Remembering the Holistic View

Dr. Stephen Fulder

We have not heard much of the word holism of late. It used to be a key word in the 1970’s and 1980’s to describe an alternative way of being, a view of the world and our place in it which was basically ecological. Holism is still a great word for a great concept, which sees the whole that is greater than its parts, the wider, more inclusive, multidimensional and multidisciplinary view. It implies total respect for all levels of the human being and the planet which is home.

Today the word is rarely used. For example in health care, when alternative medicine and conventional medicine is used in the same clinic, it is mostly not particularly holistic - you would be treated by one technique, such as an acupuncture, and if it doesn’t help you would move on to another. Holism is a view of reality, which when applied to health and medicine employs a deeper and broader dialogue between the therapist and client covering all levels of life. The dialogue may include patterns of symptoms such as pain, swelling, mucous; patterns of function such as fitness, digestive rhythms; patterns of physiology such as glucose or cholesterol levels; psychological aspects such as irritability, joy, sleep, self-image, anxiety; life habits such as diet, work, exercise, addictions; social aspects such as family life, loneliness; constitutional tendencies and history, such as vulnerabilities, body type, health biography; patterns in the environment such as use of chemicals and toxins, living conditions, sensitivities; and also spirituality - the degree of meaning and depth of experience. Various therapies are used together or separately as needed, the technique is less important than the approach. It is wonderful and not so common to find an holistic therapist that actually treats in this way, for example, a Chinese medicine practitioner that uses the full spectrum of therapies, but can also read the inner being of a person as he reads the pulses. When you look for healing, seek the holistic approach. It is simply good medicine. Health comes from the root hale, meaning whole. It has to be holistic.
Remembering the Holistic View
But what is our part in this? We ourselves need to think holistically in order to find true healing. For example if we expect a drug or a herb, a technique or a supplement to supply us with a cure of a condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, headache, or backache, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of frustration. Instead we can understand that we are in the midst of a flow of relationships and influences. Deep observation and learning will help us to choose what is wholesome for us, such as a certain diet, and avoid what is not, such as a physical or a psychological toxin, and move us towards a less pathological life direction. This requires a degree of attention, awareness, skill and humanity. We can be helped by the traditional experience that has been accumulating over the ages. This is the value of ancient systems of medicine such as Ayurveda or Chinese medicine, that are essentially holistic: they do not create division between mind and body, physical, psychological or spiritual nutrition. They are a wellspring of holistic wisdom that is rooted in cultural behaviors. I remember being completely amazed in 1975, when I spent a year in India, at the skill with which an Indian village woman designed the daily menus for her family (and myself), combining foods and spices according to the various health vulnerabilities in each of us, according to the season, according to the mind-body type (‘vata/pitta/kapha’) of each person, the weather, the region, and what was fresh and good in the market. This is a demanding knowledge and cannot be invented from scratch.

Holism is not just about health, it is a way of seeing, a way of life, based on the deep truth of interconnection. It is about looking after not just our bodies, but also our minds, our spirit, our external world. If we develop at all levels, each level helps each other and the benefits multiply. It is energizing and joyful to look after our bodies, becoming fit and supple. But the benefits may be undermined if we do not take care of our emotional life, fears, anxieties, agitation, anger and so on, nor do we know real inner peace. Or the reverse - we may be so busy with sorting out our minds, getting psychological help and dealing with our emotional life, that we forget the joy of being with our bodies and with nature, the appreciation of just being. Or we may be busy and worried about our environment and community, caught up in activism, but fail to pay attention to our God-given bodies and souls, fail to look after the ecology within. Or the opposite, withdrawing from our community and the world, in some ‘urban cave’ we may be wrapped in self development, forgetting to pay attention to the web of relationships of which we are part. Some people regard meditation as recharging the batteries. My usual response to this is to ask, ‘For what? What do you do with these recharged batteries?’ For real spiritual health, like the health of our body, an holistic approach is vital. Spirituality is not just a way to self-development. It is a shift in attitude, in relationship with ourselves and the world.

Here too we are helped by traditional wisdom. If we are practicing yoga, just read Patanjali, the father of yoga practice. The eight limbs of yoga are essentially holistic. They start with ‘yam’and ‘niyam’ which is about developing a fine sense of ethics and responsibility, so that we know the difference between harming and hurting. It is about cleaning our relationships with our world. They move on to physical development of the body, development of the mind and soul, and finally to the integrative wisdom of liberation, which itself is about us and the universe, not us alone. The same goes for Buddhist practice, which is not just watching the breath. It is the ‘Eightfold Path’, about transformation at all levels – of the body, the mind, the spirit and our relations with the world.

The holistic view protects us. Development of just one part of our being can make us very stuck at best, and at worst in deep crisis. The holistic view transforms us, as we let go of the narcissistic self and realize the freedom of living in harmony with the world around us. The holistic view cares for the world, as our environment benefits from our acts of care and healing.

Clil,  Doar Nah Oshrat
Israel 25233