I read an article recently that discusses smarter work ethic, and it is based on Elon Musk’s 3-step approaches toward problem solving and a theory called “First principles thinking”. I found the concepts helpful and decided to apply them to understanding health.
I have long been interested in the concept of “what is health”. With exhausting debates regarding the clearly broken healthcare system in the US, it is pretty easy to overlook more fundamental concepts regarding who we are, what we need and want, and especially what we consider to be healthy living.
Without looking at the question “what is health?”, without taking time to understand and define it for ourselves, I would argue, it is going to add to a lot of misinformation and frustration regarding maintaining wellbeing.
In the article, the author posits that the “first principles thinking” asks you to “identify and define your current assumptions”. He gives the examples, “Growing my business will cost a lot of money” or “I have to struggle and starve to be a successful artist”.
Further he says, “Though most of our life we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do, with slight variations.” He suggests that this kind of reasoning doesn’t clarify, but may be adding to our complex issues. For the purposes of this article, I want to apply this to health.
Health is problem that we are consistently trying to identify, simplify and clarify. We are consistently, both collectively and individually trying to remain well, even if we are not evidently using language that is health-specific.
We do this, by associating wellbeing with what others, or the majority, consider to be wellbeing. The founding principles of the US Constitution, for instance, delineates that of all inalieanable rights, the most important are the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. All three of these are holographic aspects of what I might call health.
Musk says “It is important to view knowledge as a sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get to the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” I really like this metaphor and want to apply it to health.
Once broken down into basic principles, the article says, you can begin to create new insightful solutions, from scratch. The article is further anchored in research regarding the first principles theory, but also a psychological concept called “functional fixedness”. This is the “tendency to fixate on the typical use of an object or one of its parts. When we’re faced with complex problems, we default to thinking like everybody else.”
By identifying basic assumptions, breaking them down into basic truths, and creating new solutions, we have the capacity to “uncover” solutions to our health issues.
Functional fixedness, the research says, tends to overlook four types of features possessed by a problem object (parts, material, shape and size) because of the functions closely associated with the object and its parts. To overcome functional fixedness, the research says, to add new information about the object or the problem (elaborate) or reinterpreting old information, a process called “re-encoding”.
I would like to apply these concepts to health, and specifically to what we consider disease, as disease is often the “problem” we associate with health.
Identify and define current assumptions:
What are the fundamental assumptions we have about disease? Perhaps the most fundamental of assumptions about disease is that they are too complex to understand individually. We require a specialist, we require a medicine, we require an expert to sort it out. The term “Complex”, for instance has its origins in psychoanalysis via Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. A complex is a “core pattern” of emotions, memories and perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organized around a common theme, such as power or status. By nature, even our languaging reflects an assumption around disease processes as not being simple to sort it. We tend to consider ourselves complex, with complex needs, feelings and beliefs.
Disease, applied to these theories, is related to assumptions regarding what we consider to be healthy and what we consider is unhealthy. I want to take this further and create a semantic tree to help us understand more fundamental principles regarding what health is.
The Roots: What are the roots of health?
When a person gets sick, whatever the condition, they want to know why. They want to “know”. I want to suggest that behind this more fundamentally is wanting to “connect”. The person is disconnected from a process occurring in their body; it has lost its context, and is diverting attention from what they consider to be “themselves”. The person rarely wants to know it all. When they have the “flu”, they don’t really want to know if it could be a more insidious condition. They want to know enough that they can move on with their lives, to solve the discrepancy and return to regular programming. Musk contextualizes his theories in thinking and problem solving and “knowing”. I would like to applied this to health and disease and suggest that the roots of health are embedded in a loss of knowing. The basic principle associated with the roots of our health is embedded in knowing what is happening.
Further, when the person doesn’t know what is happening, they are dealing with a loss of recognition. When this happens, disease often takes the form of “Self vs Other”. The basic assumption regarding disease here is that when the person doesn’t recognize something that is happening in themselves, they retreat to this way of thinking about their health.
