The real voyage of discovery rests not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
I met Marie on a long cross-country flight. She was returning to her home in California after a business trip. We spoke about oceans and beaches, and I told her how much I was looking forward to a few days of long walks by the sea. After a heavy sigh she said, “I’ve lived near the beach for the past year and I haven’t been able to take one walk.” Although she didn’t know I was a physician, she continued to speak with some intensity “I’ve had asthma for two years, and now it is so severe that I have to stay indoors as much as possible.” She continued, “I’m too young to stop doing all the things I love to do.” As I listened, I wondered whether physicians have a subtle way of attracting those who are ill, or whether it was my smile of encouragement that invited her disclosures. Either way, I put my work aside to listen.
In the past two years she had seen numerous physicians, had undergone complete allergy testing, and had taken the usual prescribed medicines. Despite these efforts her symptoms were getting worse. “It’s the pollen,” she said. “I know it’s the pollen.” She continued with this thought in a rather persistent way even though I pointed out to her that she had lived in the same area for many years without any previous problem with asthma. I took another tack, asking “Was there something that happened in your life before the asthma began?” A bit set back by what seemed to be an irrelevant question, she responded, “No, nothing.”
Because I have heard so many similar stories, I pressed on with some ambivalence (after all I was taking an airplane flight, not conducting an office visit). “Think carefully,” I told her, then asked again, “Did anything unusual happen in your fife?” After a pause she spoke. “Well, now that I think about it my mother died around the time I got my first attack.”
What happened?” I asked. She responded, “I’ve never been close to my mother, but on the day she died she had complained of some chest pain. She had similar pains many times before, but I told her I would come over. She insisted that it wasn’t necessary, but I knew I should have gone. She died that night, and I feel guilty.”
Noticing her sadness, I asked, “What have you done about the guilt, and sadness, and anger?” “What do you mean?” she answered. “Well,” I asked, “when did the asthma start?” “About a month later,” she responded, not making the connection between the events in her life and her disease.
As we talked it became clear. Marie had come to believe that disease generally has a single cause, one that is usually outside of ourselves. In her case it was pollen. A single cause calls for a magic bullet, which for us means drugs. And even though all her efforts at such treatment had failed to heal her asthma, she persisted in using that treatment.
Through their experience, physicians learn that there is a time to join an individual compassionately in his or her pain and suffering, and a time to confront. With only an hour left on the flight I realized that I would have to take the path of confrontation. I let her know that I was a doctor, and stated my view as
clearly as possible. “Disease is not caused by one external agent,” I said, “nor is it ever isolated to one part of ourselves. Disease results from the combination of many issues that lead to a disunity in our mind and body. Disease is a disorder of our whole being. Your asthma,” I stated, “can be fully healed.”
I went on to say that healing would require her to understand the full web of circumstances, inner and outer, that resulted in the disunity of mind and body that she called asthma. I told her that she could learn about and apply her own built-in capacities for healing, moving from her present partial approach to healing to one of Whole Healing. I also assured her that if she chose to engage her disease in this way then she would walk on the beaches again. She listened intently, yet skeptically, and asked me where to begin. I told her that I would find someone in her area who could help her with the first steps toward Whole Healing. Within a few days I called her to fulfill my promise.
For Marie, the problem was a severely limited understanding of her disease and her own healing capacities. For others who are exploring for the first time the rich diversity of healing approaches that are now increasingly available, the problem is very different. Consider the following.
Several months ago I received a telephone call from Ann, a thirty-two-year-old woman in considerable emotional distress. Although we had never met before, her story came quickly as she sought my advice and assistance. Four months previously she had been diagnosed with a localized, surgically curable; cancer of the cervix. For the next month she reflected on her options and then decided to forgo surgery. Instead, she traveled to a Mexican clinic to try an alternative therapy. After three weeks of that therapy she was advised to return home and undergo the previously recommended surgery. She did so. At the time of surgery the surgeon explored the cancer and found that it had progressed. What had been an easily curable cancer had now advanced. Four months before, this woman could anticipate many more years. Her potential now for a
long and full life were dramatically changed. In her call to me she was struggling to make sense of the situation.
In Marie’s situation the problem was a lack of information. In Ann’s circumstance there were newly discovered alternative practices, a burgeoning number of options for healing, and plenty of information, but no way to sort through them and organize them for her benefit. These two people are typical of many people who seek medical help. Most do not have an understanding of their capacity for healing themselves, and even if they do, they have a lot of information but no effective way to use it. So the absence of information is only part of the problem. How to use information, particularly when it is plentiful, is the second part of the problem.
Ironically, we are living in a time when we are no longer dependent on a single health-care system and its particular perspectives. We are now discovering multiple unrelated health-care systems such as Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, and homeopathy; each has its own logic, approach, and treatment options, each is rapidly expanding our information and capacities for healing. Yet this sudden embarrassment of riches has resulted in a fragmented approach to healing. Some people are unaware of these new opportunities, and others who are aware make decisions based on pieces of information, pieces that too often are taken out of context and can therefore be more misleading than helpful. The problem is simply this: At a time when our world is changing and our possibilities are expanding, we have not yet developed a way to find the best and most direct route to health and healing.
