It seems these days that everyone wants to believe that capitalism and consumerism have become something of a problem for our health, environment and our lifestyle. Just ask any of the ‘Wellness’ gurus, from Pete Evans and his paleo ‘Magic Pill’ to Belle Gibson and her cancer curing Wellness Diet. In fact, the phrase ‘Wellness Guru’ gets almost five million hits on Google. The top one is an Australian site, called (surprisingly enough) ‘Wellness Guru’. They’re entirely explicit about it, you need a ‘guru’ to save you from the corporate world, and they’re here to help you do just that! Exit through the gift shop…
Whichever remedy you’re looking for there’s always progress for sale, there will be somebody ready and waiting, willing to sell you a book, an idea, a certificate, a coloured belt, a ‘magic pill’ (I’m looking at you Pete Evans), or a trophy so you’ll know you have made the required progress – probably because that’s the only way you’ll be able to tell. All you have to do is pay them, buy their stuff or call them your ‘guru’ or some similar phrase. Do all three and get ‘VIP’ status, loads of ‘likes’; maybe you’ll become an ‘influencer’/guru/sensei yourself!
A close friend, in his late 70’s, observed that the great power of capitalism was its ability absorb and transform what’s foreign to it. The doctor and socialist freedom fighter Che Guevara wasn’t defeated when military forces shot him, if anything that made him a powerful martyr. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was totally defeated when teenagers and hipsters started buying ‘Che’ posters and t-shirts out of their minimum wage through Amazon. His revolution packaged and sold to consumers hungry for the dream of being free of what they think ails them.
This can be a bit of a problem, especially when it’s the frenzy of excessive consumerism, over production, and a life out of balance many people are trying to steer away from. These days, it seems like everybody is looking for a cure for tiredness, for poor health, for stress, for anxiety or fear, for sadness, for the human condition, a cure for suffering so we can be ‘happy’ – I’m wondering whether or not it’s time for a cure for wellness.
Of Hipsters and Lambshanks.
In the interests of full disclosure, I was a hipster and a ‘greenie’ before there were any. Really. Mum and grandma didn’t have much money, so we lived cheap. For example, lamb shanks and ox-tail were the cheap bits no-one wanted. They were tough and took ages to cook (but they could make them into something not only edible, but nourishing and delicious). My family also bought old clothes from second hand stores; I loved my 1960’s trench coat, bought it 1985 for 0.50c and wore it for years. Perhaps it was nostalgia, a desire to ‘stick it to the man’, or a desire to live more simply that later made retro outfits and cheap cuts of meat so popular, I’m not sure. I do know that was all she wrote when these things became fashionable. The hipster and haute’ cuisine industries packaged our nostalgia and our longing for simple domesticity, selling it back to us for what the ‘yuppies’ used to pay for scotch fillet, Heineken and designer shirts. These days we spend a fortune trying to look like we are ‘above’ all that capitalism. But we’re merely paying for a sense of moral superiority, especially when it comes to food.
The wellness industry is no different. Now don’t get me wrong. I admire capitalism’s power to absorb what was bad for business and make it good for business. There’s a certain genius in it – I’m not here for an anti-capitalist rant, it’s got its good points. But it IS worth remembering that industries (music, wellness, tourism or what have you) have profit as their primary goal, not your wellbeing. That’s not as cynical as it sounds, in business if you don’t make money, you’re financiers get very twitchy. In a free market, the golden rule is ‘Caveat Emptor’ (let the buyer beware). It’s your job to have your best health and interests at heart, because industry will not. Period. No exceptions and no returns. You can outsource that to someone who’ll tell you whatever you want to hear for the right price, who’ll allow you to spend money rather than encourage you to ask yourself the hard questions; but it will inevitably serve them better than it serves you.
Can I go on a total bender and ‘detox‘ later? Sure! Go nuts, we’ll magically replace those brain cells and liver damage with a nice organic spirulina smoothy/detox/wellness program on Monday. Oh it’s really bad? Better shell out for some apple cider vinegar too. It’s rubbish, and we know it. The big problem here is lurching from one extreme to the other. Overdoing the toxins, then being ‘all holy’ with the detox. What is really needed for wellness is a ‘middle path’. A healthy tension between the two. Sure, have a wine – but not six. Get enough sleep, but don’t sleep all day. You can see the problem here. Less wine, dessert etc gets sold, and NO detox programs get sold. Not great for business, but good for you, and your bank balance.
