The doctrine of healing harmony, as an expression of good health in the human body, is a far-reaching principle dating back to the 6th Century BC with the physician, Alcmaeon. Hildegard of Bingen also emphasized harmony as a central theme in her work.
The Healing Harmony of Good Health
Hildegard saw health and disease as the balance or imbalance of bodily fluids, or “juices”, as she called them. She also stressed the healing harmony of connection with the natural world. Living well meant embracing the healing power of plants as food and medicine, recognizing the expression of the divine in nature, and honoring the interconnectivity of all life.
Doctrine of Healing Harmony
There are six primary considerations within the doctrine of healing harmony. The conscious practice of observing balance among these categories is essential to prevent disease and accelerate recovery. Though centuries old, these rules remain as relevant today as when they were first conceived.
- Environment: consider your exposure to natural light and fresh air, pay special attention to the effect of seasonal changes;
- Nutrition: evaluate your relationship with eating and drinking, pay special attention to stimulants and depressants, as well as noting where habits override actual needs;
- Exercise: incorporate exercise with recuperation, strike the right balance to find a rhythm of relaxation to reduce stress and tension;
- Sleep: observe sleep hygiene practices, taking into account the time of day and length of productive sleep cycles;
- Excretion: manage an efficient digestive process to preserve the balance of bodily fluids, or “juices”;
- Passions: Permit your passions without being controlled by them.
The earlier in life that we’re able to implement a harmonious balance in life, the better we can prevent disease in old age. There’s no time like the present to realign our thinking.
Chronobiology is the examination of biological rhythms in living organisms and their adaptation to solar- and lunar-related rhythms. Like all plants and animals, humans are deeply affected by biological rhythms rooted in every organism. Biological rhythms also apply on large scale, including weeks, months, seasons and years.
Our modern constructed environment with all matter of comforts tends to alienate us from these basic rhythms. Artificial light turns the night into day and climate control maintains a constant comfortable temperature. But these comforts and conveniences can actually disrupt our ability to feel connected with our environment, to read the cues of the external world and align our internal world accordingly.
Recognize the rhythms of nature
Comfort is important, but so is appreciation for seasonality and being attuned to the ways in which the natural world and our inner world are aligned. Recognizing our connection to the natural environment and the corresponding cyclical flow is an important part of maintaining harmony in our lives.
Historically, the human experience has been marked by periods of famine. In some periods food supplies dwindled for protracted periods, while in other cases food shortages were regular – but limited to certain seasons. Today, most cultures experience a permanent abundance of food.
Ironically, in most advanced, industrialized cultures, this abundance poses a significant threat to overall health. The so-called lifestyle-related diseases have become major public health challenges, particularly over the past 50 years.
Pathological obesity, excessive fat and cholesterol in the blood stream, and other diet-related diseases are among the most common afflictions in western civilization today. Often these illnesses present in clusters, such as diabetes and heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, such that the responses from modern medicine can’t effectively manage the myriad of symptoms.
Hildegard believed that nutrition, which also included healing foods and herbs, was the foundation of overall wellness. A healthy diet of mostly plants and a moderate amount of walking was the best medicine available. She stressed the importance of moderation in all things, but most importantly with regard to food. Unfortunately, the simple notion of moderation has seemingly been lost in the bounty of modern living.
Calorie restriction improves longevity
There is mounting evidence that restricting our caloric intake improves health and retards aging. Periodic fasting and overall caloric reduction – particularly later in life – is an area of growing promise relating to avoiding chronic conditions and diseases. Modern research lends evidence to support Hildegard’s thesis that our diets promote certain types of cancer. In one study, a high fat diet leads to changes in intestinal stem cells, resulting in a higher risk of colon cancer.
Plant-based diet in medieval times
Hildegard believed in a predominantly vegetable-based diet to ensure a full gut, ample intake of fiber, and the unique healing properties of plants. These beliefs are fully supported by our modern analysis of the nutrient-dense properties of many vegetables and fruits.
A diet dominated by fruits and vegetables naturally contains fewer calories, less fat and cholesterol, and provide more fiber. The “modern American” diet is known for its deficiencies in fiber while being very high in animal-derived fats, as well as being high in refined sugars and salt. All of which is a recipe for ill-health.
Nutrition in the Hildegard kitchen
Healing spices, plants and herbs also play an important role in Hildegard’s philosophy around a healthy diet. Leeks, garlic, and chives enhance the flavor of foods, but also protect against pathogenic fungi and arteriosclerosis. Those same common foods also have germicidal effects, help the body metabolize fat, and can lower blood pressure.
In the Hildegard kitchen, she finds anise, ginger, mint, licorice or cinnamon indispensable. She also recommends fennel, watercress, cumin, mugwort, dandelion, rosemary, sage or juniper berries to further refine the taste of foods and provide the micro-nutrients and healing properties unique to plants.
Hildegard’s discipline for moderation and balance
Finding the path to healthy nutrition is an on-going process involving healing harmony and balance. As we strive for proper nutrition and good health, we celebrate our accomplishments with certain exceptions, recognizing that moderation still rules the day.
Hildegard’s fasting guidelines are regarded, by those who practice them as a moderate way to achieve the benefits of periodic caloric reduction while maintaining a sense of wellness and fulfillment. Ideally, all of Hildegard’s three healthy fasts have less to do with weight reduction than achieving a natural equilibrium such that the body and spirit can heal, restore, and re-energize.
