Steps towards Inner Harmony

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A look at the self through some principles of Harmony

 

by John Hunter

From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise ye more than dead.
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And music's pow'r obey. [ii]

How to bring about change?

 

It is an age-old question: does change come from society or the individual? It could be argued that we know, more or less, what we should be doing to bring about a more harmonious society and a more harmonious relationship with our environment, which begs the question, “Why aren’t we doing it?”

Undoubtedly there are socio-political factors, nevertheless society could be more proactive in highlighting environmental and ecological issues, fostering communities, and educating our youth with a more holistic syllabus - but there is another factor which needs to be brought into the discussion. Most people now accept that the planetary ecology is out of balance, but so are human beings. Surely, we cannot hope to bring about harmony in the external world while ignoring it in ourselves!


In this essay I would like to explore the question of balance within the individual: the harmony principle of health and wellbeing.

Firstly some definitions. According to the World Health Organisation:

 

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” [iii]


This is rather vague. It almost says “health is wellbeing”, without defining “wellbeing”. It actually highlights the fact that Western medicine does not really have a theory of health.

Harmony is defined in many different ways. Here are two examples:

 

“A consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts” [iv] and

“Order or congruity of parts to their whole or to one another.” [v]

 

I would prefer a combination of the two:

 

“A consistent, orderly, or pleasing congruity of parts to their whole or to one another”,

 

as by including the word “whole” we highlight another harmony principle: the principle of oneness.

The whole, not the parts.

 

A human being is a complex organism, the study of which has tended to be pursued by looking more at the parts than the whole. From the perspective of modern medicine we are split into “systems”: respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, etc. Look at the departments of any hospital and you will find; cardiology, ENT, gastroenterology, gynaecology, haematology, nephrology, neurology, ophthalmology, orthopaedics, urology…; to these we might add psychiatry. It would be easy to think of ourselves as a collection of parts, but how are they related, be they organs, systems, functions or energies? It seems we have lost a sense of the unity of the organism. I recently came across this warning written over eighty years ago:


“…the extension of scientific research brought about a rapid increase in technical knowledge in medicine … and created a bewildering multiplication of specialties. Although all these specialties originate from and depend upon common scientific principles, they have become separated in medical education and in practice, and therefore the specialist often subordinates the patient as a whole to his preoccupation with an organ or symptom.” [vi]


Since that time, further advances in medical science and the enormous amount of information from research studies, new drugs and increasing subspecialisation means that we are further than ever from a view of the whole organism, and continue to treat organs and systems rather than the person. As a result, a patient may have to see one doctor for their diabetes, another for their heart, a third for their eyes, a fourth for their osteoarthritis, a fifth for their hip operation, a sixth for their knee operation, a seventh for their chronic pain control and an eighth for their depression. Each doctor may prescribe drugs and it is not unusual to see patients taking more than a dozen drugs which interact in ways we cannot really appreciate, potentially creating side effects and even new diseases. Then where can we find a medical system or a philosophy that looks at the “congruity of parts to their whole”: the principle of interconnectedness within our own organism?

Actually there are many instances in the world’s wisdom traditions of this search for an understanding that links everything together, that seeks to restore harmony and balance. Throughout history, religious and spiritual teachings have seen human nature as reflecting the “elemental” forces or components of nature, and the elemental forces of nature as being reflected in humankind. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles is credited with the notion of four elements (or “roots”, as he termed them): earth, water, fire and air. These elements are subject to two forces: love, the force which attracts and strife, the force which repels. How similar to the principle of yin and yang found in Taoism [vii], which also has an elemental understanding of relationship and transformation through fire, water, earth, wood and metal!

Even earlier in history, and further east, the renowned surgeon and teacher of Ayurveda, Sushruta,  defined health as:


“...a state of equilibrium of Tridosha (fundamental physiological governing principles of the body), Agni (metabolic and digestive processes) and Dhatu (principles that uphold the formation of body tissues).” [viii]

 

The bridge between antiquity and medieval Europe was the influential Medical School of Salerno, where ancient Arabic and Greek texts were translated and studied, bringing to Western medicine the ideas of Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna.
 
