is important to primarily trust in and follow the flow of the process itself.

PW:  You've devoted your whole life to others' healing.

GW:  That was the offering I gave for my own healing.

PW: To whom did you offer that?

GW:  No one except myself really.  That is ultimately where the healer is, deep inside each of us.  It is to this aspect of self that we need to make that commitment.

PW:  Even though you incorporate and parallel ancient Asklepian dream healing, you seem to have gone beyond it, especially by moving toward models based in chaos and holographic theory, by-passed the dogmatic side.

GW:  Yes, once you get dogma, you get rigidity, and once you get rigidity things start getting out of balance or ease, and that is a state of dis-ease in itself.  We need to create a new model or paradigm for healing, a model that incorporates all the old but only as parts.  Reintegrating science and mysticism gives a view beyond the capabilities of either system alone; it is much more than just the sum of the parts.

I think dreams are the long-forgotten healers.  From the scientific side, there has been much research and acknowledgment that dreams are necessary to health.  They are believed to exert an adaptive and balancing effect, and without them we soon show signs of mental and physical deterioration.

For example, studies have shown that dream deprivation within days results in extreme nervousness and anxiety, hallucinations or delusions.  Freud, Jung, and Fritz Perls were among the earliest contemporary scientists who recognized the healing potential in dreams and used them as therapeutic tools, but they did so more from the superficial ego and interpretive levels.  Jung hinted at much deeper aspects of dreams through amplification, but still remained interpretive in his dream therapy.

Perls recognized that it was the experiences in the dream that were healing but limited it to the ego.  Most "in depth" psychotherapies include dream therapy.  And of course, from the mystical perspective dreams come from the deities and give us gifts of prophecy and wisdom...among other things.  By and large, dreams are the forgotten healer.  When healing is needed, very few people think of turning to their dreams.

Yet dreams provide a feminine element as contrasted to the characteristically masculine approach in the medical healing model, which is an intrusive one where the person needing healing is acted on from the outside by therapists, chemicals, surgery, or technology.  Dreams, on the other hand are a personal inner healing, a non-intrusive healing that arises from within, a creative and imaginative healing of faith.  Modern medicine is practiced in bright lights, technically in operating rooms and well lit hospitals.  Dreams are night's creations from the soul and sleep--the masculine as opposed to the feminine.

But I don't think that dreams necessarily replace allopathic healing; they provide a balance and wholeness that is missing, the yin and yang completing the whole.  It is marriage, not revolution I seek.  Each needs and compliments the other.  Even the ancient dream priests were medically trained.  Dream therapy in hospitals might speed recovery rates from necessary surgery and other medical protocols, and certainly would empower patients with a sense of personal and deep participation in the healing process.

PW:  What would you say to people who are skeptical about the role that ancient practices like the Aesculapian mythology could play in our lives today?

GW:  I think we can learn from them.  The fact that the dream was at the center of the ancient cult shows that they were instinctively in touch with their inner world.  The Greek physicians even made use of dreams to diagnose and prescribe for patients.

The journey, the purification, the consultation, and finally the days and nights of solitude help shape powerful dreams or altered states of consciousness, which herald a radical change and renewal of the whole life by means of its contact with an irrational, energizing experience.  No deep healing is possible without such deep journeys and anyone approaching the god for healing must be willing to undergo it despite pain and fear which must be gone through.

Letting go to the process makes possible the infusion of new life and energy.  We cannot expect to remain the same when we go to a divine source for healing.  A total commitment is necessary for those who seek to be whole, for this involvement leads to a change in consciousness.  We must suffer our own inner process, undergo our own journey, and have our own consciousness-changing experience in the sanctuary of our souls.

As I've said before, a new paradigm for healing has to incorporate all the old models, but not be bound or limited to them.  This includes the new and the old: medical technology, psychology, dream healing, shamanism, modern chaos and complexity theory, and anything else with something to offer.  It needs to be much more than just the sum of all of them--it must be an organic, living, self-organizing, creative process.  It is imperative that we do that right now.

The old models are incomplete and inadequate, too limited and narrowly focused, dogmatic if you will.  Contemporary medical or psychological therapies are perhaps even more dogmatic in their mechanistic approach than the ancient Asklepian healing practices.  There are many reasons I say this, but right now one of the most important is that we have to heal our species' relationship with its environment!  It is one of dis-ease and none of the old models motivate us or show us how to heal it.  Healers can't focus just on healing individuals any more.  The issues are much broader.  The survival of all species and our planet is at stake.

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Created 4/9/01    Last Updated 4/9/01
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