Throughout Foundations of Western Herbal Medicine, I stress the importance of language. Words can tell us a lot. Let’s take a closer look at a couple that define two prevalent views of human health and medicine: allopathy (conventional medicine = allopathic medicine) and holism (what herbal holistic medicine and other alternative modalities fall under).
Allopathy and its Deeper Meaning
From the Greek allos, meaning ‘other’, and -patheia (-pathy), meaning ‘in a diseased or suffering state’. The word says a lot about how followers of that concept view human health (by followers I mean us, the vast majority of Westerners living in the US, who are hardwired with the view of allopathy). One, allopathy starts from the position of viewing human health in the diseased state. Allopathic medicine begins its exploration from there. It also views its primary role as allaying or eliminating discomforting symptoms. Two, allopathy focuses the majority of its attention outwardly, looking primarily for invasive causes of disease. The Germ Theory of medicine is based on this premise, which allopathic medicine adopts as an no-need-to-be-defended baseline truism.
This stance points to deep biases. One, we don’t pay attention until something goes wrong, and two, we look outwardly to point blame. It both stems from and breeds a cultural disposition and lack of awareness that seeks to avoid being accountable and taking responsibility for one’s own well being. It also makes it easy to embrace the role of victim, further excusing us from taking self-responsibility, and looking outwardly to both blame the cause and to find someone to take responsibility for making the suffering go away.
Holism and its Deeper Meaning
From the Greek holos, meaning “whole, entire,” states that systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) and their properties are to be viewed first and foremost as wholes, and that these systems cannot be adequately explained by reducing them to their perceived constituent parts. Renowned Western philosopher Hegel used blood as an example to explain this viewpoint, saying that it is a mistake to treat an organic substance like blood as nothing more than a compound of unchanging chemical elements that can be separated and united without being fundamentally altered.
Chinese medicine and pre-allopathic European medicine understood this. Blood is blood and cannot be successfully reduced to or adequately understood from its constituent components of plasma, red and white blood cells, platelets, hormones, nutrients and wastes. We can and should investigate these components, but we must also remember that first and foremost, blood is a whole substance unto itself, greater than and qualitatively different than the sum of its parts.
The same is true when viewing the entirety of a person, no matter what categories are being used to describe the whole being, such as (a) by bodies (physical body, mental body, emotional body, spirit body, suffering body, etc.), or (b) by organ-systems (nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc.). And like a nesting doll set (a fractal), the same is true at every level of organized physical reality: the wholeness of an organ (heart, brain) can be divided into but not reduced to various tissues; the wholeness of a cell can be divided into but not reduced to organelles, the wholeness of a compound can be divided into but not reduced to its atoms; the wholeness of an atom can be divided into but not reduced to its sub-atomic particles, and in the other direction, planet Earth can be divided into but not reduced to its elements, the Milky Way can be divided into but not reduced to its solar systems and other cosmic phenomena, and so on.
Innate Intelligence of the Body
Holistic Medicine also embraces the baseline truism that the human body is an innately intelligent self-correcting organism. That is, given the right factors and conditions – which is our responsibility to both be aware of and provide — our bodies know how to stay, maintain and return to a dynamic flux we call good health.
Holism also embraces what is currently being described as biopsychosocial medicine, a term describing a view that says biological, psychological and social aspects of humans are inseparable; none can be discounted when discussing a person’s situation; and all aspects are both the problem and the solution. This concept is a no-brainer for health practitioners in indigenous cultures.
Another very important position I personally take when adopting the holistic position is this: (a) we are to be viewed in our whole-being entirety as much as possible, and we must always begin and end there; (b) we are where we are and who we are, systems and processes in constant motion animated by a spirit that is more verb than noun, and so focusing on disease and health is not even the issue. The issue is this: helping everyone to understand — to the best of our abilities — how the body works and what its basic needs are, so that it can do what it innately knows. It is the opposite of not taking accountability. It eschews adopting the role of victim. It is taking a position of self awareness and proactive power, where we are all the best physicians for our own selves. Health practitioners, such as myself and others in holistic herbal medicine, are more educators and guides, helping others by example and words — yes, and herbs — to better understand and adopt this viewpoint, and by doing so to live a more aware, healthier, resilient, adaptable and fulfilling life.
Biases Run Deep
A word of caution. These biases run deep in all of us, and unless we take the necessary time and steps to investigate them deeply through self-cultivation, we won’t even know how shackled we are by them. Case in point, holism as I am defining it is not necessarily and automatically understood or embraced by practitioners who call themselves alternative or holistic. If they have not done the deeper work of looking at their lenses of understanding, then it is very likely they are still viewing the world through their primary hardwiring, and merely translating all the concepts they hear into the concepts they already know. For example, an herbalist who does not seek to understand and adopt holistic philosophy is likely understanding and using plant medicines in the same manner that an allopathic physician would use pharmaceutical drugs, and would believe that plants’ medicinal activity is caused solely by their individual chemical constituents, and that these constituents behave solely by mechanisms described by pharmaceutically trained chemists.
It is important that we become aware of and deconstruct our biases, not just for the sake of medicine, but for the sake of humanity and all our other relations we share this planet with. This is why the first level of Clearpath School of herbal Medicine is called Cultivating the Healer Within, and why we spend a lot of time in Foundations classes on developing self awareness and cultivation tools.