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Clown therapy helps people find answers within

The inaugural Clown Town Healing Fest, a visionary health care festival, proved to be a practical demonstration of the future of health care. One of its many innovative aspects is the promotion of the shift from the current model of intervention to one focused on prediction and prevention.

Humanitarian clowns mobilized the community’s healing resources: All the established providers came (dentists, nurses, doctors, hospitals, hospice); and the often untapped and underused resources also came (bodyworkers, art/dance/music/pet therapists, energy workers, traditional healers, and clowns). All of them shared their healing stories to inspire people to actively participate in living healthier lives.

The fest was held in a lovely, green public space Feb. 26-28, 2016, in downtown Phoenix and featured speakers, panels, interactive demonstrations (including CPR, injury prevention, exercise). There was massage, Tibetan gong players, a theater/choral group comprised of developmentally challenged adults, yogis, mask makers, Native American blessing ceremonies, and an area reserved for the Truth Clinic staffed by Truth Fairies.

The Truth Fairies were health care professionals who had completed a workshop on clown therapy the day before. We explored the clown/fool/jester archetype – that universal character in the unconscious mind whose purpose it is to lighten the mood, diffuse anxiety, and help us look at the familiar landscape with new eyes. In many cultures, the clown also is the keeper of sacred wisdom and healing. We participated in interactive exercises designed to promote heartfelt connections, active listening, and opening the intuitive mind.

Clown therapy is just another manifestation of solution-focused psychotherapy, resilience-based therapy, positive psychology, existential psychotherapy, and logotherapy that happens in brief encounters. The focus of those solution-based approaches always is about helping people identify their strengths rather than focusing on the problems. It’s about asking the question: “What do you want, and what’s keeping you from getting it?” It’s active and involves listening to people talk about their dreams and imagining that they have the answers within to solve their problems. They all focus on people’s strengths and getting them to think about what they want to change (1-4).

The Truth Fairies sat in a wide-open space, with chairs facing in such a way that participants would be out of listening range of anybody else. People were invited to talk to a health professional for 15 minutes about any health-related issue or personal questions that they might have. The Truth Fairies did not make diagnoses or prescribe drugs.

Courtesy Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag says the Clown Town Healing Fest in Phoenix included health professionals, yogis, mask makers, and people who performed Native American blessing ceremonies.

People signed in (first names only; there were no release forms). This statement appeared at the top of the sign-up sheet: “To Our Friends in the Community: we come to you with open hearts and our talent as health care professionals; we will never do anything intentional to hurt you and know that you come to us with the same understanding.”

A critical element in all treatment is the therapeutic relationship. If a patient likes you, trusts you, and believes in the system you practice, he or she will get better faster. When you help people focus on their strengths, resilience, and dreams rather than their problems, it actually allows them to imagine that they hold the solution to whatever they are facing. People waited in line to visit with the Truth Fairies; here are some of their observations:

  • “It’s amazing how much people will share when you wear a red nose. After I introduced myself, I had a woman tell me a secret that she never shared with anyone in her life. I hardly said anything, and at the end of 15 minutes, she thanked me for listening and said: ‘I don’t know what came over me to tell you my secret, but I’m glad I did. I feel good!’ ”
  • “This woman sat down in the chair looking at me with tears rolling down her cheeks. She said to me, ‘I have a terminal brain cancer, and I want to die now.’ I was taken aback and didn’t say anything for a moment, and then spontaneously blurted out, “You know we are all terminal; none of us is going to get out of here alive.’ She laughed out loud and asked me if she could use the line. It was an amazing connection.”
  • “I didn’t even wait until I got to the Truth Fairy grounds. For me, it started during the opening Clown Parade. A young man walked up to me and started talking (where are you from? what are you all doing here?). I told him, and then he told me his story: that he’d just been released from jail and had shared his dream that he wanted to be a chef. He stayed with me for the whole parade, and when we entered the festival grounds, he was welcomed by a Native American woman who was blessing all the clowns. She waved fragrant smoke over him with an eagle feather, [and] said she was happy to see him here and that good things would be happening for him. He told me afterward he was an Apache Indian and that being with me this morning has changed his life.”

This is how we heal in community, open ourselves to making heartfelt connection with someone who can be with you, listen empathetically, help you look at what’s familiar and see it from a new perspective. Let’s get away from today’s cultural imperative that if you are feeling anything other than wonderful in every moment that you’re suffering from a disease for which there is a pill that can cure you. Let’s listen more and prescribe less. Connecting in this way reminds us not only of our therapeutic skills, but of our shared humanity.

REFERENCES

1. “When All Else Fails: Some New and Some Old Tools for Doing Very Brief Therapy,” United Kingdom: Crown House Publishing, 2014.

2. “Solution-Focused Interviewing,” University of Toronto Press, 2013.

3. “Hypnotic Realities,” New York: Irvington Publishers, 1976.

4. “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

Dr. Hammerschlag is chief of community mental health at the Gesundheit! Institute. He is also the author of several books on healing and spirituality, including “Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within” (New York: Turtle Island Press, 2012) and “The Dancing Healers: A Doctor’s Journey of Healing With Native Americans” (San Francisco: Harper, 1988). Dr. Hammerschlag’s website is healingdoc.com.

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Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.