Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Vincent Van Gogh: Seeing the World in Colors

Wheatfield with Crows
Before a few months ago, my knowledge about Vincent Van Gogh was very limited. Although I appreciated some of his work for their vivid and bold colors, all I knew about him was that he cut off his ear because apparently because he did not like how it looked on his latest self-portrait and that he committed suicide. I had not read much about him nor seen any of the movies on his life except the most memorable scene of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, which takes place within the world of one of his paintings and in which filmmaker Martin Scorsese plays the famous Dutch painter. Back then, it was the directors and the visuals that had caught my eye and interest more than the tormented painter himself.

All that changed by a sheer act of coincidence. My wife has a much keener interest in the world of art and she herself is very good at drawing and painting, two of my openly admitted and gaping weaknesses. It was out of the desire to give us something interesting to do on a lazy Sunday morning that I registered for a free virtual tour of the Amsterdam Museum showcasing some of the Dutch painter’s artwork. And that triggered various other live-stream events and webinars of interest, most of which I attended by myself; they were organized by Washington DC History & Culture and hosted by Robert Kelleman with a special program on letters of Vincent Van Gogh co-hosted by Ed Calcutt.

I was most intrigued not just by the work and paintings of Van Gogh but also by his life and vision. To say that he was a tormented soul is an understatement. Most likely, he suffered from bipolar depression, but I would not be surprised if he were also obsessive-compulsive and if he had Asperger’s as well. This may explain his difficulty of not only engaging with others but also of living within himself; this may also shed light on his one-sided one-track-minded focus on all things art, or rather his own unique perception of art. Whatever his psychological dispositions and ailments, they were compounded by excessive drinking, malnutrition, and self-isolation.

Van Gogh’s view of work as being sacred and his determination of following one’s vocation by embracing toil was not only due to his upbringing under a strict pastor but was also about filling a void that he was sensing within himself. Vincent tried various professions from working in a bookstore, becoming a teacher, and even his father’s profession for a year, but he simply did not fit the mold, nor did he find satisfaction and personal fulfillment along the way.

He was too passionate and intense but also too honest and authentic to be able to do so. He was also driven and torn by finding his own voice and living out his passion. In many ways, his views and way of thinking were ahead of his time, and it was fueled by idealism and spirituality alongside beliefs that did not have a personal god nor a specific church and denomination. His life’s purpose could be summarized in his own phrase of making art that moves and touches people.

Sadly, at least in his own perception, he was not able to do so. He considered himself the “lowest of the low” and a nonentity, an eccentric and unpleasant person. When he decided to fully devote himself to painting at the age of 26 (which he deemed almost too old), he was financially supported by his brother Theo. As his brother was an art dealer, he tried his best to sell Vincent’s paintings but to little avail. It is said that only one of his paintings was ever sold, and most of his work, he would give away anyways as gifts and signs and tokens of appreciation.

Painting was his life and the expression of his innermost being. Yet the failure to earn a living in the profession that he valued so much was heartbreaking to him. He could have stooped and become more commercial like many other artists who sold their vision and integrity for a piece of bread, but he was too proud and too stubborn for that. 

Van Gogh dreamed of establishing an ideal artist community, a substitute for the ideal family, where everyone would work and paint freely by living together, by exchanging ideas, and by simply getting by. He attempted this with Paul Gauguin but that only ended in disaster and may have cost him his ear, which he ended up giving to a prostitute/the cleaner at a brothel to be then passed on to the French painter.  

Yet that did not stop Van Gogh to see and seek “something infinite in painting”. We may know him as a colorful painter with a colorful personality, but his early work was darker in tone and in subject, and his later experiments in color are not as bright and cheery as one would think. 

Vincent also had a deep intimate connection with the poor and the working class and he may have bonded and sympathized with them because of his personal suffering. In his early career, one of his more known works is The Potato Eaters, which depicts the anguish of daily life in a poor family. We may now think that he was either in a depressive state at that time of his life or that this was his chosen style of painting, but neither answer is satisfying here.

In fact, in his first paintings, he used darker shades and colors because that was the only style that he was familiar with at the time. It was the chosen method of expression and so he copied it. When he got exposed to the vibrant use of color by the impressionists in Paris, he was shocked that it could be done in such a vivid way and manner. 

