Holism - Everything is Connected
Chinese medicine can sound confusing to the uninitiated. This is especially so for those who are more used to concepts in mainstream medicine. This is because there are fundamental differences in principles, diagnosis and treatment approaches between mainstream medicine and Chinese medicine.
More than saying one is superior over the other, I prefer to think that each has a different way of looking at the body and understanding health. This gives them different strengths that can be applied in different situations. There are times when one has a more effective approach and there are times when they can complement each other for greater benefit.
In order to understand Chinese medicine, it is important to understand the foundations that set the context within which it works. This entry seeks to explore one of the most important fundamental pillars underlying Chinese medicine - Holism (整体观念).
Everything Is Connected
A quick search on dictionary.com yields the following results for Holism:
The theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts. Holism is often applied to mental states, language, and ecology.
The treating of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.
Ancient Chinese believed human existence was closely related to the universe in which we reside. This is a fundamental concept underlying Taoism, which in turn became a key influence that shaped the practice of Chinese medicine.
Holism is based on the belief that everything is interdependent and interconnected. The world is a holistic entity of which humans are part of, and should therefore be analyzed or interpreted with reference to the whole. The concept of Holism can be applied internally and externally in Chinese medicine.
An Integrated System
Unlike separate parts that making up a machine, Holism recognizes the body as an organic whole where different parts of our being are interconnected, mutually dependent and yet restrictive of each other to create a dynamic, harmonious balance.
On a physiological level, five key organ systems form the core functional units. They are Heart, Liver, Spleen, Lung and Kidney. It is important to note that anatomy in Chinese medicine is viewed differently from how it is more commonly understood in gross anatomy. When we refer to the Heart, it isn't just the physical organ that is being referred to but also its functional aspects. For instance, the Heart rules blood vessels and the "spirit" in Chinese medicine. This will include a person's mental, cognitive and intellectual abilities.
Through the linking of energetic channels known as the meridian system, a complex set of relationships is formed within the body. Every part of the body has a special relationship with the five core organs, including interrelationship between the five organs themselves. Besides performing its own function, each organ also supports other organs to create an integral internal system. A harmonious and coordinated relationship between the organs creates a healthy internal environment essential for daily living.
A close relationship also means that imbalance in one organ system can affect the others. For instance, Liver and Spleen are closely related to each other. Liver is closely related to circulation, detoxification and a person's emotional health while Spleen governs the digestive system. Hence, if there is any imbalance in the Liver system, one should also beware of possible effects on Spleen and strengthen the Spleen while treating Liver as well. Similarly, if the Spleen is out of balance, one may need to look at other systems for the cause too. This is used to predict disease progression as well as investigate possible underlying causes.
This view can also be applied to the relationship between the internal and external body. As seen in Table 1, each organ system has manifestations in the external body so the health of the internal systems can be reflected through the external body as well. Therefore, observing areas like the face, eyes, tongue can be a helpful tool for diagnosis. Together with information from other diagnostic methods such as pulse and conversation, physicians are able to construct a comprehensive assessment of one's health.
The relationship between physical, emotional and mental health is also highly regarded under the principle of holism. These aspects are deemed inseparable and can have a deep influence on each other. Hence, taking care of one's emotional and mental health is considered to be critical to overall well being.
No Man Lives In A Vacuum
Holism also extends to the consideration of a person's external environment, including both natural and social environments. Holism indicates that the relationship between us and the outside world is a unified one. We communicate with the external world constantly so illness can occur more easily when we fail to adapt to changes around us. Thus, we are encouraged to live in harmony with our immediate environment, nature and other people around us for good health.
Some natural environmental factors that can affect us include weather, climate and geographical differences. In most cases, normal changes in the environment generally do not create many problems if we learn to adapt our lifestyles. A simple example of living in line with nature would be to put on suitable clothing and adapt our diet as seasons change. If we fail to make appropriate adjustments, then it might be easier for a person to fall sick especially if one has a weaker constitution. For instance, some people may be more prone to flu in certain seasons or experience allergies in another.
People living in different locations will also develop different body constitutions due to differences in weather, climate, diet, lifestyles, customs and cultures. What is tolerable to someone who lives in a predominantly cold, mountainous region may not be tolerable to someone who has spent most of his or her life in tropical regions closer to sea level. People who live in one area may be more prone to certain diseases that will differ from another person who lives in a different location. These are also factors that can be taken into consideration when it comes to diagnosis and wellness routines.
Living in a society with other human beings means most people experience demands and pressures from different areas of life including work, family, financial issues, societal expectations, interpersonal relationships and so on. Social and political upheaval can also contribute to stress from one's environment. These are also important factors that need to be taken into consideration for a person's health as it would place a demand on our body, mind and spirit.
Strain on the emotional and mental front is believed to have deep influence on physiological health over time. Table 1 lists the key emotions for the core organ systems. For instance, grief taxes the Lung system so a person who is going through grief may find himself or herself more prone to cough and flu. Worrying taxes the Spleen so a person who worries a lot may experience poor digestion.
The relationship can also go the other way. A person with imbalance in Kidney system may be more inclined towards feeling fearful and anxious. Someone with Liver imbalance may feel irritable more easily.
Therefore, good health comes from achieving a harmonious balance between the physical, emotional and mental fronts.
Health Is About The Person
Embracing Holism means that a person has to be viewed as a total entity together with his or her environment for a comprehensive understanding of this person's health.
A key feature of Chinese medicine is that it is highly individual because each person's body, constitution and environment will differ. No two people will be alike even if they are twins. This underlies the fundamental beliefs of Chinese medicine and Holism is a key artery of thought that runs through diagnosis, treatment as well as preventive healthcare.
So the next time you see a Chinese medicine physician about something and get questions about a seemingly unrelated area like your work situation, just know that the doctor isn't trying to be nosy. He or she is probably trying to gain a better understanding of the factors that are causing you discomfort.
Put on the lens of Holism and you may start to see the world a little differently where everything is connected.
If you have questions, please feel free to leave it in the comment section and I will try to address them as best as I can.