In our quest for optimal bodies, optimal skin, optimal hair, and optimal minds, we face a danger – the delusion that life is a consumer product and we the disgruntled customer. We believe that if things aren’t quite right, we’ll just keep shopping until they are. As soon as all my desires are met, we think, everything will be fine. But life is short, and death inevitable. We can’t shop our way out of that. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about health a little differently.
Health is not mastery and control. Health is cooperation with the will of nature. Our best healthcare practices augment and amplify the restorative processes already underway. When we pray for healing we are not issuing marching orders to an otherwise indifferent supernatural entity. God, or nature, will not be coerced. True prayer is a sacred opportunity to abandon fear and come into accord with what is. “Prayer doesn’t change God,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “but it changes him who prays.”
It’s a miracle that any of us are even alive. When you consider the baffling complexity of the human body-mind system it staggers the imagination. How on earth did such an intricate web of consciousness and matter ever arise, let alone survive? But it did. A round of applause, please, for Mother Nature.
Optimal health is a noble pursuit. We have every right to feel good, be strong, and thrive. For Aristotle, this innate urge for optimization sets us on the path toward our best lives. It’s only natural that we put these big brains to work finding and perfecting ways to increase our well-being. Science has brought us a long way. We understand things we didn’t used to understand about the workings of the mind and body. But all our collective knowledge is still a façade, a veil behind which lays a vast and unknowable mystery – the namelessness of being.
In Greek tragedy, the fatal flaw of the protagonist is called hubris, or excessive pride. Most of the time this malady manifests itself as thinking erroneously that we’re in control. It is the downfall of Oedipus, and it is our downfall too. Our medical and scientific prowess has spawned an illusion, namely, that we’re running the show. Again and again nature rears up to remind us of the folly of our collective hubris.
There are three mistakes we make.
First, we view death as a curable disease, an enemy to be vanquished with our cleverness. Instead, we must learn to see death as a part of the natural cycle, as beautiful and welcome as birth.
Second, we view healthcare as overcoming nature, rather than cooperating with it. We falsely frame our efforts as combat – the war on cancer, the war on Alzheimer’s, the war on mental illness. Instead, we must frame our healthcare efforts as cooperation with natural processes already unfolding.
Last, we mistake influence for control. Thanks to modern surgical practices, increasingly insightful therapeutic modalities, and modern pharmacology, we exert enormous influence over our mind-body systems. But we are still gnats flying in a hurricane – so much of what transpires is far outside our influence, let alone control.
The bottom line: We are self-healing. It is the body’s nature to correct its imbalances, and to eventually wither and fail. At their best, our healing modalities are an effort to co-create the conditions in which the body can best heal itself, and when the time comes, let go and accept our impermanence. We are not in control. We never were. Health is not a consumer commodity to be purchased and possessed, any more than a beautiful sunset is. You can’t own the sky, and you don’t control the movements of the stars and planets. So too we don’t control our health. Health is not something you have – it’s something you are. The best and brightest healthcare professionals understand this. They see their role as optimizers, not controllers. They know what the rest of us are still learning – that health is our natural state, and it is more allowed than achieved.
[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column as "How to Thrive" in the November/December 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]