There’s actually no evidence detox does anything but give you tacit permission to treat your body like crap and believe you can reverse the damage. It’s like getting ‘de-amputated’. Your liver is your detox machine, and it does a great job so long as you’re not piling in the toxins faster than the poor thing can pull them out. Give her a break – have two glasses, instead of six. But I digress… back to the toxic wellness.
Like all industries, the Wellness Industry needs a marketing strategy. First of all, convince the population we’re not an industry. In fact, we are driven by the milk of human kindness. More like a … oh I don’t know… wait, got it. Like a religion. But not those grubby western institutions no-one trusts anymore. Something more otherworldly, eastern even. Cue, the ‘Wellness Guru’.
My PhD research concerned itself with Moral and Religious ideas and their impact on behaviour, and hijacking our ‘quasi-religious’ moral frameworks around ‘purity’ (diet, smells, health, cleanliness) is as powerful a marketing strategy as you can get. What you eat and buy become ‘signals’ of group membership and identity whether you’re a self-professed atheist or not. Is it any wonder there are increasing numbers of people struggling with ‘orthorexia’, slaving away to obsessively rule bound diets that admit of no exceptions lest the ‘acolyte’ suffer debilitating guilt or anxiety? Wellness regimes, and fad diets (paleo, alkalised smoothies, and fasting next month) haven’t freed us from anything, they’ve just given us more ways to feel defective. Laying off the red meat is a great idea, flying into a ‘what do you mean there are no meatless options‘ rage is hardly a sign of a healthy individual.
The wellness industry (be it diets, yoga, aromatherapy, exercises, or crystal healing) is predicated on some particular ideas. First, there’s something wrong with you – got it? You’re not supposed to be tired, or sad, anxious or stressed, and if you are you’re not only broken, you’re failing. Oh and you’re supposed to be having mind-blowing sex all the time as well (and if you’re not, you DESERVE to be!). Second, the wellness industry knows what is wrong with you; you’re eating wheat, your chakras are blocked, someone was mean to you once, and you need a detox – again. But fear not. It’s a damn good thing we got here when we did because we (the wellness industry) have what you lack, we can relieve your ‘symptoms’.
If you ain’t broke, you don’t need fixin’.
Deep breath. Let’s tackle these ideas one at a time. The first one is that you’re broken because you’re tired, anxious, sad or stressed. Well, this might annoy the salespeople – but you are most likely not broken. Just human. There’s not much of a market in that though is there? The truth is we’re not meant to be happy all the time, or rested, or relaxed. If we were we wouldn’t have words like happy, rested and relaxed!
Let’s take an example. Anxiety is like an immune system. Sure it CAN go wrong sometimes, but for the most part it’s a ‘keep you out of trouble’ system and we couldn’t do without it. Most frequently anxiety is a normal and -in itself- indispensable part of the emotional tapestry (for more about how anxiety works, check this out). We are not designed to be fearless – no matter how many facebook memes say otherwise, that would be a sign of brain damage. So don’t aspire to it.
Or perhaps you’re tired? Exhausted? Surely there’s something wrong with you right? Maybe. But probably not. As a couple’s counsellor, I’ve lost track of the number of people I have seen who worry there’s something profoundly wrong with their relationship because they’re not having sex very often, if at all. They have two children under 18 months old, both have jobs and a house to run. Some even have elderly parents to look out for, and they’re only having sex once a fortnight or so (Damn! What’s their secret!?), they’re not exercising really hard every day either! But they’re looking at Instagram (you know, other peoples’ lives with the crap bits cut out) and get the idea they’re missing out. There are tasks and times in our lives where we are going to be tired, a lot. Intimacy is important (and so is sex), exercise is important too, but so is accepting our limitations, knowing these times – like last year’s holiday – will pass. Similar arguments can be made for stress as well.
What IS stressing us out, and making us sad is the idea that we’re not supposed to be stressed, or tired or sad or anxious. But the industry that needs to sell us the remedy NEEDS you to believe you are disordered, and that you need some esoteric remedy that you don’t have.
