Understanding Sickness and Disease through Swedenborg

Understanding Sickness and Disease through Swedenborg


An early twentieth-century physiologist
Walter Cannon spoke of the wisdom of the body and he coined the term homeostasis
to describe a body in balance. One
biological textbook writer has put it this way
“In general, the body is said to be in homeostasis when its cells’ needs – because
fundamentally we’re a huge mass of cells – when it cells’ needs are adequately
met and functional activities are occurring smoothly.” And in one sense when
you stop to think about it, right at this moment we are all a seething mass of
activity, the blood circulating, the food’s being digested, waste products are
being made, your brain is processing my sounds at some incredible speed and
turning it into meaning. And when we are well we aren’t aware of any of it. “Virtually
every organ system plays a role in maintaining the constancy of the
internal environment. We have to have adequate blood levels of vital nutrients
to be continuously present, heart activity and blood pressure are constantly
monitored by the bodily system and adjusted so that the blood is propelled
with adequate force to reach all the body tissues.” When we tend to get older people
start to complain about cold feet and cold hands at the extremities and so on
because the blood is not getting through to the distant reaches of the body.
“Additionally wastes must not be allowed to accumulate, body temperature must be
precisely controlled to ensure the proper conditions for metabolism. An
unbelievable variety of chemical, thermal, the neural factors act and interact in
complex ways – sometimes bolstering and some sometimes impeding – to help the
body maintain its ‘steady rudder’.” So when we’re well we aren’t aware of any of this.
When the systems are operating as they are designed to operate, we are at ease.
We’re not aware of the seething movement of our
functioning systems but when one or more of the systems is out of balance we’re
in a state of dis-ease or as we say commonly, we are suffering ‘disease’ which
is dis-ease. Systems aren’t in sync. Certain states of disease of course are
characterized by groups of symptoms and given medical labels. So we can talk
about asthma, bronchitis, arthritis, eczema, allergic rhinitis and so on.
The number and variety of diseases fill medical dictionaries numbering, I said
hundreds, but thousands of pages. I just brought along the Merck Manual
17th edition, almost 3000 pages with a huge number of ills to which we all
might fall heir at some stage. Something’s wrong with us, we ought to be
able to find something in there if we are clever enough. The puzzle
about all diseases however is what causes them. Whenever we seek medical
care for serious chronic conditions we rarely fail to ask but what causes. This
is especially so with a disease like cancer for it seems to be no respecter
of persons and upon its diagnosis we may be given a timetable for our time on
this earth. It’s one of those diseases that strikes fear in our hearts. It’s
diagnosis almost invariably brings questions like – Why me? What’s the
meaning of this? Whatever the private beliefs of
contemporary medical practitioners, their methods of practice imply that
sickness and health are fundamentally material and not spiritual or mental. Larry
Dossey, an American doctor whom I find a
particularly interesting writer, because he’s one of those who seems to actually
try to find what implications modern physics has for contemporary medicine in
terms of understanding that. “Health and illness, we’re told,
are a function of what the atoms and molecules in our bodies happen to
be doing at any given time. It would seem that they follow the so-called blind
laws of nature, which are inherently meaningless. This implies that meaning in
illness is something we read into nature, not something that we can legitimately draw
out of it.” So if health and sickness can be
explained in purely physical terms, our sufferings have no significance beyond
their physical description. When we are diagnosed with a serious illness, it
simply as if we won a black lottery. Time and chance happeneth to all mankind. That’s
all! If you share this idea with one another in such circumstances
it seems almost obscene. We crave more meaning than a materialist philosophy can
provide in expounding the nature of sickness. Remember when I went to see the surgeon
who had to perform the surgery with prostate cancer and fortunately after
six years or so it’s doing very well, all the indications showed that, he said to
me after six years as far as we can say you’re cured. Then he actually used the
phrase, he said, John, that if it should return it’s as if you’ve won a black
lottery. Is a materialistic philosophy of health and sickness, the climax of human
medical thought? Is the concept simply of matter-in-motion expanded into a vast
medical encyclopedia, the greatest breakthrough in the history of medicine?
