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The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Last month, I shared with readers a general comparison between Western allopathic medicine and so-called “alternative medicine.” This month, I’d like to go deeper into one of the major differences between the mainstream methods and most alternatives: reductionist versus holistic models of health.

To oversimplify, Western medicine is based on a reductionist model. That is, it “reduces” different aspects of health down into what it considers to be manageable subsections. Diseases are categorized as infectious diseases, chronic diseases, internal diseases, etc. Body parts are categorized as body systems, organs, parts, etc. Specialties and subspecialties are defined: pediatrician, oncologist, dentist, cardiologist, psychiatrist, etc.

This, I’m sure, sounds familiar to everyone these days, but what’s new here is understanding that this is a whole way of thinking.



A variety of advantages and disadvantages arise in this model. When we have a heart condition, we go to a heart specialist. They know more about the workings of the heart than other folks, and that extra bit of knowledge is a definite advantage when faced with a serious physical matter concerning the heart.

The disadvantage, however, is that in focusing on their specialty, physicians are likely to lose sight of the whole. The heart specialist may know about the physical workings of the heart, but understand little about how the emotions, other organs or lifestyle issues that may be affecting the heart.




The heart specialist may indeed cure your heart problem, but will not be able to effectively address any negative side effects on other organs. Or the specialist may say there’s nothing wrong with your heart, then be completely at a loss to explain to you why your heart aches so much.

I witnessed one of the most painful disadvantages of this reductionist method in one of my clients who suffered with cancer. He was taking medication to battle it. He was a trooper and followed the doctor’s orders to a T. He was often awash with symptoms that were incomprehensible.

In the end, he did not die of cancer; rather, his liver and spleen failed from the ill effects of the medicine administered to heal him, a side effect his medical treatment failed to take into account.

In stark contrast, the holistic method suggests another approach. One statement perhaps best captures the spirit of holistic approaches to medicine: “I never met a headache with a person … I only met a person with a headache.”

In holistic medicine, it is of utmost importance that the whole person be taken into account. A patient is not “the liver in room 206,” rather there is a person in room 206 who has challenges with their liver. In holistic medicine, the body is not a machine made up of various parts. If the body were a car, the reductionist model would work beautifully.

But, fortunately, it is not. We are not. We are beings, filled with something called life. And though we do indeed have many different parts that make up our being, those parts are all intricately and masterfully interwoven.

In holistic medicine, the focus is on the interweaving of the many layers of our being. The health of our body is completely connected to the health of our mind, emotion and spirit. In fact, all these layers are inseparable. When we are in good health, they work together in seamless harmony. When we are diseased, a dissonant pattern surfaces.

The first signal of dissonance may be pain in some part of the body. The lower back begins to ache; the joints become stiff. These symptoms are a cry for help from the body, mind and spirit. If interpreted as simply physical in nature and origin, we likely will miss important clues to finding our way back to harmony.

In one brilliant case with which I am acquainted, a breast-feeding mother was suffering from repeated mastitis (breast infections resulting in clogged milk ducts). Each time she suffered, she went to her homeopathic physician, who administered a remedy. The infection would go away in less than a day, but return within a week to 10 days. Although homeopathy is generally considered a more holistic approach, in this case it was used as a symptomatic treatment and never treated the underlying condition.

Luckily during this time, the client traveled to Germany. She had a recurrence and went to a local specialist, who asked the key question: “Have you been experiencing flatulence?” When the response was affirmative, one remedy was given, and the breast infection cleared up and never returned.

So in examining the clues, the entire person must be taken into account, from diet to perspective on life to temperament. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, all these will illuminate the best course of treatment.

No two people are ever treated alike. In holistic medicine, we can’t simply say a flu is a flu, and everyone gets a flu shot. Everyone is different and responds in their own way, both to exposure to the flu and to the shot. To truly treat the flu, each person’s individuality must be taken into account.

There are many fine examples of holistic medicine in the world today, and even a few mainstream doctors who are paying attention to this important perspective.

Of course, this is not an easy skill to attain. To see the whole of the person and put together the patterns is an art as well as a science. Many ancient systems of healing take this into account, and professionals exist who practice in this way: homeopathy, traditional Asian medicine, acupuncture, herbs and acupressure therapies, Ayurvedic medicine from India, and Western herbal wisdom teachings, to name a few.

Together they prove daily the old adage: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” And that’s a good thing to know when the goal is good health.

Matthew Sweigart is a certified Asian bodywork therapist and shiatsu therapy Instructor. He lives and works in Grass Valley, and lectures regularly around the United States.


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