Holism and vitalism are related concepts—frameworks for observing, interpreting, and acting—used by herbalists and other practitioners in the quest to support health. They both encourage us to understand the broader patterns and interrelations between all of life, to see the flows and interdependencies that make life and health possible, and to see how health is compromised when the links are broken. Unfortunately, clinical herbalism’s focus on individual clients can lead us inadvertently to overlook the real root causes of disease, and to mystify the sources of vitality. We propose a Radical Vitalism that transcends the individual to encompass health challenges at every scale in society and empowers our vitalist techniques to work beyond the usual clinical context toward deep and lasting health for all.
Holism is, simply, the preference for working with whole entities (organ systems, people, ecosystems, plants) as something more than the mere sum of their parts. In practice it involves training your vision to step back and see how the object of your contemplation (a person, an organ, a disease state) is connected to other elements in a broader system rather than gaining your understanding by dissecting that object into its various parts. Holism also suggests that our therapeutic strategies be accountable to these broader systems.
Although traditional systems of healing are typically holistic, the modern concept of holistic health arose to address some of the inadequacies of conventional medicine. These shortcomings, such as the emphasis on specialization among researchers and practitioners, the reinforcement of the fallacy of the mind/body split, and the treatment of the disease rather than the whole person have contributed to a general state of ill health in a field theoretically devoted to the opposite. The holistic critique is a necessary antidote to this fragmentary approach.
However, holistic health in practice has its own limitations. For many practitioners of holistic medicine, the consideration of the whole organism stops at the individual level. This approach to health unconsciously reinforces a destructive framework that contributes to the illusion that we are separate from each other and from the rest of the Earth. This concept of the individual as a discrete being isolated from family, community, society, and Nature is a relatively new idea in the history of Homo sapiens.
Individualism as a foundational part of the contemporary mindset contributes to many societal ills. Alienation defines the modern condition. Many people feel isolated and alone despite the illusion of hyper-connectedness given by the internet. Insularity limits our intelligence; we evolved to live in bands sharing work and solving problems as a group. While members of traditional cultures see their personal well-being as connected with the well-being of the rest of the community, contemporary humans rarely see the fate of their neighbors as connected to their own.
If we broaden our gaze to look past human society, we see that the severance of the individual from the rest of life has also contributed to the current ecological crisis. Humans, for the most part, no longer see themselves as part of Nature. In fact, our health as a species is inextricably connected to the health of the Earth. Communities on the front lines of ecological catastrophe do not have the luxury of denial on this matter. Nigerians without potable water thanks to Shell Oil, Louisianans in Cancer Alley sick from proximity to oil refineries, Appalachian folks poisoned from the runoff of mountaintop removal know their fate is tied to that of the environment.
It is time for herbalists and other holistic practitioners to broaden their scope. Our selves do not end at the boundary of our own skin. We must look to the systems we are part of to create an approach to health that is truly holistic. Vitalist practice provides a helpful context for this work.
Even though vitalism is the common foundation of all traditional systems of healing, the concept might require some explanation. The dictionary defines vitalism as the belief that living things are animated by a mysterious “vital force” that makes them essentially different from stones or ice cubes, but practical vitalism requires no such religious conviction. Vitalism simply notices the natural drive inherent in all unimpeded living systems (ex. an ecosystem, a human community, the human body) toward growth, complexity, richness, exuberance, and health—in short, towards vitality—and has us imagine that this process is driven by a force, the “vital force.” The vital force will direct and ensure the growth and health of an organism as long as the vital force has what it needs (i.e. it is well-nourished) and can act unimpeded. Disease results when the vital force is malnourished or its natural flow is somehow obstructed.
The job of the healer, then, is to make sure there is ample and appropriate nutrition (and nutrition here refers to more than just food), to support the action of the vital force, and to remove any obstacles to cure. Thus freed and supported, the vital force will do the healing. This basic model applies whether the organism to be healed is an ecosystem or a human being.
In herbalism, plants can be used to supply nutrition, to support the work of the vital force through their medicinal actions, and sometimes to remove obstacles to cure (as when an antiseptic herb is used on an infected wound). An important notion is that vitality breeds vitality, so that vital healthy food in the diet and the uncanny vitality of herbal medicines support personal vitality.
What’s revolutionary in vitalism is the idea that Nature is smarter than we are. In healing work and in all of life our best move is usually to get out of its way and support what it is trying to do.
Needless to say, this isn’t always easy to achieve, especially once we see ourselves as inseparable from all the systems, both man-made and ecological, of which we are a part. Radical Vitalism perceives the vital force flowing through all of nature, and through culture, through communities and families, and considers the way these vital flows intersect within each person. Once we extend our vitalism in this way, we quickly recognize systemic obstacles to cure.
The first system most of us encounter is the family. Practitioners will often ask what health conditions exist in an patient’s family, thus acknowledging genetic connections to certain disease states. As holistic practitioners, we must also look at non-genetic and epigenetic familial factors that affect a patient’s health. The idea that family dynamics and early childhood experiences affect our perceptions and behavior as adults is widely accepted. However, we must also acknowledge their impact on our health, physical and mental, throughout our lives. Early experiences of abuse, neglect, conflict, and need can be long-term obstacles to cure. Furthermore, studies on the effects of trauma show that the experiences of our parents, grandparents and even earlier generations directly influence our health. Intergenerational trauma is an obstacle to cure.
