Falling short

“Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination.”

Alan Watts

What do you see when you look at a human body? If you’re typically modern, you see a stand-alone organism that stops at the outer layer of its skin. You see an individual.

This perspective may well feel normal and familiar, but not everyone sees the body this way. In fact, the original inhabitants of this planet saw the body as part of a much larger whole. Native Americans sometimes speak of the “long body,” a description that refers to the body plus its life-supporting context, especially land and tribe. Implicit in this view is the understanding that our bodies are deeply embedded in the world. The body is far larger that it appears; we are continuous with our natural and social surroundings. Moreover, these connections between body, habitat and tribe are fundamental to our health. To be isolated is to die.

This long body view was universal in primal cultures and it is now being validated by an immense body of modern scientific research. Thousands of studies have shown conclusively the powerful, health-positive connections that exist between individual bodies and the natural world, between bodies and tribes. The interdependence of body, habitat and tribe isn’t just the romantic, mystical musing of native people, it is solidly established, irrefutable scientific fact.

Knowing what we now know about the embedded nature of the human body and the power of context in human health, one might expect that health and medical professionals would be doing everything possible to emphasize and strengthen the connections between individuals and their life-supporting habitats and tribes. But this is not what we are seeing. In fact, the vast majority of our modern health, medical and fitness efforts are aimed squarely at the short body. We practice short medicine, short health and short fitness. We focus almost exclusively on the state of single individuals. We isolate the human body on magazine covers, depicting it as a stand-alone organism with no connections to the living world. We market our health products and services to individuals or those who work with individuals. We hire personal trainers and get excited about a future of “personalized medicine.” We ask our clients about their individual performance, pain profiles, diets and training programs, but almost never do we inquire about their connections to their life supporting systems of habitat and tribe. We are blind to the bigger pictures that sustain us.

Obviously, some of this focus on the individual is necessary and justified. Individuals do in fact suffer illness, disease and injury, but in the main, our exclusive focus on individual bodies actually serves to deepen our predicament and take us away from the comprehensive state of health that we are supposedly trying to create. In this process, we defeat ourselves. We create “health islands” that are ultimately doomed to failure. By promoting the individual as the exclusive focal point for transformation and health, we undercut the very thing that would truly make us whole: a renewed sense of contact with our long bodies.

As it stands, our industry motto might well be “Building a better individual.” But in fact, there is no such thing as “a healthy individual.” We are forever dependent on the health of our environment, our habitat, our tribe. The more individualized our lives become, the weaker our health. We are nothing without context.

Even sub cultures that ought to know better fall short. A conspicuous example is the modern Paleo movement. On the face of it, we might well imagine that this community would be exceptionally sensitive to indigenous world views and the long body orientation. After all, the Paleolithic era was populated exclusively by native people who held big picture, long body views; the short body view would have been considered foolish and even delusional. But in today’s Paleo movement, the primary focus is on maximizing the welfare and performance of the short body. Paleo enthusiasts typically use diet and training programs to improve their individual athletic performance and individual health. In this sense, Paleo is no different than any other mainstream health and fitness practice; it’s just another flavor of modern narcissism, a culture that New York Time columnist David Brooks describes as “the Big Me.”

Of course, we all need to make a living and many of us are paid to assist individuals who are seeking to improve their personal health, fitness and welfare. If we want to pay the rent, we’ve got to serve those needs. But the fact remains that our myopic focus on individuals is not serving us well. We desperately need a more expansive vision.

I am not suggesting that everyone in the health and medical fields give up their day jobs and jump directly into environmental and social activism, although this may not be as crazy as it sounds. Rather, I am suggesting that we relinquish our monomaniacal focus on individuals and broaden our thinking to include the long body.

So whatever you do, keep your eye on the context. Without it, we’ve got nothing.