Healthy Body, Unhealthy Mind

By PICO IYER JAN. 3, 2015

MANY of my friends were shocked some years ago when I cut down on my junk-food
intake. Even my wise old physician was a little put out. He had more or less given me
the green light to the “golden arches” a few years before when, one afternoon,
following my annual checkup, he’d asked me what I consumed every day. “A Big
Mac, medium fries and Coke for lunch,” I answered, “and frozen pizza from the
convenience store for dinner.”
“Then,” he said, since my blood test numbers were more or less O.K., “I’d
recommend you keep on with the junk food.”
I did, gleefully, for a while. But at some point — maybe around the middle of my
fifth decade — my Happy Meals began to leave me feeling a little less than exuberant.
They sat inside my stomach, wobbling, even as I somehow felt more empty than
before I had devoured them. Finally, flush with pride, I put most burgers and fries
behind me.
When I went to my doctor the following year, I could not wait to tell him how I’d
mended my ways.
Sitting in his reception room, however, I needed something to munch on. I
reached for the nearest magazine and gobbled down details of Monica Lewinsky’s
secret life. I picked up a report on the news from Bosnia, then noticed that there was
a far spicier update on Winona Ryder’s sticky fingers. When the time for my
appointment came, I could hardly tear myself from all the savory nibbles. And when
I told my doctor about my new regime, he didn’t seem impressed.
A few years later, my wise old physician retired, and was replaced by a doctor
two years younger than myself. He was friendly and relaxed and had lots of numbers
at his fingertips. As “You should go to the gym,” he went on.
“But I hardly even visit KFC anymore!” I protested.
“I’m not suggesting triathlons. You’ve simply reached the age when you need to
get your heart going,” he continued. “Only three times a week, 30 minutes on a
I wasn’t keen to do this, but he had my new (mysteriously higher) cholesterol
figures in his hands, engraved diplomas on his walls. Reluctantly, I signed on at a
local health club. Soon my time there became a highlight of my day. The huffing and
puffing left me at once calmer and invigorated. I felt even better than when
renouncing nachos with extra cheese.
I proudly reported this breakthrough to a quiet, slightly older friend. “You’ve
never thought of doing this with your mind?” he said, a bit ungraciously, I thought.
“Just sitting still for a few minutes every day, to give your imagination a chance to
take a walk?”
“I don’t have time!” I replied. “Especially now that I’m devoting 75 minutes to
the gym.”
I’m not the type to meditate; I’d sooner give up Taco Bell for life than take on
the rigorous disciplines of yoga or tai chi. But I recalled something a 17th-century
mathematician and philosopher had whispered to me, which echoed what my friend
now said. We run and run in search of contentment, Pascal wrote in his “Pensées,”
and so ensure we’ll never be settled or content. We mindlessly race away from the
one place where happiness is to be found.
I was, in short, what I’d call an externalist — a person who’ll exercise great care
over what he puts into his body and never think about what he puts into his mind.
Who will dwell at length on everything he can see, in order to distract himself from
the fact that it’s everything he can’t see on which his well-being depends. Who will
fill his head with so much junk that he can’t remember that wolfing down Buffalo
wings is not the problem, but a symptom.
An externalist makes a point — even a habit — of cherishing means over ends,
effects over causes and everything that fills him up over everything that truly
sustains him. He interprets health in terms of his body weight, wealth in terms of his
bank account and success in terms of his business card. He’ll go to the health club,
and never think of the mental health club, like someone who imagines the only
arteries to be unclogged are the ones that course with blood.

This past Christmas, I was all set to take myself on an exotic vacation, and then
decided just to stay in my mother’s house in California — no long lines, no visas, no
three-hour online reservation attempts foiled when you forget your second
password. I’d come to believe that most destinations are less important than the
spirit you bring to them. And that spirit is better developed by sitting still than by
running all around.
As friends hurried off to the airport for Rio or Hawaii, I sat in my little room and
watched the sun burn on the water down below. Light flooded into the space every
afternoon and then, in the magic hour, the whole place began to glow. I nibbled at
breakfast bars and listened to public radio and did nothing at all, the way it isn’t
always easy to do if you’ve paid half your annual income to go to Mauritius.
Moments carried a depth, a weight, of both emotion and association, they’d seldom
have in Vegas. It’s not so much that we lack food, I remembered Simone Weil
suggesting, as that we won’t acknowledge that we’re hungry.
The external world is always going to be my home, of course, and a place where
I find each day’s savor and delight. And with Google Glass and Dreamliners and
every hour’s new wearable, it becomes ever more like a supermarket, restocked each
day with ever more astonishing options. Revisiting North Korea, four months ago, I
was reminded of just how lucky I am, when it comes to choice and opportunity.
The only problem with such visible bounty, though, is that it becomes ever
easier to feel, within yourself, like a gridlocked freeway at rush hour with no
overpasses or offramps in sight. You start railing against fascism, as W. H. Auden
suggested, and become a dictator at the family dinner table. You hold forth against
the destruction of the environment and never notice — or try to clear — the hazy
skies and deforested spaces within you.
I still surrender — gratefully — to the latest congressional sex scandal or
celebrity memoir whenever I’m killing time waiting for a plane, even though I know
that any book by D. H. Lawrence or Marcel Proust will leave me feeling more alive,
more myself, more in love with the world. And even as I keep my distance from
McDonald’s now, I have no hesitation in racing off toward organic, locally sourced,
“food with integrity” Chipotle outlets instead. A life of daily visits to the gym
demands some guilty pleasures.
But I know that one day my doctor is going to come into the room with a very
dark look on his face and news that no treadmill or repudiation of onion rings is going to make better. And then the only thing I’ll have to turn to will be all I’ve done
when going nowhere — and everything I might have stored in some less visible
Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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