Autumn 1988, Vol.40 No. 3, pp. 208-219.

Anne Wilson:
      Holistic Spirituality

By overcoming dualistic perceptions and opening our minds to new dimensions of possibility, a holistic approach to spirituality can foster freedom, growth, and unity.

Anne Wilson lives in Jemez Springs, New Mexico with her husband, Dr. Lawrence Wilson, head of Rehabilitation Neuropsychology at St. Joseph's Hospital, Albuquerque. A Third Order Carmelite, she has published over one hundred articles. She is also a nurse, photographer, gardener, and chef.

WE appear to be coming to a juncture in the contextual way we view creation and the dynamics that operate in our relationships. Called by many terms -- a "holistic" approach, Creation-centered theology, New-Age thinking -- this paradigmatic shift has been at least thirty years in the making and we owe it to centuries of the philosophers, scientists, mystics, and theologians who have been our predecessors. We have, in the last century, undergone radical changes in our social structures, our ideas of justice, our cultural underpinnings, and even in the language, rituals, and teachings of our Church.

To explore the concept of "holistic" thinking, we need to examine the role of dualism in the development of Western thought. We need to understand why this approach proved too limiting, and to consider why an alternative approach that takes contradictions and opposites into account is more consistent with the realities we experience. And lastly, we need to see how, as Christians, a holistic way of looking at things enables us to more fully understand and live Christ's teachings.


For a long time Western thought, at least, has tended to view things in terms of opposites -- as sets of realities opposed to each other. Claude Levi-Strauss, a social anthropologist whose special field of study included the structure of language, pointed out the polarization (or duality) in our thinking as evidenced by our language. We tend to define something by what it is not. We tend to juxtapose a concept with its opposite, in order to show what it is. But, as Levi-Strauss points out, polarization tends to create implied judgments, for at one end of the pole is that which we define as "positive" or good, and at the other end is what we call "negative" or bad. Thus, conscious or unconscious judgments are built into virtually everything we define in terms of this polarization: black versus white, male versus female, young versus old, clergy versus laity, sacred versus profane, and on and on. Little or nothing escapes these distinctions.(1)

The French philosopher René

Descartes is largely responsible for this tendency in Western thought, for Cartesian philosophy aimed at separating all that was spiritual from all that was material. Residual Manichean beliefs developed this tendency even further, inferring that everything belonging to the physical and material world was inherently sinful, and all that belonged to God was therefore immaterial and unphysical. From this basic world view developed a method of separating and classifying information which resulted in "scientific reductionism" -- the belief that everything can be explained by reducing it to its component parts.

During the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, many scientists and academicians developed smug attitudes, agnostic viewpoints, and even blatantly atheistic stances as they insisted that what could not be physically taken apart and objectively studied wasn't real. Such reductionism served as the basis for what we call "the medical model." With the advent of wonder-drugs such as Penicillin, this model was hailed as the answer to everything from social issues to the treatment of physical diseases -- a pill or mechanical procedure for every ailment under the sun!

It soon became evident, however, that this medical model had serious flaws. Strains of bacteria became resistant to drugs. New diseases replaced those stamped out by immunization. Social evils persisted and intensified. Harmful side effects of drugs such as Thalidomide were becoming manifest. Surgical intervention sometimes created more problems than it solved. And people were becoming skeptical of a model which treated human beings as little more than a collection of functioning "parts."

A flurry of research during the decades of the 1960s and '70s began to indicate how attitudes, expectations, family interactions, environmental factors and religious beliefs also had something to do with the ontology of disease. Health began to be seen not merely as "the absence of disease," but as an ongoing, positive approach to life that included a spiritual dimension. Holistic thinking -- that is, treating the whole person, including beliefs, socio-cultural experience, environment, and interpersonal relationships -- began to emphasize personal responsibility for change and the active participation of patient and physician alike in the process of healing.(2)

This shift to a holistic approach to health occurred at the same time that other disciplines were discovering the limitations of dualistic thought and reductionist philosophies. The question arose more and more frequently as to where matter ends and the world of energy and the immaterial begins, as physicists discovered that once matter is reduced to atomic particles, further reduction changes these particles into energy. As the new physicists studied the implications of their findings, their language began to sound reminiscent of what the mystics in both Christian and non-Christian traditions had been saying all along.

When Karl Pribram, a Stanford neuropsychologist, compared the brain to a hologram(3) in which even the tiniest particle contains all of the essential elements of the total brain, it called to mind what the poet William Blake meant when he described seeing "a World in a Grain of Sand, and a Heaven in a Wildflower ...."