But, sticking to the basic assumption, Self vs. Other is not a root issue; it is a branch issue. Recognition is experiencing and just “knowing”. “Self vs Other” indicates analogy, as Musk indicated. Our basic assumption when we get sick is to break it down into an issue between yourself and something outside of you. Other is an analogy for Self, but it is not quite like self.
Recognition, and what I am calling the roots or fundamental principles of health, is beneath and beyond needing to know “what”. Recognition is experiencing and feeling nourished by the knowing. It is experiencing and being nourished by knowing that you are.
Let’s look to the branch to clarify the roots of health.
Branches: What are the branches of health?
This, I would suggest, is actually where disease begins. This is when recognition fails. Maybe we are unable to recognize, maybe we recognize too much, or we compromise what we innately recognize.
We want to know “what” specifics, or we specifically don’t want to know: We want to know the why, who, what, where” regarding disease. “Where is it located, why is this happening to me? When will it end, when will I get cancer, if all of the men in my family got cancer?”
We have a blindspot, we cannot locate an internal sense of recognition in a new encounter. This is where we tend to first get lost or confused, as the situation challenges our sense of recognition.
“Is health health? Is health love, friendship, community, spirit?”
Rather than asking the question “what is health”, we tend to replace this programming with “What could be the cause of the disease, now?” Is it bacteria this time, a virus, is it cancer, is it mental, is it terminal, did I get this from the children I was around who were sick?”
This is level of reasoning by analogy. This is copying what other people do, with slight variations. This kind of thinking or knowing is nearly endless and constitutes the bulk of disease. This is building knowledge and solving problems based in prior assumptions. They are the “best” practices approved by majority. We tend to all exist in a level of negotiating what is collectively considered healthy being. Conventional Medicine practices are based in this kind of reasoning. You are reasoning with yourself, “Could this symptom be this?”
Western doctors are trained to sort through all of the possible conditions that your complex of symptoms might indicate, according to past literature and empirical experience. However, the limitation of this kind of thinking is that you become susceptible to the assumptions regarding what disease and therefore what health can look like. It is embedded in compromising what you recognize to be self-evident, and what you consider to be innately nourishing by the exchange.
The branches are where we are voluntarily willing to compromise the fundamental sense of connection/knowing. Sometimes, you let the other person speak, you let others be, and you do not involve yourself. This is the space that fills the person with the most breadth and volume as an individual, but it has the possibility of distending, branches that can start to draw too much from the root, and the tree can only grow so wide. It grows high, but its sensitive to wind.
Too many branches, too many compromises, the tree might live a long time, but what you’re able to see or have access to minimizes. This means that it will be harder to really know what wellbeing is for you.
In the branch level, you might tend to a lot of confusing messaging regarding your health. You might get colds easily, you might rely too much on what others tell you is a good practice. “What should I take for when I have a random spasm in my leg? What should I take if the bottom of my foot feels cold? What should I do when the soup is too hot? What should I do if my tooth hurts?” Suddenly, you’re on 10 supplements, or a medication that defines you, because it embeds itself in constantly negotiating your relationship with the group, another, or with the specialist.
This is the level of chronic pain. Your body is not very clear about what it is experiencing, and that give and take is something that tends to wander in the body in its loud confusion. You are aware that you are in pain, but you don’t quite know why. This is often emphasized more when you are under stress; work, relationships and generally being out in the world.
The more pronounced the pain, the more the root is being replaced by the branch. In acute stages, where pain is extreme, it is testament to how compromising of who we are for what we collectively agree health looks like. This is embedded in empathy. It is painful to know that there is suffering in the world, whether in our family or social group, or world. The more painful it is for you, the more it conveys how your root is being compromised. Over time, we are more willing to submit to chronic states of disease, to hold each other even when it’s toxic, because the thinking that involves reasoning by analogy, says that connection means suffering and sacrifice. Without regulation, we are willing to cut out pounds of flesh for one another as testament to how much we care, how much we are willing to reveal our humanity to be relevant in the group. A root conversation is one that doesn’t need to prove that you are, especially to yourself. This is not bad or evil, it is tragic. Tragedy defines our current medical models. Even the comedies are tragic. When someone like Chris Farley died, we couldn’t quite sort out the fact that his whole persona was built upon self-deprecation. We laughed not because he was funny, but because it was tragic to a degree that clarified we didn’t have it as bad as him.
