A Short Course for Physicians and Patients

10 Things Medical School Does Not Teach …
But Everyone Should Know

Eighth Lesson

Signs: Symptoms and Symbols

Symptoms are potentially meaningful and purposeful conditions.
They could be the beginning of a fantastic phase of life,
or they could bring one amazingly close to the center of existence

Arnold Mindell

Last time, I shared a great story retold from the Korean Zen tradition which was meant to turn us toward looking more deeply into the illnesses and problems we face. All of which are effects of inner causes. When we ponder long and intently upon them, their true natures can be uncovered for enlightenment as well as healing.

Now, I should throw in a proviso that trying to come to understanding of inner causes is warranted for serious ills or injuries. But, spending time, energy and sometimes worry trying to figure out the cause of a stubbed toe or a runny nose can amount to real waste. Which can add to anxiety and lead to neuroses or even more serious problems. We are most often our own worst enemies and misdirected thought and emotion can exacerbate as well as cause ills.

I should also respond to concerns commonly offered on the order of: “Well, people don’t want to or can’t hear that they have responsibility for their ailments. Don’t you just add guilt to their original complaint when talking this way?”

My response goes something like this: “When people have reached the ‘Age of Responsibility’ they can relate to these ideas. When they haven’t, the topic should be avoided. That ‘Age of Responsibility’ is not dependent on chronological years but on the development of the Soul.

We all know some who are much wiser than their years. And others who are quite like children throughout most of their lives.

So for those who can understand and learn at whatever age, the Biblical dictum is worth our consideration:

“Seek and ye shall find, Ask and it shall be given, Knock and the door shall open.”


Today, I offer my own personal stories regarding symptoms and symbols of illness from which I have gained some measure awareness. Maybe the reader can relate to one or the other of them.

• Looking back over seven decades of life, I recognize the year of my internship in Family Practice internship at Martin Army Hospital in Fort Benning, GA, as the most stressful in my life. Even though I had just gotten my medical diploma and was still in training, I tried to practice medicine as a Cayce Doctor more than an Army Doctor. [Google Edgar Cayce, if the name is not familiar to you.] That didn’t go over well with the Powers That Be in my internship. I was placed on probation before completing my first rotation on the wards. Thereafter I tried to keep a lower profile, but often looked over my shoulder wondering about what I might have done to disturb patient or proctor, what else did I do wrong, why my number was being paged, etc.

In the same period, my wife and I separated. I moved in with a fellow intern. It was a very hard time trying to deal with all the changes and challenges, most of which were clearly of my own making. I struggled, was depressed and frustrated, fearful and uncomfortable in my world and in my body.

It should have been no surprise that before my internship year ended, I turned YELLOW. My fellow intern diagnosed me with Hepatitis, non-A, non-B. There was a consolation, as I got a couple weeks off at home to recuperate while being extracted from an ENT rotation I really disliked. Synchronistically, my wife and I had reconciled a few days before my Yellow Blush took over.

Looking back it was obvious that my emotions were bubbling to the surface. My solar plexus center was cramped and congested. The liver and spleen and associated parts were then under real challenge. Later on, I uncovered an aphorism which fit my situation quite well: The liver is the seat of smoldering anger [and fear].

Only over long years have I learned to live with and express my emotions. But not always in the best manner. I eventually compiled a list of a dozen terms by which I avoided saying “I am angry” without using the word.

As the Gospel of Thomas says, “If you do not bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will destroy you. If you bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will heal you.”

I am still working on this one. Life is a healing process. I am alive and life is a great healer.

• Another instructive incident in my personal health life came several years later after I was divorced and discharged from the Army. I had been having a long-distance relationship with a woman named Suzanne. We were talking about her moving down to Phoenix after a summer trip. I traveled to Denver and we drove off to Chicago with her two young sons for a combined medical convention-vacation excursion.

By the time of our return trip, tensions were building and things just didn’t look promising for a shared future. A combined living arrangement was out of the question. I thought we would discuss the situation when we got back to Denver.

Well, we didn’t have to wait that long. My throat became sore and painful by the time we made a short stop along the way at my parents’ home. Looking in the mirror, I “diagnosed” strep throat. No penicillin for me, though. I did not, however, begin a much needed conversation. Suzanne did. She hit the nail on the head. She said we should let it go and part ways in Denver.

Thankfully, I was able to chime in. My pent-up energy released and my throat was clear within 24 hours. The throat center through which I channel expressive energy, most obviously through speech, was “choked.” In this instance, another person was there to nudge open the gate. I, however, had to collaborate in the process and open my consciousness.

• The major health challenge of my life came during the winter of 2001 when I was 52 years old.  At the time, I was preparing to take a Cross-Country Walk from Montana to New York City during the coming summer. In early February, I began to have a heavy, oppressive feeling in and around my chest. I struggled with my discomfort in simple natural ways on my own until the problem came to a head and “I thought I was gonna die.”

It was Easter, I was imagining my own resurrection. But, there were several more stages to pass when I journeyed, with help, to sit with my father. At the same moment, he had been taken to the local hospital in South Dakota and found to have a cancer in his chest. Both of us had challenges of the heart center.

Despite my discomforts, I traveled to my home town to care for my father for the last five weeks of his life. While the experience was quite taxing, it was also almost magical at times. I realized how much my father and I had in common. That we had a deep, subtle bond which goes beyond words. For many days, I cared for him as parents do for their children. When he passed, the oppression in my chest gradually lifted after my heart had opened more fully. A year later, I walked from Montana to New York City.

Now, I have to say that few physicians can deal consciously with issues such as those discussed above. Because they are doctors of “physick,” the physical body. Because they have very little training regarding mental-emotional states, and nothing with regard to the spiritual dimensions of life. They are uniformly young when trained, and have had relatively few life challenges by the time they put up a shingle and begin to “practice” medicine.
Until those things change in the medical system, it behooves thoughtful people – all of whom will become patients sooner or later – to take stock of themselves especially when illness and injury occur. [When they are of Responsible Age and Mind.]

We can look beyond the surface. The body part which becomes the focus of one’s problem hides a spirit which is trying to work out into active consciousness. Avoid medical and surgical interventions which often add to the problem.

We ought to study the pictures which are being painted upon the body, read the story being told within our own life, and take the opportunity to grow into our broader and wider, deeper and fuller Self.

Send comments to theportableschool at gmail dot com.

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