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I went for a run because I had eaten a small, organic, dark chocolate cookie the day before and I felt that I had to punish myself. It was habitual for me to punish myself with strenuous, caloric compensation cardio whenever I felt guilty for enjoying life by eating tasty foods.

When I placed first in a fitness competition, my fitness goals went up a notch. Winning the competition was one thing, but people complimenting me on my extra lean body pressured me to stay that way. I couldn’t allow myself to look “bigger” again, and “bigger” really meant not seeing my defined ab muscles.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon just after midday when I went for that run. Cresting a hill in the park, I came across a family outing. The adults were talking and laughing, and the kids were playing with a ball. They had bagels, cakes, sodas, and fried foods set around an improvised table. The family members were all overweight; some were even obese.

Out of breath from the incline of the hill, my body slowed but my thoughts sped up. Look at them! These people should be ashamed of themselves. All fat, and they come to the park just to eat more fatty foods. They should be exercising, restricting their diets. How irresponsible.

These judgments were quickly succeeded by a stream of thoughts that sprang up in my mind one after another, like weeds.

I don’t like having to run; why did I eat that cookie?

I wish I had friends and family to be with right now.

My knee hurts; the brace isn’t really helping.

It’s too hot.

I don’t like sweating this way; it messes up my hair.

What am I going to eat for dinner? There’s nothing delicious to look forward to… I am sick of eating chicken and broccoli. But I have to; I won’t be like these overweight people goofing off in the park.

In this state of mind, I continued to run.

I worked endlessly to maintain the external appearance of health, but no one would have wanted to look like me if they knew the toxic mindset and true unhappiness that came with the abdominal six-pack. My lifestyle lacked life; my body was tired, my mind had no clue it was causing its own suffering, and my heart wasn’t there at all.

Had I died after that uphill run, my last wish would have been to trade places with those happy, out-of-shape people in the park. They were close to what life is all about — love and kindness — even in overweight bodies surrounded by cakes and burgers.

We focus so much on the pursuit of physical and mental health. We take our daily vitamins, eat healthy, exercise, sleep well, do our jobs to fulfill a sense of security and purpose, we search for comfort in romantic love, and travel for fun. We strive for happiness, for the most part, by engaging in pleasurable activities — sex, food, friendships, and future plans. We cultivate these habits to keep ourselves on a “healthy” track. I did so for years, although deep in my heart I doubted it was truly the path to achieve a healthy life as a human being. These unexamined habits seemed more like self-preservation and the perpetuation of established concepts and societal ideals than a real, authentic lifestyle.

Think about the word “healthy.” Conventionally, it means to be well, fit, strong, and in good health. However, I question this definition. I have come to realize that a healthy person has a kind and gentle heart, regardless of his or her physical and mental health. Think of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. They both came close to death because of failing physical health, but they never stopped loving others. As for mental illness, my question to you is, do you believe a mind caught in the habit of expressing negative emotions is in a healthy state? It’s easy to accept physical health as being free of injury or illness, but can we agree to define mental health as a condition of emotional well-being?

Unfortunately, most of us believe negative emotions are normal. Fear and anger trick us into agreeing with destructive ideas and actions simply because they are habitual, and insecurity builds mental barriers for protection. By acting and reacting to irrationality (fear), we reinforce our thinking mind’s reality over that of our hearts. Even though these physical and mental states appear healthy to our materialistic perspectives, we must reject the normalization of negative emotions and behaviors like selfishness and fear.

After more than twenty years of participating in the fitness lifestyle, I realized a truth my heart had already mastered: a fit and healthy body comes second to a serene and loving mind.

To Be Healthy Is to Be Loving