This problem has developed in part because we are living at a time when old structures and ways of thinking are coming apart and new ideas are being formulated. This shift in our way of thinking can be most dramatically seen in the reshaping of our ideas about health and healing. We are changing from a mechanical view of the mind and body, one that examines and repairs one cog, one spring, and one flywheel at a time, to one that is dynamic and holistic. This shift has given rise to confusion and, at times, false hopes, but it has also given rise to a fundamentally new set of opportunities. Yet with all the changes that are occurring, several clear facts emerge:
- We no longer believe that there is a single cause for each illness. We now recognize that disease, like health, is the result of a web of circumstances that involve our mind, body, spirit, and environment.
- We no longer believe that there is only one way to heal. We now recognize that no singular approach, practice, or treatment has all the answers.
- We no longer believe that the power to heal is exclusively contained in external agents or treatments. We now recognize the wealth of healing capacities that are built into our minds, bodies, and spirits.
- We no longer believe that health professionals have all the answers to our questions about health and disease. We now recognize that there are answers we must seek ourselves.
A new vision of healing cannot be found through any one healing practice or a combination of them. Nor can it be found by shifting our focus from the body to the mind, or from one practitioner to another. Healing does not evolve from the proper functioning of pieces and parts, from the exclusive influence of either the mind or body, or from one system of belief or another. It emerges from our entire experience, which gives us access to all the possibilities for both inner and outer healing. The task becomes a process of exploring and bringing into our lives a fundamentally new and comprehensive approach to healing, an approach that I call Whole Healing.
Solving the Problem
As we move along the path toward Whole Healing, here is what we need: first, an understanding of the Whole-Healing process and a new vision of what it means to be healthy; second, the capacity to choose intelligently among the extensive menu of practices and approaches-conventional, alternative, mind/body, and spiritual; and third, an understanding of how these approaches work together. These three essential elements of a complete healing program were the missing ingredients in Marie’s and Ann’s quests for healing.
To facilitate these steps we need a way to consolidate the current array of healing practices into a coherent process, one that serves our needs rather than adding conflict and confusion. We must answer these questions: How do we expand our knowledge and understanding of our full healing capacities? How do we create order and coherence out of diversity? How do we bring together what appear to be separate aspects of healing into a natural whole that can serve our day-to-day health concerns while promoting long-term health? These are the questions that Marie and Ann, unknowingly, were beginning to ask for each of us. Their dilemmas reflected the larger concerns that we are all now confronting. The answers to these questions will force us to break through the limitations of a partial and inadequate approach to healing.
I’d like to propose a model that achieves that consolidation by considering the full range of healing already available to us, the four distinct healing systems that we can identify as part of our personal experience. Each of these systems has its own frame of reference, operating principles, characteristics, practitioners, practices, and research methodologies. I call the four systems Homeostasis, Treatment, Mind/Body, and Spiritual. At any one time, most of us are using one or two of these systems. That is what we are taught and what we are accustomed to. Used individually, these systems are limited and partial approaches to healing. Taken together, they form a Whole Healing System with a flexibility, adaptability, and comprehensiveness that cannot be accounted for by the mere sum of the individual components.
The figure below illustrates the natural nesting of the four individual systems to form a single whole. In the pages that follow we will examine each of the systems separately, but it is important to remember that in life they always operate as a unity, as one system. Living systems do not exist as parts; it is only our capacity for abstraction that makes it seem this way. And although the chapters in this book on the individual healing systems can each stand alone as descriptions of separate and distinct healing paths, human life, as we know it, is dependent on the presence and interaction of all of these four systems.
The Whole Healing System is composed of four separate and unique healing systems. Each system builds upon the other systems by adding new capacities and resources. In our lives, the entire system works as one, providing us with a remarkable capacity for self-healing.
As we consider each of the systems we will see how they share six basic characteristics, and how these typical characteristics of healing come together in a unique way in each of the four systems. Each draws upon a different aspect of consciousness, operates through a unique mechanism and process, and applies its resources to achieving a particular aspect of health. As we add one system to the others we will notice an expansion of consciousness, an increasing number of available resources for healing, and an enlarging sense of what it means to be healthy. We will discover that health is many things: a well-functioning mind and body, the capacity to recover from disease, the development of personal autonomy, and the progressive achievement of wholeness.
In building a new model of health we must also remember that it is person centered. We may automatically think that our intention is to build a better health-care system. This is not our goal. Systems cannot heal us. A person-centered healing model begins with a focus on our innate healing capacities, in the form of the four healing systems. Think of them as the hub of a wheel. They are the central focus and support of the wheel. At times we may reach out to the periphery to call upon other healing resources, professionals, practices, or treatments, to complement our built-in capacities. But these resources, when effectively used, can only assist us when they support rather than attempt to substitute for our natural healing systems. Health-care systems assume that health can be designed and delivered to us through some generic social formula. Whole Healing knows that health is a diverse, unique, and highly personal experience.
