Every day in homoeopathic practice we engage with “the spirit-like life force that enlivens the material organism” and the “hidden spirit-like power” within our medicines. These forces are invisible and intangible, as are the two great forces which shape our world; Eros (life) and Thanatos (death). The task of the homoeopath is to assist the patient to unfurl from out of mystery, into maturity, and back into mystery, with the minimum degree of friction (holding on) and the maximum degree of flow (letting go) thus enabling as healthy a passage as possible.
How do we do that?
Essentially, in my experience, by acknowledging mystery, the unknown, the unknowable, and developing a working relationship with it, with the invisible, intangible, “spirit-like” aspects of life and human being. Also, by cultivating an authentic presence and a deepening awareness of the natural times and tides, cycles or seasons in the process of human maturation, including the importance of death.
I would like to offer a world-view for your consideration, a bigger picture; a greater totality, within which to frame homoeopathy. I want to speak lightly about things which are familiar or difficult yet from a perspective which, I hope, will encourage further thought or at least bring some refreshment.
My homoeopathic practice has been influenced primarily by the thoughts of two men: Dr Samuel Hahnemann and Lao Tzu, “The Old Master”, a Chinese sage whose authentic voice has sounded through the “Tao Te Ching” for two and a half thousand years. “Tao Te Ching”: “The book of the Way and its Power”.
This is the central work on Taoism just as Hahnemann’s “Organon of the Medical Art” is the central work on homoeopathy. The “Tao Te Ching” is not the easiest of books to read; full of insights and enigma, poetry and paradox it is not so much a book to read and understand; more one to ponder on as it offers an almost meditative experience to the reader.
I have been walking away from and coming back to the “Tao Te Ching” for over 40 years and, much like water slowly wears down rock, it has quietly influenced my life and practice, smoothed into me somehow. There are many translations but the ones which have spoken to me the most are these:
“The Tao Te Ching”, Lao Tzu
Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English;
Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo;
I have also been influenced by Alan Watts and his book, “Tao, the Watercourse Way”, and entertained by Benjamin Hoff and his “Tao of Pooh”. Many of us have also enjoyed Ian Watson’s excellent little book, “The Tao of Homeopathy”; I hope to bring a different tone to the conversation. I would like to offer a brief overview of philosophical Taoism as I understand it, and a consideration of how it chimes with homoeopathy.
The model of Lao Tzu has evolved from un-prejudiced observation and deep meditation; it is grounded in the experiences of many, many people over several thousand years. A primary principle is that there is nothing but energy, or Ch’i, the universal breath-force which surges through endless transformations; all the energy and matter of the Universe as one tissue, simultaneously; the densest aspect of Ch’i is matter, the least dense is infinite potential. Einstein describes this energy as “the field” and says that it is the “only reality”.
Another primary principle is that everything changes; the only constant is change;
“Everything flows and nothing abides” (Heraclitus).
You cannot step in the same river twice and you cannot treat the same patient again (consider how 98% of the atoms in our body have changed over one year). I know that we all know this yet we so often act as if we do not; embracing change and simply joining in the dance can liberate us from so much anxiety!
Another fundamental principle is that of polarity. We live in a polarised world organised into pairs of opposites such as day and night, empty and full, energy and matter, health and sickness, susceptibility and immunity, life and death, which give rise to, complement and complete one another.
“Recognize beauty and ugliness is born
Recognize good and evil is born.
Is and Isn’t give birth to one another.
Hard depends on easy
Long is tested by short
High is determined by low
Noise is harmonized by music
After is followed by before.” Verse 2
All of these are ultimately recognized as expressions of YIN and YANG, the universal pair of polar opposites which contain all the others and whose dynamic interaction produces the constant process of change. Western thought has always favoured one pole over the other, pitted one against the other; good against bad, light against dark, positive against negative, male over female. This contributes to a linear mode of thought rather than a cyclical one, and gives rise to the absurd notion of “progress”. It is not possible to have one pole without the other; north without south, for example, or self without other, poverty without wealth, sickness without health. Attempting to eradicate one pole is futile and threatens the whole; we live in a polarised universe, that’s it! We must learn to hold the tension between these pairs of opposites, learn to dance to the rhythm of ebb and flow, “lub” and “dup”.
