William Bloom is one of the U.K.’s most experienced teachers, healers and authors in the field of holistic development. His work has helped thousands of people. His mainstream career includes a doctorate in psychology, teaching, 10 years working with adults and adolescents with special needs, and delivering hundreds of trainings. His holistic background includes a two-year spiritual retreat living amongst the Saharan Berbers in the High Atlas mountains, 30 years on the faculty of the Findhorn Foundation, and co-founder and director for 10 years of the St. James’s Church Alternatives Program in London.
He is a meditation master and his books include the seminal The Endorphin Effect, Working with Angels, Feeling Safe and Psychic Protection – and most recently Soulution: The Holistic Manifesto.
In 1999, he founded Holistic Partnerships, an educational and training consultancy that particularly works with the material of the Endorphin Effect — a set of strategies based on his research into mind-body medicine and holistic healthcare. He is director of The Holism Network.
He spoke with Edge Life by phone from his home in Glastonbury, England.
I certainly enjoyed your book, and as one human being of the species, I’m glad you did it.
William Bloom: Well, thank you, I had steam popping out my ears when I was doing it, trying to put all the threads together.
I understand that your entire book is devoted to bringing into focus the nature of Holism. For those not entirely sure what it is, how would you define Holism?
Bloom: In the most general way, it’s a great name for contemporary spirituality and, for me at any rate, contemporary spirituality is open-hearted, open-minded, inclusive, sees the connections and interdependence of everything and recognizes that all life is sacred. Holism, of course, derives from the Greek “holos,” meaning “whole,” and it’s being commonly used in health care, local government, social work, therapy, community building and the environmental movement to describe a general attitude that sees that all the bits and pieces of any entity in actual fact are connected and when they’re connected they make more than just the sum of the parts.
Within that there’s another meaning that comes from the guy who actually invented the word, the South African statesman John Smuts, who recognized that nature is continually growing and emerging with new elements, all of which somehow or other manage to combine together to create the forms of life as we see them, whether they’re trees or galaxies — and this insight has been repeated recently in chaos theory and emergence theory.
You make the assertion that Holism will be the major form of world spirituality over the coming years. Why?
Bloom: Looking at what’s happening to culture generally, it’s obvious that old forms of the traditional sects will need to either fall away or adapt, and in a multicultural world that is free-flowing, networked and full of planetary information, it’s no longer possible for any faith to claim to have the whole truth.
It’s immature and it’s a denial of the facts and, worse than that, it’s actually insulting to all the other world’s faiths. So, anybody who is brought up in the modern world has an awareness that there are many faiths, many paths, many types of circumstance that take people into spirituality, that take people into spiritual experience.
And all across the world, regardless of the culture or the faith, people have the same experience, which is described in words such as “connection,” “oneness,” “harmony,” “love” and “essence.” There are statistics from various sources to justify the claim that this new spirituality, by the very nature of the way global culture is changing, is bound to be inclusive, multidimensional, respectful of individual experience, seeing the core essence of the traditional faiths, but at the same time moving on from them. It’s inevitable that this becomes the predominant form of spirituality.
I know that people will look at the evangelical movements and suggest that this is an evidence to the contrary, but I think they’re noticing that the glass is half empty, rather than the glass is half full — that a movement away from evangelical forms of fundamentalist faith towards something that’s more open-hearted and inclusive has been phenomenally substantial. If you’ve looked at the television habits of all the American evangelical fundamentalist types who, for example, have been the backbone of Bush’s electorate, I think you’ll find that in their viewing habits they’re very familiar with the kind of ideas that come across on the Oprah show, and in the privacy of their homes they’re far more open-hearted and open-minded than they may be when they’re out in their political communities and religious communities.
Showing one face to the public and having a different one privately.
Bloom: Yes, I think so. They’re watching Oprah. They’re watching the programs on psychism. They’re watching programs on reincarnation.
While I was reading your book, it seemed to me that there have always been holistic thinkers and philosophers, but now it seems that such thought is becoming seeded in our culture. How widespread is Holism embraced worldwide and to what degree has it seeped into our institutions?
