Live to give

  “We are people through other people.” Popular Nguni-language saying


Our knowledge is now mature. The formula is well known and for the most part, it works. We know how to create and maintain human health and performance. Assuming that you're born with a decent set of genes and are raised in a fairly nurturing environment, it all comes down to a familiar set of basics: a good Paleo-style diet, lots of vigorous exercise, stress reduction, community and a sense of meaning. That's pretty much it, and it doesn't have to be done perfectly; there are millions of possible variations that deliver the same basic success. If you follow the formula, you'll get healthier.

But then what? What are we supposed to do with our lives and our bodies after we've walked the path to health and fitness? We've sweated and studied, shopped and cooked, trained and meditated. We challenged ourselves and taken care of our bodies and then...what? What's the next step in this journey? This is a question that we rarely hear answered, or even asked. We are so taken with the mechanics, the formulas and the how of becoming healthy and fit, we often fail to wonder why. So what is the point of it all? What is health for?

Of course, most of us are quick to point out the individual benefits that come from practicing a healthy lifestyle: We'll look better and feel better. We'll lose weight and tone up. Our skin will become smoother. Our athletic performance will improve. We'll have more energy and enthusiasm. Our brains will work better and we'll be able to stave off dread lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and cancer. And finally, we'll be able to live a really long time and remain vital and active in our old age.

These are powerful benefits to be sure and good reasons to engage in healthy lifestyle practices but still, these are benefits that flow primarily to the individual, to the isolated and singular human body. But is this all there is? Is our entire health, medical and fitness enterprise merely about making better individuals?

The question becomes increasingly relevant when we realize that, past a certain point of normal human function, health and fitness becomes a surplus, a reservoir of physiological capability that can be tapped for all kinds of purposes. When we become physically fit, we gain a real kind of psychophysical wealth, an excess that can be used in any of a million different ways. We can use it to insulate ourselves against stress and the ravages of the modern world. We can use it to support us on incredible adventures. We can use it as a back-up as we extend ourselves into new challenges in any domain: physical, mental, environmental or spiritual. Or, we can use it to build tribe, community and culture.

Of course, the most common use of our health surplus, at least in Western culture, is simply to reinvest it in our individual bodies and lives. We build up our fitness levels through long hours of training, proper eating and lifestyle modification, then we simply recycle the payoff into more of what got us here–our individual selves. In the process, we become even stronger and more powerful. We see this approach in athletes and training buffs everywhere. It's a standard method.

But as many athletes and fitness buffs come to discover, this kind of reinvestment in the self eventually runs its course. Over time, the returns begin to diminish and the process begins to feel less compelling. We recycle our health surplus into bodies, becoming ever stronger, and then one day, the whole enterprise begins to loose its meaning and its power. In the extreme, it even begins to feel pointless, maybe even absurd. Continuous reinvestment in our individual selves leads to a sort of health and fitness narcissism, an incestuous, self-obsessed venture that ultimately goes nowhere. And, in the context of an increasingly chaotic and distressed modern world, such continuous reinvestment in the self seems increasingly irrelevant. Does the world really need more uber-fit super athletes who are destined to live 100+ years? What for?


from me to we

So what else might we do with our health and fitness surplus? How else might we reinvest the psychophysical wealth that we have built up over long years of training and practice? One obvious alternative is to start investing in the broader reach of tribe, community and culture. After all, the need is strikingly obvious. Everywhere we look in the modern world, people are suffering in one way or another and many are in need of the most basic elements of living. There is plenty of work to be done.

The Barefoot Sensei has a profound teaching on this point. As he describes the training journey that extends across the lifespan, he tells us that we need to shift our attention "from me to we." This is not to say that the "me" is unimportant. Of course we must strengthen and protect ourselves. We are born into this world as helpless infants, ill-prepared to function on the wild grassland or in the modern city. We need to strengthen our individual bodies and develop our individual powers. It makes sense that we would be selfish for a time, growing into our capability until we can stand on our own feet and meet the challenges of a diverse and occasionally dangerous world. But this trajectory of "me" eventually becomes a distortion and in the extreme, pointless. We must learn to turn it around, to spend our surplus on one another as we build the tribe that sustains us. We must invest in the "we."