The Homeostatic Healing System
In 1929 Walter Cannon, the famed physician-physiologist, described the most primary and basic healing system available to us: the homeostatic system. This inborn system of internal physiological checks and balances, which evolved over the millennia of human development, makes it possible for us to respond automatically to internal states of disequilibrium with immediate, reflexlike physiological corrections. As a result, body temperature, fluid and mineral balance, and other automatic activities are kept in balance at all times. In this way Homeostatic healing contributes to our health by maintaining a constant internal environment-a necessity for life.
The Homeostatic Healing System, which is built in at birth, is our most primary healing system. It operates through the automatic activation of an array of internal checks and balances that assure that the body functions in a manner that can sustain life. Each draws upon a different aspect of consciousness, operates through a unique mechanism and process, and applies its resources to achieving a particular aspect of health.
The Homeostatic Healing System developed into its present form through a progressive accumulation of checks and balances designed to respond to the disruptive effects of internal and external stresses on our physiology, stresses that would tend to shift our system toward imbalance. However, because it takes approximately 1 million years to accomplish a 5 percent sustained change in the human biological system, our Homeostatic system is far more suited to the life of our ancient ancestors than it is to the more recent and dramatic changes in lifestyle and environment that characterize urban life. As a result, the Homeostatic system, a relatively fixed and unchanging system, is often poorly adapted to the lifestyles, practices, and environments of our day-to-day lives: our nutritional choices, exercise patterns, physical environments, and, above all, our stress levels. This mismatch of our inherited natural protective mechanisms to the realities of a twentieth-century lifestyle have resulted in significant limitations and deficiencies in the effectiveness of this system.
For example, consider the human stress response that evolved as a quick on-and-off reaction to the abrupt appearance of physical danger. In modern times, lions no longer appear suddenly in the bush, causing a heightened sense of alarm, only to disappear shortly thereafter. Our modern “lions” take the form of worries, fears, and anxieties, which constantly activate the stress response. Worse, unlike our ancient ancestors, through conscious intervention we can block or avoid the natural response, which is to escape from or avoid stressful and dangerous situations. For intellectual reasons, we often choose to remain in stressful circumstances so that our stress response is, ironically, activated. When this happens, the normal protective response, which once insured survival, is unable to respond effectively to the new realities of our lives, and the result is the development of acute and chronic stress related disease. What once insured the survival of life now can threaten our survival.
It is important that we learn to understand and use each of the healing systems in order to maximize what each has to offer. With the Homeostatic Healing System we can best support and enhance its effectiveness by providing the environment, nutrition, and physical activity that most approximates the circumstances under which it developed. To a large extent these activities fall under the label of “prevention.” In a sense, we are attempting to prevent a malfunction of this system by giving it what it needs. Perpetual mental stress, high fat intake, processed foods, and a sedentary lifestyle are creations of urban life that do not support homeostasis.
But there is more to maintaining the homeostatic system than these physical requirements. We cannot overlook the fact that our ancestors spent their lifetimes with the same 100 to 150 people, had a cosmology that brought meaning and wonder to their existence, and experienced lives that were well integrated into the natural patterns and cycles of nature. I am not suggesting a return to such times; this would be neither possible nor preferable. But when we understand the circumstances under which the homeostatic system developed, we can appreciate the value of inner peace, natural foods, exercise, relationships, and a vital spirit. In each case we close the gap between our inherited balancing mechanisms and our current lifestyles, nurturing our natural protective mechanisms. In a sense, by learning to respect the needs of our bodies, we learn to respect what has been given to us and to align ourselves better with nature, an action that has implications well beyond the boundaries of our personal world.
Nature’s extreme way of reminding and forcing us to comply with the basic needs of this system takes the form of sickness. Our natural protective mechanisms fail, our bodies force us to slow down, rest, reach out to others, and reconsider our lifestyles. When we persist in perpetuating attitudes and lifestyles that are inconsistent with our natural needs, ignoring the messages from our bodies, these personal choices can influence the transformation of acute illness into chronic degenerative illness, disability, and premature death. There is always a physical and psychological price for disregarding our nature. Health, growth, and fulfillment occur in partnership with our nature, not in resistance to it.
To remedy the deficiencies of a fixed and too often maladaptive Homeostatic Healing System, we have developed “treatment” models whose purpose is to step in and restore normal function when homeostasis has failed. Treatment practices, conventional and alternative, increasingly draw upon man-made interventions, which, unlike our automatic protective mechanisms, are flexible and can respond to changing conditions. To an extent we can say that our capacity to design treatment systems that augment nature’s mechanisms reflects our progress as humans. One can also say it is an indication of how far, for better or for worse, we have removed ourselves from nature.
