Today as I was picking up my son from preschool, I noticed the Hebrew word “RUACH” on the license plate in front of me. I got out of my car, walked up to the driver, the father of one of my son’s preschool friends, and told him that I liked his license plate before heading into the school.
A few minutes later, we struck up a conversation, and he told me that the car was once owned by a Jewish psychotherapist, to which I nodded and said “that makes a lot of sense!” He then asked me about my knowledge of Hebrew, so I explained to him that 29 years ago I wrote a paper about the original Hebrew meanings of words in the Old Testament that in English are relevant to the field of psychology (e.g. mind, body, spirit, etc.). The Hebrew word “ruach” is usually translated to “spirit” in English.
I wrote this paper as a Psychology major at a Christian college in the Midwest, and I was curious about these translations and more than a bit disturbed by the idea of christians in America, immersed in dualistic Western culture, quoting the Old Testament, which was written by Hebrews immersed in a monistic culture. “Dualists translating for monists…what could go wrong?!” would have been the appropriate bumper sticker for this topic that has been extensively analyzed by many scholars.
For most christians in the West and for most Westerners in general, including most of the people reading this post, the term “spirit” conjures an idea that is inherently dualistic….a kind of something that doesn’t have material existence and is not limited by it. This western approach is exemplified in post-death expressions such as “He’s in a better place now” or “The body dies but the spirit lives on”. This dualistic way of thinking is common even among westerners who study eastern non-dual philosophy.
This western image of spirit is not what the Hebrews meant by “ruach”, which has at least a dozen different meanings in the Old Testament.
Why write about Old Testament words on the PCAB blog? Because the problematic situation of western, dualistic christians communicating with monistic Old Testament terms is mirrored any time westerners try to translate psycho-spiritual terms from monistic sources. At PCAB, the very act of looking at our relationships with ourselves, others, and anything bigger than ourselves places us automatically in a psycho-spiritual context wherein we pull ideas from many sources. Eastern philosophy, affective neuroscience, and somatic psychology, all of which play a prominent role at PCAB, are not dualistic, so this conflict with the western culture that lives inside most of us creates communication challenges on both an intra- and inter-personal level, particularly around the topics of pain and “Who/what am I?”
There’s no easy solution for translating across paradigms, but the first step is always becoming aware that two different languages are being spoken, sometimes out of the same mouth at the same time. From there we can better question and explore our fundamental assumptions about ourselves, which then changes what it means for one person to care for another, or who/what we are caring for as massage therapists. Are we caring for a body and avoiding “spirit”, as the legal dualistic definition of massage therapy would suggest? Or are we caring for a whole being, something far easier to point to from a monistic point of view?