what is health?

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All the things we really care about as a collective are grounded in good health. Well-being, compassion, creativity, love, intelligence, empathy, even economic productivity. Conversely, all the things we could do without - suffering, hatred, intolerance, gluttony, egotism, greed - are symptoms of poor health. However self-evident this assertion might seem, within our current cultural context, it’s an apparently non-obvious idea. That’s because we live in a world that doesn’t understand, or at least fails to appreciate, the primacy of health. That’s not to say we don’t have good intentions. We do. We value progress and so we focus on its proxies - economic growth, productivity, employment. Thus we concern ourselves with the political and economic policies that we believe would most move these needles. However, while preoccupied with such measures, we mostly ignore the fundamental reality that, behind the facts and figures, there are real human beings, and that it’s the quality of these beings that determine the quality of our reality. Therefore if we are sincere in our aspirations for a better world, instead of focusing solely on the outward signs of progress, we should redirect our attention to the source: our health. To improve the quality of our existence, we must improve the quality of our very being. But before we can do so, we must first begin to understand health, for the extent to which this idea seems outlandish is a reflection of the extent to which we misapprehend the matter entirely.

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What is health?

Much of our confusion and lack of appreciation for health is the product of the narrow popular conception of the word. To most, health means ‘to not be sick’, a feeling characterised by a subjective sense of well-being. While it’s not a wholly inaccurate characterisation, it falls well short of a true and enlightened understanding. As is the nature of heuristics, our health heuristic leaves no room for nuance. The conception we use to categorise health is a small and flimsy box we’ve constructed to help us carry a vast, layered and slippery subject. To comprehend it more intelligibly, we need a bigger box.

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Health is everything. It’s the sum of every facet of the human experience. There are many ways to think about it. Yogis think of it in terms of the four subtle bodies, or kosas: the energetic body (pranayama kosa), the mental body (manomaya kosa), the intellectual body (vijnanamaya kosa), and the bliss or soul body (anandamaya kosa). The Chinese view health in terms of three inseparable and deeply intertwined dimensions, called the Three Treasures (san bao): jing (essence, body), chee (energy, breath), and shen (spirit, mind). Similarly, Tibetan Buddhism has a concept called the three kaya: dharmakaya (mind), sambhogahaya (energy), and nirmanakaya (body). In Western medicine, historically, health has been viewed through a two-dimensional prism: mind (the psychological), and body (the physical). However, a third dimension, the spiritual, is fast becoming accepted (about time). The similarity of these conceptual frameworks (established for the most part independently), is unlikely to be mere coincidence. Instead, it seems as though they represent a fundamental insight into the nature of human health, a revealed truth about the very essence of our existence. We are tripartite beings, comprised of mind, body and spirit. Health is therefore best understood as a reflection of the functionality, integration, and synergism of these three dimensions. The reason “health is everything” is that there’s no aspect of the human experience that is not a function of one or all of these dimensions. Our physical and intellectual capabilities, our capacity to feel, our sense of self, the way we experience the world, the quality of our humanness itself. Health underpins it all. Recognising this is the necessary first step towards acting on it. Realising that improving our health is the key to a better existence is the essential ingredient for a radically better future (and present). But first we must cleanse ourselves of our current constrained notions of health.

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Fitness is not a synonym for health. Fitness refers to a component of the physical dimension of health. It’s important to understand they are not one and the same. Any wise health protocol should pay focus to fitness, but to pursue fitness as a sole means of achieving health is to miss the mark.

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Health is not merely the absence of sickness. Health is not binary, it’s a spectrum. Accordingly, our aim should be to consistently elevate our health, the limits of which are yet unknown, rather than simply “to be healthy”.

Health is not all about body composition. Body composition is one’s ratio of muscle to fat. A healthy body composition is an important facet and reliable indicator of health, but it’s far from the whole deal. Same as with fitness, focusing purely on body composition is to miss the rest of the picture. It’s simply one piece of one of those tricky big-kid puzzles.

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Health is mirrored by many things; how well your brain works, how you look, how you feel, how you make others feel, how you move, how you live. Health is the flame of life burning bright within. Health is happiness. Health is compassion. Health is consciousness. Health is love. Health is good physiological function. Health is psychological stability. Health is spiritual attunement. Health is adaptiveness. Health is dynamism. Health is homeostasis. And it’s in our hands.

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Just as it’s important we understand what health is, it’s also important we learn to identify poor health. In the absence of an enlightened conceptual framework for health, we’ve become accustomed to identifying sickness in only its most blatantly visible manifestations, and blind to its more subtle signs. And in the absence of accessible and comprehensive diagnostics, it’s up to us to know when our health isn’t up to scratch. Fortunately, our sensory apparatus and an observant mind, having evolved over millions of years to do the job, is often all the equipment we need. By making use of the tools that the invisible hand of natural selection has gifted us, we can run a battery of tests to help us discern when our health is hindered.

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The tests are simple. If you constantly feel like sh*t, you’re not healthy. If your brain operates slower than your phone after you’ve gone over your plan, you’re not healthy. If life scares you, you’re not healthy. If you feel as though the world is conspiring against you, you’re also not healthy. If you’re a slave to your impulses, you’re not healthy. If you wake up looking like a puffy marshmallow, you’re probably not healthy. If your friends and family can’t stand your company, you’re not healthy. If you’re not comfortable with the skin you’re in, you’re definitely not healthy. If you derive more pleasure out of looking at other people’s lives than living your own, you’re not healthy. If you measure your self-worth by the material you own, you know you’re not healthy. If you’re perpetually dwelling on the past, you’re not healthy. If you’re incessantly anticipating the future, likewise, you’re not healthy. There’s a near infinite number of signs that signal poor health. Pay attention to them so you can guard against them. Know thyself to know thy health.

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Nathan McNiece