We are all familiar with the saying ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’. In other words, if you view things one at a time or focus on details of one element, you can lose sight of powerful interconnections forming a much bigger, more meaningful picture. For example, you become so absorbed in fixing your child’s behavioural issues at school, you miss their slow disengagement from life in general. You become so focused on settling a decision on a holiday destination with your partner that you miss the broader issue of a breakdown in communication and connection. Trying to fix the immediate issue at hand hence is limited due to failing to see the wider context.
What does this have to do with health? Well, most people read that word and think of ‘personal health’ i.e., the wellbeing of people like you and me. But what if that is just a narrow window of what health represents? What if it covers just one tiny corner and in the process misses so much that could boost not just the wellbeing of humans but other life forms as well? Indeed, health is perhaps better conceived in a wider scope by involving many interconnected systems simultaneously: personal, social, and environmental. By this view, isolating any one system from the others is deluded and fruitless, as they are inextricably linked with all parts affecting each other.
This approach looks upon health less as a fixed status of a single entity and more as a pervasive energy. This energy is centred on core elements of wellness, balance, and functionality. And this universal energy is embedded everywhere from individuals to families, communities, workplaces, schools, and friendships. It is also widespread in our natural environment incorporating forests, oceans, rivers, reefs, glaciers, soil, other species, and stratosphere. When energy flows through open channels, ‘good health’ materializes, and when it is low, health becomes ‘poor’.
Such a view is not new, as an approximation of it exists in other cultures. Hindus refer to ‘prana’, the Chinese have ‘chi’, the Japanese talk of ‘ki’ and Polynesians speak of ‘mana’. A common thread is a cosmic life force permeating every aspect of the universe. For example, Yogananda in India says:
‘Everything that was, is, or shall be, is nothing but the different modes of expression of the universal force. The universal prana…permeates and sustains the earth.’
That an equivalent word does not exist in English and, as far as I know, other Western languages, is significant. Language structures our world so if we don’t have a term for something, in our minds it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t feature in our view of how the world operates. Yet everywhere examples abound of the interlinked nature of health:
• children of war veterans are prone to poorer mental health
• being a carer for people with dementia can suppress the carer’s immune system
• mental illness doesn’t just affect an individual, it affects a whole family
• employee health is one of the primary predictors of a company’s health
• loneliness affects our brain functioning and immune system, and can even kill us
• rampant clearing of forests is a major factor in the heating of the planet
• global warming affects the health of our oceans and reefs, the loss of species (and species habitat) and threatens a sustainable food supply, and human health
• population-based interventions aimed at social/environmental determinants of health (e.g., housing) are more efficient than health measures aimed at individuals.
At its most basic level, it seems we influence the health of the people we spend time with, and likewise, they influence our health. Organisations affect the health of their staff, and staff’s level of wellness affects the company’s success. It seems our natural environment plays a prime role in determining our health status, and likewise, we impact the planet’s health. It is almost as if the Earth is one giant ecosystem, made up of a vast constellation of interdependent cells. Either way, it is impossible to isolate the functioning of any one part without other parts being affected.
‘No phenomenon can be isolated, but has repercussions through every aspect of our lives. We are learning that we are a fundamental part of nature’s ecosystem.’ —Arthur Erikson
How ‘health’ came to be viewed so narrowly
An interesting question is how we ever came to view health in such a myopic way focussed on individuals in the first place. Part of the answer lies in our brain’s wiring in that we are built to ‘chunk’ information when encoding and interpreting the world. Chunking is the basis of language processing and refers to a tendency to break down information into categories. (Look around where you are now and you will encode it by referring to labels of its various elements). Thus, through chunking we tend to view health in silos pertaining to people, relationships, and environment. In this process, we view our health as separate from the world outside of us. Also, we become blind to the actual interconnections, let alone take in their overall significance.
Part of the answer also involves science being the dominant ideology in recent times. The dogma here is that the world can be understood by ‘positivist’ enquiry. The latter emphasises true knowledge coming exclusively from observable, empirical, and measurable evidence. Can a pervasive, universal energy underlying the health of all parts of the Earth be measured? Well, not yet. Perhaps it’s still early days, like life before microscopes discovered germs. (Another analogy here is that only recently we have come to know that trees ‘scream’ for water when thirsty. Scientists have identified supersonic vibrations from trees under dry conditions. Because we can’t detect these tree vibrations via our senses, it doesn’t negate their actual existence).
Moreover, ‘health’ has evolved to mean our health because homo sapiens are fundamentally human-centric. There’s a tendency to focus just on our species, to highlight our importance relative to everything else. The natural environment therefore gets viewed not only as separate to us (as an ‘other’) but also as ‘natural resources’ i.e., stuff for us to plunder and use.
Forests, for instance, become viewed as providing us with timber, medicinal extracts, food substances, recreational amusement, photo opportunities, tourism revenue, or else they just get in the way and need to be obliterated. If the latter is harmful to the atmosphere through carbon emissions, or to the topsoil through erosion, or to koala bears in Australia, or to orangutang in Borneo, so be it. The world is here for us, humans, and it’s up to us to decide how we want to use it. We reign supreme. We’re top dog in the food chain and that’s how it’s meant to be.
Of course, this is seldom a conscious thought. It is so ingrained in our collective psyche that to think otherwise at times seems not only foreign, but also suspicious. Only those on the fringe would think differently; those dubious characters called ‘greenies’ and ‘environmentalists’. That militant, sandal-wearing group who generally don’t aspire to live in fancy mansions or climb the corporate ladder. They’re not us. They mean well, but honestly, why don’t they just get real?
‘A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to people.’ —F.D. Roosevelt
But the fringe-dwellers were right all along. The health of the forests can’t be separated from the health of us. The health of the stratosphere does affect the health of the seas, and the rainfall, and the sustainability of our food supplies. The fringe-dwellers were like the canary in the coal mine, only who was listening before things got really dire? Are we even listening now?
Churchill said, ‘The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.’ In short, truth exists independent of us and our acceptance of it. Denial, attacks, or ‘selective deafness’ doesn’t change facts. And the facts are the health of the soil, forests, and seas does affect whether we struggle or thrive.
What to do
How does this apply to you? Start by asking, ‘How do I contribute either positively or negatively to the health of my world?’ The latter can mean your school, workplace, family life, natural environment, or any organisation where you spend time. Think about the vibes you bring to any setting, and whether you want to work on making an improvement there. Think, too, about how your physical or social environment may be affecting your health. Is your workplace or home toxic? Think further about minimising your impact on the health our host, the planet Earth. Recycling, eating a plant-based diet, saying no to single-use plastic bags, planting trees, choosing sustainably produced products over the rest, are easy options we can all do. Remember, as Chief Seattle said, what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.
Perhaps the biggest step to promoting greater levels of vitality in and around us is to change the way we view health as a concept. We need to be mindful of our bent towards human-centricity, and viewing the world in a categorical way. If we can wake to this insight, it puts us on a path where our own health, the health of relationships and communities, and the health of the planet, all truly have a chance to thrive.
Call to action