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The Real Secret to Staying Healthy for Life (Part 3)

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Because the campaign to get people to practice prevention isn't being followed up with compliance, American health is at risk. This is true financially, of course, as the cost of caring for an aging population rises precipitously. But it's even more alarming to consider that 95 cents of every health care dollar is spent after a disease has appeared. Preventive medicine isn't part of a physician's everyday routine, which is spent dispensing drugs and performing surgery.

This leaves the responsibility of lifelong health on you and me, which is where it belongs.

In the previous posts I proposed that the secret to lifelong health is letting your body take care of you, as it was designed to do. That is ultimately the point of prevention, to support the body's own power to heal, balance, and regulate itself. Since the control switch for these processes is in the brain, we need to cover an all-important issue: creating the best inner environment for your brain. Your brain processes every experience you have, and it must function well in order for the real controller of your life -- the mind -- to make its best intentions known.

The intention to live as long as possible isn't one of the mind's best intentions, because quantity isn't the same as quality. Intending to live in a state of well-being is a higher intention, since it focuses on quality, but few people have devised a credible recipe for well-being. There is no recipe. Well-being changes as we move through life, which is why a child's version of it cannot be the same as an old person's. So what is the common factor that never changes as we age?

The answer is self-awareness. When you have any experience, your mind is in one of three states: unconscious, aware, and self-aware. The first state leaves health -- and well-being generally -- to chance. If you light up your fifth cigarette of the day without thinking, you are doing something unconsciously, as is the nature of habits. If you see yourself lighting up the cigarette, you are aware of what you're doing. But self-awareness goes further; it says, "What am I doing to myself?" Posing questions, reflecting on your behavior, looking at the larger picture, taking your life seriously -- these are all self-aware behaviors.

The mind and body are connected in a feedback loop, and it will operate automatically without any awareness, much less self-awareness. Someone in a coma is an extreme example of the automatic nature of the body's feedback loop being monitored by the brain's automatic mechanisms. The feedback changes when you add awareness, which is why it is better to be awake than in a coma. The best way to participate in the feedback loop, however, is through self-awareness. In that state you tune into your body and lead your brain's responses in a positive way.

A self-aware approach to life would include the following prescriptions, which were drawn up by Dr. Rudy Tanzi and myself when we co-wrote a forthcoming book, Super Brain:

  • Be passionate about your life and the experiences you fill it with.
  • Remain open to as much input as possible.
  • Don't shut down the feedback loop with judgment, rigid beliefs, and prejudices.
  • Don't censor incoming data through denial.
  • Examine other points of view as if they were your own.
  • Take possession of everything in your life. Be self-sufficient.
  • Work on psychological blocks like shame and guilt -- they falsely color your reality.
  • Free yourself emotionally -- to be emotionally resilient is the best defense against growing rigid.
  • Harbor no secrets -- they create dark places in the psyche.
  • Be willing to redefine yourself every day.
  • Don't regret the past or fear the future. Both bring misery through self-doubt.

There is a spiritual component to self-awareness that consists of expanding your consciousness through meditation, mindfulness, and other established spiritual practices. But in this list we wanted to tell people how to function efficiently in the mind-body feedback loop. From birth each of us has been part of the loop, dependent upon it for all the good things in our lives, doing our best not to bring in bad things. But most people don't pursue self-awareness. They equate it with feeling bad about themselves, turning over stones that are best untouched, and exposing the darker hiding places where anxiety, depression, and anger lurk. None of this is true. Self-awareness is value-free. It isn't scary. It doesn't imply that you will subject yourself to needless pain.

At its most basic, self-awareness is simply self-appreciating the self. To find an answer to a question we are all interested in -- "How am I doing?" -- you have to be willing to look in the first place. It is much more beneficial to your health if you feel your way through life than think your way through life. Self-awareness monitors how you feel. It is flexible, sometimes placing awareness on a bodily sensation, sometimes on the world around you, your relationships, the people you meet, the thoughts in your head, and so on. To be in such a state means that you are fully participating in the mind-body feedback loop. By doing so, you make your body and your brain into allies, and then the path to lifelong health can be followed in security and fulfillment.

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