The Treatment Healing System
Treatment, in its various forms, is the dominant model of healing in Western culture. The figure below illustrates the major characteristics of this system. It is activated by our reaction to the signs and symptoms of illness, and works toward repairing abnormalities through the use of external resources such as drugs and surgery. As we shall discuss in more detail in the next chapter, practitioners first seek to establish the singular cause of the problem, and then apply their resources to the goal of restoring normal function. At one time or another each of us will use the resources of the treatment system to address the inevitable adversities of living.
To treat is to apply a process to a problem with the intention of resolving it. In the case of biomedical treatment the process usually consists of the use of external agents such as drugs, surgery, or physical therapy. Other forms of treatment may come in the form of vitamins and other supplements, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, body work, energy work, chiropractic, acupuncture, and a host of other practices. We activate treatment when we seek assistance from a health-care practitioner as a reaction to the appearance of a symptom, or the presence of overt disease, an indication of the breakdown of the Homeostatic Healing System. The initial complaint is routinely followed by the requisite testing, the establishment of a diagnosis, and the prescription of therapy according to the particular practice, a therapy that is usually directed at a specific body part. Decisions are made by the health professional, and treatment is exclusively dictated by the type of disease. Treatment is generally tailored to the disease rather than to the unique characteristics and needs of the individual within whom the disorder expresses itself.
In general, treatment approaches are developed from fields of study that seek to understand the cause of the symptom and disease by narrowing in on a single body system, organ, cell, or, in the case of biomedicine, on biochemistry. The idea that a malfunction of the body can always be attributed to a specific abnormality localized at the biochemical, cellular, tissue, or organ level is called reductionism. This single-cause theory implies that the human body is an organized collection of parts that generally function independently of environmental, psychosocial, and spiritual influences. The idea is to find the singular abnormality and then to discover the “magic bullet” or practice that will cure it. The goal is to repair the abnormality and to reestablish health, which, in the treatment system, is defined as the restoration of normal function.
The Treatment Healing System relies upon the use of external agents, treatments, and practices, usually provided by a professional, for the purpose of repairing abnormalities and restoring normal function. There are many different approaches to treatment each differing in theory and practice.
This method is similar to the way we approach a car or machine: We first look the whole thing over and then narrow in on the broken part. But what works for machines doesn’t work
for people. In the treatment approach, the subjective and personal experience of an individual is considered “noise” and is ignored. Too often it is disregarded by the individual as well as the practitioner, both of whom learned this through culture and formal education. Marie’s experience with asthma is a typical example. Asthma is exclusively seen as a disorder of the breathing tubes, which causes them to go into spasm inappropriately, interrupting the flow of air to the lungs. This disorder is seen a result of a biochemical instability that causes an excessive reactivity of the airways, particularly to airborne pollens and other such substances. The treatment is to diminish this reactivity with a variety of medications. The advice given to physicians by the famed internist Sir William Osler is instructive: He said, “It is better to know the person that has the disease, than the disease that has the person.” As we can see in Marie’s situation it would have greatly contributed to her healing to have “known the patient who has the disease” as well as “the disease that has the patient.” This wisdom applies to Marie and her health professionals, both of whom knew much about asthma and its treatments but little about
Because Western medicine is the most frequently used form of treatment, let’s use it as an example. Biomedicine has achieved its greatest success within very specific areas: anesthesia, surgery, immunization, and the antibiotic treatment of bacterial infections. Its expanding base of scientific knowledge has provided us with both an extensive, although narrowly focused, understanding of disease and extraordinary diagnostic and therapeutic strategies. New forms of treatment, improved public health, and increasing levels of affluence have resulted in an extension of the average life span from forty years at the onset of this century to a current seventy-five years.
However, the success of biomedicine has also exposed its severe limitations. Those successful treatments, public-health measures, rising levels of affluence, and urban lifestyles that are a consequence of the industrial revolution have also resulted in a dramatic shift in the kinds of illness we suffer from. Instead of epidemics of acute infectious disease, we now have epidemics of chronic, often stress-related, degenerative diseases whose causes are largely a result of harmful environments, changing lifestyles, personal attitudes, unhealthy relationships, and unresolved conflict. Biomedicine is well equipped to diagnose and treat degenerative diseases, but its therapies rarely result in cure because in general treatment fails to address the primary sources of these diseases, the unique web of circumstances within an individual’s life that results in a disunity of mind, body, and spirit.
Much the same can be said about other treatments. It is currently fashionable to call many interventions and techniques holistic, suggesting that they aim at something beyond the goal of treatment. But the facts tell a different story. However well intentioned a practitioner may be, a practice strategy that involves one person (usually considered the expert) doing something to someone else most often falls under the treatment system as we know it. Although the intellectual intention of a practitioner and a client may lean toward holism, the practice and its impact may be quite different. The effort, regardless of the rhetoric, is usually directed toward repair and restoration of function, leaving the individual without further empowerment or enhanced personal skills and resources.
