As we consider each of the systems we will see how they share six basic characteristics, and how these typical characteristics of healing come together in a unique way in each of the four systems. Each draws upon a different aspect of consciousness, operates through a unique mechanism and process, and applies its resources to achieving a particular aspect of health. As we add one system to the others we will notice an expansion of consciousness, an increasing number of available resources for healing, and an enlarging sense of what it means to be healthy. We will discover that health is many things: a well-functioning mind and body, the capacity to recover from disease, the development of personal autonomy, and the progressive achievement of wholeness.
In building a new model of health we must also remember that it is person centered. We may automatically think that our intention is to build a better health-care system. This is not our goal. Systems cannot heal us. A person-centered healing model begins with a focus on our innate healing capacities, in the form of the four healing systems. Think of them as the hub of a wheel. They are the central focus and support of the wheel. At times we may reach out to the periphery to call upon other healing resources, professionals, practices, or treatments, to complement our built-in capacities. But these resources, when effectively used, can only assist us when they support rather than attempt to substitute for our natural healing systems. Health-care systems assume that health can be designed and delivered to us through some generic social formula. Whole Healing knows that health is a diverse, unique, and highly personal experience.
The Homeostatic Healing System
In 1929 Walter Cannon, the famed physician-physiologist, described the most primary and basic healing system available to us: the homeostatic system. This inborn system of internal physiological checks and balances, which evolved over the millennia of human development, makes it possible for us to respond automatically to internal states of disequilibrium with immediate, reflexlike physiological corrections. As a result, body temperature, fluid and mineral balance, and other automatic activities are kept in balance at all times. In this way Homeostatic healing contributes to our health by maintaining a constant internal environment-a necessity for life.
|Checks and Balances|
The Homeostatic Healing System, which is built in at birth, is our most primary healing system. It operates through the automatic activation of an array of internal checks and balances that assure that the body functions in a manner that can sustain life. Each draws upon a different aspect of consciousness, operates through a unique mechanism and process, and applies its resources to achieving a particular aspect of health.
The Homeostatic Healing System developed into its present form through a progressive accumulation of checks and balances designed to respond to the disruptive effects of internal and external stresses on our physiology, stresses that would tend to shift our system toward imbalance. However, because it takes approximately 1 million years to accomplish a 5 percent sustained change in the human biological system, our Homeostatic system is far more suited to the life of our ancient ancestors than it is to the more recent and dramatic changes in lifestyle and environment that characterize urban life. As a result, the Homeostatic system, a relatively fixed and unchanging system, is often poorly adapted to the lifestyles, practices, and environments of our day-to-day lives: our nutritional choices, exercise patterns, physical environments, and, above all, our stress levels. This mismatch of our inherited natural protective mechanisms to the realities of a twentieth-century lifestyle have resulted in significant limitations and deficiencies in the effectiveness of this system.
For example, consider the human stress response that evolved as a quick on-and-off reaction to the abrupt appearance of physical danger. In modern times, lions no longer appear suddenly in the bush, causing a heightened sense of alarm, only to disappear shortly thereafter. Our modern "lions" take the form of worries, fears, and anxieties, which constantly activate the stress response. Worse, unlike our ancient ancestors, through conscious intervention we can block or avoid the natural response, which is to escape from or avoid stressful and dangerous situations. For intellectual reasons, we often choose to remain in stressful circumstances so that our stress response is, ironically, activated. When this happens, the normal protective response, which once insured survival, is unable to respond effectively to the new realities of our lives, and the result is the development of acute and chronic stress related disease. What once insured the survival of life now can threaten our survival.
It is important that we learn to understand and use each of the healing systems in order to maximize what each has to offer. With the Homeostatic Healing System we can best support and enhance its effectiveness by providing the environment, nutrition, and physical activity that most approximates the circumstances under which it developed. To a large extent these activities fall under the label of "prevention." In a sense, we are attempting to prevent a malfunction of this system by giving it what it needs. Perpetual mental stress, high fat intake, processed foods, and a sedentary lifestyle are creations of urban life that do not support homeostasis.
