How community makes us healthier—and then some

How community makes us healthier—and then some

It is beautiful to be alone; it is also beautiful to be in love, to be with people. And they are complementary, not contradictory. When you are enjoying others, enjoy, and enjoy to the fullest; there is no need to bother about aloneness. And when you are fed up with others, then move into aloneness and enjoy it to the fullest.

Osho—Love, Freedom, Aloneness

A while back I shared the gist of a vision that has been brewing inside of me, a dream of living self-sustainably, in community and in harmony with nature. The more it brews, the more I get excited about together. Together can point us to blind spots we might never see alone. Together can help us dissolve defensive masks to become fully creatively human. Together can show us how to co-exist positively and peacefully. 

And together just feels better, more natural, more fun.

I've come to see how living our lives separately—or ‘independently’ as some of us like to think of it—cuts us off. We lose sight of each other, ourselves, our surroundings and our real place in the world. Which makes the opposite just as true: community can help us to connect, in more ways than we're often aware of. But here's one I certainly wasn't aware of: a supportive community can actually make us physically healthy.

In April I left the Tangleha community and headed towards Edinburgh for my final days in Scotland. On my way I visited the Lorimer family in Fife. I had met Jane Lorimer five weeks earlier and she had invited me to stay. Intrigued by her knowledge about nutrition and health, and grateful for the connections she had made for me, I wanted to stop over.

‘Only one or two nights’ became four. Jane and her children Charlotte and George welcomed me like family, showed genuine interest in my travels and shared their passions for art, food and health. I felt safe enough to open up to Jane about my long-time dealings with food and health, and to ask if she could shed some new light. She did—and then some.

On day two Jane put a book in my hands. ‘I just bought this. I have only leafed through it but I already think it’s one of the most important works I’ve come across. Have a look and let me know what you think.’ A day later, after she’d been asking me some very good questions, she said: ‘I've been thinking about that book. If it interests you I want you to take it with you; I’ll buy another copy for myself.’ 

I was sold after reading the introduction and couldn't accept the gift in one go: ‘I’d love to take it with me and send it back to you when I finish it.’
— ‘No, I think this book should go to as many people as possible. Please take it and give it to someone else when you’re done.’

Mind over Medicine is Lissa Rankin’s study into the healing power of our thoughts—not just on our heads but on our physical bodies.

Years of working in a broken health-care system, processing 40 patients a day, becoming a tired wreck, unable to actually help people, brought her to feeling like a plastic knockoff of the doctor she once dreamed of being. She quit and vowed never to return. 

In 2009 she started blogging about what she missed in medicine and what she loved about it. The response she received rekindled something. She started searching and sifting through peer-reviewed medical literature and re-found her calling to be a healer. Mind over Medicine is one of its outcomes.

I’m not new to our body’s ability to self-repair. I even like to think I’ve had a taste of it. But as my tiredness, low energy and tense body just seemed to not want to bugger off, I lately found myself facing a simple thing. As long as I let limiting thoughts and beliefs have their way I can do healthy all I want and never be it.

This book is the latest in a series of mirrors. And this one gives it to me square: I can think myself sick, I can think myself well—and here’s some pretty hard science to prove it.

This is not the first time I ‘meet’ Lissa Rankin. In 2015 she was invited to an online course with Charles Eisenstein that I took part in. Like Charles, Lissa speaks from a place of vulnerability. She’s a fellow human on the road with us who finds joy in sharing what helps her live more fully. That, and the impressive number of studies she has dug up for her book, makes me eager to learn from her.

Reading Mind over Medicine is confronting. ’I’ don’t really like seeing ‘me’ sabotage ‘myself’. And it’s liberating. Seeing sabotage and drama so clearly (or again, or in a new way) renews my sense of freedom—fun even—in taking responsibility. 

My beliefs rule my experience. I am free to choose my beliefs. That alone helps me to feel better. And I see two pitfalls. 

If I am fully responsible then 'I' can do whatever the hell 'I' want and believe my body into being a healthy follower. But what 'I' think I want or need is often not what I really want or need. My body is not something I can dominate without cutting myself off. It's my partner for life and it's very good at telling me what I truly wish or need. When I feel bad or when something 'doesn't work', more often than not my body's giving me a signal: I'm misaligned in my thinking, behaviour, actions, work, or life...

Not taking heed is just going to make me sick(er) until I listen or die. So in addition to seeing where I create my experience I do very well by paying attention to my bodily intelligence.

The second pitfall is this: 'If I am fully responsible then I have to do all of this by myself, on my own, without help.' As much as I've tried (with and without knowing it), alone doesn't work for me. Plus it takes the power and fun out of together.

Last week I read a story that surprised and excited me and felt completely natural. As if a big piece of the puzzle suddenly clicked into place. The story is about a little village in the US that baffled researchers until they got their heads around what they were seeing.

Roseto in 1961 is a remote village in the American State of Pennsylvania, populated by a community of Italian immigrants. Roseto's ancestors left the South-Italian village of Roseto Valfortore at the end of the nineteenth century in search of a better life. Here in America, surrounded by neighbours who turn their noses at 'those Italians', the Rosetans look out for each other.

In 1961, households in Roseto contain three generations of family. By day, children go to school while men and women work long shifts in the stone quarry or blouse factory. By night the village comes alive as people gather in communal kitchens. They cook classic Italian feasts and push tables together to share their meals. 

In this town, neighbours freely wander into each other’s houses. Evening strolls, social clubs and church festivals bring people together in celebration. Everyone works, and everyone works towards a common goal: a better life for their children.