As we reinvest our health and fitness surplus into the lives of others, we also begin to change our sense of identity. We begin to think about ourselves as part of something larger, even as having an extended sense of physical body. This social-body-tribe orientation appears in many native cultures, but is most pronounced in the African tribal philosophy called ubuntu. (Pronounced uu-Boon-too.)

According to ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, that we discover our own human qualities. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others. Our sense of self is interdependent with tribe: "I am what I am because of who we all are." Ubuntu recognizes the intrinsic value of all people, regardless of their wealth, health or rank. It focuses on commonality, not difference.

Ubuntu played a prominent role in the work of Nelson Mandela in the post-apartheid era, especially the landmark legal work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu described ubuntu this way:

"It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them."

Ubuntu is not just idealistic Afro-hippie talk. It's solidly supported by the latest findings in social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. And it's not just about charity, either. The tribal orientation described by ubuntu is massively practical, intelligent and functional. Obviously, we need one another to survive, just as we did on the mosaic grasslands of East Africa. And, it's also the case that tribal orientations enhance individual health. Research consistently shows that traditional, tribal cultures have significantly lower levels of depression than highly individualistic societies. This suggests a powerful win-win, another kind of virtuous circle that brings rewards all around. When we take our health surplus and give it away, it may seem like a loss, but that's short-sighted. In fact, that so-called "gift" actually goes into circulation, feeding the health of the super-organism we call tribe. And in the process, we are supported, we are nurtured, and we become healthier as well.


the gift of health

So, to return to our question, "What is health for?" I would propose what might seem a surprising answer. That is, "to give away." Of course, we are conditioned to think of giving as a cost to ourselves, an expense and a loss. But this is a misunderstanding of our tightly interconnected social nature. When the state of your body is tightly linked to the welfare of the people around you, then giving is not a loss or an expense; it's a gift that we give to ourselves.

So as we enter the new year, perhaps it's time to start giving our health and fitness back to the world. Let's turn things around, from "me to we."

Where's my habitat?

TBZKQDAYX5JP In each weekly issue, Sports Illustrated runs a clip called “This week’s sign of the apocalypse.” It’s usually some outrageous gem of stupidity or incompetence, a sporting equivalent of the Darwin Awards. Of course, there’s plenty of material to choose from in today’s world, particularly in the world of “health and fitness.” For this week’s sign of the apocalypse, I nominate Newsweek’s July 28 issue, “The Science of Healthy Living.”

You’ll recognize the issue straight away on the news stand: plastic see-through bodies, entirely without background, context or life support. The cover imagery is ickky enough as it is, but it’s the content, or lack of content I should say, that really tells the story. The main feature, “Keys to a Healthy Life,” is pure boilerplate, a photocopied version of the techno-pharmaceutical model that permeates the world of modern medical “care.” According to Newsweek, the “keys to health” turn out to be tests and screening. It’s all about uncovering incipient disease and channeling people into the care of an expert class for control and treatment. Aside from recommendations that children brush and floss their teeth, there’s almost nothing on lifestyle, behavior or relationship on any level. If people would just submit to full-body scans on a regular basis, they would be “healthy.”

The exercise recommendation is spectacularly uninspiring: A pathetically bored doctor from Harvard Medical School writes of his treadmill-and-TV workout, as if this were some sort of solution to our physical malaise. Apparently, this is as much as he expects from his mind-body and its encounter with the world; just grind out the mileage and hope that the TV will distract you from the unpleasantness of a body in motion.

But the real story in this feature was complete and total absence of reference to earth, land and habitat. Not one word about the living world. Not one word about exposure to the elements. Not one word about forming a relationship with the land that gives life to the body. Not one word about community, tribe or human contact. These things, apparently, are too far removed from the anatomy chart to be taken seriously. According to Newsweek, the body can and should remain in a laboratory where it can be measured, tweaked and manipulated. Then, if we can repair its malfunctions, we can declare it “healthy.”

Newsweek’s take on health and the body is clearly pathological, even insane. No body can live in isolation. No animal can thrive without a life support system. Remove an organism from its grounding habitat–even symbolically, metaphorically and intellectually–and it will begin to feel unease, anxiety and ultimately, disease. The proof is only a few pages away from Newsweek's feature story itself: on page 36 we read about “Death on Our Shores,” the continuing creepy saga about the black hole at the bottom of the ocean.

