What Does Holism Really Mean For Healing?

“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” — Aristotle

Let’s talk about quick fixes versus real fixes in health care options. Quick fixes may work quickly — and stop working quickly.

For acute problems, like an occasional headache, quick fixes like an aspirin can make a lot of sense. For chronic disorders and diseases, however, we need lasting — and more far-reaching — help.

It is no accident that more people search the Internet for keywords related to “alternative” medicine rather than “complementary” or “integrative” medicine. Clearly, most people with chronic disorders and diseases are likely to start off on one or more conventional drugs that they have to take. But many people want more options, i.e., alternatives.

Once the shock of a diagnosis wears off, what you need are true options — alternatives. Yet, as a consumer, you often assume that drugs — or treatments that you use in a drug-like way — must always be the centerpiece of the treatment. This all goes back to another unwise assumption, that is, that the way to treat symptoms in a body part is to block the body part from expressing the symptoms.

Suppressing the expression of symptoms cannot lead to true holistic healing, by definition. It simply re-arranges the disease so that the person develops a problem somewhere else. There can be a big cost to the person as a whole for blocking symptom expression in one place without truly healing the underlying problem. A useful analogy might be squeezing a balloon in one place, which forces the air inside to bulge into another. The air is still there, but the location is rearranged within the balloon.

For example, using steroid creams to stop a rash on the skin may lead to the later development of asthma or depression. The skin isn’t showing symptoms any more, but the lungs or the brain are. Conventional medicine might say that there is a different mechanism of disease in the lungs or the brain, making it “absurd” to think that the asthma is related to the suppression of skin symptoms. And it is true that the mechanisms of asthma are different from the mechanisms of a skin rash, if you focus just on local structures and processes.

However, even at the forefront of conventional medicine, scientists are beginning to recognize that the body is a network of networks of systems. Genes and proteins themselves function in networks of activity. There is a complex and coordinated organization of interrelated and interdependent functions at work all the time, behind the scenes of the obvious physical structures.

Well-established forms of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, show you that you are an indivisible whole. Treating at a particular acupuncture point has far-reaching effects in body parts that are far distant from the specific location in which the needle was inserted. Acupuncturists believe that the information travels by way of special pathways called meridians. Even state-of-the-art scientific research with brain imaging technology shows that putting an acupuncture needle into a point in the foot can change activity in far distant, but specific regions of the brain other than those just involved in registering pain.

When people say they are getting “holistic” treatment, they often mean that the mind affects the body – and vice versa. They try to make a few changes in their lifestyle to reduce stress. But real holism is far more than just stress reduction.

A truly holistic way of looking at chronic health problems is that the symptoms are a major and persistent message from your body part that you as a whole living system are out of alignment with yourself. This situation can push you far off the path and away from fulfilling your unique life’s purpose.

In real holism, things that happen in one body part have consequences for function in the rest of the system as a whole. What this means for the best way to use alternative medicine is that you want to use the treatments to heal you as a whole, not as a collection of body parts. Constitutionally-oriented systems of care such as acupuncture/Chinese medicine, classical homeopathy, and Ayurveda are well-established holistic options that treat the person as a whole. Even if you come to the practitioner with a specific symptom or problem with a body part, their diagnostic and treatment approaches, though different from each other in the specifics, are geared to realign the function of your malfunctioning body part to resume its proper role within you as a whole.

Similarly, you could use a vitamin or an herb — or even guided imagery (e.g., killing cancer cells) – in a drug-like way to suppress symptoms in a particular body part. But, for real holistic treatment, it is wiser to learn more about how to use natural products and mind-body methods to support your overall healing process throughout you as a living system of interconnected and interdependent parts (e.g., dialoguing in imagery with the body part to ask what it is trying to express symbolically about your issues as a whole). That is true holism.

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