The impressionists at the time were a rebellious faction and were not part of the art establishment yet. I see them as the French filmmakers of the nouvelle vague that went against the standard formality of their previous older generation. For revolutionary filmmakers like Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol, the main incentive was to present art without artificiality. They wanted to represent art that was closer to life and reality; hence, they adopted a documentary-style of filmmaking. To be able to do so effectively, they needed the necessary technology, the lighter-weight camera.

Similarly, for the impressionists as well as Van Gogh, who would be more a post-impressionist, the invention of the lighter and collapsible easel was the necessary game-changer. Before, whether they wanted or not, all paintings had to be done in the studio. Yet with the mobile easel, artists had the option and opportunity of working outdoors and capturing nuances of light and shadow and, more importantly, color. Their perception of glimmering points of color may also have been due to the consumption of absinthe, the green fairy, which was common and commonplace at the time and may have distorted or played tricks on their perception.

But it was all much deeper and more personal for Van Gogh. First off, his technique was rather different from the impressionists as he would spontaneously lay on colors. Part of the reason, he did not use oil paintings in his previous years was also because the material was more costly to begin with.

Moreover, he did not wish to simply replicate the landscapes, but he wanted to imbue them with his personal touch and stamp them with his artistic view and vision. Art was less a true depiction of natural life (photography would later do a much better replication of that aim and ambition) but rather it provided a deeper resemblance than photography as it was an expression of authenticity, a personal viewpoint filled with personal experiences. It was not how things were but how he thought and believed they were or should be.

In fact, what we may initially deem as bright and colorful was not always so. Van Gogh would go through different phases and he kept trying to perfect and fine-tune his art. For instance, he would get obsessed with different shades of yellow as he would bathe and drench his paintings in sunlight. At the same time, he would also paint different flowers, such as his famous sets of sunflowers. 

His portraits of others were not merely a copy of their face and body, but it was an artist’s statement on their life and personality. He was more interested in the emotional connection he had with the subject and was not much concerned with realism. Put differently, it was how he perceived that particular person at that time of his own life.

He made about a few dozen self-portraits and they become an interesting document of how he viewed himself at different points and stages of his life. Many might claim that his obsession with himself made him narcissistic, but this is not entirely true nor justified. First off, he preferred painting people over landscapes. But more importantly, Vincent painted himself because a subject was not always easy to come by, so he used his own head as an experiment. Furthermore, when you do self-portraits, you do not need to pay the subject any money, so it also had an economic advantage.

As mentioned previously, Van Gogh used colors to show, express, and give voice to his deep feelings and passionate and deeply sensitive and emotional personality. His work is not merely impressionistic but it was ahead of its time. Due to the symbolism and distortion that he used, he could be seen as an early advocate of abstract art. His work was deeply personal and it expressed his anguish and torment as well as his desires and anxieties.

Most importantly, it was art for art’s sake. Art could not and should not be a commodity. It is also nothing to trifle with nor to do on the side. He embraced and explored it whole-heartedly and with all his soul. It was also a form of therapy as he used it to give shape to his inner demons that were gnawing at him.

Yet sadly, he was misunderstood by others around him. He never found love. His only relationship was with a prostitute; it may have been out of pity or it may have been love, but either way, it did not last. His family, with the notable exception of his brother, shunned and criticized his way of life and his opinions. He ended up a recluse in the south of France with few if any friends.

Finally, he misunderstood himself. He never accepted nor did he love himself. He never felt worthy of love. He was always on the run from his inner demons. He never found peace and was restless and always on the go as he lived in over thirty different places. At the moment of deepest and darkest despair, he committed suicide. It may have been a momentary lapse of reason, but it had a lasting and irreversible effect on the history of the art world and signifies a profound loss for each and every one of us.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

It’s All Connected: An Enlightening Interview with Dr. David Hanscom

Dr. David Hanscom Interview

Years ago, I read (and wrote a review on) the fascinating book It’s all in your head by neurologist Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan, which recounts various examples and clinical case studies of people suffering from psychosomatic disorders. Their problems did not have physical and biological origins but were often related and traced back to the mind. For me, the often ignored and not-enough-talked-about link between the mind and one’s body had been established. It was a game-changer of sorts because I began investigating, seeing, and interpreting my own health issues from a more psychological lens.

Now some years later, I am not only convinced of the link between the two (the body and the mind) but have realized that this is indeed true, with evidence in hand (my own health outcomes and improvements) and expert testimonies and interviews on record. I have criticized and attacked (with words and thoughts but never with spite nor violence and always with the best of intentions) the medical field for not acknowledging, accepting or assessing the importance and relevance of the psyche on the physical body, which is the potential breeding ground for various physical diseases and ailments.