As with the homeostatic system, an understanding of the treatment system, its assets and limitations, demonstrates the need for an enhanced approach to healing. Exclusive use of a treatment system, by its very definition, is incapable of meaningfully including psychological and social aspects of our lives. These factors cannot be reduced to the level of biochemistry, cells, tissues, or organ systems without disregarding their meaning and significance to us. And while many practitioners are beginning to combine treatment with mind/body and spiritual approaches, this is still the exception, and many find it difficult to shift from being an “expert” in a particular practice to a shared practitioner-client relationship, a partnership that is an essential requirement of a broader-based approach to healing.
The Mind/Body Healing System
As we leave homeostasis and treatment to consider mind/body and spiritual healing we move from an automatic system that is inborn and a treatment system that is culturally imposed from without to systems of healing that rely on our consciousness and intention. Unlike the first two systems, mind/body and spiritual healing offer us the capacity for self-regulation and self-exploration, and in doing so give us the opportunity for a more direct and personal involvement in our health.
Unlike the physical context of the homeostatic and treatment systems, the Mind/Body and Spiritual Healing Systems evoke a very different view of the human condition. These systems call upon the capacities and qualities that characterize human life: consciousness, intention, will, creativity, faith, love, and compassion. In these systems we deal less with parts and increasingly focus on the wholes. The Mind/Body and Spiritual Healing Systems operate through “downward” causation, the process by which higher levels of human organization, the mind and spirit, effect changes in cells, tissues, and organ systems by reorganizing the whole. This is in contrast to the idea of “upward causation,” with the parts determining the status of the whole. (I will cover these concepts more fully in the next chapter.) Both of these ideas of causation are valid, and it is important that a comprehensive healing system consider and incorporate both.
The Mind/Body Healing System relies on personal responsibility and self-motivated effort. It requires the development and use of personal skills and capacities-physical, psychological, and psychosocial-that can help us connect mind, body, and spirit, and the development of the capacity for self-regulation. In contrast to homeostasis, which operates automatically, and the various forms of treatment, which are applied in response to the appearance of disease, mind/body healing is proactive and intentional. Its focus is on personal attitudes and lifestyles, and the skills that are necessary for healthy relationships, conflict resolution, and personal growth and development, the critical components of a health-promotion program.
The Mind/Body Healing system is activated through personal choice and initiative. The expansion of consciousness, access to a more comprehensive self-understanding, and the development of new skills and resources lead to a progressive capacity for self-regulation.
The full potential of this system is developed over time as a result of our choices and our efforts. It is neither automatic, like the homeostatic system, nor culturally imposed, like the treatment system. We have a choice, to develop its potential or not. It is a person-centered system rather than a disease centered one. Mind/body healing is concerned with psychological development, personal transformation, and mastery, to the extent possible, over the activities of the mind and body.
This aspect of healing bases its scientific legitimacy on the emerging research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology. The discovery that the interconnectedness of our thoughts, feelings, images, and biochemistry is mediated through a mobile neuropeptide messenger system, a series of natural chemicals that transfer information between the mind and body, has provided us with an understanding of the biochemical pathways that link the mind and the body. To the extent that our emotions and chemistry are linked, how we develop psychologically influences the physiology of our bodies. Research is now demonstrating the relationship between certain feeling states, attitudes, and perspectives and their effect on our biochemistry, for example, how feelings can suppress the immune system. Further, we are becoming increasingly aware, as we’ll see later, of how our attitudes and actions can enhance our resistance to the detrimental effects of excessive stress. In short, we are learning how to evoke health.
The change in focus from diagnostic categories to issues of personal attitudes, lifestyles, and psychological development alters the relationship of the health practitioner to his patient. This interaction becomes more of a partnership, in contrast to the hierarchical relationship that characterizes the treatment system. The focus is long-term, and treatment, which can more accurately be termed “self-regulation,” is more internal than external. The intent of the mind/body system is more educational than therapeutic, and a health practitioner serves more as an educator and coach. The skills required are very different from those taught in conventional practitioner training programs. They include expanded psychological skills, communication skills, and an awareness of the practices that serve as resources for this aspect of healing. It is at this level of healing that we most profoundly see the shift from outer aids to inner resources.
To maximize the effectiveness of the homeostatic healing system we need only to adhere to some basic health practices. In the case of the treatment system we need only comply with the directions of the practitioner. When it comes to mind/body healing, however, we need some instruction. The first part of the mind/body curriculum is learning a variety of practices that develop the skills, resources, and capacities for self-regulation. There are many to choose from including: meditation, Yoga, breathing techniques, Tai Chi, Aikido, imagery, biofeedback, art, dance, writing, and journaling. Each of these practices, and many others, is something we can do for ourselves in contrast to something that is done to us. We become our own healers, applying intention, will, commitment, and persistence to our efforts to develop our healing system fully. In this manner we discover that when we pay attention to our lives, many of our most potent sources of healing can be found in the routine activities of our day-to-day lives.
The second aspect of mind/body healing is learning how to more deeply observe and understand our individual lives. In particular, we can learn new ways of approaching health and disease, relationships, communication, conflict, and career choices. The expansion of self-knowledge will provide us with an understanding of the workings of the mind, an expansion of consciousness, and a deeper and richer sense of a very different self. There are many techniques that offer help in the expansion of self-understanding. These include meditation, psychotherapy, twelve-step programs, self-help groups, reading, seminars, and, of most importance, an ongoing process of self-inquiry.