You can see how, in this level, disease can “look” like anything. It is a maladaptive way of thinking to consider that all cancer has similar appearances. It is our societal way of looking to another when someone is suffering and saying, “Do you know what is happening here?” We then combine our past experiences to construct what we think is happening in them. But at the root of cancer, is the same root as the common cold. Our basic assumptions can actually prevent the individual who is suffering from getting better. When the person with cancer suddenly feels great, decides they want to stop treatment and want to go on a drive across the country or travel the world, we say, “No, Mary, you’re sick. Your condition is serious. You need to take this seriously. You need x” This can complicate the possibility for the person to heal, because it is based in not in the roots of health, but instead what we collectively feel as anxiety regarding the individual’s own agency regarding their life, and our inability to return to them who they are.
Leaves: What are the leaves of health?
What are the leaves of health? Looking at leaves, these provide the tree with the most immediate protection from over-consumption of external influences, like moisture and light. Moisture is the past, light is the the future. The extension of our resources too far-in-advance can sever nourishment to the root.
The leaves are the most diverse appearing in the concept of health, but really they represent adaptability. The leaves give you the optionsthat reflect the healthy kind of diversity that is represented in nature. They are, by nature, preventative. They carry the day-to-day into the moment.
This means that you are not meant to spend exorbitant energy on maximizing them, or even focusing on them. The leaves are sort of checks and balances and they are in the realm of “How to”. No matter where you go, you encounter “information”, and that information demonstrates “what it is” by what it is doing. You do yoga by going to yoga. You do meditation by doing meditation. The tree is a tree by being a tree. It doesn’t innately help you to know that a tree is a tree. No single individual’s way of doing something is completely knowable, recognizable, or can constitute the entire method of keeping well. The tree metaphor isn’t suggesting that you should go be a tree; cut off your arms and replace them with branches and leaves. These act as inspiration, ways of thinking, and are resistant to habituation, as they are always changing. Habituation happens most often in the branch level. The leaves change enough, such that they are hard to track longer than the impression they give you.
The leaves, ultimately, help you change up the recognition and the “what”, the roots and branches respectively, but they aren’t immediately able to answer your health concern. They are there to acknowledge that there is a health concern. They are there to be witness with their signatures of constant nature of change, from the deepest levels of being, to the most superficial.
In this level we are not exactly “connecting” – connecting would involve give and take, negotiation and compromise; more akin to the branches. This is the level of “I’m thinking about”, as well as the level of thought. It is trying on a new face and seeing how it fits. When the weather changes, we are being offered the possibility of a new face, to be someone else for a change. When the weather changes drastically, it spells a face that collectively and drastically needs a makeover.
Without roots, the leaves will not provide you with a lasting health benefit. Without branches, comparison to what has been done in one’s experience, the leaves break off easily, or cannot even manifest.
This would translate as always trying a diet but never sticking to it, or going to an acupuncturist once a month and expecting it to cure cancer. This would be wanting to feel better, but eating a cupcake with your peppermint tea. The leaves of a tree can only grow to a certain shape and size. This means that you cannot embody all of the leaves, all of the time. The seasons are a testament to being adaptable in terms of what is really authentic and recognizable to you. They are how the natural world shows you how they are choosing to fundamentally change. They are not interested in negotiating what nature should look like. Nature doesn’t doubt, nor does it resist change. It utilizes change.
During the fall and the winter, the leaves show their true colors, and they break off and drift away, compost for others. They are, by nature, related to vestigial evolutionary states of being where we could not distinguish or recognize self. This left us susceptible to participating in creation, but not quite being able to observe it long enough to be in the joy of it; or to gather the full image to contain the image. Human beings want to preserve. But the leaves are a testament to knowing that nothing really can be preserved, even the root. Research tells us that leaves change color in the fall, because the trees are producing chemicals that are toxic to parasitic insects that would compromise their structures before the first frost. But I like to think that the trees are purging all of the things that the world told them they had to be while it changed. The trees welcome the fall and winter because its a time that everyone sheds their masks, and lets go of what is painful and toxic.