This includes the highly prevalent chronic pain, which many people are suffering from, but which, in the medical profession, is often seen as unsolvable, but which, in the words of the renowned and experienced orthopedic complex spine surgeon Dr. David Hanscom, is definitely and consistently solvable. Not only can we effectively deal with chronic pain, but we can improve upon, if not downright heal, a host of related inflammatory complications and illnesses, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, diabetes, obesity, and even certain types of cancer.

But in the oft-repeated words of David Hanscom during our interview, let’s back up a bit. The medical profession has come a very long way and has been highly effective via various means and methods. This is more than ever prevalent as we are facing a pandemic and can count on a number of vaccines available to prevent, defeat, and protect us against this dreadful, debilitating, and lethal virus. On a personal note, it was decades ago that I had undergone an emergency surgical procedure, a case of appendicitis that could have killed me if my doctor had not performed immediate surgery on me and had done so effectively. I am most thankful to him and his field that has saved my life as well as millions and millions of others out there.

Nonetheless, surgeries are not always warranted, necessary, or even helpful. Dr. David Hanscom has written books on this very same topic. His view is that many surgeries not only fail to solve the issue but that they may cause more harm and complications than good. The problem is that on one hand, these surgeons are not dealing with the underlying problem and the root cause of the issue, and on the other hand, these physicians tend to see the body, in this case, the spine, in isolation and view it apart from everything else. In fact, the integrated holistic view looks and deals with the whole person and does not separate the body from the mind but sees it all as a connected and interrelated organism or unit.

The body is a living organism, and it is and cannot be separated from the mind. In fact, Dr. Hanscom does not like to use the term body-mind connection, as he believes, and rightly so, that there are other factors and components to consider at the same time. As such, he has developed a program that helps people to deal with various forms of chronic pain without the need for surgery.

Although surgery may be warranted and even necessary in certain cases, it is and should not be the norm. In any case, surgery should be the last resort, namely, after having explored various other means and methods; these other types of treatments would not only be more effective but would come at minimal risk and cost for the patient.

While my personal approach is grounded more in psychology, his tends to be more physiological in nature. This may also explain why I am not a general proponent of CBT and prefer psychoanalysis, whereas he sees it the other way around. However, this is not much of an issue nor disagreement because the journey can be undertaken in different ways; it is the destination that matters and it seems that both paths lead to the same destination, namely one of betterment and potential healing.

Although we agreed on most matters and he corrected me on various points throughout the interview, especially in relation to scientific facts and matters, I will chisel out and occasionally iron out the differences because they can clarify various points and be of help here.

As a medically trained doctor, Dr. Hanscom wants to fix the problem. Since chronic pain is often a long-term, complicated, and complex problem that is not controlled nor fixed easily, his aim of expanding the paradigm into other domains while also addressing and carefully attending to individual needs and differences is of great benefit. For instance, one of his preferred methods is expressive writing, which he terms a type of mechanical meditation. By expressing and releasing harmful feelings and re-wiring and reframing noxious thoughts, one has the opportunity of liberating oneself from the toxic cocktail and adverse health effects of long-term stress.

The problem is aggravated since we live (or believe to live) in a toxic state throughout most of our lives as we limp our way through daily life without realizing or noticing the tremendous (but often reversible) harm that we are doing to our organism. The brain releases harmful chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and they lead to inflammation. 

Now, as mentioned earlier, inflammation is the cause of various physical and emotional diseases and illnesses. However, by replacing the harmful hormones and chemicals with more beneficial and healthy ones like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, we could not only increase our health and well-being but could also liberate ourselves from chronic pain.

My focus is not only to eliminate pain and disease but to reach a state of optimal health and functioning. My path and aim are less about the pain itself but rather about attaining personal fulfillment and realization. In a nutshell, it is about connecting to the authentic self. This is where psychoanalysis can set in motion a kind of cathartic purge or emotional cleansing as it brings to light and exposes many moments and types of previous trauma and, as such, it dislodges traumatic experiences that are uncomfortable and painful but need to be confronted, released, and dealt with to achieve optimal health and fulfillment. It is the physical and emotional anguish and suffering that have created the desire to not only deal with them but to use them as a springboard for becoming a better and more complete person.

