Promoting Integrative Mind-Body-Spirit Practice to Advance Holistic Social Work Education



Integrative mind-body-spirit (IMBS) social work is a practice approach that draws upon indigenous, Eastern, and Western perspectives with the aim of restoring harmony, balance, and connectedness within and between multiple systems levels, including individual mind-body-spirit, family, group, organization, and community (Lee, Ng, Leung, & Chan, 2009). To accomplish the goals of an IMBS approach, practitioners may engage in a combination of conventional micro and macro social work interventions, along with modalities that have relatively recently been incorporated into helping professions in the West, including acupuncture, family constellations, meditation, reiki, and yoga. Holistic social work education requires incorporating an IMBS approach in the teaching-learning process, as well as content about IMBS practice and related modalities.

IMBS practice is distinct from integrated practice, which is the common conceptualization of holistic social work. The profession has long acknowledged the importance of an integrated, biopsychosocial orientation, which addresses the biological, cognitive, affective, behavioral, social, cultural, economic, and environmental influences on the human experience (Earls & Korr, 2013; Goldstein, 2008; Hollis, 1964; Turner, 1974). The pioneering scholarship of Canda (1988,

1998, 1999) and Canda and Furman (2010) expanded the conceptualization of integrated or holistic social work to include spirituality as an essential area of focus. Canda (1999) defines spirituality as “the search for a sense of life purpose, meaning, and morally fulfilling relationships between oneself, other people, the universe, and the ultimate ground of reality, however one understands it” (p. 12). Despite this expanded holistic view, Western conceptualizations of the human experience, including a mechanistic view of the body, Cartesian mind and body dualism, and the dominant role of humans over the natural world, make integrated social work practice and IMBS social work practice paradigmatically different.

Findings from research in affective neuroscience (Siegel, Fosha, & Solomon, 2010), epigenetics (Curley, Jensen, Mashoodh, & Champagne, 2011), psychosocial genomics (Garland & Howard, 2009; Rossi, 2002a, 2002b), psychoneuroimmunology (Irwin, 2008), and spirituality and health (Williams & Sternthal, 2007) reflect more intricate and dynamic relationships between the biopsychosocial-spiritual dimensions of the human experience than previously understood. Epigenetics and psychosocial genomics studies have shown that genetic expression is influenced by our psychological and social experiences (Garland & Howard, 2009). Lee, Cohen, Edgar, Laizner, and Gagnon (2006) found that meaning-making as a spiritual intervention among cancer patients had positive psychological outcomes. Other studies have linked meaning-making with positive changes in immunity among men with HIV (Bower, Kemeny, Taylor, & Fahey, 1998; Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, & Gruenewald, 2000) and women who experienced the death of a close relative (Bower, Kemeny, Taylor, & Fahey, 2003). The IMBS approach affirms the complexities of these relationships, employs interventions that use the power of the mind and of the body in the change process, and acknowledges the importance of spiritual growth for positive outcomes on micro and macro levels (Lee et al., 2009).

The IMBS perspective also emphasizes the dynamic of connectedness differently than integrated practice. Beyond physical, psychological, and emotional levels, this connectedness is understood to occur on the energetic level. Everything in the universe is understood to exist within a broader field of energy or information field. This understanding of connectedness is supported by two concepts in quantum physics known as quantum entanglement and nonlocality. When a pair of photons respond in ways that the behavior of one is influenced by the behavior of another, they are entangled. Quantum experiments have repeatedly shown that when entangled particles are separated and have no perceivable connection, “whatever is done to one photon immediately, without time delay and no matter the distance separating them, affects the other entangled photon” (Ives & Jonas, 2011, pp. 139-140; Ursin et al., 2007). If these principles operate on the non-quantum level, people can be connected and influence each other at a distance without any observable means of doing so, as demonstrated by studies on intercessory prayer (Schwartz & Dossey, 2010).

The concept of quantum entanglement or nonlocal connection supports the importance of the IMBS practice focus on restoring harmony, balance, and awareness of connectedness between the individual and other individuals, significant groups, organizations, community, and cosmos (Lee et al., 2009) and is at odds with the common conceptualizations of separateness, individuality, and independent action of individuals. In this way, the philosophical framework of IMBS practice views the physical and social world in a fundamentally different way than contemporary social work. Consequently, IMBS practice represents a paradigm shift for the profession and thus a significant challenge for social work education.

Social work education has yet to comprehensively and systematically explore the underlying principles of IMBS practice, despite the growing body of research that supports the effectiveness of many mind-body-spirit interventions (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 2014). According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 40% of the US population, or 125.5 million people, are using mind-body-spirit modalities to support their health and well-being. Clearly, this area of practice is growing faster than US social work education has kept pace. Social workers are engaged in providing IMBS modalities, although few graduate social work education programs offer this content (Raheim & Lu, 2014). If trends among social work educators are similar to those of the US population, a significant percentage of these educators are engaged in IMBS practices to support their health and well-being as well. What, then, accounts for the limited inclusion of IMBS practice and related modalities in social work education? How can this inclusion be facilitated? This chapter explores these questions and describes a course designed to explore IMBS practice and the factors that may account for its minimal presence in social work education.

We (the authors) have found that critical pedagogy and narrative practice offer invaluable theoretical frameworks and conceptual tools for understanding and overcoming the barriers to exploring IMBS practice and facilitating our development as holistic social work educators. In this chapter, we present a Master of Social Work (MSW) elective course we designed that uses critical pedagogy to analyze the sociopolitical-economic forces that have promoted Western-oriented, biomedical approaches to well-being while constraining the IMBS approach and practices. The chapter also provides an analysis of the forces that have inhibited and facilitated our sense of agency to use an IMBS approach in the teaching-learning process and to teach IMBS content in social work education contexts. After presenting the conceptual frameworks of narrative practice and critical pedagogy, we use these concepts to analyze the influences that have inhibited and facilitated our engagement in teaching IMBS content on our journey to becoming holistic social work educators. The chapter examines the impact on the authors of developing and teaching an MSW IMBS course and concludes with implications for advancing holistic social work education.

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