Part 1: A Healthy Brain for Life
The health of the brain is key to the health of the body. Neuroscience is confirming this with new findings every day about the mind-body connection. The human body consists of 50 trillion cells that function perfectly under the same guiding intelligence, and the organ that governs and regulates that intelligence is the brain.
The entire physical system has been designed to maintain life indefinitely. Our cells have perfected specialized functions for each organ and tissue. They've learned to cooperate with one another, staying in constant communication. Modern medicine, for all its advances, knows less than 10% of what your body knows instinctively. Humbling as it is to realize, doctors don’t heal their patients. They facilitate the body's healing system, adding whatever is lacking when self-healing falters.
By the same logic, everything we do to take care of our bodies is just an adjunct to letting our bodies take care of us. This means that we should allow our brains to take care of the body first. The brain and central nervous system send a constant stream of messages creating a feedback loop of information. One side of the feedback loop runs automatically. The other side supports free will and choice, which means that what you decide to do with your life enters the body's feedback loop, gets communicated to every cell, and has repercussions everywhere. As long as you are awake and alive, you are adding to the feedback loop.
Maximize Positive Messages to the Brain
This picture is simple but not simplistic. The brain and central nervous system form an information highway teeming with messages, and these are either positive (enhancing your health and well-being) or negative (injurious to health and wellbeing). Your brain will take care of you for life if you maximize the one and minimize the other. We doubt that anyone would seriously disagree with that proposition, but then we reach a fork in the road. Modern medicine looks at the body's feedback loop almost entirely in physical terms. The subjective world of thoughts, feelings, hopes, wishes, and dreams is discounted. If that world intrudes, as it does in depression, for example, the conventional solution is still physical – take an antidepressant.
The other road is holistic, which doesn't deny the physical but refuses to discount the subjective world. The body doesn't recognize that there is a fork in the road. A chemical signal sent from the brain fits into a receptor site in the outer membrane of the cell wall. The entire feedback loop runs on that mechanism, and as far as the cell is concerned, there is no difference between a message that began as an emotion or mood and one that began as growth hormone or estrogen. Your body couldn't survive a single day without being holistic.
If you want to rise to a higher level of positive responses, you need to re-evaluate the messages you are sending between mind and body.
Your overall goal is to let your brain take care of you so that it can take care of your body. To do that, two things are vital:
1. Create a matrix for a positive lifestyle. You can't make positive choices for the rest of your life without an environment that makes those choices easy, natural, and enjoyable.
2. Create the best inner environment for your brain. The brain processes every experience you have, and it must function well in order for the real controller of your life – the mind – to make its best intentions known.
Let’s discuss the first critical ingredient: Creating a matrix for a positive lifestyle. You can't make positive choices for the rest of your life without an environment that makes those choices easy, natural, and enjoyable. As it stands, we all know what is good for us. The prevention movement has been drumming the needed information into us for decades.
The flaw in the prevention movement has been non-compliance. We are a nation suffering from an epidemic of obesity, for example, turning more and more sedentary despite the good advice that comes from all directions. Unless they've been hibernating, everyone knows that long-term health depends upon a sensible diet and moderate physical exercise every day.
Step 1: Create a Matrix for a Positive Lifestyle
As a first step, let’s stop thinking in terms of discipline and self-control altogether. Some people are prevention saints. They consume only one tablespoon of total fat per day in their diet, because that’s the ideal amount for heart health. They ignore wind and rain to get in five hours of vigorous exercise a week. Saints are inspiring to the rest of us, but deep down they are also discouraging because they remind us that we are a hundred miles from being saintly ourselves.
Making Change Easy
Change without force is certainly possible. What you need is to create a matrix for making better choices. By matrix we simply mean your setup for daily living. Everyone has a matrix already. Some people live inside a setup that makes positive choices much easier than it is for others. A cupboard that doesn’t contain any snack foods would be part of such a matrix. A house without a television or video games would be another, but you aren’t being good to yourself by jogging every day because you have no entertainment at home. In the end the physical side is secondary. A matrix is more substantial and sustainable.
The real key is to live in an environment where the mind feels free to choose the right thing instead of being compelled by habit and inertia to choose the wrong thing.
Matrix for a Positive Lifestyle
Here are the most important steps to creating a lifestyle that supports health, balance, and wellbeing:
- Have good friends.
- Don’t isolate yourself.
- Sustain a lifelong companionship with a spouse or partner.
- Engage socially in worthwhile projects.
- Be close with people who have a good lifestyle – habits are contagious.
- Follow a purpose in life.
- Leave time for play and relaxation.
- Keep up satisfying sexual activity.
- Address issues around anger.
- Practice stress management.
- Deal with the reactive mind’s harmful effects: When you have a negative reaction, stop, stand back, take a few deep breaths, and observe how you’re feeling.
These items have been well correlated with longevity. One thing that links them is very basic: success comes when people act together; failure tends to happen alone. A spouse or life partner who keeps an eye on your diet (“Haven’t you already eaten a cookie today? Have a carrot.”) is better than wandering the supermarket aisles alone and impulsively grabbing a week’s worth of frozen dinners. A friend who goes to the gym three times a week gives you more incentive than all the promises you make to yourself as you watch late-night TV.
