“The mind tends to go off in its own so that it seems to have no relevance to the physical world. At the same time materialistic life can be so absorbing that we get caught in it and forget about spirituality. What we need is soul, in the middle, holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.” Marsilio Ficino (15th c.)
Ficino’s words may as well have been written at the dawn of the 21st century for they apply equally today as they did back in the 15th century. Perhaps not much has changed in terms of what most people consider a priority in their lives and how most choose to care for themselves and for each other.
It is not uncommon for many of us to spend inordinate amounts of time and money to enhance our body and the image we project of it to the outside world. Whether it’s with the aim of securing our next partner or to achieve that ever-elusive “ever fit, trim, taut and terrific” exterior, it’s very much accepted (even expected) that the body deserves to be the subject and object of desire. So, literally millions of dollars are spent annually on gym memberships, solarium’s and fashion in the name of ‘looking good’.
Perhaps there’s a tad too much emphasis placed on the external? Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with keeping ‘the bod’ in shape and garbed in the latest and finest but what about the rest of who we are and what we are made up of? What about the inside of us? We tend to collectively forget or actively deny that there are other parts of us that are of equal importance and in equal need of care and attention… namely our mind and spirit.
So why is taking care of our mental, emotional and spiritual state often seen as such an ‘uncool thing to do’ and why do so many wait until the literal ‘break-down point’ before any attention is seriously, deliberately or systematically given to the presenting or underlying problem? My contention is simple…. we go to the gym to work on the outside of ourselves and sometimes its wise and fruitful to balance our regime and undergo some kind of ‘interior work’ to ensure we’re not neglecting the very parts of us that seem to make up our psychological and emotional ‘inner world’.
There tends to be a huge blind spot when it comes to what may underlie the most common complaints that we counsellors and therapists hear every day. I repeatedly come across expressions of depression, emptiness, meaninglessness, disillusionment around relationships, loss of values and craving for personal fulfillment.
Thomas Moore in his book ‘Care of the Soul’ suggests that all of these types of symptoms reflect a loss of soul that signal what the soul craves. He goes on to say “We yearn excessively for entertainment, power, intimacy, sexual fulfillment and material things and we think we can find these things if we discover the right relationship or job… but without soul, whatever we find will be unsatisfying, for what we truly long for is the soul in each of these areas. Lacking that soulfulness, we attempt to gather these alluring satisfactions to us in greater masses, thinking apparently that quantity will make up for quality”.
According to the ancient Indian philosophy of Vedanta we are all made up of body, mind, and intellect. The body houses our physical existence, our emotions emanate from our mind and the intellect is perhaps best described as the ‘seat of the soul’, that is, that part of us that is not affected by our neuroses, the ‘emotional and/or psychological baggage of our past’, that sees things clearly and is aware of entirety of ‘Self’ in the spiritual sense of the word.
The intellect is best described with words like ‘discernment, reason, thinking, logic and analysis’ whereas the mind is synonymous with our ‘feelings, likes, dislikes, impulses and desires’. All three faculties are deemed important, though exponents of Vedanta advise that allowing the mind to take indiscriminate control in our life is tantamount to allowing a child to play with matches and live explosives. This is because the mind tends to ramble (between worries about the past and anxieties around the future), pitch up insatiable desires (like a fire burning out of control) and form attachments to what are deemed possessions (including people and material goods). The purpose of the intellect is to hold the mind in place. Strengthening the intellect comes when there is concentration or focus on some kind of “higher goal” and there is commensurate consistency of purpose and action.
You may well ask, so what Tony? What does all this have to do with ‘Health and Beauty?’ Perhaps restating my original contention in another way may help. Health is not just simply about bodily health and Beauty is not just about external, skin-deep appearance. Hence, total ‘Health & Beauty’ is also about paying balanced attention and reverence to all of what’s going on ‘inside of us’; something you may or may not need help with, depending on your capacity to know and care for yourself and your ability to apply wisdom and experience to your present moment.
The aim of all counselling and/or therapy is to align with our deeper understanding of who we are and what we really want. As a consequence of a more healthy, compassionate and enhanced relationship with self we are better positioned to enjoy enhanced relationships with others.
This process of balancing and ‘healing into the present’ must begin with a process or ‘inner journey’ of some kind. The only way to get to know ourselves at a deep level is to begin to explore why we are the way we are and to look at the way we react to life’s events. In this way we develop a way of understanding where our emotional reactions have come from. What we can understand we can influence, at least to some degree, and hence we are in a better position to choose responses that are more skilful or beneficial.
The work of understanding our basic foundations is vital and yet it is often the very process that is avoided; hence, the repetition of outworn, unproductive or in some cases, outright dangerous patterns of behaviour of dealing (or not dealing) with life and its events. The relentless and heady ‘escape into drugs and entertainment’ is clear evidence of this avoidance and we all know what happens when this is left to repeat and intensify without the necessary checks and balances put into place.
To use another analogy, how can you find ‘the treasure’ of say, fulfillment, if you don’t have a reference point on the map? If you don’t know where you are? Without this understanding how can you take the next step in the right direction? Yet most try to find ‘happiness or bliss’ by digging around in the dark, hoping to eventually strike it lucky!
Counselling or therapy is the process of understanding ourselves enough so as to be able to take steps in the right direction or simply be without the pain and suffering. With right kind of balanced approach, we can heal the deep division, in which mind is separated from body and spirituality is at odds with materialism. Perhaps it is no wonder that a constant focus on only certain parts of the self (e.g the convenient exterior image) may eventually lead to a sense of being ‘not quite whole’, of feelings like “I can’t keep it (all) together” or of “I’m falling apart” or “It feels like I’m breaking up… (or down)!”
If we continue to hold fragmented views of ourselves and our existence it should not be surprising that some of us will continue to suffer from feelings of fragmentation, emptiness or a deep-rooted sense of loneliness and isolation. There is sometimes cause to be wary of the image for what lies beneath the surface will eventually need to ‘voice itself’ and you may not like to hear what it has to say! It is at this point that the neglected parts of ourselves awaken and demand attention like a very loud and hungry child. It is at this point that there is often an eruption into various forms of symptoms like depression, anxiety, turmoil within the self and hence, conflict with others. A wise person once said “What is within… is without” This of course is true for individuals as it is for communities, cultures and entire nations.
Perhaps another way out of this ‘split’ is via cultivating a better, more complete and balanced understanding of who we really and what we’re really made up of. It is only from there that we are better able to recognise and care for the soul. I have had the privileged of seeing how developing a more holistic view of self can lead to a deeper and longer lasting sense of health & beauty. You may have met such people, they tend to shine from within and are most likely to be the healthiest and most beautiful people you care to meet, regardless of their ‘body-suit’.
The alternative can be the painful and debilitating process of bumping around in the dark, hoping to find what you’re looking for and being perpetually afraid of falling down a crevice and into the abyss. “And that simply wouldn’t be a good look, now would it!?”
* About the Author
Tony Africano is a counsellor and therapist who runs his own practice from ‘The Lindsay Centre’ in Mount Lawley. He is a Graduate Member of the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors and has undertaken training in psychotherapy with The Churchill Clinic here in Western Australia. He is available for private consultations and can be contacted on 9228 1527.