Transcript

Treating addiction by treating spirit

David Tacey

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Meghan Lodwick:

There are many problems in today's society that modern medicine struggles to treat. Maybe it's time to look at problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide as problems that can be solved by the soul and not by science. I'm Meghan Lodwick and you're listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

My guest today is David Tacey, an associate professor in La Trobe University's English Program. He is the author of a new book called "Gods and Diseases" and argues that the solution for these problems lies in breaking free from the confines of modern medicine.

David Tacey:

I came to write it because I've had a background in psychoanalysis. I studied psychoanalytic and psychological theory in the United States some years ago. And coming back to Australia, I felt that there were major social epidemics here such as alcoholism, massive rise in incest and child sexual abuse and depression. I thought it would be really good if I could bring my training from the United States to look at the Australian problems. And I felt as if we were trying to tackle these issues in the same old way and not getting really very far.

For instance, we have one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world. And I felt that there was something missing to do with purpose or meaning. It's almost like Australia as a lucky country has run out of luck. And I think the missing factor is meaning, which can be called soul, if you like. Some people call it spirituality. If people are unhappy with those terms, if they sound too spooky and too religious, then we can just sort of talk about meaning. And so, I'm very interested in exploring the way that meaning can impact on social epidemics.

Megan Lodwick:

Is that what you mean by "meaning making"?

David Tacey:

"Meaning making" is a funny term, I guess. But meaning making is finding an orientation to the world at large other than through the normal mundane channels. Meaning making could be something that you do in nature, bush walking or love of trees or birds. Meaning making could be something that you do in prayer. It could be something you do in meditation. It could be something you do in human relationships. It could be something you do in music.

So, meaning making is something that's worth living for, rather than just the routine of life, something that actually gives life an elevation and a sense of purpose. In the past, that may have been put under the heading of God. Increasingly, in Australia we're a very secular society, so a lot of people wouldn't relate to God anymore. But that might relate to spirits, say, or they might relate to things people talk about, a life force or something like that. That's meaning making.

Megan Lodwick:

Would you categorize your book as more of a way to help people that suffer from mental health issues, like a self-help book almost?

David Tacey:

Yeah, it's almost in that category. It's about trying to teach and help people, encourage people to actually be autonomous, to actually take their own health issues into hand. And rather than just run off to specialists and therapists and professional doctors, to start inviting people to explore these deeper issues in their own life and to achieve a degree of autonomy. But it's not really intended as a self-help book. It's really for educated readers to think more deeply and seriously about their own mental and physical ailments.

Megan Lodwick:

Now you mentioned post-doctoral study in the United States. What were your main study areas while you were there?

David Tacey:

I was really interested in why Freud and Jung split. And I had spent quite a few years actually, looking at that. I was also interested in an area you call the psychology of religious experience, particularly looking at the work of William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, and also looking at the work of C. G. Jung and how Jung and James can teach us today, 100 years on, about the making of meaning.

Megan Lodwick:

Following on from Jung, you have done a lot of research in Jung. In fact, you teach a class which focuses on the Swiss psychiatrist. Does this book relate it all to Jung psychology?

David Tacey:

Yeah, it does. I tried not to write the book in a way that it would only be of interest to those with a prior background in Jung because this isn't America, although in America Jung is very big, particularly in popular culture. I didn't want to write this book in such a way where people would open it and think, "Oh, well, I can't figure this out because I'll have to go back and read Jung 101 in order to make sense of it." So, what I tried to do is sort of mix and match in this book. I'm trying to appeal to a broad educated audience. And I'm trying at the same time to interest people who do have a background in Jung, who can actually start thinking about applying that background to the study of disease, illness and social epidemics.

Megan Lodwick:

Now in your book you mentioned that you grew up in Alice Springs and you were exposed early on to Aboriginal cultures. And you also correlate that with gods and dreaming. How do you think that connects to the Australian culture?