So the question we must put to ourselves and the editors at Newsweek: How does your body feel when you hear about the devastation in the Gulf and other threats to the biosphere? If you’ve got a pulse and even a modest sense of context, you just might feel it deep down in your gut, in your mind and in your tissue. You can bet that you'll experience changes in your biochemistry, your neuroendocrine profile and your serotonin system. Your plastic brain will change the way it manages your body. Your disposition and attitude will change too, with ripple effects that cascade to the most remote outposts of your body.

This is not some sort of mystical, hippie-quantum physiology. This is a real cause-and-effect process that is backed up by hard-ass, evidence-based research. Mind, body, land and health are intimately connected. You can pretend that mind is separate from body or that body is separate from habitat, but if you do, you'll perpetuate a dangerous falsehood that is profoundly health-negative.

Newsweek has perpetrated a work of spectacular ignorance. The time has come to acknowledge the earth-body connection. The time has come to integrate ourselves back into the fabric of the land. We are of the land. This is where our health begins.

No body is an island

Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

John Muir My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

No man is an island, entire of itself...

John Donne 1572-1631 Meditation XVII

It sure looks like an "it" doesn't it?

You know, a unit, a discrete thing in and of itself. A stand-alone object.

The human body, I mean.

After all, it looks just like an individual organism, bounded by skin. It's got a form that's easy to recognize and that form remains stable, with minor changes, for decades. There are inflows and outflows of solids, liquids and gasses, but otherwise, it's basically a system unto itself.

The singular appearance of the human body is confirmed–so it would seem– by our subjective life experience. Just as we look like individuals, we also feel like individuals. There is a "me" and there is a "you" and unless we are lovers in the throes of passion, we remain as singular, individual bodies for the better part of our lives. I am one and you are one and the environment is "out there."

Our perception of physical singularity also seems to be supported by the doctor's anatomy chart. The body is right there on the wall, laid out in crisp graphic detail. The skin has disappeared of course, but there can be no question: the body stands alone, stark on the white page, unconnected to any other force, form or process. Popular magazine covers give us the same impression except that now the skin is Photoshopped to sexually-idealized perfection. The human body appears alone and doubly naked –there's no background, no context and no life support.

health is extrasomatic

Our perception of the human body as a singular, isolated unit, strong as it may happen to be, is actually an illusion. While we can and do function as individuals, we are massively interconnected with the biological and social world around us. In fact, it is not really clear where the human body begins and ends.

This is one of the most revolutionary discoveries in the world of medicine and public health of the last few decades. Findings in the fields of molecular biology, epidemiology, public health, stress medicine and social neuroscience have revealed without question that our health is profoundly extrasomatic or "beyond the body."

This means that, for all practical purposes, the body is bigger than the body. There are myriad forces and processes beyond the reach of our fingertips, forces that profoundly affect the functioning of our organs and our tissue. Our bodies are shaped in large measure by things that happen remotely, both in space and time.

Mystics and shamans have suspected as much for thousands of years, but now we are beginning to see our extrasomatic relationships in more concrete, scientific terms. The skin is not a barrier to the world, merely a transitional membrane. Our bodies may appear to us as isolated, stand-alone organisms, but in fact, they are in constant relationship, communication and interchange with other people and processes, many of which affect our health in surprising and profound ways.

we are embedded

One of the most striking challenges to the isolationist view of the body is the discovery of vast populations of non-human organisms both in and around us. The percentages are truly mind-blowing. Latest estimates have it that only one in ten cells in and around the human body are actually human tissue cells. That's right. We are literally awash in other organisms, mostly bacteria. Those organisms are living, metabolizing, discharging wastes and dying in great numbers, every second of every day.

You can wash your skin all you like and detoxify your gut for months on end, but you can never change this fact of human existence. In fact, if you were to somehow kill all of the "not-I" organisms in and around your body, you would die in short order. Like it or not, you can never be a single organism. You are an ecosystem with legs.

We also see profound interconnection between human bodies, especially our immune systems. Remember the last time someone coughed in a crowded room or sneezed in an elevator? And how about the people who leave the bathroom without washing their hands? We know, almost without being told, that their germs are spreading and threatening our health.