The empirical world, the “ten thousand things”, living and non-living, is in constant transformation and perpetually emerges, blooms forth from a mysterious and generative source and then returns to that source only to re-emerge in a different form in the ceaseless process of change; birth-death-rebirth. This mysterious, generative source is primal, undifferentiated and potential energy or ch’i, without form; somehow it differentiates, becomes energy within form and shapes itself into the ten thousand things. “Without form” and “within form” establishes the universal principle of polarity, of Yang (masculine) and Yin (feminine). The mysterious generative force is nameless and formless; sometimes referred to as “non-being”, “nothing”, “absence” or “void”. Somehow it gives birth to form, which can be named and known; gives rise to being, something; to presence.
“All things originate from being.
Being originates from non-being.” Verse 40
Both non-being and being are made of the same stuff, Ch’i, but once that stuff differentiates they have different names; this and that.
Each of the “ten thousand things” living and non-living, is a fleeting form, an expression of the generative source, is the source’s doing; IS the source, the Tao; much like a wave is an expression of the ocean.
Lao Tzu did not know what to call this mysterious generative source and, whilst he referred to it as “dark enigma” for example, he called it “Tao” or “Way”. I understand him to mean that this is the way the world works, that the generative source yields the “ten thousand things” which then return to that source, over and over and over.
“Return is the motion of Tao; Yielding is the way of Tao.” Verse 40
Imagine, if you can, an infinite field of black nothing; of undifferentiated, primal and potential energy; non-being. Somehow, perhaps simply for this mystery to experience itself, it comes to a head, to a tiny point of white, of differentiation. Suddenly there is this from that! There is something from nothing, presence from absence, being from non-being, tangible from intangible, on from off, 1 from 0. The mysterious generative force flows into being and blooms forth, shapes itself into “the ten thousand things” which then return to the source in the constant cycles of transformation; birth-death-renewal.
Incidentally, 0/1 is the binary number system in which all numeric values are represented by different combinations of 0 and 1; also known as off and on. Binary is the primary language for computers as it is simple, elegant and efficient in its representation of reality. Yin and Yang run through our keyboards, the Tao is everywhere!
The current scientific theory of our universe’s origin sounds remarkably similar to Lao Tzu’s model. It suggests that the entire vastness of the universe, including all its matter and energy, time and space, was compressed into a hot, dense mass; a single incredibly tiny point which somehow emerged from “some ancient and unknown type of energy” (Tao or non-being). Scientists believe that an unprecedented cosmic event, “The Big Bang”, blasted out from that tiny point (being) around ten to twenty billion years ago and that within a trillion trillionth of a second the universe expanded with incomprehensible speed from tiny point to astronomical size. As time passed and matter cooled, more diverse kinds of atoms began to form and eventually condensed into our universe (“the ten thousand things”). The universe is still expanding, but more slowly, and is expected, eventually, to collapse in on itself (and so return to non-being, no-thing, absence, the void).
Most of us humans at some point have looked up at the night sky and been awed by the stunning beauty of the billions of stars and planets; what holds them is space, nothing-ness, the void; that absence out of which stars appear.
“In Absence you see mystery
In Presence you see appearance.
Though the two are one and the same,
Once they arise, they differ in name.
One and the same they’re called dark enigma,
Dark enigma deep within dark enigma,
Gateway of all mystery.” Verse 1)
Lao Tzu tells us that the Tao which can be spoken about is not the Tao, yet perhaps in meditation we can experience the process of Way, Tao, as thought blooms forth from empty mind and falls away, back into nothing; as the distinction between subject and object blurs or dissolves, as we abide with things just as they are. Some Taoist sages would walk out into Nature and drink wine by a waterfall or under a full moon and enjoy the feeling of one-ness that arises when distinctions blur; similar to the blurring of distinctions at a good festival.