I put it this way. Is matter all that matters? If so then our craving for
finding meaning in our sicknesses is merely an expression of emotional
weakness. But this craving for meaning is so deep within mankind and womankind
that it’s wise to ask whether there are valid arguments for it, and if so, what form
do they take. We may also note in passing that a materialist philosophy has
another question that it really needs to to answer, an even more fundamental one.
If matter is all that matters how then do we derive morality from it? One could
spend a lot of time researching these subjects. Presentations such as this one
I can only place a little map before you as it were, that points to some
destinations and the routes by which they may be reached. It’s not possible to
describe in detail, I’ve called it mindscape, rather than the landscape through which
we pass on our journey of discovery. In fact, the map itself is so large that I
can only place even a small part of such a map before you. So I’ll briefly
outline some aspects of contemporary thinking on the subject
then I’ll examine the understanding Swedenborg’s understanding of sickness
and health – at this stage I’ve come to understand – and finally attempt to deduce
some of the implications of Swedenborg’s ideas about
the nature of illness and health for healthy living.
Now contemporary thinking. It’s helpful to examine whether there’s
meaning in illness by considering the question as a subset of an even bigger
question. Is there meaning in nature? Sir Arthur Eddington, the early 20th century
English astronomer, he was one of the first scientists to understand
relativity theory and he became a leading exponent of it, wrote amusingly:
“The materialist (and by that he means the philosophical
materialist notion that matter is all that matters)
the materialist who is convinced that all phenomena arise from electrons and
quanta and the like controlled by mathematical formulae, must presumably
hold the belief that his wife is a rather elaborate differential
equation, but he is probably tactful enough not to obtrude this opinion in domestic life.
If this kind of scientific dissection is felt to be inadequate and irrelevant
in ordinary personal relationships, it’s surely out of place in the most personal
relationship of all – that of a human soul to a divine spirit.” Ken Wilber whom some
of you will have come across in contemporary sort of thinking and so on,
New Age thought and so on said “whereas classical physics (meaning the physics
from the time of Isaac Newton through the 19th century),
whereas classical physics was theoretically hostile to religion,
modern physics is simply indifferent to it. Physics does not support mysticism, but no
longer denies it. It’s a monumental and epochal turning point in science’s stance
towards religion; it seems highly unlikely that this change will ever be
reversed.” So if science has no opinion as to
whether there’s meaning in nature what evidence is available to support the
presence of meaning in our sicknesses. A most interesting piece of research
evidence comes from a study done in 1991 by a sociologist and an epidemiologist
at Yale Medical School. It involved two thousand eight hundred men and women
over 65. The study suggests that how we perceive our health is a better
predictor of who will live and die over the next decade than physical symptoms
and objective facts and factors such as in-depth physical examinations and
laboratory tests. These findings were consistent with five other large studies
involving twenty three thousand men and women between the ages of 19 and 94.
Apparently how we answer the question: Is your health excellent good or fair? is a
significant pointer to our longevity. Dossey notes, for example, that “people
who smoked were twice as likely to die over the next 12 years as people who did
not, whereas those who said their health was ‘poor’ were seven times more likely to
die than those who said their health was ‘excellent’.”
This question is really asking what our health means to us. But it’s necessary to
emphasize that such findings don’t imply that we should give physical
examinations of laboratory tests second place in health care. What they do
suggest is that our objective diagnoses are a necessary but not a sufficient
approach to health care. There are other
studies that reveal the importance we attach to meaning in health and illness.
Dossey for example pointed out the findings showed that “the meaning
of the relationship with one’s spouse is a major factor in the clinical expression
of heart disease; that the meaning of a job and one’s level of job dissatisfaction
can be major predictors of heart attack; that attention to the
meaning surrounding heart disease, when combined with dietary discretion,
exercise, and stress management, can improve cardiac performance and reverse
coronary artery obstructions; that the bereavement and mourning following a
spouse’s death are associated very often with severe
immune dysfunction; that negative perceptions of one’s daily job can
increase the risk of heart attack; and that for cancer patients,
group therapy in which questions of meaning are addressed can double the
survival time following diagnosis.” Whilst on this sort of point, my wife and
I have a friend whose wife died of motor neurone
disease and shortly afterwards her husband who
was a very fit man, played golf regularly, exercise regularly, suffered an extremely
severe heart attack within just a few weeks of the death. Now
this is just an anecdotal note if you like, but when he recovered and thank God
he did, in conversation one day I said to him
you know do you think – we’ll call him Tom, it wasn’t his name – do you think Tom that
perhaps you had a broken heart? He said, it’s
interesting you say that. He said, one of the nurses when he was in Saint George
private hospital said, one of the nurses said to me ‘I know what’s the matter with
you Mr. Rix, you’re suffering from a broken heart.’ And that seemed to make a change
in the way he went about his rehabilitation. For him at any rate it
was an insight that gave some meaning to what otherwise would have appeared to
have been simply a random physical illness. And since that time he’s in very
good health. Of course he’s gotta watch his heart, it was
a major heart attack. Of course he’s got to be careful what he does but his
doctor said to him ‘As you feel you can do things physical you keep doing them.’