But there's a wider meaning here. Humans are constantly exchanging microorganisms with one another and in this sense, our personal immune systems are actually parts of a much larger, networked meta-system. My health depends, not just on my behavior and my relationship to the microbial world, but on the efficiencies of other immune systems in my neighborhood, community and workplace. If my neighbor's immunity is compromised for some reason, the microbial challenge eventually gets shifted onto everyone else. Like it or not, we are all participating in the same struggle against the microbial world; immunity is a community enterprise.

Moving to a more macro level, we see a massive interconnection between individual human bodies and habitat. We are constantly engaged in a chemical and energy exchange with surrounding plants, animals, air and soil. Everything that we eat, drink and breathe is touched and transformed by other organisms around us. And yet, in an age of industrial agriculture, we forget this simple fact. When farms and factories are hundreds or thousands of miles away, we develop a delusion of individual autonomy and forget our connection to the rest of life.

In his book Does it Matter? Alan Watts reminded us that our life support comes from both within and without:

...civilized human beings are alarmingly ignorant of the fact that they are continuous with their natural surroundings. It is as necessary to have air, water, plants, insects, birds, fish and mammals as it is to have brains, hearts, lungs and stomachs. The former are our external organs in the same way the latter are our internal organs.

social and cultural contagion

Ecological interdependence is just the beginning. Social and cultural forces are enormously influential in shaping individual health. Meaning and emotion flow between people constantly, even when no words are exchanged. Odors of fear or pleasure waft through the air and inform us –unconsciously – of prevailing emotional states. Posture and proximity allow us to in effect touch one another's bodies without actually doing so. If I stand near you and move my body in a certain way, I can affect your hormone levels, your stress response and your cognition. Meaning flows in both directions, bodies in a constant conversation.

Emotions are not just experienced by individuals, but shared, unconsciously and unintentionally, across social groups. This is most powerful in real-time, face-to-face encounters as mirror neuron systems read the emotional content of other bodies. The simple act of watching another person move affects how we feel, what we think and how we behave. In this way, emotion ripples and cascades through social systems affecting the health of everyone in the process.

population level

The tight interconnection between human bodies becomes even more apparent when we look at health and disease across large populations. In his book, The Status Syndrome, epidemiologist Michael Marmot compiled thirty years of evidence demonstrating the crucial importance of social rank in health. His conclusion is that "Health follows a social gradient."

Marmot found that social inequalities are powerful determinants of health: "Wherever we are in the social hierarchy, our health is likely to be better than those below us and worse than those above us." This holds true, not just for one particular kind of illness, but for all forms of human affliction. "Being low in the hierarchy means a greater susceptibility to just about every disease that's going."

Marmot spent almost three decades studying the health of British civil servants, all classified according to their ranking in the occupational hierarchy. The findings showed a dramatic social gradient in mortality for most major causes of death: disease of the cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems, most cancers, accidental deaths and violent deaths. His conclusion was that "subtle differences in social ranking can lead to dramatic differences in health."

Michael Marmot's findings are supported by findings of The Equality Trust, a UK non-profit organization. Researchers compared the health of people in low and high equality societies, revealing a consistent pattern: people in high-equality societies tend to be healthier. According to their website:

There are now over 170 studies of income inequality in relation to various aspects of health. Life expectancy, infant mortality, low birth weight and self-rated health have repeatedly been shown to be worse in more unequal societies.

Research carried out since the early 1990s shows that many of the most pressing health and social problems are worse in more unequal societies. Societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor seem to suffer more of a very wide range of health and social dysfunctions. (See The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.)

big health

We are now beginning to realize health is far more multi-dimensional than previously imagined. In fact, our bodies are part of an immensely complex, interconnected and chaotic system. This is not just poetic language–when an environmental butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the planet, everyone's body is affected. Winds carry topsoil, dust, seeds and pathogens around the world. Pharmaceuticals pass through animal bodies and into the water supply where they are absorbed by other organisms. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides filter into rivers, lakes and aquifers. Plastic byproducts find their way into our bodies, disrupting vital endocrine systems. Ultimately, our embedded bodies experience the ripples of energy and substances that course through the living world.

it's all contagious

The discoveries of ecology and epidemiology are forcing us into drastic re-evaluations of some basic medical assumptions. For the last half century, we have divided human disease into two distinct categories: infectious and non-infectious. Infectious diseases are caused by pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. Non-infectious diseases are caused by "lifestyle factors." People eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much and sit on their butts too much.