Just as the focus of mind/body healing differs from that of homeostasis and treatment, their goals also differ. Homeostasis defines health as the maintenance of a steady state, and treatment aims at restoring normal function. Mind/body healing incorporates these aspects of health, but extends them to include the expansion of consciousness and self-knowledge, and the acquisition of new skills and resources, an adventure that continues throughout a lifetime. As we shall see in the following chapters, at this level our definition of health slowly shifts from preoccupation with sporadic episodes of illness toward a concern with the more creative and personal act of designing a healthy life.
As with the homeostatic and treatment systems, the defining focus of the Mind/Body Healing System, self-awareness and psychological development, accounts for its contributions as well as its limitations. This system approaches but fails to fully consider the spiritual aspects of human experience that transcend and extend the boundaries of personal development. To convey a holistic and intuitive understanding of the
living experience that in itself is healing, the Spiritual Healing System comes into play.
The Spiritual Healing System
Although the spiritual experience is singular in nature, there are many paths to it and different names for it. It can arise quite suddenly, through the experience of prayer, devotion, love, compassion, meditation, music, dance, art, and nature. It may last a few precious brief moments, or, at times, for longer periods. It can also evolve slowly over a lifetime of study, practice, growth, and development. In the latter instance, it is as if small islands of understanding expand and coalesce over many years to provide a more comprehensive awareness and understanding of the whole of life.
The spiritual perspective is a way of understanding life that provides meaning to our day-to-day experiences and the larger issues of living and dying. Spirituality sees wholes rather than parts, and patterns rather than details. When we are guided by this perspective, life seems to make sense, everything is in its place, and we feel balanced and connected. This deeper sense of self and nature is satisfying to the soul and spirit. It can have profound effects on personal attitudes, values, relationships, and unresolved conflicts, and as a consequence it can influence biochemistry and physiology. I call these effects on the mind and body spiritual healing.
The Spiritual Healing System is activated when we experience a sense of wholeness. This experience, through its profound effect on our attitudes and perspectives, is healing to the mind and body. It can be activated spontaneously for brief moments, or developed through a progressive expansion of consciousness.
Unlike the preceding healing systems, spiritual healing results from a way of being rather than doing. While mind/body healing results in an increasing sense of peace and understanding, spiritual healing conveys wisdom and a persistent sense of oneness with life. In its emphasis on wholeness, spiritual healing relies on intuitive knowledge, an often unused aspect of our consciousness. It operates by conveying to us a unifying and integrated vision of life, and a sense of meaning, purpose, and coherence. The spiritual experience cannot be well characterized through the limitations of descriptive prose. It is best communicated through symbols, art, poetry, sacred spaces, religion, and myth.
As we consider the Spiritual Healing System it is necessary to point out that healing can be, and has been, approached from two directions. Throughout much of Western history, people relied on faith and spirit as the predominant focus of healing. Individual development, what we have termed mind/body healing, was inconsequential, if not heretical. Through the exclusive and disciplined practice of faith, often in the form of organized religion, day-to-day life was maintained in a state of peace and balance. This is not to suggest that faith in itself resolved and healed all disease, but rather that it provided a continuity and transcendent meaning to life that allowed for an inner peace and balance, mental and physical. But ours is not such a time, and the vast majority of us will find it necessary to discover the transcendent through the exploration and progressive understanding of our day-to-day lives, our relationships, conflicts, and life transitions. For us the path to Whole Healing is not downward from, what would seem to us, an uninformed faith, but rather through the process of individuation and personal transformation, a process that is uniquely Western and modern in character. There is no “better” or “worse” here, merely our historical circumstance, one from which we cannot escape.
Using the Health Continuum
As we explore the four healing systems as a single, fully integrated model, we can discern qualities that are related not to the individual healing systems but to the healing system as an indivisible whole. The result is somewhat like the relationship of individual notes to the melody found in a musical composition. The notes are the elements of the music, yet the music is much more than just notes. The rhythm, the arrangement of the notes, and the spaces between them give the work as a whole a certain context, movement, significance, and meaning. We find in the musical composition a dynamism and vitality that is not a property of the notes by themselves, but only emerges through their organized interaction.
And so it is with the Whole Healing System. Each of the individual systems taken alone is static, stationary, and devoid of the dynamism of life. But if we take them together we find a fully integrated, moving, flexible, adaptive, and organic process. It is all one carefully orchestrated process that comes alive only as we consider the whole.
It has been often said that there are no colleges that teach us about healing, or for that matter, about life. We are left either to rely on others or to do the best we can through selfstudy and trial and error. But the new model of Whole Healing that we’ve been exploring can serve as a guide to the development of our healing powers. Movement from one system to the next is marked by an initiation. We are initiated into homeostasis through our birth, into treatment through our family and culture, and into mind/body and spiritual healing through the major breakdowns and setbacks of our lives, of which disease is certainly one. Instead of traveling the road without a map, we now have one. The Whole Healing model is a guide to the development of our healing capacities, our consciousness, and our evolving sense of what it means to be healthy.
