“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I have learned the key to health the hard way. I’ve tried repeatedly, and mostly unsuccessfully to “get healthy” by all manner of contrivance. I gobbled the vitamins, herbs,and “nutriceuticals”. I bopped along to the exercise tapes. I bought the air purifiers, tested my water, tossed the Teflon and plastic, and bought organic. I even felt self-righteous about my efforts because I was, as I thought, doing it naturally. But I was trying to build a house without a foundation, and for that reason I was bound to fail.
What is health? Websters dictionary defines it as “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit”. The opposite of health, then, is the condition of being unsound in body, mind or spirit. As a society we intuitively understand this, as is evidenced by our metaphors for poor health. We “fly to pieces”, “come apart at the seams”, and “come unglued” when we are not well. Poor health is a state of disconnection, disintegration.
What is the antidote? In a word, love. We cannot be healthy in the absence of love. It will not matter how many pills we swallow, how many organic carrots we munch, or what kind of water filtration system we buy if we have not learned love. God is love, which means that love created the universe. It is the true foundation of everything, including us.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means that a loving connection with the creator, with ourselves, and with other creatures is where all healing journeys begin and end. We must begin at the beginning.
“One of my graduate students told me she had gone for a walk on the beach in the late afternoon. As the sun was setting, she climbed onto a boulder at the water’s edge. Gazing out to sea, she felt herself slowly becoming one with nature–with the sun descending toward the horizon, the waves crashing at her feet, the pastel colors that streaked the western sky. She said, “In that moment I felt eternity. I knew these things had gone on for millions of years before I came and that they would go on for millions of years after I’m gone. It felt good to be alive, to be part of all this. I was deeply moved and began to cry.”
Contemplation, meditation, prayer, rituals and other spiritual practices have the power to release the “life force” in the deepest levels of the human psyche, levels that secular interventions cannot reach. Indeed, new evidence shows that religious and spiritual interventions can help when everything else has failed.”
– David N. Elkins, Psychology Today
Spirituality is indeed the most potent healing force in existence. Many people assume that this is due to the fact that most spiritual practices promote deep physical relaxation and a sense of mental peace. But is that all there is to it? Is it just our own life force that is being released when we pray? Many spiritually inclined people would say no. It is true that forms of spirituality that do not involve a belief in a personal God are becoming more and more popular. As The Watchtower of October 2010 stated, “some people look to themselves or to their fellow humans to fill spiritual needs.” Then it posed the question: “Do you not sense, though, that humans are just too limited to help adequately?”
Our longing for a spiritual connection goes beyond a need to feel one with our surroundings or to learn compassion or to empty our minds of clutter. We crave a spiritual connection to the mind who is responsible for our existence. The one who knows us. The one with power to help. Many people feel, rightly I believe, that it is this one who provides them with “power beyond what is normal”. (2 Corinthians 4:7) There is no more powerful road to well-being than a close, loving relationship with the source of our lives, the creator of everything, the God who is love.
The God of love showed me on many occasions and in many ways that he wanted to help. A person who has never learned to pray might find it difficult to conceive of being able to communicate with a powerful invisible being. It is something that a person must experience to understand. And to experience it takes a humility and open-mindedness that I had as a small child, but which I seemed to have lost somewhere along the way. That is something that only suffering could re-teach me.
Self-love is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to learn. I am still learning. It is also one of the most powerfully healing things I have ever experienced.
“I’m so stupid!” How many times have you said that, or something like it? If you say never, I want to meet you because you are extraordinary. I don’t know many people personally who haven’t said it or felt it at one time or another. I used to say it constantly. I sometimes hated my body for the way it seemed to constantly fail me.
I didn’t know at that time what I was doing to myself, but I do now. I now understand the full implications behind ancient king Solomon’s words: “death and life are in the power of the tongue;” (Proverbs 18:21) I had been killing myself slowly.
It was when I came right to edge of my ability to endure suffering that I began to teach myself a new way of thinking. I had nothing at all to lose and everything to gain.
At first, I did not believe that anything I said to myself could possibly make a dent in my suffering. Everything I had tried so far had failed: herbs, vitamins, supplements, drugs…hospitalization. It had all failed. My body had become so sensitized that I was reacting negatively to everything I put in my mouth or on my skin. So what could words possibly do?