According to David, there is a potential problem lurking here. There seems to be too much focus on the pain itself, and this may inadvertently prolong feelings of pain while creating a potential state of “epiphany addiction” where one is on the continuous lookout for insight. Here is where we disagree. I think that the healing process demands that we go through the dark hills and valleys to get to greener pastures on the other side. The pasture is there bathed in warm and loving sunlight, but it is rather difficult and cumbersome to get there. 

It has long painful stretches as well as flashbacks filled with panic and anxiety. But I see it as a necessary journey since after one has fully faced one’s inner demons over and over again, one can liberate oneself from them once and for all, and with time alongside patience and compassion, you will not be haunted by them anymore but will see them as friendly ghosts and reminders of the past.  

My spiritual journey has not ended (and it might never do so), but my health has improved in many ways. I have lost significant amounts of weight, I have moved from obese to slightly overweight by shedding over 50 pounds in the process, and I have also not had headaches and migraines in what is now four months and counting, when I used to take painkillers on an almost weekly basis just a few years back. It came as a result of facing head-on my emotional issues and dealing with stress in a much healthier way, not to avoid or circumvent them but to feel and experience them fully.

Next up, I am planning to heal from my Type 2 diabetes and would prefer to breathe on my own. My breathing issues with asthma have improved significantly, but I would like to dispense with wearing a mask at night due to my ongoing sleep apnea. Currently, I am almost always wearing a mask, both day and night, but it is not due to a lack of honesty or authenticity. On the contrary, I think, it is by trying to become more authentic that I have managed to deal with various chronic health conditions.

There was a complete agreement about Intermittent Fasting in our conversation. David believes that it can reduce inflammation. Although the weight loss plateaus at some point, it is true that I feel much better throughout the day and my daily practice of Intermittent Fasting is certainly an added bonus to my health quest. As I am not a scientist (though I do respect them) and not a psychologist (though I like to think I am), I am interested in giving people the whole gamut of procedures and interventions that have worked for me in the hope that some if not all will do wonders for you as well. Yet as everyone is different, with different make-up and sets of different needs and experiences, some may work better than others for any given individual.

Differences may also boil down to the use of language. In such a deep and personal conversation as I had with Dr. Hanscom, sometimes I find that words either fail or that they do not convey the intended meaning to the other person. As language is tinged with personal experiences, words like stress, trauma, fear, and anxiety will have, elicit, and even trigger different reactions in different people.

But one thing that has been a profound learning experience here and a slight shift in my view is that I often let psychologists and therapists off the hook. I am, I do not deny it, favorably inclined towards them, but I must admit that both psychological fields and disciplines as well as psychologists and psychotherapists differ widely in terms of competence, efficacy, and usefulness. My hesitation of attacking (again meant in most friendly terms) those who are practicing and engaged in this amazing field was often due to the mental stigma that is often attached to the field itself and this could create further hesitancy, mistrust, and hesitation among people.

It seems to be much easier for people to accept and deal with medical conditions than psychological ones; problems and issues associated and linked with mental health seem to be harder to swallow and accept. Yet the same way there are good and bad doctors as well as effective and ineffective politicians and teachers across the spectrum out there, sadly, it is not all gold; although I strongly believe that psychoanalysis not only glitters, it shines bright if used appropriately.

In fact, I do not think that we are necessarily stuck with our thoughts. I would not use terms like avoiding, escaping, or controlling thoughts. In fact, I would say that it is not possible and perhaps not feasible or advisable to stop thoughts, stress and anxiety but that we can stop them from interfering with our lives since they often blur and cloud over our innate sense of peace and calm.

Although a sense of control and agency is important, necessary, and helpful, we need to recognize that we are not our thoughts. They are part of us, but they also tend to distract us and give us an illusionary sense of self. This persona or ego is filled with attachments and tends to compare and judge everything left and right. It is all over the place and sometimes can be all at once and exist simultaneously in the past, present, and the future. 

When we continuously live in our thoughts, we can fall victim to them and get stressed, anxious, and worried. The best way to manage them is through awareness and insight as that would dispel the thoughts and feelings associated with them. Instead of judging thoughts as good or bad, positive and negative, or trying to control, to stop their flow or to be in charge of them, we should just let them flow.

The ego wants to control but our authentic self does not like being controlled by thought or by the ego; our true self yearns to be free and unaffected by them. It is my belief that instead of focusing on each problem and trying to deal with them, you can connect to your real self and that will solve all your problems of inflammation at once and in one swoop.

