Wellness and balance are such slippery little words, but they are thrown around these days like it is an achievable and permanent state of being. I would argue that they are transient states that some of us feel from time to time but most of us are not aware of. I would also argue that there is a wide range of wellness and balance and that it is possible to have wellness and balance in some aspects of your life in tandem with being totally out of whack in other aspects. For instance, a person may have financial balance and wellness and be in a state of depression. Another person may have achieved a high level of physical wellness but not be able to pay their bills. Wellness and balance might also be more about a state of mind than a practice, habit or achievement. However, wellness and balance rarely exist in every aspect of one’s life in one specific moment (I have known a Buddist Zen Master that seemed to be sitting smack dab in the middle of balance and wellness, but she is the rare exception and meditates for 4 hours a day…so, back to reality). In the world of functional medicine we discuss wellness not as the absence of disease but the movement towards optimal vitality…living your best life. So what does that look like?
When I flipped a switch last year and decided that we had to move to Italy, one of the reasons that I felt so passionately about this country is that there is one aspect of wellness that they do really well, downtime. One could argue (as many Italians do) that outside of the major cities there is too little motivation, too much downtime, not enough get-up-and-go. Others argue that even in the presence of significant motivation, Italy lacks opportunity and economy so why not enjoy the simple pleasures and relax. One Montepulciano winemaker explained to me that he called the electrician 4 weeks ago to fix his stove and after promising to make a house call that week, the electrician has yet to show. When the winemaker finally reached him on the phone, the electrician excused his absence with “troppo caldo” (it is too hot to work, referring to the weather). That is Italy. But even when they are working, they know how to take a real break. Around 1pm when the shops close and the restaurants fill with people, this is no quick panino…this is LUNCH! It involves courses, friends, wine, a lot of hand gesturing, and it is followed by a rest. It is really hard to be stressed out when you get to look forward to that each day. It fulfills many of the aspects of wellness; stress reduction, socialization, real food eaten in a low-stress environment leading to proper digestion, physical rejuvenation, etc.
Italians also do physical activity and whole food really well, but those are separate posts. Today, I am fixated on wellness as it pertains to two, sometimes opposing, aspects of life; relaxation and passion. The relationship may not be completely clear but hear me out. While most Americans would likely report that they are severely lacking in time to just lay on a beach and crack open a good novel, they would also likely report that they are not passionate about laying on a beach and cracking open a novel. Most would likely report that they are not doing what they are passionate about at all AND they are not getting enough relaxation. However, I was not one of those Americans; I had passion. When I pushed my family to move to this incredible country and explore the art of “chilling out”, I did not think about what might happen to the energy that propels passion in my life.
It was wine that sparked this line of questioning in my very spacious and overly-relaxed mind. A couple of weeks ago we visited Podere Il Cocco, a beautiful family owned and run winery in Montalcino with lovely friends that we met in language school (shout out to Karen, Alanna and kiddos). We ate a beautiful 2.5 hour lunch accompanied by delicious and ridiculously affordable wines before heading into a 3 hour tasting with Giacomo, the eldest brother and self-acclaimed boss! I listened in awe while he told us the story of his family and the winery, his efforts to save the place after the farmer that had tended it for years passed away unexpectedly. Over and over I thought about the intention to learn a new business, a new set of politics that always accompanies wine in Italy and create a product that stands on its own two feet as a wine to be appreciated. The effort is hard to imagine but in each story that he told, we could all feel the importance of his mission. I was more surprised to hear that he barely even drinks wine, explaining that too much wine will ruin his ability to discern the quality of his grapes and ultimately his wine. His discipline has paid off.
As the days have passed in our Italy experiment, I have noticed myself fall into more relaxation that I have ever had but a fading and dwindling passion for life. WTH? I’m in Italy for Pete’s sake. But, Giacomo made me realize something. I have experienced years of passion directed at completing my education and supporting clients and projects along the way. The kind of passion that allows one to miss meals and working into the wee hours of the morning on a paper. Granted, I have been a stress ball, often missing sleep, having outbursts, skipping exercise, and developing an autoimmune disorder. However, I was driven by passion and purpose. I have always loved food (ok, and wine) too, but my passion for learning and completion overshadowed any dependence on either of those.
Now, I am living in Italy for a year and I realize that not many people can say that (not complaining, I swear). I am excited, grateful, and open-minded about what this experience will unveil. However, I am floundering without passion or purpose (I might use those interchangeably). The process of getting here was filled with passion, but now I am in the “in-between”; we are here but I have not found my new passion. Interestingly, in the absence of said passion, I have spent a lot of time focused on eating amazing food and drinking incredible wine. While it does not spark passion, it provides a similar feeling which is pleasure.
This got me thinking about dependence and how each of us fills up our time. When I work with clients that have a dependence on food, a major aspect of the work is helping them uncover the deeper issues that accompany food addiction. Often we find chemical imbalance, trauma, uncontrolled stress, or metabolic disease. However, some people are just not happy and they are not totally sure why. Some people are chasing passion with pleasurable activities like eating, drinking, smoking…fill in the blank. I have noticed a very interesting development in myself that may help me better understand my clients’ dependence on food and drink. When all of life’s boxes seemed to be checked it is very easy to turn to eating and drinking to fill up time that might otherwise be filled by passion and purpose.
Considering how the habits that manifest health equate to wellness, I think that active relaxation and passion/purpose are big factors in the equation. Eating real food, social support, moving the body, breathing clean air and drinking clean water are obvious contributors but I think it is also important to look passion and purpose. If you don’t wake up every morning driven to fulfill something that feels authentic and meaningful, “pleasure chasing” can become a subconscious pastime. Like I said at the beginning of the post, states of balance and wellness are transient and ever-changing but balancing out the energy that we put into all aspects of health is the work of managing wellness. If you feel out of balance or dependent on things that throw you into a vicious cycle, maybe it is time to take note of where you feel passion and how you can get a little more of that in your life. I will be right there with you.