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INDIGENOUS HEALING AND EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

In the process of devising the model and theory, it was vital to draw on the wisdom of indigenous healers for their insight and ideas on how we heal and reclaim the soul. Connor (2008) explains:

Healing in an indigenous culture is inextricably tied to that culture and its worldview. Often, healers are the leaders of their communities. Their worldview is one in which body, spirit, and mind are not separate parts, nor are cultural practices separated from healing practices or language. (p. 7)

A common thread from indigenous healers throughout the world is that healing and integrated learning requires engagement of the soul and a milieu whereby the learning can be experienced, rather than taught in a disembodied way, in order to affect change. One such example is offered by Lynn Andrews (1989), who states,

Many of my friends were psychiatrists. I had seen people go through one or another of the leading therapies, sometimes an extraordinary process. Often they come out knowing why they were doing something, yet continue in their old patterns. I asked a friend, a well-known therapist, why he thought this occurred. He said, “We can help people to understand why they do the thing they do, but we can't necessarily change people.” That statement was a real eye opener for me. I thought if therapy doesn't change you, then what is the point of it? To understand it intellectually is just one part of the process. I had to find a way to go on from there. (p. 42)

Andrews drew on the wisdom of a Native American healer, Agnes Whistling Elk, who taught her how critical both spirit and experiential processes are to healing and transformation. Agnes Whistling Elk stated (as quoted in Andrews, 1989),

So often in your society, much of the knowledge given to people is borrowed knowledge. . . . Experience is really the link. If you could somehow experience what that person was telling you, then it would become real to you, instead of just being part of an intellectual process. (p. 43)

Given how important “experiencing” is to integration, it is critical that social work schools incorporate these “other ways of knowing” into pedagogy, integrating experiential methodologies in the classroom, exploring soul-based processes, and moving away from the professor as the expert on how to effectively counsel all clients. Students then are more likely to come away with the knowledge that they are not the experts for the clients whom they serve but, rather, trained professionals who draw on their own deep self-connection to facilitate a healing milieu for clients in distress. According to Napoli and Bonifas (2011), “Evidence also suggests that when social work students are taught to mindfully reflect upon their experience without judgment their capacity for empathy can increase” (p. 638).

In my experience as an educator, I have developed a strong bias toward experiential learning. When teaching counseling skills, experiential learning is particularly critical because the experience of learning can become integrated into the personality of the student (Gibbons & Grey, 2002; Goldstein, 2001; Horwarth & Thurlow, 2004; Quinn, 1999; Rocha, 2000). Young (2007) states, “There has been extensive literature on experiential learning as a preferred approach in social work education and particularly in clinical skills education” (p. 28). Many times in the field of social work, the social worker is confronting situations of such complexity and magnitude that there is little time to reflect on theories and models in the moment. The social worker has at those pressing moments his or her internalized beliefs and values and his or her ability to process how to proceed in challenging situations. Also, a social worker's ability to empathize, reflect, stay centered in times of grave distress, guide, and provide insightful feedback is directly related to the integration of learning, in which experiential processes play a major role.

David Kolb (1984), an American educational theorist drawing on work of other theorists, notes several factors that are relevant to an experiential learning process. They are summarized as follows:

First is the emphasis on the process of adaptation and learning as opposed to content of outcomes. Second is that knowledge is a transformation process, being continuously created and re-created, not an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted. Third, learning transforms experience in both its objective and subjective forms. Finally, to understand learning, we must understand the nature of knowledge, and vice versa. (p. 38)

The experiential unity model mimics some of these processes. For example, it requires continuous learning from the clients in the “here and now” so that a social worker can effectively reflect their current inner state. It also puts emphasis on ongoing clinician adaptation to changing environments and circumstances.

 
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