I think what we’ve all got to do is not be smug about any one aspect of health. . . . To me there’s nothing more terrible than a person who pronounces and preaches and dogmatizes a certain diet, then succumbs to some terminal illness, like cancer, and has to feel embarrassed about dying.
This interview originally appeared in Well-Being magazine last July. It’s an intelligent and humane expression of what health is all about — and what health sometimes gets confused with. Well-Being itself is worth your attention. Published monthly, in California, it’s a readable, unpretentious “healing magazine.” Subscriptions are $10 a year (12 issues) from Well Being, 833 W. Fir, San Diego, Ca. 92101. Our thanks to Well-Being for permission to reprint this.
George Leonard has watched the wholistic movement unfold for several years. In that time he has written four books:
Education and Ecstasy (1968) — exploring the idea that learning is a life process, and not an institution;
The Man & Woman Thing (1970) — about learning through relationship;
The Transformation (1972) — a view of the inevitable change society is undergoing, as “learning” takes a quantum evolutionary leap;
The Ultimate Athlete (1974) — traces Leonard’s search for wholeness in the realms of running, flying, and Aikido. (He’s working on a fifth book, “Rhythm” to be published next year by Dutton.)
Leonard took up Aikido, the martial art of energy flow, seven years ago, and earned his black belt two years ago, at age 52. Since then he’s been traveling across the country, lecturing and demonstrating the energy sensitivities most folks overlook. He also teaches at Aikido of Tamalpais, 76 E. Blithedale Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.
He’s a tall, agile, relaxed 54; quite comfortable sitting in a straight-back chair. We spoke in his hotel room, following his audience-participation demonstration of energy awareness and Aikido at a recent San Diego “The Mind Can Do Anything” workshop.
In running shoes, nondescript pants, and sun-orange jersey, Leonard looked me right in the eye as we talked.
ALLAN: What can you tell us about health?
GEORGE: Well, first, I don’t see myself as an expert on health. I’d like to cling to my amateur standing at the cost of my life.
It is true that my book, The Ultimate Athlete, is recommended by lots of wholistic health people. And I think it goes along with my idea that “well being” and health are really wholistic. It’s not just what you eat, or the exercise you take. Basically, it’s all of it put together, and even then it’ll surprise you.
Now I was born and reared in the American South. The Southern country diet is loaded with cream and butter and fat. My mother’s parents lived in a little town named Monroe, Georgia. We’d have these huge dinners in the middle of the day, always have at least two kinds of meat, generally ham and chicken, and about eight to ten kinds of vegetables. Each of these vegetables was cooked, boiled — generally with some kind of ham, some kind of bone, so that any possible vitamin would be boiled out. And my 84-year-old aunt — never been in a hospital in her life and has never been sick — was brought up on that diet and still, whenever possible, eats that diet. So, I think what we’ve all got to do is not be smug about any one aspect of health. It’s wholistic. It involves biology, heredity — what kind of a body you inherit, what kind of parents and grandparents you chose. Even after you assess all the variables you can possibly figure, you’re still going to be surprised. To me there’s nothing more terrible than a person who pronounces and preaches and dogmatizes a certain diet, then succumbs to some terminal illness, like cancer, and has to feel embarrassed about dying.
ALLAN: Like Adelle Davis?
GEORGE: Right. Or George Oshawa dying so young.
So I think the main thing we’ve got to do is not give all of the power of “well-being” to any one aspect of life. It involves many variables. So a good humble attitude — an attitude of humility before all that makes up human life — is very important. That’s why I don’t want to present myself as an expert, or as a healer.
ALLAN: Diet, medicine, attitude, exercise, positive thought, knowing yourself better — it seems to me that if you are not an expert, you are a well-versed observer of all these things working in tandem.
GEORGE: Well, I’ve certainly observed. And I try to kind of stay a participating-observer. In 1974, I had the lead article in Intellectual Digest titled “How We Will Change.” It was about the whole model of change in the country. And as my case history I used the change from medicine to wholistic health.
I think you will continue to see change expressing itself, for the next five years, most dramatically in the field of health. Now the reason for that is that this is an inevitable part of our life. Everyone eventually dies, has some kind of terminal illness, or accident. Yet you have a huge health care industry that just isn’t working. And it isn’t working in a spectacular manner. It isn’t working in a way that will bankrupt our country if the present rate of increase of medical costs goes on.
