Sunday, March 9, 2014

Whole System Healing

What Is Whole Systems Healing?

Whole Systems Healing is a way of cultivating the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities, organizations, societies, and the environment by living and acting with awareness of the wholeness and the interconnectedness of all living systems. 

Whole Systems Healing is a perspective; a way of thinking, leading, and healing. It prepares us to be agents of individual growth, social change, and environmental restoration.

Framework within Modern Complexity Theory

Whole Systems Healing operates within the framework of modern complexity theory, which uses scientific methodology to demonstrate the interconnectedness and interdependence of every part of a complex system. 

Complexity theory offers a new perspective for looking at contemporary problems, which are characterized by unprecedented levels of intricacy and interdependence.   According to this new science, we need to look at issues in the context of the whole system. This means considering all levels of a system: individual, societal, and environmental. It also means considering all aspects of a system, such as mind, body, and spirit in individuals or social justice, environmental health, and economic prosperity in communities.

Complexity theory recognizes that all natural and social systems are dynamic and unpredictable with change emerging from within the system. 

An Age-Old Wisdom

But of course, nothing is really new. The insights and practices of Whole Systems Healing are found in many of the world's philosophies and traditions. Luther Standing Bear describes it from a Lakota perspective:
From Wakan Tanka . . . there came a great unifying life force that flowered in and through all things—the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals—and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all things were kindred and brought together by the same Great Mystery. Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle.

HospitalWhy Do We Need a New Approach?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We can no longer do the same thing as we have in the past when trying to address today’s complex problems. Can you think of examples in healthcare and the environment where this applies?
  • Our Gross National Product (GNP) offers one striking example. We measure our progress as a society by our GNP without examining what that actually measures. But consider this—when more people go to the hospital and we spend more on our healthcare, our GNP goes up. The more we spend on cleaning up environmental waste, the more the GNP goes up. Do we really see such expenditures as positive? In reality, because the GNP focuses on growth and increase in spending, we are not solving issues around health and the environment. At the same time, our GNP is not measuring things of great value in our society, such as trust, integrity, and the strength of families. These strengths can do much to enhance our growth and ability to meet people’s needs, but they are not tracked.
  • Modern-day healthcare offers another example. Healthcare today is focused on illness rather than health. It tries to resolve health issues by addressing only a specific diagnosis, rather than the whole person. This approach has limited success with complex chronic diseases that are increasing in our society. Diabetes, for example, is not just about managing blood sugar with insulin: it involves the general health of the individual, emotionally and physically, and their whole lifestyle.

Examples of a Whole Systems Healing Approach

A Whole Systems Healing (WSH) approach requires that we learn to cross traditional boundaries and operate on multiple levels to solve problems. A few examples:

Planting TreeEnvironmental Awareness

On April 22, 1970, US Senator Gaylord Nelson and a Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes teamed up to launch what they called an “environmental teach-in” and raise awareness about ecological issues confronting the planet. More than 20 million people participated across the U.S. and the first “Earth Day” was born.
This effort led to unprecedented legislation to protect our air, water, and wildlife and ultimately, to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Earth Day Network now has a global reach, with more than 20,000 partners and organizations in 190 countries. More than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities, making it the largest secular civic event in the world.

This example demonstrates how solutions to complex problems need to come from many levels: from individuals to governments.

Environmentally Healthy Healthcare

Health Care Without Harm is an international coalition of hospitals and healthcare systems, medical professionals, community groups, health-affected constituencies, labor unions, environmental organizations, and religious groups.

The vision of Health Care Without Harm is to promote the health of people and the environment by working to implement ecologically sound and healthy alternatives to healthcare practices that pollute the environment and contribute to disease.

This organization has tackled issues such as the incineration of medical waste, use of toxic chemicals, unhealthy food choices, and energy use in hospitals and healthcare facilities.

It is an example of how groups need to cross traditional boundaries of responsibilities and take joint action to be successful.

Compassion Technology

When a loved one is seriously ill or hospitalized, a major challenge is keeping friends and family members updated. In the past, a flurry of phone calls or emails were necessary to communicate an update or change of status, which was both time consuming and burdensome.
In 1997, Sona Mehring created the first CaringBridge website during a friend’s high-risk pregnancy. Her vision was to combine the capabilities of technology with the personal needs of people facing a crisis. Since then, more than 1 billion visits have been made to personal CaringBridge websites, and authors and visitors have come from all 50 states in the U.S. and more than 215 countries around the world. CaringBridge is a Compassion Technology™ that facilitates important communication for individuals receiving care.

It is an example of a family member crossing boundaries of the traditional family role and using creative innovation to provide a solution.

WSH Works on Many Levels and Across Boundaries

The organizers of Earth Day articulate a compelling message, engage large numbers of people and organizations and work on many levels to achieve systems changes around the world. If they had limited their strategy to governmental legislation in the U.S. or community organizations, they would never have achieved the global impact attained by Earth Day.

