Whole Systems Healing Overview

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

Stack of nine flat rocks balancing on a rocky beach

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.

Why 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?

  • Emergency entrance of large hospital.
    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:

Environmental 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.

Caring Bridge is an example of a family member crossing boundaries of the traditional family role and using creative innovation to provide a solution. It demonstrates innovation, creativity, human-centered design and social-networking, all core concepts underlying a whole systems approach to solving problems.

Note that in all these examples, solutions emerged from the interworking of parts and systems.

Strategies and Practices

A Whole Systems approach uses novel strategies to tackle challenging problems. Here are 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.


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.