But now it's starting to look like things are a lot more complicated. The problem is that the so-called "non-communicable" or "lifestyle" diseases may in fact be "spread" through social networks, influence and mimicked behavior. To say that heart disease, diabetes and obesity are matters of "lifestyle" misses the point because lifestyle itself is highly contagious. Lifestyle doesn't infect people the same way that smallpox does, but there is no longer any question of social and cultural contagion. An enormous percentage of our health and disease is "catching," one way or the other.

no health islands

Given what we now know about the tight interconnection of human health with the surrounding world, we are forced to ask some hard questions: Is it even possible to be healthy in the midst of a sick culture or biosphere? Does it make sense to focus on the health of individuals while simultaneously ignoring the biological and cultural context?

The short answer is completely unsatisfactory. Yes, it is possible, for a time, to isolate individual bodies and promote individual adaptations. This is precisely what we see in the world of elite health clubs and athletics. Wealthy individuals channel a massive stream of energy and resources to themselves and so, in the short term, manage to build up islands of health. But this apparent "health" is not particularly meaningful, enduring or interesting. Given enough resources, just about anyone can do it.

In fact, health islands are not a good model for our future. Yes, we can direct vast amounts of time, expertise and resources into building up the state of individual bodies, teams or athletic programs, but what exactly have we accomplished? Aside from pumping up the appearance, vitality and status of the "islanders," all we're really done is stretch the social health gradient, increasing the distance between the health rich and the health poor. Ultimately, the process becomes self-defeating as the islanders, fit and healthy as they might be, find themselves isolated in a world of declining health.

who's holistic?

Our understanding of human continuity gives new meaning to the practice of holistic health. In conventional circles, we reflexively label mind-body-spirit orientations as "holistic." But if we're only talking about my body, my mind and my spirit, what we're doing isn't even close to being holistic. In fact, just the contrary. With the mind-body-spirit orientation is focused on the individual, the best we can hope for is a temporary, unsustainable health island.

If we really want to be holistic, we have to include the rest of the biological and social world. In this respect, the conventional prescription for health must be expanded to include a third element:

diet + exercise + activism

In other words, watch what you eat, get off the couch and start being inconvenient. Eat real food, practice functional movement and stand up for environmental preservation, sustainable agriculture, peace and social justice. Take care of your internal organs, of course, but take care of your external organs too. It's all one body.

Anatomy of a Rebound

"If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving."

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

In late August of 2009, I was blessed with a powerfully disturbing experience, an adverse event that challenged my patience, my endurance and my exuberance.

My original plan was to fly from Seattle to London to teach a weekend seminar on exuberant health and play-based fitness in partnership with WildFitness. All was well until I arrived in London and approached the Heathrow airport immigration counter. The officer checked my passport and told me that I lacked an obscure but essential legal document and that I would be detained for further investigation.

At first, I had no worries. Surely the authorities would see that I was a mere innocent, a physical educator with no nefarious motives. All I wanted was give a slide show, lead some movement games, walk around London a bit and go home. Once they looked into the matter, they would surely find my story credible and let me go my way.

But the authorities were unconvinced. They investigated my story, but remained unsatisfied. So I was escorted into a back room, searched, held in a lockup for 6 hours, interrogated and finally escorted onto a flight back to the states. Before I could say "Buckingham Palace," I was back in New York and then off to Seattle.

My entire mission was destroyed, my hopes for a great event dashed. Weeks and months of preparation were wasted, as was a substantial investment in airfare, hotels and related gear. Within a few brief hours, I went from being an exuberant health activist to an international outlaw and border crasher.

In the annals of human catastrophe, it wasn’t a true disaster of course. My life wasn’t threatened and I didn’t suffer extreme abuse or physical hardship. I still have a place to live, food to eat and friends to play with. Nevertheless, it was a powerfully upsetting experience that I would not care to repeat.

