Physician, heal thyself: focusing on psychological dyspepsia

Physician, heal thyself: focusing on psychological dyspepsia

When I was eight, my best-friend, Sarah, was a child of unimaginable privilege. As the towheaded poppet of elderly parents who owned a confectioners, her great privilege was that she was allowed the run of the shop after it closed. Thus, in the evenings she got to raid all the treats she wanted! Imagine! Well I could imagine because, when I went home with her to play, her privilege was extended to me. I can’t tell you the joy of this when, ordinarily, my sweet-treats were restricted to once a week. Gotta admit though, I always went home with bellyache!

Anyway, I’m reminded of Sarah and her nightly out-of-hours sweetie-shop sweep whenever I think of self-care concepts. Self-care is, of course, a fundamental of human existence. All of us who are well and beyond being infant must take it upon ourselves to eat, drink, breathe, avoid hazards, exercise, seek periods of solitude after periods of active socialising and so on. But that’s Basic-Package Self-Care. There are many levels above this and, at the pinnacle, there’s Platinum Level Self-Care which is for the professionals – clinicians, first responders, psychotherapists, and so on. The reason for this is that these have special needs.

To elucidate: “As a psychotherapist I know that I have a limit on how much suffering and sadness I can hold and my after-work time needs to provide pleasant, soothing, joyful energy to replenish myself from being empathic with my patients’ struggles.” In this case, self-care might include “Surrounding yourself with great people”, “Having something pleasurable on my calendar”, regular massages and weekly appointments with a trainer.

In and of themselves, these things are lovely, but viewing them as necessary for proper functioning feels somewhat analogous to demanding the run of an out-of-hours sweetie shop on the strength of some vicarious suffering. Still, it is true that those who care for the mental and physical health of their fellow humans must take special care of themselves because, after all, isn’t there the ancient proverb “Physician, heal thyself”? So there is definitely something in the need for a Platinum Level Self-Care. This being so, I thought I might look at this proverb a little deeper. And, because the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, considered the notion of self-care to be twofold – first, comprising an attitude towards everything ‘other’ in our global community; second, as a form of personal attention exemplified by another ancient proverb, “Know thyself” – I’ll look at that maxim too.

The injunction, “Physician, heal thyself” is found in a number of forms in the Bible. This should be no real surprise since it is a Jewish proverb which reaches back to a time before reckoning. In Latin, it takes the form Cura te ipsum. Cura came to Latin from the Proto-Indo-European *kʷeys- ‎ which is “to heed” but, amongst the Romans, developed connotations related to general concern: when used to speak of agricultural things, it was to do with rearing; when speaking of written work, it was the writing; when it made reference to relationship, it was about offering attentiveness or feeling grief, anxiety or sorrow; and when it had to do with medicine, it was medical attention and healing. Some grammatical gen: in this proverb, cura takes the nominative case or, in other words, is marked as the noun which is doing something. Meanwhile, ipsum is the accusative form of “itself” (so te ipsum = literally “you, itself”). All in all, the proverb is saying (in a rather strident tone) attend to yourself before you start imagining yourself any use to others.

Meanwhile, the Latin for “Know thyself” is nosce te ipsum. Te ipsum we are already acquainted with, while nosce is the second person singular present tense of the Latin transitive verb noscere. It means “to know” or to come to know, to get to know…except that, given the present tense, becoming acquainted with oneself is, in this case, a continuous duty. As a transitive verb, noscere takes a direct object and, in this contextte ipsum – or “you, itself” – is so nominated. All things considered, “Know thyself” is too succinct a translation to get full meaning across. Better, if less pithy, would be “You (fill in your own name) have been nominated the eternal, unending task of becoming acquainted with yourself.”

So it is written in the annals of medical and religious history that those called upon to be concerned for other humans definitely do require a Platinum Level Self-Care package. But nowhere is it written that this package involves a stream of treats only interrupted by the day’s tasks. Instead, healing thyself and knowing thyself are demanding and rigorous on-going commitments. And to understand how one fulfils them, we need to return to Ancient Egypt whilst refusing to be diverted into the Biblical world.

