HOLISTIC MEDICINE, WHAT IS IT?
by Helen Cohen
Land of the Moon
The word holistic is derived of the Greek word holos (holos), which means literally "whole" or "totality". The original application of the word holism was in philosophy, where it referred to an intellectual conception antithetical to the those denoted as "reductionism" or "dualism." As a philosophical concept, holism declares that a whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.
Like all popular things, this word has been used and abused beyond belief. Perhaps only the word "natural" is so often misused, and so often for the same low purposes . In this age of runaway capitalism, when the only valued quality anything, including art, can have is marketability, the "holistic" and the "natural" sell well—"holistic hair care", "holistic cream", "holistic pet food", "holistic colonic irrigation". The moronic is selling well too, it seems—and guess who is buying?.
What, then, is holistic medicine?
By definition, it is a healing practice in which a practitioner views her patient as a whole individual intimately connected to the rest of the life in the universe and perceives disease as a continuous process that is much more complex than a simple sum of pathophysiological signs and symptoms. In these respects, holistic practice differs radically from allopathic medicine, which, as we know, is reductionistic in its approach to both a patient and disease.
Holistic medicine must also be distinguished from modern theories of psychosomatic illness, which are often confused with the conceptions central to holism. The theory of psychosomatic illness states that physical symptoms of a disease are often a manifestation of psychological problems. Even the most subtle accounts of psychosomatic illness, however, are not holistic, since they remain strictly dualistic in essence. When the entire spectrum of human experience, as expressed in a state of illness, is reduced to two opposing entities—psyche and soma, the spiritual and the corporeal—and their relations are viewed closely without any reference to outer events and forces, and without any recognition of the larger patterns of life, there can be no perception of the whole. Psyche and soma are considered to be the only two components of a being, each distinct and self-sufficient, influencing each other like the molecules of a simple substance. A human being, in psychosomatic terms, is no more then the arithmetical sum of her body and her mind, each of which are, by definition, reducible to a pair of finite entities with discernible boundaries.
Psychosomatic is not holistic, then—and neither are many modern "natural" therapies that share its reductionism and linear simplicity. Many "alternative" practices that claim to be antipodal to the principles of allopathic medicine still rely, in their analysis of a patient and disease, on procedures of "diagnosis". Treatment is prescribed when the disease has being "diagnosed", that is, the perceptible signs and subjectively experienced symptoms are collected and compared to normative patterns. Diagnosis concentrates on the perceptible signs, which are arrogantly considered to be more reliable, especially if laboratory analysis or some sort of mechanized data collection is used. This collection of signs in such forms as physical examination, lab diagnosis, x-ray photography, iridology and VEGA testing, together with a record of patient's experience of the symptoms is fitted loosely into a limited number of disease categories that are belived to be real.
Most Western "alternative" therapies also use, like their allopathic adversary, specific organ pathology for the purpose of diagnostic identification. "Chronic Candidiasis", "liver toxicity," "underactive thyroid," "exhausted adrenals," or, more abstractly, toxic environment, food allergy, vitamin deficiency, sublaxations affecting nerve centers, and even "sluggish bowels"—my favorite. The words "holistic medicine" are then used illegitimately to confer approval on an extraordinary range of treatments.
Specious "alternative" practitioners can sell us all this because we are conditioned to buy it. We are conditioned by practitioners of allopathic medicine, and by the avalanche of pharmaceutical advertising. We are conditioned by our education—or perhaps, by our lack of it, by the widespread cult of science, and by the American middle-class desire for figures of authority have combined to create in us a proud and willful ignorance of genuine medical alternatives. This ignorance allows only fear and contempt when an oriental doctor bases his treatment for infertility on the observation that the patient has too much Cold in her womb, due to Middle Burner Yang Deficiency. This ignorance allows only amusement or incredulity when an American native healer advises her patient to overcome illness by going on a certain type of journey. But "sluggish bowel"—anyone who watches television or reads magazines can relate to that, and will take something to make them less sluggish. So long, of course, as the remedy is all "natural" and "holistic"—no chemicals, please!
The only healing practice that is truly holistic, takes into consideration the whole being as an integral, inseparable part of the cosmos, and refuses any reductive setting of boundaries between a patient and their environment. It is important to understand that every time one draws a boundary one destroys the whole. In practice, of course, we must finally draw a boundary somewhere—otherwise we would end up treating the entire universe every time one of us sneezes. The boundary must be made as large as possible to minimize error, yet small enough to be intelligible. It is precisely the job of a physician to estimate the boundary conditions, as mathematicians call them, not just to find the organ that is affected by a pathological process or search for some simplistic linear etiology.
Chinese medicine, Ayuvreda, Native and African healing practices: these are the vestiges of real cosmological medical systems, and these alone qualify as genuinely holistic. In order for us to comprehend the holism of these ancient healing practices, we have to come from within the philosophical and mystical vision that gave them birth, otherwise we are just outsiders looking in, much of the ancient lore is lost to us all.
Chinese medicine, as a result of its unique history, with centuries of prestige and the support of the country's elite, has been developed to a perfection. Homeopathic medicine—the modern Western version of eternal medical wisdom—is the heir to the ancient healing knowledge lost at the hands of the Inquisition. Homeopathy never enjoyed the support of the world powers, it is, therefore, still in a state of development. But even in this state, homeopathy is second only to the near perfection of the Orient.
©1999 by Helen Cohen. All rights reserved.
Land of the Moon is a cyberplace for women and by women that is dedicated to the promotion of health and wellness in mothers and infants. It delivers the latest information
and provides help for new parents. We offer on-line alternative medicine treatments for those who either cannot afford or live too far from the centers of homeopathy and naturopathy. Site is created by a practicing naturopathic doctor who specializes in homeopathic medicine for children and has an earth-bound office, called the Woman & Child Naturopathic Clinic, in Toronto.
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