Despite seemingly endless stream of new opportunities to improve fitness, the number of people with persistent physical problems continues to increase. Arguably, this problem has more to do with diet than exercise, but this also means that exercise is more important than ever.
It’s no surprise to most of us that a lack of exercise leads to a host of medical conditions such as diabetes, circulatory disorders, heart disease, and cancer. Yet much like the challenge of the modern diet, modern living seems to leave little room for physical activity. Both nutrition and exercise are too often approached via an emotional appeal to pursue change without addressing the underlying choices.
A routine of regular and repetitive movement
The desire for instant-fixes is exploited and the result is usually an expensive, convoluted, and patented way to optimize over a faulty foundation. There is no one way, no quick fix, and no way to realize change without effort. But the silver lining of modernity is that there really are a multitude of ways to incorporate activity into your life in ways that fit with your abilities, interest, and schedule.
Even so, good exercise can be defined as the exercise that you do regularly. Even moderate physical activity on occasion will net you better results than starting and then abandoning some intense regimen a few times a year.
It is also important to remember that exercise should consist of both activity and rest. Your body requires rest and recovery; this is when you receive the benefits of your hard work.
Basic activity for holistic health
Regular exercise is a pillar holistic health as it provides synergistic benefits that extend well beyond muscle groups or even strength or endurance. Regular exercise will:
- Strengthen the bones;
- Strengthen the lungs with increased oxygen intake;
- Strengthen the heart;
- Improve management and elimination of stress hormones;
- Improve muscle coordination, which strengthens our brains and improves concentration;
- Stimulate metabolism, including the elimination and detoxification of internal organs.
- Improve mood
- Increase energy
- Improve sleep
Regular aerobic exercise, three to four times a week, for 30 minutes in your optimal pulse range, is an important pillar for both physical and mental health. According to Hildegard, the most effective activities are those with consistent body movements, performed over longer periods of time, such as running, cycling, swimming, walking, or hiking.
Hildegard believed a life without structure increases emotional stress, physical pain and the modern phenomena of burn-out. Without some formula and schedule, life leaves no room for managing our conscious state and processing emotions. This is particularly important as it relates to relaxation and sleep.
According to Hildegard of Bingen medicine, and the tenants of monastic medicine, it makes sense to plan each day with some semblance of structure. We all know the value of finding processes to organize our lives when it comes to work. The same philosophy is equally important when it comes to scheduling enough time to rest each evening, or at the end of each week.
Preparation for good sleep promotes sleep itself
It’s important to allocate time each day for peaceful reading or pleasant conversation. A welcome break might include a cup of lemon balm tea or the calming aroma of lavender oil on a fragrance lamp. The practice of reserving space and time for meditation or prayer is also an important way to maintain healing harmony of body and spirit. Take a break to appreciate the things that really matter, like good friends and family, new ideas, and time.
Integrating these habits and sleep secrets into your daily routine will pay dividends when you sleep. Sleep should not be something that gives way to everything else; it is an essential need that should be taken as seriously as diet and exercise. Without proper sleep, all else will suffer.
According to the doctrine of humoral medicine, the basic elements of air, water, fire and earth are associated with different subtleties, such as “warm”, “dry”, “cold”, or ‘wet’. This basic elemental doctrine was transferred to the human body and reflected in Hildegard of Bingen’s system of four humors or juices. Hildegard saw that the healing harmony among the four juices that was necessary to for good health was closely tied to our digestive process.
What, when, and how people ate directly impacted their sense of well-being – and eventually their overall physical wellness. Hildegard’s focus on nutrition was comprehensive in that it viewed nutrition through the entire digestive process – from taste to waste.
Healing harmony through digestive health
Through the lens of the four humors and the healing power of nature, Hildegard naturally viewed digestion as the path to healing harmony. This makes sense, as digestion is one of the most observable mechanisms of the human body. But her ideas on digestion were quite advanced for her time, and even today remain relevant. Gut health is becoming an area of renewed interest as research continues to uncover the many links between gut health and overall health.
Heeding the signals of your tummy and increasing your awareness of the nutritional and digestive properties of your food will help you become more attuned with your own unique digestive health, an important step toward overall wellness.
Hildegard was a Benedictine nun who spent much of her life in solitude. While she understood the value of solitude, she also promoted engagement and relationships with others. People with strong bonds to others enjoy longer life expectancies. The widespread ideal of rogue individuality and self-realization is not necessarily a path to happiness and healing harmony. On the contrary, it can lead to lack of motivation, loneliness, and addiction.
Loneliness leads to physical illness and accelerates a cycle of isolation. Conversely mutual support and community assistance boosts our self-esteem. Regular communication is part of a healthy regimen. One of the best ways to connect with others is through cultivating your passion and sharing it with others. As Aristotle said “man is a social being”.
The interconnectivity of each of us in the cosmos
Communication includes contemplating oneself and one’s place in the universe. Or, as Hildegard would say, each of us is a part of the whole, and the whole universe is within of each of us. But the contemplative phase should be part of the process to unlock your passion and drive it into the light.
Healing harmony requires that we participate in the world around us. It is not enough to just manage our diet, our exercise regimen, or our physical environment, we must engage through purposeful action in something that acknowledges a passion of ours.
Our passion needn’t be all we do or what we do for a living but we must include ways to explore and pursue our passion. After all, what good is all that good health for, if not for making you better at sharing your gift with the world.