Blurring distinctions between this and that transcends polarity and moves us towards being unprejudiced. In our culture the media focuses on distinctions and tends to polarize all “debate”; we can’t vote “remain” if there isn’t a vote for “leave”. Now that we have had “I want to stay” and “I want to go” the only sane way forward is to become “we” again, what are we going to do? Less “either/or” and more “and/both”.
Acknowledging “and/both” means holding that tension between the opposites; this offers a middle way, a path which transcends polarity and allows us to travel the edge between the known and unknown, order and chaos.
From the Taoist perspective, life is impartial, it treats all things just the same and Lao Tzu encourages us to treat all people the same, with respect and without judgement. People often ask how life is treating me and I reply, “Like it always does, impartially, but my attitude to it seems good at the moment.” Life is impersonal as well, so taking things personally is likely to cause resistance; “Why me/why not me?”
A key concept of Taoism is “Tzu jan” which means “self so” or “of itself”, a term which describes the ten thousand things emerging or flowing spontaneously or naturally from the generative mystery; just so, each in its season, each according to its own nature, each dying or breaking down and returning to the endless process of change only to reappear again in another self generating form; the great cycles of birth-death-rebirth. This has echoes in the “Gaia Hypothesis” of James Lovelock; that the Earth is a self generating and self-regulating whole organism in constant transformation. Just so, each living thing is a self generating and self regulating whole organism in constant transformation.
The Taoist Way is simply to be; un-forced and un-self consciously participating in the burgeoning through the practice of “Wu-wei”, non-action, doing nothing. This suggests allowing things to be as they are, not interfering or forcing, striving, trying or contending; “don’t push the river, it flows by itself”. The suggestion is to study the natural order of things and go with the flow, work with the grain, pee with the wind behind you and roll with the punch; sailors and surfers and martial artists do this, taking the path of least resistance. This is not as passive as it may first appear for it involves focus and a clear attention to flow. Through immersing ourselves in the situation to hand, and allowing the forces which shape it, the way to go emerges, just so. A good example would be the surfer who has first to position herself where good waves are likely; this often takes effort. Once in position she has to wait, and wait, until the time is right to paddle like hell and, hopefully, catch the wave; it is the energy of the wave which carries her to shore. In life we have to position ourselves to catch an opportunity. If we want a partner, house, job we have to position ourselves, with the right attitude, and wait for the opportunity to arise…and then act, as appropriately as the situation demands, hoping that the energy of the situation will carry us to the house, job or partner. There is power in alignment with the forces which shape our world.
Going with the flow doesn’t mean that life is easy, that difficulties don’t arise; it is just that they are less likely to be made worse. By resisting less we contribute less to counteraction, turbulence, disturbance and pain; to fewer complications downstream.
A deeper sense of “wu-wei”, doing nothing, comes from a consideration of its mirror image, “nothing doing” or “nothing’s doing”, the doing done by nothing, by mystery; “what springtime does to the cherry tree.” The “ten thousand things” are created from seeming nothing, mystery; they are nothing’s own doing! Wu-wei is actually the motion of Tzu-jan so when we practice wu-wei we act AS the mysterious generative source itself; we act as Tao. This is known as “non-action” or “right action”.
I am mystery, Tao, the source, experiencing itself in this particular way that we call “Mo”; “Mo” is an activity of the Tao, is the Tao’s doing; “I” am simply a pattern in the stream and then I am gone…..and we are all “I”, we are each IT, we are each Tao, the mystery, experiencing itself. If we perceive Life as the organic expression of mystery, Tao, then we don’t have a life, we are life!
Therefore, everything flows and changes; only no-thing abides, only mystery, Tao.
The tricky part for us humans is that we are self-conscious, we experience ourselves as separate from the rest of Nature; “We are the one part of creation that knows what it is like to live in exile.”(David Whyte). Crow is crow, mountain is mountain; we think we are this or that. Lao Tzu suggests that we stop our endless self reflection, get over ourselves and embrace simplicity; observe the weave of things and work with it rather than against it because trying to change what is creates resistance, friction and pain. Stop trying and simply BE: get out of your own way.