It’s important to establish your matrix early and keep it going. Studies have shown that losing a spouse suddenly leads to isolation, depression, higher risk for disease, and ultimately a shortened life span. But if you have a wider social network beyond your spouse, you have a cushion against these baleful influences.
Improve Your Matrix
Carefully look at the other items on the list, asking yourself how you can improve your matrix. The goal is to practice what is good for you while making everything as effortless as possible. This only happens with positive reinforcement. The good news is that as you change your lifestyle, you are training your brain in a positive direction. In time, all the right choices become second nature. Research has shown that the best way to be happy is to make each day happy. The same holds true for the highest state of health, which is wellbeing. Build it day by day and the results will last a lifetime.
Step 2: Create the Right Inner Environment
Your outer environment is only half the story. The second key to lifelong good health is to create the right inner environment, a journey that begins with making the mind-body connection as strong as possible. It’s alarming to consider that 95 cents of every health care dollar is spent after a disease has appeared. This leaves the responsibility for lifelong health in our own hands, which is where it belongs.
Reminder: You are changing your inner and outer matrix so that your body can take care of you. The setup isn’t for more effort, diligence, sacrifice, and stress – quite the opposite. Feedback loops are automatic mechanisms, and once yours is sending positive signals to the body, everything becomes much easier. That is ultimately the point of prevention, to support the body's own power to heal, balance, and regulate itself. Since the control switch for these processes is in the brain, creating the best inner environment for your brain is crucial. Your brain processes every experience you have, and it must function well in order for the real controller of your life – the mind – to make its best intentions known.
The intention to live as long as possible isn't one of the mind's best intentions, because quantity isn't the same as quality. Health span at the physical, mental, and spiritual levels is more important than lifespan.
Intending to live in a state of wellbeing is a higher intention, since it focuses on quality, but few people have devised a credible recipe for wellbeing. There is no recipe. Wellbeing changes as we move through life, which is why a child's version of contentment and fulfillment cannot be the same as an old person's. So what is the common factor that never changes as we age?
The answer is self-awareness.
When you have any experience, your mind is in one of three states: unconscious, aware, and self-aware. The first state leaves health – and wellbeing generally – to chance. If you light up your fifth cigarette of the day without thinking, you are doing something unconsciously, as is the nature of habits. If you see yourself lighting up the cigarette, you are aware of what you're doing. But self-awareness goes further; it asks, “What am I doing to myself?” Posing questions, reflecting on your behavior, looking at the larger picture, taking your life seriously – these are all self-aware behaviors.
The mind-body feedback loop will operate automatically without any awareness, much less self-awareness. Someone in a coma is an extreme example of the automatic nature of the body's feedback loop being monitored by the brain's automatic mechanisms. The feedback changes when you add awareness, which is why it is better to be awake than in a coma. The best way to participate in the feedback loop, however, is through self-awareness, which calls upon the untapped potential of the higher brain. In that state you tune into your body and lead your brain's responses in a positive way.
How to Be Self-Aware for Life
A self-aware approach would include the following prescriptions that hold good during every decade of life:
- Be passionate about your life and the experiences you fill it with.
- Remain open to as much input as possible.
- Don’t shut down the feedback loop with judgment, rigid beliefs, and prejudices.
- Don’t censor incoming data through denial.
- Examine other points of view as if they were your own.
- Take possession of everything in your life. Be self-sufficient.
- Work on psychological blocks like shame and guilt – they falsely color your reality.
- Free yourself emotionally – to be emotionally resilient is the best defense against growing rigid.
- Harbor no secrets – they create dark places in the psyche.
- Be willing to redefine yourself every day.
- Don’t regret the past or fear the future. Both bring misery through self-doubt.
There is a spiritual component to self-awareness that consists of expanding your consciousness through meditation, mindfulness, and other established spiritual practices. But in this list we wanted to tell people how to function efficiently in the mind-body feedback loop. from birth each of us has been part of the loop, dependent upon it for all the good things in our lives, doing our best not to bring in bad things.
Unfortunately, most people don't pursue self-awareness. They equate it with feeling bad about themselves, turning over stones that are best untouched, and exposing the darker hiding places where anxiety, depression, and anger lurk. None of this is true. Self-awareness is value free. It isn't scary. It doesn't imply that you will subject yourself to needless pain.
At its most basic level, self-awareness is simply the self-recognizing and appreciating the self. To find an answer to a question we are all interested in – “How am I doing?” – you have to be willing to look at yourself in the first place. It’s much more beneficial to your health if you feel your way through life than think your way through.
Self-awareness monitors how you feel. It is flexible, sometimes placing awareness on a bodily sensation, sometimes on the world around you, your relationships, the people you meet, the thoughts in your head, and so on. To be in such a state means that you are fully participating in the mind-body feedback loop. By doing so, you make your body and your brain into allies, and then the path to lifelong health can be followed in security and fulfillment.