In our household, which was both devoutly Catholic and strongly involved with universities at both faculty and student levels, we began to speculate in our discussions about how each of us, a tiny creation of God and a part of the Body of Christ might in like manner contain the very essence of God's image, through Christhood, within our own souls, and in our embodiment. We were moving into a holistic age in which we no longer saw things two-dimensionally.

As we began to discuss concepts in other disciplines, we were able to see that in many instances, like principles applied in other areas of life, as well -- and how research going on in many disciplines was beginning to support, not detract from Christ's teachings and church tradition. We saw this shift in thinking not as a secularization of spiritual matters (as has often recently been charged) but rather as a Christianization of much of what we had formerly regarded as merely secular. New theologians in the Church, as well, were beginning to perceive how all of creation is involved in the continual and ongoing process of the Incarnation. But it wasn't only "new" theology, for the doctors and mystics of past church tradition often spoke similarly. I was amazed to discover in the writings of Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Teilhard de Chardin, and many others, points of view that supported the new findings and speculations in both the Church and academia.

While many fads and offshoots of the "New Age" and "holistic" thinking have appeared to go off in bizarre directions, it is not fair to condemn the entire holistic movement or point to the ensuing upheaval of our times as proof that we are headed for ruin, such as Douglas Groothuis in his book, The Unmasking of the New Age(4) seems to try to do. Indeed, many of the ruinous effects we are seeing in our environment and social structures today are the result, not of New Age thinking, but of a kind of crystallization of outmoded mechanistic thought that was totally unconcerned with the interconnectedness and spiritual dimension of all of creation.


Whenever our perceptions undergo a transformation involving such a drastic reorganization of previously assimilated ideas and experience, it creates a temporary destabilization (such as the deionization of particles or when electrons form new valences). It is similar in some ways to the anarchy and social breakdown that accompany political upheavals. But from this destabilization, as we grope to redefine our realities and structures, new forms emerge which reach beyond the limitations of the old and reshape the eternal realities into new concepts.

Any form which becomes solidified inclines towards rigidity. Inflexibility becomes brittleness. An inability to adapt or change can only lead to extinction as we have seen from history, systems theory, and the biological sciences. Change is difficult, demanding, and often disturbing and perplexing even on a very private and individual level. But it is even more difficult for time-honored institutions to change. We see these institutions as symbols of ultimate reality, symbols which have worked for us and our forbearers and which have come to represent a certain mute testimony to the "unchangeable." Yet our institutions, even those we hold to be most sacred and inviolable, are going through changes more radical than ever before. In order to survive, they, too, must evolve and take new information into account.

We have a tendency to want to hold onto what has been triedand-true in the past. However, there are times when some of the axioms which fell into the category of the tried-and-true outlive their rationale. For example, we may strive to preserve elements once necessary or useful for the development and maintenance of a civilization, a church, or a political order beyond the time when some need or purpose was served by doing so.

Once there is no longer need for a particular form, it becomes obsolete. When this happens, we are faced with clinging obstinately to the old, even when it becomes unreasonable or destructive to do so -- or finding ways of incorporating new material that are consistent with both the new findings and the unchangeable realities that underlie the old forms. Thus, perhaps, we can prevent our structures and symbols from becoming idols as we must move in our thinking to the possibility of interpretations beyond what we now know or have ever known. For we refuse thereby to become so fixed and locked into our own opinions that no further room for growth, interpretation, or adaptation is possible.

In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had become a classic example of hardened and inflexible thinking. The Pharisees' original objectives (i.e., civil organization following standards that included a spiritual dimension, and the sanctification of a people by means of implementing a code of laws and behaviors) were admirable. But they had crystallized into a set of such rigid conventions that the true meaning of spirituality somehow got lost in the process.

It is not to those who were satisfied with this established form of religiosity that Jesus gained access. Rather, he found listeners among those who were unable to participate in the societal benefits of the old order: the "unclean," prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the woman at the Samaritan well, and those so simple in their daily pursuits that they were little concerned with the politics of religion or with maintaining their social standing. For they alone were not threatened by the idea that conventional society with its conventional religion left much to be desired!

On the other hand, the conversions of those who had much to lose (Saul, for example) were far more drastic and involved far greater upheaval. Saul, who became St. Paul, required being physically "knocked off his high horse" in order to see the light.


As we move toward more "holistic" approaches to mind-bodyand-spirit, we are beginning to pay more attention to being in touch with the little "Child" within us, in order that we might become more truly teachable, more trusting of the Holy Spirit within who guides us. This is the innocent quest of the possible, the trusting acquiescence to the fact that we are "divinely and wonderfully made" as the Psalmist tells us. For unless we become as little children, we will never discover the inner realities which go beyond mere acceptance of externalized conventions.

