THE FOUR KEY SKILLS OF HOLISTIC ENGAGEMENT PRACTICE
The definitions and discussion that follow begin the unfolding understanding of the four skills of holistic engagement practice. For each skill, we present a working definition, followed by discussion of its application and integration into social work practice and education.
Skill 1: Presence With the Whole Self
At the heart of holistic engagement practice is showing up fully for what is, with an expanded sense of self we refer to as the whole self. Presence with the whole self is composed of three dimensions:
- 1. The experiences of the individual's body, mind, heart, culture, and spirit
- 2. The individual's awareness of and interaction with the historical and current physical, social, and energetic environments
3. How the individual's own experiences and awareness interact with other individuals' experiences and awareness
Holistic engagement practice relies on an expanded notion of the self. It redefines the self as a whole self, meaning it includes not just our thoughts but instead is concerned with ways of knowing beyond our thoughts. Larrison and Korr (2013) highlight how the process of social work practitioner development “involves the whole self—the accumulated integration ofone's background, experiences, relationships, connections, and interpersonal characteristics” (p. 201) and champion the role of critical-reflective-thinking processes within learning experiences. We consider this expanded set of sources of knowing as the whole self, a rej ection of the modernist dualism and rationalism that bifurcate mind and body and that privilege the mind as the primary source of knowing. This whole self includes the sources of our body, mind, heart, and spirit, and it is consistent with increasing social work emphasis on adding “spirit” to the biopsychosocial model (Senreich, 2013). Broadly considered, the whole self includes all of our physical experiences (body), thoughts (mind), emotions (heart), cultural lens of our own upbringing (culture), along with the meaning and creativity (spirit) we bring to it. It also includes how we are manifesting all of these things happening simultaneously—how we are experiencing the feelings or emotional states, our memories, and physical sensations, such as stress or discomfort or desire. It is at once using the catalyst (i.e., what we experience) and the response to the catalyst (i.e., how we notice and react to what we experience) as an integrated source of knowing.
Our conceptualization of the self goes even a step further, through our efforts to put forth an approach that embraces interconnectedness, and looks beyond the encapsulated physical and egoic self. For systems thinkers and deep ecologists, who view all things (plants, animals, air, humans, etc.) as interconnected, the Western, modernist idea of the self is limited and problematic (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 2011). Gregory Bateson (2000) referred to this conventional notion of the self as one of “the epistemological fallacies of Occidental civilization” (p. 491). Thus, for our model, the whole self includes the world and others around us.
For a very concrete example of being present with the whole self, we share the following fictitious example of a social work educator named “Rebecca” who is racing around her office trying to get ready to teach her class. Gathering her notes and books, she walks quickly and forcefully past her desk and, bam, she smacks her foot on the corner of the desk. As she experiences a surge of pain, she becomes furious at her desk and herself—for running late, again, and for being clumsy. With toes throbbing and time marching on toward class, she starts to cry, burdened by the weight of the stress in her life and how overwhelmed she feels. She reacts to the physical pain, the sense ofjudgment toward herself, the building emotions, and the haunting familiarity of this experience.
“I've been here before,” she thinks, “I always do this to myself—wait until the last minute and then have to race.” Her spirit sinks as the impact of her patterns become clear. She takes a breath and gets back to her preparations, limping and realizing she might not get to exercise this afternoon after all. The fusion of the physical, emotional, and mental, the dawning of the existential, each is its own unique catalyst, as well as a fused part of this complicated experience of a moment. The stubbing of the toe can trigger existential learning, if one has the capacity to be present with multiple aspects of the self in such moments. Practicing paying attention to the fullness of these sources of information and the integrated whole of how they all fit together are key sources of vital information on how we are doing, what we are doing, and how we are responding to our situation. Taken together, this is showing up with our whole self. In order for social work educators to teach such whole self presence to students, who will in turn practice this skill in the field, social work educators must begin with their own experiences.
Our notion of the whole self also includes something beyond what we tend to think of as ourselves, something we tend to consider being separate from ourselves—the physical and social environment we are in, as well as our reactions to it and our biases about it. In a sense, this separateness is understandable because we have the capacity to think about these aspects of the environment and of ourselves, meaning that we can look at these and so somehow they are not actually ourselves. Holistic engagement expands that to look at how our interaction with the energy of the physical, social environment and biases are equally important ways of knowing. In learning about our interactions, we essentially consider the ways we have responded to and continue to respond to our cultural experiences. These responses reciprocally impact all other parts of us, as we react physically, mentally, and emotionally to the minutia of immersion in complex environments and our idiosyncratic and, oftentimes, habitual and uninterrogated responses. If our biases toward the context, the physical and social environments, impact how we respond in any given situation, they become imperative to navigate if we want to bring our whole selves or understand what is getting in the way.
We also consider our knowledge of the history and politics of the place we are in at any given moment, recognizing the powerful impact close connection with the environment has on who we are and on our and others' actions. Considerations of context may include environmental, political, economic, or social factors of the physical location or institution we find ourselves in. As we consider how our interface with the context is also impacted by our interactions with and the meanings we ascribe to it, we begin to glimpse how these expanding notions of self combine to create the complex, dynamic self we bring into the social work classroom at any given moment. In the previously discussed example, Rebecca remembers that she had asked maintenance to help her move the desk because it had been sticking out for some time and tripping her up regularly. Due to the governor's new budget cuts, the university administration released maintenance staff, making it more difficult for them to attend to all of the work orders. Thus, the context and politics that she is working in become relevant data to her as she seeks to learn from the fullness of the experience.
Finally, understanding presence with the whole self includes understanding how an individual's own experiences and awareness interact with another's experience and awareness. To the complexity described previously happening internally and in relationship to the energetics of the environment, we add the awareness and experience of these to the recognition that any other person with whom we interact while all of this is happening in us is also experiencing his or her own unique, complex, and fused experience of these. It requires at once paying attention to ourselves and holding a space necessary to receive another who is doing the same.
In our example, as Rebecca heads for the office door, a student walks in with a question about an upcoming assignment. The student notices the shoe off, smeared makeup, and emotional state and says, “Oh, I'm so sorry, I'll come back later, or I'll just see you in class. I'm really sorry.” Rebecca is aware of her own embarrassment and feels her face flush. At the same time, she notices that the student's body language reveals nervousness and awkwardness, as she pulls away from Rebecca. Rebecca has the capacity to respond to the student by telling her that she was having a difficult moment, having just stubbed her toe, and that she agreed that it would be better to connect later, perhaps during the class break. And, she adds, “You don't have to be sorry,” remembering this student's particular habit of perpetually apologizing for herself. The example clearly depicts how each person was aware of multiple ways of knowing and paid attention to the other in a shared context. Showing up to one's fullest potential in a given moment with the whole self means recognizing that the student's responses were just as complex as Rebecca's. By cultivating whole self presence, Rebecca was able to offer herself authentically and honestly to the student, and she was able to respond to the student in a way that was helpful and appropriate for the moment.
Being present with the whole selfinvolves all aspects of ourselves as well as our interactions with the environment, its history and the meanings we place there, along with the infinite ways that our complex reactions to all of these interface with others immersed in their own process. When we can, albeit imperfectly, hold all three of these in awareness intentionally—self, other, and environment—we have the greatest access to our whole selves. Showing up fully with this expanded sense of self takes significant practice. While portions of this skill building are a part of social work education (primarily through attention to the internal experiences of the social worker), holistic engagement practice relies on this enhanced notion of presence with the whole self as one of its four pillar skills, inviting and challenging us to enrich our education to meet the complexity of the exponential ways of knowing in which we exist.