But stress, anxiety, sadness, and tiredness are not ‘defects’ to be gotten rid of. They’re part of the rhythm of life, and signals we should be paying attention to. Sometimes the signal isn’t at all bad even. When the leaves fall of my maple trees I don’t pay a ‘tree well-ness guru’ to stick them back on (tree-tox?). It’s time for the tree to transform, to be dormant, knowing the spring will return in a couple of months. Seeing this, I know my tree doesn’t need fertiliser, or water. It needs anchoring against the storms and some leaf mulch to cover the soil. When the buds appear, I’ll notice that now the trees need food. It can’t be spring all the time anymore than we can be in love all the time, happy all the time, energetic all the time, relaxed or – for that matter – aroused all the time.
But if we’re falling over ourselves to return to that idealised ‘preferred’ state – we stop listening to those rhythms and have no idea what we need. Which brings me to the second point. If you don’t know what you need, you can always pay the ‘Wellness Gurus’ to tell you. Most of the time they’ll be wrong, because they’re not you.
If you’re tired, you might need to go to bed earlier. Or exercise more. Or stop over-loading your liver with alcohol. Experiment a little. Get an hours more sleep one week and see if that helps. Get a little more exercise playing with the kids vigorously for 30 minutes each day – what happened? Ditch the booze for a month or two. Feeling any different? But if none of those appeal to you, you can always pay to go on a detox program; but you’re really just outsourcing responsibility for yourself. When it comes to ‘Wellness’ the best tip I’ve ever received is “If you hear galloping outside – think horses before you think zebras”. Never mind the activated almonds, attend to the basics, the middle path. Before you think ‘me-time’, think ‘bed-time’. Before ‘de-tox’, think ‘don’t tox’. Before moisturising, what about ‘hydrating’ (with tap water is just fine). ‘No Carbs’? Really, try ‘No second helpings’.
Warning – Old Zen Story ahead…
It seems there were two young monks (but they could have been martial artists, cross fitters, or life coach clients I guess), discussing their teachers (or ‘Instructors’, ‘Coaches’ or ‘Life Coaches’). As rookies love to do, they were basking in their teachers’ fame and reputation and had engaged in something of a competition.
‘My teacher is quite famous for his insights and mystical achievements’, the first student boasted. ‘He can hold a brush in the air on one side of the river, and draw characters in the air. The characters will appear on a piece of parchment held by a student on the other side!’
‘That’s astonishing’ said the other.
‘Well what can YOUR master do?’, asked the first student?
‘Oh he’s very advanced. For example, when he eats, he eats. When he sleeps, he sleeps’
I used to think this story was much more esoteric and ‘high fallutin’ than it really is. I used to think first student was just being boastful, and the second one a bit facetious. But I’ve changed my mind. For me anyway, the story isn’t so much about a Zen master having achieved perfect mindfulness, although that is a feature. It’s more about the difficulty of really attending to the basics of life and keeping our focus on getting those right. So simple, and so hard to achieve. It would be easier to learn to do magic tricks, pay for ‘detoxes’, crystals and essential oils. Much easier. Less beneficial.
There are times we need to confront discomfort, we need to accept what we can and can’t have. Instead of looking for a cure, maybe we need to listen to our tiredness, stress or fears, look at them carefully, see them as part of ourselves and our lives. Discomfort and ‘not having it all’ is not the enemy or something to be got rid of as fast as possible. Anyone who wants to sell you something that will ‘change your life’ overnight is patently more interested in changing your bank account overnight.
I do know, and I can only speak for myself, that the times that I’ve spent some time sitting quietly with my discomfort, I was able to hear the voice, the whisper that told me what was really wrong, and however unpalatable, what I needed to do (e.g. ‘no more Netflix, go to bed!’, ‘one glass is enough’). Having opened up to that voice I was usually able to begin that very day – little steps. No, the frustrations, fears, the tiredness didn’t go away right away, but they never do, no matter how much we spend, no matter how many gurus we follow, no matter how many self-help books we read. But at least I was moving in the right direction, a little today, a little more tomorrow.
Anyway, slow growth is strong growth.
Some days the leaves will drop off our maple – it must happen. We’ll be sad, tired, stressed and anxious. So sit by the river and listen. The more you listen, open and honestly with yourself – the more you’ll hear. Unless you’re bleeding profusely you can spare a minute. I don’t know what you need to do to feel a bit better, have better relationships, or become more ‘well’; but you do, and you can tell me if you like!