Children play with great intensity and enthusiasm. And although they take their playing very seriously, they do not take themselves as seriously as adults tend to do. If a child fails to reach his objective, he merely approaches it from another angle or tries another method. He does not feel personal guilt at "failing" to achieve his immediate goal, nor a sense of "punishment" when things do not work out quite as he planned. He merely shrugs, thinking he hasn't quite got the hang of it, or that maybe he left out a step along the way. In any event, the learning process is in itself part of the fun, and so he begins again with a sense of adventure and continuing discovery. The tincan-and-string "telephone" may not work. The cardboard sled may not actually slide. And he might never really get to China by digging a deep enough hole in the backyard. But in the process, he will definitely learn something.


"The Bread is one and we, though many, are one body" (1 Cor. 10:17). If all of us who comprise the faithful are, indeed, the Body of Christ, then we owe our redemption as much to each other as to the historical Jesus. This kind of thought is one which many find frightening, even heretical, because of its implications for personal responsibility. We are our brothers' (and sisters') keepers! To the degree that some of us stretch, grow, think creatively, reach beyond present horizons, our brothers and sisters will also be enabled to reach, grow, and think. Yet we owe just as much to those who apply the brakes, advise caution, and point out fallacies because this, too, is needed for balance.

In the dualistic thinking of an Augustine or a Descartes, body and spirit are completely opposed. To ennoble the latter, the former must first be brought under subjection, humbled, broken, and ultimately destroyed. But Jesus said: "Destroy this temple and in three days, I will build it up again!" (John 2:19) For those who insisted upon holding onto their "edifice complexes," his words were utterly unintelligible. But as we begin to understand the interrelatedness of body-mind-spirit, we begin to sense that all of these are manifestations of the same reality: Christ-consciousness. We are temples! The Spirit exists in us, working at every level of our being to form Christ within us, even when we are least aware of it.

In the subconscious labyrinth of dreams, symbols, slips-of-thetongue, we find new perceptions emerging that connect us with the entire realm of lived experience.(5) The Spirit within goes on forming and shaping us in what we hope will ultimately become our Christ-identity.

Asceticism, once bent on breaking the "evil" inclinations of the flesh and ego, is now directed toward unity, harmony, and wholeness of body-mind-and-spirit in Christ. Therefore, physical and mental health are to be sought for the sake of the Spirit within and often involve many of the same disciplines as the "old" asceticism: fasting, denying one's personal preferences when they go against proper and balanced nutrition, avoidance of harmful and toxic substances because they block our spiritual energy and awareness, correct breathing and posture exercise, centering one's self in meditation and prayer, sublimating or proper use of sexual energies. All of these reflect an awareness and respect for the gift of life God gave us and represent a positive approach in becoming collaborators with the Father in the incarnation of his Son within us.


It is not surprising that as we began to move into holistic thinking in our academic disciplines, Asian religions suddenly acquired popularity, for Asian thought has always been more holistically oriented (yin and yang seen in terms of complementarity, not opposition, for example). Yet if we will look at what Jesus taught, we see that he also was involved with the concepts of unity and wholeness, and an awareness of body-mind-and-spirit, especially with regard to his healings and public ministry which today we would describe as a "holistic" approach.

Jesus was concerned to see that those who came to hear him received physical nourishment for their bodies as well as nourishment for their souls. He employed touch in healing others, embracing both men and women, and allowing the little children to crawl unrestrained into his lap. He was compassionate and forgiving. He listened to what others told him. He also asked people to share in the responsibility for their healing, asking, "What do you want from me?" and often pointing out that it was their faith that made healing possible. He cautioned those whom he healed to avoid patterns of sin while regaining their health. Likewise, he pointed out that infirmity must not be considered a "punishment" for some wrong committed, as when he explained to the Jews about the man born blind (John 9:3): it was not due to his sin or his parents' sin, but rather that God might be glorified by the healing.

Jesus shared in community celebrations at Cana and Bethany. He also wept with the community, sharing its grief, as at the death of Lazarus. He taught about the importance of imagery: "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell the mountain to remove itself from the sea" (Matt. 17:20). And he cautioned against destructive thought because it was as real as action itself, as when he warned against thinking of others in such a way as to make sex objects out of them: "if a man looks at a woman with lust he has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28).

We in the West have become so used to dualistic (reductionist) thinking that it is sometimes difficult for us to perceive how to put more holistic viewpoints into practice. This is where many nonWestern cultures who have approached medicine and the sciences in a more pluralistic way can share with us some of their insights and techniques for integrating body with spirit and mind. As Parker J. Palmer states in his book The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, "We have not been well prepared to understand our lives in terms of paradox. Instead, we have been taught to see and think in dualisms .... But the deeper truths of our lives seem to need paradox for full expression."(6)

Some Christians, however, tend to shy away from any approach which borrows from other than Christian cultures. But in the increased sharing between world cultures and the explosion of information that has been disseminated, can we not borrow from other traditions the specific shared insights and practical techniques that have proven useful and helpful to others, when such insights and practices are consistent with the teachings of Christ?

