vital force

Psychotropic Drugs

Psychotropic drugs are chemicals thataffect the mind. They have been used for thousands of years for spiritual, medical and recreational purposes. Whether attained illegally, bought over the counter or obtained by the grace of a physician’s perscription, the use of psychotropics has become a pervasive habit in our society.

As illicit substances, they are used to drown hopelessness or erase boredom. As medical substances, they are employed to ease emotional pain, relieve anxiety, mask a depression, keep someone from doing him/herself in, or hold together a fractured psyche. Although not frequently utilized in the modern world as spiritual substances, they are said to bring the seeker to a deeper understanding of the reality, of God and oneself.

Up until the last century or so, psychotropics were derived from natural sources such as mushrooms or the hemp plant. Although I am not certain whether alcohol is formally considered to be in this group or not, it probably isn’t too much of a stretch to classify it as a psychotropic since it certainly affects the mind.

With the advent of modern science, the development of biochemistry and the rise of the pharmaceutical industry, psychotropic drugs have more and more become heavily regulated, proprietary items. They garner enormous profits for the manufacturers and empower a class of highly paid medical professionals as the guardians of mental well-being.

They have become our modern priesthood entrusted with the prerogative to monitor and alter our state of mind. This in large part has replaced an older tradition of priests who through the rigors of spiritual practice and personal insight offered guidance as well as protection from psychic insults.

There is absolutely no doubt that for some persons the modern psychiatric use of psychotropic drugs has been a godsend. It offers a deliverance from the hell of mental illness for people whose reality has become too fragile or shattered, or people who otherwise might be a danger to themselves or others. These are people whose condition and life circumstances dictates the necessity of employing powerful drugs that alter their chemical makeup and often shut down their emotional being.

But of the population that actually is taking prescribed psychotropic medications, I believe the above group is probably a minority. In fact, it might be a very small percentage of the total group.

Then who are the majority? They are various types of people whose situations can vary quite drastically. Here is a representative sample from my own practice: (1) An older person suffering from a chronic degenerative neurological condition. On mentioning to the neurologist that the condition is emotionally draining, a pad is whipped out and a prescription of Prozac is written without further thought or discussion. The patient turns it down saying that clarity of mind and a side-effect free body are more important. The neurologist replies, “You’re probably right”. (2) A professional person with young children feels depressed, sometimes to the extent of suicidal tendencies. Having taken medications for a year, this person is frustrated with the approach because it reduces symptoms without correcting the basic disposition. After a homeopathic prescription, the condition improves dramatically. Medication is no longer necessary.

(3) A person is seen for depression which has over 30 years history of depression. The list of medications that have been prescribed for psychological and physical complaints would run for pages. Much of the medications are needed to counter the side effects of other drugs. Over a period of one year, slow progress is made to wean this person away from all of the psychotropic drugs and some of the other ones as well. Step-by-step this person is learning to avoid a knee jerk reaction to call on the ever willing medical profession to medicate away every unpleasant feeling that is experienced. There is an increasing sense of well being, a greater sense of self and self-determination. Maybe in another year or so, this person will be drug free.

(4) A young woman has suffered from overwhelming rage before her periods. Any number of therapists have refused to work with her unless she medicates these moods away. Over many months, homeopathic care helps her resolve much of this anger.

These are just a representative few of the many people who, with proper care, can work through much of their emotional turmoil without resorting to medication. The process is often slower and demands courage as well as determination. It certainly is not for everyone — but the rewards are enormous.

The other day an old friend from college called. Since our paths first crossed over 20 years ago (if I remember correctly, he wandered across the dorm hall to check out the music emanating from from my room), we’ve been in touch on and off, sharing the twists and turns of our disparate lives.

After studying different things in school, living in different parts of the world, and taking up different livelihoods, our professional careers have recently begun to converge on parallel tracks.

After passing through a career as a teacher, James went back to school to get himself a PhD in clinical psychology. Today, he belongs to a group practice in the midwest where he attends to the needs of a clientele that includes a lot of children.

So, we had an interesting time comparing professional notes over the phone. On the one hand, he was curious about homeopathy, its principles and efficacy, along with why I have such a fervor for it. On the other, I wanted to know how he effects changes in people’s lives and his experiences with psychotropic medications.

James’s work is talking to people, helping them come to realizations about their lives, helping them take steps to come to terms with their circumstances. Although he doesn’t prescribe medications, he often makes recommendations to his patients — or their parents. To him, drugs are an adjunctive treatment that smooths out the jagged edges in the lives of his clientele.