From the family level, we can expand our concept of the whole to encompass the larger socio-economic system a person inhabits. Communities who experience oppression based on class, race, gender, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation exhibit symptoms related to the specific stressors they face. As Paul Farmer, the Harvard clinician who has written extensively about treating the rural poor in Haiti, points out, to identify epidemiological trends without acknowledging their societal context is to confuse cultural difference with structural violence. Are African-Americans predisposed to heart disease or does the everyday experience of racism and oppression create the conditions that lead to heart disease? Racism is an obstacle to cure. Institutional poverty is an obstacle to cure. Misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are all obstacles to cure.
As we expand our gaze to include national and even global systems, we see that the health of the individual is also affected by larger policy spheres such as environmental regulations (or lack thereof), trade agreements, and most significantly, the global distribution of wealth. As we saw tragically in the recent Ebola outbreak, communities in the global south have limited access to basic health care and disease prevention. A global economic system that extracts resources from poor countries yet denies their citizens basic health care is an obstacle to cure.
Even those fortunate to live in a wealthy nation who do not belong to a marginalized group face barriers to optimal health. In the dominant economic system, a person’s value is determined by what they do for money and how much they make. Most people in our culture sacrifice their lives to work that lacks meaning. Those who earn enough to do more than get by are offered in exchange a never-ending parade of products that only exacerbate the emptiness and alienation that define the modern condition. And who does not suffer from the effects of chronic stress? What some call progress has brought forth a host of ailments—from ALS to fibromyalgia to an epidemic of cancers. Few can sustain the onslaught of stress we experience in day to day life. Even a life deemed successful can be sickening. Capitalism is an obstacle to cure.
And as if this situation were not dire enough, let us point out that the crisis even undermines our abilities to become proficient healers. The development of holistic thinking is constantly undermined by the relentless fragmentation of knowledge. Restlessness and short attention spans do not facilitate the cultivation of deep awareness. Herbalism is premised on an intimate connection with Nature and its flora, and though it’s never too late to connect, few among us are lucky to have come from a culture that honors this premise. The baggage of mind/body dualism and generalized alienation from the body are blocks to knowing the body well and to noticing the effects that herbal medicines have. Finally, the stultifying rationalization of modern narratives around disease and healing has nearly destroyed the cultural context in which healer, patient, disease, remedy, and Nature itself are united in a common narrative that potentizes the healing intervention and the medicines used.
But yet, healers we are, by tooth and nail. We don’t just know how to diagnose the grim situation. We do know how to heal. Radical Vitalism expands our awareness not only of the sources of harm and disease, but also the source of our cures. The goals and principles are still the same: recognize the vital force inherent in Nature as the ultimate healer; nourish and protect this vital force; support the work of the vital force and try to remove or reduce what impedes it; remember that vitality nourishes vitality.
A powerful first step in practicing Radical Vitalism is to incorporate the full context of our ailing world and dysfunctional society into our narratives of illness. Standard holistic approaches to, say, heart disease or diabetes focus on dietary and lifestyle factors in a way that can unintentionally lay blame on the sufferer if larger forces are not accounted for. Still other disease narratives place responsibility in the hands of a cruel and arbitrary fate. Let’s face it: any chronic illness that becomes common in a culture is going to be the result of systemic forces at work, and can’t be reduced to an individual’s “poor choices.” In the case of heart disease, the industrialization, commercialization, and devitalization of the food supply is the crux of this story. Radical Vitalism might preserve the common holistic therapeutic regimen, but its narrative explicitly weaves individuals into the larger patterns observable in society as a whole.
Contrary to our American doctrine of individualism and self-sufficiency, no person is an island. Holism demands that we see the big picture. History and politics are written on our bodies, and to learn the story of how is a step toward empowerment, even though seeing one’s health problems as caused by forces outside one’s immediate control might not seem empowering at first glance. One can still take personal steps to heal oneself, but we participate in the world more fully when we are aware of how the world acts on us.
Our human cultures are of course embedded in and fully dependent on Nature, and thus the larger context of Nature as a whole is even more important for the vitalist than the context of society and history. Humans, and no human is an exception, are part of Nature, but this relationship has become distant and alienated for most people in the developed world. Anything the herbalist can do to mend this split is beneficial to the health of all. The fundamental herbalist action of ethically harvesting plants, including wild plants, and offering them to people is a gesture towards healing the rift. But we can expand our role.
To the vitalist, the rise of chronic disease and devitalization of humanity cannot be understood separately from the devitalization of Nature as a whole. The erosion of the manifest diversity and resiliency in Nature world-wide represents a material and energetic loss in the ultimate source of all that nourishes life. This truth, too, must find its way into the stories we tell ourselves about the origins of ill-health, for to acknowledge it is to reinforce the bond between all life.
