At times, it’s important to revisit the groundwork that created our current health conditions. Although the metaphor of growing and caring for a garden is not new, it is still a visible parallel to caring for our health and wellness. Through the process of nurturing, tending, pruning, and fertilizing the relationship we have with our physical bodies and our mental and emotional well-being, in most cases, we will enjoy the harvest of our fruits and take pleasure in the blossoms we generate as we move into our older years. Paying close attention to the seeds that we plant, (the mind-body connection), the changing of the seasons (the ability to adjust), the soil in which we plant (our values), fertilizing (enriching our relationships), and removing the weeds (refreshing our lives), we will cultivate more than just a beautiful garden.
What grows in our life garden is what we plant and promote in our minds and bodies, and we can live energetic, healthy, and happy lives depending on our approach. Let’s look at what is blooming in our personal garden, and how it affects our health and well-being.
As a child, I was not exposed to much gardening. Our family lived in a small mining town in Southern Arizona. The desert terrain was mostly rocky, which made an ideal topography for mining copper, but not for growing anything but a variety of cacti and other hearty desert plants that we harvested, cooked, and ate like vegetables. Always optimistic, our mother continued to cultivate plants that grew near a river in the small town where she had been raised in Mexico. But, of course, rich soil nourished by a river was completely different than our dry desert terrain, and the plants would eventually die. Along with our mother, I was convinced that I also possessed a black thumb. I could not grow a garden with any success.
Years later when I moved to the Phoenix area and purchased a home, I was determined to have a lush, fertile, and green garden. But, again, I struggled and was even more convinced that I had a black thumb. My dire thinking had already been established, and, going forward, I hired gardeners to tend to the yard and deal with the plants.
In our personal lives, we experience a few failures in caring for ourselves, and eventually deliver ourselves to others to tell us how to heal our bodies. In his book The Mindbody Self, How Longevity is Culturally Learned and the Causes of Health are Inherited, Dr. Mario Martinez, a clinical psychologist, writes about his pioneering work in biocognitive science, a new mind-body paradigm, and investigates the inherited causes of health and how our cultural beliefs affect our immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. He explains that not only do we carry our own past that fill us with doubt about self care, we also carry our cultural context, based on the shared beliefs and the pathology of generations before us. An example that he provides based on the way different cultures talk about hot flashes and menopause in South American countries and Japan and China is intriguing and brings to our attention subconscious beliefs about our mindbody health.
He writes, “In Bolivia and other South American countries, hot flashes are called bochorno: the Spanish word for shame. And although their doctors understand the hormonal origin of the condition, some also use the word bochorno to describe their patients’ hot flashes. This is an interesting example of both doctors and patients using the cultural label for the condition. Of course, menopause is a normal female stage, not a disease or illness. But, as you can see, labels have mindbody consequences. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) studies show that the experience of shame increases tumor necrosis factor, immune-system molecules that signal inflammation.”
“However, in Japan, menopause is called konenki, meaning ‘turn or change in life,'” he continues. “In Chinese medicine, the character for next and the character for spring are used jointly to represent menopause as a second spring: an opportunity to recognize and honor women for reaching a stage of accumulated wisdom and maturity.”
The Exercise Imperative
Getting back to our metaphorical garden and the soil from which we cultivate our well-being, is there anything left to be said about the benefits of eating a healthy diet and the significance of a daily exercise program? Each person has the opportunity to find an eating plan that will work for himself or herself. Whether the consideration is body type, blood type, taste preferences, cultural taste, career demands, vegetarian, or meat lover, there are books, workshops, articles, weight-loss programs, and information aplenty on the internet. There is a healthy lifestyle for all to maintain and nurture a healthy existence.
One can also commit to a variety of movements and exercise programs that will keep the body strong, and flexible, not to mention optimally well. We know what we need to do to keep the body moving in a healthy direction. Using the comparison of nurturing and tending our gardens, diet and exercise are the rich soil in which we exist.
Water and Flow
When I think of the importance of water to our gardens, I also consider the importance of flow in our lives. Water is as imperative to the entire body and mind as it is to the plants and trees. The ability to flow with the circumstances that life brings is just as important to our health and well-being. As we harmonize with the seasons, changes will most certainly come our way. At certain times in our lives, we will plant our seeds, harvest our blossoms, cut them back, and prepare for the next crop of flowers. Likewise, we plant our personal seeds, we tend to our relationships, and we cultivate strong connections. Just as the changing of seasons demands that we adjust and flow with the changes of our gardens, we must likewise make personal adaptations.
Longing for Light
And then there is sunshine: The sun reminds me of the attitude that is required to keep our gardens lush and green. Shining light on a situation that appears dark and dismal will give us a healthier perspective on our options. This is also the likeness for removing the weeds that can deter us from blooming, and, instead, we can refresh our lives with relationships that support our growth. Trite as it may sound, letting the sun shine in can redirect our lives into a healthier outcome.
Finally, what is our responsibility for our health and wellness? A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Gladys McGarey speak to a group of women business owners. Dr. Gladys, as she is affectionately known, is internationally recognized as the “Mother of Holistic Medicine” and has been in family practice for more than 60 years. She is the co-founder of the American Holistic Medical Association, as well as the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine and is the author of five books, including The Physician Within You, Born to Live, Living Medicine, The World Needs Old Ladies,and Budhu’s Path to Enlightenment. She is 97 years young. I would describe her as intelligent, bold, passionate, and deliberate.
After a one-hour presentation about her career as a physician and international presence, she took questions from the audience. There were the usual inquiries about the future of holistic medicine and about her retirement, which she is not planning on doing anytime soon, stating that her children, also in the medical field, had asked her to retire 20 years ago, and she believes that her best years have been the past 20 years in practice.
There was one question that stuck with me. A woman asked her what she thought the responsibility of our government and insurance companies is to the health of the people of our country. In her calm and genteel manner, with the voice of wisdom and experience, she answered that the health of the people in our country begins with each person’s responsibility to his or her own well-being. She stressed the importance of understanding our bodies’ needs for optimal health.
Ten years ago, I hired a landscape design expert to help me grow a lush and green garden in my yard. His specialty is desert landscape design using the indigenous plants, topography, and weather conditions of the climate. What a concept! I now know that I do not have a black thumb. I simply did not have the information that I needed to grow my garden in the harsh desert conditions.
We must become the master gardeners of our health. As the keepers of our own bodies, minds, and emotional health, what is it that we can nurture within ourselves to give us the best chance for living fully until the very end?
Hilda Villaverde, PhD, holds a doctorate in religious studies with a minor in pastoral counseling from Emerson Institute. She is a business owner and author of five books, as well as an ordained minister and a public speaker. She presented at the inaugural Arizona Chapter HFMA HERe event in December 2013.