Jesus' disciples had their fears, too, about the man who was healing in Christ's name but who wasn't himself one of the "Christian" followers. According to Mark, Jesus answered that if the man was not against him, he was with him (Mark 9:40). On another occasion, Jesus pointed out that "many sheep have I that are not of this fold..." (John 10:16).

In still another instance, Jesus remarked that "not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord; will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who do the will of my Father..." (Matt. 7:21). Thus, based on Christ's own precedent, it would seem that the label by which a person (or culture, or religion) calls itself is not nearly so important as whether one is seeking God's will as he or she understands it, and endeavoring to keep the laws of God in his or her own heart.

Therefore, we may learn a great deal from others' traditions and experiences, so long as we evaluate our findings in the light of Christ. Many insightful applications of how to help ourselves integrate body-mind-spirit have come to us from others: techniques that can aid us in relaxation, in nutrition, in meditation and imagery and sensory perceptions. These various contributions should enhance even further our ability to put Christ's teachings into practice.

Many Christian mystics spoke of Christ as the Lover who woos the sou1.(7) Even the Old Testament references to God as spiritual Lover and beloved are apparent, as in Hosea 2:14, "I will lure her into the desert and speak tenderly to her." If we truly see each human individual as a "beloved of Christ" we will recognize the good, the true, the divine in them that goes far deeper than the mere form used to communicate it. And, while sharing our own perspective, too, we will also learn to listen with new and deeper respect, genuine interest, and we can gain immensely from the richness of shared human experience, for we will have "more ears with Which to hear God speaking among us."(8)


Duality in our thinking tends to separate things into neat little categories, but it also narrows our perspective unnecessarily, and often to our detriment. Thomas Merton, in his New Seeds of Contemplation, warned against this dualistic "exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong," saying that these exaggerated distinctions tend to become in themselves "irreducible divisions."(9)

This is not, as some modern enthusiasts choose to interpret, to give carte blanche to any and all forms of self-expression, to deny that evil exists, or to take a nonchalant attitude toward our life and our faith. Rather, it is to affirm that we do not always see the whole picture (as God reminded Job); that life involves some very real risks and, yes, sin is real and can often lead to imbalances that cause physical-mental-spiritual impairment, even death. But like Martha who was "anxious about many things when only one thing is needed" (Luke 10:40), we must focus our attention of God and trust so deeply in Christ that our body-mind-spirit will be constantly striving toward that ultimate unity in him that we have been promised.

In holistic medicine, the use of imagery is of vital importance. Research has been done that shows beneficial and even startling effects of imagery on reversing chronic physical impairments and even causing some cancers to disappear.(10) By having patients focus on mental imagery which is life-supporting, loving, and contains a spiritual dimension, it would seem that focusing on Christ and active visualization with meditative imagery, as well as studying his word, his actions, and imagining how he might act in our place, living our lives, can help in bringing about a radical spiritual transformation.

We can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in creating Christ within us, according to God's unique design for each of us individually. We can choose to accept ourselves as whole people, thanking God for our senses, emotions, thought processes, and feelings; for our bodies, our minds, our souls. For it is the combination of all of these, as well as of the larger Body of our communities, churches, and our world, that aid us in our spiritual maturation.

A holistic spirituality, it seems to me, would be one which perceives how the need for unity applies on every level of our lives and interactions. It is an attempt to look beyond notions of duality and see the underlying wholeness and interrelatedness of all things. In a word, it is the continuation of that prayer which Jesus Himself prayed: "May they all be one, Father; may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you" (John 17:21).


  1. Claude Levi-Strauss in Noam Chomsky's Psycholinguistics (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1972).
  2. James Gordon, MD, "The Paradigm of Holistic Medicine" in Health for the Whole Person (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980), pp. 3-27.
  3. Ken Wilbur, ed., The Holographic Paradigm (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Press, 1982).
  4. Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).
  5. Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams and Reflections (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963).
  6. Parker J. Palmer, The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1980).
  7. Cf. H. A. Reinhold, The Soul Afire: Revelations of the Mystics (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1973).
  8. Parker J. Palmer, op. cit.
  9. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Co., 1962), pp. 96-97.
  10. Carl Simonton, Stephanie Simonton, and James Creighton, Getting Well Again (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher,1978). Also Mike and Nancy Samuels, Seeing with the Mind's Eye (New York: Random House, 1975).