The Whole Healing model, when looked at in its entirety, is a guide to the progressive development of consciousness, the expansion of personal resources and capacities, the unfolding of a larger vision of health, the attainment of wholeness, and, of course, Whole Healing.
In my own life and in my work with clients I frequently refer to this model and ask the questions, Where am I (or where is my client) on the developmental continuum? What is called for at this stage of life? What aspect(s) of healing are essential at this time? Consider the following example.
Richard, a forty-five-year-old lawyer, comes to my office with the symptoms of atherosclerotic heart disease. His age and the intensity and severity of this particular illness indicate the need to consider, at a minimum, the Treatment and Mind/Body Healing Systems. Further inquiry, which may continue over weeks, will clarify whether Richard is willing to and capable of viewing his disease within the framework of a spiritual perspective, a perspective that is both appropriate and essential for his age. Stated another way, is he ready to “use” his disease as a challenge to transform his life, to take some risks and explore new possibilities? First, I would discuss with him and then initiate appropriate steps toward treatment, diagnosis, and therapy. Next we would examine the context of his illness, the web of circumstances, attitudes, and lifestyles that has brought him to this point in his life. Finally, if it is acceptable to him, we would begin a dialogue together in which we would seek a larger understanding of the meaning, purpose, significance, and implications of this disease for his life.
In this case a Whole Healing plan includes a mixture of approaches: the use of appropriate diagnostic and therapeutic interventions (the treatment system), the introduction of attitudinal and lifestyle changes in the areas of stress management, nutrition, exercise, conflict resolution, and insight-based psychological counseling (the mind/body system), and an ongoing consideration of the impact of this illness on previously held values, beliefs, and priorities (the spiritual system). The goal is to use this disease as a doorway into a more considered and expanded life-one that serves to remedy the problem at hand, to reverse the personal factors that have contributed to the developmental of the illness,, and to enhance the overall quality of life.
Consider again the case of Ann, whom we saw earlier in this chapter. How would I have worked with her if I had met her at the time of diagnosis? To begin with, I would have strongly recommended that she immediately proceed with the surgical treatment of the tumor, a use of the treatment system that would likely have cured the cancer. Then I would have quickly introduced her to a variety of mind/body practices, such as meditation and imagery, that could have helped her in preparing for surgery and assisted her during the recovery period. Once the immediate issues were handled, I would have spent time discussing with her how, by examining her attitudes and lifestyle- issues of food, exercise, and stress-she could possibly influence the risk of a second cancer (individuals with cancer are at an increased risk of a second cancer). Finally, we would begin the most important part of our conversation, exploring the significance of this life-threatening disease, what it can teach her about her life, her directions, and her priorities. Together we would seek to find a meaning to this phase of her life, a meaning to help transform the next part of her life, a path to renewal and wholeness. The Whole Healing of a disease of this severity requires the use of the entire healing system. The result is not only the elimination of the illness, but the promotion of health and the revitalization and redirection of life.
As we begin to understand the implications of Whole Healing we will naturally loosen our exclusive reliance on practitioners. It will become quite evident that the capacity to develop fully the Whole Healing System and design and orchestrate the healing process is in the end a personal endeavor. Practitioners can serve as important resources, but never as surrogate healers substituting for our own lack of initiative or commitment. The sense of the whole will be contained and situated, as it should be, within ourselves. The health continuum is liberating. It suggests that no one healer can or should master the entire healing process. It liberates the healer and researcher to study, practice, and fully develop a particular field of interest while maintaining a vision of the whole at all times. It further liberates each of us from the notion that we cannot understand or take charge of our healing. We no longer need to be victimized by the stigma of professional expertise, but can feel free to consult with practitioners while maintaining the responsibility and expertise for organizing the whole.
It may seem strange and something of an accident that a chance encounter on an airplane trip can be a source of healing for two individuals who have never previously met. But it really isn’t quite that strange. Healing, as we are discovering, is ongoing and always available. Our homeostatic system is working even when we are asleep, practitioners and their therapies are ready and waiting, mind/body healing, as in this case, may be as readily accessible as the give-and-take of caring in a brief relationship, and the healing power of the spirit can be at hand instantly when we stand in awe of the simple wonders and beauty of life. Exceptional healing is merely the full use of our built-in Whole Healing System. What stands in our way is not our nature, but our allegiance to outdated ideas.
Here and in the following chapters I’ve included a variety of exercises, or inner journeys designed to amplify the text and provide you with a direct experience of the ideas and concepts described here. The exercises can and should be repeated as many times as necessary to maximize your understanding of the text.
Inner Journey #1: Imagining Whole Healing
Although the material presented in this chapter is an important first step in understanding Whole Healing, a full understanding becomes possible only when we incorporate these ideas into the day-to-day fabric of our lives. In this exercise, we will complement the discussion in this chapter by presenting the same material in a way that uses your personal imagery.
