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ON THE SCENE: Creating a healing space

January 3, 2013
NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Have you ever felt the need for safe space? A healing space?

All of us experience pain. We all experience tough times. We all get overwhelmed. We all get injured. So too do the people we love the most.

This past Saturday, I was the invited keynote speaker at a conference on health, held at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., where I was asked to talk about designing healing spaces. In the audience were doctors, nurses, health administrators, artists, architects, interior designers, graduate, and undergraduate students who had gathered to share strategies for enhancing community well-being.

In my experience, the creation of healing spaces involves thinking about our outer physical needs, our inner emotional needs, and our all-encompassing sense of belonging, typically referred to as our body, mind, and spirit. Plato once said, "The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated."

I began my presentation with an image of the Taj Mahal, pointing out that no building, however beautiful it may be, is in and of itself healing. Creating a lovely physical space is not enough. One also has to consider what takes place in that space. I asked people to imagine their favorite room in their home, be it their bedroom, kitchen, or wherever. I asked them to envision all the elements that make it special: photos of loved ones, different works of art, view out the window, color of the walls, plants, fabrics, textures, music they like listening to - all the elements that made it special - then to imagine this space as their hospital room, how much more relaxed they would feel in it, and how much sooner they would feel better.

The most important element of a good space is its feeling of safety, which largely relates to trust. Think in terms of the trust shared with a partner, doctor, parent, or child, or with a pastor. These levels of trust are like the circle a street performer draws on the ground, within which magic happens. Or like a group of people attending an AA meeting where they agree that what is said there, stays there. Within safe spaces, people learn that they are not alone in feeling the pain they feel. As a consequence, providing people with means to share their experiences is a very important quality of any safe space. That sharing can be through storytelling, creating works of art, or other techniques that facilitate open and honest connection.

Too often, caregivers are not comfortable allowing patients to share their stories, or creative endeavors with each other, saying, "We don't want them to upset each other." A person with cancer is not going to upset another one living with cancer. For them, sharing creates safe bonding. In fact, it is usually the caregiver who is most upset by honest sharing, not those living with the common disease, as for them it is part of their shared reality.

Safe spaces should also create a sense of welcoming. Their aesthetics should help create a sense of place. This can involve designing and decorating rooms that draw upon elements of one's community and heritage, and including places where people can be quiet or creative.

What of addressing a space of inner safety? I feel it is important to draw on mindfulness-based stress reduction practices such as meditation, yoga, Qi gong, and Tai chi. Guided imagery can be a very effective tool for enhancing healing, be this self-guided, or with the assistance of someone who can help to reconnect a personal, deeper sense of safety. Guided imagery can help when one faces life stressors such as outcomes of trauma, cancer, chronic illness, suicidal feelings, and other areas of unease. Guided imagery can also be used to strengthen hopes and dreams, and support positive action.

My own inner journey often involves remaining connected with my faith community, taking a hike in the woods, and participating in a banya including a plunge into an icy brook. I feel it is important to create quiet spaces in one's life using nature, and especially the sound of water, to find a place of peace. Poetry can help take me away to an inner place, as can walking a labyrinth, or incorporating rituals into my life. We here in the Adirondacks are so blessed to have easy access to nature, something denied increasing numbers of urban dwellers.

Much of my presentation in Cambridge focused on creating physical space, and the pros and cons of evidence-based design, the process of basing decisions about the built environment on credible research to achieve the best possible outcome. It is an important, but not a foolproof tool. Some healing factors - love for instance - are not easy to quantify. Different colors and patterns have very differing meanings depending on one's culture, or faith. In the Christian faith, red represents lust, corruption and anger, whilst in the Buddhist faith it represents the blessings of ethical teachings, practice, and compassionate wisdom.

In a nutshell, if you want to create a space that is healing, think back to your favorite room, the diversity of its textures, colors and imagery. Think of the importance of natural and full spectrum light, views of nature, and music. Think as well of how your favorite space is not static. Things are added to it, some are replaced, or refreshed. Our plants bloom, a vase of flowers is brought in, a child's drawing is posted on the refrigerator door. Healing spaces are alive. They evolve. They testify to engagement and joy. To be avoided are images that look alike, are all the same size, or in the same frames, in short, anything that creates strong, static patterns.

Of course I could go on forever about this topic that is dear to me! Just contact me if you wish to learn more. In the meantime, happy holidays and good health.



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