When Health Becomes A Hinderance

Health is — according to this construal of Reality — everything. That is, to be more precise, everything that matters. Thus to be healthier is, by definition, to be better in the broadest sense. If something is Bad, to consider the obverse, it is so only by virtue of its antithetical relationship to health. Accordingly, there is no such thing as “too much health”. There might, however, exist qualities that are generally associated with health that, if concentrated beyond a certain point, could result in corollary harms to one’s health. Indeed we know this to be the case. Too much intellect, for instance, could conceivably — and apparently does from time to time — result in some attendant loss of sociability and thus whatever negative psychological/emotional impact such must invariably entail. But that does not mean that too much health, in itself, can be of harm — it only means that, in practice, there exist certain psychological/physiological tradeoffs, and that an assessment of one’s health — the sum total of the quality of our Being — must take into account all the relevant factors (however practically infeasible that may be). The basic claim here is that one’s health value (let us call it H) is the measure of the value of one’s life, and that, like many a Good thing, more — in the case of health — is in fact merrier. H+1, in all cases, is preferable to H. The only counterexamples one could provide — where H is greater (morally speaking) than H+1 — would be where circumstances (physiological/psychological/environmental) that are relevant to one’s health value have been excluded. Just as 2+2 will always realise a sum greater than 3, H+1 will always equal more, in moral terms, than H alone. So, yeah, math.

Conceptually, there’s nothing the matter with health as a philosophical orientation. As a value that subsumes all others, it’s the ultimate end-game. More health, more life, more fun. It’s a rather straight-forward matter: Health is good; indeed, the Good. If we can be sure that the actions we are to take will result in an increase in the totality of our health, we ought to take them. And yet, there are certain practical issues inherent in orienting one’s life towards it. Namely, the fact that it can — if only partially digested — result in a quasi-scientific, mechanical way of living that is, really, no way of living at all. You see, when one first comprehends the primacy of health, and then comes to learn that there are certain things that reliably promote it and others that diminish it, it’s natural that one would then begin to integrate — into the fabric of one’s life — increasingly more of the former and ever-less of the latter. However, in doing so, there is a risk that, in all their revelatory excitement, one begins to miss the forest for the trees — conflating the virtues of generally “health-promoting” activities with the value of health itself — that is, living good while helping others do the same. The problem with health, as an orientation, is thus: embedded in a highly analytical framework as it is, it can produce in one — if one is not careful — something like an Aspergic approach to life. That is, a way of living that is purely in the head — one that makes sense on paper, perhaps, yet no sense at all to the human heart.

The issue inherent to this particular philosophy of life is not unique. Rather it’s an issue inherent to all explicit philosophy’s of life — indeed an issue that characterises the human condition generally. That is, the tension between the analytical/rational mode of Being, on one hand, and the intuitive/irrational, on the other. While there is a certain artificiality/arbitrariness to the demarcation between these two modes — for there is a certain sense in which reason and emotion are inseparable expressions of a fundamentally singular intelligence — there is nevertheless a meaningful distinction to be drawn between them. For all practical intents and purposes, there is a way of Being that has to do with abstraction, reduction, concepts and ideas; and then there is this other way of Being that is entirely free of said constructs, one that has to do only with presence and felt experience. How we negotiate these two modes of human Being, which we favour/emphasise, in large part determines the character of our lives. There are those who decide, whether implicitly or explicitly, that reason is the higher form of living, that which separates us from the animals and therefore that which is most worthy of pursuit. There are others, however, indeed an entire romantic tradition, that consider reason/rationality to be — at bottom — an obfuscation of human experience; a fundamentally perverse edifice that is layered on top of experience, ultimately to its great detriment.

The thing about human life is that it’s messy, rife with paradox and contradiction. There are times where the right thing to do is, on some level, the wrong thing; times when the sensible thing is, in actual fact, the least sensible thing imaginable. Becoming fully human is, at least in part, the process of learning to navigate these ambiguities of existence, of finding peace within paradox. Accordingly, as much as the philosophy of health provides one with a way of focusing one’s life, a rational and expansive framework for orienting oneself towards the Good, it’s at least equally important that one learns to recognise the limits of any such framework. Ideas and concepts and beliefs and values are all great, but they’re very much secondary to what matters most: being connected to the Reality of the present moment, living in harmony with the flux of phenomena, at one with the Tao/Logos. That is, experience that precedes concepts. The philosophy of health, as with any good philosophy, provides us with a system of thoughts for helping support our lives — not the other way round. The ideas exist to service our experience; they’re means to an end rather than ends in themselves. Life is for living, after all, and so too are ideas.

To make the abstract somewhat less so, consider the various means by which we might presently cultivate health: exercise, meditation, nutrition, sleep, learning etc. In pursuing health, as an end, it’s easy to become caught up with the means — that is, the tools and technologies we employ to service our health. It’s easy, for instance, to become fixated on meditation and hence orient one’s life towards it and yet utterly fail to integrate what is significant about meditation into the fabric of one’s experience. See, the point of meditation is not to become a great meditator per se; the point is not sitting cross-legged for prolonged periods of time, though that’s what it tends to entail. Instead, the point is to take what meditation reveals about the nature of mind and integrate those insights into our moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is, in Reality, no distinction between our lives on the cushion and our lives beyond them, only that which we arbitrarily draw ourselves. All our formal meditation practice is is an explicit symbol of our intention to cultivate wholesome qualities of mind — to reconnect with what’s True — while uprooting those unwholesome patterns, so that we might improve our experience and in-so-doing, improve the experience of others. The point, in other words, is not to become better meditators but rather better humans. And so it is with the rest of health-promoting practices and modalities. We employ them to service the quality of our humanity, to affect the quality of our experience and the creative potential of our Being. Though it’s sensible to find meaning and value in the practices themselves — for the process is all there is — it’s nevertheless important to appreciate that the practices are subservient to experience. Just as they might better our experience, if we employ them effectively, there also comes a point at which they can impede upon it — where our relationship to said practices becomes simply another expression of our underling neuroses. We might, for instance, develop an obsession with nutrition and subsequently become pathologically concerned with the foodstuffs we put inside our bodies. Though we might, at some level of our organism, be made healthier by said obsession, we’re also feeding, on another level, fear and pedantry and self-consciousness — qualities of mind we are better without.