“Best to be like water,
Which benefits the ten thousand things
And does not contend.”Verse 8
Water does not try, strive or force; it does not coerce; it just flows, effortlessly; yet the Grand Canyon is a dramatic example of how the softness of water can overcome the hardness of rock. Water flows from high to low, favouring low, keeping low, and following gravity; falling and tumbling down to the sea, rising as clouds only to fall again as rain and snow. Watching the ocean, have you ever seen an imperfect wave?
We are 70-80% water; we too flow, we too fall; in love and asleep; we fall ill (the word symptom is derived from the Greek, “syn-piptein”, to fall) we fall apart, we fall in and out; our tears fall and our heart sinks; we stand or fall together; our collective delusion that we are separate from Nature is a consequence of what we call “The Fall” of man. Nations and individuals rise and fall; as do our chests in breathing. All things, always, finally fall, back into the ground of their being or the mysterious source: “Return is the motion of Tao”, gravity rules!
I think Hahnemann’s homoeopathy fits well with Lao Tzu’s model. Both are founded upon un-prejudiced observation and grounded in experience. Both are filled with seeming paradox and neither can be grasped through thinking alone. Taoism is a spirituality of direct experience, based upon observation and meditation. Hahnemann writes of the “medicine of experience” and differentiates between “wissen”, knowledge gained from books etc and kennen, knowledge gained through direct experience. Both embrace and work with the invisible, intangible and “spirit-like”; with ch’i and vital force. The homoeopath, for example, acknowledges an organizing principle named dynamis by Hahnemann and recognizes that symptoms are an expression of disturbed life force, that dynamis, mind and life itself are non-molecular; we can only recognise them from the phenomena they produce. Just because these things are immaterial does not mean that they are unimportant!
To be clear, I am not suggesting that homoeopathy is a spiritual practice. It is not, in and of itself; it is a medical art, founded on principles and grounded in over two centuries of experience. However, it seems to me that any exploration and study of any kind of medicine and healing surely has to consider these intangibles and so have a spiritual aspect; this is nothing to do with religion but is a simple acknowledgement of mystery, of the unknown, which we can all experience such as that stillness when somebody dies. I think that an acknowledgement of mystery helps to keep us humble.
“Knowing not-knowing is strength.
Not knowing not-knowing is affliction.” Verse 71
The Taoist sage abides within the self creating whole organism which is this world and the homoeopath abides with the unique, self creating whole organism which is the patient, one of seven billion worlds on this planet, “as common as a field daisy and as singular” (Mary Oliver); a one off event in space and time, totally individual and needing to be treated as such yet an intrinsic part of the whole. Homoeopaths treat people as individuals and as communities, as in the genus epidemicus.
Both recognize and work with the power of nothing, of nothing’s own doing:
“Thirty spokes gathered at each hub:
Absence makes the wheel work.
A storage jar fashioned out of clay:
Absence makes the jar work.
Doors and windows cut in a house:
Absence makes the house work.
Presence gives things their value,
Absence makes them work.” Verse 11
Homoeopaths work with potencies, medicines with “nothing in them” and continue to be astounded at their effectiveness. I have often prescribed CM and MM potencies and been delighted with the result; so much nothing! We know that humans are not as solid as we look; the nucleus of every atom is like a grain of sand on the floor of St Paul’s cathedral; we are filled with space, with nothing. In our consultations we give space, allow space for the patient to be; we hold the space, hold nothing so that something can happen, of itself, tzu-jan. We give mindful attention to immediate experience and this brings us close to the Tao, to a beginning place where everything happens.
The Taoist practises wu-wei, going with the flow while the homoeopath prescribes medicines which go with the organism’s best attempt at maintaining balance, homeostasis. The homoeopathic prescription is based upon the symptom complex or inbegriff; the minimum of symptoms with the maximum value which characterize the way in which the individual creates and expresses the dynamic disturbance. A medicine is given which, in trials on healthy people, induces a similar disturbance and so goes with, supports and amplifies the efforts of the vital force. (Anti-pathic prescriptions force, coerce, go against and so suppress the natural order).