There were several points that James made which seemed to mirror my own beliefs and experiences. The first is that these medications are often dispensed too frequently and too easily. For some professionals, a prescription becomes an automatic response, a reflex reaction to a person’s expression of unhappiness. The sole object of treatment revolves around eliminating the symptoms of psychological turmoil as fast as possible.

But what of the the turmoil itself? Depression, anxiety, fear, hysteria and the like are “disappeared”, yet the causes are not exposed nor eliminated. As a consequence, people can end up keeping their symptoms at bay for extensive periods of time with little resolution.

Beyond the toll these drugs can exact through physiological side effects and financial cost, there is a more insidious result. In effect, through the magic of modern psychopharmacology people become separated from their own emotions, their own psyche. As a temporary aid for the acutlely distraught or a last ditch heroic effort for the seriously disturbed, this is a wonderful resource. But it induces a lack of awareness about one’s own feelings.

Our ideas about the efficacy of some of the most popular drugs were also quite similar. In fact, I was somewhat surprised to hear how little he thought of them. I am not disposed to look at them favorably on many counts, but James’s assessment was purely based on his clinical experience.

For instance, he estimated that Ritalin, the widespread pharmacological “answer” to hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, had lasting positive effects on only about one in three children. And the highly touted “wonder drug” Prozac, he felt, was vastly over-rated. A high percentage of his patients did not respond to it well at all. Many felt agitated, overstimulated or otherwise disturbed and need to get off of it.

His experience is certainly in dramatic contrast to the glowing testimonials one often hears about Prozac. There are even popular books which suggest that anyone and everyone might benefit from it’s capacity to enhance moods and productivity.

I suppose one can understand this disparity by realizing that these two points of view represent two very different perceptions about the nature of human beings. For some people, especially in the medical and psychological sciences, life is ultimately a biochemical phenomena. Whatever happens in a living organism, be it on the physiological or psychological level, can be reduced to molecular interplay.

From this understanding, medical professionals can maintain the physical and emotional health of their patients by manipulating their chemical makeup. Thus, we have the popular notion of mental illness as “a chemical imbalance”.

Then there are people, James and myself included, who see the phenomena of life as something fundamentally different than biochemistry. Underlying the grosser physical manifestations of life are more subtle forces which are the true core of a living being. Variously called “spirit” or “vital force”, “prana” or “chi”, this is a dynamic energy responsible for maintaining the physical structure, achieving physiological balance and sustaining a sense of well-being in the organism.

When a person suffers from psychological distress, most of the time it is the disturbance of this vitality which must be addressed. The chemical imbalances are largely a result — not a cause — of chronic stresses on the organism. By clearing understanding the external circumstances that have burdened a person along with the nature of that person’s personal susceptibility to these stimuli, the possibility of real cure arises.

Treatment based on these principles, be it psychotherapy, homeopathy, body work, breath work, shamanism or any number of possible modalities, can produce very profound results. Sometimes it is agonizingly slow, sometimes it is dramatically fast, but the goal justifies the effort.



My neighbors used to be devotees of the “X Files". Aware of the deprivation our family suffers having neither cable nor satellite television, they sometimes invited us over to view their favorite program or even lend us a tape of one of the latest episodes. We usually accepted their gracious offer — though our enthusiasm ran higher for the neighborly socializing and the crystal clear images of their satellite system on a big screen TV than for the actual program itself. The last time we indulged ourselves, I was somewhat surprised to find that the episode we viewed was in theme and plot almost exactly the same as the one we saw the previous time. To wit, they were both about some highly sophisticated computer which had developed an independence and intelligence beyond anything that its creators had programmed. The shows revolve around the efforts of the expressionless male and the brainy female leads to subdue the computer which has run amuck on a violent path of self-protection.

Not that this is an especially inventive story line. Endowing a computer with consciousness like Hal in “2001” and even Big Blue of the Kasparov versus IBM chess battles of recent years are cinematic and real life antecedents. Yet, methinks the reason for the recurring allure of this theme lies embedded in a much larger issue.

If nothing else, contemporary civilization is marked by our capacity to explore and exploit the mechanics of physical reality. As the ability of human beings to create objects that in some cases mimic and in other cases supersede certain parameters of performance found in the creatures of natural world, we find ourselves fascinated, consciously or subconsciously, with what actually separates us and other life forms from the things we create. Rephrased, the question refers to the distinction between the mechanism of life and life itself.

