Holistic Health

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Holistic Health

Religion and medicine have been closely connected in almost every culture in world history. Indeed, both seek to move persons from a condition of brokenness to wholeness and to infuse them with a vitality for living. The Western scientific tradition, however, is nearly unique in that it operates on philosophical assumptions that separate the physical and the spiritual aspects of human life, concentrating only on the former. As a result, medicine has become increasingly technological, bureaucratic, and impersonal. The holistic health movement emerged as a reaction against modern medicine's abandonment of a philosophical vision that sees the interdependence of humanity's physical, mental, and spiritual natures. Its basic premise is that "every human being is a unique, holistic, interdependent relationship of body, mind, emotions, and spirit" (Belknap, Blau, and Grossman, p. 25). Advocates of holistic approaches to health are thus committed to a metaphysical interpretation of reality that goes well beyond the materialism of modern science and that frankly acknowledges the spiritual dimension of human well-being.

Holistic health encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices, ranging from the commonplace to the esoteric. Included in this category are such diverse practices as dietary systems, use of botanics or herbs, massage therapies, positive thinking programs, Eastern meditational disciplines, New Age color or crystal healing, and twelve-step programs. One introductory text explains that although holistic approaches to health are quite distinct from one another, they share a "reliance on treatment modalities that foster the self-regenerative and self-reparative processes of natural healing" (Otto and Knight, p. 3). This characterization of holistic medicine's distinctive outlook is important in that it echoes many of the philosophical themes rooted in nineteenth-century alternative medicine (e.g., Thomsonianism, hydropathy, Christian health regimens, mesmerism) as well as the tradition of "nature religion" in America. Holistic medical systems have faith in the beneficence and essentially progressive character of nature. This reverence for nature is matched by a belief in the fundamental dignity and sovereignty of the individual, especially over and against institutional authority. Holistic approaches to health are less invasive, concentrating on strengthening the individual's own system rather than assaulting it through surgery or heavy doses of pharmaceutics. And finally, holistic medicine pays attention to the attitudinal and even moral aspects of health, revealing its belief that health is but one aspect of a person's broader orientation to life. It is clear, then, that holistic health practices have gained widespread popularity not only for their therapeutic value but also for their ability to articulate important strands of American religious and cultural thought.

Following the lead of such influential American philosophers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, holistic health systems espouse the view that every human being has untapped potential resources, and powers. Some holistic practices (particularly those that emphasize nutrition and exercise) seek to amplify the body's own natural healing process. Others, however, share Emerson's and James's more overtly metaphysical belief that certain mystical states of consciousness allow humans to become especially receptive to the inflow of a higher spiritual power. Thus some holistic health practices (particularly those that emphasize some form of meditation) seek to help people inwardly align themselves with resources and powers that are decidedly spiritual rather than physical.

Norman Cousins and Bernard Siegel were two of the late twentieth century's most widely recognized spokespersons for holistic healing. Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review, confronted a serious illness for which medical physicians gave him a rather bleak prognosis. Cousins's autobiography recounts how he willed himself back to health through a deliberate regimen of optimistic and cheerful thinking. His lengthy remission brought a great deal of popular attention to the role of attitudinal factors in both creating and curing disease. Cousins attributed the mind's curative powers to the existence of the "life force" that drives organic life toward perfectibility. Cousins also hinted that this life force was metaphysical in nature and that mystical states of mind have the power to reveal the highest possibilities that humans can attain. Physician Bernard Siegel has been even more forceful in aligning holistic health practices with a decidedly metaphysical worldview. Siegel instructs cancer patients to read books on meditation and psychic phenomena so they might learn practical techniques for tapping into more-than-physical healing energies. According to Siegel, our unconscious minds are connected to the energy of God; hence any ailment can be healed.

Another example of the connection between holistic health and Americans' fascination with novel religious ideas can be seen in the five thousand nurses who have studied Dolores Krieger's technique of Therapeutic Touch. Krieger, who was a nursing instructor at New York University and a student of theosophical teachings, developed a healing technique predicated on the existence of a universal energy underlying all life processes. She claims that as long as an individual is continuously receptive to the inflow of this vital energy, which she refers to with the Hindu term prana, he or she remains healthy; illness ensues when some area of the body develops a deficit of prana. Using healing techniques highly reminiscent of nineteenth-century mesmerism, Krieger explains that healers can learn to become inwardly receptive to the flow of this spiritual energy into their own system and in turn impart it to others with the touch of their hands. New converts to Therapeutic Touch write that the philosophy behind this healing system opened them up to ideas and experiences that significantly enhanced their spiritual outlook on life. Persons who had been trained in nursing science become excited to read books on yogic meditation, Tibetan mysticism, and other techniques that might assist them in opening themselves to the flow of the universal power of wholeness.

Perhaps the most widely practiced form of holistic medicine is the twelve-step program of personal renewal that originated with Alcoholics Anonymous. AA's founder, Bill W., warned that people do not have the resources within themselves to bring about the kind of personal transformation necessary to heal profound cases of inner division. The key to such personal regeneration, he wrote, is "the feeling of being at one with God and man." Yet Bill W. was wary of organized religion. Knowing that many alcoholics are painfully conscious of their inability to live up to the moral absolutes associated with biblical religion, he instead sought to articulate a spiritual outlook that was free of dogmas and fixed traditions. AA's "twelve step" program is a unique blend of mysticism and self-help philosophy. Referring to itself as "spiritual rather than religious," it teaches people to develop a sense of inner connection with God while yet taking responsibility for their own decisions and actions.

Holistic approaches to health and healing are most prevalent among white Americans who are from twenty-five to fifty years of age and who have relatively more education and higher incomes. Few of these people, therefore, are attracted to these beliefs and practices because of ignorance or poverty. Indeed, it appears that one of the most vital functions performed by holistic health philosophies is that they introduce Americans to alternative visions of their spiritual potential. A 1978 volume titled The Holistic Health Handbook described dozens of holistic health systems, such as acupuncture, iridology, reflexology, t'ai chji, yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, and chiropractic medicine. Yet even the volume's Introduction suggests that "more important than the techniques is the expansion of consciousness they foster" (p. 13). It appears that many contemporary Americans are eager to explore ideas that fall just as far outside of conventional church religion as they do outside of conventional Western science. For this reason holistic health systems have succeeded in making spirituality a vital part of everyday life, even for those who feel disenfranchised with established religious institutions.

See alsoAlternative Medicine; Health; Human Potential Movement; Macrobiotics; Nature Religion; New Age Spirituality; Peale, Norman Vincent; Quantum Healing; Transcendental Meditation; Twelve-Step Program; Yoga.


Belknap, Mary, Robert Blau, and Rosaline Grossman, eds. Case Studies and Methods in Humanistic Medicine. 1975.

Fuller, Robert C. Alternative Medicine and American Religious Life. 1989.

Gevitz, Norman, ed. Other Healers: Unorthodox Medicinein America. 1988.

The Holistic Health Handbook. 1978.

Kurtz, Ernest. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. 1991.

Otto, Herbert, and James Knight, eds. Dimensions inWholistic Healing. 1979.

Robert C. Fuller