And so far he’s going very well. With a different form of evidence of the
importance of belief and mental and emotional context and symptoms in its
significance for health care, comes from Nazi concentration camps.
The man named Bruno Bettelheim was an inmate of the camps and was a
psychologist. He wrote about the experience in a very famous book called
‘The Informed Heart’. He was struck by the fact that physical strength and good
health, all other things being equal, were not the most accurate
predictors of survival. Big men physically, in good health were quite often
the ones who were among the first to succumb to the rigors of the camp. Inmates
with lower strength and health levels but who possessed a strongly held set
of values such as a religious faith, tended to have a higher chance of
survival than those who possessed physical strength and health but lacked
a strong value system of beliefs. What we believe is an important factor in
determining our health and these are just a few examples challenging the idea
that our health and illness can be explained solely in terms of matter. Now
let us come to Swedenborg. He does not seem – he
published prolifically, didn’t he, incredible. Everytime I look at that leaflet that
you put out, that lists in three sections all of his works and you look at the
number of pages and you look at his inventions and if you look at the
languages that he wrote and spoke and you remember that he wrote everything in
Latin and it was already by quill and ink with candlelight and lamps rather than
electricity and computers and all the rest of it. You look at this you find that
it just blows the mind away. But interestingly
he doesn’t seem to have published a specific work on health
and sickness. Consequently the immensity of his writings presents us with the
problem of how to to make a systematic study of his treatment of the subject. We associate
illness with the body. Our language expresses this in
the phrase ‘our bodily ills’. Swedenborg wrote voluminously about
the body, the soul and how they interact. In fact it was really the center of his
life and the center of his life’s work. But a logical place to begin is
therefore with his explanation of the nature of the body. In the ‘Classics of
Western Spirituality’ series, two of his works were put together. ‘Emanuel
Swedenborg, the Universal Human and Soul-Body Interaction’ was edited and
translated by George Dole. The first part of the volume, about 180 pages, is devoted
to excerpts from the ‘Arcana Celestia’. It included paragraphs 5711
to 5726 headed �Continuation Concerning Correspondence,
here Concerning the Correspondence of Diseases with the Spiritual World�. The
second part, just 26 pages, is a complete work which he calls ‘Soul-Body
Interaction’. The fundamental concept at the heart of both works is of course the
Doctrine of Correspondences that everything soul and spirit has a kind of
physical correspondence. The publication dates and the nature of the two works
however is significant for me at least. The sections of the Arcana were
published between 1747 and 1753 but ‘Soul-Body Interaction’, this very concise work,
was published thirteen years later in 1769 when Swedenborg was 81.
Dole describes the Arcana excerpts as empirical and the Soul-Body section
as philosophical. I suggest that the latter work published so late in his
life is a succinct summary of his mature thought of the relationship between soul
and body. It is within that relationship that his
comments on illness need to be understood.
So in 2996 of the Arcana he wrote “The most obscure fact in the world is that
everything in the human body has a correspondence with something in heaven.
This holds true to the point that there is not the smallest particle of the
body that does not have something spiritual and heavenly corresponding to
it or – which is the same – that does not have a corresponding heavenly community.”