I found it most interesting that toward the end of our conversation, David mentioned attachment and Buddhism. He is definitely on the right track of seeing the connection between attachment, the ego, stress and anxiety, and negative health outcomes and feelings of unhappiness. He is absolutely right about the brain not being able to differentiate between real and perceived threats and that it processes them in the same part and in a similar way.

David has given me a better understanding of how and why anxiety causes inflammation, whereas a sense of control and oxytocin are anti-inflammatory. He also touched upon the physiological benefits of mindfulness as it stimulates the vagus nerve triggering an anti-inflammatory process. He is also absolutely right that to heal, you must feel and that our emotions are more precious and valuable than we think. He also has seen many cases where people have not only dealt with physical and emotional pain, but they have used it as an opportunity to thrive and see and touch higher and previously unknown and untouched spiritual realms.

All and all, not only do we agree on what is most essential and relevant, I also have become to see, understand, and appreciate that it is not merely a problem of the psyche but that it is all connected and interrelated. Our root problem is akin to a faulty wire or a broken bulb on a string of Christmas lights. All components need to work together and when one part is failing, it can affect the whole system in question. It is then not merely a matter of the body, or the mind, or the brain, or of thoughts and emotions, but it is all intricately and intimately connected and wired together and it often needs to be calibrated and recalibrated to reach optimal states of balance and harmony.




I would like to thank Dr. Carla Marie Manly whose previous podcast with Dr. David Hanscom had caught both my attention and interest. I would also like to thank Beth Grossman who was the point of contact and the intermediary between me and Dr. Hanscom. She arranged and set up the interview and she definitely makes things happen! Beth has been one of the kindest and most effective publicists I have ever had the pleasure to work with and many thanks to her!

Finally, I am greatly indebted to Dr. David Hanscom who took the time to shed light on and coach me about stress, anxiety, and chronic pain, and I look forward to reading and reflecting upon two of his books this summer. Thank you for all the work you do and for sounding the alarm, for raising awareness, and for setting up the path towards integrated holistic care.

Here is the full-length interview on YouTube: David Hanscom on Arash's World

If you prefer to listen to the interview, here is the link to my podcast: Arash's World Podcast

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A Whole-Person Perspective of Health and Happiness: Interview with Integrative Physical Therapist Matt Erb

Matt Erb Interview

“You needn’t be well to be wealthy

But you’ve got to be whole to be holy.”

Greg Lake (from Emerson, Lake and Palmer)

At its core, the holistic model poses a dilemma and/or a challenge: How can you provide an overall model that effectively encompasses and adjusts to individual differences and variations? For the scientific method, one takes apart the whole in order to focus on and to better understand the individual parts, bolts, and pieces. 

After a careful study of them through trial and error and experimental analysis, scientists would summarize the new findings and express them in a general and often universally applicable theory or proposition. As a rule, the medical field is founded and predominantly based on this approach as it tends to split the body from the mind to be able to better treat the former with the potential neglect of the latter.

On the other hand, the whole-person approach sees body and mind as integral parts of the same system - the proverbial two sides of the same coin - that can be stretched and expanded to include not only the personal past but also the genetic and psychological heritage of the given individual. At the same time, the holistic model will also consider and examine the person’s current social, socio-economic, political situation and circumstances. Put differently, instead of a focused view, we would zoom out and look at the big picture and examine other parts and factors influencing the given individual across space and time with the aim of better understanding the underlying medical issue or the problem at hand.

The dilemma or challenge exists in the objective to create a universal theory by focusing on and taking into account the individual differences and underpinnings. It does not help the matter that there is confusion both in the perception of people as well as the practice of the holistic model as there are notable fluctuations and inconsistencies across the same model, in addition to misunderstandings and misperceptions by and of certain practitioners.  

Yet for a better and clearer understanding of the whole-person approach, I decided to talk to Matt Erb, an integrative physical therapist whom I happened to spot on a previous webinar. I found his ideas to be most interesting and aligned with what I believe in and often write about, so I invited him to speak on Arash’s World

Most graciously, he accepted, and we ended up covering a whole range of fascinating topics on physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual health, philosophy, both neuro-philosophy as well as the history of philosophy, and the strengths and weaknesses of psychotherapy. It was a wonderful, insightful, and profound discussion that you can find and access in its entirety at the bottom of this post.

Right from the get-go, Matt Erb stayed true to his philosophy and model. On my question, what does a typical day of a physical (or rather a physio) therapist look like, he acknowledged that every one of them would experience their days differently as it would be difficult to resume, reduce, or categorize the practices of this wide-ranging, expansive, and inclusive method.  

