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Fishing for Fallen Light
On the kinship of wellbeing.
I have a quiet aversion to conversations about wellbeing. To my mind, the term conjures a brand of privilege consisting of celebrity-endorsed bubble baths and appropriated luxuries (I’m thinking of when I was once instructed to wave a stick of incense and pray at a merchandised “altar" before disrobing for a spa treatment). It draws my attention to the thin line between holistic health on one hand, and aspirations of self-optimization, control, and certainty on the other.
Over the years, I’ve heard many conversations in yoga studio lobbies devolve into inconsiderate recommendations of the latest bestseller on grief or a self-paced online course designed to transform you.
I want to be clear — quality is fine by me. I delight in an organic smoothie and consider myself a connoisseur of pillows. I buy the beeswax candles from the endcap display at the grocery store on a regular basis. I’m not sorry. I’ve brokered in wellness my entire professional life, and I actually do believe in wellbeing. I want wellbeing for you and me and every living thing.
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What gets me is how ideas of wellness have become conflated with our cultural mythology around wealth. We are inundated by a profit industry built on the premise that we are not ok and that buying something — anything — will change that.
Our sense of wellbeing has become conflated with purchasing power.
It’s a cheap ordeal, and we know it: the epitome of what the Buddha pointed to as “false refuge.” Wellbeing can’t be bottled and bought. We’ve tried that. We’re mistrustful of being sold on miracle drugs, fad diets, and unverified health claims. We’re tired of measuring ourselves by industry standards (a colossal industry, by the way — the global wellness industry was valued at over $4.5 trillion in pre-Pandemic 2019, according to the Global Wellness Institute).
Discourse about wellbeing can sound downright tone deaf when juxtaposed with the existential challenges of our time. In the context of a growing disparity in health outcomes across income groups, for example, our cultural obsession with weight loss flaunts itself next to families unable to afford proper fruits and vegetables. We are a society of dissonance when it comes to wellbeing – constantly trying to perfect ourselves while failing to meet the basic requirements for wellbeing (as outlined by Maslow’s objective hierarchy of physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).
Clearly, wellbeing is in need of excavation. For the sake of providing a standard definition for our consideration, wellbeing can refer to our holistic health as constituted by the vital interplay of our physical, emotional, social, environmental, and spiritual layers. Less a state than an integrative process, wellbeing is our access to a wholesome, creative, dynamic, and resilient sense of equilibrium.
The word for wellbeing in Sanskrit is “sukha,” which shares an etymological root with our modern English words sucrose and sugar. So there’s a flavor of sweetness to wellbeing. Its original context in the Vedas, according to Monier-Williams (1964), referred to how well a chariot axle was positioned to maintain the rotational balance between wheels and support the chariot’s weight, thus allowing it to move smoothly forward: "su ['good'] + kha ['aperture'] to mean originally 'having a good axle-hole.'” Things haven’t changed much in that regard – today as always, a vehicle that has “good suspension” is what we want when traversing the rough roads we must travel.
We are talking here about receptivity and steadiness, and also about order and flow. Among the early scriptures, “sukha” is associated with “shreya,” meaning “that which produces lasting benefit” — in other words, it’s enduring. Shreya is contrasted with “preya,” a word epitomizing immediate gratification. Modern researchers similarly differentiate hedonism, characterized by the instinct toward pleasure and away from pain, and eudaimonism, a more lasting sense of fulfillment through growth and purpose.
Christopher Wilson, Fallen Light
Wellbeing is measured by four convergent methods: the presence of (1) positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions, (2) mature character traits, including self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence, (3) life satisfaction or quality of life, and (4) character strengths and virtues, such as hope, compassion, and courage (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). These features interact cooperatively such that a person cannot feel good (as measured by positive emotions and life satisfaction) without doing good (as measured by maturity of character and virtuous conduct) (Cloninger, 2004).
Here’s a simple case study for your consideration. Social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia (UBC) wanted to find out what kind of spending makes people happy, so she and colleagues surveyed 109 UBC students. Not surprisingly, most said they would be happier with $20 in their pocket than they would with $5. They also said they'd rather spend the money on themselves than on someone else. But when Dunn's team gave 46 other students envelopes containing either a $5 bill or a $20 bill and told them how to spend it, those who donated to charity or bought a gift reported feeling happier at the end of the day than those who spent on themselves.
