Holism in the Helping Professions: Not a Matter of Choice

Intelligence thus begins neither with knowledge of the self nor of things as such but with knowledge of their interactions, and it is by orienting itself simultaneously toward the two poles of that interaction that intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself. (Piaget, 1977, p. 275)
Pages: 16-22
Year: 1984


Intelligence thus begins neither with knowledge of the self nor of things as such but with knowledge of their interactions, and it is by orienting itself simultaneously toward the two poles of that interaction that intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself. (Piaget, 1977, p. 275)

Our assigned task was to write about holism in the helping professions. Much has been written about holism since the 1970’s. Traditional approaches to change have labeled it radical, not clear or understandably different from current practices, and “New Age” dribble from those who hallucinated in the Sixties. All of these charges are true.

Historically, the thought form of Holism as it is emerging today can be traced to its beginning in the 1970’s when ideas of reality were shaken. “It is impossible to overestimate the historic role of psychedelics as an entry point drawing people into other transformative technologies” (Ferguson, 1980, p. 89). Ferguson explained that many respected scientists and professionals who experienced drug-induced, expanded states of consciousness were exhilarated by the discovery of right-brained creativity and new possibilities; others reacted fearfully as they found the stability of what they “knew” about reality being threatened. Holism may be part of the calm waters left by the waves started by the quaking of the Sixties.

Traditional therapeutic approaches yield a perception of Holism as radical because to embrace holism means leaving the security of tradition’s reality, and realizing that belief systems make us blind to new horizons. When we speak of holism we are referring to a new and different thought form that is being assimilated by the traditional professions. This publication attests to that fact. However, as the helping professions begin to preface traditional terminology with the already much worn cliche “holistic,” it is critical that the paradigm shift inherent in the spirit of the term be embodied by the helping professional and integrated into their existing systems. Without this integration and embodiment the assimilation will be in terminology alone and nothing will have changed, least of all the belief that reality can change. It is about this point of assimilation that we have chosen to write.

Simply calling a system of fragmented structure “holistic” does not change that structure. Housing a variety of specialists in the same office space and calling it a “holistic clinic,” for example, does not make it holistic in practice as long as the delivery system shuffles the client from person to person. This is a department store, not a holistic clinic. Educationally, a parallel situation exists when analytic thinking (left-brain activity) is taught in one room by one teacher; creativity (right-brain activity) is taught (a contradiction in terms?) in another room by another teacher; physical activity is restricted to the gym and playground under the direction of special teachers; and no one attends to the unifying consciousness of each student. Although most of the individual parts are addressed, the understanding of each person existing as an organized whole is not.

In contrast to the examples of spurious “holism” given above, Capra (1982) defined holism as “an understanding of reality in terms of integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller units” (p. 38). Twice Nobel Prize winner Albert SzentGyoergi in his classic article outlining his concept of syntropy (1977) stated, “…all levels of organization are equally important and we have to know something about all of them if we want to approach life … we must be a bit of everything. Even if limiting our work to a single level, we have to keep the whole in mind” (p.17). Working in a department store clinic does not make one a holistic practitioner since specialization and holism are incompatible in practice.

Holism, then, is not a technique nor a school of thought nor an idea with which to casually experiment. Holism is the recognition of the interrelatedness and interdependence within and among every living thing. It is more than accepting that every individual has a physical self, an intellectual self, an emotional self, and a spiritual self; it is accepting that these “self” systems are related and dependent upon one another, and only through an awareness of the continuous interactions of the “selves” can a person be comprehended as a whole being. The interaction, not the selves, must be the focus. Furthermore, the holistic principle connects the systems within each individual to the same systems in every other individual so that all persons are interrelated and interdependent. Here, the connections of interrelatedness and interdependence must be the focus. To accept holism is to accept that Herecledus was wrong in 500 B.C. when he separated the Mind and Body; and, accept instead that not only are mind and body one, but we are all one and that there are multiple ways for us to be in the world together.

