The resources available for what it means to be healthy and how to achieve wellness can be overwhelming. There are many hands in the pot that filter information received by the general public. This can lead to confusing and often contradictory information. One week red meat is the cause of heart disease, the next it’s a great source of nutrients and part of a weight loss diet. Is coffee a health food or a toxin? What’s the best diet? Is it low carb, ketogenic, high-protein, Paleo, Peagan, Vegan? Or does it not matter as long as you are hitting your “macros”? Evidence can be found supporting any number of dogmatic dietary approaches, with varying levels of scientific validity. And diet is only one aspect of health.
What is one to do with so much information? Where to begin? Often we turn to the experts we know and find that our practitioners all have differing opinions on health. If you have more than one health provider on your team, like most of us, you’ll find contradictory ideas of what’s healthy (even between practitioners of the same modality).
Health as a mindfulness practice
The truth is, our bodies are constantly changing and our choices must reflect that reality. What works for us one day to calm the stomach and ease bloating may not work the following week. Strengthening our ability to listen deeply to the body and its ever-changing needs is one of the first skills we can hone on our way to greater health.
The Buddha talked about mindfulness, or awakening consciousness, as a journey upstream on the river. Not necessarily as a route of struggle, but as an example of changing circumstance and not choosing the easy path of habit and familiar routine. If you ever have paddled upstream, you know how the changing current can affect your course. Every moment becomes an exercise in mindfulness as you adapt to the changing current beneath you. In this same vein, we can begin to see how choosing vibrant health becomes a conscious choice in every moment within changing circumstances, and not something relegated to the 30 minutes spent at the gym, or the one hour a week in your acupuncturist’s office. The truth is, you can be doing all the good work to get healthy: working with a personal trainer, seeing a naturopath, receiving acupuncture, but these valiant movements towards health comprise only about 10% of your time. The other 90% of your time, it’s just you with no one else watching.
It is during this 90% of the time that we are paddling upstream on the river, making choices in every moment that steer us towards greater health or perhaps allow us to get stuck in the same eddies. It is the choice to take 10 deep breaths when we feel tension rising in the shoulders or frustration bubbling in the chest. It is the choice to have fresh lemon in hot water when our friends are having wine with lunch. It is the choice to respond with a smile and patience to the person having a rough day. It is the choice to walk the six blocks to work instead of driving. It is the choice to play over our lunch break and laugh with a friend over the phone instead of rushing to eat quickly and get a few more things done over our break to give us the edge in our afternoon. It is the choice to slow things down and stretch when we have been working out intensely. Or the choice to run and walk a few laps around the track when we have been enjoying good books all winter long. Health arrives when we choose in each and every moment to feel empowered about our own vitality.
4 Pillars of Health
While the notion of health can be overwhelming as far as individual perspectives and opinions are concerned, we can turn to Chinese Medicine to lay a solid foundation about health in general. Chinese Medicine views health as comprised of four pillars that create structure for the healthy self to flourish. These four pillars of health are seen as equal in their importance and function. Rather than prescribing one particular dogma about what is healthy, these four pillars provide a framework for individuals to begin cultivating vibrant health within.
Below are some suggestions within each pillar, not a complete list by far, so please explore what these areas might mean to you.
- Stress management. Everyone is exposed to challenges, big and small. One person’s stress is not even a blip on the radar for another. Identifying your stress triggers and ways to diffuse them is a great first step.
- Give yourself permission to call a time-out when you’re feeling triggered, whether this means taking a walk around the block, or a half day to reconnect and converse with someone. Before speaking, especially in the midst of conflict, ask yourself if what you are about to say:
- Is it harmful or overtly hurtful?
- Is it helpful?
- Is it your truth?
Sometimes your truth may temporarily hurt someone’s feelings, but if you give yourself time to assess how and when to say something, you may be heard more thoroughly and experience less conflict in your relationships.
- Be impeccable with your words. It’s easy to react or respond out of habit. Notice how you use language to support or debase yourself, effect those around you, and even how you describe your experience. Is that sandwich truly “awesome”? This sounds unimportant, but words can shape your experience, as well as give integrity to how others hear you. Honoring your word is part of this too. It’s easy to bail out with a text after you’ve committed to something, but following through goes a long way in maintaining quality relationships of all kinds. Honoring your word begins to create harmony in the mind, as truth becomes an anchor for perspective.
- Eat real food, not too much, and mostly plants. This is advice from Micheal Pollen, and I think it’s a great place to start for most people. Eat real food means avoiding chemicals, preservatives and additives. If there are things you cannot pronounce, it probably means you shouldn’t eat it. Not too much refers to eating slowly, enjoying the process of eating and stopping when you are full.
- The atmosphere, pace and enjoyment factor of your meals is just as important as the food. Relax, chew, nourish yourself. Don’t argue or have conflict around meals.
- What feels good to your body? This may change many times over your life. What used to energize and nourish your body may not be what it needs as this point in your life. Be flexible and attuned.
- Consult different health care providers to see what dietary guidelines they have for you. Find what resonates with you, and what contributes to your health. No one has all the answers, so try a few things out and follow your instincts.
- Quality sleep is still the most underrated aspect of health. Do you wake rested, and refreshed? If that’s not a yes most of the time, investigate how to improve your sleep hygiene for more deep, restful sleep.
- Right rest can also refer to doing what deeply rejuvenates you and not leaving it out of your routine because you get busy. Do you love to pray? Garden? Meditate? It is the time that you usually cut out when things get hectic. Noticing and nourishing this particular pillar can have wonderful effects on health.
- Take ten minutes a day to spend quality time with yourself, to check in and see what you like, dislike, feel and sense. This act of coming home is an act of coming to rest within the self.
- Exercise routines will change a lot over time. It doesn’t mean you’ll become less active the older you get, in fact, you may have to be more active with less intensity to maintain health in your later years.
- Right movement is found in your activities of daily living, regardless of whether you enjoy structured and/or scheduled exercise. Some examples are:
- Squatting to pick something up off the floor
- Carrying moderately heavy weight (bags, kids, boxes, tools, etc)
- Maintaining awareness of your core when having to bend over, and crouch under and crawl around doing awkward tasks.
- Using your whole body to do things like vacuuming, instead of burning out your rotator-cuff muscles. (Think: lunge and core engagement).
- Chunk out time in your day away from your seat and screen to walk, stretch, go get water, go chat with a co-worker, jump around, the list goes on. Be mindful of needing to move and circulate blood, and refresh your brain, however you choose to do it.
When you engage in your health using mindfulness, you’ll find ways to help yourself that no healthcare practitioner may be able to give you. In fact, patients often give me plenty of valuable insights through their own experiences and observations in order for me to best serve them. Cheers for teamwork!
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, she will be out hiking, cycling, or playing in the water.