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Two Western approaches fine examples of alternative health

I recently shared with readers one of the major differences between mainstream medicine and alternative approaches: reductionist versus wholistic models of health. My point was that seeing the whole is a vital component in creating a total health picture and providing optimal care.

Alternative medicine is dedicated to doing just that, whereas the reductionist thinking practiced in allopathic medicine is short on this kind of “linking” thinking. This month, I’d like to explore further how this idea of body/mind/spirit wholism is actually a deeply rooted understanding, and how embracing it fully can have a profoundly positive influence on our health and well-being.

An Ojibway elder once told me that to his people, the word “medicine” meant “anything that makes you feel better.” That could mean a walk in the woods, listening to good music, a good meal …



Of course, mainstream medicine includes various ministrations that fit this definition, as well. Pharmaceutical drugs and surgery provide critical assistance that can indeed “make you feel better.” The point of the elder’s message is that we must widen our view of what medicine can be. The intricate interrelationship of body, mind and spirit makes for a vast array of approaches to improving, promoting and maintaining health.

With the myriad choices in alternative healthcare existing today, it is easy to see how one might fall into confusion and dismay. You might throw up your hands, and even give up trying to find alternatives.




How do you choose one method, how do you distinguish it from other choices, and how do you come to trust its efficacy ad legitimacy? Of the many varieties of alternative medicine available to us for addressing our health concerns, I have one very simple litmus test: Look for basic underlying philosophies that are shared by each modality. This kind of cross-verification between various methods points to an underlying truth.

For instance, my formal training is in Chinese and Japanese touch-based medicine. But as I studied these, I was deeply involved with Native American ceremonial healing. At first blush, it may seem that these disparate cultures would have little in common, but a deeper exploration shows that the similarities outweigh the differences. Both are based on a deep reverence for nature, and see human beings as an integral part of the natural world that surrounds us.

Both teach that health is a practical, harmonious relationship with nature, and that disease is due to some estrangement or disconnection from the natural cycles. These teachings are found in cultures that also teach of the oneness of body, mind and spirit. Their teachings give us a practical application of this understanding in our pursuit of health.

Our own culture diverged from this teaching at some point in our history, and so finding corroborative evidence of wholism within Western teaching can be a very demanding task. But it is not impossible. Two of the finest examples of wholism in Western culture come through the deeply rooted traditional teachings of homeopathy and herbalism.

Herbalism is an ancient art/science handed down through the generations since time immemorial. It involves a deep study of not just the pharmacopeia, but of the actions and interactions of the plants themselves in the natural world and how that interaction mirrors their interaction with the human body.

The herbalist must not only understand the herbs and their actions, but also be able to read patterns as presented by the person seeking healing, and see the correct herb to apply in the immediate, individual situation.

In homeopathy, the practitioner must also “see” the bigger picture, see the entire person and work with them in body, mind and spirit to establish the proper remedies. The intake examination of the homeopathic physician is exhaustive in its exploration of not only presenting symptoms, but also a great range of “background” information, taking into account such aspects as temperament and general humor.

In this way, no two persons with the same disease would ever receive the exact same remedy, because no two people carry the same disease in the same way, nor do they respond to remedies in the same way. In each case, the whole person must be taken into account to provide the best care.

These are not the only wholistic traditions in our Western cultural background, but they serve to illustrate the point that we needn’t look too far afield to find the roots of wholism.

Allopathic medicine has averted the gaze of the physician away from the patient and onto the results of the machine-based testing, i.e., blood tests, EKG, X-ray, MRI, etc. Wholistic approaches train the eyes and ears of the physician to look directly to the person seeking healing in body, mind and spirit for the clues.

Having the eyes and ears to see requires a return to our roots. In alternative medicine, we learn to see the deep interconnections of all things. Just as our ancestors did for thousands of years.

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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