To describe holism and impart an understanding of it entirely with words is nearly an impossible task. More correctly, it is a paradox. Therefore, in order to understand holism we must first agree on what it is. We must agree, not of its definition, but that:

1. Holism is a process

2. The process is not bound by the limitations of time, and

3. There are no other processes from which to choose.

First of all, as a process, holism is happening all at once, all the time: it is a state of being and a statement about relationships. Ilya Progogine, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry in 1977, said that all living things are always in process and the more complex their interrelationship becomes, the more affected to moving to higher order they become (Ferguson, 1980, p. 163). Holism is also movement, “…the constant flow of transformation and change …a natural tendency, innate in all things and situations” (Capra, 1982, p. 39). Rogers (Flynn, 1980) refers to the process as directionality, a tendency inherent in man’s nature and in all living organisms to move toward development, differentiation and maturity. The holistic process is the embodiment of what Szent-Gyoergi (1977) refers to as syntropy, the innate drive in all living matter to perfect itself, to move or evolve into higher levels of organization and forms of order. Rogers (Flynn, 1960) notes that the process described above is easily understood within the context of biology or zoology but that when it is applied to humankind, it is easily dismissed. “Psychologists particularly seem very reluctant to recognize this” (p. 168).

Secondly, holism is not bound by the limitations of time for it is not a linear, cause and effect phenomenon. One of the difficulties encountered in integrating holistic thought into one’s reality is that of our culture’s preference for left-brained, analytic, linear conceptualization.** In terms of time, analytic thinking leads to the concept of measured time, i.e., minutes, hours, days as measured by clocks and calendars. Time is indeed cyclical.
However, the holistic experience of time is in fact timeless. As Duke (1983) explains, “…the mind is timeless and analogic, hoarding events and thoughts and awareness long ago perceived, and flashing them as if they were current” (p. 38). We would add that whole persons, not just their minds, are timeless also, being all at once everything they ever have been and everything they will be at any one moment. Moving outside the realm of human existence for illustrative purposes, as Rogers suggests, may further illuminate this point: an acorn is ancient oak groves and a tree yet to be, suspended in a brief moment in time. The acorn is a representation of the interrelationship among many systems or parts: man, animal, the many manifestations of nature, as well as the perspective of the person viewing it. Holistic helpers view their clientele in a parallel fashion, seeing the timeless quality within the persons and taking into account the process of interrelationships within and outside those persons which has a profound effect on their total being.

Our third point of agreement is that there are no other processes from which to choose. Within the holistic context of oneness, the most frightening information we have become aware of, save the nightly news, is that suicide is the third largest killer of adolescents. In a time of great potential both for total world destruction and/or total transformation of the quality of life, such information clearly indicates that holism is not a matter of choice unless one would choose suicide over life. LeShan (1976) states,

Since whatever is done to one part affects the whole, an ethical principle is built into the universe. If one part moves toward greater harmony with the whole, all of the whole including the part that took the action–benefits. If one part moves to disrupt the harmony (hurt it, damage it, stunt its becoming) between another part and the whole, the disruption affects all of being, including the part that took the action. Whatever action you take affects you also. (pp. 82-83)

The helping professional must realize and know that with every patient/client, or student encountered, both are embarking on an adventure inward that will lead to transformation and change. The very words “helping relationship” imply mutuality and interdependence, with each person in the relationship affecting and being affected by the whole. Many helping professionals, however, view the helping relationship in a hierarchical manner, seeing themselves as helpers who are “more” and their clients as persons who are “less.” In effect, this view excludes mutuality and interdependence and results in fragmentation and thus, entropy or destruction. The implication is that “unless our life energy becomes one and harmonious, and the flow is inward, we are suicidal” (Rajneesh, 1973).

Holistic helpers, to be truly agents of change, must integrate holistic principles into their every day living. They must experience and accept their own interrelatedness and interdependence. In order to do this, they must first be willing to let go of their ingrained belief about the nature of being, have a clear vision of holistic unity, the passion and courage to move into unknown territory, and the willingness to suspend judgement and relinquish the “security” of an inflexible position. It is becoming increasingly apparent, as one reviews the current literature from diverse fields of inquiry, that the traditionally held beliefs about the nature of reality are being shaken. Wilber (1982) published a chronology of the evolution of the new view of reality in The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes in which he states, “The very facts of science, <the researchers> were saying, the actual data (from physics to physiology) seemed to make sense only if we assume some sort of implied or unifying or transcendental ground underlying the explicit data,” (p. 1). The underlying, unifying principal is holism. In order to embrace holism, however, one must have a vision of what that means.

Belief systems are the embodiments of a vision or view of what one believes to be true that comes from within, e.g., murder isn’t right. Furthermore, belief systems organize perceptions in such a way that what is perceived is sensed as right or wrong, true or untrue, possible or impossible and, therefore, impart a sense of security for the perceiver. For those who aspire to be holistic helpers, the security of old reductionistic views of reality must be abandoned in order to entertain a new, possibly less secure, vision of their world.