Even so, I tried. I began to change the way I spoke to myself. My mind was like a very frightened child in desperate need of love and affection. It needed a mother, and that mother would have to be me. I cherished myself as I would one of my precious babies. I reassured myself every day that I was getting better and better, that I was safe and healing.
At first it felt false. I went on anyway. Eventually I began to believe myself. Instead of automatic negative thoughts, I was having automatic positive thoughts. When I felt sick or frightened, I was able to calm myself quickly. “It’s okay,” I would say, “because I’m getting better and better. I am safe now. I am healing.”
I began to feel better, not just in my mind, but truly. My energy began to return. Pain decreased. I started having some days when I felt almost normal. It was clear to me that my fearful, negative thoughts had helped to keep me sick.
I am still sick. But the difference now is that I know I can and will feel better. And I know that if there are some things that never go, it will be okay. I know how to live well with pain. And I know how to love and forgive my faithful and patient body.
Love For Others
“The heart of the matter is that it is the heart that matters.” –Dr. Cynthia Thaik, cardiologist
Jesus said that “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” There is a lot to that seemingly simple statement.
Just like self-love, love for others heals. How we feel about and treat ourselves will radiate out to those around us. Conversely, how we treat others will influence the way we feel about ourselves.
Paul Simon wrote a song about self-imposed isolation called “I Am a Rock.” “A rock feels no pain” say the lyrics, “and an island never cries.” Not true. Don’t ask me how I know. No one is a rock or an island, and when we try to be, we wither. We need love like we need air.
Blogger Lisa Collier Cool says that “love actually can make us healthier, so much so that if you could bottle it, you would have an incredible wonder drug, a Nobel Prize, the thanks of a grateful population, and more money than Bill Gates.” Why? because, as she explains, a growing body of research seems to indicate that “love can lengthen your life, ward off stress, boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, protect you from colds and flu, blunt your response to pain, hasten wound healing, and lower your risk of dementia in old age.”
Do we really need science to tell us that? Don’t most of us understand on some level that love is life? Nearly every wonderful thing we do, we do for love. And some of the not-so-wonderful things we do are done because of a misguided attempt at getting the love we need. And so we come full circle to the words of Jesus that I quoted at the beginning: “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” Give love freely with no thought as to what you might receive. Do this, and as Jesus said, “people will give to you. They will pour into your laps a fine measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing.” (Luke 6:38)
Love For the Earth and All Its Creatures
“These enchantments are medicinal, they sober and heal us. These are plain treasures, kindly and native to us. We come to our own and make friends with matter…the mind loves it’s old home: as water to our thirst, so is the rock, the ground, to our eyes and hands and feet. It is firm water: it is cold flame: what health, what affinity!”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson from his essay, “Nature”
Frankly, this is not something I’ve ever struggled with. I love nature. And I know I’m not alone. What so many of us do struggle with, however, is the fact that our home and bodies are being polluted. This is where the simplicity of wellness becomes…a little complicated. Ideally, if everyone loved everyone and everything, the only reason left for the kind of mess that we’re in now would be simple blunders. And blunders that harm the earth and it’s creatures would be remedied quickly by people who care.
But because love is not what makes the economic world go round we have people at the heads of monolithic corporations making potentially harmful, even devastating, decisions based on the principle of unlimited growth, which is another way of saying greed (or cancer). For any action that does not make human sense, all we need do is “follow the money.”
“A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.” ― Wendell Berry
It can be depressingly difficult to try to protect ourselves from the pollution spawned by the corruption of our economic system. Even so, love for the natural world can help us to heal because there are choices that we can make, truly doable things, that not only protect our health, but also happen to protect the health of the planet. I’m sure that many readers are already doing some or all of them.
So here are what I consider to be the top five actions we can take that protect both our health and the planet:
1. Spend time enjoying the outdoors.
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” ― Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays
One day I was struggling with the pain and tension that so often plagues me, and I decided to drive to the hills. In my special place overlooking the entire valley where I live, I was finally able to exhale. Breathing the clean, sage scented air, feeling the wind on my skin, seeing the way the light played on the clouds and the land, I finally felt free. My tension drained away as if someone had pulled a plug.
We need experiences like that on a regular basis. It’s what keeps us sane, calm, grounded.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life”
– John Muir
Wonderful experiences in nature engender affection for wild places, wild things. This, in turn impels us to think about our actions. Do they show respect for this perfection, this beauty? When we love a place, we do not want it destroyed or defaced. We feel protective, sometimes fiercely so. It becomes clear that what is so good and so necessary for our own minds and bodies is also necessary for the earth.