Then he says “these communities exist according to all the categories and
subcategories of spiritual and heavenly realities. Indeed, they exist in a design
such that they reflect, taken all together a single person. This is why
heaven in its entirety is called the Universal Human.” And so on. Then he says
“this is why it is so often stated that a particular community belongs to this
particular region of the body.” When you look at Worcester’s work – this one here – The
Physiological Correspondences, you can begin to understand as he talks about
the tongue, the mouth, the liver, the lungs, etc etc begins to
talk about these things he says “this particular community belongs
to this particular region of the body, another to another, and so on. The reason
is that the Lord is the only person, and heaven portrays Him. The Divine Good and
the Divine True comes from the Lord is what makes heaven; and since angels are
involved in this, they are said to be ‘in the Lord’.” Here’s the interesting part.
“In contrast, the people who are in Hell are outside the Universal Human, and have
a correspondence with waste products and disorders.” And of course we need to
understand Swedenborg’s understanding of hell. I suggest the last statement about those
who are in hell points to how Swedenborg seems to understand the nature of
illness. It’s never easy to summarize Swedenborg’s thought for any subject both concisely and
accurately. His reasoning is so tight that the omission of even one
phrase or sentence may usually result in inaccuracy. Nevertheless I’ll quote from a
few paragraphs in an edited fashion in an attempt to highlight, I think, might be
possibly the core of his ideas about the nature of illness. First of all
where does it come from? Well he says in Arcana 5712
“Diseases also have their correspondence with the
spiritual world; not a correspondence with heaven, with those who are in what is
opposite, that is, with those who are in the hells. Diseases have correspondence
with those because they correspond – this is the part that drew my attention and
interested me and as a homeopath becomes very interesting –
diseases have correspondence with those because they correspond to the lusts and
passions of the lower mind, which are also their origins; for the origins of
diseases are, in general, intemperance luxury of various kinds,
mere bodily pleasures, as also feelings of envy, hatred, revenge, lewdness, and the
like, which destroy man’s interior things; and when these are destroyed the
exterior things suffer, and drag man into disease, and so into death. All
this shows that even diseases have correspondence with the spiritual world,
but with unclean things there.” Now not unclean in the sense in which we think, bacteria
and infection, but unclean in the way in
which Swedenborg defines it. “Heaven which is the Grand Man, holds all things
together in connection and safety; hell, being opposite, destroys and severs all
things.” And of course for Swedenborg hell is associated with love of self and
failure to love truth in its most comprehensive sense. So the
source of disease. Now I’ve asked myself ‘How on earth do these spirits bring
about disease?’ and here from a 21st century perspective it reads very
strangely. “There once appeared”, this is Arcana 5715 “there
once appeared a great quadrangular opening that slanted downward to a
considerable depth. In the deep was seen a round opening, which presently was
closed. From it exhaled a dangerous heat, collected from various hells, and arising
from lusts of various kinds, namely arrogance, lewdness, adultery, hatred,
revenge, quarrels, strife; for from these arise the hells such heat as was then enhaled.”
Now of course we talk about a man with a hot
temper, don’t we? Their very language begins to point to
some of these things. “When it acted upon my body (this is where it gets interesting)
when enacted upon my body – that’s Swedenborg’s body – it instantly brought on
disease like that of a burning fever but when it ceased to flow in this semblance
of disease at once ceased.” But it’s true, isn’t it? Swedenborg says that it’s the
influx from the Divine that animates us and comes in and makes us
the people that we are if we only open ourselves to it.
“But when it ceased to flow in this semblance of disease at once ceased.”
I think interestingly, when he talks about the
semblance of disease. As a Homeopath, a way in which we
find out what our remedies do is that we prove them. And when I say we
prove them, I don’t mean that I do this but this has been done over the centuries. What
happens is that you find a number of healthy people and you give them a
remedy, a particular procedure that you follow and you get them to observe, and
others to observe, the effects the medicines have on a healthy person.
Because the fundamental homeopathic principle is let like cure like.
Whatever symptoms a medicine can cause in a healthy person, it can cure in a
sick person. So in a very simple way we know that caffeine is a stimulant. Many
people say I can’t sleep at night if I have a cup of coffee. One of the remedies that
homeopaths uses for sleeplessness, don’t think it’s the only one, or the one you’ll
always be prescribed, is Coffea. Let like cure like.
