Reflecting and Celebrating 15 Years

A group of Nova Institute's Scholars, Fellows, and staff stand together in the Nova teaching kitchen

With their dense clouds of gas and dust, starburst galaxies may look no different than others at first. But they produce new stars at extraordinary rates hundreds of times faster than our own Milky Way—often fed by an influx of new material, collisions with neighboring galaxies, or the shock waves created by emerging stars. As we renamed the Nova Institute for Health last year, I couldn’t help but think about our own creation of a star foundry over the last 15 years. Our model is built on fire and heart, addressing urgent questions about people, places, and the planet by examining the full spectrum of health, healing, and flourishing. This purposefully collaborative approach relies on an influx of interdisciplinary insight and serendipitous collisions of ideas. The bright lights emerging through this unusual alchemy help shift paradigms across disciplines in support of our collective well-being.

Looking back, the path to the Nova Institute may seem like a natural trajectory, but, in fact, we had no blueprint to follow. We forged this unique space through an evolving set of questions and a persistent sense that things could be different. Early in my career, I was deeply dissatisfied with the medical approach to helping people with chronic disease. As I explored other healing traditions that seemed to focus more on stimulating well-being and self-healing, such as acupuncture and mindfulness, new paths opened for me on how to improve my conventional training and practice.

In 1991, I founded the first U.S. academic health center program for integrative medicine with the goal of putting science behind this new approach and catalyzing a profound change in medical practice. An approach that focuses on the whole person and an expanded view of healing and treating patients. Sixteen years later, I launched the Institute for Integrative Health. Since then, we have brought together extraordinary people with shining hearts and minds —Scholars and Fellows, community partners, forum participants — to break down barriers and examine the full context of people’s lives and how we can truly thrive as individuals, as communities, and as a planet.

The Nova Institute for Health, as it is now known, reaches its 15-year anniversary at a critical moment, as we face cataclysmic challenges—the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that laid bare acute health inequities, increasing social unrest, and accelerating impacts from climate change. And there is a growing acknowledgment of the inadequacies of a disease centered approach to medicine. The Nova Institute is ready to rise to the challenge, be a creative catalyst for change, and advance new approaches to promote well-being.

In this milestone year, we feel immense gratitude for the legion of partners and supporters who have joined us in this journey, helping to shape our vision and bring it to life. And while we take a look back on what we’ve accomplished, we continue to dream and plan for a better future. Together, we are forging the conditions necessary for new ideas to burst forth at extraordinary rates, illuminating our understanding of people, places, and the planet. Thank you for being part of this brilliant starburst.

Here’s to the next 15 years!

Brian Berman 

Read our full 15-year report here.

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is debate about whether or not one actually needs to experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.