You Are An Onion: Getting to Know Your Layers

Around the age of 20, I got a book called The Science of Homeopathy by a Greek homeopath named George Vithoulkas. It was so eye-opening that it inspired my path into medicine. One of the most interesting parts was his description of our different “layers,” how they’re related, and what this means in the progression and recovery from disease. I’d like to offer a brief synopsis of it.

Vithoulkas explains that we can think of humans as having a certain hierarchy in the way we’re constructed. First is a hierarchy of layers (which overlap to some extent): (1) the mental / spiritual layer, (2) the emotional layer, and (3) the physical layer. We’ve been hearing about the mind-body connection and the triad of body-mind-spirit for decades, so at first glance this may not seem new, but keep reading for Vithoulkas’s unique take on it. 

The central and most vital of these is the mental / spiritual layer, which, he says, is the true essence of a person. It’s through this aspect that consciousness enters the being, we register what’s happening in and around us, we understand that we are alive, and we are able to choose and communicate and evolve. There are three qualities present when this level is healthy: (1) clarity (2) rationality, coherence, and logical sequence (3) creative service for the good of others and oneself. Vithoulkas says this third quality is of greatest importance. 

Second and slightly more superficial is the emotional plane, which is our vehicle for the experience and expression of emotions as well as the receptor of emotion from our environment. Feelings can be broadly classified as positive – drawing us toward a state of happiness and creating a sense of unification with the world – and negative – drawing us toward a state of unhappiness and producing a sense of isolation and separation from the world. Positive emotions nourish us and serve our community; negative emotions (when chronic) diminish our health and are degrading to our community. 

Third and most exterior is the physical level – the body. Mainstream medicine has focused almost exclusively on this level, which has been of great benefit in the treatment of physical illness, but hasn’t made as much progress on understanding how the spiritual, mental, and emotional aspects work and integrate with the physical. 

Next, Vithoulkas roughly defines a second hierarchy within each layer. Looking at the systems and functions in each layer, we can rank problems or impairments by how much they would affect the overall wellness of the organism. 

On the physical level, we could put issues of the brain and heart at the top of the list. We have only one brain, and if it’s damaged the consequences to our ability to get joy and meaning out of life are often dire. We also have only one heart, and when it stops working, that’s the end. (Cardiovascular disease tops the list of causes of death in the U.S.)

Further down the list are the digestive and respiratory systems, which can usually sustain considerable injury without compromising the whole organism. Lower still are the urinary and reproductive systems, the muscular and skeletal systems, and the skin. Of course, there’s some flexibility to this list. 

On the emotional level, expressions of emotional dysfunction are ranked by their overall impact on the person. This is a harder list to make, since it’s less about the form the disorder takes and more about how much a given individual is affected. Major depressive disorder would be at or near the top of the list. Severe anxiety could potentially squelch one person’s ability to function while another individual might be able to manage it while continuing to work and socialize. Intense grief is high on the list. Lower down are moderate to mild anger, worry, irritability, boredom, and dissatisfaction. 

On the spiritual / mental plane, topping the list are impairments of consciousness, complete mental confusion, and delusion. In these cases an individual’s “personhood” is absent. Further down the list are impaired communication, milder confusion, poor memory, lack of spiritual connection, and difficulty focusing. 

The point of all this is Vithoulkas’s assertion that a thorough health assessment should examine and rank expressions of imbalance on all these levels. Keep in mind that the above examples are only guidelines. For example, there may be a case in which a minor brain issue is less significant than a severe digestive disorder. 

In viewing the whole person this way, we can determine whether someone is moving toward or away from wellness, and whether a given therapeutic intervention is beneficial or not. If we look only at one level at a time, we might be misled. For instance, if a doctor gives someone an opioid painkiller for back pain, the patient reports a decline in pain, and the doctor concludes that the patient has improved – without taking into account that they’ve become apathetic (a more significant impairment of wellness) – the doctor has clearly missed the point of good medicine. 

In homeopathic theory, in the presence of a challenge an organism will do its best to express signs and symptoms of distress at a level that is the least detrimental to its overall wellbeing. Seen through this lens, a skin rash may indicate that the organism is doing a good job of pushing the insult to a very peripheral level – the outermost layer (physical) and the least critical system. If this rash were an expression of, say, a dairy allergy, and we administered a topical steroid like hydrocortisone (a strong anti-inflammatory), Vithoulkas would say we would be suppressing the healthiest possible expression of that allergy and forcing it to be manifested at a deeper level. If the rash cleared but the patient then felt irritable (emotional level) or distracted (mental level), Vithoulkas would see this as a progression in the wrong direction. 

To give another example, if someone was recovering from severe anxiety through a deep examination of their fears and responses (a non-suppressive approach) and, as their anxiety abated, they developed gas and loose bowels, this could be seen as a positive trajectory. Even though the digestive upset is a new symptom, it represents a movement outward and from a more critical issue to a less critical issue. 

What do you think about this model? Have you ever been working with a health challenge that led to the development of new symptoms which ultimately gave way to a total recovery? Have you noticed an interplay between physical, emotional, and mental expressions of imbalance? Share with us in the comments section below. 

I hope my overview of this model has given you new insights into your wellness and how your many aspects are all interrelated. Also, if you’re interested in homeopathy, I wrote two other articles on the subject a few months ago which you can find here in the Articles section. 

Be well,


2 thoughts on “You Are An Onion: Getting to Know Your Layers

  1. This article resonates so deeply… I am still in a grieving state from the sudden unexpected ending of a long relationship. I find myself unable to make even simple decisions, like what to eat or which tea to make. I recognize this as mental confusion or a clouded thoughts? I even have a sensation of numbness at the crown Chakra intensify as I try to make a decision, followed by a feeling of fatigue. I am meditating, walking outdoors and going about life as best I can. Big decisions are quickly approaching, I need some income soon as this change ended most of my employment, and like other decisions I feel unable to sense my best path. I feel called to follow a path that will make my heart fulfilled and at the same time allow me to be in service sharing my talents with others. I wonder if I am in a process of moving closer to or farther away from balance… thank you for your writings, I often find aha moments within them. Doing my best to trust the healing process.

    1. Aww, it sounds like you are going through a deep grieving process. It is not uncommon to be distracted and have difficulties making decisions to move forward when your world has been turned topsy turvy by this unexpected ending of this relationship. An energy healing and rebalancing session, includes your chakra system, and this might be helpful to you. Grief takes time and can’t be rushed despite big decisions needing to be made. Is it possible to start to consider temporary steps for bringing in income, which allows cash to flow in and time for you to heal?

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