defining holistic living

The word holistic gets used a lot these days. Perhaps it’s unfortunately overused. However, that doesn’t have to diminish its usefulness. But to use it well, we must understand the term, its definitions, history, and connotations.

The official definitions of holistic include:

1// characterized by the comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole

2// relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts

3// holism: a theory that the universe and especially living nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles

whole world

Because I’m a linguistics nerd, you’re going to get a brief etymology of the word, too. I find that learning the roots and history of a word can better help you understand its concept, its essence.

The word “holism” was first used in 1926 by South African General J.C. Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution. A quote from the book:

This character of “wholeness” meets us everywhere and points to something fundamental in the universe. Holism (from [holos] = whole) is the term here coined for this fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe. (p. 86)

The word holos that he derived holism from is Greek. According to Strong’s Concordance, holos is a primitive adjective and the root of the English term “whole.” There is some debate about whether this is accurate, but the definition of holos is true to holism: properly, wholly, where all the parts are present and working as a whole – i.e. as the total, which is greater than the mere sum of the parts. The Greek word holos is actually more closely related to the English word safe, and its definition is also interesting: uninjured, unharmed, healthy, whole, intact, not exposed to danger, free from risk, “safe and sound.”

As I explore the meaning of a holistic approach to life, these definitions help me put everything into perspective. Everything is connected. I’ve long held a holistic philosophy and approach to health. When I have a headache or my neck hurts, I could respond like a typical Westerner and pop a couple pain pills or even get so creative as to use a heat pad or ask for a neck massage. But a holistic view understands that the headache is a symptom related to other factors. Taking an Advil is not necessarily the wrong course of action to temporarily relieve the pain, but it is more important to identify the root cause(s) so you can prevent further headaches and neck pain. For example, the headache could be caused by dehydration. Pretty easy to figure out and remedy. But there are many other things that could be causing both the headaches and neck pain. It could be another physical issue, like poor posture. Poor posture could be triggered by an environmental factor like a work area that isn’t properly set up. Or it could be another environmental source like a stressful job. The emotional stress response could be stemming from a looming deadline, a demanding boss, or a dramatic coworker. Some of these things may be more difficult to remedy, but “knowledge is power.” Everything is connected, and it is worth the time and effort to find the connections.

As I mentioned before, the term holistic may be a bit overused these days. Since it’s coining less than a hundred years ago, it has increased dramatically in use. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it really caught on, peaking in the 2000s. When a word becomes so popular, its meaning can easily become muddied. Before we talk about what holistic health and living is, we must first weed out what it is not.

From “Understanding the Differences Between Holistic, Alternative, and Complementary Medicine” by Ilana S. Mandel:

The terms holistic medicine, alternative medicine, and complementary medicine have often been used interchangeably. In fact, alternative medicine and complementary medicine are different and holistic medicine is a term which tends to embrace a larger definition of a system of treatment and practitioners who do not work within the system of conventional medicine. A more precise definition of the term is that holism is a philosophy that believes in treating the whole person and in the integration of mind, body, and spirit. Holism promotes the belief that these three elements of a human being must be treated in order to achieve any notion of “healing,” rather than simply treating a person for a specific illness or injury. In the holistic belief system, illness and injury are often the result of disharmony in the mind-body-spirit, which they see as one. The disharmony can often come about from a dysfunction in any one of these areas. But holistic medicine believes that a dysfunction in one area affects the whole person and not just that one area of the body… Holistic medicine is as much about a way of life as it is about medical treatment. The holistic philosophy embraces an approach that promotes overall body wellness. (source)

Holistic health and living, while it may include alternative and/or complementary medicine, is not the same as these medical methodologies.

Holistic health and living is also not the same thing as balance. I think this is a common misconception. Balance is this frustrating ideal that always seems just out of reach. At least in the way our culture tends to define it. We view balance as having it all, a little bit of everything, all in perfect order in equal amounts all the time. I think that’s unrealistic. It’s the same as believing that a relationship requires both persons to put in 50% of the work [or some like to cheekily say both need to put in 100%]. When a relationship is experiencing one of its high points this may be true, but life and people and feelings and moods and needs and expectations change frequently. There is a constant ebb and flow. When Shaun was working on his dissertation, the last semester of his graduate schooling, he couldn’t give as much time and effort to our relationship as I could. Yet our relationship was still in a good, healthy place. I gave more because he couldn’t give as much. There have been other seasons in which he has lovingly done the same for me. This is true of life in general. Sometimes I need to give more attention and time to my family than my work and vice versa. The goal should never be “balance” as in having it all because that will just drive you crazy in an impossible pursuit. There are not enough hours in the day to achieve that kind of balance in all the areas of life that we desire.

Okay, okay, we’ve already touched on this quite a bit, but now we can talk in detail about what holistic health/living is [at least to me]. To quote Suzan Walter from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines:

Holistic Health is actually an approach to life. Rather than focusing on illness or specific parts of the body, this ancient approach to health considers the whole person and how he or she interacts with his or her environment. It emphasizes the connection of mind, body, and spirit. The goal is to achieve maximum well-being, where everything is functioning the very best that is possible. With Holistic Health people accept responsibility for their own level of well-being, and everyday choices are used to take charge of one’s own health… Holistic Health is an ongoing process. As a lifestyle, it includes a personal commitment to be moving toward the right end of the wellness continuum… Quality of life, now and in the future, is actually being determined by a multitude of seemingly unimportant choices made everyday. (source)

Holistic living includes all of the self and one’s environment. Holistic living is a lifestyle that is based on countless small, daily decisions. Holistic living requires personal responsibility and personal growth. 

Here’s how I break down the parts of the whole:

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Within the scope of self, I include body, mind, and soul. Home is the environment in which I spend much of my time and have control over. In this area, I include form, function, and finances. Love is separate from my self, even though I see emotions as part of myself, because people are outside of me yet a very important part of my life. Love includes family, friends, and community.

Within each of those subcategories are smaller parts. Body includes predictable things like my hair and skin, endurance and balance, fitness and nutrition, and general wellness. Mind includes work and hobbies. Soul includes spiritual disciplines and worship. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be writing on Wednesdays [& occasionally on other days] about “wellness” and will be expounding on all these parts that make the whole. I’ll be sharing specific actions, methods, and products that I use or want to try. Next Wednesday we’ll start with the importance of self care and break down what I include in body, mind, and soul.

I look forward to hearing your feedback! What does holistic living mean to you? Do you agree or disagree with the definitions I’ve shared here? Is there something you would include that I haven’t?

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