America has reached a threshold that will permit us to cross over and reach a state of higher health. We have more than enough proof that prevention should be based on positive lifestyle changes. Compliance remains a problem, with far too few people taking the good advice that surrounds us. We need to overcome the gap between what's good for us and how we actually live. Yet leaving compliance aside, the real breakthrough to higher health doesn't lie with prevention.
It lies with a conception of wellness that turns around long-held assumptions that must be challenged. These assumptions include the following:
• Drugs and surgery are the chief ways to combat illness.
• The mind-body connection is interesting but too fickle to rely upon.
• Unique treatment for unique diseases is an illusion; diseases follow a normal course in most people.
• The intelligence of the body is a speculative, marginal idea.
• The human body is a structure made up of many complex smaller structures.
• Disease and health are essentially materialistic.
• Spontaneous remissions and the placebo effect are curious phenomena, while "real" medicine is a numbers game.
All of these assumptions are hidden just beneath the surface in medical education, the attitudes of physicians, and the common public discourse about illness. They have been slow to change, yet for 30 years the possibility of a new set of assumptions has been expanding. What would wellness look like if we tossed out -- or at least challenged -- the standard accepted notions in this list? We would look on each person as the author of sickness and wellness. Every treatment would be tailored to the individual. The body's intelligence would be the first line of information about how sick or well a person is, long before serious symptoms arise. And arching over all these ideas, consciousness would be the control center for both mind and body.
I promised practical guidelines to higher health in this installment, but I needed to lay out these new goals first. If you don't know where you're heading, you will approach wellness in a haphazard, piecemeal, usually emotional way. Here we know that we want to become the authors of our own wellness. That's the biggest goal, the one that all practical matters must serve.
So the practical matters that make the most sense fall into two categories, things to do and things to avoid.
Things to do:
1. Practice prevention -- you already know what this means in terms of diet, exercise, and not smoking.
2. Keep in mind a vision of living an active, healthy life well into your 80s.
3. Work first and foremost on your inner sense of well-being.
4. Actively take measures to reduce stress. This includes getting eight hours of sleep a night without fail.
5. Find out who you really are -- a secure, flexible sense of self is a great preventive of illness.
6. Be easy about diet but head toward less fat, red meat, processed food, refined sugar and carbohydrates, along with a balance of food groups that favors fruits and vegetables.
7. Learn to meditate. If that's not possible, take two breaks a day where you sit silently and alone to collect yourself.
8. Associate with people who share your positive outlook, uphold your spiritual ideals, and delve into the world's wisdom traditions.
9. Express and share your emotions. Take steps to get rid of toxic emotions.
10. Find an outlet for love, which means both being loved and showing love.
Things to avoid:
1. Don't obsess about diet and exercise.
2. Don't wait for others to cure you after you've failed to practice prevention.
3. Don't attach hope to miracle cures as a reason to avoid lifestyle changes.
4. Don't do what you know to be wrong.
5. On the whole, don't bother with vitamins and supplements unless there is a good medical reason behind what you're taking.
6. Don't take unneeded medications, and reduce those you must take to a sensible minimum.
7. Don't wait to correct hypertension and overweight, which cause long-term damage even though they are slow-acting.
8. Don't haunt the doctor's office.
9. Don't fall for medical scares and fad disorders.
10. Don't put yourself in high-stress situations thinking that you can handle them. In the same vein, don't fool yourself that you can go short on sleep for more than two nights.
None of these measures is surprising, yet surveys indicate that few among us are close to perfect about them. The main surprise, if there is one, has to do with consciousness, putting your inner sense of well-being first and foremost. But the body's intelligence always goes back to the feedback loops that sustain every cell, tissue, and organ. These loops are in process; they aren't material structures like the liver and kidneys. You don't have direct control over invisible processes like liver enzymes and the rise and fall of hormones. Yet if you are secure in being the author of your own existence, your body gets the message, and then you can have confidence that it will reflect your positive awareness through a state of wellness.
I am sorry to paint with such a broad brush. Many people want a specific answer about cancer or Alzheimer's; already pressured by ill health, they want an alternative to conventional drugs and surgery, which means for most that the goal is immediate, painless healing. Such healing does exist, but it is elusive, unpredictable, and quite variable. One day the higher health will encompass healing treatments that today exist on the fringes. Our understanding isn't there yet, which is why so much remains to explore in the world's traditional healing systems, East and West. What I've offered here seems general, but it is powerful nonetheless. Becoming the author of your own life is a high spiritual goal, but the body shouldn't be left behind on the journey. In the end, the body benefits from the path to higher consciousness as much as the mind and spirit.
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