Six years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a local college to students studying Medical Botany. I was asked to address the topic “What is healing? What is balance?” I wrote this article a short time later, developed from the notes I used to prepare for that class. Rereading it now, in these global times of great stress and potential for deep transformation on the personal as well as collective levels, it seemed appropriate to share once again.
I’d like to propose that sitting with these questions is more about the process of examining our particular beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and behaviors…than about coming to any definitive conclusions.
The richness of these questions lies in where they might take each one of us inside our own lives and perspectives and, as a result, in where they might take us collectively…
My purpose in this short article is not to arrive at any absolute definitions or presume to cover all possible territory, but to consider a few of the many ways we might approach an investigation of health, healing and balance.
This exploration first insists that we examine the assumptions that serve as our perceptual filters. What preconceptions do we bring?
Growing up in this culture, we have all experienced a lot of fragmentation in the way we understand our lives. So many of us were indoctrinated to think that human health can be defined in objective and abstract terms—utterly unrelated to the health of our communities, our waters, our soil, our air, the climate, the season, our personal constitutions and genetics, our foodways, our habits, our emotional and spiritual patterns, and our ways of relating to life.
In the mainstream culture, health of an individual is typically defined as the absence of disease or injury, the warding off of death. It is often portrayed as a steady state, equated with youthfulness.
The concept of healing is often equated with cure—thus, it follows that if a disease entity is not fully eradicated or complete freedom from pain achieved or aging and death postponed…industrial medicine perceives failure. Consequently, within that system, in order to mitigate such potential failure, increasingly invasive, aggressive and toxic therapies are often applied toward some “final” resolution—highly stressing the bodymind that gave rise to the original disharmony. Sometimes this approach results in achieving the hoped-for goals, yet sometimes the efforts toward “curing” actually hasten death or provoke further derangement of function or promote pathogens that are increasingly resistant to pharmaceutical management.
There is certainly a place for the gamble of this type of approach, and pharmaceutical / technological medicine can be remarkable therapy in some cases. But, when we look at health more holistically, we must ask of our medicine “at what cost to terrain?” Not simply the terrain of a given individual, but also the larger terrain within which we are interwoven. That is certainly a huge question to explore, with branches and tributaries that extend broadly and deeply…
In addition, in the western world we have tended to think of physical health and mental health as separate realms. This assumption has served to support the mechanistic underpinnings of pharmaceutical-based medicine.
We are increasingly uncovering scientific explanations that disprove this false dichotomy, that illuminate how mind and body are ultimately inseparable.
Meanwhile, for many thousands of years, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and aboriginal healing ways the world over have understood human health in terms of an indivisible unity of mind, body, spirit and environment.
Healing, in these traditions of medicine, involves bringing an individual back into balance and harmony. This is seen as: Restoring balance between mind, body and consciousness; harmonizing the interplay of elemental energies within the bodymind; restoring a free flow of life energy among systems—within a given individual and between an individual, nature and community.
To say it another way, healing might be understood as bringing the various aspects of life—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social and environmental—into harmonious balance.
This integrated, inclusive approach to restoring health has been reawakening cross-culturally.
Even the United Nation’s World Health Organization now defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This is a powerful statement, an overt conceptual challenge to the western industrial model of medicine and the financial dynamic that underlies it.‡
Expanding our concepts of what health includes and what healing involves clearly has broad-ranging implications. This evolving understanding both reflects and inspires the overlighting paradigm shifts we see in motion.
Healing can never be about attaining some objective, finite state of well-being. Health itself can never be about a rigid, unchanging state. Both are dynamic, relational processes—understood moment by moment, person by person, situation by situation; processes that are one with the ebb and flow of all life.
We know this is true of health and healing because this appears to be true for all manifestations of life, in its myriad dimensions.
All planetary life can be seen to express through various states: potential [seed/dormancy], emergence, vibrant aliveness, fruition, decay, return to ground substance, potential, emergence…. No life escapes this arc—whether once, or repeated over and over.
No single state of aliveness can be maintained indefinitely. As humans, with every single breath we change—cells receiving nutrients, performing metabolic functions, responding and adapting to information molecules, clearing waste, dying, renewing. Cells, and therefore tissues, are constantly transforming.
Life is a constant flow of change and transformation. This presents amazing possibilities.
Given this, when we ask ‘what is health?’, ‘what is healing?’ we are taken deep into what these questions mean for any given moment, any given circumstance. What is health in this moment for me? What is balance and poise in this moment? What is healing in this moment? What needs to shift, either within or without? What can I imagine?
Asking these questions fearlessly takes us deep into intimate personal terrain. There is no one answer for all, or for all time.
Regardless of our cultural programming or our initial point of view, if we come to understand that transformation and change is an inevitable aspect of aliveness and that death of the body is inevitable at some juncture, we might naturally seek to understand how to journey through the changing nature of our aliveness with grace, ease, and enthusiasm. We will not be forever young or forever without physical, emotional or spiritual challenge. Whether or not we ever suffer from overt disease or psychological crisis or loss of function, we each are faced with the certainty of coming to crossroads, to gateways, to the certainty of our own mortality.
How we relate to life, how we relate to change, may be the ultimate measure of our health.