This is because, by the time the proverb “Physician, heal thyself” appeared in the New Testament, it had become associated with the so-called “discourse on judgmentalism”.  As such, it had been co-opted to the tough Biblical stance against self-righteous, bigoted hypocrisy. But, as above, the maxim is not simply to be understood in this way. As we saw, the idea, coming to us all the way from the Proto-Indo-Europeans down at least 5,000 years of history, was that paying attention to oneself is necessary preparation to paying proper curative attention to others and the key to understanding the nature of this attention is in the motto, “Know thyself”.

Again we are not to be distracted by any old popular belief here. We must not jump onto the bandwagon and accept easily that “Know thyself” came to us from the Pythonesses of Delphi in Ancient Greece.  Nor should we share the vision of one of these, in her mania, breathing the words as an Ancient Greek stonemason chiselled them onto the Temple of Apollo. Instead we should give greater credence to the argument that it came from the Ancient Egyptian Temple in Luxor which was dedicated to a divine nuclear family consisting of the god of the wind, Amun, his wife, Mut, the lady of heaven, and their son, Khonsu, the moon.

Some words on access into Luxor’s temple complex which was limited and gradated: religious novices were allowed only into the external temple and could not proceed to the internal temple until they’d proved themselves ready for the advanced lessons on the cosmos that they’d find there. One of the inscriptions on the external temple was “The body is the house of God.” That is why it is said: ‘Man, know thyself’”. On the internal, this had developed into the radical “Man, know thyself, and you are going to know the gods”. Thus, knowing oneself was to know the gods and this knowledge involved treating the body as though it were a temple capable of delivering knowledge and insights.

Of course, we should not be surprised that we allowed the Ancient Greeks to draw our attention away from the Egyptians because we threw our lot in with them and their rationalism way back when (Pythagoras was around, to be precise). But it was them who convinced us to know ourselves through intellectual, mind-driven means only and they got it wrong. So we can put things right if we like but we’ll have to leave their atomistic views aside and indulge the holism of the Egyptians by means of meditative practices and the modern concept of focusing.

There are a number of meditative practices that bring the individual’s close attention to their whole being. For instance, pranayama combines breath-control with yoga-practice while Tai Chi is an ‘internal’ martial art and meditation in movement which heightens awareness whilst regulating and improving the flow of qi, or life-force. These practices both use our physicality actively as the means to deep awareness of body and soul. In contrast, Eugene Gendlin’s psychotherapeutic Focusing is passively meditative. It is receptive attention to an internal preverbal sense of knowing which is directly and viscerally experienced. As focused attention, Focusing has family-resemblances to meditation where this encompasses those self-regulatory practices that train awareness and bring ‘unconscious’ processes under greater voluntary control. But those who meditate tend to have goals: they might want to foster capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration. Focusing is a little different insofar as it is a kind of ‘hanging-out with’ one’s self solely in order to gain familiarity: it is a non-judgemental welcoming of what is being processed subliminally in our guts or, in more usual psychological jargon, our unconscious. Of course, I am being slightly disingenuous because people do focus for specific reasons but the idea must always be that the gut responds to this focus in its own way in its own good time. When ready, something shifts, what is preverbal finds words, and fresh insights arrive to unstick us from bogged-down thinking with indications of steps to take.

So, a Platinum Level Self-Care package begins with contemplation of self and what it is to be oneself. And this package takes us through a plethora of meditative techniques through which one learns about one’s strengths and weaknesses and, through growing self-knowledge, develops resilience and empathy in the recognition of one’s reflection in a troubled world…Of course, in this package there are also expectations of getting sufficient sleep, eating well and exercising regularly. But this self-care package simply cannot and should not involve limiting the amount of sadness and suffering one encounters because that is an unreasonable expectation to place on life.