In all of the above-mentioned traditions, the elements also define human “types”, which in the West were known as sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic: the four humours or temperaments. Neither modern medicine nor education acknowledge, in the way that our ancestors did and many Eastern cultures still do, that there are different types of people. Types are seen in the principle of diversity usually only from the perspective of “race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies” [ix]. The humoral understanding of human nature underpinned not only medicine but also psychology; it was part of the collective consciousness. William Shakespeare used this principle in Henry IV, parts one and two; the four main characters are each of a particular temperament – King Henry IV is melancholic, Prince Hal is sanguine, Sir Harry Hotspur choleric, Sir John Falstaff phlegmatic – and his audience would have recognised them as “types”. Ben Jonson wrote the play: Every Man out of His Humour. T S Elliot, it is thought, based his Four Quartets on the four elements and Carl Jung’s psychological types were inspired by the theory of humours. These ideas dominated medicine for more than 1300 years and it was not really until the rise of controlled empirical science in the mid-19th century that they were discarded. Did we throw out the baby with the bathwater? Was there something of real value in an approach which linked psychology, physical health and the environment in a direct way through the elements and types? In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and Unani Tibb these concepts are still very much alive.

What are the other factors which contribute to a state of wellbeing? How can we find internal harmony in our day to day lives?
 
Plato, almost certainly drawing on the teachings of Pythagoras, wrote some 2400 years ago:


“The just man does not allow the several elements in his soul to usurp one another's functions; he is indeed one who sets his house in order, by self-mastery and discipline coming to be at peace with himself, and bringing into tune those three parts, like the terms in the proportion of a musical scale, the highest and lowest notes and the mean between them, with all the intermediate intervals. Only when he has linked these parts together in well-tempered harmony and has made himself one man instead of many, will he be ready to go about whatever he may have to do...” [x]

The tripartite nature of human beings has been advocated by many teachers and philosophers, ancient and modern, and is considered by some (controversially but with significant supporters) to be inherent in our evolution (triune brain theory [xi]).
 
Whatever the origin of this evident division may be, Plato makes the point still valid today that some kind of discipline or self-mastery is needed to bring about inner harmony. What are the options?
 
The advances of civilisation have allowed us to create relatively safe, protected environments in which a certain state of alertness, necessary for survival by both predator and prey in the natural environment, can easily become dormant. Various systems of exercise have arisen but all too often they are ones which lead to a further separation of mind and body, being primarily seen as physical activity unconnected with mental or emotional content. In the same way as one might take one’s dog for a walk, we take our bodies to the gym; we work with machines whilst distracting the mind with music or videos, thereby increasing the separation of mind and body. Without doubt, a reasonable amount of exercise, more or less of any kind, is good for our health, so what else is needed and why does it matter?

 

There are certainly therapeutic benefits from cultivating mind-body awareness, as four decades of helping people suffering from backpain and other complaints has convinced me: however, in order to develop as human beings, it is the degree of inner “connectedness” which is key. Looked at from this perspective, subtle mind-body methods which bring our parts into relationship are more relevant than exercise: disciplines from East and West, certain types of dance and movement, singing — all are helpful. In some Eastern countries one finds a greater integration of the somatic (body-awareness) aspect  in their culture. What a wonderful sight it is to see groups of people – even elderly – performing their morning exercises, based on Taoist traditions of Qigong and T’ai chi ch'üan dating back millennia [xii]; or the meditative calmness in both mind and body in the Japanese tea ceremony. [xiii] In some Mediterranean countries, Greece for example, and in many Eastern European countries [xiv] the tradition of folk dancing has been kept alive in a way which is difficult to find in the UK outside of Cecil Sharpe House [xv]. At a Romanian wedding, sooner or later, everyone will end up in a circle doing traditional dances. For anyone who has ever given it a try, it is self-evident that practical tasks go better when accompanied by music and rhythm, because we are bringing more of ourselves to the task, as exampled in traditional work songs from many cultures. [xvi]
 
There are consequences when we develop in a lopsided way. Alan Watts expressed it very well: 

 

"A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. So, he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusions. By thoughts, I mean specifically, chatter in the skull. Perpetual and compulsive repetition of words, of reckoning and calculating. I’m not saying that thinking is bad. Like everything else, it’s useful in moderation. A good servant but a bad monster. And all so-called civilized peoples have increasingly become crazy and self-destructive because, through excessive thinking they have lost touch with reality..."
 
"...We are so tied up in our minds, that we’ve lost our senses and don’t realize that the air stinks, water tastes of chlorine, the human landscape looks like a trash heap, and much of our food tastes like plastic. Time to wake up. What is reality?" [xvii]


 It is to address this imbalance that an “embodiment” subculture is growing - and it needs to. If we were more in balance ourselves we would be less tolerant of the unacceptable and often toxic state of our environment.
 
