AESCULAPIA:From Ancient Dream Healing Temples to Wilderness Dream Retreat
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Created 4/9/01 Last Updated 4/9/01