A minute dose of Coffea and in some instances do great work for people
who are poor sleepers. So I could make some kind of link with these words of
Swedenborg. “When it acted upon my body, it instantly brought on disease
like that of a burning fever. When it ceased to flow in, this semblance of
disease at once ceased.” Because when people prove a homeopathic medicine
they don’t actually suffer the disease they suffer symptoms that somehow mirror
or mimic the disease. “When a man contracts a disease by his
manner of life, an unclean sphere corresponding to the disease forthwith
attaches itself, and is present as a fomenting cause. That I might be certain of this,
there have been spirits with me from a number of hells, through whom the spheres
of exhalations thence was communicated; and according as it was allowed to act upon
the solid parts of my body, I was seized with oppression, pain, even with the
corresponding disease, which ceased in an instant when those spirits were driven away;
and that no room for doubt might be left, this has
been done a thousand times.” Quite strange yet given Swedenborg’s sanity and the clarity
of mind it’s really interesting. We’ve had one statement about the source
of disease, one statement about how – what he describes as the hells is connected
to it and then he uses the concept of inundation. And this is where it’s really
interesting because he links this to the right and left sides of the brain. “An
inundation is twofold, one of lusts, and the other of falsities. (We might call it
roughly feelings and ideas) That of lusts belongs to the will and is on the
right side of the brain.” Which of course is correct. The right side of the brain
is the emotional side, the creative side of the brain. Swedenborg’s writing this
in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century.
“When a man who has lived in good is remitted into selfhood,
thus into the sphere of his own life, there then appears as it were an
inundation; and when he is in this, he is indignant and angry, thinks restlessly
and desires impetuously. This takes place in one way when the left side
of the brain where there are falsities is inundated, and in another when the
right side where there are evils is inundated.
But when a man is kept in the sphere of life which he had received from the
Lord by regeneration, he is there entirely out of such an inundation, and is as it were
in a serene and sunny, cheerful and happy state, thus far away
from indignation, anger, unrest, lusts and the like.”
Finally, he provides an account of how he believes illness first manifests itself in
the body. Here he focuses on the blood and blood vessels. He says that the
source of death is sin and since sin is contrary to Divine order evil closes, he says,
“the very smallest and invisible vessels, of which are composed
the next larger ones, these also being invisible; for the vessels which are
smallest of all and wholly invisible are continued from man’s interiors. Hence
comes the first and inmost obstruction, and hence the first and inmost
vitiation of the blood. When this increases, it causes disease and
finally death. If a man had lived a life of good, his interiors would be opened to heaven
and through heaven to the Lord; and so too would the very least
and most invisible little vessels. In consequence man would be without disease,
and would merely decline to extreme old age, until he became again a
little child, but a wise one; and when the body could no longer minister to his
internal man or spirit, he would pass without disease out of his earthly body
such as the Angels have, thus out of the world directly into heaven.” I must
say, when I read all this, and try to make sense of it in the 21st century, you ask
yourself – Is this where one really parts way with Swedenborg? How helpful are
these ideas in understanding illness in the 21st century? A medical researcher
today would not receive funding for research into diseases based on Swedenborg’s
account of the nature and source of illness. Yet his own life illustrates
his thinking. I do not think Swedenborg’s long life was just chance.
Swedenborg as successfully as any human being appears to have resolved the
polarities of living that we all face. His sanity, his serenity, his grace, his
goodness are the marks of health. The manner of his death is that of a man at
peace with himself and the world. If one reads his biographers carefully it’s
possible to discover some of the tensions that he had to resolve
during his life. The absence of anger and
fear in his writings is remarkable. I don’t think I know of any other writer
and I’m a reasonably well-read person having been, you know, a major in English
literature and read and read. As I often say to
people who don’t know me very well, above all I’m a bookie not of the betting kind.
I know literature reasonably well and history
and so on and I can’t think of any writer in whom there is less anger and less fear
than Emmanuel Swedenborg. So there’s something here. Question is, can we
unravel it in any form that might be useful to us? First of all, his accounts
of the nature of disease in various parts of the body as emanating from the
variety of spirits in Hell is unusual and certainly controversial. From our
perspective in the 21st century, this is my solution at the problem, I think we can
say that Swedenborg’s attempt to identify the causes of symptoms mixed
philosophical understanding with physiological descriptions and thus
led to what we consider to be strange statements. Given his belief that the
source of life is The Lord who is Love and Wisdom, that heaven and spirit find
expression in matter and the body, his account of disease is logically valid.