Let us also consider modern education in the Western World. It is interesting to note that the word boasts two distinct etymologies, both from Latin: 1) educare, meaning “to train” and 2) educere, meaning “to draw out” [xviii]. Whichever etymology of the word you prefer, it seems that “training” is now dominant and, moreover, with a strong bias in modern education towards training the mind. With a few notable exceptions (Steiner, Froebel, and Montessori come to mind) there has been little attempt to “draw out” what may be inherent in a child and scant regard to “bringing into tune those three parts” which are the birth right of a human being. The pioneering “all-round” approach of Sir Anthony Seldon [xix] and Richard Dunne’s Harmony in Education [xx] initiative must not become voices “crying in the wilderness” of the National Curriculum.
 
In this increasingly secular age, which sees the world as mechanical, scientific knowledge and technical capacity risk becoming far removed from a sense of values, meaning and purpose. It is, therefore, all the more important that one finds some way of reconnecting with Life, not as a series of events but in the ontological sense of experiencing “aliveness”, both in oneself and in Nature; a personal practice -- meditation, contemplation, prayer, for example -- that connects us with the transcendent and awakens deeper feelings of belonging, gratitude and service.

About Harmony in Health

In the summer of 2019 a small group of people were invited by Dr Eleni Tsiompanou to join her in forming a specialist group within the College of Medicine to explore harmony principles in relation to health and wellbeing, and to be the College’s link with the Harmony Project. We aim to connect natural approaches with modern ideas that are in conformity with Nature and enhance its healing aspects aiming to restore balance in a human being by:

  • cultivating and maintaining health rather than focusing on diagnosing and trying to cure disease

  • advocating gentle, compassionate and natural interventions that nurture the whole ‘environment’ in a person and enhance natural rhythms, rather than interventions that are imposed mechanically and one-dimensionally – regardless of consequences

  • cultivating a harmonious relationship between mind, body and emotions

Over the last year our team has grown to include specialists in herbal medicine, Ayurveda, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Qi Gong, Dance and Movement, Physical Theatre techniques, neuroscience, philosophy of medicine, anthropology. We have given Harmony workshops in Central London (pre-lockdown) on Interconnectedness & Interdependence and Zoom workshops on Bringing Harmony into the Classroom, Natural Breathing, Taste, Types and Natural Exercise; further such events are planned to give support to the community in a period of restricted social interaction. We are currently building our transdisciplinary team of experts to:

  • conduct research

  • develop programmes of Harmony in Health in Education

  • develop Harmony in Health templates for how to cultivate health in the workplace

We would be pleased to hear from people who would like to collaborate with us in taking our project forward. 

Endnotes


[i] John has for over 40 years been studying and then teaching the Alexander Technique; he also practises Yoga and Qigong together with other mind-body and spiritual practices. He is a member of the Harmony in Health team at the College of Medicine.
[ii] A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687, by John Dryden
[iii] Preamble to the Constitution of WHO as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June - 22 July 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of WHO, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. The definition has not been amended since 1948. See: https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/frequently-asked-questions
[iv] https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/harmony
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Dr Ludwig Kast, Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation: A Review by the President of Activities for the Six Years Ended Dec 31, 1936.
[vii] Taoism is an umbrella term for many different practices and traditions that developed over millennia. See: Taoism An Essential Guide Eva Wong SHAMBHALA Boston & London 2011.
[viii] Gopal Basisht, Exploring insights towards definition and laws of health in Ayurveda: Global health perspective, www.researchgate.net/publication/280241061
[ix] https://www.qcc.cuny.edu/diversity/definition.html
[x] Plato, Republic 443d (Cornford translation, 138-9)
[xi] MacLean P. D. (1990). The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. New York: Plenum Press. The theory forms the basis of Dr Peter Levine’s approach to treating trauma (Somatic Experiencing). See also Polyvagal Theory developed by Stephen Porges.
[xii] See, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-PeMnWzeNc
[xiii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n_uCwCYvQo
[xiv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJaxgsn5t5I
[xv] Home of The English Folk Dance and Song Society in Regent’s Park, London: https://www.efdss.org/
[xvi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mskqvrmw-zM
[xvii] https://www.alanwatts.org/2-5-6-art-of-meditation/
[xviii] Educare and Educere: Is a Balance Possible in the Educational System? by Randall V. Bass and J. W. Good
The Educational Forum, Volume 68, Winter 2004. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ724880.pdf
[xix] “Schools have major responsibilities for developing the whole person, not just their intellect. The traditional model of large, de-personalised and exam-focused schools is appropriate neither for the academic, cultural, moral, spiritual, physical and emotional development of young people, nor for preparing them for a fruitful life.” An end to factory schools. An education manifesto 2010 – 2020. Sir Anthony Seldon,  Centre for Policy Studies, March 2010
[xx] https://www.theharmonyproject.org.uk/category/education/