Well Connected:

Becoming Whole Through the Cultivation of Connection

Elizabeth Mackenzie, PhD

This column is devoted to the concept of “connection” as it pertains to achieving and maintaining wholeness. What happens to us as individuals when we connect heart and mind, body and spirit? What happens to societies when individuals feel connected to one another in cohesive communities? What happens to entire cultures when there is sense of connection with all humanity? Although there is enormous value in freedom and independence, total alienation from self, society, and spirit inevitably leads to dysfunction.

Years ago, when I was still in graduate school, I became interested in the question, “what makes a society healthy?” I was already convinced of the link between mind and body, but it seemed to me that we also needed to explore the health implications of both the social context and the natural environment. My academic mentor, David J. Hufford, suggested that I explore the role of small-scale systems and the closeness they engender in the creation of health.

I began to study the differences between mainstream society and intentional communities of various kinds, and was struck at once by the sense of alienation that characterizes so much of contemporary life compared with the feeling of integration that one finds in smaller communities, particularly those with a close connection to the natural world.

Then I stumbled upon the theologian Martin Buber’s book I and Thou, in which he speaks of “three spheres of relation” that correspond to the individual’s relationship with nature, spirit, and society. “Eureka,” I thought, “that’s it.” Healthy people have close connections with nature, with the spiritual, and with others. Healthy societies nurture those connections, while unhealthy societies are characterized by rupture in these areas. Think about it. People alienated from nature. Communities fragmented. The sense of a living spirituality – immanent spirit – ruptured. These kinds of disconnections are at the heart of the chronic and pervasive psychological stress that takes such a large toll on our health, both as individuals and as a society.

In Bali, the Hindus express a similar concept, tri hita krana thus: “There are three ways to happiness and prosperity: harmony between individuals, harmony between the individual and the environment, and harmony between the individual and the Gods” (Skolnick 2005: 73).

Holism and the health of populations:

Material progress alone is not sufficient to achieve an ideal society.  Even in countries where great external progress has been made, mental problems have increased, causing additional hardships.  No amount of legislation or coercion can accomplish the well-being of society, for this depends upon the internal attitude of the people within it.

-His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in My Tibet (Berkeley Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

When we are alienated from nature, from community and from spirit, we suffer.  A society characterized by fragmentation in these areas cannot be a healthy society, despite great wealth, advanced technology, and scientific progress. Without authentic connection to the social environment (people), the sensate environment (nature), and the spiritual environment (soul), individuals fall into personal dysfunction which leads to societal disease. At the core of so many of our most pressing public health problems we can find rupture and alienation, the rending of the threads that make up the tapestry of life.

These three “spheres of communication,” as Martin Buber called them, can also be imagined visually with reference to the Vedic concept of chakras.  Our connection to other people (the social environment) is symbolized by the heart chakra, our relationship to nature (the sensate environment) is symbolized by the root chakra, and our link spirit (the spiritual environment) is symbolized by the crown chakra.  Using this visual image, we can imagine that a healthy person is energetically open and connected to his or her brothers and sisters (fellow humans), Mother Earth (nature) and Father Sky (spirit).

The health of an entire society is intimately bound with the health of its individual members and groups and vice versa.  Societies characterized by individuals who lack connection with nature, with people, and with spirit are unhealthy societies.  They are also societies that promote values that tend to cause rupture in these three areas, causing a vicious cycle of increasing fragmentation, disease and injury. Societies characterized by close connections in these three areas exhibit qualities of wholeness, integrity, and health. Creating a healthy society for ourselves and our families ultimately requires each of us to cultivate health within ourselves.

Because both our medical system and our public health system are the brainchildren of a technocratic dominant culture, they exhibit the same tendencies toward rupture, fragmentation and disease that every other cultural form manifests. Medicine is a cultural construct, and conventional biomedicine is as unsustainable as any of the creations of mainstream culture (e.g., architecture, energy systems, economics, etc.). It has relied on dazzling but expensive advances in medical technology to meet the healthcare needs of a materially wealthy but often dysfunctional society. Now, however, some of the most interesting research is taking place where mind meets body. It is no accident that the new medicine arising today is called integrative medicine … an approach centered on the essential wholeness of each person and the cohesive interpenetration of mind, body and spirit. So much of integrative medicine is about reconnecting what had been previously viewed as disconnected: the mind and body, nature and spirit, consciousness and flesh, matter and energy, the individual and the environment, and even practitioner and patient.

These are the connections that will help us to stay and get well. The phrase “well connected” typically describes persons who have friends in high places, powerful allies who can open doors to opportunity. But “well connected” can also refer to the ability to connect with one’s own internal sources of resiliency, to connect with one’s own community, and to connect with all of nature, opening doors to greater health and well-being.

Future Topics:

  • “Chronic Hearth Failure” – Community fragmentation & social support:  “chronic hearth failure” is a most pressing public health problem: the disintegration of families, homes, and communities.  It leads to a profound loneliness that eventually morphs into a myriad of dysfunctions and diseases.
  • “The Healing Garden” – Horticultural therapy and community gardens: ecopsychology and therapeutic landscapes; green exercise; the healing power of nature.
  • “Body Consciousness” – Connection to our own bodies: living with body awareness, body consciousness.
  • “Spiritual Support” – Connection to the transcendent as potent as social support in mitigating the stress response and buffering stress.
  • “Alienation Breeds Fear” – Why connection to community, nature and/or spirit promotes health and well-being; why fragmentation results in disease and dysfunction.
  • “Connecting to Nature = Sustainable Society.”
  • Concept of “connection” in yoga and mindfulness; why “connection” heals and “alienation” hurts.

[ Elizabeth Mackenzie, PhD – a lecturer in the Health and Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Associate Fellow of the Center for Public Health Initiatives, and an Associate Fellow of the Institute on Aging. Currently teaching humanistic and holistic medicine and a consultant for eMindful, Inc., www.eMindful.com, an on-line wellness resource, she is the author of “Healing the Social Body: a Holistic Approach to Public Health Policy”, numerous journal articles, and several book chapters. She is also co-editor of “Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Older Adults”, a collection of articles on holistic approaches to healthy aging. Her most recent article, “The Role of Mindfulness in Health Care Reform” was published in Explore: the Journal of Science and Healing. In addition, Dr. Mackenzie is a Reiki practitioner, a long-time student of yoga, and Qigong, and section editor for All Things Healing, www.AllThingsHealing.com.]

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