Even if you don’t agree with all the terminology. In Heaven and Hell, for
example in 128 he wrote “For the mind which is spirit, acts, and the body, which
is matter, is acted upon.” It says it all. But if that’s true, it must have
implications for health and illness. If we accept these accounts of the nature
of sickness it seems valid to say that illness in a
strange way probably does have a moral dimension. It’s important to remember how
Swedenborg came to these conclusions. His religious upbringing, his scientific
education, his first visit to England, his work as Mines Assessor in Sweden, all
combined to stimulate his imagination and led him to seek the chain of causes
behind the visible world. He sought to account for the origin and structure of
matter. These studies led to his formulation of
the Doctrine and Series of Degrees and to the conclusion that living matter
could only assume its multitudinous forms as a result of a positive directing
force. This was the soul for Swedenborg. He quoted Grotius with approval: “As well
might we believe that stones and timbers come together by chance into the form of
a house or that an accidental concourse of letters produces a poem.” There
is a guiding force. Homeopathy, the founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann
used the term vital force which has parallels with some of Swedenborg’s
ideas. Toksvig whose biography of Swedenborg I find particularly
interesting; personally I think she writes as well as
anybody I’ve ever read on Swedenborg, I think she has a wonderful
facility for understanding his work, being able to
make his scientific work and all its complexity, comprehensible to the
ordinary reader. Her summary of the issue I think is both succinct and
striking: “The body is something that is fabricated by the soul for its own purposes.
Once the body is made, it has a certain reciprocal relationship with the soul,
but the soul, besides being the manufacturer, is the maintainer and
repairer of the body as long as the thing is repairable.” Now, what’s
interested me about all this, is that Swedenborg reaches these conclusions
after exhaustive studies of the blood, the brain, the heart, with the leading anatomists
of the day and after a detailed study of the embryo of the
chicken. He concluded that the directing force of the body’s development was
within the very embryo itself. I found it interesting that in the work of
Toksvig, she has a wonderful chapter on the book he called ‘The economy of the
Animal Kingdom’ but she points out should truly have been translated ‘The
organization of the Soul’s Kingdom, that is, the body.’ And this is her description
of the work. “This work is a bridge. It’s colossal archers span most of the
distance between the mining engineer and the mystic. The latter can be understood
by those predisposed in his favor even if they do not try to understand
Swedenborg’s science and philosophy and skip chapters 9 and 10 of this biography,
but if they give up this effort they will certainly have to be content with a house
that has no foundations.” This is what I’d like to point out
to us tonight, particularly those of you for whom Swedenborg is an extremely
important center of your life. His scientific thinking was the pathway through
which he reached his conclusions about the nature of the soul and spirits
and God as Wisdom and Love. It’s interesting to speculate if he were
alive today with the far greater understanding of how the body functions
that we enjoy, whether he would account the origins of disease in terms of
spirits in Hell which destroy and sever all things, in contrast with the
Grand Man who holds all things together in connection and safety. If we were
suffering severe oppression and pain in the abdomen or numbness in the joints,
how helpful is the following account in relieving the condition? And this is
Swedenborg writing in Arcana 5723. He said “There were spirits with me who
induced so severe an oppression in the abdomen that I felt as if I were dying. The
oppression was so great that with others it would have brought on a swoon. But they
were removed, and then it at once ceased. I was told that these spirits in the
life of the body had been devoted to no serious pursuit, even a domestic one.”
For those of you who understand what Swedenborg means by spirits and spirits
and having a life before they become spirits and so on. “I was told that in
the life of the body, they’ve been devoted to no serious pursuit, (that is
they didn’t love wisdom, didn’t have love, they didn’t have wisdom) but solely
devoted, solely to pleasure and besides had lived in foul idleness and sloth, and had
not cared anything for others. Moreover, they had despised their faith.
In short, they had been animals, not men. Their sphere produces numbness in
the members and joints of the sick.” Well when we’re slothful, joints and muscles
atrophy but do they necessarily go numb and why would such spirits cause severe abdominal
discomfort? But I suggest that
Swedenborg’s central idea that physical symptoms have their origin at the
spiritual level has very strong support from many sources both medical
and non-medical. A few examples were given at the beginning of the paper. We may
reject his detailed account of how symptoms manifest in the various bodily
systems while accepting the core insights which he provides on the subject.