Growth without consciousness can look like pain. Pain without consciousness can look like violence.
Being, without growth, there is no recognition – the parts of the whole are unable to regularly nourish themselves.
A thought has being and is associated with the leaves; but an idea has breadth and corresponds more to the branch.
A way is akin to the root, and it really is only fundamental to you, and cannot be compared and mimicked and embodied by anyone or thing other than yourself. By nature, they resemble the root, through gesture, through a signature, but they are not roots. Like roots, they draw you towards your inquiry, but what you think you recognize does not necessarily equal what your root needs. Sometimes a walnut looks like a brain, and it may be said to nourish the brain, and it might in certain circumstances; but this is not guaranteed for you. Roots guarantee what you recognize is what you need, if you recognize it at all.
This means that in the process of disease, if you do not recognize what is happening, you are communicating to yourself that you have accepted the need to change fundamentally, but along the way you developed doubt regarding the new programming system.
You then tried to sort out the discrepancy in the branches, and they are manifested in all of these knots that bind what you believe to be true about yourself and others. You start to create more anchored assumptions in your idea of what is possible, and the tree can only grow a certain way. Fewer birds want to hang on your perches. You provide only so much shade, and your branches grow dry, unable to foster biodiverse soil. You develop molds, or a parasitic caterpillar hangs in your branches.
Examples of leaves of health:
Health: Eating well, exercise, behavioral practices, yoga and meditation, connection.
Love: What attracts partner, what trust looks like, how connection feels.
Friendships and community: How to attract tribe and people who make you grow and help you feel comfortable and heal, community building, setting community goals, common interests.
Spirit: personal practice, internal clarity, communication with unseen, more foundational components of nature and self.
You might notice that “health” is listed under the leaves of health. Health as a concept is itself redundant. This is often why people tend to disregard health, or don’t tend to take care of their health until it becomes an issue, because health can look like anything; but what is fundamentally healthy for you remains in the level of recognizing it when you’re experiencing it. It can’t be told to you, and it is not something that really can be compromised. If it is compromised, it changes you, fundamentally.
This, of course, is why you have the consistent possibility to change yourself fundamentally. But this comes at the cost of clarity. This is why I am including health among the “leaves” of health, because it is often beneficial to understand when thoughts regarding what is healthy are innately malleable.
Sometimes disease is our way of temporarily forgoing clarity, so that we can restructure what we assume to be true about who we are, from the ground up. Sometimes your leg is bum because you want yourself to walk differently, because you know you are not the same person you used to be. Part of you still believes you are. How might you sort out the part of yourself that is still in doubt of what you’ve already decided to fundamentally change? You can find inspiration in the leaves, you can change colors, you can let birds spend some time in your branches, but they are going to feel like distractions and external pressures that add to the weight of who you are. When we are in the process of fundamentally changing from the root, we become susceptible to structural fractures, falls in our ego, falls in our body—the change is not gradual, but dramatic, and the more dramatic, the more painful. One day, the evergreen turns bright orange.
A further extrapolation of this, is the vein on the leaf. The veins of the leaf resemble the branches, they contain features that carry over from the “what” of veins in the body, the branches of trees, the rivers. What health is, can look like anything – this is the ultimate gift that changes the appearance of the natural world, and informs us regarding what is possible. It is a reminder that health does change, disease can change, even when it appears it is hopeless. Health changes but it doesn’t tell you how to change.
The major discrepancy regarding our languaging of “Self vs Other” is that it lumps all other things other than self into a vague and threatening possibility. Cancer is one of the most clear expressions of this. Not only do you have the threat of the Other at the border, it now has form and is borrowing from the structural integrity of who you are. It resembles you, but you don’t fully believe it’s happening. It is a part of yourself, a promise that you once made regarding who you wanted to be and it was never fulfilled or denied, but it’s held onto your changing identity. It’s remained the same. It is a part of yourself that is familiar but you no longer recognize. It is one that has potentially been isolated for too long from the rest of who you are, and it starves for connection and community, to be included in all the rest of the cells, the millions of little landscapes within you.