Then medical professor Stuart Wolf wanders into Roseto. He speaks to the local medical society and is invited for a drink by a local physician. Over their beers, the physician muses about how strange it is that heart disease in Roseto is much less common than in the neighbouring town of Bangor.

Dr. Wolf is all ears and starts doing homework. Scanning through seven years of death certificates of Roseto and surrounding towns, he's baffled by what he sees. While men in Bangor suffer the same rate of heart-attacks as the US average, the heart-attack rate in Roseto is half the national average. For men under 64 it even comes close to zero. Looking at other causes, the Roseto death-rate turns out to be 30 to 35 percent lower than the US average. Wolf also finds that both Roseto’s crime rate and the villagers’ need for medical assistance are near zero.

Wolf’s homework becomes a full-blown study. Years later, one of the researchers who is brought in looks back: ‘There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn't even have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn't have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That's it.’

Is it the olive oil? Wolf hires eleven dietitians to follow the people of Roseto into grocery stores and to watch them cook. It’s not olive oil. People in Roseto can't afford olive oil They cook with lard (pig’s fat), routinely eat pizza’s loaded with sausages and eggs and get a whopping 41 percent of their calories from fat.

Is it fitness? Nah, not exactly. Most of the Italian-Americans in Roseto smoke and drink and many are obese. So is it genetics? Wolf tracks down other immigrants originating from the Italian village of Roseto Valfortore. But those from the same Italian village who now live elsewhere in the US are no healthier than the US average. It’s not genetics.

Wolf evaluates geography, climate, water and medical facilities. When he finds nothing to account for Roseto’s ‘immunity’, he’s left to conclude that Roseto’s supportive, tight-knit community doesn’t just support the human spirit; it nourishes the body.

Had Wolf stopped here, we would have had just one side of the story. But he commits himself to keep following the village just as community life in Roseto starts disintegrating. 

Ironically, the community’s efforts to give children a better life undermine what makes their lives good. Young Rosetans aren’t so thrilled about life in a town that seems immune not just to disease but also to modernization. Coming back from college they bring new ideas, new dreams and new people. Italian-Americans start marrying non-Italian-Americans, church attendance drops, community life is swapped for country clubs and multi-generational homes make way for single-family suburban houses with fences and pools, away from the centre and away from each other.

In the 1970s, heart-disease rates in Roseto double and high blood pressure triples. By the end of the decade, almost twenty years after Stuart Wolf first walks into town, Roseto is just about fully Americanized and fits in neatly with the US average when it comes to fatal heart attacks.

Wolf continues to follow Roseto for years. He writes how isolation makes us more prone to the challenges of everyday life, how this kind of overwhelm can trigger stress responses in the body, which can then lead to disease. But his studies also find evidence of the flip-side: being surrounded by a supportive community counteracts life stress, which—according to Lissa Rankin in Mind over Medicine—‘translates into positive effects on the body’s physiology, leading to disease prevention and, sometimes, disease remission.’

I have visited different communities, not just this time in Scotland but in previous years too. I don't know how community life 'works' and I never will. Real community life is always learning. But leaving Scotland I clearly felt what is right for me.

Coming back to the Netherlands reconnects me with what I often missed in Scotland. I have come to love it in living, working and learning together: vulnerability and inner (group) work. I did find it, in places and in some of the great people I met. But nowhere was vulnerability and 'together' work a recognized part of life.

When Tom and I started organizing our Into Space evenings two years ago, we wanted to create a space to meet ourselves and each other. We trialled our way through. We fell on our faces, took from others and listened to ourselves. Gradually, we started learning to hold a space that doesn't want to solve problems but simply invites real communication. We saw how this space lifts, inspires, energizes and connects. The same happened during Free with Money evenings. We came alive.

I no longer see supportive community as a luxury or a side dish. Community is an essential part of work and life. Plus, as the Roseto story tells me, it makes us physically healthier.

Many of us who lead busy and stressed-out work lives try to fill a gap with busy and stressed-out social lives. We do much quantity and get little quality, 'showing face' to avoid our loneliness. But holding up masks is hard work. We go home feeling drained, thinking we need 'me-time' to recharge. And starving for connection, we often take to drugs, over-eating, television, more work and busier social lives. Or we fall into lonely thoughts and feelings of depression.

For a long time I kept very much to myself. I thought me-time was the way to a better me: 'Not until I can be truly alone can I be with people.' But I've come to see I don't need more me-time. I need more together-time. Real together-time.

Being alone isn't good or bad. There is no bravery in being alone or in being together. Community is about finding and giving support, allowing ourselves to be who we are, learning to express what lives inside of us and to be alone when alone feels right. I find all of it challenging sometimes, scary even. But it's so much more real than making myself social or forcing myself into aloneness.

One of the things I wrote in my community vision is that success doesn’t depend on how far we are in our development. Success depends on how we deal with and support each other in the challenges we meet on the way. Community to me is about discovering new ground, being vulnerable and honest and having fun as we experiment, learn, fall and get up together.

The Roseto story leaves me with an exciting question. If Roseto, in many ways defined by (religious) rigidity and a struggle for survival, made people so much healthier than their neighbours, what will community do for us when it supports what we're truly here for? What does life look like when we create a nourishing natural and social environment and free our intuitive talents, desires and gifts?

I'm exploring possibility. I'm probably just scratching a surface. And that only makes me more excited.

More on Roseto and similar studies:

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