Philip Groves, well known to the Sydney Society, provide some examples of how the
emotions manifest in physical symptoms. In a paper that he called ‘The diagnosis
of Health’ he wrote “Emotional life (it’s almost
like Swedenborg) emotional life is rooted in
the visceral organs and is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, the limbic
system, the hypothalamus in the brain and the endocrine glands. Many chronic
ailments arise from the chronic action of powerful emotions upon various organs
and body segments.” I have to say to you incidentally that in my very very
modest and limited experience, I don’t think I’ve seen one person with a
serious deep-seated chronic condition who when you say to them can you
identify when this began – and often they can – and then you say to them “tell me
what was happening in your life, the six to twelve months before that time.”
With almost without exception, there’s a trauma, death in the family, loss of job,
breakdown with relationship, children on drugs etcetera etcetera. It’s as if the mind
and the emotions are the beginnings of the
problems and the physical symptomatology is almost an outworking
of it in our total system. So Philip Groves gave that description and he
said here are some examples. Throat trouble. I had a lady who illustrated
this perfectly. “Pharyngitis and stricture of the throat are often the result of
anxiety. The very word ‘anxiety’ in its origin means ‘to clutch at the throat’. It
is also the outcome of long-lasting unresolved grief. (Which is why some
people lose their voice in mourning.) In some people the pharyngeal plexus is
repressed by emotional forces which try to prevent a person talking
about various things which is supposedly forbidden.” Gall Stones, Philip Groves suggest,
are “quite often are associated with states of jealousy or resentment and
especially chronic feelings of being imposed upon. Rheumatism, he wrote, is
commonly associated with a number of long-standing emotional states.” I believe
this. “There is often chronic setting of
muscles, tendons, and ligaments to acts of resentment which, for reasons of moral
conviction, or fear, are never performed. There is also cynicism, criticism, and
antagonism. Not infrequently these are repressed states that do not show up in
consciousness. Indeed, many of these patients are mild-mannered, quiet and
inoffensive people, but they are victims of unresolved emotion.” They carry the
resentment, thet carry the pain, they carry the humiliation, the desire to hit back
for a long long time. I’ll give one further modern example. Dethlefsen and Rudiger Dahlke
in the Foreword to their stimulating book ‘The Healing Power of Illness’, said
“this book deprives people of illness as an alibi for their unresolved problems.
We propose to show that the patient is not the innocent victim of some quirk of
nature, but perhaps even the author of their own sickness. From this viewpoint
symptoms are seen to be bodily expressions of psychological conflicts,
able through their symbolism to reveal the patient’s current problems.” Sounded a
very simple way. You might have someone with arthritis in the shoulders
who would say to you quite unconsciously and unaware in the course of a
consultation ‘You know, I feel I’ve got the weight of the world on my shoulders’. Our
language tells it over and over again so often if you just have the
ear to hear and the mind to attend. Their discussion of high blood pressure
illustrates their claim. Blood has several important characteristics. First of all
it symbolizes life. Want to talk about the taking life, we talk about the shedding
of blood. It is both the physical vehicle of life and is the expression of our individuality.
Every drop of blood contains the whole person.
Blood pressure is an expression of our dynamism and involves two elements in
tension – the flow of blood and the resistance it meets in the walls of the
blood vessels. It’s the resistance provided by the walls of the blood
vessels symbolize the limits that we set ourselves in our lives. In Hypertonia
or high blood pressure, we have a phenomenon in which thinking about an
issue can raise our blood pressure as well as the increase in pressure caused
by physical activity. So if I’ve got to dig in
the garden and get out a big rock, go away with the pick, the blood pressure will go
up. But don’t we also say, when someone makes
us angry, ‘My word, it raised my blood pressure.’ It’s true. “The raised blood
pressure has its physiological justification precisely in temporarily
supplying more energy so that the tasks and conflicts facing us can be dealt
with more efficiently and energetically. If this happens, the applied solution
uses up then the excess energy and the pressure goes back to its normal level.
But those with high blood pressure fail to resolve their conflicts and the result
is that the excess pressure is not used up. Rather do they take refuge in
superficial ‘busyness’ very often, attempting through great external
activity to divert both themselves and others from the challenge actually to
get to grips with the conflict.” It’s true. You can see it very often and you can
see also why it is that for such people if they’re told to take it easy, and
they take it easy, it makes no difference because what is causing that pressure to
rise hasn’t been released. Hasn’t been dealt with, hasn’t been solved.
