I don’t often talk about physical health. The reason I don’t is there is talk about it everywhere else and, since there is so much information, I tend to think everybody is already taking care of it… but of course this is not really the case.
I had two reasons when I decided to make a note about it. On the one hand, to remind people that, even if I don’t mention it so often, I still find physical health of great importance.
The second reason is because from my point of view, the way it is often talked about is misguided − in the sense that it is often mentioned as something important in itself. But in my understanding, physical health is certainly an issue that has to be taken care of, but not for itself but as a way to reach something else. The important thing about physical health is that when we are healthy, we don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about it. It is like shoes − when we have a pair that is tight, we feel them, we are aware of them. But when the shoes fit well on our feet, we don’t notice them anymore.
And this is really the idea behind being physically healthy: if we stop being distracted with our health, if we don’t allow it to take a lot of our time and energy1, we will be able to put our attention into more useful things.
More useful things means, for starters, taking care of our emotional and intellectual health, of our emotions and thoughts. But even this kind of health is very often overrated, as it is also considered important in itself. Especially in our modern society – a very ‘psychological oriented’ kind of society – we tend to take our emotional health as an end in itself. But again, the only reason we want to have an emotionally healthy life is in order to allow our mind to be clear and pure and uncontaminated with too many unhealthy emotions, like rage, jealousy, depression and worry. And when the mind is clear and available it can have the interest and the attention span necessary to search and discover what could be called the meaning of life or the truth of life: What are we doing here? Who or what are we? What is life about? What is God? What is suffering? Why do we suffer? What is love? What is truth? What is eternity? It’s these questions, and many others, that our attention could go to, at least in some of our time. But for this to happen, it is of great advantage to have a healthy body and a healthy mind.
The reason why we take our thoughts and emotions so seriously, why they are so overrated, is because we believe we are our thoughts and emotions, we believe we are our feelings, our ideas, our opinions, our points of view. But we are neither our thoughts, nor our emotions, but the silent-presence that is aware of them. But again, what is this presence? What is this silent aware?
And so, in order for any of these questions to have true power, our thoughts and emotions need, to a certain extent, to become quieter and take less space. It is only then that our mind can shine and become that amazingly beautiful tool that it actually is.
Our mind is the only medium we have to experience life, and so, if the mind is dusted with everyday physical illness, difficult emotions and negative thoughts, we will see a much dusted world. But when the mind is clearer and less contaminated (either by health, by wisdom, or both), it will have the space and interest to discover that there is a shining world; it will have the space to realize the beauty and magnificence of what we really are.
And so, in talking about physical health, I will refer to four main points2.
1) What we eat. At the moment, there is so much information gravitating around the subject of food and acess to it is so readily available in this Internet era that it’s easy to be overwhelmed with talk about what to eat, how much, what diet we should be on etc. From my point of view, unless one is really sick – in which case a specific diet recommended by a specific doctor can be very useful – I believe we should not get too involved in diets; my advice is to forget about dieting and instead, simply focus on trying to eat as healty as you can and by that I mean:
Choose foods that are local and preferably, in season.
Stay away from processed foods.
Eat less sugar, wheat and saturated fats.
Eat more food that is ‘alive’, meaning raw fruit and vegetables.
Add whole grains, seeds and nuts into the diet.
Limit your intake of meat products.
Try to find time to cook more at home.
Eat smaller quantities of food. Try to always leave an empty space in your stomach and never get up from the table full. We eat so much not because we need it, but as a way to fill a void and to cover up our emotional problems, and this is something that is really damaging for our bodies. We should never ever try to resolve our emotional issues with food.
Give yourself time to eat. We should really try to not eat in a rush; even if we cannot do it every day, we should try to have a particular time dedicated to eating.
2) Moving your body. I teach yoga classes and many of the people reading this note are probably attending some of them. But going to a yoga class, or any other kind of gym once or twice a week is not enough. We need to move daily, and if we have a job that demands that we are seated for many hours, we need to be creative about it. We could get up half an hour earlier and do some gym; walk to and from work; go up and down the stairs instead of taking the elevator etc.
We need to move. Of course what many people say is that they don’t have the time. Well, the truth is if we don’t have some time voluntarily to give to health, later we will be forced to give double the time for sickness.
3) Engage in an activity that is pleasant to you. Your every day job should be something that, to a certain extent, is agreeable to you. It should not be something that you suffer from or that you hate. One of the reasons (there can be many others) we allow ourselves to do a job we dislike is because we make money. Of course money is necessary, but luxury is not, and we should never sacrifice our health for it. One of the problems with luxury is that in our modern societies it is so common that in many cases it becomes a necessity. We need to learn to distinguish between a good life, and a luxurious life. If we don’t (unless we have the destiny of having easy access to money) sooner or later we will have to use the money we make to get our health back. In the beginning we sacrifice our health for the money, but sooner or later, we will have to sacrifice money for health, and we often can’t get it back, because it is too late. Whatever job you have, do not let it go against the obvious rules of health. And above all, enjoy what you do, or at least, see the need of doing what you are doing, and go for it full heartedly.
4) Sleep well. Get a good night’s sleep. Not everybody needs the same amount of sleep, some people need 5 hours a night, some 6, 7 or 8. Whatever our needs are, we should to respect them. But if we need 7 hours a night, for example, we should not sleep 8 or 9. Oversleeping is also a problem.
Without sleep (or with too much sleep) our mind will create a lot of unnecessary problems because when the mind is tired, depleted of sleep (or too numb from oversleeping), it does not function well, which means that it cannot do its main function – taking decisions and choosing between possibilities – well. It could be said that our whole life is nothing but a series of choices between options: shall I do this or that, shall I live here or there, shall I make that phone call now or later, shall I take this job or that one, shall go out or stay home, shall I eat this or not, shall I say it now or later etc. and if the mind is tired or numb, it will think incorrectly, it will say or do the wrong thing, get upset with people, look for blame either in ourselves or in others or just simply take the wrong decisions.
I recently had a conversation with a friend (it could be that the inspiration to write this note came from that conversation). She came to me because she was having a very hard time at work, with the people she was working with, with what she was doing and even with the profession itself. I told her that before we could really discuss her difficulties, she would need to have a couple of good nights of sleep because her mind was too tired, and her problems could really be originating in her impossibility to think about them clearly. To what she immediately replied, almost screaming: ‘But I don’t have the time for it!’
And so, all I could do was look at her and say: well, then, there is really not much I can do, other than try to make you understand that the problems are not necessarily in your job or with the people, but with your impossibility to think clearly about them. As I often mention in my classes or in my writings, we should never say that we don’t have enough time to do whatever it is that we think we should do; what we should say is that we don’t value it enough. We may be extremely busy but if, for example, we suddenly fall in love, at least for a short while we will find the time to be with our beloved. It is not that we don’t have time; it is only that we value other things more. And it is imperative that we learn to value taking care of ourselves3.
An alert, aware mind is the first and main requisite for making any sense out of our everyday life.
1. Without a doubt, health is not completely in our hands. No matter how much we may or may not take care of ourselves, health may be part of our life or it may not. But this fact should never become an excuse for not taking care of ourselves. Like for example, although it is true that all kids will have their own destiny, as a parent, I still need to do my best to offer the best education I can. These are two different realities, and should never be confused.
2. These four points are taken from the Bhagavad Gita, written more than 2000 years ago.
3. The only concern I have about what I just wrote is that there are people (maybe even many people) that spend far too much time taking care of themselves. As I said before, taking care of ourselves should not take too much time and should not be a main activity. It should be just enough so we don’t have to think about it and can dedicate our time and energy to more essential, fundamental issues.