Begin this exercise by allowing thirty minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time alone. Sitting comfortably in a chair, close your eyes, and allow your mind to become as still as possible.
We will begin by considering the homeostatic system. First, create the image of a person who is lying peacefully asleep. Place this image in front of your visual field. I would like you to imagine that the individual’s clothes and skin are transparent, and that you can watch the inner workings of the body. Notice the normal and rhythmic pumping of the heart as it delivers the blood from the lungs to the tissues and cells of the body. Notice the thyroid, adrenal and salivary glands, automatically measuring and controlling the levels of hormones secreted in the body. Try to see the back-and forth conversations as the body’s cells communicate their needs. Notice the master gland in the brain, the pituitary gland, overseeing all of this activity. Become aware through your images of the fine balancing of minerals, blood flow, and body temperature. Notice how these activities proceed automatically and continuously while the individual is asleep. Similarly, become aware of how this system depends on the quality of the nutrients, oxygen, water, and food that the person takes in from the environment. For the next ten minutes observe how this “instinctual” automatic system self-regulates the body. At the conclusion of this period, sense how this system is working at this moment in your body. Why does it work in this way? What are its assets, its liabilities?
Next, let’s consider the treatment system. Create an image of a practitioner’s office, and an individual in the examining room. Observe how the practitioner is asking questions and examining the body for information about its workings. Observe the decision to use one or more forms of therapy: medicines, surgery, or physical therapy. For the purposes of this image let’s consider that one of the forms of therapy is an antibiotic that is being used to eradicate a “strep” throat. Observe the individual purchasing the antibiotic at the pharmacy and upon arrival at home beginning ten days of medication. Watch the pill as it moves through the gastrointestinal tract, into the blood circulation, and into the tissues of the throat, where it engulfs and inactivates the bacteria. Watch how the homeostatic system assists this process by sending white blood cells to “attack” the bacteria, macrophages to “clean up” the debris, and further helps in regenerating normal tissue. Become aware, in this instance, how the homeostatic and treatment systems work together. What is the role of each? What would happen if one or the other were inactive? Allow ten minutes to complete this section of the exercise.
We will now shift to the mind/body system. Create an image of a middle-aged man who has just suffered a heart attack and is lying in his hospital bed. By imaging the blood circulation of his heart, notice how the homeostatic system with all of its efforts cannot overcome the blockages in the coronary arteries. Some heart tissue has died, and the physicians are now injecting a medication to dissolve some of the blood clots responsible for the acute decrease in coronary blood flow. Other medications are used to control abnormal heart rhythms and maintain a normal blood pressure. While you are observing this scene, notice this individual in his normal life situation: a sixty-hour week in a highly stressful job with high demands and insufficient time or resources; a typical high-fat, quickly eaten American-type diet; insufficient time with his family to experience the nurturing and warmth of relationship. Observe how the homeostatic and treatment systems work to heal the disorder, and how the individual’s life resists this effort. You may also notice how the mind/ body system comes into play when the quieting of life’s activities, often the result of illness, assists in focusing the body’s energy on repair and healing.
Consider another image, one of a thirty-five-year-old single parent, a woman with a full-time job, two children, and unrelenting migraine headaches. Imagine the endless day-to-day activity, the absence of time for herself, of social support, or of financial security. In this instance, as in the previous one, imagine the effort to reduce stress that is made by the homeostatic system, and of the activity of the medications, treatments designed to control vascular instability. Observe how both of these systems are working against the resistance of the circumstances of this individual’s life. How in each of these instances can the individual choose to activate and use the healing capacities of the
Mind/Body Healing System? Can the homeostatic and treatment systems working alone result in healing? Can you imagine in these images how and why the mind/body system has been built into the body to provide flexibility and adaptability to the Whole Healing System? Allow ten minutes.
Finally, let’s consider the Spiritual Healing System. Place an image of both of these individuals in front of you. Imagine that both have now returned to their day-to-day activities with the necessary improvements in their attitudes and lifestyles. In a sense, it would be as if they were each living in a room in which they had rearranged the furniture so that the conditions were more satisfactory. Life goes on with these changes. Now consider questions these individuals ask themselves: What is the meaning of this illness, and what does it tell me about how I have been living and how I need to reorganize my life, within the limitations of my circumstances? Is there a way to view life that will bring new meaning, freshness, and vitality? How would this change my attitudes, lifestyle, and physical condition? Allow ten minutes to consider these questions as they apply to each of these individual’s lives, and finally, to yours.
Imagine that each of the four healing systems are not separate systems, but one system with different components. Create a new image of a Whole Healing System that incorporates each of the four healing systems and observe how this system moves and shifts with the movements and changes in our lives. When you are through, open your eyes.
This exercise is another step in the process of learning how to see wholes rather than parts, patterns and relationships rather than separateness. Observe in your day-to-day experiences how your Whole Healing System seeks to adapt to life in a manner that is intended to heal. Allow it to lead you, to make suggestions to you, and to inform you of its needs.