And these two authors suggests that hypertonia is a sign of frustrated
aggression. It’s more common in men. The real hostility to stuck at the
conceptual level and the extra energy is not appropriately discharged.
People with high blood pressure are often people who place great emphasis on
self-restraint. The aggressive impulse raises the
pressure but the blood vessels contract to keep the pressure under control if
the extra energy is not discharged. Swedenborg would have understood this
account of the meaning of high blood pressure. In fact, he probably provided
the explanation. Of course, if high blood pressure is more common in men, low blood
pressure is more common in women because they tend to be more accepting, more
passive, etcetera. One is not saying it in any
sense as a joke or a criticism. It’s just very interesting the way in which these
two phenomena illustrate our genders and the way in which we work.
I want to say to you just one other, one that
just happened to me just a week or so ago. A young Muslim man comes to me and
is very impressive. Not because he’s a muslim, well in one sense perhaps, not because he’s
a muslim but the way his religion affects his life. It’s quite a devout family. They
talk very much about what what allergy means. They are great readers
of the Quran. Iin fact next Saturday they leave for what they call the Hajj, the
pilgrimage to Mecca. And this young man is terribly frustrated.
His sexual drives are very great. In the culture of which he is a member, family
does not want him going out with young women. The only way in which he can see
a solution along those lines is to marry. He wants to marry, his father doesn’t want
him to marry as yet. So amongst other things he
is immensely frustrated. So what does he do? Well, his mother says to me, “he gets
very angry. I don’t think he means anything but he gets very angry with me.”
He says to me, “yes I do, I do get angry. I don’t want to.” So what
does he do? He goes to the gym. So what happens when he goes to the gym? The
reason he comes to me is because he says, him lifting weights, “I’ve hurt my shoulder.
In doing my exercises I hurt my knee.” What’s he doing? I’m suggesting to
you that what he’s doing is that he’s turned the anger on himself. And he is
slowly destroying himself. I put this proposition to his mother and she said I
think your right. So she put the proposition to her son. He said, “No! Mr Maitland has
got it wrong. I hurt myself and that’s what makes me angry.” That’s in total
contrast to what a Swedenborgian view would be.
Which comes first? A physical problem or the anger? What makes him work so hard in the
gym that he keeps destroying himself? These descriptions of how
emotion and physical symptoms are related to one another give both meaning
to our illnesses and demonstrate the primacy of mental and emotional states in
many instances over their physical manifestations. If we’ve fallen over and broken a leg going
down the steps etcetera, well we say we’ve just broken a leg, or we are opening a tin
and we cut ourselves. But if you went a bit deeper you might
find that we’ve cut ourselves opening the tin because we’re in a hurry to
come and give the lecture tonight. You know, how far can you go in this? Well
you probably go further than we generally think we can. Why is it that we
lose concentration so that we trip down the step? They also point to the presence
of a moral dimension to much of illness. We may not follow Swedenborg uncritically
in his account of the mind-body relationship, especially with regard to
illness and source in the illness and so on, but his wonderful analysis of the
nature of that relationship and the doctrine of degrees and correspondences
provides us with a pathway to the discovery of meaning in our illness. If
we discover that meaning early enough, it may enable us to attain healing and not
just change in physical symptoms. Swedenborg understood the universe as
the expression of love and wisdom emanating from the Lord. He taught that
when we express seek to express love and find wisdom for their own sakes we
are healthy. When we pursue them, not for their own sakes but for other uses, we are
ill. Psalm 139 reminds us that the one from whom
we have our being knows us in the greatest intimacy.
We cannot hide from him. To seek the Lord above all else is the first step towards health.
“For it was you before my inward parts, you knit me together in my
mother’s womb.” This might be Swedenborg writing of human beings since he understood
the embryo of the chicken. “I praise you Lord for I am fearfully and
wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, that I know very well. My frame was
not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the
depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance, in
your books were written all the days that were formed for me when none of
them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts oh God, how vast is the
sum of them. I tried to count them. They are more than the sand. I come to the end.
I am still with you.”

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