Create a Bigger Picture of Health


Health is a function of participation. – Werner Erhard

The “participation” that Erhard talks about is participation in relationships and participation in work that serves a vision or a context larger than your own personal survival. Your health and wellness are by-products of a life that is focused and ripe with meaning, full of generous engagement with others in the creation of a world that works for everybody.

This insight is not new. Wise women and men throughout the ages have demonstrated an elegant unconcern for their own problems (physical or circumstantial) combined with a diligent commitment to the wellbeing of others. Such an orientation results in an observable radiance, a tangible strength of character and profound wisdom, as well as a remarkable ability for compassion even in the direst situations. Think of Mother Teresa. Think of the current Dalai Lama. Think of someone whom you admire.

People in Western industrialized nations have a great luxury of time and money to devote to personal health. But it may be beneficial to ask whether these populations are truly healthier and happier than other cultures as a result. Are we really well in body, mind, and spirit

Obsession with health can be every bit as wasteful of your human potential as ignorance and carelessness can be. Focusing primarily on self-health may be endlessly fascinating, but it can also be tremendously isolating, exorbitantly expensive, and outrageously time consuming. Ultimately, overconcern for personal health keeps people imprisoned in a tiny cell, limiting the vast possibilities of creative expression and loving relationships that await them. The equation is really basic: in serving others, we serve ourselves. Or put another way: Creating a bigger vision and living in support of it, we put our personal concerns in perspective, and we are subsumed and fulfilled by a greater need, a greater possibility, a greater love.

Reaching Out
“People helping people” is a tried and true strategy for moving out of and beyond personal pain and suffering. You are not alone with whatever diseased condition you may be struggling with, even though it may often feel that way. People are typically ashamed of their weaknesses and vulnerability and fearful of more pain, all of which feeds their loneliness and isolation. Yet when someone opens a door by showing friendship or offering a hand of assistance, especially if they have walked the same path of pain or disease, that help can be tremendously beneficial, drawing you out of your closed world and inviting you into the larger world with others who share a common vulnerability.

Service to others in need can be a powerful remedy for your own pain or sense of alienation. There is relief in putting your own drama aside, for however long, in order to touch, with understanding, the life of another. The best healers are often those who know illness intimately from their own experience.

Few people can fail to generate a self-healing process when they become genuinely involved in healing others. . . . Selflessness is the greatest weapon in integrating and aiding the self.

– Theodore Isaac Rubin, MD

Moving beyond Identification
To identify with something is to incorporate that thing (be it an object, a person, a job, a role, a thought, an action, a feeling, or a series of symptoms) within your definition of who you are. It’s funny, but most people don’t realize how closely their self-definition depends on a particular identification until that identification is challenged in some way. For example, people become identified with their jobs. When they lose their job, they lose their self-esteem.

When you are ill, illness tends to permeate your world, whether it is a simple cold or a chronic condition. Having asthma or having arthritis can easily become “being the woman with asthma” or “being the guy with arthritis.” And you may come to identify yourself with that illness. You might use it, and abuse it, to judge yourself or to manipulate others. Some folks believe that illness or disease is some form of punishment. When they are sick, therefore, they feel guilty. They feel unloved and unlovable. They compound an already aggravated situation with negativity and self-judgment. To align with a bigger context of health means refusing to use illness or disease in this way.

Next time you find yourself “under the weather” or experiencing discomforting symptoms, watch the way your mind works. Illness can provide self-understanding, if you don’t get stuck in it. Pay attention to what you identify with. Self-observation is the first and most crucial step in breaking unproductive habits about your health, like blaming or berating yourself, other people, or circumstances for your condition, or thinking that because you are ill you are somehow a failure.

Observation without self-judgment is the key. Seeing clearly what your mind is up to, especially when it is caught in a loop of negative feedback, will teach you to simply move forward, regardless of the mind’s chatter.

Open to Prayer
Some people pray as a means of seeking comfort in difficult times. Others view prayer as a type of communion with a source of love or with the mystery that surrounds their lives. Because prayer, by its very definition, connects you with a higher power, or universal source, or deep innate wisdom, it can encourage a more expansive view of life. With prayer, the gift of health may be seen in a new perspective, which prizes health but does not assign it ultimate importance. The old adage, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything,” simply isn’t true. There are values more transcendent and meaningful than personal health.

Prayer can also serve as a means of expressing your interrelatedness with others. Recent research indicates that people who are prayed for by others, even by people they don’t know, receive benefit in the form of fewer complications in surgery and faster healing time. Science may question such studies and the efficacy of prayer for a long time. What is unquestionable, however, is what it does for you. When you direct care and attention outside yourself toward another person’s wellbeing, when you unite yourself with others in the commonality of shared pain and shared humanity, there is no doubt that you are healthier for it.

Expanding Your Context
Here are a couple of ways to carry the bigger picture of health even further.

* Spend some quiet time, an hour if possible, in which you simply contemplate and/or write about the ideas presented above. For instance, what do you think about the statement, “Health is a function of participation”? What do you believe about the old adage, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything”?

* Make a phone call to a friend or relative who is currently ill or dealing with some chronic condition. As you listen, silently support, love, and pray for the person without trying to solve any problems or without demanding anything for yourself. Just be there. Notice if this activity affects the way in which you view your own health concerns.

Reprinted with permission from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright
2001. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.

John W. Travis, M.D., M.P.H., acknowledged as a founder of the wellness movement, established the first wellness center in the U.S. in 1975, and created the Wellness Inventory (the first wellness assessment). He is co-author of the classic Wellness Workbook with Sara Regina Ryan (Ten Speed Press). The online version of the Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( for individual subscriptions or licensing by organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021