In fact, his hope is that this method would not be regarded as an outlier or an “alternative approach” but rather become more commonplace and even embedded within the medical field, so much so, that the term integrative would simply disappear; ideally, it would blend in, be fully absorbed, and integrated with all the diverse health practices as well as theories and systems.

The whole-person approach views the body-mind and environment triad as interdependent and intricately and intimately connected, so that any proposed remedy or treatment would vary as well as adapt and adjust itself to the special and individual needs and circumstances of the given person. For instance, the word physiotherapist as used in Canada and in Europe is more encompassing than the more limiting, distinct, and designated use of “physical therapist” in the US, one of the only countries in the world that insists on this term. The former implies at least a certain connection to or affinity with the physiological (and by extension mental, emotional, and spiritual) underpinnings of the person, whereas the second one is more intent on showing the separation and demarcating lines between the body and the mind in a purely Cartesian manner.

More on Descartes a bit later, but, put differently, mind-body integrated care is the driving force, motor, and underlying inspiration behind the holistic model. This multidimensional approach looks simultaneously at issues ranging from stress, trauma to somatic conditions like fatigue, headache, and chronic pain. Moreover, it examines the relations, implications, influences and repercussions of one of the dimensions on the other. Yet the current medical standard has a more mechanical focus that limits itself by focusing only on one aspect of health and disease without considering and looking at the various other factors and components that equally shape and influence the lack of well-being in the ailing patient.

It all boils down to French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes as he ended up encouraging and facilitating the separation of body and mind. This is mostly a staple of the Western world, as the Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, tend to see them as an integrated unit where one aspect of one’s existence lives, thrives, and feeds upon the other. Matt equally believes that the Western model of healthcare is biomechanistic and while reductionism in the scientific discipline may at times serve a useful purpose, it should not be the universal approach to health and wellness as most of the health challenges people experience is not that simple.

Matt gave the interesting analogy of having a rock in your shoe and that its removal would alleviate the discomfort and dis-ease one would be feeling. Examples of this pertain mostly to acute care. However, the counterpoint could be that alleviating the issue may not necessarily solve the problem as more rocks and pebbles could appear at any time maybe due to the fit and structure of the shoe. To stretch the shoe analogy even further for our purposes here, the traditional medical model does not look at improving the fit and comfort of your shoes; its aim and purposes are not necessarily to increase your comfort and ease.

To give a slightly clearer example, I used to suffer from regular headaches. I would take painkillers on an almost weekly basis. The medication would help deal with the (acute) pain, but it would not solve the problem or underlying issues. The pain would be recurring on a regular basis until I managed to bring about a seismic shift in my body system. The root problem or cause was my troubled and troubling stress response not only to work but to events in general. Once I effectively dealt with the underlying issues, headaches became a thing of the past and I have not had one in more than three months - and counting!

The other problem with Cartesian dualism is how it has shaped our way of thinking, observation, and interpretation of the world. It is an either-or approach and allows little room for dynamic interactions, complexity or integrative approaches and practices. It is better, healthier, more beneficial, and more accurate to see and understand the world on a spectrum and to accept, if not embrace, a non-linear quantum or spiritual view and interpretation of oneself and the world in lieu of a limiting either-or, one-or-the-other or P and not-P viewpoint. Ever since the days of Descartes, consciousness (let alone the properties, dimensions, and influences of the unconscious) is something that science continues to grapple with and it still has to come to grips with it, and it is certainly not a far stretch to assume that the mind would play a significant role in one’s physical existence, and vice versa.

In my view, the Dao with its harmonious depiction of yin-and-yang elements is the symbol par excellence for overcoming dualistic thinking and of not seeing the world in simplistic dualistic terms; both aspects, alongside their different shades and spectrums, are embodied beautifully in such a simple image, which is conveyed much better and more clearly than words could possibly explain them.

Moreover, it is the symbol of a circle, a nonlinear depiction. In a similar vein, we often tend to split off and compartmentalize our knowledge in different fields and disciplines, such as religion, sociology, psychology, and the medical sciences. Although this is necessary due to the abundance of knowledge, and there are few veritable Renaissance men and women out there, it becomes a vital issue and potential hindrance in treating and dealing with ailments and diseases.

