According to the holistic healing philosophy we are made up of body, mind and soul or spirit.
The soul is our essence. It is the part of us that lives on after death.
How then, does this viewpoint fit in with the definition of holism where the combination of the parts is greater than the individual units?
As so often before in meetings like these, I sat there with the feeling of unease I experience when things don't make sense.
I was surrounded by holistic healers, practitioners and coaches, all committed to integrating body, mind and spirit for the improvement of our well-being and our planet.
And yet, that well known phrase from George Orwell’s Animal Farm kept popping into my thoughts:
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
In this case, I thought, all expressions of our human existence are equal but soul or spirit seems more equal than body and mind.
BODY + MIND + SOUL
Whereas we are inspired by the soul, all the mind does is direct (or misdirect) our thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
And the body? The body merely performs the actions which the soul needs to manifest.
It is after all, the vessel for the soul, a temporary outer shell which we shall shed one day and move on to higher states of being.
Made up of chemicals, electrons, protons, atoms, particles and molecules and organised into cells, tissue and different organs, the body is said to function on a low electromagnetic vibrational frequency.
At a level higher than that is the mind or mental and emotional aspect of the human being which we refer to as consciousness, memory and imagination.
Upwards from there it gets more complicated.
For some the soul or non-physical aspect is the pinnacle of our being, our essence, the highest plane of vibrations. The soul inhabits the body making it possible for us to experience an earthly manifestation.
However when we die, our souls or higher selves leave our bodies and that is the end of that part of our existence.
Others refer to the soul as spirit. In some cases people add it as an additional level to the hierarchy of being, calling it the vital force or God or our connection with the Universe.
HOLISM AS A PHILOSOPHICAL THEORY
This is the point where I get uneasy about the using the term holistic or holism.
As a philosophical theory the term which was coined by the South African military man, politician and philosopher, Jan Smuts in 1926, tells us that we should analyse a whole system of beliefs rather than simply looking at its individual components.
This is true of all systems whether it is an individual, a biological or social system.
Freeman explains that:
"(t)o a certain extent, what is ‘holistic’ depends upon where you stand. The systems hierarchy ... goes from the universe to subatomic particles, and few of us work at either extreme. For a cell biologist, holism might mean thinking about the whole liver. In various contexts, it might mean the whole person, the whole community, the whole of society, or the whole planet. ... So the largest scale that is relevant to you, that you pay attention to, is probably what you define as holism."
The Oxford English Dictionary defines holism as ‘the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of its parts, through creative evolution’.
Holism implies a close interconnection among parts of the whole, so close that no unit can exist independently from the whole or from other parts of the whole.
And more importantly, the whole must also be greater than the sum of its parts.
HOLISM AS A THEORY OF HEALTH
As a theory of health, it means taking all of somebody's physical, mental, and social conditions into account in the treatment of illness. Holistic practitioners would phrase it as treating the whole person, mind, body and spirit rather than just the symptoms of a disease.
This is in opposition to the reductionist approach of modern medicine which is accused of analysing and describing complex phenomena in terms of its simplest or fundamental constituents namely particular diseases, or particular organs, or particular stages in the life cycle.
So far so good. But now we are moving into murky waters for me.
HOW WHOLE IS HOLISM?
If holism means that we observe the combination of several basic units which cannot exist independently from the system or from other parts of the system and we say the whole must be greater than the parts, my understanding is that however we divide the aspects of the human being, no single aspect can exist without the other.
In the standard body-mind-soul distinction it will imply that:
How then is it possible for the soul to leave the body?
And to complicate matters further, what happens to the mind? Can the soul operate without the mind as it is said to be able to do without the body? Does it die with the body or does it follow the soul?
To explore these questions, we have to try and establish where the mind is located.
WHERE IS MY MIND?
This brings me to the question of where the brain fits into this model? Does brain and mind refer to the same thing? And if the brain dies does that spell the end of mind?
I consider the brain to be an organ that generates mind activity like thinking or cognition, memory, language etc.
The way the mind does it, according to British scientist, writer, broadcaster and speaker, Susan Greenfield, is by forming connections in the physical substrate of the very dynamic brain. These connections develop as we grow up and grow older and reflect our life experiences. They are what has happened to us. The more we repeat certain actions or thoughts the stronger and more extensive the connections become.
Mind can be said to be our own perspective of ourselves and our environment.
But the brain and the body are not two separate aspects. It is not as if the one is responsible for mental functions like thinking and the other for physical actions or doing.
The brain also generates body activity both consciously and unconsciously. According to Rezai the brain constantly interfaces with the body “in nearly limitless ways from regulating your heart rate to signaling hunger.”
In that sense then, the brain is an integral part of the body in both structure and in function.
Also the neurological connections has a physiological basis.
IS THE SOUL MORE EQUAL THAN BODY AND MIND?
Now we get to the third part of the whole person - the spirit or soul.
In holistic healing philosophy this is our essence and the part of us that lives on after death. It leaves the body and lives independently on another plane.
Which brings me back to the question of how this viewpoint fits in with the definition of holism where the combination of parts is bigger than the individual units?
Here we have one constituent that manages to survive death and exist without the body and the mind.
How does this reflect holism when one aspect of the whole acts independent from the rest?
THE SOUL CONNECTION
Now, you want to know where I would be looking for soul or spirit?
I would be looking in the brain connections, at the intersections between body and mind, at those unique, astonishingly beautiful combinations that form on the physical level (body) to create the unique mind (mental processes and emotions) and existential experiences that makes us who we are.
As theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku says, "(s)itting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.”
The connection between our bodies and our brains are the stuff of wonder and delight.
Rather than the integrated mind and body acting as mere handmaidens for spirit or soul, it is in itself awe-inspiring and reaches to the core of what it means to be human, to be holistic.
The intricate interaction of structures and functions in the human body of which we know still very little, is what makes up soul.
Body-mind or mind-body? If you are struggling with physical and mental pain and feel that the dominant health paradigm’s dualistic approach to mind and body seems inadequate to explain anything, I want to talk to you. Join me under the tree in my garden for a cup of rooibos tea and let’s talk massage and SomaSense!