Herein lies the distinction between self-indulgence and self-care. A benign expression of self-indulgence might be a well-earned treat like an ice cream cone with sprinkles or a Saturday afternoon lounging on the sofa. Self-indulgence is not necessarily unhealthy, though nor is it enduring. It is simply sensory delight, known as “pāmojja” in Pali. And it can, in fact, be bought.
Self-care, on the other hand, consists of the specific choices and behaviors that lead to a quality of feeling over time. Self-care is how we contribute to our own wellbeing at any given moment and under any given circumstance. It’s any benevolent mechanism by which we nurture presence and alignment with our values. It’s reflected in our intentions, actions, and habits, as well as in pausing to integrate and recalibrate. Self-care is setting boundaries to mitigate depletion when appropriate and equally expanding beyond the habit of navel-gazing to show up for others.
Many of us sense an undercurrent of disassociation beneath the surface of our lives. We feel more emotionally isolated than ever before (a phenomenon amply attested to by recent studies, including one ranging from 1990 to 2021 which indicated a 25% decrease in the number of Americans who reported having five or more close friends). We long for more intimacy, connection, and belonging, but we’ve chosen social structures that reinforce individualism over community.
Henry Ward Beecher posited that “the art of being happy lies in the power of extracting happiness from common things.” The practice of such extraction requires intention, engagement, awareness, and surrender to balance and nurture the dynamic facets of our humanness. Wellbeing requires both personal agency (which, yes, is a privilege) and interwoven structures of support and belonging. We might feel relaxed after a massage, but true wellbeing emerges only through the sustained practice of leaning into the kinship we share — the double entendre of our “common” things.
Perhaps the most misguided notion about wellbeing is that it's a solitary pursuit, wherein the responsibility falls on individuals to succeed or fail rather than on our communal web. Fariha Róisín’s book, “Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind,” tracks the author’s personal experience of seeking healing from trauma while simultaneously exposing the wellness industrial complex and its myriad failures. “Capitalism tricks us into believing that we don't need each other,” the author poignantly shares.
Somehow, glimmers are possible under extraordinary circumstances. Our teachers here are those who touch ecstatic aliveness in cycles of profound grief, who praise the rising sun in war zones. I recently heard meditation teacher Tara Brach respond when a student asked about how to stay connected to life while facing the staggering uncertainty of a child’s diagnosis: “the doorway to wellbeing is always through the heart,” she softly said.
If each day falls inside each night,
There exists a well
We need to sit on the rim
of the well of darkness
and fish for fallen light,
- Pablo Neruda, “Si cada día cae/If each day falls"
Wellbeing is both a practice and the reservoir of having opened to the fullness of our felt experience — having sat “on the rim of the well of darkness and fish[ed] for fallen light” — many times over.
Jarvis Jay Masters, a Buddhist writer and teacher who endured a mind-boggling 21 years of solitary confinement based on wrongful conspiracy charges, offers this sage reflection in his memoir:
Over the years, I have been asked when it was that I “saw the light,” had a dream, or heard a voice. What experience created a reverberation that transformed me from the person I was then to the person I am today? The truth of the matter is that I have never changed. Rather, I have simply discovered who I’ve always been: the young child who knew that his life mattered, that he could make a difference in the world, and that he was born to fly. — Jarvis Jay Masters, That Bird Has My Wings
Jarvis re-discovered the life that matters within him.
To me, the 13th c. Sufi mystic Rumi’s timeless question “do you make regular visits to yourself?” offers us a compass. What could come from giving ourselves permission to meet our experience with consistency, honesty, and generosity?
As it happens, I do make regular visits to myself. I'm fortunate to live on the rim of a trail system in the vast landscape of Northern New Mexico. My wonder hour (which I hold in grateful contrast to the happy hours of my younger years) is the early morning, a time that favors contemplation and communion. It’s known as “Brahmamuhurta" in India — the hour of God — and referenced by David in Psalm 5: “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice.”
Cold air in my lungs, solid ground beneath my feet, I make my way along the trails around my home, slowly unspooling my heart to the juniper, the chamisa, and the pine. They receive with fraternity all that which I have to give. Most mornings, by the time the sun has pushed up the day, I can sense, along with care for the heartbroken bits, an embodied enough-ness. It’s a remembered hum in my human heart. To me, this is what wellbeing must be. And it’s priceless.