Beyond Paleo#13

chain

Recently, someone asked me which step is the most important in attaining perfect health.

My first response was that, despite the title of the series, there’s no such thing as perfect health. One of the few things we can be certain of in this life is that we are all dying from the moment we’re born. If such a thing as perfect health existed, and we could attain it, we’d be immortal. (And based on resource limits and the destruction humanity has wrought on this planet, immortality would be an absolute disaster – but that’s another story.)

However, we can take steps toward perfect health, and that’s why I wrote the series. Among those steps, it’s impossible to say which is most important because the answer will vary from person to person. Most of us want black and white answers to questions like this, because they provide the illusion of safety and certainty. We want the answer to be the same for everyone, because it’s easier to follow a system or a prescription than it is to find our own way. And as tribal animals, we humans like to be part of a group. Hence the power of social movements, whether we’re talking about the Paleo/Primal lifestyle or the popularity of Justin Bieber.

So, while I can’t tell you what the most important of the steps is for you, I can tell you what the biggest obstacle to perfect health is for most people: their own mind.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link

What I’ve observed in myself, in working with patients and in almost 20 years of meditation practice is that each of us has a significant blind spot or area in our lives where we lack awareness and insight. As a crude analogy, let’s call this a weak link in our chain and assume that the chain represents health.

Most of us invest the majority of our time and energy strengthening the parts of our chain that are already strong. These stronger links are where we feel comfortable and confident, where we can operate safely within the bounds of who we think we are.

And this is where the problem lies. No matter how much we strengthen the links in our chain that are already strong, if there’s still a weak link the chain as a whole isn’t stronger. It can break just as easily.

A better approach, of course, would be to focus our efforts on the strengthening the weak link. But that is much, much harder to do. Why? Because it usually requires us to step out of our concept of self and challenge our very identity. It asks us to grow and evolve and shine the light of awareness into the dark corners of our psyche. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s not as simple as popping a pill or eliminating nightshades from our diet. It’s a life’s work.

Meet Joe Paleo and his weak link

To make this even more clear, let’s take a hypothetical person: Joe Paleo. He was a high-school and college athlete and has been interested in nutrition and fitness his entire life. He’s on a Paleo diet, does Cross-fit and takes all the right supplements. But he’s still not as healthy as he’d like to be. He’s a little overweight, he’s tired, and he’s not sleeping well.

So he starts to tweak his diet. Is dairy the issue? Should he add white rice, or be completely grain free? How many carbs? What about intermittent fasting? He also tries some new supplements and makes adjustments to his exercise routine. But Joe still doesn’t feel better.

Why isn’t Joe getting better? Because he’s just strengthening the parts of his chain that are already strong – and ignoring the weak links. In Joe’s case, it may be that stress management or practicing pleasure are the weak links. But his first challenge in addressing them is that he’s not even fully aware that stress or a lack of pleasure are problems.

This is where our own minds become the biggest obstacle in our quest for perfect health: we often can’t see what our weakest links are, because, by definition, those are areas where we lack awareness or insight.

But even once we become aware of what our weak links are, it’s still difficult to work with them. We’re fighting against a lifetime of conditioned beliefs about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. In Joe Paleo’s case, perhaps he was raised in a family that didn’t value rest or pleasure, but placed a high premium on success and accomplishment. This makes it hard for him to carve out time to relax or have fun.

What about me?

My own weak link is pleasure/fun. I’ve got the diet dialed in. Exercise? No problem. I’m even very committed to stress management. But what often falls through the cracks for me is making time for pleasure and fun.

I know this is the weak link in my chain, because the periods of my life where I’ve emphasized it have been the periods when I’ve enjoyed the best health. But lately, as I’ve been immersed in running a busy private practice, teaching, launching products and preparing for the arrival of my first child, I haven’t made much time for pleasure or fun. And my health has suffered as a result.

My commitment to myself is to try to do one purely pleasurable or fun activity each day. Some days I’m more successful than others, and I always have to look out for the tendency to fall back into my old pattern.

If you want perfect health, focus on your weakest link

This article got a bit longer than I intended, but here’s the point: if you want to move closer to perfect health, focus on your weakest link. And if you need help identifying it, it’s the area you’re least likely to value as important and the place you feel most uncomfortable or uncertain about yourself.

Remember the 80/20 rule I wrote about earlier, where 20% of your effort will yield 80% of the results? That’s just another way of expressing what we’re talking about here. Just a little bit of attention on your weak links will produce a huge benefit. On the other hand, even relatively massive efforts to strengthen the links that are already strong won’t lead to much improvement.

So what’s your weak link? And what commitment can you make to yourself to strengthen it?