Health Care Without Harm created a diverse coalition with representation from labor unions, health professionals, and community groups. It is an excellent example of an organization that has crossed boundaries to create systems change.

CaringBridge demonstrates innovation, creativity, human-centered design and social-networking, all core concepts underlying a whole systems approach to solving problems.

In all these examples, solutions emerged from the interworking of parts and systems.

CattailsWSH Uses New and Creative Strategies

A Whole Systems approach uses novel strategies to tackle challenging problems. Two examples:
  • In areas where environmental contamination has left toxins in soil, phytoremediation (using plants to restore the health of the land) offers a creative solution. Plants can remove harmful metals, pesticides, and oil from the ground as the roots of the plant take in water and nutrients from polluted soil, streams, and groundwater. Once inside the plant, the chemicals may be stored, changed into less harmful chemicals or changed into gases that are released into the air as the plant breathes. The EPA is using the natural plant process of phytoremediation because it requires less equipment and labor, and thus is less costly than manual removal.
  • In designing buildings of all types—hospitals, clinics, office buildings, and homes—architects and designers are paying attention to the concept of biophilia. Biophilia is the inherent human inclination to affiliate with natural systems and processes.  Biophilic design attempts to enhance the beneficial experience of nature in buildings by using environmental features that embody characteristics of the natural world, such as color, water, sunlight, plants, natural materials, and exterior views and vistas (Kellert, 2008).

    The concept, originally proposed by an eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson (1984), is increasingly influencing design of the built environment, including hospitals and other health care facilities.

Framing Concepts of Whole Systems Healing

The following concepts will be explored extensively throughout this website. (Click on the links for those concepts we have already developed further on this site.)
  • Complexity Science/Chaos Theory: All living systems, from individual humans and communities, to the ecosystem of the planet, are complex systems that are constantly adapting and evolving in response to changing conditions from within and outside.

    Complexity theory is the new science that describes the way complex systems work and the laws they follow. Understanding complex systems allows us to devise strategies for bringing about beneficial systems change. The environment is a perfect example of a complex system. Addressing the problem of climate change requires changes in consumer behavior, energy policy, the design of cities, new cars, and so forth.
  • Social Network Theory: A social network is a social structure made of individuals or organizations (called “nodes”) that are connected or inter-related through ties. The ties between the nodes can be social, economic, or organizational. Individuals, organizations, and governments are involved in multiple social networks.

    Social network analysis focuses on the number, pattern, and strength of relationships and may serve an important role in measuring social capital (the value an individual derives from the network) and in determining the way problems are solved. The CaringBridge website and FaceBook are both electronic tools used to create social networks. In the political process, social networks are extensively used to organize supporters and to raise money.
  • Social Change/Social Innovation: Social change is the process whereby values, attitudes, or institutions of society become modified. There are many theories of why and how social change occurs and how to foster it. Two of these are disruptive innovation and design thinking. 
  • Sustainability prairieSustainability: Sustainability allows us to meet the needs of the present in all ways (economic prosperity, environmental quality, and social justice) without compromising the needs of future generations.

    Sustainability involves individual, social, economic, and environmental systems. It requires a diverse coalition that includes individuals, governments at all levels, industry, labor, religious groups, and environmental groups.
  • EcoHealing: A goal of ecopsychology and its related fields of ecotherapy, eco spirituality, and eco healing are to heal the split between humans and nature on a personal and collective level. Although Theodore Roszak offered the first public definition of ecopsychology in his 1992 book, Voice of the Earth, many people in diverse fields have been concerned about the split and working on similar designs for healing this divide.

WSH Strategies and Practices

The following are some of the strategies and practices that can foster a WSH approach.
  • Gentle Action: Gentle action uses grassroots efforts and collective intelligence to focus many small, coordinated efforts on the best points of leverage within a given system. It is the strategic implementation of highly coordinated, low intensity actions.
  • Social Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurship is a) having a vision and making it real and b) organizing, managing, and assuming the risk of an enterprise or any initiative. Social entrepreneurship is practicing entrepreneurship in the context of addressing a societal or environmental need.  It involves having a vision of a greater good and working to make it real.  Social entrepreneurship, like other forms of entrepreneurship, needs to be financially sustainable.
  • Meditating womanReflective/Contemplative/Spiritual Practices: These practices include mindfulness techniques, awareness, prayer, journaling and other creative expression. Reflective/contemplative practices allow us to open to seeing things as they are, not as we think they should be. They help us participate in the wholeness of the system, beyond our usual self-imposed boundaries and hierarchies. They facilitate acceptance of a diversity of ideas and viewpoints. They help us relax and trust that the right solution will emerge—that we don’t have to impose our idea of what we think will work.
  • Interpersonal Relational Practices: These include deep listening, presence, circle or council practice, and Bohmian dialogue.
  • Restorative dialogue: Restorative dialogue is not a logical skill or an intellectual understanding, but a way to be in relationship to others and find ways to move forward from conflict. Typical mediation is settlement driven with a need to get a resolution. Restorative dialogue is dialogue-driven. It creates a safe space where people can tell stories and hear others. It does not seek to change the other, but to understand their other perspective and perhaps find a way to construct a new narrative. Restorative dialogue can hold an open awareness of difference while looking for common goals of peace.

