Article: The Doctor-Poet
By John Diamond, M.D.
— Emerson, The Poet
Looking at all those who have come to me for help, I long ago came to the conclusion that there was only one word to describe their real problem. And I arrived at this not by just looking at them, but by looking into them – deeply. And empathizing with them, feeling what they were feeling, and meditating on them. Over many years. Whatever their presenting symptoms, their particular complaints, may have been, there was always something much more important, much more basic, that always underlay them. I realized that until this was dealt with, I would merely be relieving their pain, but never their suffering. For suffering, as the Buddha declared, was the lot of our life. That our lives are suffering is the usual translation of what has been called his first Noble Truth.
And this I discovered appeared to be a virtually universal truth in my practice, at least: those before me were in suffering, and had been all of their lives. Even, and in fact more so, those who attempted to delude themselves, and the world, that the very opposite was the case with them. More than the pain, much more, there was always the suffering. And I attempted to relieve at least some of this by all the means at my disposal: psychological, and spiritual. And structural.
And here I want to now introduce a word which I feel is much more appropriate to describe the deepest pathology of the human condition. The word suffering has for me in recent years become less satisfactory. And this is best understood by considering its etymology. It is from the Indo-European root BHER which meant to carry. This also gave rise to such words as bear and burden. The underlying meaning is that of being overburdened by adversity which he can no longer bear, which he can no longer carry. Pushed down, de-pressed. This relates to the Thyroid meridian, which is the second meridian into which the chi, the Life Energy, flows on its path through the body. But a more important word is one that relates as you will see, to the primary meridian, to the meridian of entry of chi, the breath of life, into the body. This of course is the Lung meridian which naturally is most directly associated with breathing. And the word is anguish.
Suffering is too soft a word. Anguish is hard – just say it to feel it, to feel the state that nearly all of us are in, whether we are conscious of it or not, for the duration of our lives – from the moment of birth. Consider now its Indo-European root ANGH which meant painfully constricted. It also gave rise to such emotionally charged words as anger; and anxious from the Latin angere to strangle. And the word anguish itself comes via the Latin angustes which meant narrow. The primary meaning of all these words is in another word also obviously from the same root, and that is angina: the severe suffering, the excruciating and oppressive distress of extreme anguish: the narrowing of the throat or chest, the tight, painful constriction – the strangling.
The plaint of Job was, I find, the plight of us all: “the anguish of my spirit.”
This anguish is there throughout our lives, however much we may choose to deny it. And it is this that becomes increasingly revealed the more one tries to help holistically − deeply and completely.
Every day with every patient the doctor is face to face with anguish (theirs and his own) – and he has been trained only to relieve pain, not suffering, let alone anguish.
And it is here that the doctor who is also a poet can do his greatest work, transcending the physical boundaries of medicine into the infinite realm of the metaphysical, the world of the Spirit, of the Muse that inspired his poetry – and so can inspire us as we read it. For anguish is of the Spirit, and thus can only be overcome by Spirit.
A time will come when medicine will acknowledge what the poets have always known – that all disease comes from the Spirit, or rather comes from our inability to recognize that we have a Spirit, that we are Spirit. And it is only when It is found that there can be the grateful appreciation and joyful acceptance of the Beauty and Wonder of Life. And this, and nothing less than this, is true Health.
A time will come when all medicine will be primarily dedicated to the Arts for they will be praised, at last, as the true healing arts. And then it will be the poets of that time who will be acknowledged as the greatest healers.
And the doctor-poet of today can be somewhere in the middle, no longer just a doctor − but not yet a member of what Freud called “a new profession of minister of souls.”
But to do this he must see his poetry not just as a hobby, nor as a means whereby he can help himself, but as a way by which he can help all those who come to him, all those in anguish: the more he makes poetry a part, an essential part, of his practice. Not necessarily to give it to the patient, nor even to encourage him to write his own (although both of these can be highly beneficial). But rather to bring the true poetic state of mind, or, better, state of heart, to every patient: to see him in his anguish as being as the Spirit, the Muse that inspired the poetry. The greatest gift that anyone, especially a poet and especially a doctor, and even more so a doctor-poet, can give to another is to help him find his Soul, for only then is his anguish at last relieved.
And this will come about when the doctor-poet places all of himself, all of his creativity streaming into his ego from his Muse, at the altruistic service of the other. Surrendering his ego to the Spirit, dedicating all of him self to all those in anguish. Every poet has an intimation of the Spirit as his Muse, and the more he surrenders to It, the more he can communicate It and encourage Its recognition.
Every poem is Beautiful – note the capital B, to indicate that the word relates to the Latin beatus, blessed. Every poem is a beatitude granted to the poet and to his audience. And a poem becomes more healing, more therapeutic in the broad sense of the word, when it most easily enables those in suffering to see the Spirit, to at last have their anguish assuaged.
One poet, Eliot, said of another, John Donne, that “He knew the anguish of the marrow,” and all doctors at some level know it too, especially the sensitive ones who are more in tune with the Spirit – the doctor-poets. All they need to do is not to judge their poetry by the usual academic standards, but by their desire to heal with them, the desire to heal through their selves, their deepest Selves, as intimated in their poetry. Then the Spirit of altruistic service that they have learned through their poetry will imbue all of their therapeutic activities.
The doctor of the future will not be a poet as we know him today, but he will be as if a Poet.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The role of the doctor-poet is to reveal to everyone in anguish that the “aery nothing,” the Spirit, has been given a local habitation – him, and a name – his. That he is Spirit, is Soul, is Perfection.
Each of us is a local habitation of the Spirit, and the Heart-Knowledge of This, I believe, can be a means today, as I believe it will be the primary means of tomorrow, to at last assuage anguish.