By all rational calculations, I should have been angry, distraught and just plain pissed off. After all, I had good reason. I was treated unfairly and rudely. The experience might well have been a blow to my disposition and my spirit; it might have derailed me for weeks. I might have become depressed or I might have wasted a lot of time trying to strike back at the powers in question.

But none of those things happened. Instead, my training paid off. I bounced back from the adversity in remarkably short order. Within a day or so, I was back to my quest, plotting my objectives and fleshing out my Plan B. Aside from the physical exhaustion of a nearly continuous Seattle-London-Seattle flight, I arrived home in a surprisingly balanced frame of mind. Sure, the trip had been a catastrophe, but somehow, I managed to maintain most of my equilibrium and in the process, I began to understand some of the elements that go into a successful rebound.

things fall apart

The whole process begins when life deals a surprise blow, an insult or a tragedy. An asteroid falls into your life and your most cherished ideas, beliefs and dreams are smashed to pieces. A divorce, a death, a job loss, an immigration fiasco; we’ve all had our share.

In the early moments, you’re flooded with raw reaction and primal emotion. You scramble to make things right, but your predicament is bigger than you are and events are beyond your control. At this point, you are shocked, traumatized and stressed.

As the catastrophe begins to sink in, your limbic system leaps into action. The fight-flight response goes into overdrive and stress hormones flood your bloodstream. Your emotional brain fires up and keeps on firing with a flood of anger, remorse, hatred, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. But it’s all to no avail. Your world is crumbling before your eyes and you are powerless to stop or even steer the course of events.

Eventually, the immediate threat and emotional reaction begin to subside, but now the mind steps in to review and replay the event. You call up the most impressive images, sensations and emotions. You relive the entire experience, over and over and over.

In many cases, we get stuck at this point, as our minds play back an endless loop of reruns. Over and over we rehash the event, retrieving the most disturbing moments from memory and solidifying their neural base. This replay process is perfectly normal, natural and healthy, but only for so long. When memories are retrieved, they become stronger and begin to take on a disproportionate life of their own. The more we rerun the event, the more real it becomes to us.

tell the story

Sometime later, we begin to translate our emotional experience into words and in the process, we start to tell a story to ourselves and to others. We may not think of it as a story in the classical, once-upon-a-time sense, but it’s still a narrative, an explanation of what went wrong. There are characters, events and tone, but most of all, there’s causality and responsibility, an explanation that helps us put our experience in order. Emotion will still play a part, but now our experience is mediated and expressed in words, paragraphs, chapters and volumes.

Our stories can help us rebound, but success depends in large measure on the tone and character of our narrative, our explanatory style. Cognitive psychologists have studied explanatory styles in detail and have discovered some intriguing and powerful patterns.

The most notorious is the depressive explanatory style. This kind of narrative is marked by statements that are personal ("It’s all my fault."), pervasive ("I always screw things up.") and permanent. ("I’ll never be any good at this.") People who tell stories in this style are prone to ineffectiveness and depression. After all, if things are always my fault and will be so forever, what’s the point in trying to change? Our language sculpts our spirit, our behavior and our ability to rebound. If I had used this sort of explanatory style in telling my story to myself or others, I would still be in a state of depressive stress. My rebound would have been weak or non-existent.

In contrast, the optimistic explanatory style tends to be transient ("This thing is temporary. It will all be over eventually."), controllable ("There are things I can do about this.") and specific ("It was a really stupid situation, but it was a freak, one-off event.") People who tell stories in this optimistic style tend to be more effective and resilient. Their language gives them a sense of control and possibility.

Unfortunately, many of us settle into a single explanatory style in early adulthood and stick with it throughout life, thus perpetuating patterns of reactivity and ineffectiveness. The danger comes when we get stuck on one level of explanation, one style of language or one level of abstraction. Our self-talk solidifies into a single point of view, a single flow of causality and a single tone with recurring themes. Static narration leads to static behavior and spirit; we become stuck.

The key to a successful rebound is to get some movement into our words and our narratives. Don’t bore yourself or your audience. Keep your language mobile and dancing. If you’re stuck, it might be because your language is stuck. Play with your words and see if things don’t go a little better. Describe your predicament from several vantage points and see what you like. If you’re not getting the result you want, tell a new story from a fresh perspective. This may challenge your beliefs about the true nature of the event, but stories are free and it will cost you nothing to entertain some new ideas.

