eCourse: What is Holism?


ho·lism noun \ˈhō-ˌli-zəm\

“Holism (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning allentiretotal) is the idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.

The general principle of holism was concisely summarized by Aristotle in the Metaphysics: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

Reductionism is sometimes seen as the opposite of holism. Reductionism in science says that a complex system can be explained by reduction to its fundamental parts. For example, the processes of biology are reducible to chemistry and the laws of chemistry are explained by physics. ” (1)

Holism has been around for a very, very long time. This concept is not new. Granted, over the past few decades it has become more and more prevalent in our cultures, specifically in relation to our health, but the concept that things should not always be compartmentalized, but rather to be looked at as a whole picture.

“In a world of specialization, we have been trained to think of medicine as a separate world—when we are sick, we go to doctors and follow their advice. This is starting to change, with the increasing popularity of alternative and holistic approaches to overall health and well-being.” (2)

The principle of holism can be applied to any method of thinking. In science, architecture, education, theology, anthropology, and of course medicine.

“Holism appears in psychosomatic medicine. In the 1970s the holistic approach was considered one possible way to conceptualize psychosomatic phenomena. Instead of charting one-way causal links from psyche to soma, or vice-versa, it aimed at a systemic model, where multiple biological, psychological and social factors were seen as interlinked. Other, alternative approaches at that time were psychosomatic and soma to psychic approaches, which concentrated on causal links only from psyche to soma, or from soma to psyche, respectively. (3) At present it is commonplace in psychosomatic medicine to state that psyche and soma cannot really be separated for practical or theoretical purposes. A disturbance on any level – somatic, psychic, or social – will radiate to all the other levels, too. In this sense, psychosomatic thinking is similar to the biopsychosocial model of medicine.

Alternative medicine practitioners adopt a holistic approach to healing.” (1)

It seems very simple, this concept of holism, right? Looking at the big picture that is holism, one begins to shift in not only how we process information, but to also how we react to circumstances. To our relationships, to the news, to the environment around us, and also to the environment within us.
I have always thought in these terms. Perhaps this is the root from which I was awarded the title of always being “up in the clouds.” But to counter that premise, it takes a lot of focus to look at not only the past and future in holism, but it requires a great skill to look at the present, and see the potential. To see its history. To understand it for what it is, no matter how ugly. This for me, is a central staple of holism.
Applying that to our health, to our complete health: mind, body and spirit is not an easy venture. Maybe this is why so many shy away from holism. Because they are naively ignorant to its immensely creative and productive outcome. Because it takes time. It takes effort. It takes a person a lot to not not only look at a situation or at the present state that they are in, but it takes a high level of responsibility for acknowledging the “why?” That one question we all try to avoid answering. That one phrase if you were lucky enough to grasp as a student: “never stop asking why?”  Things seem easier when we try to reduce things down to a single answer, but when you really look, and look hard, and really get down to the nitty-gritty and start answering those questions for yourself; it can be scary. There is a certain amount of shame also I feel, because people in our culture hate to be wrong. (I put myself in that category too) and they hate even more to be that person who is to blame. To be held accountable for their own actions, or the inactions that led to a dis-ease.
“Deeply holistic paradigms can challenge our existing belief structure if we are educated in the West- as I have said, Western orthodox medicine is unique in the world for not considering the spirit. Spirit is a difficult thing to define- yet somehow, we know what it means. one great description came to me via my teacher Eliot Cowan, world-renowned healer in the Five Element tradition: Think of where your body has been today- all the movements it has made from when you woke up to present moment. Even if it’s early in the morning, your body will have been active all the time in one way or another. Now think of where your mind has been- where you have range din your thoughts. You will see that the movements of the mind so far exceed those of the body, that really there is no way for the body to keep up with the mind- the mind is too fast for the body to grasp. Well, your spirit is to your mind what your mind is to your body- the mind simply has no way to grasp the spirit, the spirit is too vast, too fast, too beyond, for the mind to get more than a now and then glimpse of it. yet many of us have had experiences where we came close to feeling things in our spirit- highs, peak experiences, moments of deep peace, deep joy, connection, serendipity. The human being, in body, mind and spirit, is a beautiful and complex entity- there is always more to be learned. At heart, holism says that  a person is a whole, and also a part of the greater whole. Because we are deeply connected both within ourselves and with everyone and everything else in the universe, all these influences, within and without, affect us. You are your body, but you are more than your body- your thoughts, your feeling affect your physical reality far more than you may realize. You do not exist in isolation: your relationships, from the beginning of your life to the present, have formed and continue to form you. If your family is sick, you are affected. If your community is sick, you are affected. If your society is sick, you are affected. (4)

However, in taking an active role in your own healthcare, an immensely creative and productive thing happens. Once you do see, and do answer those “why?” questions, you instantly transform how you think. You instantly transform how you are. You instantly take back your own personal power and blossom. You blossom, because in that one moment, you begin the healing process towards harmony. And that my friends is true medicine.

And that, my friends, is holism.

2. Gareth Cook, Boston Globe, 9 June 2002
3. Lipowski, 1977.
4. Pip Waller, Holistic Anatomy: An Integrative Guide to the Human Body, 2010

4 thoughts on “eCourse: What is Holism?

    1. Thank-you Kristina! They are a work in progress. Im trying to offer as much as I can without being too drawl or too sparse. I am happy you enjoyed it. Happy weekend!

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