News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

The new health metric — capacity for compassion

As I sit down to write this, nearly 375,00 Americans have left us from COVID-19. Many of these deaths were in isolation, away from loved ones, and the chance for processing and goodbyes interrupted by restrictions, adding to the isolation of those grieving.

Thousands (if not millions) more who have been impacted by the virus continue to contend with long-term and sometimes debilitating symptoms that make the motions of life seem daunting. While inexplicable, painful, and unfortunate physical and emotional calamities have always had the potential to intrude upon our lives and those we love, it seems COVID-19 has illuminated the idea that a body in relative working order is ultimately a privilege.

As a mental-health provider with a focus in functional medicine, it seems shallow, if not neglectful, to not talk to my clients about the value of those very basic tenants of wellness: movement; nutrition; sleep; and connection.

In a functional medicine model there is no distinction between mental and physical.

Your body (that, yes, includes your brain) is constantly in an intimate, bidirectional dance, where a move or shift in one system can impact all others. Our emotions are driven by physiological events and can also trigger physiological events. How we treat our emotions and the story we tell ourselves about emotional experiences has a huge impact on our wellness from head to toe. And yet, we still live in a society skittish around confronting emotions and quick to shame or label certain emotions as weak.

I often ask my clients to define what constitutes “health.” What constitutes a “healthy” person? From a holistic perspective and with a bias toward emotional wellness, I have seen many people check all the theoretical boxes watered down by outdated metrics and idealism, and yet be overwhelmed with despair.

Top-ranked in their career, hitting the gym every day, grabbing a green smoothie on their way to work, returning to their meticulously maintained home, and ending their day tuning into their five-minute meditation before they lie in their hypoallergenic bedding, and yet, peeling back the layers of emotional vulnerability is terrifying, as it goes against their continuous quest for perceived control.

I have found in my career that the greatest suffering comes in running away from emotion, not the emotions themselves. As we habituate distraction, numbing, and running, the disconnect that transpires can impact our whole-body wellness, our relationships, and our spirit.

As we enter the new year and in the pursuit of new goals and resolutions, I want to challenge you with a definition of health that transcends the number on the scale, dietary habits, blood pressure, or cholesterol.

My personal definition of health is:

Cultivating a lifestyle, relational landscape, and spirituality that maximizes our capacity for compassion and connection.

Much of how society tells us to constitute health is altogether shallow. Why are you losing that 10 pounds, cutting out carbs, or dusting off the treadmill? Pursuing a goal without meaningful clarity is unsustainable.

If we are honest with ourselves, most of our pursuits for better health have roots in seeking connection. Some of us simply don’t like to admit that because in doing so, we are admitting vulnerability. Somewhere underneath the aesthetics of a slimmer waistline is probably the desire to be more accepted, seen, and acknowledged.

I will not pretend to have been immune to the emotional rollercoaster of the past year. My inner empath has felt heavy, and the reassurances for myself and others sometimes sparse. Nevertheless, I acknowledge the energy that I put forth has consequences both personally and professionally. And that goes for all of us. The energy I bring into sessions with clients or bring home to those I love matters. Safeguarding that energy is a daily, intentional practice that sometimes feels like an uphill battle.

As I wake up in the early morning hours seeing frost on the ground or the rain pouring down, there is little motivation to put on my layers, don my headlamp, and run the handful of miles I do while dodging icy puddles and muttering resentments that I can’t be warm in the comfort of my currently closed gym (thank you for your pity).

Ultimately, I run those miles because I know it makes me a more productive, pleasant person, more likely to be compassionate and connected. The same goes for the sleep I get, the foods I put in my mouth, who I spend my time with and my spiritual practices. These lifestyle choices matter, not simply because they check a box, but because they are critical to how I show up in this world and are the provisions needed for me to be a kinder human. In my view, that elevates them from mainstream recommendations to sacred and yes, a privilege.

Our world has always had its challenges. This past year it’s been a doozy and undoubtedly, there will be more challenges ahead. It is easy to burn out and hit the metaphorical (or literal) snooze button time and again. Denial is the ultimate form of disconnect. With all the pain and loss, it is easy to harden our hearts, feel defensive, take sides and lean into anger rather than compassion. It takes courage to confront the pain, but rather than hardening our hearts, we can seek to strengthen them.

Simply put, when we can nourish, move, and rest our bodies, and ground our spirit, this strength comes easier.


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