"this will make a great story"

For me, the key rebounding moment came in a phone conversation to a good friend on my return to the States. I struggled to explain the fiasco to her, trying to capture the essential nature of the farce. Finally I concluded, "This will make a great story someday. Not yet. But someday." And suddenly, I felt liberated from the grip of my predicament. I knew that sometime in the future, I would be telling my story and laughing at the absurdity of it all. But if I was going to be laughing about this event a year from now, why not next week? And if next week, why not right now? I laughed at this realization. Things really weren’t so bad after all.

key questions

My rebound also hinged on a couple of key questions that helped me reinterpret my experience. The first - "Where’s the compassion?" proved extremely powerful for me, right in the midst of my interrogation. As I sat in a small room, on a chair bolted to the floor, I observed my immigration agent as she pored through my documents, casting a suspicious eye on my health-related papers and books. "Did you write this?" she glared, as if I was trafficking in national secrets. My mind reeled at the absurdity of the question, but after a moment, I began to think about her predicament. "What a shitty job she has, with such slavery to rules and bureaucracy" I mused. "She has to dig into people’s lives all day, treating everyone she meets like a proto-criminal." Suddenly, I was seeing things from her perspective. "This poor woman. I wonder what her life is like outside of this interrogation room. I wonder who her husband is and how they live. How very sad." Suddenly, I felt that she, not I, was the real victim of this preposterous system. This insight was profoundly relaxing. No matter what happened that day, I would eventually go home and back to a meaningful and creative life, but she had to live inside this Kafkian madness every day. Compared to her predicament, mine was a cakewalk.

A second question also helped me survive and rebound - "Where’s the comedy?" This was easy because my situation was saturated with hilarious material. I could just see the headline in the morning papers: "UK immigration officials keep country safe from threat of health advocacy and exuberant movement." And that was just the beginning. Every detail of the event was ripe for comedic interpretation and even now I can hardly keep from laughing. Fortunately, I managed to keep my mouth shut during questioning. Laughter does not go over well with grim, highly-stressed law enforcement officers.

social support

Like all good rebounds, my experience included some powerful social support. Even as I faced the reality of deportation and another endless flight across the Atlantic and North America (and another round of semi-edible food-like substances), I knew that I would soon have some great phone conversations with friends and family. The story would be a howler and people would get behind me as I told them of my plight. It also helped enormously to have the WildFitness team in my corner; I later learned that Tara Wood and Edward Drax had done some truly heroic pleading with the authorities. I was not alone in my plight.


I also got a bounce from the knowledge that I would ultimately have a voice in the midst of it all. As soon I was loaded aboard the flight back to the US, I began taking notes, sketching out my experience in the margin of a book. I knew that I would tell this story in one form or another and that realization gave me power. Even a blog post would get my words out. In other words, I was not helpless.

experience counts

Finally, I realized that resilience often comes down to a simple matter of prior experience or what my sensei used to call "time on the mat." I’ve been blessed with some wonderful adversities in my years and I’ve learned that I always manage to come back. All of us suffer through traumatic events, but things eventually run their course. The body calms down, rebuilds and relaxes its vigilance. Systems return to normal. If you’ve been around the block (or the planet) a few times, you know how the process works and you begin to incorporate resilience into your very sense of identity: "I’ve rebounded before, I’ll rebound again. I can weather this."

So, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. In the process, I’ve come to realize that if we want our training to be truly holistic, it’s essential that we become students of rebounding. After all, life is filled with capricious immigration officers and other jokers in the deck. We can’t predict everything that they'll do, but we can learn how to bounce back from their trickery.

And whatever you do, make sure that you get all the obscure paperwork in order before you approach the immigration counter at Heathrow airport. And please don’t mention my name. It won’t help you a bit.

recommended reading

Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD.

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Emotions by James Pennebaker PhD.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, PhD.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

Food, inc

If you're an athlete or health professional, you care about food. You want to know what's in it and where it comes from. Food Inc, gives us the background story that everyone needs to hear. It's everything you've suspected about industrial food production, only worse. The movie will make you cringe, but it's also inspirational in its own right. Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and others come across as courageous advocates for a better world. See this movie, and visit the Hungry for Change website.