2. Grow things and cook your own food.
“There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.” ~Mirabel Osler
An unknown author once said that “you can bury a lot of troubles in the dirt.” I can personally testify to the truth of that. Gardening was one of the first things I did during my recovery. As soon as I had enough strength in my legs so that I could stay on them for any length of time, I would go outside into my yard and pick a little here and cut a little there. I would sometimes visit my old, neglected garden spot to find the strawberries and mint and chives that were still growing there. Those were times which inspired starred passages in my gratitude journal. It makes me think of what Nathaniel Hawthorne said about his special piece of ground:
I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
There aren’t many pursuits that are as health-giving as gardening. The garden obliges us to spend time outside, soaking up the sun, exercising our muscles, and breathing fresh, herb scented air. It gives a sense of purpose. It ties us to the earth, makes us responsible for the health and beauty of our little patch. And if we grow food, it provides us with nourishment and taste that cannot be rivaled by any of the insipid fare found at the supermarket.
Growing our own food may seem revolutionary now, but not long ago it was mundane. The garden and farm were where all the food was, not the supermarket.
“The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.” – Joel Salatin
Gardening is an alternative to our current food system, which is broken. Our current system is hurtful to every living thing within its sphere of influence. Agricultural chemicals, mono-cropping, genetic engineering, and confined animal feeding operations (or more accurately, animal concentration camps), are all examples of farming practices which do profound damage to farm animals, ecosystems, and to humans.
And farming is only the beginning of the problem. Our system of food distribution is completely unsustainable principally because it relies on a finite resource, petroleum. The sometimes thousands of miles that typical supermarket foods have traveled represents vast amounts of wasted fuel as well as significant levels of increased air pollution.
For many of the same reasons that gardening is good for us, cooking our own food is too. When we start with fresh, simple, natural ingredients and cook our own meals with them, we make sure that what we put in our bodies is as safe and as pure as we can make it. This does not have to be complicated. Even a quick, freshly prepared meal such as a plate of scrambled eggs with some orange slices on the side will be a thousand times better for us than a fast food sandwich or a bowl of Captain Crunch.
Cooking, like gardening, is also better for the health of the planet. The process of producing fast food and processed foods creates an enormous amount of waste: food is wasted, paper is wasted, and loads of plastic and paper are dumped into landfills.
“The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared food, confronts inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.” – Wendell Berry
When we choose to grow food and cook it ourselves, we are choosing to show respect for ourselves and for the planet that was so lovingly prepared for us. Although I understand this, I also understand how difficult it can be to accomplish these things. I haven’t had a decent garden in three years because of illness. Cooking can be a challenge if it’s something we’ve never done or if our health is bad or our schedule busy. But even baby steps matter. A simple home cooked meal, a flower bed, or a container full of herbs are significant. Why? First, because the simple act of producing that small amount of beauty or food makes us feel better. And second, because baby steps sometimes lead to bigger steps.
3. Eat Local.
There’s an organic farm about five miles from my home. When I went there once to buy some produce, the farmer, Mr. Alvarez, took time to talk to me about his farm. He was very proud that he had developed a new cultivar of chile. He was also very proud of the fact that the food he grows is safe. It’s safe for his own family. It’s safe for the farm laborers, without whom Mr. Alvarez’s produce would not make it to market. And it’s safe for us, the eaters. That day I saw where my food came from. I went into the field and picked my own very fragrant basil. I filled bags with gorgeous looking heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, chiles, zucchini, garlic, and onions. And when I returned home with my booty, my family and I enjoyed the taste of the uncommonly fresh and delicious food.
Most of us simply cannot grow all of our own food. That does not mean that we always have to settle for the well-traveled mystery foods from the grocery store. I say mystery foods because even when we buy fresh, unprocessed whole foods, we usually have no idea where exactly it came from (somewhere in California?) or whether we can trust that “natural” or “organic” label. But when we go out to the farm or visit the local farmer’s market, we get to “shake the hand that feeds” us.
Eating local foods is good for us because the foods are fresher and often safer. We can ask the farmer how exactly he deals with pests and what type of fertilizers he uses. We can chat with him about food and farming, maybe getting a feel for why he does what he does. This builds confidence and trust.
