Illuminating Heart: The Alchemy and Artistry of Unitary Healing


Marie M. Shanahan, RN, BSN, HN-BC

Calling for a New View of Healing

In our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the grace of God.


When a person is in despair, when it pervades his or her existence and becomes the lens for viewing life experience, what can healthcare practitioners offer that has meaning and the potential for a hopeful future? To be with a person experiencing despair is to see a human being who appears to be “broken” or “coming apart” in body, mind, and spirit. It is within the patient’s experience of deep suffering that practitioners have the responsibility to reflect the individual’s wholeness, through words and actions, so that the person may understand and embrace life beyond despair.

In a presentation mixing personal story and lessons from practice, with a moving montage of music and visual art, W. Richard Cowling, III, RN, PhD, Professor and Director of the PhD in Nursing Program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and Editor of the Journal of Holistic Nursing, delivered a keynote presentation entitled “Illuminating Heart: The Alchemy and Artistry of Unitary Healing.[1]”

Dr. Cowling, well regarded as a Rogerian scholar, is also a nurse-scientist who has developed a research and practice framework known as unitary appreciative inquiry. This framework is informed by his extensive study of Martha Rogers’ nursing theory “Science of Unitary Human Beings.” He is certified as an advanced practice nurse in adult psychiatric mental health, and his research has focused on despair that is related to depression, loss, grief, childhood abuse, addictions, and chronic and life-threatening illnesses. He maintains a long-standing counseling practice in addition to his academic duties.

Dr. Cowling acknowledged the many lessons that he has learned from working with female survivors of child abuse: “They taught me courage. They turned despair into deep compassion and empathy… I am changed as a person and a nurse-scientist.”

The journey of healing for these women incorporated a shared practitioner and patient view in which the individual is seen as the source of expertise, knowledge, and power relevant to their own experience. This is one of the central components of unitary healing. According to Dr. Cowling, personal experience and personal knowing are “important resources for enlightened forms of scholarship that include research and practice.”

Dr. Cowling noted the need for unitary healing in contrast to the prevailing approaches to despair in our traditional medical system. The current medical model emphasizes a fragmented approach to the human experience, fortified by an overreliance on hyperspecialization and the default position of prescribing medication when dealing with intense emotional experiences. Although these approaches may have benefits, many people yearn to understand their conditions within the broader context of human life — both their individual experience and the collective.

Practitioners may separate the person from their experience and focus on the presenting problem, translating patients’ descriptions of daily life experiences into professional language that is pathology-based, and thereby perpetuating a system that “clincializes” and “medicalizes” human experience. A woman’s despair over child abuse becomes clinical depression with posttraumatic stress disorder. However, lost in that approach is an opportunity to see despair as an opening for a life-changing and life-affirming transformational experience.

Unitary Healing

Holding open the gateway for transformation is achieved through the practice of unitary healing. Unitary healing places wholeness as the central focus for our professional work. It calls for an expanded view of health and healing that recognizes the wholeness of a person’s life experiences as being integral with their expressions of physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Dr. Cowling points out that studying the life patterning of the person, including physical-physiologic, mental, emotional, spiritual, mystical, social, and cultural, is key to understanding their expressions of illness or distress and the interrelatedness of their life experiences. He guides us to seek the expressions of a person’s life patterning by consciously and reverently placing attention on the stories, wisdom, meaning, and sacredness emanating from the heart. By paying attention to the stories from the heart, a picture of the unique life patterning comes into view. Dr. Cowling refers to this as the “ensemble of a person’s patterns” that are rich in information, not accounted for in clinically measurable data.

Illustrating his point, he described a participatory experience in his counseling practice with women experiencing despair from childhood abuse. Using music and pictures, he created an individual representation of his clients’ healing journey and asked for their participation in correcting and/or evolving the presentations. This unique approach created the space for women to have their voices heard and their experiences validated. He described their responses as the ability to move with and through the dark emotions with a greater appreciation and expansion of their lives.

The 4 Forces of Unitary Healing

Insight into the practice of unitary healing can be gained by understanding the 4 forces of unitary healing and their application in practice:

  • The force of wholeness: A view of humans as essentially and inherently whole. Wholeness is not a goal; it is a given.
  • The force of appreciation: The practitioner has great reverence for life and is drawn to inquire beyond the superficial to understand the underlying patterning of an individual or group.
  • The force of participation: Facilitated by practitioners, participation helps people discover new choices for behavior, feelings, and thoughts that maximize the potential for desired changes.
  • The force of manifestation: The culmination of the 3 previous forces, manifestation is the grounding process of perception, reflection, and expression of feeling, thoughts, and actions. Power is mobilized to support efforts and practices that enhance well-being and the quality of life.

Illuminating One’s Own Heart: The Promise of Unitary Healing

Dr. Cowling shared how powerful unitary healing is in his own life. As he prepared for a surgical event, he was mindful of the fear that he felt. During an early diagnostic procedure, the fear was compounded when a technician left him alone to find a physician “who just has to see this.” Alone in a cold examination room, Cowling was understandably anxious, and the long waiting time only exacerbated his fears. Wanting to replace his fear with confidence in a positive surgical outcome, he activated the unitary healing options that were available to him. He used a guided imagery script created for him by a trusted colleague; he visited a Reiki practitioner who listened with care to his heart; and he engaged in deep reflection of his own life story. From these choices, he became aware of life patterning that offered him a transformative process, with the surgery providing the catalyst. The fear lifted and he was peaceful as he entered surgery.

In closing, Dr. Cowling called upon healthcare professionals to strive for a healthcare system that “allows us the time and resources to deal with people’s lives and the depth of their experiences, to participate in new understandings and help them manifest the life that illuminates their hearts.”


  1. Cowling WR. Illuminating heart: the alchemy and artistry of unitary healing. Program and abstracts of the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA)/American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Annual Conference; June 7-10, 2006; St. Paul, Minnesota.

About this entry