The holistic vision includes an implicit understanding of the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all things. It further includes seeing individuals as autonomous beings who are pursuing their own truths in their own reality, recognizing the inner drive for unity and balance within each individual, and being open to new information both from the environment and from within so that new knowledge can be incorporated into an ever evolving knowing of what is “right.” As soon as one shuts out new information and becomes dogmatic about what is “right,” it’s wrong.

The holistic vision of reality acknowledges both rational and intuitive modes of processing information as equal in importance and validity. Capra (1982) stated, “In the past, brain researchers often referred to the left hemisphere as the major, and to the right as the minor hemisphere, thus expressing our Cartesian bias in favor of rational thought, quantification and analysis” (p. 294). It must be noted that there is danger in excluding from the vision that which is intuited, sensed, or just “known” as some level. Leonid Ponomarev (Edwards, 1973), in discussing these two complementary ways of knowing, said, “…we cannot assess the degree of damage we undergo from a one-sided perception of life.”

Holistic helpers must also have a vision of their own and their client’s movement towards higher levels of organization within a unified structure, which means that there is constant movement into the unknown. This way of being can be frightening at times, for going into the unknown is rarely accompanied by feelings of security. And, since it is always safer and more comfortable to go back to the known, even when one knows that it is destructive, the holistic helper must not only have vision, but passion and courage as well in order to go on to the unknown without judgement.

The passion and courage to which we refer is much the same as that of pioneers, explorers, and adventurers who ventured into charged territory with excitement, committed to a vision of redefining reality as answers to questions unfolded before them. From deep within them came the knowledge that they must leave the security of the familiar in order to fulfill their purpose. Similarly, holistic helpers must have the courage and commitment to let go of static, theoretical views of humanity (as comfortable as they may be). They must ask themselves “What is my purpose?”, “Where am I going?” and then let the answers come from within themselves.”

As the answers begin to unfold, integration of holism begins. The integration process is that of embodying holism, or experiencing it within oneself. It begins with the realization of the truth of the interdependence and interrelatedness of all of one’s parts and expands to include all of one’s reality as a unified whole. Einstein said that, “…all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it” (Schillip, 1958, p. 391). Hendrichs and Weinhold (1982) describe a process for developing a transpersonal perspective for counseling that can be useful for integrating holistic principles. The authors’ first step is to become aware that all life experiences are seen as external to oneself, but they are actually projections of our inner self on what we call our reality. The next step is to reclaim the projections. Finally, one must realize that there is no difference between what is experienced as inside and what is experienced as outside (p. 25). The embodiment of holism requires a similar redefining of relationships and intentions, and accepting without question that one cannot not be in relationship.

The embodiment of a holistic view of reality clearly points out that holism is not a matter of choice: it is the only choice. It is movement towards life (holism, syntropy, expansion, energy) and away from destruction (fragmentation, entropy, contraction, death). The evidence is mounting that we do, in fact, live in a holistic universe and that we, individually and collectively, are reflections of that universe. We are in relationship with ourselves, with others, with our reality. If helping professionals are to be truly agents of change, they themselves must change. If, in fact, helping professionals are going to claim to be in relationship to their clientele, then there is no other choice but to experience being in relationship through the embodiment of holism, for holism is about relationships.

As individuals, our experience of wholeness must supersede that of fragmentation. Helping professionals must search the cutting edge of all fields and unify their vision of the holistic process, embracing the insecurity found there with a passion and excitement knowing that the part each individual plays affects the whole of mankind’s evolution. The holism paradigm of deliberate choice of life must be embodied by the individual helping professional at the risk of living on the shifting sands of uncertainty.

As a unified whole species we are at a point of critical mass. At no other place in the linear time of this planet have we had to make such a deliberate choice as a whole interconnected organism. There are more people on this planet than ever before and we must realize that collectively, as one organism, we have taken a loaded gun and placed it to our temple. As we are poised in this psychotic posture, science is becoming more spiritual and the work of many of its leading figures is crying out to us that our defined reality is different than we believe. This cry is the cry of holism; a cry of hope. Holism is not a technique: it is the choice of life.

*We need to say here that to gain an accurate understanding of holism does not mean that analytic thinking must be thrown out. Analysis is still useful; however, it is not enough. Just as Newtonian physics is still true, but inadequate to describe reality in view of the information gained from quantum physics, rational thought is inadequate to describe the totality of reality at another level.


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