Eating locally is better for the planet as well because it circumvents the very wasteful and polluting food distribution system now in place. We don’t need millions of semi trucks on the road if we buy from the farmer next door.
Eating locally is especially important for carnivores. More and more people are becoming aware of the issues surrounding factory farmed meat, milk, and eggs. But if you’re not one of those people, I suggest you take a look at Food Inc., or one of the many other documentaries exposing the filth and cruelty of factory farming. I saw the film, but I didn’t need to. I live where the practices of factory farming are baldly exposed to the public, and it’s very distressing to see (and smell!).
“Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” ― Michael Pollan
Many people are unaware of the fact that when they eat factory farmed meat, they are getting far more than they bargained for. Along with the protein and fat, we’re eating significant levels of antibiotic residue, artificial hormones, and agricultural chemicals. This is wreaking havoc on our endocrine and immune systems, and it seems to be contributing in large measure to the current epidemic of antibiotic resistance. Not only that, but the runoff from said farms pollutes the air, the waterways, and the land that we depend on.
“I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.” – Wendell Berry
Happy cows make good milk. Chickens allowed to express their innate chickennes lay really nice eggs. Meat from pastured animals is just better in so many ways.
Eating local foods shows love and respect for the creator, ourselves, our families, and for the planet, especially it’s animals. But this may not always be easy. It’s definitely not as convenient to shop at the farmer’s market or go out to the farm. Buying locally produced grass-fed animal products often takes forsight and planning. I very often fall short of my own ideals in this respect. Alright, almost always, especially in the winter. But I try. And when I succeed, my body thanks me and my conscience is comfortable.
Look for sources of local food at:
4. Use safer products.
As I sit here writing with raised eyebrows, I wonder what I can say about this. Many of the people who know me well have already gotten an earful about the dangers of toxins. So much so that I’m sure they would rather not hear any more. And I get it, I do. No one, including me, wants to focus on negative, scary things. Nobody wants to feel overwhelmed. Nobody wants to find out that their favorite products might not be so good for them. I’d rather not have to write this, really. But I just cannot leave it out, it’s too important.
Anytime we start talking about the avoidance of danger, the difficult subject of the nocebo effect comes up. A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo. Just as a placebo can cause a person to feel better, a nocebo can cause an adverse reaction. For example, if you were told that the glass of orange juice you just drank contained arsenic, and it was then explained to you what arsenic does, there’s a good chance you would start to feel sick even if the juice was perfectly safe. We certainly can think ourselves ill.
So why focus on toxins and pollution if it can have such a negative psychological effect? I admit that I feel conflicted about that. I would rather focus on positivity. But what if the juice in the above illustration really did contain arsenic, but nobody would tell you? What if the levels of arsenic were low enough not to kill you quickly, but just enough to make you feel vaguely ill? What if you unknowingly continued drinking the arsenic laced juice for many years, damaging your body little by little, completely unaware of the reasons for your failing health? Far from being mere nocebos, like the juice, some things really are toxic, and when people avoid them, they feel better. I’ve seen it time and again. The other reason is that many commonly used household products pollute the earth, and that right there is reason enough.
So before considering this admittedly difficult subject, it’s well to remember what wellness is all about. It’s about love for God, self-love, love for others, and love for earth and all its creatures. It’s about love, not fear. So while it is necessary to understand some things about toxins so that we can protect ourselves and our families from undue harm, we must keep in mind that anxiety serves no purpose. But action based on knowledge does.
So here’s the skinny: our world is inundated with toxic chemicals. You already know that, right? But something you may not know is this: the chemicals most likely to harm you are not “out there” somewhere. It’s true that industry pollution is a big problem. But for most of us, our biggest and most damaging exposures tend to be much closer to home. They come from places like the Round-Up container in the garage, the box of dryer sheets in the laundry room, and the myriad self-care products lining our bathroom counters and cabinets.
This is difficult for many people to wrap their heads around. It certainly was for me at one time. We’d like to believe that the products we use in and around our homes, and especially those we use on our own bodies, are safe, that government agencies have our collective backs. They wouldn’t allow these things on store shelves if they were dangerous, right? Wrong.
If you’d like a detailed explanation, it is in this document by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production: Presumption of Safety: Limits of Federal Policies on Toxic Substances in Consumer Products
From the document:
Despite the fact that most consumers believe that everyday products are thoroughly tested for dangerous chemicals and determined to be safe by government authorities, the reality is that existing regulatory systems leave significant gaps in their capacity to adequately protect consumers from chemical hazards in these products.