Bloom: You’re absolutely right that the core beliefs and assumptions of Holism or contemporary spirituality are not, as such, new. They’ve always been held by tribal peoples and by philosophers, and mystics in general, who have this sense of interdependence and connection. All we’re saying now is that as traditional authoritarian religion melts away, this more essential and nature-based and connected sense of spirituality is liberated for everyone.
In general, surveys show that huge numbers of people, up to 60-70 percent of democratized nation’s peoples, have adopted a more open-minded and open-hearted spirituality. But, what has not happened, it has not been named as a common culture. People who have those beliefs and that sense of interdependence haven’t yet recognized that they’re part of this huge movement. The holistic movement is simply trying to articulate it. Holism may not, in the end, be the right word for it, but there is this huge need for an articulation.
In Norway, for example, Holism has been given state recognition as a faith community. I can’t speak for the United States, but in general I can speak for what’s happening in Britain and a little bit for Norway and Scandinavia. In Britain there’s a huge acceptance that there is this new form of spirituality and that it’s important. In the British education system, unlike America, religion is part of the curriculum. There’s recently been a policy ruling that spirituality in its widest sense needs to be integrated across the curriculum.
Bloom: In the National Health Service, particularly in Scotland, there’s an awareness that spirituality is hugely important in healing and convalescence. One of the things they notice is that spirituality helps. It’s a good approach for nurses and doctors and a source of huge help for patients, so there’s a general mood in this county that a holistic approach to spirituality is good and emerging.
The biggest problem, which I think is probably the same as in America, is that it’s also become appropriated by commercial forces. There’s a huge amount of New Age gizmology — that you can create total personal fulfillment and perfect health in a half an hour if you just do this or wear this, with little appreciation of the much deeper needs and dynamics of personal development. I’m worried about the commercialization of it.
When you were talking about the movement of Holism, it seems to parallel exactly with what Paul Ray and the Cultural Creative model is talking about, the fact that there are millions of people who have this way of being, but they’ve not been identified.
Bloom: That’s right. Because we’re a network of people, and because of our awareness, we also tend to be suspicious of any kind of centralizing or unifying dynamic. I think that’s a very healthy suspicion. In the U.K., a few of us have decided that suspicion or suspiciousness shouldn’t stop us from networking, so that we represent an open-hearted approach on any decision-making body where other faith communities are represented.
In the U.K., school boards, hospitals, various civic entities are supposed to have representatives of local faith communities on them, putting forth their perspective and influencing their decisions. It’s become clear for a lot of us that we need to have — let’s call ourselves Holists, just for the sake of the word — Holists on those boards, as well.
Bloom: And it’s crucially important in all kinds of areas. For example, in a hospital or a school where there are teachers or directors who are seeking to bring in a more holistic attitude, they need the support of people on the governing bodies. If people like us don’t actually mobilize and become engaged citizens, how else will our ideas manifest?
In health care here, there are some hospitals who independently decide to adopt a holistic model, but it’s not something that you see widespread across the system.
Bloom: It’s not widespread here, either. For instance, my wife Sabrina, went in for an endoscopy, a procedure where they send a little camera down your throat to look in the stomach. It’s uncomfortable and you gag and maybe go into feelings of panic, right? This is a totally ordinary hospital, right? And there was this guy, half nurse, half porter who had her in the wheelchair and was whispering in her ear, “Don’t worry. Just breathe. Focus down into your body. I’m here with you. When the tube goes into your throat, you’ll notice a sensation of gagging. Notice it as philosophically as you can. Don’t get frightened. Just breathe. Keep breathing and you’ll be OK, and I’ll be there holding your hand.”
He was typical, I think, of the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve absorbed all the kind of stuff that we were pushing 20 years ago. There are waves of best-selling books about communication skills and relaxation and all the rest of it that have landed in the general culture. That guy in the hospital and all the people who have a similar attitude need support, to have somebody on the governing body who’s prepared to say, “This is what works in the long term, these kinds of attitudes.”
What’s the danger that Holism can become as fractured as other movements in the past?
Bloom: That’s a great question as well, isn’t it? That keeps getting put to me. One friend of mine said we can succeed if we keep to the networking model and if we keep to a fairly rigorous practice of self-reflection and if we keep to a very strong mantra of “we might be wrong.” We welcome new ideas. We welcome conflicting opinions. We’d rather poke our eyes out than create another authoritarian structure.