In terms of health and wellness, it would be even more important to track and hunt down the root causes of one’s medical and psychological issues, and often it is a complex combination of both, in most cases, due to trauma or unconscious memories and experiences. Hence, this poses a challenge in terms of education and training as the holistic health practitioner needs to have a good grasp and understanding of various disciplines to be able to best help their patients.

However, culture is another important factor that is not always considered, evaluated, or appreciated when it comes to medical treatments. For instance, countries can be often divided by how much and to what degree they identify with individualism versus collectivism. Although this is a spectrum, many people adopt a particular individualistic or collectivistic lens, which affects their thoughts, actions, and behaviors, both consciously as well as subconsciously.

Each approach has its share of benefits as well as failings and shortcomings. Yet at the same time, neither could really exist without the other. For instance, you can only be an individual in the context of society; if you were stranded on an island your individuality would fade away as you would not be able to compare or contrast yourself with anyone else. The best way would be to find the middle ground and to meet halfway between the “me” and “we” because when they are out of balance with each other, that is when, more often, than not, problems do arise.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied nor overlooked that politics and culture affect, color, and intersect with our paradigm and lifestyle. In an individualistic society, success becomes more important as you can more easily distinguish yourself from others, hence highlighting, contrasting, and accentuating your individuality. As such, achieving success, which is often measured by monetary wealth, becomes more important than bettering one’s personal characteristics, such as increasing one’s levels of compassion, care, and love for and cooperation with others. A betterment that is less focused on the self but more on others becomes more important in a society that values harmonious relationships between the different parts of one’s society, whether in terms of family, neighbors, work, and teammates or one’s fellow citizens.

As we live in a competitive society that values and equates money and wealth with personal worth, it is no wonder that many people are so high-strung and are always busy and on the go. That often leads to the experience of chronic and toxic stress that then spills over in other areas of one’s life, most importantly our physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

Moreover, stress dynamics affect our food choice and consumption. We want to imbibe food fast and do so in a rush, and most often, we opt for ultra-processed food items as we do not take the time - or tell ourselves that we do not have time - for home-cooked meals with family and loved ones. There can also be economic factors at stake as many people with less economic means will not be able to afford organic and healthy food, or it could be that healthy food options may not be available for them. In various ways, this unhealthy situation feeds the rising epidemic of obesity and many conditions associated with it, including but not limited to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.

As the stress becomes overwhelming, the body will adopt various maladaptive coping mechanisms, which can range from overeating to substance abuse or addiction in any of its forms and manifestations, be it promiscuity, drowning oneself in one’s work or any other obsessive-compulsive behavior that does significant harm to our body and mind.

Yet to deal with that, we cannot prescribe pills, and it is not enough to tell people to relax, take time off, or to take it easy, the same way, you cannot simply tell an insomniac to fall asleep or a depressive person to stop worrying and be happy. This is also one of the main reasons why education or simple forms of raising awareness is often insufficient and does not help the affected individuals much.

The root causes would often entail looking at a person’s past and is often related and associated with childhood trauma in all its different shapes and forms. Exposure to childhood trauma, a point in your life where one is at one’s most impressionable and vulnerable, often leads to wide-ranging issues and complications ranging from chronic conditions to mental illness.

There are three main routes that influence people’s health at a later stage of their lives. First off, traumatic stress alters the stress response system, that is, it changes how your nervous system regulates and processes stress. As a result, one may become more defensive and feel less secure; one perceives or decodes the environment as generally threatening or overall dangerous.

Secondly, we would adopt or get stuck on coping strategies to avoid or try to control the rise of uncomfortable feelings from the past trauma. Hence, we attempt to create our own comfort zone that shuns those supposed negative feelings. More about negative emotions in a moment. Yet there is this unconscious drive to “medicate” those feelings of anxiety and suffering and many choose to self-medicate by dealing with it in any way they see fit, such as engaging in substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, including overeating, gambling, or promiscuity.

Finally, the third route is centered on the field of epigenetics. This is how genes express themselves and change when exposed to traumatic experiences or prolonged stress. Our personal experiences and environments may trigger or turn on certain genes by inhibiting or turning off others. In that sense, there are a variety of genetic possibilities that are determined by one’s personal make-up in addition to one’s personal experience and interpretations of events, hence adding that extra touch and layer of individuality; this is also why identical twins are more different than we generally assume, apart from the effects of random variation and mutations.

