The office lease describes our place as “lower level,” which any Chicagoan knows is a euphemism for basement. Some cities call these locations garden apartments, which generally means ground level, your apartment fair game for ants and burglars.
We at WholeHealth Chicago are well below ground level.
My partner Dr. Paul Rubin and I knew we were renting what’s essentially a very large basement when we signed our first lease 11 years ago, but there were also other health care professionals in these types of underground offices on Lincoln Avenue: doctors, dentists, psychologists, even a division of Children’s Memorial Hospital. We both liked the idea of free parking for our patients, which the lease included. But as 11 years went by, saying the word “basement” aloud seemed a bit déclassé and thus we never described the place as anything except “our office.”
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got a fresh perspective on our center from a new patient. She entered her occupation as “professor,” teaching as she does at one of the city’s major universities.
“Oh my,” she began when I escorted her to the examining room, “A healing cave. I am actually going to see my new doctor in a healing cave.”
I agreed that WholeHealth Chicago had a definite cave-like feel to it. Leaving the street behind, you go down a few stairs and enter the reception area. From your seat in the waiting room, looking out the windows above you, there’s mainly sky, the tops of buildings across the street, and if you stand up maybe a few kneecaps of passersby.
As you’re led down one of our hallways by your practitioner, you may descend even further, ending up in a very quiet, often dimly lit, always windowless room. We ourselves think this is all quite cozy and oddly enough none of us ever complains of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), probably because we don’t actually experience any of the seasonal changes going on outside.
My new patient was a professor of cultural anthropology, and I asked her about healing caves.
“Do you have any idea how ancient the concept of a healing cave actually is?” she began. “In virtually every culture in the world, anthropologists have discovered evidence that healers lived in caves. There were two groups of ancient healers–the shaman and the wise woman. The shamans connected with the spirit world and had a spiritual place that was essentially off-limits to everyone else, like a mountaintop or cave.
“But the real healers were the women, and no matter where you travel doing cave archeological digs you’ll find evidence that caves were a place for healing.”
I knew about the wise women and added how very unfortunate it was that as civilization progressed, various organized religions relabeled and often burned these women as witches. No shortage of fairy tales place the evil witch in a cave.
We had both seen the recent Werner Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary in which Herzog had exclusive access to the astonishing Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, a dwelling from 20,000 years ago whose walls are lined with well-preserved paintings, some of the oldest art known to man. The caves may well have been used as centers for magical healing, and I found myself thinking during the movie that the cave would make a nice holistic center and spa.
The professor/patient then asked: “Are you up on your Carl Jung?”
“Jung had a lot to say about caves and you can probably guess where this might lead. Any natural shelter that protects you, like a cave, appears in creation myths as a Great Mother or Earth Goddess. Caves were holy places of purity, so it would be natural for a healer to dwell in a cave. In Jungian terms, a cave represents the unconscious. To go into a cave means self-exploration and maybe undergoing a little transformation.”
Healing and transformation
Healing and transformation sounded like a great prescription for anybody. Naturally, I was a bit taken aback by all this information, but really pleased with the idea of WholeHealth Chicago sharing a link with ancient healers. Add the Jungian perspective and well…wow!
I now could make an educated guess about something that had always piqued my curiosity. In Manhattan, many physicians of every specialty practice in ground-level offices, usually on the lowest floor of some immense apartment building. I remember when I visited one of these offices a few years back stepping down a few stairs, thinking “This is just like entering a cave.”
Maybe something very ancient just attracts doctors to caves.
It also helped clarify the possible reasons patients say they’re so uncomfortable going to the vast, castle-like medical centers around Chicago. People build castles when they’re rich and powerful and can afford to surround themselves with high walls, moats, and security guards.
A commoner summoned to the castle would expect to fork over money, get drafted into an army, and be tortured or decapitated. Nowadays, the castles of Northwestern and Rush hospitals and the Blue Cross building may no longer physically torture us (consistently), but they’re hardly cozy.
In fact, they’re quite skilled at frustrating and confusing our lives. Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle can easily be read as a statement about the impersonal bureaucracy of the American health care system.
Thanks to the professor-patient, I got a completely new perspective on the place where I’ve been working for more than a decade.
And as I walk through our corridors, see our practitioners in their chambers, patients in the waiting room sipping tea and noodling smart phones, I can think, like dairyman Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition!”
David Edelberg, MD