So, those involved in caring for others who always surround themselves “with great people” out-of-hours whilst having pleasurable things always on the calendar are unimaginably privileged in the way of my friend Sarah since they, like her, may sweep the Cosmic Confectioner night after night. But this does not make them great clinicians because, right at the outset, they mistake self-indulgence for disciplined self-care and this error is likely to lead them at least to psychological dyspepsia.

* If you would like to learn more about Focusing, contact me @


Gematria: adding literacy and numeracy to more than the sum of their parts

Gematria: adding literacy and numeracy to more than the sum of their parts

Literacy and Numeracy were born in Mesopotamia as conjoined twins. And it wasn’t until the second-born twin – Numeracy – convinced our forebears that it would be better alone as the Hindu-Arabic Numeral System that the two were cleaved apart. Both twins survived the operation – performed in 8th century CE – that split them and, ever since, have led separate lives.

But, before Numeracy’s defining moment, numerals were predominantly alphabetical. At any rate, they were within the Assyro-Babylonian-Greek system of alphanumeric code which is, as the name suggests, a composite of earlier writing codes. The classical Greek alphabet emerged in the 8th century BCE as an adaptation of the earlier Phoenician alphabet. This was an abjad writing system of all consonants and no vowels and it was understood as the job of a reader of Phoenician script to insert vowel sounds as appropriate. But, on adoption of the Phoenician alphabet, the Greeks designated new roles for some consonants so that these became vowels. However, underlying this innovation was an original sense of something missing that needed to be filled in by the individual. Apart from this, the letters of the Phoenician alphabet were assigned numerical values, although there was also a written numeral system consisting of strokes. But, nevertheless, the classical Greek alphabet developed with the implicit idea that words and names with shared numerical values bore some relation to each other and that, contrarily, values were in relationship with words and names. Moreover, it was understood that these relationships had something to say about the essential qualities and innate dispositions of numerically/semantically related things. In other words, numbers and words carried coded information about the occult nature of the cosmos. The name for this understanding is gematria.

Now, gematria isn’t about attaching deep meaning to single letters. Such depth comes out of the construction of words and phrases because meaning is relational and additive. But, still, I’ll consider the value of the first letter of my given name, Helen. No prizes, this begins with the consonant /h/ which is breathed as herb is pronounced in English-English with a voiceless glottal fricative. It derives originally from the Phoenician het which is the eighth letter of their abjad but returns to base as the hieroglyph for “courtyard”. It became the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet too as eta. Both het and eta carry the numerical value 8.

And the Phoenician het looks like a boxy version of our number 8. This, as both a value and a shape, is inherently positive in a way that has to do with right timing – which is what good fortune is essentially all about. As a gematriacally-meaningful coincidence of value, shape and timing, the figure of eight is traced by the annual path of the midday sun and called an analemma. This figure was known, at least, in ancient Greece, but it was the Roman engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (who lived in the last century before the Common Era) who explained how to reconstruct the eight-shaped curve for the sundial at any time of the year. Tying in with eight’s association with serendipity, the reason the sun traces an annual figure of eight is entirely due to the fortunate fact that the earth’s axis is tilted in respect of the sun. This fact produces the ecliptic (and our seasons and, thereby, the type of world capable of nurturing us) and, from our perspective, gives the sun declination at all times of the year except the equinoxes. If the earth’s axis was either perfectly upright or perfectly vertical there would be no ecliptic and the Sun’s annual path would then have the shape of a zero. But, as the earth’s orbital tilt is, the invisible path of the Sun has the shape of the figure 8 when the noontime position of the Sun in the sky is plotted over a year. This is such that the lowest and highest points of the 8 are the winter and summer solstices while its waist amounts to the equinoxes. The north–south factor of the analemma shows the Sun’s declination or, put another way, the latitude on the Earth at which the Sun is directly overhead. Its east-west orientation shows the difference between solar time and local mean time. Thus, the figure of eight and its relationship to the annual path of the sun shows us that we are blessed.