But there is more to maintaining the homeostatic system than these physical requirements. We cannot overlook the fact that our ancestors spent their lifetimes with the same 100 to 150 people, had a cosmology that brought meaning and wonder to their existence, and experienced lives that were well integrated into the natural patterns and cycles of nature. I am not suggesting a return to such times; this would be neither possible nor preferable. But when we understand the circumstances under which the homeostatic system developed, we can appreciate the value of inner peace, natural foods, exercise, relationships, and a vital spirit. In each case we close the gap between our inherited balancing mechanisms and our current lifestyles, nurturing our natural protective mechanisms. In a sense, by learning to respect the needs of our bodies, we learn to respect what has been given to us and to align ourselves better with nature, an action that has implications well beyond the boundaries of our personal world.
Nature's extreme way of reminding and forcing us to comply with the basic needs of this system takes the form of sickness. Our natural protective mechanisms fail, our bodies force us to slow down, rest, reach out to others, and reconsider our lifestyles. When we persist in perpetuating attitudes and lifestyles that are inconsistent with our natural needs, ignoring the messages from our bodies, these personal choices can influence the transformation of acute illness into chronic degenerative illness, disability, and premature death. There is always a physical and psychological price for disregarding our nature. Health, growth, and fulfillment occur in partnership with our nature, not in resistance to it.
To remedy the deficiencies of a fixed and too often maladaptive Homeostatic Healing System, we have developed "treatment" models whose purpose is to step in and restore normal function when homeostasis has failed. Treatment practices, conventional and alternative, increasingly draw upon man-made interventions, which, unlike our automatic protective mechanisms, are flexible and can respond to changing conditions. To an extent we can say that our capacity to design treatment systems that augment nature's mechanisms reflects our progress as humans. One can also say it is an indication of how far, for better or for worse, we have removed ourselves from nature.
The Treatment Healing System
Treatment, in its various forms, is the dominant model of healing in Western culture. The figure below illustrates the major characteristics of this system. It is activated by our reaction to the signs and symptoms of illness, and works toward repairing abnormalities through the use of external resources such as drugs and surgery. As we shall discuss in more detail in the next chapter, practitioners first seek to establish the singular cause of the problem, and then apply their resources to the goal of restoring normal function. At one time or another each of us will use the resources of the treatment system to address the inevitable adversities of living.
To treat is to apply a process to a problem with the intention of resolving it. In the case of biomedical treatment the process usually consists of the use of external agents such as drugs, surgery, or physical therapy. Other forms of treatment may come in the form of vitamins and other supplements, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, body work, energy work, chiropractic, acupuncture, and a host of other practices. We activate treatment when we seek assistance from a health-care practitioner as a reaction to the appearance of a symptom, or the presence of overt disease, an indication of the breakdown of the Homeostatic Healing System. The initial complaint is routinely followed by the requisite testing, the establishment of a diagnosis, and the prescription of therapy according to the particular practice, a therapy that is usually directed at a specific body part. Decisions are made by the health professional, and treatment is exclusively dictated by the type of disease. Treatment is generally tailored to the disease rather than to the unique characteristics and needs of the individual within whom the disorder expresses itself.
In general, treatment approaches are developed from fields of study that seek to understand the cause of the symptom and disease by narrowing in on a single body system, organ, cell, or, in the case of biomedicine, on biochemistry. The idea that a malfunction of the body can always be attributed to a specific abnormality localized at the biochemical, cellular, tissue, or organ level is called reductionism. This single-cause theory implies that the human body is an organized collection of parts that generally function independently of environmental, psychosocial, and spiritual influences. The idea is to find the singular abnormality and then to discover the "magic bullet" or practice that will cure it. The goal is to repair the abnormality and to reestablish health, which, in the treatment system, is defined as the restoration of normal function.
The Treatment Healing System relies upon the use of external agents, treatments, and practices, usually provided by a professional, for the purpose of repairing abnormalities and restoring normal function. There are many different approaches to treatment each differing in theory and practice.