Counselling: Whole and Parts

Now and again, it happens in my work as a counsellor and in my personal life that the word, “holistic”, comes up. I like the word, I’ve liked it for a long while now, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to ask myself what exactly does it mean, and, more importantly, what do I mean when using it.

A dictionary is often a good starting point. My Macquarie Concise Dictionary provides me with the following for the word, holism: “the philosophical theory that wholes (which are more than the mere sums of their parts) are fundamental aspects of the real.” I take this definition to be pointing to the notion that a thing is a thing in its own right, beyond what it is made of. For example, the tableness of the particular object upon which I eat my meals resides in its purpose and overall design, as well as in its components: legs, a top, screws, brackets, etc. What defines this object in my dinning room are qualities that aren’t visible in the material object itself, like the use to which I put it. Strangely, what makes this concrete object what it is is something that doesn’t exist in the concrete world. It’s essence is abstract, an idea.

In the living out of our everyday lives our knowing depends largely upon our experience. When I meet a concrete example of a table for the first time and recognize it as the embodiment of what I knew only as an idea, I have the sense of completion. I can say I now know what a table is. My idea has been verified by the existence of an actual table. On the other hand, if I meet a table for the first time and have no idea of table, then I will experience it as an object without meaning. If I experiment with it, I might luckily discover it’s handy for placing my dinner on. If that discovery is repeated over time and becomes a daily practice, I am likely to form the idea of table and thereby give meaning to this object which originally was a meaningless thing. The idea and material of the table become inseparable for me. I can’t know one without the other and still have the experience of table.

Abstractions, like tableness, seem less than completely satisfactory when I’m faced with the complexities of daily life. Even the relatively simple definition of a table seems elusive when its claiming to define a concrete thing, such as a table, in an abstract, generalized way. While a description of its parts, its purpose and design certainly help me in recognizing an object for the first time, it’s not until I have experienced an individual table that I have the sense of “Ah, now I know what a table is. I have actually seen one.”

Much of our institutionalized learning in Western culture, over the last few centuries, focuses on analysis: breaking things down into their smallest parts in order to understand how they work. Consequently, when faced with a problem, we very naturally try to analyse it in order to discover which part is not functioning properly. Problems, whatever their nature, are viewed as though they belong to a machine, which can be fixed once we have found the faulty part. I have noticed, however, that there is one exception to this inclination toward analysis. It occurs when I am trying to understand me. While I am prepared to be analysing my problem until the end of time, I am loath to analyse me. I am irreducible. Such, at least, is my instinctive belief. Many others I meet seem to organize their lives around the same instinct that “I” cannot be reduced to smaller parts without destroying the very thing being analysed. Despite viewing the rest of the world as being made up of ever smaller bits, I have difficulty experiencing myself–when I say, “I”–as anything but whole and irreducible. That reluctance may be partially due to the importance, approaching sanctity, that our culture places on the idea of the individual, but I sense, in addition, it is because I know, in the most intimate way, that I am who I am and that there is no further to go in trying to grasp the essence of myself. I have come to the end (and beginning) of my knowing. This exception to our usual approach of understanding the world has consequences for counselling and for the kinds of lives we live.

Many people, and I would count myself among them, experience awkwardness and confusion when asked to think of themselves as a conglomeration of different and sometimes conflicting selves. I have tried to indicate that there is a good and incontestable reason for this. I know, as a deep inner experience, I am not just the sum of personality parts that I and others observe in me. I always remain something more. For the same reason that I can never be completely definable, I can never be completely observable. Observation does not give me an experience of “I”. To observe something I must stand apart from it. However, my experience of “I” is only possible when I am one with myself, when I stand within myself. And yet…and yet it is crucially important to be able to stand apart from and observe myself because more often that not, perhaps always, when I think or say “I”, I am not really referring to the whole of me. I am referring to an aspect, a part, of me, which changes according to how I’m feeling at the moment, who I am with, how much understanding I have of my personal past, of the character of my dad, mom and great grandmother, of the values of the society in which I was raised, my dreams, my aspirations and a bunch of other stuff, all of which influences what I am thinking about when I think about me. It is crucial to realize this so that I don’t confuse an aspect of myself as being all of me. If I mistake a part of myself, one that I have consciously identified with most of my life, for example a part of me that is convinced that it invariably gets things wrong, I create a world for myself in which, try as I may, I can get nothing right.

It appears we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation that demands of us both the capacity to inwardly experience our wholeness and, also, to stand apart from how we see ourselves so that we can rigourously monitor how accurate is our self-perception. How we know when is the appropriate time to call into play either of these capacities and how we might move smoothly from one to the other is, I sense, a musing for another time, one which I will try to attend to in my next musing.

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