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Is your therapy holistic?

Updated on January 31, 2012

Unless you've been absent from Planet Earth for the last decade or so, you can't fail to have noticed that one of the biggest buzzwords in the health field has been the term 'holistic.' This term has moved from the humanistic and new age movements firmly into the mainstream. Everyone knows what it means. Or do they? When I read advertisements in health magazines it seems that nearly all therapies and treatments claim to be holistic, but I often wonder what exactly is 'holistic' about them. And that makes me wonder what people generally understand by the term.

It is derived from the Greek word 'holos' meaning whole, total or all. Given its present positive connotations, it is rather ironic that it was in fact coined in 1926 by South African politician Jan Smuts, a strong supporter of apartheid for most of his life.

The general meaning of 'holism' is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The implication is that you cannot understand a system just by understanding the function of the individual pieces, because together they create something more.

In the complementary health field, holism generally refers to the integration of the individual body-mind-spirit. In other words, every human being has a body, a mind and a spirit, and that you cannot fully understand or treat any of these without taking into account how they interact as a whole.

A holistic therapy, then, is one that treats mind, body and spirit. This kind of approach is very different from the kind of medical care that is mainstream, which deals only with very specific problems.

The technology of Western medical science has brought us tremendous benefits and has dramatically improved our quality of health and life expectancy. However, many people instinctively recognise that this approach is not sufficient. Even the most traditional of doctors will agree that the patient's frame of mind has a huge impact on the outcome of treatment and their chances of recovery. A senior executive atEurope's largest drug maker has admitted that more than 90% of drugs only work in 30-50% of people.

And, of course, it's a standing joke (and not really that funny when you think about it) that as you walk through the doctor's door wanting to talk about a problem, the GP is already reaching for his prescription pad?

If holism is correct, then illnesses are not only physical problems, and the body is not simply a machine that is as mechanical as a car engine.

We in Western societies have long accepted a dualistic view of being, which has perhaps caused this mechanistic view of the body. We have regarded the mind and the body as fundamentally different things, and has led to a mind-body split, in which we consider `I` to be the mind that lives in a body - like a driver in a car. Most of us believe that I have a body not that I am my body. This leads us to ignore one of the most important aspects of our mental well-being.

The dualistic attitude is most noticeable in our religious beliefs. Most of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that the real 'me' is my spirit, which will survive my bodily death. The mind and spirit are seen to be superior, while the body and its needs are less important, inferior and maybe even shameful.

This attitude has been changing. Indeed complementary health and the holistic view could almost be said to be close to becoming mainstream.

Pioneering work by psychologist Wilhelm Reich, a pupil of Freud's, showed the real connection between mind and body. Emotionally painful experiences and our own defences against further pain become locked up in our muscles, forming what he referred to as body-armour. Pupils of Reich continued his work, creating an alternative to the analytical, mind-centred approach of mainstream psychoanalysis.

Then in the 1960's, Westerners started discovering traditional eastern practices of spirituality and medicine, radically different from those of the West. One of the most influential concepts was the notion that we have an energy-body, a network no less real than our circulatory system - and no less vital to our well-being. Many of these eastern concepts and practices have blended with neo-Reichian and humanistic psychology to form the basis of many of the holistic therapies that are flourishing today.

Holism is for me an understanding that mind, body and spirit are three interlinked systems, and that our current state of being is a complex pattern woven by all three. To achieve harmony and wholeness of being we need to honour each aspect of ourselves as best we can and recognise that imbalances in any one the systems can contribute to problems in another. We need to tread an often winding and subtle path from where we are to where we wish to be.


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