Can Holism be the result of our collective opening of our eyes to the unity in our dimension and interpreting the unity that we see? I mean, looking at us as a collective being, perhaps we are opening our eyes a little bit now?
Bloom: If you’re taking this conversation through a gateway into something that’s more collective or mystical…based on a private meditation practice that I’ve had for decades, I feel that what you are saying is right. That it’s the manifestation of a collective awakening from slumber.
But, I’m not yet confident that this awakening is going to fulfill itself, because I see so many people getting on the bandwagon and either making a fast buck out of it or getting conned into thinking that personal fulfillment is the most important dynamic and can be easily achieved.
Those two factors concern me — and I’m also concerned by those who preach environmental values and yet don’t walk their talk. And I’m also concerned about the people who preach prosperity consciousness and reality creation, but are not acting generous.
Because they’re more public and it seems like they are the spokesman for the movement, when they’re not.
Bloom: No, they’re not, because they’re not expressing its core values. But given that, I think it’s a collective awakening, but those of us who are conscious within it, we need to get more rigorous about our own spiritual practice and our own engaged citizenship. I think we need to become more rigorous about the level of self-awareness and compassionate witnessing that we practice, and I think we need to stretch beyond our comfort zone to a less-glamorous cause and live in less-glamorous houses, right?
How is a holistic being to cope in a society that seems to stand for all the opposite values?
Bloom: It helps if one has a daily practice of connecting to the beauty of nature and the universe, and if one’s basic attitude is optimistic, and if one stands as a strong island of integrity. You pay your extra 10 cents for an ecological cleaner and you have to scrub a bit harder, right?
You have the sense of integrity. And you nag your neighbors. I mean the thing I’m strongest on in the U.K. in the moment is if you hang out in a bar or a coffee bar, be talking about this stuff.
“What are you interested in?”
“I’m interested in contemporary spirituality.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that the whole world, the universe, is beautiful and mysterious. Nature is wonderful and we need to behave in a way that keeps it all running.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I mean stop buying crap.”
And you can have conversations like this in a bar. I think we’re shy. I think holistically minded people tend to be diffident, you know?
I like this segment in your book, the chapter on money, where you share the story about the greatest hunter who has the hut that’s most plain.
Bloom: It’s a different set of values. I just think those of us who are conscious of this whole arena and a part of it — and I speak of myself, I don’t claim innocence here — I just think we need to walk our talk a little bit more powerfully and be more powerful examples. But at the same time not be a party pooper, you know? Prosperity is great. Partying is great. I love plasma television screens and all the rest of it. But I just think we need to engage more seriously and…
…Have big parties and show Spiritual Cinema on your plasma screen.
Bloom: (Laughter) I’m a member of the Spiritual Cinema Club also.
In schools, there is a core holistic value that can be taught, if we choose to.
Bloom: What’s interesting is, if you go back to the core piece of philosophy or spirituality — the private, personal experience that the universe is beautiful and nature is beautiful and we’re a part of this community — that translates into why you should be a good citizen, not because the Declaration of Independence or whatever says so.
That’s exactly right: instilling values that all humankind shares.
Bloom: That’s right. And even atheists will go “Sure, I had that experience. Just don’t call it God, please. Don’t try and manipulate me.” So, I think there’s huge areas there where Holism can sneak through the door, without bringing in religion.
I liked your discussion of how we go about remaining consciously connected to the whole of being while at the same time we get distracted by the task of being human. What conclusions did you come to about this?
Bloom: I just think it’s crucial for people to spend some calm time every day connecting with Spirit. Spend some calm time every day checking out how they’re doing. Be intelligently self-reflective and check that their lives have integrity. I just can’t see how we can hold it together in a world of so much stimulation unless we have some kind of spiritual practice that helps us hold a clear focus.
I’ve got my meditation practice. Meditation is not good for some people, but people need to find what works to get them calm — or what works to connect them and works to make them self-reflective. This is, isn’t it? This is the personal spirituality in the middle of the holistic worldview, that privately all on your own you have to be practicing compassion and connection and awareness — not just words. It’s always in the heart, in the gut, in the body. Find out what works for you — and do it. We should be encouraging people.
