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  • Writer's pictureShelley Holloway, M.Ed

A New Paradigm - A Post-Modern Holism

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Spiritually integrative and holistic approaches to therapy are often viewed as being reactionary to the reductionistic, medical model that has dominated the mental health field for the last century. While our evidenced based, medical model is useful in categorizing and labeling major mental health issues that frequently present themselves in individuals’ lives they also are restrictive in understanding the whole person by reducing an individuals lived experience to a narrow diagnosis. While these diagnoses can be helpful to client and clinician, offering comfort to client by classifying their presenting problem and assisting mental health professionals by setting a standardized treatment plan for working with their clients; they also pose a problem. Both client and clinician can inhibit progress in therapy by failing to see beyond the diagnostic criteria, treating client and treatment goals as if they were one dimensional. Holistic psychological approaches offer a more balanced theoretical perspective on both the personality development and treatment of the client. Holistic psychology is rooted in the philosophical principle of holism, which is the belief that all the parts of a whole are interconnected, therefore they do not exist as distinct parts functioning separate from one another, but as connected parts influencing the functioning of the whole system.

All is a total ecology of its parts, greater than the sum; a unity of the whole system. Applied to the therapeutic relationship, holism asks us to understand the whole person, how the neurobiological self affects the cognitive self, how the cognitive self affects the emotional self, how the emotional self affects the physical self, how the physical self affects the social self, how the social self affects the spiritual self; so on and so forth in a very non-linear, non-hierarchical, porous web of connection; the Human System.

The traditional western ideal of the medical model of psychotherapy seeks to pin point disorder, singularly diagnosing and curing the client. It is a model founded on a philosophy of parsing out “distinct” parts, while sacrificing and losing perspective on the wholeness of the being. This has caused an entire clinical culture geared toward specialization, in which each clinician believes that in order to provide the optimum service to the client-customer, the clinician needed to “specialize” in a specific brand of therapy (Stensrud & Stensrud, 1984).

This intense need to categorize the human experience into fundamentally distinct elements and then assign professional managers (i.e.: therapists, medical doctors, priests, teachers, et cetera) to negotiate the splintered parts of oneself has not only caused a schism in the medical and therapeutic communities; it shows the deep rooted nature of the paradigm of reductionism running through our western society.

It has become so ubiquitous that it is unquestioned, unacknowledged and just assumed to be “the way it is”. It has distanced us from our fundamental connection to the ecosystem of the Earth and it has caused us to disassociate from our physical beings, as well as from the centeredness of our soulful beings. This disconnection has reduced not only our ability to connect with ourselves; it has also created a disconnection to our ability to feel potent and alive (Wilber, 1979 from Stensrud & Stensrud, 1984).

This aliveness is characterized as possessing a tremendous degree of intimacy and vulnerability, of being in a state of “felt meaning” connected to a transpersonal reflection of life; this aliveness is our “most fundamental experience of ourselves” (Welwood 1979, from Stensrud & Stensrud, 1984). Aliveness is connection and yet our medical model of life represents the epitome of disconnection. Is it any wonder why our current western society is fraught with individuals who feel cut-off, isolated, burned-out, lifeless and without joy? The rigidly myopic world view of reductionism has become both spiritual and social suicide. A fundamental paradigm shift is needed.

Holistic psychology offers that shift; it seeks to reconnect that which has never truly been disconnected; ourselves and all that is self-in-other. It asks us to hold paradox, question dichotomies, and dissect dualistic either-or thinking. Rooted in humanistic psychology and social construction theory, holistic psychology honors the complexity of the system, leaves room for maneuvering around concepts of illness and health by altering the lens through which we view them.

We are coming full circle in our understanding of the neurobiological underpinning of our emotional selves as connected to the chemical neurotransmitters release by the brain, our biological selves and our emotional selves are a complex system. Vice Versa, our emotional states can be experienced physically in the body through felt sensation, tightness, pain, hyper stimulation and arousal or lethargy (Gendlin, 1978, Latorre, 2000). It seems as if your bodies themselves are attempting to remind us of the greatest spiritual truths of the world: that all is connected.

From this understanding of the body as a system, we can now view all of the occurrences of body as an attempt to strike balance and self-heal. Symptoms are no longer distinct dysfunctions to hone in on and destroy; now symptoms can be viewed as an important tool that can be used to interpret the functioning of the whole system (Latorre, 2000). In this model there is not only room for wounds, but an understanding that wounds possess the key to their own cure and a key to a deeper understand of the whole. The body itself, with a little practice, can become a diagnostic tool and the “felt sense” located in the biological, physical being is a therapeutic tool for assessment of the psychological self (Gendlin, 1978).

Inhabiting inhabitable bodies:

Simple though it sounds, using our bodies as tools for assessment can be both challenging and scary. Our reductionistic, western understanding of the world has trained us to disassociate from our physical selves. Technology has driven us towards the creation of mass alienation from our bodies, separating us from our natural animal born instincts and away from the natural world around us. We have learned to substitute everything natural for a synthetic reproduction, a cyber-virtual reality. Being only-human is no longer acceptable; we must strive to be the new high tech human 2.0 model.

Our attempts at connecting to the body have become more complicated than ever. Though our bodies may still need the same basic requirements of food, sleep and exercise that they did in generations past; attaining these basics in a non-toxic, non-life threatening manner now requires something akin to an advanced degree in investigative reporting. Unlike the agrarian past, our post-industrial factory farms and the corporations that support them shield the average consumer from the facts about the unsavory practices that produce the vast majority of the food we purchase. From genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), to hormone injected Frankenstein-poultry; our food sources have become the stuff of nightmares. The Earth herself, the supplier of our lives and our food, is now raped and pillaged by the very food production she supplies for us. By consuming products (as opposed to food) produced in such a dysfunctionally reductionistic and harmful manner, we are abusing our bodies in the same way that we have abused the Earth.

