Metanoia


Metanoia is a philosophical term we get from the ancient Hellenes, usually translated as “changing one’s mind” and connoting the transformation that comes with a conversion. However, to fully appreciate this most meaningful word, let us see how the ancients used it.

The ancient Asklepian healing process included medicines (pharmacia, “spells against death”), surgeries, theatre, cleanliness, warm waters, and the laying on of hands. But it was noted that all of these arts together would not make a lasting healing unless the root of one’s unease or unconsciousness was turned about. The disposition of unease that called the disease had to be seen and transformed to a disposition of brighter understanding. This was metanoia.

First, the usual medicines and care were given time to effect the initial healing.  Following the pharmacia, massage, and rest, a specially trained priest would converse with the pilgrim about their dreams. For dreams provided an unguarded way for the priest of healing to see the naked psyche and archetypical choices of the patient. Seeing the “wrong views” of the patient, the priest reflected them to the supplicant. When this clarity was received, the priest proposed “right views” that also fit. Seeing the error together with views of responsive engagement allowed the patient to turn to the positive, harmonious approach and understanding. This was metanoia.

To seal the change, the final ceremony was for the patient to actually sleep in the Room of the Divine, the Temple of the God. This practice had been known for over two millennia, most notably from Imhotep of Egypt. The Hellenes called it “Temple sleep” and described it by saying that young children naturally enjoy it. Metanoia gives us the ground to lay our heads upon our pillows in a deep trust.

Meta- “beyond, above” plus noia or nous- “lighted awareness, mind, consciousness” gives us metanoia. Go beyond your usual way of looking at things. The Asklepian priests were clear: unless the wrong views were gone beyond with right views, the illness would return. Therefore, the key to the deepest healing was this simple self-understanding and turning to a brighter understanding. Metanoia.

My favorite verse from the Christian scripture also is centered upon a form of metanoia: legon metaneite engliken gar e basileia ton ouranon, or “Change your ways (of seeing and living) and the estate of heaven before you.” The King James translation is, well, still medieval: “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

“Repent” comes to English via the Old French, rooted in the Latin re-, “turn from, against” plus the Latin poena, “pain”… from the Greek poine, “penalty”). “Re-pent” means to turn against pain. “Repent” is a terribly inadequate translation of the original metanoia, for although much of the message of right living is conveyed, “repent” has been draped in pain, guilt, and regret for so many centuries that the potency of its message is compromised. 

Regardless of translation, metanoia calls. Like the Buddha touching the earth and suddenly there is paradise before you.





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