So we know that something has to change. And the way things often change begins with anomaly and crisis.
By anomaly I mean something that just doesn’t make sense. Here’s a picture of anomaly. There are many modern medical miracles that we just can’t afford. By that I mean these tremendously expensive and inefficient surgical procedures. Like heart transplants or the complex, computerized technology that keeps individuals alive in a vegetable state long after the natural transformational period of death should be over. That, among other things, is what’s causing the tremendous rise in medical costs, which is now reaching unbelievable proportions.
In 1975, national health care cost $118 billion, which represented something like 8.6% of the whole GNP — not the national budget, but the gross national product! Now the figure for ’76 is $136 billion, which is about 9% of the GNP. It’s increasing at such a rate that five years from now it will be just out of sight. And so you get a situation where almost every time there is one of the typical spectacular triumphs of medicine, the situation gets worse. The latest figure is $4.5 billion being spent on the problems of side effects from drugs.
ALLAN: Do you have anything to say about self-reliance and self-healing?
GEORGE: Well, that’s kind of the key to the whole wholistic movement, it seems to me.
I think there are certain specialists you can go to — whether they be the conventional medical people or some who fly the flag of wholistic health. You go to them. They do something to you and you remain passive. Now that really is just a kind of expansion of the old medicine.
I think the basic attitude that we’re talking about is that health is something that each individual is responsible for. This doesn’t mean that society is not responsible for it. That confluence of all the individuals which we call society is also responsible, but no particular institution is responsible for keeping you well. If you break your arm, “doc” knows better than anyone else how to put a cast on it. But the main thing is self-reliance and a new sense of social oneness. We can’t separate the two things.
Dr. Phil Lee is the former chancellor of U.C. Medical Center and one of the chief experts in wholistic medicine in the United States. He pointed out that if with a snap of the finger you could end all abuse of tobacco, automobiles, and alcohol, one half of all hospital beds would magically empty.
It’s probably much more than one-half. Most hospital beds are filled with people who are there because of abusing the precious life that we have. And how many people are in hospitals now because of the toxins put into the atmosphere by our amount of technology? Bruce Ames, at U.C. Berkeley — he’s an expert on mutagens, substances which cause mutation, mostly cancer — has pointed out that the increase in the amount of toxic substances we’ve put in the atmosphere since the end of World War II is 15-fold, 15 times over!
Our increase in the ingestion of sugar is conservatively 10 times over that in 1900. The food additives definitely cause allergies in people. The wonderful thing is that there are as many of us walking around as there are. I think if you look around for some of the causes of crime, violent crime especially, you will see that people are just kind of freaking-out and blowing up because they feel under boiler-like pressure. Parts of the cause could well be the substances which are being ingested with foods and the various toxic substances which are being put in the atmosphere by chemical plants. Also the residue of chemicals and various kinds of sprays which we use. It’s a slow process, 15 to 20 years, before this constant irritation creates environmental cancer in the individual.
So the great use of pesticides, the beginning of true “factory farming” out in the Midwest, Great Plains and so forth, started maybe 20 years ago. And we are showing now some unexplained jumps in the incidence of cancers in the United States.
People like Dr. Ames feel that it’s quite possible we are in for what could amount to a plague, where one out of four people walking around the streets could have cancer! We have abused this precious gift of life and that’s where it’s really at.
A doctor can do a marvelous valve transplant or implant some kind of mechanism that will keep a person alive, even when he’s long supposed to have moved away to some other realm. And that’s not going to do one bit of good as far as the medical crisis is concerned. In fact it’s going to make things worse. If we could stop the abuse of substances — just the three that I named — if we could have a more humane and creative attitude toward what we do with our atmosphere, if we could stop the tremendous use of sugar, then there would be no medical crisis in America. None whatever. The big problem would be job re-training for people in health industries. People at pharmacies would be going broke and hospitals would be going broke. There wouldn’t be enough people to fill the beds.
It’s not wrong to go to doctors when you’re sick, when you break your arm. They give fantastic care for auto accidents. They’re very good at some things like that.