One of the reasons listed in the article for the failure of government agencies to protect us is the fact that many safety standards are actually voluntary, meaning that companies can opt out if they don’t want the bother of adhering to a higher standard. For example, the fragrance industry is largely self-regulated. It’s a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Another reason is that the capacity of certain government agencies is limited due to budget constraints. Also, current laws do not actually require companies to test most products for safety hazards. Weak laws and limited governmental capacity ensure that, inevitably, some unsafe products will end up on store shelves.
You’ve heard the bad news. Now here’s the good news. There are more companies making safe, non-toxic products now than ever before. In the past, we may have had to sacrifice quality and performance in the name of health, but not anymore. Many of these products work, and work well. Check out EWG’s Skin Deep Database , and Guide to Healthy Cleaning .
Also, an exciting new trend has emerged: DIY everything. Because so many people are experimenting with making their own cosmetics and cleaning products, the internet is busting at the seams with well-tested recipes. Non-toxic is now fun! One of my favorite sources for great recipes is the Wellness Mama website.
The bottom line is this: when it comes to chemicals, we have to watch our own backs. Government and industry is not going to do it for us. But we are not powerless. Education and action can make all the difference.
“Walking is man’s best medicine.” – Hippocrates
I guess I’m a pretty good spokesperson for guilty non-exercisers. I exercise in jerks and starts, mostly sitting on my derriere but every once in a blue moon trying to behave like a seasoned outdoorswoman and failing miserably. This has to stop, because I, like nearly everyone, understand that movement is absolutely essential to bodily health. It strengthens muscles, including the heart, moves lymph, increases lung capacity, and the one that interests me the most: it can dramatically improve mood.
I found a great article in U.S. News and World Report about the mental health benefits of exercise. Here are some choice excerpts:
”Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.” – John Ratey, author Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
“Working out also helps keep us from ruminating ‘by altering blood flow to those areas in the brain involved in triggering us to relive these stressful thoughts again and again,’ says study coauthor Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF.”
“Research suggests that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants.”
“Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.”
“Even mild activity like a leisurely walk can help keep your brain fit and active, fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong.”
Pretty impressive, especially when you consider the fact that the medications we use to treat mental health problems have such potentially serious side effects.
One day when I was much sicker than I am now, I decided to take a walk to try to shake off some of my brain fog and depression. I felt too weak to walk, but I set out anyway. I threw my shoulders back like I owned the world, took long strides, and breathed deeply. I’ll never forget how much better it made me feel. So why don’t I do that everyday? Okay, here come the excuses: the traffic on our road is dangerous and the diesel fumes make me choke, the only other place to walk is on the canal road which is nearly always drenched in herbicide and grows bumper crops of puncture weed which injure my dog’s feet, the neighbors dryer vents constantly spew forth a toxic cloud of “freshness”, and there are scary dogs. Deep breath… But I walked today anyway. See? That’s how writing heals. First you write something, then you have to do it or you’re a hypocrite.
But how does this fit? Simplicity of Wellness is, after all, an article about how love heals. How can exercise show love for the earth and its creatures? Aren’t the benefits mostly personal? No, because not only are walking and bike riding very good forms of exercise, they also happen to be great alternative forms of transportation, especially if you live in, or close to, a city. Obviously, fewer cars on the road means less pollution. Walking or biking instead of driving when possible is another win/win situation for both ourselves and the earth if we would only put it into practice. It’s another way we can show love for earth and all its creatures, including ourselves and our fellow humans.
I would love to become fit enough to walk all the way into town and back. It would help me to avoid having to drive so much, and it would do a world of good for my body. I hope you will join me. Lets move!
Sometimes pursuing wellness seems anything but simple because we live in an economic and social system that is rife with greed, materialism, and selfishness. Pollution, both emotional and physical, causes grave harm. And it’s true that in this system, we will never attain perfection. We will never be able to love perfectly until God steps in as promised and gives the earth to the meek. But even as things are, love heals. Any approach to healing that ignores the power of love cannot succeed because we are, quite literally, made of love. All matter and energy in the universe comes from the same source, the God who is love. So although we cannot at this time love perfectly, our attempts to do so will make us happier and healthier. The key really is simple: it is love.