But, in my view, it is trauma that often stems from family dynamics, which has the strongest effect on our future health and well-being. In fact, our own exasperated and often relentless drive for success may be remnants and echoes of parental voices in the past that told us to work hard and to be someone of substance and importance in the world. Many parents in conjunction with standards promoted and encouraged by their society do not insist on further developing our unique passions, talents, and personality; instead of wanting us to focus on our interpersonal skills or emotional intelligence (except for the vague notion that we always need to be ourselves), essentially, parents want us to pursue well-paying and respected professions.

As explored by trauma-informed physician and psychologist Gabor Maté, who was mentioned not once but twice in our conversation, there are four common tendencies that emerge from adaptive patterns in children later affecting people in adulthood. The first one is caring more for the emotional needs of others than one’s own, hence prioritizing the other over oneself. The second one is having an excessive role of duty and responsibility, which would then cause oneself to lose connection with one’s authentic self.

The third tendency, and in my view, the most important one, is the suppression of “negative emotions” and hence holding and bottling it all in, which ends up causing significant harm. It is like a pressure cooker that keeps building internal pressure and if not released or dealt with in one form or another, may turn into outbursts, which can be reckless and irresponsible behavior and forms of aggression, panic attacks, or other physical and emotional ailments and diseases. In fact, the best avenues of self-expression would be to fully feel and experience one's emotions, to express them and then to move through them without getting stuck or mired in those forceful feelings, or as Matt puts it succinctly, “look back, but don’t stare.” In that sense, one can, as Erich Fromm put it, make the unconscious conscious as one explores the past to better understand the present.

There are various studies of adverse childhood experiences by Vincent Felitti that show and demonstrate the therapeutic effects of validation; naming, expressing, and acknowledging trauma is correlated with better health outcomes in later life. This is not different from the beneficial effects of witnessing grief, a form of processing and dealing with our pain when faced with the loss of a loved one.

The third common tendency or fallacy, as demonstrated by Gabor, is believing that you are responsible for how other people feel and that you must never disappoint anybody. When you become stuck in that state, you do yourself harm since you would never say or dare to say “no” to other people at the expense of your own health.

These are some of the main roots of chronic illness and disease, but they do not operate on their own. They often combine and interact with nutrition, unhealthy food choices, lifestyle, and the long-lasting toxic effects of prolonged chronic stress.

How can we overcome trauma and the maladaptive stress response? Some may opt for psychotherapy, but that is easier said than done. First off, there is the stigma of mental health that unfortunately haunts us across many cultures and traditions. The second one, somewhat tied with that stigma, is that being vulnerable is a weakness and that seeking help is a sign of a lack of personal competence or independence, which is also not true. The third point, which Matt insisted upon, and which he is correct about, is the fluctuation and inconsistency that comes within the field of psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy contains a wide range of fields and disciplines and some of them are beneficial and helpful, while others do not address the issues, do not effectively alleviate the physical and emotional pain and suffering, or the therapists are simply not good at their jobs. In the same way, there are good and bad teachers, students, politicians as well as doctors out there, some therapists are less competent than others.

In the field of my interest, psychoanalysis, it is of vital importance that the analysts get themselves analyzed at different time intervals to ensure that they are capable of providing the necessary help without muddling their therapeutic work due to their own unconscious issues or bias.

At the same time, as there are a variety of approaches and disciplines within the mental health field, a lot of them are not phenomenological and tend to distort issues and problems; in some cases, they may make things worse. For instance, positive psychology may work for some patients, but its insistence by some practitioners of constantly seeing the positive side of things could potentially lead to what is now denoted as “toxic positivity,” which is another type of evading the root problems, that is facing one’s inner demons.

It is my opinion that we would all benefit from the insights of psychoanalysis. Regardless of whether we have or believe we do not have any emotional issues, it is of importance to ensure that we are as healthy and as happy as we can be. When we feel well – and not just delude ourselves or tell ourselves that we are well - then we are wealthy; once we feel whole, we are also holy, which is why you will find many mental health professionals, the better ones out there who are worth their salt, that do not object to nor resist notions of spirituality and religion.

We may not have rocks and pebbles in our shoes, but we need to make sure that the shoes are a perfect fit. With comfortable shoes and our affairs all in order, we can walk the path of life with confidence and relish and enjoy every moment that comes our way and, in the meantime and all along, take in the good with the bad in our joy-filled stride.


For the full-length interview on my YouTube channel, please click: here

If you prefer to listen to the interview, here is the link to my podcast: Arash's World Podcast

For further information on Matt Erb, please visit the following site:

Matt Erb, PT: Integral Physical Therapist, Embody Your Mind