April 19, 2017
When I first discovered the world of holistic health and nutrition, and saw the ignorance from whence I had come, I thought my health problems would be gone forever. It would be easy — all I needed to do was to implement the information I was discovering.
This was the formula I’d learned in school. Find the answer, and the problem is solved. Do what you are told. I’d been told the wrong information, but now I’d discovered the right.
Perhaps the reader has also experienced that rush of excitement, and that fresh surge of motivation that follows it. Finally, the answer! It’s blue-green algae! Lions mane mushrooms! Far infrared sauna! Vitamin D supplementation! Structured water! Negative ions! Adaptogenic herbs! High-intensity short duration exercise! Alkalizing the blood! Omega-3 fatty acids! Veganism. Paleo. Raw. Fasting….
Yes, it wasn’t long before I encountered a problem: Information overload. No one can implement all of these, even if they didn’t sometimes contradict each other (vegan and paleo for instance). At some point one wonders, how many “must have” supplements must I have? A rebelliousness sets in: it isn’t supposed to be so complicated. Should a person have to sift through numerous scientific articles just to be healthy? (Or trust someone to do it for them?) How do we know which expert to trust? In a more innocent time, we trusted the (supposedly) impartial self-correcting mechanisms of scientific publishing. When the flaws in that system are exposed — the influence of money and politics, the quashing of dissent, the institutionalized confirmation bias — then what is left? Whom do we trust, when the old authorities are discredited and so many new ones are vying for our attention, many with a product to sell?
The response I’ve worked with for fifteen years has been to develop inner authority as a way to cut through the fog of so many dubious and contradictory outer authorities. Inner authority is based on sensitivity to, and trust in, the communication coming from the body. That is easier said than done in an age of distraction, in an age of dissociation from the body, and in a society that constantly asks us to surrender our sovereignty to medical, educational, and other authorities. The formula for doing it right that I learned in school — to find the answers out there — is itself part of the problem.
To establish inner authority means to learn to distinguish authentic appetites from desires that come from displaced needs. Needs are displaced when the the thing we really want, the thing that meets the need, is unavailable, whether through circumstance, lack of knowledge, or emotional blockage. The unmet need could be for something like intimacy, meaning, connection to nature, fulfilling work, or adventure. An unmet need generates both discomfort and desire, and that desire often gets channeled onto something — such as junk food, overeating, alcohol, or another addiction — that doesn’t meet the actual need. For example, someone who lacks deep, unconditional self-acceptance might be compelled to frequently give themselves a treat to confirm (on an unconscious level), “Yes, I am a good girl. I am loved.” Or maybe you eat because you are lonely. Or snacking offers a respite from a lite that is just a little intolerable.
This leads to a second reason why finding correct information may only be a first step: Just because you know what to do doesn’t mean you will actually do it. People bring things into their bodies — and their lives — all the time that they know are not good for them. We do things that we have vowed to abstain from, and fail to do what we’ve promised ourselves. Why?
Until we can resolve this question, having the right information will not be enough. Displaced needs explain a lot of it. if the real need is for intimacy, no amount of sugar — which gives a momentary experience of something like intimacy, and momentary relief from the discomfort of it — will be enough to meet that need. You can eat it and eat it, and blame yourself for your weak willpower, but actually it is just that you are trying to meet a need. Maybe the reason it is unmet is that the marriage has become stagnant and real communication has broken down. Maybe secrets and pretenses are in the way of true intimacy. Changing your diet or switching supplements is unlikely to change that. But then maybe you have a breakthrough in your relationship, and voila — the craving goes away. Until then, the sugar is helping to maintain the status quo.
Various addictions usually fit this pattern. Coffee as a substitute for the natural motivation of following a life purpose. Gambling as a substitute for taking bold risks. News addiction as a substitute for a feeling of power and agency. I’m grossly generalizing and simplifying here, but I think you get the idea. You cannot make an addict stop using by telling him that it’s “bad for you.” You cannot make yourself stop that way either. The information is not enough, and neither is the kind of willpower that comes through a regime of threats and incentives.
How then can we identify and meet the displaced needs? How can we know when a food or a practice or a supplement is meeting a real need? And how can we align desire and discipline so that we can choose beneficial things effortlessly, and effortlessly avoid that which harms? The answer to all three of these questions comes from the same fundamental practice. Put simply, the answer is available through the power of attention directed toward the body and its sensory experience. When we can fully receive and integrate the experience of taking something into the body (or into life), then we know it on a body level; we know what it is and what it is not. Then it take no more willpower to decline harmful foods than it does to stop from jamming your thumb into your eye. Because you know, on a body level, that it hurts.
To establish this kind of direct feedback, so that harmful things become repellent and helpful things become attractive, requires integrating body responses over time. It also requires unlearning a lot of habits that seem totally normal in our culture, and bringing into consciousness the unconscious ways in which we avoid feeling.
I give a fuller description of this process in my online course, Dietary Transformation from the Inside Out, including meditations and take-home practices to reprogram new habits over a period of a few weeks. The goal is to establish a kind of ease and freedom, a release of struggle, an aligning of health and pleasure, and a trust in inner authority.
I hope I have not unduly simplified a complex issue in this brief article. Another crucial piece of the puzzle include the ways our culture deadens us to subtle body information and how to recover sensitivity to it. Even more important, perhaps, is the realization that a state of diet is a state of being — something must shift before a person is ready to inhabit a higher level of vitality. If the readiness is there, new health habits are easy to adopt. if it is not, then the energy coming from the miracle supplement or superfood or yoga practice will just be consumed by a correspondingly intensified addictive habit. Maybe you’ll feel great so you’ll drink more to bring you down to an energy level that fits your life right now.
Truly, the journey toward better health leaves no aspect of life untouched.
Of course, none of this means that information from researchers and experts is useless. It is in fact extremely valuable, because it gives the techniques I describe something to operate on. It opens up a new menu of possibilities on which to exercise inner authority.
Furthermore, there is a natural complementarity between the inner, attention-based process I’ve mentioned and the world of natural or holistic health. We sense a kinship between them, because both are part of a transition from a belief system in which well-being comes through the domination or conquest of nature, to one in which nature is our ally and teacher. Both also affirm that health is not a matter of fighting the body — neither imposing pharmaceutical control over it, nor imposing willpower over it based on mental knowledge. Holistic health isn’t about substituting one body of expert opinion for another. It is about reclaiming our power through a return to nature.