From Wellness to Wellbeing

Sebene Selassie
January 5, 2022

As some of you may know, last summer I was rediagnosed with metastatic cancer. The chronic pain I’d been experiencing was actually very extensive metastasis in multiple bones and lymph nodes as well as my lungs (including a collapsed left one). The past months have been the most physically and existentially challenging period of my life.

And yet also, the most emotionally and spiritually rewarding. No lie, I cried a lot (like, a lot a lot). AND I experienced great clarity and peace.  I am now doing much better.

bell hooks, the pioneering educator, Black activist, feminist, and all-around troublemaker for justice who died last month, once said that “One of the mighty illusions that is constructed in the dailiness of life in our culture is that all pain is a negation of worthiness, that the real chosen people, the real worthy people, are the people that are most free from pain.”

When I read that statement years ago, it revealed to me a subtle but corrosive attitude from our culture that I had unconsciously adopted in my own life.  Often, the marketing of wellness presents physical health as a marker of worth. And since wellness is now an “industry,” it sells success.  Eat/fast/breathe/meditate/buy your way to physical robustness! As if there is a static condition of being forever young and pain-free. As if being in a human body can be “hacked” or “optimized.”

And if physical health signals success, then illness, disability, aging and pain are failures. Failure implies fault. Rarely is there an examination of the many differently distributed causes and conditions of wellness/illness (such as youth, genetic lotteries, and access to resources). In this “industry,” if you’re unwell, it’s your problem, and up to you to fix it.

In fact, it’s this wellness myth that is sick.  And one remedy for it is the concept of wellbeing.

For a number of years, my BFF, Naomi, worked for the City of Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project (now, alas, defunct). She once explained to me that while wellness focuses primarily on physical health, wellbeing encompasses a holistic alignment that is not contingent on our bodies being perfect or pain-free.

One current side effect of my recent treatment is intense joint, muscle, and nerve pain that requires tender care every morning. When the pain first started, I noticed myself falling into  what bell hooks described as “a negation of worthiness," where the pain was imbued with failure and fault. I shouldn't have walked so far the other day – I caused this. If only I had been more committed to my yoga practice all these years, these side effects wouldn't be this bad. I shouldn't have stopped taking ___ [fill in the blank] supplements. Breathwork/ plant medicine/ meditation retreats/you-name-it… I should be doing that.

And yet, on a fundamental level, pain is simply a signal. I had layered meaning on top of the signal — I packed the pain with judgement and reactivity, with doubt and dismay. I was letting my lack of wellness decrease my wellbeing.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The other morning, before dawn, I was deep in a moment of embodied presence. With lights low to mimic the winter mood, gentle music guiding my conscious movements, I settled into the experience, became attuned to exactly what my body craved as the breath guided me into a sense of connectedness. The slowness and surrender brought not just relief but a real sense of peace. I began to appreciate the opportunity bestowed by discomfort. It was precisely the aches upon waking that drew me into this attentiveness, into a somatic practice I don't often prioritize, into movements I rarely explore, into the joy of sensation. The pain itself was an opening to wellbeing. I was filled with wonder at the possible intimacy between pain and gratitude.

This is not about glorifying or over-identifying with my pain (nor fetishizing the pain of others). It's simply acknowledging a pain that is already present and allowing it to bring me into deeper awareness. Pain – whether it is dull or acute, minimal or critical – often requires me to slow down, rest, recuperate. This is true on micro and macro levels. Both personal and collective pain invite me to pay attention and be present, fully available and solidly embodied – neither avoiding pain within or around me, nor becoming flooded to the point of uselessness – simply ready to respond as needed.

Pain is a plea for presence, a call for compassion.

In this northern hemisphere season of long nights and less light, may I listen deeply in the silence. May the messenger of pain summon me to presence, to tenderness, to care, to kindness, to wellbeing.

May you be well.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Seb has now survived breast cancer three times and is a meditation teacher, transformational coach, and community advocate in New York City. She is the author of You Belong: A Call For Connection.

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