Today we ask you to do what is healthy.
Do what is healthy.
Most people reading this have a good sense of what is healthy, and what is not.
Being healthy means engaging in healthy behaviors. Eating well, taking good care of your body, resting. Doing things that are nourishing for you. It also means avoiding unhealthy behaviors — not doing things that you know to be detrimental to your health.
Parents want to encourage their children to be healthy: to brush their teeth, eat their vegetables, and go to bed on time. They also want to encourage their children to avoid unhealthy behaviors, like eating too much sugar or playing video games late into the night.
Of course, it is not so easy to encourage children to do these things.
And often it is even harder for a grown person to encourage himself to stay healthy and avoid unhealthy behaviors.
Why is it so hard to be healthy? What is it about human nature that kicks and screams when you ask it to eat its vegetables and go to bed on time?
The human animal is easily prone to addictive behaviors. Many of these behaviors were ones that were useful earlier in man’s evolutionary cycle, many thousands of years ago.
For most of human history, sugar was a scarce commodity. People “ate their vegetables” because that was all there was to eat. Sweet things like fruit were very useful sources of glucose, and there was no question of “gaining too much weight.” People went to bed on time because after the sun went down, it was dark and there was not much to do. The human nervous system is highly sensitive to stimuli, because it is on the alert for threats — predatory animals, raiders from enemy tribes.
So modern humans are equipped with caveman bodies that instinctively crave sweet food and are hypersensitive to stimuli. But you now live in a world of cupcakes and iPads and video games. And you cannot simply turn off the body’s instinctive craving for sugar and hypersensitivity around stimuli — even if the stimulus is just the pinging of a text message.
If you dropped a caveman into the modern world of cupcakes and smartphones, you can imagine how crazed he would be. He would not be able to function. That is the predicament many humans are in. Is it any wonder that children and adults struggle with “attention deficit”?
So what is to be done?
First of all, if you understand that you are walking around in a caveman body, perhaps you can be less angry and judging toward yourself when you experience caveman cravings and responses to stimuli. It is not because something is wrong with you, or because you are a bad person. Your body is totally innocent. It cannot help instinctively craving sweet things and being hypersensitive around stimuli.
Then it is really just a matter of being a good parent to your inner caveman. It is up to you to consciously set boundaries and maintain healthy habits.
In Greek mythology, there is the story of Odysseus and the Island of the Sirens. Odysseus knows that his ship will pass the Island of the Sirens, who sing an irresistible song that lures sailors to death and destruction. So Odysseus orders his sailors to plug up their ears when they pass the Island. However, as captain, he must leave his ears unplugged. To deal with this, Odysseus ties himself to the mast of the ship, and tells his sailors that no matter how much he kicks, screams, or begs, they must not untie him until they are well past the Island.
Sure enough, as the ship passes the Island of the Sirens, Odysseus hears the irresistible song, and goes mad with desire. If he weren’t tied to the mast, he would fling himself into the ocean and drown. Luckily, he had the forethought to tie himself to the mast. He survives because of his wisdom.
This is a good fable when it comes to staying healthy in a caveman body.
Everyone has their “siren songs” when it comes to unhealthy temptations and behaviors. Many of these are genetic. Most adults have a sense of what their “siren songs” are.
But the time to deal with these things is not when you are in the throes of craving and impulsive behavior. The time to take action is when you are feeling relatively good, healthy, and calm. That is when you have the wisdom and foresight to “tie yourself to the mast.”
So what does this mean?
For one thing, it means if you are exhausted, hungry, or in an agitated emotional state, you will always be more vulnerable to caveman urges. Again, do not be judging toward yourself about this. That is a waste of energy, and not useful.
Good plants cannot grow in unhealthy soil. So the main thing to do in terms of cultivating healthy behavior is to look holistically, at the “ground” of your being. Are you getting enough rest? That is the first area to approach with all physical and mental health. If you are exhausted, there is really no way for you to think clearly. If you are exhausted, your body is more vulnerable to impulsive behavior, indulging in cravings, losing its temper, and of course falling prey to illness.
Most people understand that eating well and exercising is good for them. But people do not really seem to understand that sleep and rest are absolutely essential for good health. That is because modern society does not promote the value of sleep and rest — it is seen as “lazy.”
So really, before you look at any unhealthy pattern, look at your rest and sleep habits. That is the “ground.” If you are exhausted, you will always be at the mercy of your inner caveman.
Humans need at least eight hours of sleep at night to function optimally. While it is possible for humans to go through short bouts of time in which they get less sleep, this creates a “sleep deficit” — which needs to be made up for. That means active periods need to be followed by restful periods. It means that if you go through an active period where you get less sleep, in order to keep your body and mind balanced, you must follow this with a period in which you sleep more than the minimum.
The simplest way to achieve better sleep is to minimize stimulation in the hours just prior to sleep, and to go to bed earlier.
Any parent knows that a child who is well-rested and fed nourishing food is far less prone to tantrums. Adults are no different from children in this regard. So this is the place to begin.
If you are well-rested and well-fed, then it a matter of observing, without judgment, the behaviors you wish to modify. Again, the time to do this is not when you are in the grip of your unhealthy urges. The time to do this is when you are feeling basically calm and good.
For example, if you did something that you regret, there is no point in thinking about it from a place of guilt and shame — that will only cloud your thinking. You must wait until you have calmed down sufficiently to look at the matter with clarity. Remember that you have a caveman body, and caveman urges. Look at the circumstances surrounding the unhealthy behavior. Were you tired and hungry? Was there a specific trigger?
By examining the unhealthy behavior with a clinical eye, you may get a better sense of how to avoid it in the future — how to tie yourself to the mast around this particular siren song.
Judgments about “good” and “bad” are really useless in these matters. Humans can’t help having caveman bodies. If you are realistic and accepting about this, you will go much further toward addressing unhealthy behaviors you wish to change. Guilt will only make things worse.