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 @ http://www.helenbeers.com/#contact