David Tacey:

Yeah, it's a really good point. You know what? It doesn't, frankly, to be honest. Living in Alice Springs is like living in another country. It's hard to imagine it's Australia. You're with a group of cultures up there who have been focusing on illness and disease in terms of their spirituality and their dreaming, as you said, for tens of thousands of years.

The Aboriginal cultures in central Australia have been obviously deeply disrupted by colonization and by the intrusion of Westerners like myself. It's still hanging in there. I mean, you still feel up there that some of their original culture is still intact. And so, I picked up on quite a bit of that. And I was very interested in their approach to illness and disease. They never, ever regarded it as simply like a random thing, like we do with our western medicine, some sort of environmental factor which sort of triggers the illness. They view things in reverse. It's always seen as something to do with the state of mind, the state of the psyche, the state of the soul, poor relationship with an ancestral spirit.

Now these things are very hard to translate into western medicine. I mean, basically it doesn't translate. And so, if we are going to take seriously the idea of Aboriginal reconciliation, then we have to think about ways of translating, I guess, Aboriginal spirituality into terms that we can understand as Westerners. And that involves, I think, looking at people like Jung and Freud, William James, and people who have been trying to build, say, a bridge between modern culture and its basically materialist world view and ancient indigenous civilizations and their entirely different, usually spiritually focused world views.

Even when I was a teenager, I was very conscious of how influenced I was by Aboriginal culture. And that's why when I went to university, I was so disappointed I couldn't find anything in any of the courses I took that would actually give me a bridge to Aboriginal culture. The only thing that came up was when my art history lecturer handed me a couple of essays by C. G. Jung, the psychiatrist. Then, I thought, "Oh, my God. What Jung calls archetypes are what Aboriginal cultures call ancestral spirits." They're basically the same thing. And in fact, in some of Jung's essays, archetypes were actually defined as ancestral forces that actually go across the generations.

But until I found that, I was very distraught, really, at how I couldn't find a way of linking the two parts of my own brain, my brain as a boy from Alice Springs and my brain as a boy in a modern Australian university. I felt a bit schizophrenic, frankly.

Megan Lodwick:

What do you hope for people to get out of reading this book?

David Tacey:

What I hope that people get out of it is a sense that they can think for themselves about their own illnesses, that they can take matters to hand as it were, become a bit more independent of the service providers and the hospitals, to start working with their illnesses and diseases in ways that take them to another level and link them with mythology and link them with religion, all the ancient cosmologies.

If you look at Aboriginal Australian cultures, the actual medicine man or medicine woman are actually the spiritual leaders of the tribe. So, I found that fascinating when I was growing up. They didn't make a distinction between spirituality and medicine. For them, spirituality and medicine is the same thing.

Then, when you go back in other cultures, even for instance in early Christianity, Jesus' ministry wasn't just about giving lectures to university students. It was about healing people. He sort of laid on hands and he would impact on people's lives, and people would be cured in physical ailments as well as in their life and mind.

Now ever since certainly the Middle Ages, in the West we have made a division between the religious and the physical or the spirit and the body. And I think it's time to start thinking about healing that rift again. Somebody yesterday called it a Cartesian rift. It's true that Descartes thought that mind and spirit were on the one side of our lives and matter and body on the other.

And what I'm writing about has something in common with the New Age. The New Age movements are very interested in this as well. But of course, they don't go about it generally in a scholarly manner. So, people say to me, "Am I a New Age person?" Not really. But I certainly understand that they're cousins of mind and that we're both trying to sort of re-enchant the world and bring spirit and soul back into our very materialistic age and very materialistic society.

Megan Lodwick:

That's all the time we have for the La Trobe podcast today. David Tacey's book "Gods and Diseases" is published by HarperCollins and is available from all good bookstores. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast.latrobe.edu.au. David Tacey, thank you for your time.

David Tacey:

Thanks, Megan, very much.

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