Creative Health Part 1 – Take Care Of Your Animal
The summer is over – at least in one way. It’s Monday night, my daughter has started another year of school, and we are back in our normal routine. It’s still hot, though. The highs break past 35°C; the lows are still warm enough to demand the whir and hum of the air-conditioner as we sleep.
I find myself in the kitchen trying to assemble a meal. A podcast is playing on the sound system. Someone is interviewing Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, and the discussion ranges across loosely connected ‘artistic’ themes. I’m tuning in and out of the conversation. Putting together a meal, when I’m in this mood, is like assembling Lego, at least the way we did it back when Lego didn’t come with step-by-step instructions. A brick of protein here, a brick of cooked veg there, a few bricks of raw veg and maybe a brick of rice, brown or white… I can’t decide.
Suddenly Gilbert says something that catches my ear. She’s talking about taking care of your animal. My thoughts turn sharply to Echo, and I put the knife down on the cutting board. I glance through my kitchen window to the spot in the garden where we put her to rest, after a fraught and continually delayed flight home, which saw us arrive in Tokyo nearly three days later than expected, tired beyond description as we said our last goodbye.
But Gilbert isn’t talking about pets, not exactly. She’s using a metaphor to describe our bodies.
She’s suggesting we imagine taking care of our bodies the way we might look after an animal in our care. We wouldn’t interrupt a pet’s sleep, or make them skip meals, or force them to live in a stressful and inadequate environment. For most of us, the natural inclination is to look after pets, to care about animal welfare, to abhor and reject cruelty towards them.
And yet, we are so often cruel to ourselves. We subject ourselves to a lack of sleep. We work in ways that force us to skip meals, or to eat inadequate, unhealthy and rushed ones. We tolerate hugely stressful and even abusive situations. Worse still, we are too often prone to enjoying the suffering of others – maybe not in the extreme, but certainly in the shame – the Schadenfreude that plays itself out in life’s everyday dramas.
If we don’t take care of these basic needs, the needs of our physical animal, then we limit our ability to focus on our higher creative and artistic needs. Starving the animal kills the artist.
I’ve been trying to piece together what I learnt from Echo’s life. For health reasons, I’d taken to waking up at the same time every day and Echo would be waiting for her breakfast every day as well. Animals are like that. It’s not hard to work out their routines.
And yet, we fight and resist routine for ourselves. We delude ourselves into believing we can catch up on sleep, make up for bad meals (or excessive drinking), meditate away our anxiety-fuelled work habits, or compensate for bad relationships with a trip to the spa.
It’s as though we’ve chosen to live at war with reality.
Of course, Gilbert’s idea is a recasting of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: provide food, safety and care before higher emotional and creative needs can be met. Gilbert’s brilliance is to catch our attention by using a tired old idea, a mind-body distinction, to make an important, all too often overlooked point: if we fail to take care of our physical and material being, we limit our ability to explore the non-material realm of thoughts, ideas, and imagination.