What is Wellness?

I’m currently enrolled in a distance herbal medicine course and one of the first essay prompts we were given was, “What does wellness mean to you?” I’ve been sitting on this prompt for ages because well, I don’t know so I’ve kept it in the back of my mind and though I still don’t have a clear answer (and most likely never will) I finally feel ready to tackle the question.

Wellness was first presented to me as a concept in comparison to health. One could be healthy and well, unhealthy and well, unwell and healthy etc, etc. Health, it was explained, is something generally defined by modern medicine i.e. normal BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol whereas wellness is more of a state of mind or outlook. To put it simply, wellness is a journey and health is a destination (albeit a destination that constantly shifts). The two of course, will intersect at points, but they are still not the same thing. That made sense to me, of course our habits and outlook effect our health. In light of this I tried my very best to shift my habits and think happy thoughts and waited for the miraculous day when I would wake up with boundless energy singing to the vermin in my house like a disney princess. I’m still waiting…

I was on a hike with some friends and someone said something very profound, “healing”, they said, “does not mean you will feel well,” this immediately resonated with me in a way the previous paradigm had never managed to. I suppose it is because deep down the idea of health has always seemed so ephemeral…it felt like in my quest for it I was journeying to a place that may very well not exist and that like a deranged Don Quixote I was chasing windmills and not dragons. For many of us it may very well be deranged to seek out what is institutionally declared to be good health as the only way to achieve those numbers or states of mind come from treatments that ultimately cause just as much damage as the perceived “problem”. So, in practice I had already thrown out the ideal of health in a quest for wellness reasoning that life is a winding road and I should just enjoy the ride and trust that through that process I would get as close to “health” as was possible for my body. But to be perfectly honest much of this wellness ride has not been very enjoyable at all. So when my friend relayed those words to me, words that had been given to her by a Nepali Shaman, I immediately felt a huge wave of relief. Maybe I’m not doing this all wrong after all. I also thought that maybe I needed to redefine what wellness meant to me on a personal level rather than worry about someone else’s definition.

We live in a culture that has attempted to eradicate all that is bitter from our lives. This can be beautifully summarized in a line from a song in the children’s film Mary Poppins where a psychotic, narcissistic nanny deludes her wards into cleaning their room by stating, “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” That may very well be true, but as every beginning western herbalist learns that bitter taste is the medicine. It is that taste that stimulates the liver to produce bile and aids in digestion. If you were to mask that with sugar you would not be getting the full benefit of the medicine and simultaneously setting yourself up for tooth decay and chronic health problems…which is precisely what we are seeing in staggering numbers. This is no different than when we attempt to eliminate that which is unpleasant from our emotional lives. We mourn because we loved deeply. We get angry because the worthiness of life is seriously questioned and abused on a daily basis. To deny that is to deny that which gives life its meaning. That is why I have struggled with positive psychology for all of these years, not because I want to stew in my own misery, but because I see pain as a valuable teacher and no amount of internet platitudes can capture the complexity and beautiful nuance of what it means to be human.

The American writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell ascertains that the greatest journey we can take is the quest for spiritual truth inside the soul, “the hero is the human being who dares descend into the darkest depths of the unconscious –to the very source of our creative power – and there confronts the monsters thrown up by the fright-stricken infant psyche. As the hero pursues the journey, the phantoms and dragons all vanish or lose power or even become allies” (Gabor Maté on Joseph Campbell). This is not what we are being sold by the health and wellness industry. We are being told that if we do everything right (or buy their products and programs) that we will cease to suffer, when really  lessening our suffering requires us to get very intimate with it first.

I want to make it clear that I am not saying that good nutrition, exercise and self-care are not important; they are. I’m also not saying we should not strive for health because a healthy body greatly increases quality of life and our ability to strive for wellness.I suppose what I am saying is that we must accept any limitations our bodies and souls may have in a loving and compassionate way which includes allowing ourselves to get upset, but also permitting ourselves to have a sense of humor about it and only at that point do we have any hope for something better. In essence, what wellness really means to me is the willingness to face our monsters without knowing the outcome, accepting the risk and acknowledging that we are worth it.

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