There are certain places, certain experiences, that touch your soul and remain with you – probably for the rest of your life. Over the last twenty years I’ve been on more holistic holidays than I care to recall yet none have touched me so deeply as the ‘dream healing pilgrimage’, organised by the Spirit of Life Centre based on the Peloponnese in Greece.
From around 500 BCE – 500 CE the cult of Asclepius, the gentle healing god, flourished in Greece. Recognising the intrinsic link between mind and body, the Asclepian experience advocated a mix of nature cure (good food, exercise, hydrotherapy, bodywork) and psychotherapy (talking cure plus therapeutic catharsis through watching drama). However they went further. Central to ancient Greek therapy was the concept of the healing power of dreams. After you had undergone suitable physical and mental preparation, the temple therapists would decide that you were ready for ‘incubation’. You and your fellow pilgrims would be swaddled and left in the ‘abaton’ – a room dedicated to dream healing. Here you would lie down, sleep and hopefully dream. The dream would either result in a spontaneous healing or give instructions on what should be done to affect a cure.
Kerry Kousiounis, founder of the Spirit of Life Centre, and psychotherapist Barbara Siddall who facilitates the pilgrimage, have coaxed the ancient system into a format that works a treat for modern day pilgrims. Trips to various Asclepian temples are mixed with days at the centre practicing meditation, visualisation and breathing techniques. The process is gentle and pleasantly non-dogmatic. We didn’t have physical ailments but our group possessed the usual modern-day neuroses and anxieties. These were addressed with some surprising results and quite unexpected outbreaks of emotion. But whenever it started getting a little too heavy, we’d be piled into the minibus and deposited somewhere gorgeous for a therapeutic dose of splashing in the sea. All, I suspect, a cunning part of the cure.
The food was absolutely delicious. Mostly we ate out – and exceedingly well – at local Greek restaurants. Fresh salads (often picked while we waited) and vegetables, tangy seafood and freshly grilled meat, followed by fruit and washed down with a little wine (and the local liqueur) made for the best healthy eating plan I’ve ever experienced. We seemed to stagger from one huge meal to another so I was stunned to get on the scales back home and discover I’d lost three pounds. Forget detox, the SOL diet is much more fun.
Travelling in a group is always an alarming prospect but thankfully it jelled well here. There were eight of us in total (three from the centre and five pilgrims) – three men, five women, ages ranging from early twenties to seventies. Everyone had an interest in holistic healing but thankfully there were no zealots. While ‘on the road’ we stayed in pleasant small Greek hotels while on our return to the Spirit of Life Centre, ‘home’ was a large house in the seaside village of Stupa, a few miles away from the centre itself. At first I was unconvinced by this arrangement – how do you immerse yourself in the healing experience while surrounded by the lures of a package holiday? However, it actually works very well indeed. Having ‘time out’ away from the delightful but more rarified atmosphere of the centre and temples was therapeutic in itself. Breakfast overlooking the beach, mid-afternoon swims in the silky waters, late-night giggling over drinks back at what was swiftly dubbed the ‘Big Brother house’ were beyond beneficial. We disparate band of pilgrims shared our stories and, despite our wildly varying ages and experiences, bonded well. It was a kind and caring group and, in the way of travellers thrown together, we quickly fell into roles and routines. My only quibble would be our accommodation – a very mediocre villa which was baking hot and riddled with mosquitoes. But I’m assured that SOL will be choosing alternative accommodation for future pilgrims (or you could make out your own independent arrangements).
Be warned, there is a lot of travelling (in a minibus made as comfortable as possible with piles of cushions and a large ice-box of drinks and fruit). But the scenery is stunning and the myths come to life as you roll past the mountains where the Spartans trained or break for lunch in sleepy ancient Corinth. There were scheduled stops to visit temples of Asclepius at Athens, Corinth and Epidavros – all very different, all quite mesmerising.
There’s something quite different about visiting ancient sites as a pilgrim. You turn from tourist into supplicant – instead of perusing facts and pondering the merits of the architecture, you try to tune into the feel of the place, learning to keep your senses open and your intuition on full alert. At Epidavros, the major Asclepian sanctuary, we scattered like leaves around the site. I found myself in a shaded ruin, away from the main focus, and lay down on the cool stones. Crickets chirred in the background and a soft breeze ruffled my hair. I dozed and, surprisingly, dreamed. A man with gentle features and strong arms walked towards me and cradled me in his arms. Then, plunging his hand into my stomach, he pulled out a snake. It lasted seconds but felt extraordinarily real and pleasantly purging.
Leaving was the hardest part – it was a serous wrench to tear myself away from the peace, the fun, the total acceptance and tranquillity. I think we all left quietly changed in subtle ways. I know I did.
Apart from the pilgrimages, the centre runs less intensive relaxed and sociable holistic holidays, yoga breaks for all abilities and retreats (either gently holistic or held at orthodox monasteries in the area). Other courses (such as Reiki, natural horsemanship etc) slot into the year as well. I will go back without a shadow of a doubt – the only problem is going to be to decide which holiday to pick.
My verdict? Go, go, go. This is way better than Skyros and so on…..it’s a real journey to the soul. But do be picky on where you stay. Also, not ideal for anyone with severe motion sickness – those mountain roads are beeeeendy.
For more information on the Dream Healing Pilgrimage and other courses at The Spirit of Life Centre see http://thespiritoflife.co.uk
btw, that’s me in black on the right of the pic.