The theory of holism asks us to see all of the connections that exist, especially the painful ones that we internalize from the external social world. It requires us to understand that taking care of the human system requires more than just simply eating our fruits and vegetables, exercising, sleeping soundly and meeting other physical needs of the body; we need to understand that these very “healthy” things can be done in “unhealthy” ways. Our reductionistic mindset tells us if a ‘little is good, more is even better’; pushed to the extreme, diet and exercise are used as punishment toward the body as exemplified by eating disorders such as orthorexia (obsessively eating only “healthy” food) and over-exercising. This abuse of the body is rooted in our disassociation from our physical beings; we are not focusing in on what the body has to say about our current state being, we are cut from our current state completely; we now live from the fear that our bodies are inadequate, that being human is somehow obsolete and so we live our lives in a state of disassociation from our bodies.

This heightened separation from our physical beings is fed by a social ranking of bodies in a hierarchy of inferiority; we live in a cast system where bodies are labeled disabled, weak, fat, or otherwise naturally prone to illness, brokenness or disorder. For those inhabiting a body that is deemed unacceptable, stigmatized and rejected by perpetuated social norms of race, size, ability, gender, (et cetera), the body becomes something to fear, something policed, ridiculed and shamed. This devaluation of an individual comes at the cost of exclusion from full societal acceptance (Goffman, 1963).

Our “war on obesity” is a prime example of the devalued body; $60 billion is spent annually on weight loss, fueled by a diet industry that perpetuates the stigma associated with a fat body. The diet industry has proliferated and profited from our cultural distress over the fat body, all the while using concerns over health as a smoke screen (Farrell, 2011).

We have learned to accept the cultural assumption that fat equals sick. By partaking in the manufactured “war on obesity”, and by buy into what the diet industry sells, we believe we will be guaranteed both heath and a socially acceptable body. Meanwhile the byproduct of the diet industry, as shown by their staggering failure rate, is neither health nor social acceptance. Yet our fear of the fat body is so intense that it keeps us coming back for more.

Healing in Defiance - Healing as Defiance: Returning to the Earth, the Self & Body

Bodies are never just bodies, they are political statements that we make in the world and that the world makes towards our physical body. Our capacity to be strong while inhabiting a socially stigmatized body is the ultimate act of social defiance. Freeing ourselves from socially constructed labels can be the ultimate challenge.

Being fully connected to one’s body is an experience of true “aliveness” and as we have already mentioned, aliveness is a state of great intimacy and vulnerability (Welwood 1979, from Stensrud & Stensrud, 1984). This state of aliveness within one’s body can be a challenging thing for many individuals with the increasing number of factors that prevent us from truly connecting with our physical beings.

If truly inhabiting one’s body is an act of vulnerability, then a stigmatized body inhabits the world from an even more vulnerable position, having to resist constant shame, humiliation and degradation. Connecting with one’s body, in a congruent enactment of aliveness, therefore requires the ultimate courage, resilience, tenacity and determination to live in an intimate relationship with one’s physical self. It also requires a hearty and somewhat rebellious mindset that can consistently override social messages used to control and degrade one’s sense of self. Both awareness and vigilance are needed, not only from those whose bodies are surveillanced and stigmatized; we need to understand that all bodies are policed, some are just more obviously policed (Goffman, 1963).

If the cure for disassociation and alienation from the self is being fully alive then we need to learn to fully connect with our physical beings, as well as all other aspects of our human system. We are intimately and vulnerably connected to the Earth and all life on Earth. We must learn to not only acknowledge these connections but savor them. We must savor diversity of the human experience; savor what it is that makes us human. When we cut ourselves off from the multiplicity of experience we cut ourselves off from joy. Living in a state of aliveness requires us to not only eat food that is consciously produced, but to learn how to enjoy our food as a source of life, pleasure and fulfillment. Our bodies are a gift from the Earth and a symbol of life in full expression, feeding our bodies should be an extension of this ideal.

We savor life when we learn to love our bodies as they are and fully become alive in them. We live in a culture that has profited from our internalized war with our bodies, we have come to believe that it is better to inhabit a socially acceptable body rather than be a fully incarnate person, whole and imperfect. Food is the enemy, our bodies are the enemy, and our humanness is the enemy. A systemic paradigm shift is needed, both individually and on a global scale, activism is needed.

Resting on our own personal privilege is not acceptable. An individual may have access to organic fruits and vegetables, access to education, access to a body that is socially within the accepted norm, but we must be courageous enough to except that this individual is the exception and not the rule in the world. We live in a world where more than 750 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, it’s not enough to be content that you drink 8 glasses of water a day, you must do your part to make sure that others have that right as well (Global Agenda Council on Water 2014-2016). The theory of holism demands us to take action, as within, so without; each of us is deeply connected. To only look at Holistic practice at the micro level and plead ignorance of the macro level is ignoring the very tenants of holistic philosophy.


Farrell, A.E., (2001). Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. NYU Press,


Gendlin, E.T., (1978). Focusing. Bantam Books, New York, New York.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes from the Management of a Spoiled Identity. London:


Latorre, M.A., (2000). A Holistic View of Psychotherapy: Connecting Mind, Body, and Spirit.

Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, Vol 36, 2, 67-68, April-June.

Stensrud, R., Stensrud, K., (1984). Holistic Health Through Holistic Counseling: Toward a

Unified Theory. The Personnel and Guidance Journal, 421-424.

World Economic Forum (2015). Global Agenda Council on Water 2014-2016. Source:

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