Both recognize the importance of timing (repetition of dose) and of waiting; waiting for the acute to become clear; “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the way becomes clear?” (Chuangtse) Both appreciate that action is followed by counter action:
“Return is the motion of Tao; Yielding is the way of Tao”.
“Our life force strives to oppose this impinging action with its own energy. This back action belongs to our sustentive power of life and is called the counteraction.” Aphorism 63
Both recognize that extreme action is followed by extreme counteraction and so the ideal is just enough, a minimum. Hahnemann’s concept of the minimum dose is echoed in Lao Tzu’s verse 44:
“Know what is enough-
Know when to stop-
This reminds me of the Arndt-Schultz law of pharmacology (now known as Hormesis): “Small doses of a medicine stimulate, medium doses paralyze and large doses kill.”
Hippocrates: “In the treatment of disease make a habit of two things; either help or at least do no harm.” That’s us. Celebrate!
“To gather, you must scatter.
To weaken, you must strengthen.
To abandon, you must foster.
To take, you must give.
Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.” Verse 36
To heal, you must first make sick; this echoes what we call the “homoeopathic aggravation”, the noticing that things often have to get a little worse before they get better.
Both recognize and utilise polarity. Within the homoeopathic Materia Medica poisons can become medicines (through potentization) and many medicines exhibit a striking polarity within their symptom picture e.g. the tidal nature of Natrum muriaticum. Daily, in homoeopathic practice we hold and explore the tension between poison and medicine, sickness and health, vital force and miasm, and, in extremis, between Eros, life, and Thanatos, death.
Both homoeopathy and Taoism are profoundly ecological, honouring Nature and working with it as part of it, not against it. In this sense too, I believe, both are deeply feminine. While the Tao cannot really be described, Lao Tzu speaks of it as “dark female-enigma”, the generative mystery, and encourages us to “know the masculine yet keep to the feminine”. Homeopaths need to hone the bright sword of discernment in deciding what needs to be cured for example, and fully utilise the rational mind (masculine); yet are much more interested in the subjective experience of the patient than the objective signs of disease, and are open to the intuitive and emotional aspects of human being. Embracing the whole patient rather than breaking it down into organs and disease names etc. is a fundamentally feminine approach, certainly more so than conventional medicine which is often described as “heroic”.
So, as medicine men and women we attend fully to the suffering of our patients; attend with compassion and empathy, with patience and kindness. Yet we can, at the same time, hold the greater totality; that we are fleeting phenomena and that for all of us, in our time, death comes; comes to allow further renewal….and that is simply the way of it!
Lao Tzu encouraged us to embrace simplicity while Hahnemann wrote that “Homoeopathy is an entirely simple medical art”. It has been my noticing that we sometimes make it complicated; it is my encouragement that we keep it simple.
In the myths of ancient China the awesome force of change was embodied in Dragon.
“A dragon was in constant transformation, writhing through all creation and all destruction, shaping itself into the “ten thousand things” tumbling through their traceless transformations.” (David Hinton).
Through this poetic lens, we are all dragon!
According to legend, when Confucius met Lao Tzu he said, “It was like facing a dragon!” In ancient China the term was also sometimes used to honour an old master, wise and vital, a force for change. Hahnemann, father of homoeopathy, died in Paris at the grand old age of 88, married to Melanie, 40 years younger than him; he had a thriving practice and an influence which is still felt today; wise and vital, a force for change; a true Dragon of medicine.
It continues to be my experience that homoeopathy is the medicine of dragon, of Tao, of the Way.
Since this piece is more poetic than academic, I have not referenced in the usual manner. Most of what I offer here has come from my own experience interwoven with the thoughts of Lao Tzu and Hahnemann; the two main sources are these:
“Tao Te Ching”, Lao Tzu; translated by David Hinton
“Organon of the Medical Art”, Samuel Hahnemann; edited by Wenda Brewster O’Reilly