What is Holistic Medicine?
A cut closes. A split bone fuses. What is broken becomes whole.
What does it mean to be broken? Who is a broken person? What is a broken system? A broken home?
Questions like these are called medicine when they begin in a body. They do not end there. They do not end there, because the body does not end there. It reaches outward, always in dialogue with what is around it and beyond it.
Temperature sensors in your skin detect heat and cold; your nervous system listens to the weather, and the stove, and the radiating asphalt. Your internal body clock is entrained by light; both your eyes and your endocrine glands watch the passage of the sun. Your gut and your skin are covered in a layer of bacteria, billions. They are not, strictly speaking, you. The outside world is teeming inside us and upon us. We need this whole community in order to live. We are symbionts. We are not just in this world - we are of it.
If this feels like poetry, good. It is biology. Then things are talking to each other again.
Medicine begins by listening to this conversation. Listening, listening, for parts that have turned their backs upon each other. Inner-body rhythms that don’t speak to outer rhythms. Social systems inhospitable to living systems. Minds at war upon themselves. Just come and sit here. Let us talk. We will find a way to return. We depend upon one another. We have evolved this way. We have evolved to need each other.
This is the work of medicine: it begins in a body, and reaches out toward the whole. It re-patterns the bodies we inhabit to cohere with the world we inhabit, and re-patterns that world to cohere with these bodies in turn. It drains lymph; it drains swamps. It reduces inflammation, and reduces inequality. Its area of expertise is the harmonious functioning of living systems. Its practice is to listen for truncated conversations, to guide disunited parts back to harmony.
This knowledge is buried and preserved in our words for healing. The word physician comes from the Greek for knowledge of nature. The word health comes from the Proto-Germanic for whole. To say holistic medicine is nearly redundant, because medicine itself means the work of re-uniting parts with wholes. I use this term because it has become necessary to give a reminder of this old truth. This truth is old, but still good.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot it. We happened upon something new, parts previously unseen. Germs, and things. We got very excited, naturally. We squinted hard. We looked through microscopes to see them. And then, for a while, we forgot that there was anything beyond the lens.
The world beyond the lens is still affecting us anyway. We just haven’t much wanted to listen, or talk. Squinting focus must widen again. The antibiotics will not work for much longer, yet still we cannot look away.
The rest of the living world is waiting, for dialogue. A holistic medicine is anything that re-patterns these connections. It holds everything in its gaze. The ancient Ayurvedic physicians would pray to Ganesh, god of pattern recognition. There is a whole. Brokenness is when part of us is not part of it.