You refer often to emotional intelligence and emotional literacy. How do these related to Holism?
Bloom: They relate directly to Holism in two ways for me. One is that it’s impossible to live in a holistic and harmonious way if you’re being governed by emotions of which you have no awareness — and people are. I’m just being totally realistic.
People’s motivations — how they are in relationship…to the plants in their backyard…with their children…with their children’s schools…with the President of the United States, so often are driven by where they are emotionally. If they’re governed by their emotions, people don’t make clear decisions. People behave stupidly.
Speaking of the core of emotional literacy is for children and adults to be aware of what they’re feeling, and then manage it, rather than being tsunamied by it. I watch people who, with the best will in the world, are absolutely incapable of fulfilling their ideals or serving their communities, because they don’t give attention and awareness to where they’re at emotionally. That is the source of prejudice, conflict, anger, jealousy, greed and all the rest.
It’s vital for people to learn early on how to self-manage their own health, because of the intimate relationship between emotions and the glandular system and the endocrine system of the body. It’s absolutely crucial that people manage their emotions and guide them into a more comfortable and harmonious way of being, simply to avoid the majority of illnesses in middle-age and beyond that in some way or another have to do with tense tissue, which is caused by tense emotions. The statistics in Britain show that more than 85 percent of illnesses past the age of 40 have to do with tense tissue. The holistic approach to health care and a national policy absolutely requires that people learn to self-manage.
I think that’s one area of understanding ourselves that is quite lacking in most of us.
Bloom: Well, we’re not given the skills, are we?
No. Where do people start to get those?
Bloom: In England, I can only speak for here, there’s a huge emotional literacy movement — emotional literacy as opposed to emotional purgence. Emotional literacy is used a huge amount in schools, and at least half the schools in England have what’s called Circle Time in which children are taught how to notice what they’re feeling. Daniel Goleman’s books have had a huge influence on business and organizations, because he says you can’t succeed as a manager unless you’re aware of what you’re feeling.
You also write that we must learn to engage with money, status and belongings in a new way. Why is that?
Bloom: Because they govern, haunt, tempt, seduce and distract us usually, and they need to be friendly companions that we enjoy with freedom. To put it bluntly, the “developed” world’s lack of emotional balance about status and belongings, this lack of emotional balance, the sense of urgency to consume and to have the next appropriate status symbol creates the culture, the thoughts, the commercial ambience in which greedy and ignorant business people can create a world economy, which results finally in the death of 30,000 children a day — and the lack of sustainability in developing countries. There is a direct link there.
You spoke earlier about how we need to get out of our comfort zone. I think that’s part of it. We need to step out and be who we are.
Bloom: But it’s difficult. Privately, this is the kind of thing that I say depending on where I’m at. Privately, there’s this huge memory bank of getting burned or persecuted or whatever for asserting that kind of truth.
You mentioned in your book, which I thought was good, the description of people who have spiritual pride. How does the holistic person prevent having an elitist pride?
Bloom: I notice in myself, for example, one of the great shocks of Bush’s re-election for me was a realization that for several decades I haven’t bothered to even think about how I should be communicating with the right wing. And that was a form of snobbery in me. And that was a form of elitism.
I feel that in my holistic identity, I’m so certain of how right it is, that I have, in the past, gone into a kind of smug zone. When people like us are talking with each other, we can have a self-reflective conversation and check each other out. I live with people who challenge me, thank goodness, and I have friends who challenge me.
But quite honestly, I was shocked as I began to think about after Bush was re-elected about the fact that I needed to be able to develop a dialogue with the right and I hadn’t done this for three decades, because I was a snob. I need to engage as a citizen now, as opposed to a happy, exuberant New Ager, or whatever it is. And as I sit on school boards, I’m realizing increasingly that if I say I’m part of an intimate community, that includes everybody — including the conservatives. I have not been loving them, you know?
Well, I think that’s a challenge that affects a lot of us here in the States. It’s hard to believe that the Inauguration just happened for the next term, that we have four more years, and it’s a challenge. How do we begin to engage?