In terms of numerical value, the ancient Egyptians of Khmun (translation: “eight-town”) revered the Ogdoad there. These were the eight deities – four couples of four male gods and four female goddesses – who created Atum, the Sun-God. In preparation, they put together a structure similar in looks to a swan’s nest with the primeval waters lapping it. On this ‘nest’, they placed an egg and from this young Atum eventually emerged to begin the process of creating the world as we know it.

Pythagoras also honoured eight and understood its qualities as foundational to existence. Particularly, he revered the octave which is the seven-tone journey of 8 diatonic degrees from one musical note to another (above and below). The first and last notes are related by being half or double in sound frequency. But what he claimed was that he had proof that the octaval interval gave our planet its shape because his experiments showed that, when an octave is sounded, the sand on a plate of glass arranges itself in the form of a circle. What he knew of the octave, Mesopotamian musicians from Ur understood before him, at least in their own way. We know this because, while neither the Akkadian nor Sumerian words for “octave” are known to us, still, their stringed-instrument tuning systems substitute the number 1 for 8 and 2 for 9 to represent the octaves of strings 1 and 2.

Following on but dipping now into Neo-Platonism, we have the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres. This also speaks of the octave’s harmonic seven-tone journey but this time in mathematical, religious, astrological terms. The journey, which is heavenly, moves away from the sun (unity) along a path which is either masculine and heading towards cold, dry darkness (Saturn) or feminine and heading towards cold, moist darkness (the moon). Both endpoints are polarised death, but of differing natures, and they lead to rebirth because they don’t get to 8 but, instead – since we’re speaking of the octave – to One and unity with the sun. The fact is, in Neo-Platonism, 8 is the Octad: completion. But it is experiential completion because, by being divisible by two into four and four into two, it is related to the Dyad. As such, the Neo-Platonic Octave counts in the earth which is the sphere of appetitive urges and irrationality. It is the place where the zodiac, the animal-bearing ecliptic, lives out its divine destiny in a cycle of growth and decay.

So, no surprise to the Chinese, the number eight has to do with material existence and, hopefully, good fortune, prosperity and wealth. Thus, in dealing with what is earthly and manifest, the number eight is, by nature, mundane – albeit that, because each of us contains the entire cosmos, our material existence is simultaneously the spiritual story of the entire universe. In these terms, when the 360 degrees of the circle are divided by eight we have our quarter days, as the summer and winter solstices and vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and our cross-quarter days, which are the midpoints between these. The cross-quarter days mark turns in the seasons – give or take given differing latitudes – while the quarter days mark the midpoints of the seasons. This eightfold division is the guts of the agricultural calendar which, ever since the Agricultural Transition which started something in the region of 12,000 years ago, has powered human cultural development. Of course, the moon also adds to seven-tone-journey-symbolism through her quarter phases, but I’ll leave that for another time since this blog has been entirely the sun’s moment and I don’t want to take away from that.

But now I feel I have come full circle in a gematriacal sense. Personally, I have added together 8, the sun’s annual journey, and the Phoenician het so that they are now the sum of each other. Encompassing each other as they do, they are a harvest-filled courtyard and, through this association, farming, agriculture and earthly wealth. Now I’ll leave you to reckon all things eight for yourselves.

All roads lead to Rome…in a way

All roads lead to Rome…in a way

I thought I’d share a selfie with you. There you see it – posted at the top. It’s of my boot-clad feet.

I realise that there are significantly more captivating selfies out there but please stay with me. What you see is that the toes of my boots edge onto what is Spain’s Kilometro Cero. This is the point in Madrid from which all of Spain’s roads radiate. Therefore, most unlike my boring boots, it is very noteworthy, placed there, at the Puerta del Sol, as the country’s beating heart, pulsing the equivalent of freshly oxygenated blood around the rest of the country along arterial links.