The other major discrepancy with the Self vs Other language, is that it is embedded in the fundamental assumption that other phenomena don’t have their own agency. To call a bacteria evil, or to consider a virus or parasite disgusting, and emphasizing the need to eradicate them, from the flea to the mosquito to the bird to another human, suggests that we are denying that other living things have their own agency.
This is embedded in the branch level. When we get stuck in thinking processes that use reasoning by analogy, we are in danger of creating analogies that only relate to our own selves. This means that if another’s life, their desires, their freedom and individual pursuit of happiness do not resemble our own, we begin to build branches specifically to shield us, to create boundaries that keep them from infringing upon our lives. If the branches are too thick, and the canopy too dense, it starts to prevent fauna, even of our tree’s own ilk and network from growing and thriving. We become just a creeping, invading species that wreaks havoc on the system. You are choice without loyalty to change and loyalty to growth.
Without challenging assumptions regarding our health and what we accept in terms of what disease is and should look like,when you experience a condition, it might develop away from the thought or leaves of health, into ideas about health. This will grow into assumptions regarding the trajectory of your life, and will bend more toward the limiting mortality. Once an idea has access to the root, it informs the structure what is possible. Health chooses to be open-ended. It chooses to bloom when the time is right.
Look to the fundamental assumption of health: That it is too complex to sort out.
Is it a root issue?
Is it a branch issue?
Is it a leaf issue?
By nature, loss or compromise of health is a root issue. It deals with a loss of connection. When you are not in a state of ease, it suggests a confusion of experience. The other levels attempt to sort out the exact location of the doubt. When we simply cannot face the doubt we have about whether we are loved, connected, whether we recognize the source of the suffering, this is pain.
By nature, the treatment for pain is connecting with what you recognize in yourself, even if it is difficult. Giving up something that you recognize is compromising the root of yourself, i.e. the fundamental assumptions you have about what it is like for you to be well, has the capacity to create new roots, without the need for new branches and other compromises and new thoughts. When the root is compromised, the other two levels tend toward dampness and confusion.
Heat, inflammation, stress and general unease have their source in the loss of the root, and in dampness and confusion. When dampness reaches the level of the leaf, being and wellness feel too complex to sort out. At this level, there is no answer that we hear from others or that we give ourselves feels sufficient. This could look like arthritis, fibromyalgia, xenophobia, or chronic conditions, often involving physical or psychological or emotional pain that are vaguein nature.
What level of health are you operating from?
To overcome our fixedness, the research and the natural world tell us to add new information regarding the object of our health inquiry. What parts of the world around you, and those in your life are like the cold you have, or the pain you feel? Elaborate to yourself or to another what feels painful. Chances are, there is a lot of dissonance and disconnection because we don’t have the full image of who the person is, of who we are, even to ourselves. To overcome our fixedness, we are called to “reinterpret old information”. What kinds of stories have you told yourself are rooted in painful periods of your life, what kinds of symptoms relate to the person you were then? How can they be reinterpreted to reflect the person you are now?
“Functional fixedness, the research says, tends to overlook four types of features possessed by a problem object (parts, material, shape and size) because of the functions closely associated with the object and its parts.”
What does your disease reveal about what you overlook about yourself? What are the parts of your life that you have overlooked to be the way you are? What qualities, the material fabric of your life, have been compromised to be who you are? Where does your disease reveal you are bulging, where are the leakages in who you are? Where are you inconsistencies in how you feel about living? It is not innately bad that have cake with your peppermint tea. Where are you overlooking your dimensions? What is the scope of who you are? Do you eat like you are eating for two? Do you feel pain that is beyond what can be felt for one person? Where are you only seeing part of the image of who you are? Do you ever give yourself a break?
Do you ever consider that roots can look like branches? Why do you keep treating yourself like a leaf, when you’re really a root?