When we look to the natural world for inspiration and guidance, we see great beauty, poise, adaptation and resilience in the presence of change. We can observe all manner of beings expressing each stage of their aliveness with elegance, fullness and flow. We see critters and plant beings in deep relationship with their place, their community, their individual process, the season and the elements at play. We can see how form and behaviors change naturally with changing external circumstances. There are no steady states, just a full-being aliveness.
As the spiritual teacher Adyashanti notes so simply, we do not observe trees resisting the change of season, grasping to their leaves as they loosen and fall to the ground.
Looking around us, we see that rhythm and cycles are the essence of natural life. Coming into relationship with this dynamic equilibrium is, perhaps, one way to understand the dance of healing and balance. Attuning to rhythm supports the healing process.
Life, by its nature, is in constant movement—inclusive of both aliveness and what we call death. Contraction and expansion: The play of yin and yang expressing the whole. Aliveness fully expresses in form, material substance breaks down and is recycled, life expresses once more in a fresh configuration. All this happening in a simultaneous, non-linear way.
Rhythms and cycles exist within and without, from the micro to the macro—The dance of elemental energies, as expressed in five-element theory; the daily biorhythms called circadian rhythms; the solar cycles of night and day; the 13 lunar cycles of each Earth year, each with eight phases cycling ‘round; the Earth cycles, the seasons, marked by equinoxes, solstices, and cross-quarter days; the planetary cycles, as they impact the individual [Saturn Return, Uranus in opposition, Pluto transits…].
For women, there is the experience as well of the monthly blood mysteries—the rhythmic phases of ovarian and uterine and endocrine activity through 13 lunar cycles each year. And this rhythm is set within the larger arc of Maiden-Mother-Crone across the life expanse.
For men, childhood, puberty, the hunter/warrior stage, and andropause describe changing inner rhythms throughout a lifetime.
For each of us, each period—with its distinctive rhythms—possesses its own gifts and challenges, both for the individual’s mind, body and spirit and for those among whom they live. These rhythms may be consciously engaged and enlisted toward development or disregarded at our own loss.
In traditional, earth-honoring cultures around the planet, cycles and rhythms are honored through ritual and ceremony. Honoring and celebrating these natural phases and cycles, within the context of community, is an important aspect of maintaining cultural health and balance. Honor for the Earth and for the elements is implicit in this, as well as honor for the individual within the context of group lifeways. Our human lives are understood to be indivisible from all that is.
Rituals of initiation and passage, through various phases of physical and spiritual maturity, help orient an individual on their personal journey through life and formalizes their place in the larger collective. This helps imbue a deep personal sense of meaning, purpose and responsibility that may also be collectively honored.
In such cultures and communities—that cultivate and celebrate their interrelatedness through ritual and ceremony—when an individual is experiencing bodymind imbalance or disharmony, they are ideally then not seen as isolated in this experience. It may be seen as a circumstance that holds information and healing potential not just for the individual, but also for the whole group. Are there things out of balance within the community or with the group’s relationship to the life and spirits of their home-place?
Serious illness may be seen as a spiritual portal or initiatory process. How the individual fares may be understood to impact the entire group. Healing practices may involve ceremony that includes group participation—either directly in supporting a healing process or in celebrating an individual’s return to balance and thus full re-engagement with community life.
It is no coincidence that the New Story we are crafting, together, owes so much to the wisdom and insight of ancient, traditional ways of relating to life on this planet. There is much for us to humbly acknowledge and honor; great guidance in the realizations of those who have walked this way before us.
Health and healing are not fixed destinations. They are dynamic, relational processes that involve engaging our life as journey, with eyes wide open and minds relaxed and curious. What we tend to think of as a healthy state may be more about poise, adaptation and balance in the presence of change. Holistic traditions of medicine utilize foods, specialized plant medicines, energy work, prayer, meditation, movement practices, and ceremony to support the body’s natural intelligence to seek such balance.
Our bodymind is constantly communicating—within its internal workings and within our awareness. We receive, awareness receives, a constant flow of messages or promptings about what is needed. We receive these messages through symptoms of disharmony, through meditation, through our dreams, through deliberate journeying within, through symbols and synchronicities that arise as we go about the business of our days. Whether we recognize such information and then respond accordingly is the question.
This asks that we include enough space in our daily lives and practices that we might attune with what is needed or being asked for in a given moment. What is true and beneficial in one time for a given individual may be quite different in another circumstance or time of life. Flexibility of mind and in our approach to life is what seems to be asked for. Rigid, dogmatic stances are not necessarily the most health-promoting views. We are wise to note the difference between what is truly beneficial in a given moment and our mental concepts of what should be beneficial in a certain situation.
For example, for any given individual, based on their current health status, age, genetics, and the season and climate, balance may call for widely different things—Eating more food or less food; eating cooked food or eating raw food; eating more protein or less protein; eating animal foods or only plant-based foods; eating a more complex diet or a less complex diet; eating more calories per day or fewer calories per day; more physical activity or less demanding physical activity; more sleep or less sleep; more rest or more motion; more social engagement or more solitude; more silent time or more time using the voice; more focus or more play; more attachment to the physical body or less attachment; and so on.
In this way, healing might be understood as coming into greater alignment with what is true for us in a given moment—what attitudinal, behavioral, situational or relational adjustments seem called for. Whether or not this leads to physical health, though certainly desirable, is perhaps secondary. The focus is on this intimate relationship with truth.
[‡] Running out this topic further could consume our discussion, so let us leave it there for now.