ALLAN: Our readers really like to know what they can do in their everyday lives to enhance their general “well-being.” It still comes down to that which the individual asks : “What can I really do? There are automobiles everywhere, but I have to drive to work because I live so far away. What can I do to change this?”
GEORGE: Well, you can get a car that gets well over 25 miles to the gallon. That’s part of wholistic health. Maybe this is where I should just tell my own thing. Aikido, which is a real mind/body/spirit discipline, has been very useful to me.
ALLAN: When did you begin that?
GEORGE: In November, 1970. In February 1971 I had a sort of virus — the flu. Since that time, I figured out what it was. This again sounds kind of kooky, but once you get really in tune with what we call energy flow — you can translate it to how open your capillaries are. Because I think there is a correlation between a kind of tingle you feel when your body is truly energized, and capillary flow.
I discovered that when I’m out of balance, generally what happens is my left side goes a little dead. And too much energy is concentrated in my head. So what I’ll do when I feel symptoms of cold coming on — something like that — is just stand up, maybe 15 minutes, and just kind of stroke my hand over my left side here. I get my wife to do it — energize my left side to flow the energy down from the head to the rest of the body. The next day the symptoms are gone.
So since February of ’71 I’ve really not had any kind of illness that kept me from doing anything I wanted to do. So Aikido is also a very physical thing. I don’t think you can recommend it to everyone, because it is difficult. It involves falls and throws and a commitment of time.
ALLAN: In seven years you were able to become Black Belt?
GEORGE: Well, actually in five and a half years. And I had lots of other jobs too.
The whole business that you can’t become more flexible as you become older — this, is just absolutely wrong.
There is a kind of sitting that you have to do — Japanese meditation position. When I started Aikido at age 47 I could sit this way for a second at the most; I’d get a cramp in my leg. At 47 I was quite stiff. At 53 I am much more flexible — my tendons seem to be much more stretched. People think it’s inevitable you’re going to get stiff or you are going to get arthritis. But I’m much more flexible now. I can do many things now I couldn’t at 47 — I couldn’t do at 27! Everyday I keep an exercise calendar and everyday I either do Aikido or weight-and-stretching exercises or running from three to five miles. Sometimes longer. It’s just become part of my life. Now I can sit in the once painful position for 45 minutes. My tendons are much more flexible now than they were five years ago, or one year ago. So I intend to keep getting more flexible.
The whole business that you can’t learn as you get older — that’s not true. I know I can learn a lot faster now than when I was 16. Part of it is cultural expectations of what we are going to be when we get older. Thirty-five seems very old to young people — terribly old. And at 40 you’re really over the hill! They think that above the age of 35 you’ve had your greatest physical exploit, your greatest love affair, your greatest moment of enlightenment or whatever. And I just look around at the people I know who are in their 40’s and 50’s, and many of them are just beginning to have adventures, love, everything — which is much stronger and more powerful and more deeply rooted than in the 20’s.
ALLAN: How about your diet?
GEORGE: Well, I’m a moderate on diet. I eat much less red meat than I used to, and than most people eat. I eat less sugar than the national average. I do eat fish, and sometimes just vegetables. I just don’t eat much, and I don’t think that’s enlightenment. I may disappoint some people who make a religion of being a vegetarian, and to those people I say, more power to you. But it isn’t just what you eat, it’s the ceremony. You see, if you become a vegetarian you make a commitment. People haven’t studied that aspect of it. They just think it’s the food. But when you see yourself as someone who really cares about the body, it will increase your health and enhance your overall well-being.
ALLAN: How about approaching life from an emotional standpoint?
GEORGE: Well, I guess that’s most important of all. You know people who seem to smoke and drink and do all the wrong things and still are absolutely as strong as a horse and vigorous and happy.
My theory is that laughter opens everything in the body and increases the so-called energy flow, which again may be blood flow or all sorts of other things. But laughter is wonderful. Positive, optimistic attitude probably is even more important. Smoking happily would probably be healthier than being a glum, negative, critical person. I think if you really have an ebullient sense of optimism and enthusiasm, that you could probably fight off all sorts of toxins in the air, sugar and even maybe some tobacco, although that’s pretty rough.
I think laughter is one of the greatest healers.
