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The Thought Behind the Action - Why mental symptoms?

Ann Jerome Croce , PHDEvery homeopath can tell you how amazed patients often are at their first casetaking. We have all heard comments such as "I've never had a doctor ask me all these questions before" and "Now you know me better than my wife does." Usually the amazement is a positive feeling; patients feel that their homeopath has taken the time and effort to understand them fully and to listen carefully to the ways in which they perceive themselves and the world. Sometimes the amazement isn't so positive and the comments are more like, "I only came here so you could fix my eczema; why are you prying into my personal business?!"

The homeopath's detailed questioning about thoughts and feelings is not what people today expect in their health care. When allopathic physicians approach physical ailments, they focus on the physical aspects of the patient, particularly the affected part. A sore throat is considered to be an ailment of the throat, and symptoms in other parts of the person are thought to be unrelated, as is any information the patient might volunteer about his or her thoughts and feelings. In homeopathy, different aspects of the person are considered to be interrelated. If someone with a sore throat shares the information that she was fired from her job last week, the homeopath understands this to be relevant and investigates it further: what happened at work, and how does the patient feel about it? The answers may be the key to selecting the right remedy.

Samuel Hahnemann himself emphasized the importance of the mental and emotional state. In the Organon, aphorisms 210 and 211, he wrote, "In all cases of disease to be cured, the patient's emotional state should be noted as one of the most preeminent symptoms," so that "the patient's emotional state often tips the scales in the selection of the homeopathic remedy." Rajan Sankaran, who has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the meaning of the mental-emotional state, writes in The Spirit of Homeopathy that "the most marked difference between two individuals suffering from the same condition lies in their mental state and in their general symptoms" and that by basing his remedy choice on the mental state he has successfully "treated patients with remedies not even remotely associated with the [physical] problem they came with!" (2nd ed., pp. 11 and 12).

How can it be that the mental state is the key to the physical ailment? We wonder this because, in the modern world since Descartes, we habitually divide mind from body. We think of the body as working almost like a machine, standardized and predictable, while the mysterious mind, in its connection with emotion and spirit, inhabits a more nebulous realm. We look for medicines that will dry up a runny nose without "side effects" such as drowsiness and irritability, ignoring the impossibility of taking anything into ourselves and having it affect only one single part. We overlook the inconsistency of our own thinking when we acknowledge that cancer may have a mental-emotional component and yet judge that we have treated it fully when we eradicate its local manifestation in the body.

In The Science of Homeopathy, George Vithoulkas includes a diagram which illustrates the homeopathic understanding of the relationship between the mental and the physical states. In his diagram, the mental sphere is the center, with the emotional sphere surrounding it and the physical as the outer ring. He explains that "the mental level is the most crucial level for the human being. It is the mental and spiritual content of a person which is the true essence of that person" (p. 25). Accordingly, while cautioning that homeopathic case analysis "is not a mathematical process, and it cannot be done by routine methods" (p. 195), he indicates that mental symptoms are generally given more weight than physical ones (p. 192).

A holistic therapy, homeopathy understands the parts of an organism to be interconnected and intercommunicating. As Vithoulkas puts it, "Every stimulus, every emotion, and every thought has a corresponding effect to some degree on all levels of the body simultaneously and instantaneously" (p. 49). The mental sphere, which is at the center of this web of connections, most clearly expresses the nature of the totality. The mental state, in other words, reflects what is happening on every level of the person. Materia medica itself provides innumerable examples of this principle. For example, consider Pulsatilla, whose changeable nature runs throughout every level. Physically, Pulsatilla has stools which are changeable in color, consistency, and timing; menses which are changeable in the same ways; and pains which shift rapidly and unpredictably from one place to another. Emotionally, Pulsatilla is capricious and volatile, weeping easily and then being equally easily comforted. Mentally, Pulsatilla is described as "an April day," irresolute and with a tendency for thoughts to wander and opinions to change. As one Pulsatilla patient put it, she can be "famous for my crying" at every little thing, and this attribute is at the center of her total being and is reflected at every level in the ease with which she moves from one state to another, sometimes even without any apparent stimulus to change. A homeopath who sees this pattern clearly and connects the mental state with its correspondences on other levels can not only choose her correct remedy but also correctly assess its effects over time.

In homeopathic philosophy, the mental state occupies a special place in the totality. The vital force animates the organism at every level, but it is especially active and subject to observation in the mental sphere. In aphorism 211, Hahnemann goes on to characterize the mental-emotional state as the one which "can least remain hidden from the exactly observing physician." The mental state is the most important to the organism's survival, so it is the one most closely guarded by the vital force, and therefore the one which most clearly bespeaks the nature of the vital force. By observing the mental-emotional state closely, the homeopath can come to understand the ways in which the vital force works throughout the person. Again Vithoulkas clarifies this concept, this time in his book, Homeopathy: Medicine of the New Man. "When something is created by man, it is first conceived in his mind," he writes, referring to the homeopathic concept that disease is not an invader from outside but an expression of susceptibility from within. "When a morbific agent comes in contact with a susceptible organism then the disease is conceived on a dynamic level. Only later do we feel and see its results in the organism" (p. 92). The mind and emotions occupy the dynamic level of the person and are first to respond, however subtly, to the changes occurring within it; the physical body will show the results of this process only later and in a weaker and less characteristic way. The mental state, therefore, is the one which soonest and most clearly reveals the nature of the person both in health and in disease.

Moreover, as the deepest level of the person, the mental state is the key to deep healing throughout the person. It is common that patients come for relief from physical complaints without either noticing their mental and emotional problems or expecting that these can be relieved as well. A patient seeking treatment for her arthritis, for instance, may have learned to live with memory loss by making lists and depending on others, but the remedy that addresses this person as a whole should improve her memory as well as her arthritic symptoms. The person who has become accustomed to a bout of depression every winter may be pleasantly surprised to find that his homeopathic treatment for allergies keeps his spirits up all year. Often, even people who have no noticeable mental or emotional problems find themselves more peaceful and alert after a remedy, as their mental state moves from good to better. This kind of healing can happen only when the remedy resonates with the mental level as well as the physical; it comes from the homeopath's "prying" into the mental characteristics of the patient.

The mental state can also be the factor that allows the homeopath to distinguish among a number of remedies whose physical symptoms are similar.

For instance, an infant with a runny nose in the daytime and a cough at night could receive one remedy if he is irritable and a different one if he is clingy. Moreover, the clingy infant's hanging on his mother could have a pathetic, weepy quality as in Pulsatilla, or it could have an anxious, fearful quality as in Phosphorus or Arsenicum. To differentiate further, he could cling to his mother all the time he is ill, as Arsenicum might, or he could run to her and want her to hold him only when he hears a loud noise or sees something frightening, as in Phosphorus. The mental picture can be the key to understanding the true state of the patient as a whole, and thus the key to individualizing the remedy choice.

It is indeed a new and unusual experience for many people in today's material-focused world to be asked to explain the intricate workings of their mind and heart. For some, self-understanding results from such introspection; for others, it comes after the remedy. Opening the mind and heart to the peace of understanding and acceptance may be yet one more contribution that homeopathy can make to the future of humanity.

About the author:

Ann Jerome Croce, PhD, CCH, is a tenured Professor of American Studies at Stetson University, having earned her BA at Yale and MA/PhD at Brown University. She is also a homeopathic assistant to Joya Lynn Schoen, MD, in Orlando, Florida; teaches "A Course in Classical Homeopathy" for practitioners; and has authored numerous articles for homeopathic and other scholarly journals.