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Holism or Dualism: East or West

by Susanna Dowie(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 125 - July 2006

Holism[1] is the buzz word. Are we treating holistically if our treatment approaches Body, Mind, Emotions and Spirit as one? Of course, but the temptation is still enormous to divide Body, from Mind, from Emotions, from Spirit and treat each one as a separate entity. If we use Psychotherapy for the emotions, Memory Training for the Mind, Exercise for the Body and Meditation for the Spirit, we are addressing all aspects, and yet we still miss the essence of holism.

If we really see our patients holistically, what does it look like? Let us look at some examples: if you were to ask a Chinese medicine doctor, living and trained in China, whether he was treating the Mind or the Body, he would not understand the question. For him, there is no distinction. He sees a pattern of energetic disharmony, which throws off inter-related symptoms. He may see that his patient's energy 'runs on empty', generating heat from the 'friction' this causes and giving rise to energy pushing outward and rising upward, instead of being held in a healthy way in the interior of the body. If the patient is a woman in her late 40s or early 50s, he is probably seeing what we would call menopausal syndrome.[2] The fact that his patient is also restless, lacks confidence and suffers from anxiety, are inevitable results of the energy's disharmony as the doctor sees it. He does not consider whether these symptoms are to do with the body or the mind – to him they are simply energy – qi which is not functioning as it should. This is holism.

If you were to massage the body with intuitive Tui Na (massage based on a traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis,[3-4] you would find that the emotions are stored in the body along with the physical pain for which the patient sought help. If you are frightened, you hunch your shoulders, tense your neck, your eyes widen, adrenaline courses through your body, generating the ability to fight or to run with huge efficiency, and at the same time insulating you against pain. If you are frightened often, you may fail to relax in-between bouts of fear so that the tension in your neck and shoulders and the elevated heart rate become chronic, and manifest even when there is nothing to stimulate them. Because the Body is not actually separate from the Mind, in a while you will experience fear even without the direct stimulus, because your energy is holding the fear pattern in its cells and its responses. You may begin to see the world as threatening even when it is not, and you might lose the power to distinguish between genuine and imagined threat, becoming defensive in your entire approach to life. Over years and decades this pattern can become so ingrained into your energy systems that what is released with Tui Na massage will be as much the fear itself as the tension and toxicity that the fear generated. An experienced practitioner can pick the pain of fear by its qualitative tension in the body structure, and distinguish this from the pain of anger or the pain of simple exhaustion. The practitioner is no longer thinking in terms of Mind and Body, but in terms of holistic energetics and patterns and how the negative habits can be re-educated.

Suppose for a moment that your patient had malaria:[5] you could prescribe a Chinese herbal formula which would address both the underlying weakness of their constitution and the pathogen which had been introduced and was causing the illness.[6] The herbal formula would consist of a number of herbs, each with a different function individually and a different role in the formula.[7] There would be an emperor herb (Artemisia for example), the one which gives direction to all the other herbs in the formula. There would be messenger herbs, which would tell the formula where and when they were to act. Each herb would have a number of actions of its own, multiplied exponentially by the actions of the other herbs in combination. The life task of a virus such as malaria is to mutate in order to generate the greatest chance to reproduce itself.[8] If it is treated with a drug, a refined and potent substance, with all peripheral materials taken out, the virus is presented with its ideal scenario. Here is a threat it can easily combat. The very precision of the drug enables the virus to mutate past it with relative ease. In triumph, it continues rapidly to its next incarnation. By contrast, if treated by an individual herb or, better yet, an herbal formula, the virus is confronted by its worst nightmare. Whatever way it looks, its escape routes are blocked. No amount of mutation will enable it to escape this foe.[9] This is holistic treatment.

So perhaps the challenge for those of us who were brought up in the west where the Cartesian Mind-Body split10 still holds sway, is to try to re-educate ourselves into a more authentic view of holism. It may not be easy, but it's always fun trying!


2. Maciocia G. The Practice of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone. 1997.
4. Pritchard S. Chinese Massage Manual. Piatkus. 1998.
6. Chmelik S. Chinese Herbal Secrets: The Key to Total Health. New Leaf. 1999.
8. 954626251.Vi.r.html  
9. drug/  


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About Susanna Dowie

Susanna Dowie, MA, LicAc, MBAcC, HonMRCHM has been the Principal of the London College of Traditional Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (LCTA: URL in Finchley, London, since 1995 and has run a private practice of Chinese medicine for the last 20 years. She has a Masters Degree in Complementary Health Studies from Exeter University and is an Honorary Member of the Register for Chinese Herbal Medicine. She can be contacted on Tel: 020 8349 3225;

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