Still, while important it may be, Spain’s Kilometro Cero is just one amongst many Kilometre Zeros all over the world. There are symbolically-centred beating hearts in city capitals everywhere. Nevertheless, they all lead back, as roads do, to Rome…

…Although not so much literally, more metaphorically. This is because Rome is the home of the archetype. Madrid isn’t the home of the archetype, nor yet are any of the other countries that have Kilometre Zeros because it was Rome’s Milliarium Aureum, or ‘golden milestone’ that started all this off. It is that symbolic heart that formed the centre of what was essentially the Compass Rose from which all other points of the Roman Empire took their bearings and established their place in the world. It’s Rome’s centre that supplied outlying satellites with their individual spatial, political, hierarchical, religious and cultural orientations.

So it’s from the Milliarium Aureum that we get our idiom, ‘All roads lead to Rome’ and, with it, the notion that everything leads back to some central point. So, for instance, we say all roads lead to Rome in respect of mystical or religious practices with the idea that all these, irrespective of who has them, lead back to The One. It’s as if it doesn’t matter that, most of the time, between us all, we speak the 101 names of God because when push comes to shove and we experience spiritual union, we return en masse to a single spiritual home.

But there are difficulties with this and these are understood by pushing the analogy a little further. So, just as there are certainly many roads leading out of Rome, so there are many paths leading out of each religious or spiritual tradition too. And, more than that, just as there are a multitude of Kilometre Zeros across the globe all mirroring Rome in having many roads leading out of them, so there are many, many religious and spiritual traditions all with many paths branching off them too. Sometimes I play a game with this idea: the point is to plot a return journey back from where I am now spiritually-speaking to where I began and, I tell you, it’s not easy. I guess it’s for this reason that I can’t, for the life of me, see how all the billions of us can get back to one single, central spiritual point, something like St Augustine’s City of God. I think in reality there must be a network of crisscrossing paths with myriad ‘spiritual homes’ dotted as nodal points all over the place. Sure, these spiritual homesteads approximate each other in various ways but, still, none are the same.

Spiritual traditions are often seen as ‘paths’ which, if followed, lead back to rather than away from. For instance, in the Christian Bible’s New Testament, Matthew (7:14) talks about the narrow road that leads to life. Then there’s the Tao which is a path too by definition, and following it restores and maintains universal order. But to follow the Christian Road is not to parallel the path of Tao. Of course, some might argue that this is because one or other of these paths – either the Christian or the Tao – has taken a wrong turn. But, then, how to reconcile the differences between, say, the Christian path followed by an anti-violence Quaker with that followed by an American evangelical who interprets the bible and their constitutional right to bear arms as linked, inerrant, literal truths? And, I’m wondering, if there’s one heaven and if both the Quaker and the American Evangelical pass the checks and get through the pearly gates when their time comes, how on earth will they rub along for eternity? I’m not imagining perpetual bliss!

Mystical experiences occur during times when external reality is less than usually distracting because something has happened to alter an individual’s state of consciousness. It might be that the individual has drifted off in a daydream, is sick and hallucinating, has taken drugs, is meditating or praying, or is in a psychotic or trance state. But, however it happens, the hegemony of external sense-perceptions is suspended in a way as to allow objects that usually exist only in an individual’s understanding to become reified and made supra-real and, thus, more imminent and demanding of attention than physically existent objects.

However, the thing is, objects of supra-reality arise within a person, and a person is a product of their environment which means that mystical and religious truths are, by nature, situated. This isn’t to downgrade them to mere wraiths because the very subjectivity of their inexistence makes them mighty. Even so, the supra-real objects of the mystical experiences of an anti-violence Quaker will have an entirely different quality to those of an American evangelical who believes that the world is a battlefield between good and evil (and, as an aside, I’d prefer to meet the former ‘egregores’ on a dark night than the latter!).

In any case, it’s true: all roads do lead to Rome…in a way.