ALLAN: Do you ever get beset by negative, emotional states?
GEORGE: Yes, I do. And what I’m trying to learn now is not to fight it but to express it fully. Every human — every mammal in fact — has a capacity of expressing these kind of basic emotions: anger, hate, grief, love, sexuality, joy and reverence.
Researchers have not been able to understand why too much tobacco, or nicotine, causes all sorts of diseases. You can figure out lung cancer because it’s a definite effect on the tissue of the lung. But then it causes heart trouble too. And it causes all sorts of other body conditions. Why?
I have a theory. In a lot of encounter group work, I have studied smoking very carefully. If a person is presented with something that’s going to be highly emotional and they might have to express or confront an emotion, the hand goes — without their knowing it — to get a cigarette and start lighting up. In World War II the whole idea of a cigarette was associated with a really tough job — smoke a cigarette so as not to feel emotion.
The mechanism is that nicotine constricts the capillaries. It is very hard to fully experience one of the basic emotions — love, sex, grief, joy, anything — with capillaries constricted. Just try it. Constrict yourself. It’s very hard to feel.
It seems to me that the main function of cigarettes in our culture is to delay the experiencing of emotional states.
So what you are doing is constantly delaying the full expression of the normal human emotions. Some people say, “Hey, anger is a bad emotion and love is a good emotion.” What I want to suggest is that they are all good. That the appropriate expression is what’s important. Go ahead and express it. If again and again, whenever you are about to express an emotion — like to grieve or mourn — instead you take a cigarette, you constantly hold back emotion.
Nothing in my unscientific judgement is more sickening or more dangerous to the human body and well-being than emotions unexpressed.
ALLAN: That includes repressed emotions?
GEORGE: Yep. Because repression goes one step beyond suppression. When a baby is about to cry and the mother says, “Shh!” the “shh!” is not important — it’s the sudden, shallow breath intake. “Breathe real high in the chest, then you won’t cry.” If you want to stop crying you do this. (He stands at attention.) This is a military brace. I was in aviation cadet school in W.W.II. We’d learn to do this. Then upper classmen came to look at you. The function of this system is to not cry because it’s important for young men in war not to cry.
But if you keep holding back emotions during a lifetime, the suppression mechanism then goes into repression, which is so deep that the emotion never even has a chance to take off. Emotions unexpressed are more dangerous than any of the things we’ve talked about.
ALLAN: How do you or people that you know get to that point of being able to actually see what it is that’s happening? What’s being repressed? What emotion wants to come out that has been buried over years of habit?
GEORGE: Some people have to take classes to learn how to express emotion. My friends who are very literary think there is nothing more ridiculous than classes in breathing.
But it is absolutely true that most people in our culture breathe wrong. They breathe high in the chest instead of from the belly.
At rest, the belly is supposed to expand, or else the diaphragm is working backwards.
I use the basic Magda Proskauer breathing technique. And, of course, the main point that you have to get across to people is to be willing to let the belly expand. All you have to do is look at an animal or baby and you notice the belly is what seems to move, not the chest. And you look at the average hysterical American and you see the chest moving.
Now when you are in deep exertion, everything moves — belly, chest — kind of tidal breathing. It’s like a tide. But at rest, just take your right hand and put it over your chest, take your left hand and put it over your belly, about an inch below your navel. Lie on your back. Just relax. The left hand should move up and down with the breathing. The right hand should be absolutely still. And just stay with it until that happens. For some people it seems very threatening. I’ve had people cry when they first let the breath go down into the belly. Because this tremendous constriction they’ve been living with all their lives became their way of being. Secondly, it’s been holding back the emotion so long there’s just such a sense of relief and release when you let go, let the breath do its normal thing. Because normally, the diaphragm moves downward to suck air into the lungs. As it moves downward it expands the belly a bit. It’s just very simple. There are all sorts of variations on it but that’s the basic pattern.
In basic Proskauer breathing, you let the air come in through the nostrils spontaneously and then you open your lips and blow it out through the parted lips. So then you have that combination of the purely spontaneous and the willed. The point where they both meet is after you’ve blown out all the air. You just shut your lips and wait and don’t expect anything and just let the breath come in as a gift, rather than taking the breath in. That’s part of it. If you can get that pattern going that’s nice.
