Managing your health in this modern age is subtle and complicated. There are a whole host of influences on your health and body, a great variety of factors that come into play, a dizzying array of things that need to be balanced. It’s not easy keeping track of it all.

On occasion things are simple. A mild cold, for instance, or a sprained ankle; these things are not as complicated to deal with.

But by and large, the types of illnesses that most of us face in modern society are of the chronic and insidious kind, the kind that accumulates over long periods and has its roots in many different things, the kind you can’t track as easily but keeps on getting worse little by little. It’s harder to trace that kind of health condition to just one originating event, and it’s harder to say that there’s just one thing you have to do to fix yourself.

This is why there’s so much contradictory information out there about health. Health is multifactorial. One person can smoke every day in his life and die at a ripe old age of 100, as George Burns did; while others might get lung cancer even after having quit smoking 20 years ago. There’s so much variation, and it seems like the only broad answers come from researchers and statisticians. And unfortunately, such studies take time and they take money and they take interest, even while the pace of change (and the politics of funding) quickens to the point that it’s impossible to keep up with everything; and the conclusions keep changing anyway!

This is the difficulty of being unhealthy in the modern age. Even as life speeds up, and things seem to get more and more complicated, and we still keep getting sick.

So first, let’s be clear about one thing: Nobody gets out of this alive. So we’re not really in it to conquer everything I just mentioned, or to win at some game. Especially nowadays, no matter what we do, we’ll get injured, we’ll get into car accidents, we’ll breathe secondhand smoke, we’ll come into contact with some sort of carcinogen. Even at the furthest fringes of civilization, human influence impossible to avoid. So we’re not really in this to get out alive.

Instead, we’re in this to live the best lives we can, the healthiest way we can. The only place each of us can really start is on the personal level.

So the question is, how do we live the best lives we can, how do we live as healthily as we can, when things keep getting faster and more complicated?

We do it by keeping ourselves tuned. Having a body and being healthy in it is kind of like having a musical instrument and keeping it tuned.

When you tune an instrument—say, a guitar—you pluck a string and you listen. And if it’s not at the right pitch, you adjust it until it is. And you keep playing and listening and adjusting until everything sounds right. And you keep doing this over and over again, every time you play, because the guitar will keep going out of tune, because that’s what guitars do, that’s what everything does, by laws of entropy.

You can’t stop things from going out of tune. You can just stop the rate at which they go out of tune, and you can improve your ability to get them in tune.

Listening to and taking care of your body is, like tuning the guitar, a process, not a destination. It’s a process that does demand something from you. It demands patience, perception, and attention, in a time when such things are of increasingly short supply. I understand that. But it doesn’t make it less true. What you eat, what you drink, how you breathe, these things, simple as they are, are critical, even as we have less energy to spend considering these things, even as the stuff we’re sold is less healthy than ever.

I understand that being healthy is harder these days, because there’s so much more to consider. Gone are the days that you can eat the food and drink the water and not be concerned because everything is good for you. Not too long ago, you couldn’t possibly eat anything other than “organic” food that was “in season” and “locally grown” and “sugar free” and “trans-fat free.” You had no choice but to get some exercise, both aerobic and anaerobic. The water you drank had very little possibility of chemical toxins. Nowadays the healthy things that our bodies used to get as a matter of course are the things that we pay extra money for.

Nonetheless, I need to reiterate that the task remains the same: If you want to be healthy, you have to be prepared to tune yourself like an instrument, which means patiently listening and caring for your body, and it also means understanding that it’s a bunch of little things that matter, not one big thing.

I write this because time and again I see people who are sick and suffering and just want their suffering to go away quickly so they can continue what they’re doing. And the truth is: You can’t. You can’t because, in some way, small or large, you have to literally become a different person in order to live your life without suffering. It’s not a matter of sticking in a needle or taking a pill and taking the pain away. That’s just symptom management. The roots of chronic illness, again, tend to be those that are ongoing and insidious, habits that have ingrained themselves into your life and become almost a part of you. That means that, in some sense, in order to heal, you have to choose to become the kind of person that’s not sick. So if you really want to change your illness at its root, you have to be willing to enter into this process of tuning yourself.

The power and responsibility are ultimately your own. Health care practitioners like myself can be very useful in facilitating the process, but I can’t breathe for you or eat for you or sleep for you. You have to begin the work of stopping and listening. Are you tired? Are you achy? Are you breathing? Are you hungry? All of these things matter.

Treat these things as if they matter, and they’ll bring you back to the wisdom of your own body. You don’t need anybody telling you how to live. The body will tell you what it needs. The only reason it doesn’t is because its voice is covered up or outpaced by so many other external influences. The body’s wisdom and its voice need to be restored to a central place if you really want to get and stay healthy.

Listen. Tune in. And be ready to hear what your body has to say.

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