If there is one thing that continues to surprise me about the health industry (or…maybe it doesn’t) it is the ferocity with which it sells a lie.
The lie health enthusiasts try to sell is this: If you follow the rules, you will be happy.
If you follow the rules, you will no longer be in pain.
If you follow the rules and exercise, you will be fit, beautiful, invulnerable. You will be untouchable while also being newly worthy of touch.
If you follow the rules and portion out your food, you will be contained. You will dominate your hunger. And in dominating your physical hunger, you will somehow also dominate your yearnings.
If you follow the rules and practice meditation, you’ll sleep again.
If you follow the rules and spend time with your loved ones, you will stop being lonely.
It’s ALL a Lie.
Practicing health (because it is a practice…not a destination) does not remove pain. If anything, it brings pain directly to the surface where everyone…everyone…can see it. To your horror, that even includes yourself.
The first time I began to exercise, I didn’t feel invulnerable. I felt soft. Weak. Pitiful. Every move felt foreign. My lungs ached. My chest burned with the fury of a wildfire on a windy day in drought-cursed California. My hands, which were far more comfortable holding a book or a bowl of pasta…suddenly found themselves clambering for an elliptical handle that played a vicious game of hard to get. My heart pounded like fear embodied in a rhythm that my blood was forced to dance to. I actually felt my blood. Knew it was there in the most real way imaginable. And by God I did NOT want to know it was there. How in the hell can THIS be healthy?
The first time I began to cook “healthy food,” I was massively disappointed. I cooked food that was not “krafted” in a box and became bitter. Because “real food” is f***ing BITTER. I prepared chicken that wasn’t crusted in crispy crunch stuff and was desperately…just…okay. It was as though I had been standing next to Jeannie in that old sitcom and I had asked her if she could somehow materialize boredom onto a plate. THAT is how “real food” tasted to me.
And meditation? Oh good God!…(or “source” or “Buddha” or whatever the hell you think you’re talking to or listening for when you sit quietly for “meditation). Meditation is AWEFUL. Rather than removing all the endless chatter that spins in my mind like wheels on a game show…it simply forced me to be with it. To sit in the awful. I don’t know what other people feel when they sit for meditation for the first time…but my first time felt like being asked to sit quietly in a giant kitty litterbox upon which a litter of kittens have made fresh deposits. And then being asked to “accept” the smell.
BUT – They promise that it will get better…
If you can stomach plain chicken and broccoli for a while. If you continue to exercise even when your body protests it day after day. If you repeat the process of meditation….health nuts all promise that on the other side of all that conscientious determination is a field of lush green grass cushioning flowers in full bloom, rich with color. There are unicorns and sunbeams and ocean waves that sing you lullabies. They promise you will be transported to a magical place where pain is a memory, you are beautiful, and all those disgusting experiences (hunger, depression, loneliness, anger, boredom) will be a thing of the past. Because YOU, my friend, will be healthy.
And it’s bull shit.
Hunger doesn’t go away. It cries out more clearly than ever and insists, with the same determination of a crying infant, to be heard. Depression doesn’t disappear. It merely goes out like a tide only to creep right back onto your shores the next time something real and raw and terrible slaps you across the face. Loneliness doesn’t slither away into the brush. Or…maybe it does…but it always comes back and strikes you in the most unexpected times. Sometimes when you’re alone. Sometimes when you’re in a crowd of “not-my-people” and sometimes right in the midst of a really bad lay.
So Why Bother?
Because here is something that health nuts also frequently forget to mention. If you face that discomfort head on. If you are willing to sit with it. Ride it out. Eat real food. Move your body. Stand still in a storm…something shifts.
Maybe you lose weight. Maybe you don’t.
Maybe your insomnia and anxiety abate. Maybe they don’t.
Maybe you become free of physical pain. Maybe you don’t.
But what I can promise with you with a fair amount of certainty is this: you will be reminded that you are whole. And in so doing, you’ll find your home.
NO – you might not be a skinny waif of a super model. BUT those strong thunder thighs can carry you through a marathon if you want them to.
NO that plain steamed chicken breast won’t ever taste like the fried chicken you used to find in restaurants everywhere. BUT you discover that roasted rosemary and garlic encrusted chicken in coconut oil tastes like spring after a long winter.
NO – fruit never morphs into ice cream and bubbly. But suddenly, and without warning, you find that fresh oranges from the Farmers market…the same ones you used to say would never compare to an ice cream cone….now leave you pausing in the middle of the street cooing with delight. That burst of sweet, sour, tingly, springy fruit playing hopscotch with your tastebuds in a way that soda pop and lollypops never quite mastered.
NO – your hunger and yearnings don’t go away. But because you have learned to sit in silence for a few seconds longer than you could yesterday…you’re better able to discern what you’re actually hungry for.
NO – you won’t necessarily be free of pain, vulnerability, discomfort, or hardship. But you will find yourself with enough energy to tolerate more of it. You realize that you are powerful. Nimble. Capable. And in discovering this…you find that stress and pain are never getting access to the keys of your car. YOU are in the driver’s seat. YOU make the rules.
NO – you won’t find yourself transported into a new life like that which you have become accustomed to wanting. Instead, you suddenly find you have enough clarity to savor the life you’re already in. And you find you have the tools to identify what needs to change.
NO – you won’t get to escape. You simply find,unexpectedly, that YOUR life is so full of possibility and joy…REAL joy…that you can’t imagine exchanging your toes for another just so that you can walk in new shoes.
Because Health Isn’t About Escaping Hardship. It’s About Coming Home.
If you follow the etymology of the word “health” – if you trace it ALL the way back…you’ll find that it’s anchor is harbored in another word: whole. In other words…health means being put back together. It’s about feeling at home in your own skin.
Health isn’t about removing pain it’s about building the emotional, physical and spiritual stamina to better tolerate pain. It’s not about being invulnerable, it’s about developing the skills to stand still in vulnerability. It’s not about a specific diet plan. It’s about learning to have a conversation with your body and identify what it really wants. What it really needs. Sometimes the answer will be salmon. Sometimes the answer will be chocolate cake.
Being healthy isn’t about knowing the answers. It’s about learning to ask the right questions.
What does my body really need right now?
What is the best thing I can do to support myself in this moment?
How can I be brave today?
What does health even mean…to me?
In other words – health isn’t about removing all that causes us pain from our lives. Instead, it’s about embracing the pain and having faith that by doing so….by opening to pain, discomfort, hardship….you ALSO open yourself up to joy, energy, exuberance, and even love.
So if you can stay in the throng of the pain, I can’t promise you what will happen or won’t happen. I can only promise you that if you’re patient, you’ll find yourself moving from the here and “ow” to the here and “now”….and you’ll find that the “present” moment is just the gift that the word promised it would be.