Monthly Archives: May 2014

At the Root of Being

I was thumbing through a catalog today, and on the inner cover, the editor told of moving into a new house last fall and cleaning out the flower beds.   A neighbor stopped by when she was nearly done and commented that her discard pile of seeming detritus included the rhizomes of some of the most beautiful peonies on the block.  Yanked for discarding.  Ugh.  I can identify.  I did something similar when I moved into an older house fifteen years ago.  The yard had been neglected, with straggly Arbor Vitae, matted leaves from several autumns, and a dead Russian Olive tree.  It all seemed a total loss.  That spring, I pulled dozens of frilly-leaved plants out of the beds, until a straggler escaped to its full flowering.  Only then did I realized that I’d been systematically eliminating a mature bed of crimson oriental poppies.


I can feel the master gardeners cringing.


Some of us who deal with the psyche might similarly cringe when we hear someone make a cutting judgment of another, based solely on an observed behavior–and often a fleeting behavior, at that. Carl Jung reminded us to look deeper.


“Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome.  Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome.  The part that appears above the ground lasts only a single summer.  Then it withers away–an ephemeral apparition.  When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity.  Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux.  What we see is the blossom, which passes.  The rhizome remains.”  Memories, Dreams, Reflections.


Be kind to the various flowers of the psyche.  Some are beautiful.  Some are foul.  All ephemeral. Our highest truth and enduring life lies deeper, and sustains through the seasons of life.


. . . and as the tiny, unintended peonies springing up in my brand-new blueberry-bush garden this spring can attest:  even when we think we’ve completely pulled out the roots, even a tiny bit of rhizome in good earth promises resurrection.

Journey as Therapy, as Cure

Once as a visiting lecturer, a colleague pointed out that I often talk about healing as a journey.  I’d been largely oblivious to the word’s pervasiveness until he wryly noted that I’d just used it at least a dozen times in the space of a minute.  (It was kind of him to refrain from the obvious suggestion that perhaps I could make better use of a thesaurus.)


Armed with self-consciousness, now I often notice its appearance.  And not just descriptively, but as interrogatory:  How goes your journey?  What’s new in your journey?  And also, as closure and benediction:  Godspeed on the journey.  Blessings on your journey.


In the therapeutic space, I suspect that one reason I am fond of the word is a bit of resistance to the “chief complaint” of the typical medical interview-note, which directs the physician to record in a sentence or two those symptoms or concerns that bring the patient for care.  “My head hurts.”  “My heart is racing.”  “I am so sad.”  Eventually followed by a prescription that closes the question and tidily wraps up the encounter.


I appreciate the efficiency of need and met-need.  In medicine, there are certain urgencies that demand pressing our time and attention to the sole service of the patient’s chief complaint.  But aren’t we sometimes in a TERRIBLE hurry to ask a clean question so that we can then satisfyingly close the question?  So terrible that we abandon the common-sense that certain kinds of inquiry are better understood when contextualized by the person’s journey-story?


In Understanding the Sick and the Healthy:  A View of World, Man, and God, Franz Rosenzweig claims that journey *is* the therapy–and the cure–for the malaise that accompanies the soberness of life and death.  He suggests we imagine our journey starting in mountain foothills, with only glimpses of each majestic wonder as we navigate the paths that lead up the side of the mountains.  It is in the actual walking that we begin to see “what the hands must grip next and where the feet must step” (102).  “Thus man wonders.  Undoubtedly he pauses–to wonder requires that man pause.  He pauses but he cannot remain still.  He is adrift on the river Life, borne on, wonderment and all” (40).  Journeying is both motivation and revelation.


In contrast, today’s patient and physician might instead find their countenance in “the philosopher” criticized by Rosenzweig, who  “insists on a solution immediately . . . separates his experience of wonder from the continuous stream of life, isolating it.  This is the way his thought proceeds.  He does not permit his wonder, stored as it is, to be released in to the flow of life.  He steps outside the continuity of life and consequently the continuity of thought is broken.  And there he begins stubbornly to reflect.  Of necessity, he must hook the ‘problem’ from where he stands. . . Wonder stagnates, is perpetuated in the motionless mirror of his meditation . . . The stream of life has been replaced by something submissive–statuesque, subjugated. . . . Let us be warned by the bad example of indifferent physicians who believe that for a sickness, once it is recognized, there is but one possible therapy, effective under all circumstances. . . We must not insist on praising one particular treatment as a complete panacea when we have to deal with the affliction of a human being in his entirety” (40-41, 55).


Too much of my education was about trying to hook the problem.  Whoa.  Persons were not meant to be hooked.  Persons were meant to be welcomed.  To be heard in a moment of pause, without being stilled. In that moment, an insight.  An answer.  A wondering.  A present, that anticipates future–a good and whole future, for a whole person–not a chief complainant.


So yes, drat it–sometimes we are compelled to move on before we feel ready to say good-bye.  A dialogue ends. Life pulls us onward.  But if the journey itself is the therapy, rather than our momentary shared meditation on it, then the sending is a benediction.


“You must be a little frightened. . . Life is a serious matter.  Ordinarily you are aware of that yourself.  You would strongly resent it if your work, your actions and your tribulations were not taken seriously.  The things we dealt with are of the same order of seriousness.  They are not more serious.  But they are serious.  At this point we must part company.  I hope that I am not bidding you farewell forever.  We have had such a close acquaintanceship that I believe that many things remain to be said.  Whenever you are able to spare some time come and visit me . . . You will be welcome” (107).




Virtue is Medicine for Humanity

Since naming my business, I occasionally run into a quizzical expression about what virtue has to do with integrative medicine.  Even worse than a speculation of irrelevance is the rare worry that I will use dogmatic definitions of virtue as a weapon against tender souls.   But consider virtue in the Aristotelian sense . . .


Virtue is the conscious, conscientious realization of happiness, through the practice of our rich and complex capacities for human excellence. 


Have you thought lately about your capacities to be excellent?  


How about your disposition to be the very embodiment of human flourishing? 


Aristotle often says that the virtue of Medicine is health.  He means that the professional practice of Medicine has its perfect goal in realizing and facilitating a healthy body.  But he is referring to health in a narrow sense—as a physical body with plumbing in working order.  It is not a stretch, given a holistic appreciation of being fully human, to say that the virtue of human healing is actually VIRTUE itself.  That is, healers and healing should aim always at human flourishing and happiness, through the practice of our capacities to be excellent in mind, body, and spirit.


Imagine how different the healing space looks when physician and patient are engaged in the art of knowing and practicing the virtue of a full humanity. Now that’s a medical prescription worth writing!


“To say that happiness is the supreme good seems a platitude, and some more distinctive account of it is still required . . . . the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.  There is a further qualification:  in a complete lifetime.  One swallow does not make a summer; neither does one day.  Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy.”  Nichomachean Ethics, 1097b22-23, 1098a17-22


Isn’t that lovely?  None of us has come into the fullness of our power.  “One swallow does not make a summer.”  So, take heart, and call upon Courage!  Our virtue is to be practiced over time, with perseverance and compassion.