In the broadest scope of vitalist healing, it is the calling of our generation to end the war against Nature. Of course not everyone can be on the front lines of the fight to defend Nature, nor need we all be. There are countless roles to fill, all of them important. DIY community herbalists, whose tools and methods both rely on Nature for their effectiveness, make excellent spokespeople for the power of healthy wild Nature and the value of aligning ourselves with its will. But we should consider how else we can act in this struggle. Support for and solidarity with those who are on the front lines would be a good place to start. And solidarity should be extended not only to those who defend Nature but also to those fighting socioeconomic inequalities, fighting to reform the food system, fighting to remove any of our systematic obstacles to cure.
In some cases it may even be helpful to share this perspective with our clients. Many folks who are drawn to herbalism as a healing modality are intuitively or explicitly critical of the divorce from and destruction of Nature, and a narrative that connects systemic devitalization to their own ill health might be revelatory for them, sometimes giving words to an understanding that they already feel in their gut. If they come to see themselves as part of the fight, even better. And if they act as part of it, better still. Resistance breeds vitality.
Radical Vitalism asks us to broaden our ideas of what might be effective therapies. For some, blockading the construction of an oil pipeline might be an important part of their healing—passionately and actively going to the root causes of disease. Others may want to volunteer their time or raise money for an organization pursuing social justice, or building alternatives to the culture of domination. For most folks, getting involved in the community in any way outside of work and family life is a healing connection.
And, as devitalized and threatened as Nature is, connecting to it is still a healing connection to the wellspring of all life. The modern Japanese healing practice called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, takes this as literally as can be. Participants go to the forest and are encouraged to engage with it using all their senses: feeling the mosses and the bark of trees, inhaling the aromas from the conifers, tasting the plants, gazing at and listening to the eddies and falls of the stream. The practice produces measurable health benefits, and if it motivates participants to value and defend the wild, then everybody wins. Immersion in vitality breeds vitality.
Gardening, too, can be intensely therapeutic. Growing a portion of our own food or medicine makes us powerfully and directly involved with the primal source of nourishment and healing. Gardening brings Nature closer and weaves it into our lives. Garden plants channel immense vitality and even wildness. The garden is inseparable from the soil life, the insects, birds, and weather. We connect with all of that through the garden. Thoughtful gardening can even enhance biodiversity and support ecosystems. Participating in Nature breeds vitality.
All of these practices help create vitality beyond the individual, but ultimately the restoration of the free flow of the vital force will require the creation of a new society, a new way of life. Luckily this “new” way of life already exists within the current oppressive system. We all live it every day, and it is our passion and our job as healers to help people better connect with rich, free-flowing vitality in their daily lives: vibrant health, nourishing food, supportive community, connection to Nature, and so on. But the obstacles are immediate and obvious: try counseling most Americans about the vitalist need to slow down, reduce stress, and take time for rest. To blame this obstacle on an abstraction like “our American obsession with achievement” is to obscure the fact that our economic system demands it. To accommodate these obstacles to vitality is to practice harm reduction. To remove them should be the basic health goal of all humanity.
It is overwhelming to look at health in this larger context and identify the complex of systems that create obstacles to cure. Most of us maintain a certain amount of dissociation to bear the incessant onslaught of news of catastrophe, extinction, violence, cruelty and the knowledge of our complicity in these horrors. It is time to wake from this dream state. The detachment that allows us to carry on as if we are not in the midst of crisis does not serve us, our community, or Earth. Fortunately, this waking is part of healing. In When the Body Says No, Gabor Maté explains how complacency begets disease. Those who do not accept their prognosis, who fight back, are more likely to survive. Resistance nourishes vitality. Likewise, communities who actively resist their oppressors forge strong bonds, maintain their social identity and are strengthened by the fight.
Do not let the magnitude of our global health crisis keep you from acting. If anything, the level of catastrophe we face should strengthen our resolve. There is only one fight, and we either participate or watch from the sidelines. For herbalists, who draw our powers of healing from the Earth, it is imperative that we work to heal the whole organism.
For inspiration, let us look to the resilient powers of Nature. Consider two clearcuts, one situated next to a relatively intact, healthy forest, the other located in the middle of a housing development, cut off from other intact landscapes. The latter clearcut is seeded by opportunistic pioneers. With only the plants popular to mainstream lawn design nearby, the land is open to opportunistic non-natives. Privet and multiflora rose take over. Insects who depend on specific plant hosts cannot settle here. The birds who feast on these insects must settle someplace else, and so on. The web of life is disrupted. Our island of regrowth suffers from disconnection. This novel ecosystem will create new connections, build soil and heal eventually, but it will take a very long time.
On the other hand, we have the clearcut located next to an intact forest. Here we see the difference connection makes. Trees from the forest seed the new opening. Wildflowers that have not flowered in decades from want of light use this break in the canopy to make seed, further strengthening the clearing. Animals that thrive at the edges, such as songbirds and deer, are drawn to the site. Trees grow to create habitat for warblers and other birds who prefer to perch in low cover. The landscape heals from the logging slowly but surely. In a hundred years, there will be a mature forest connected to the greater whole. We must learn from the forest. For individuals, communities, and societies severed from each other and the world they inhabit, healing is difficult. Our vitality depends on that of the whole. Its vitality depends on us.