Intuitively, we understand there indeed is a distinction. Yet, it is hard to put a finger on exactly what that may be. The short answer is “consciousness” — but what in fact is that? For the moment, let us give a name to whatever separates a living being from other things. Call it the “X Factor”.

Although unfamiliar to most modern people, there actually is a very old belief in the intangible “X Factor”. Discredited and discarded long ago along the road to modern scientific thinking, it adds a dimension to life that goes beyond the laws of chemistry and physics. It is a force of nature that animates living beings.

This concept or the philosophy related to it is called “Vitalism”. The dictionary tells us that the word refers to “a doctrine that the life in living organisms is caused and sustained by a vital force that is distinct from all physical and chemical forces...”1

Our ever more sophisticated mastery of the mechanics of physical reality encourages us to all but ignore vitalistic thinking. We are apt to try to explain away all phenomena — even those related to the experiences of human life — in mechanistic terms. This certainly is the foundation of modern medicine. Whether speaking of a flu, a headache, an ulcer, cancer or depression, the conventional medical understanding inevitably returns us to a model of human beings as a complex conglomerate of tissues and chemicals.

But to define life and life processes exclusively in these terms can be quite limiting. For instance, our medico-legalistic quandries concerning the definition of death based on physical functions alone is a prime example. When is it appropriate to declare a person dead? When is it permissible to withdraw life support systems?

The experts must determine which organ and what physiological function holds the kernel of life. Is it the brain, and if so what part of the brain? Or is it the heart and circulatory function or the lungs and respiration? Actually the determination is impossible and, ultimately, the decision is arbitrary.

Yet, apart from the sophistication of our knowledge about how the body functions, we can often sense when the real life has gone out of a body. It is not a matter of whether the brain or heart is still functioning. It is a matter of whether or not the animating force — our “X-factor” — is still present in the body that lies before us. If absent, then we may sense an instinctual repugnance toward artificially supporting the physical tissues when in fact ‘no one is home’.

While the contemporary person may find it difficult to shake free of our contemporary common sense, vitalism is a useful outlook that sustained ancient peoples as well as traditional cultures and religions. Even today in Japan, one can barely have a convesation without using language which refers to vitalistic thinking. Weird as it may sound to our ears, Japanese for “hello” is literally “How is your fundamental vital energy?”. The common term for weather is translatable as “the vital energy of the sky (or heaven)”.

Vitalism and vital energy is also a principle fundamental to many medical systems that lie outside of the dominant, conventional model. Oriental medicine and philosophy dubs it “Qi” (pronounce ‘chee’). East Indian thought and medicine calls it “prana”. Western thinkers and physicians of vitalistic medicine use a variety of terms such as ‘vital force’ , ‘vital energy’, or ‘dynamic principle’.

Amongst other systems, homeopathy is founded in vitalistic thinking. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, in his writing gave a lucid expression of his understanding:

“In the healthy human state, the spirit-like life force that enlivens the material organism as dynamis, governs without restriction and keeps all parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation, as regards both feelings and functions, so that our indwelling, rational spirit can freely avail itself of this living, healthy instrument for the purposes of our existence.

The material organism, thought of without life force, is capable of no sensibility, no activity, no self-preservation. It derives all sensibility and produces its life functions solely by means of the immaterial life force that enlivens the material organism in health and in disease.”2

Thus, to the acupuncturist, ayurvedic practitioner, osteopath or homeopathy (amongst others), since the essential nature of a living being is not to be found in physical tissues and organs of the body, neither is the essential nature of illness, nor the avenue to cure. True cure results from rectifying a disturbed or weakened vitality.

Symptoms are merely an expression of the disurbance in a person’s vital force. They surface as an attempt by the vital force to stabilize or cleanse the entire system when it becomes disordered, but they are not the disorder itself. Elimination of the symptoms alone does not bring cure anymore than clipping off the dandelion flower will uproot the plant.

The endeavour of vitalistic medicine provides great challenge and great satisfaction. There are few short cuts. It demands that each person be understood and treated according to the uniqueness of his or her personal vital energy. It calls upon both practitioner and patient to possess patience and clarity of purpose.

1. Guralnik, David, Ed. “Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language”, World Publishing Company, New York. 1970.

2. Hahnemann, Samuel. “Organon of the Medical Art”, edited by Wenda O’Reilly, translated by Steven Decker; pg. 65; Birdcage Books; Emonds, Washington. 1996.