Whole Systems Leadership

Whole Systems leadership entails the skillful application of knowledge, skills, and tools that can be systematically applied and adapted to meet the needs of changing circumstances. It is a way of being and doing that applies at every level of leadership—individual, organizational, and societal.

Whole systems leaders exhibit behaviors, values, and skills that further the collective work and enable the conditions for a preferred future. The six core characteristics of Whole Systems leadership include:
These six characteristics often overlap one another. For example, it is easier to listen deeply if you are able to suspend certainty. Whole Systems leaders use these characteristics to generate appropriate and effective responses to complex situations.

Click here to start the Whole Systems Leadership learning module.


Whole Systems Healing draws upon principles of wholeness and complexity to better understand and positively impact the health and wellbeing of natural, personal, and social systems. It sees these aspects as inextricably related, so that issues of health and wellbeing on any particular level are bound up with issues on other levels.

Whole Systems Healing works to effect beneficial and sustainable change, or systems transformation, on multiple levels and across traditional boundaries simultaneously. It uses strategic implementation of highly coordinated, low-intensity actions, such as gentle action. Innovation and openness to new approaches are key to Whole Systems Healing.

The Whole Systems framework offers a way of thinking, leading, and healing that offers hope for solving complex issues. This approach prepares those who explore it to be agents of social healing and environmental restoration.


Sustainability prairieDo you ever feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face in protecting our environment and creating healthy, vibrant communities, and wondered if it's possible to turn things around? Have you even questioned whether our daily choices really make a difference? Does environmental protection seem expensive and time-consuming? 
We explore the answers to these questions in the Sustainability learning module (linked below), looking at practical steps toward sustainability in our homes, workplaces, and communities. The information is based on the widely used Natural Step Framework from Sweden, which has been used by numerous businesses, government agencies, municipalities, academic institutions, congregations, nonprofits, and individuals in the U.S. and around the world to save money and become environmentally and socially responsible.
So why be hopeful? Because we can create new jobs, restore our environment and
promote social stability. The solutions are creative, practical and profitable.

~Paul Hawken, author and founding chair of the Natural Step United States
As you will find, sustainability is relevant and possible for everyone to practice. We can meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future. We can save money, time, and the planet.

Click here to start the Sustainability learning module.

Class Activities

Personal Action Checklist
What You Can Do About Meeting Human Needs
What You Can Do About Mining
What You Can Do About Taking Fossil Fuels from the Earth
What You Can Do About What We Make
What You Can Do: Biodiversity & Ecosystems

Other Resources

Learning Objectives: Sustainability
Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan - a fascinating case study of a small town transitioning from high- to low-energy consumption
Raventalk - a website that provides a variety of resources and ideas for living sustainably

by Terry Gips, CEO & President of Sustainability Associates

WSH Home

Quick Links

Center for Spirituality & Healing Wellbeing Blog

Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing

Free Online Learning for Health Professionals

Center Mandala News Magazines

Recommended Reading

Ausubel, Kenny & Harpignies, J.P. (2004). Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves. Sierra Club Books.
Bortoft, Henri (1996). Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Lindisfarne Books.
Briggs, John & Peat, F. David (1999). Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: Spiritual Wisdom from the Science of Change. Harper Collins.
Briggs, John & Peat, F. David (1989). Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness. Harper & Row.
Briskin, Alan et al. (2009). The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Brown, Tim (2009). Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: Harper Collins.
Capra, Fritjof (2002). The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. Anchor Books.
Chivian, E. & Bernstein, A. (2008). Sustaining Life: How human health depends on biodiversity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dacher, Eliot (2006). Integral Healing: The Path to Human Flourishing. Basic Health Publications.
Goleman, Daniel (2009). Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. New York: Broadway Books.
Hawken, Paul (2007). Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming. New York: Penguin Books.
Kellert, S.R. (2008). "Dimensions, Elements and Attributes of Biophilic Design" In Biophilic Design, edited by S.R. Kellert, J.H. Heerwagen and M.L. Mador. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Owen, Harrison (2008). Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Peat, F. David (2008). Gentle Action: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World. Pari Publishing.
Tolle, Eckhart (2005). A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose. New York: Penguin Group.
Wilson, E.O. 1984. Biophilia: the Human Bond with other Species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.