Bloom: We need to take them seriously, for a start. I mean it’s all conversation, but it’s important to have an assertive spirituality. Liberals must have an assertive spirituality, I think. But, that’s a whole other conversation.
In 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development encouraged the adoption of the Earth Charter. The Earth Charter Commission adopted the final version in March 2000. What is this document and why did you include it in your book?
Bloom: The Earth Charter is, to my heart and to my mind, the best articulated document asserting an environmental and social manifesto for our next steps forward as a species. Many people have identified it as such. One of the reasons why I wanted to present it and publicize it is partly to say to our community, “Look, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” A huge amount of heartfelt thought has gone into already creating some of these documents, and we need to honor them and work with them. I admire this document very much.
And yet I would wager that, at least in this country, less than 1 percent of the people know about it.
Bloom: Yes, so we need to mobilize so that our people at least know about it and then ask, “What should we do with it?” We’ll print it out, get some posters, put it up in the schools, have it up on the walls in waiting rooms. It’s just there as a document. It helps raise people’s awareness.
In every community there might be 50 or 60 people, but there’s only two or three people who are actually activists. Everybody else kind of watches. But in the holistic New Agey world, it’s like one or two activists for every 10,000 people. Everybody else is busy creating ecological homes and doing self-development, but not doing citizenship, not doing community building.
Why did you write Soulution? What inspired it, and how did you change as an individual during the process of creating it.
Bloom: I was considering what I was going to do with the next two decades of my life, and I had a very clear choice to make, it seemed to me. I make my living by running groups of one kind or another, teaching meditation, and energy work and holistic approaches, and I could very easily create a retreat center and retreat into it and just have people come to courses there. My wife and I were thinking of maybe doing that.
At the same time, in my youth, I was a social activist and that is still deep in my heart. I listen to the news three or four times a day, I read the newspapers, I read books about politics and I used to teach at the London School of Economics. I taught about psychological problems in international relations, so I was very engaged. With my wife and a friend, I started a program at St. James’s Church in London that is still the major holistic platform. So I’ve got a history of doing projects.
And, so, I was sitting there in this contemplation about whether to engage or retreat. I spent 18 months feeling, thinking, meditating, dreaming my way into it and got clear that my energy and my skills were to engage more. Several people were looking at me saying that because in the last 10 to 15 years I’ve been quite often the spokesperson for holistic, New Age stuff in the U.K., they told me that I needed to write a book that tries to pull it together for them.
I remember waking up one morning and saying, “I’m going to give 20 years to being an activist and not a retreatant and this will be the project.” And, it’s not as if it was like creating something from scratch. Writing the book was like doing a Ph.D. project that should have taken six or seven years, but was completed in nine months. It was the most energized, excruciating piece of work I’ve ever done in my life. In order to get it done, I came out of my normal, very harmonious lifestyle and went onto coffee for six months. That’s very ironic, huh?
It’s really well done and you’ve written it very comprehensively, but you’ve written it so people can understand it very well.
Bloom: Thank you. When it was finished, it felt like a kind of orgasm. I just went “poof!” A lot of the time I felt as though it wasn’t me doing the writing. I don’t experience any sense of ownership of this particular book. I feel as though I wrote it on behalf of my friends, and I feel quite proud of that. It’s an interesting sensation, because I’ve written many books and never had that experience before.
So, where do you go from here?
Bloom: Well, I keep doing my own program of teaching to keep food on the table and we’re getting the holism network off the ground. The website Holism.info is gradually being built, and we’re beginning just about to start producing documents that respond to government initiatives. We have a project going with a consortium of schools to help introduce experiential spirituality into the curriculum. And we’re working on the creation of a holistic chaplaincy program. There will be an election in the next three months. Once that’s over, we’re going to do a survey of the 650 members of Parliament to see how many of them have a holistic inclination.
Everything’s going to go up on the website, and we’re gradually creating a small office, on the High Street in Glastonbury. A perfect place, you know. The monks of 1,500 years ago would be proud of us.
It’s cooking. It feels good. It feels quite mellow and appropriate. We shall see what happens.
For more info, visit www.holism.info or www.williambloom.com