It’s really kind of strange that so many people in the culture literally have to learn to express emotion. As in bio-energetics or Gestalt where people kick and scream and say, “No” at the top of their voices because they never really learned how to do that — to really express it out loud. And of course, the most important part is owning your emotions — being aware how you really feel.
We tend to vacate our bodies, and a vacated place is very vulnerable to attack by vandalism — sickness of all types. Many people have literally turned their bodily feelings off. When I give workshops, I say, “Now tell me how you feel in the back of your right thigh.” Folks ask, “What the hell are you talking about?”
So what we’re seeing now is an attempt, reflected in so many of these body therapies and physical fitness classes, to re-own, to rediscover the body.
One more dollar, or a billion dollars spent on more complex surgical procedures, is not going to improve the nation’s health the tiniest bit, whereas a few changes in life-style will.
ALLAN: If a person can’t afford or doesn’t wish to go to encounter groups or to therapists and bio-energetics, is there something to do right in his/her living room?
GEORGE: Yes. Incidentally, as far as curing certain neurotic problems goes, many studies show that after two years people are better, whether they take psychotherapy or not. But I like to look at all these trips as adventure, as enhancement of living — not as therapy. It’s like adventure. To me a really powerful encounter group — you don’t see many encounter groups now — but when they were at the height it was like climbing Everest. There’s risk in it, sure, that’s great. Take it. One thing, we certainly should have more risk in life. We should not have this insurance mentality.
In trying to make life totally sure and safe for everybody, we are making it more dangerous for them, terribly dangerous.
Especially young people have to be able to try themselves out against gravity, against speed, against danger and do it in a socially-sanctioned way. If they don’t do it in a socially-sanctioned way, they will certainly find socially destructive ways of doing it. And that’s exactly what they are doing.
There are literally hundreds of books about getting in touch with your emotions and feelings, things that you can do in your living room. I think if a person really begins to realize that it’s all right to cry, that it’s all right for a man to cry, even if you see something rather touching on a television show — it is a very healthy sign.
When you are angry, scream, but do it in terms of “I”. This is the greatest contribution of Dr. Carl Rogers. The “I” statement rather than the “You” statement. When you are having an argument with somebody, say, “When you just did that, I felt a terrible fear of desertion, I felt I couldn’t do anything.” Then cry and scream or anything else. “I’m so mad, I feel anger right in the middle of my chest.” Name the place in the body —that’s important. This is not whining. This is good, healthy, powerful emotion. You see, it’s been shown that the greatest situation for learning — and this has been shown for everything from rats to human beings — is an alternation of stress and relaxation. What our culture offers us instead is constant anxiety. So make the most of stress. In Aikido, we take every problem as an opportunity. Handle it and then relax. Don’t go around the world in a constant state of anxiety just because that’s what our culture generally asks that we do.
For 17 years I was with Look magazine. An incredible period of my life. Some day people will realize what a golden age Look represented when the story producer really had full responsibility in putting a story together: planning it, going out and doing the reportage, working with the photographer, working with the layout man, working with the copy editor. Putting it all together . . . a wholistic approach to journalism.
During that period I really came to know the United States. That sort of became my beat, the whole culture — the American culture, which I saw as a marvelous laboratory of social change, a laboratory of the future.
What’s happened in the 70’s, especially the mid 70’s, is the cultural diffusion of the interest in, and techniques for, discovering the purpose of life.
Now you go to many great universities, to the extension or continuing education department, and look at their catalog. It’s more advanced and more adventurous than Esalen of ’68 was!
I do a great many lectures and workshops throughout the country and in the last few years there’s hardly a Mid-Western city that I haven’t been to. There’s not a bit city in Texas I haven’t been to. I’ve been all over Iowa, and I find the receptivity of such ideas as energy flow in and around the body are much more advanced for example in Des Moines, Iowa, today, than in Big Sur, California, in 1967. In other words, search for self is less spectacular, less high definition, but much more significant. It’s in the culture now. I don’t think we can turn around.
The health and fitness movement is the biggest story in America today. There are people in the medical establishment now who know about this, plenty of them, and they are just afraid to talk about it. We’re going to reach a critical mass and you’re going to find some top medical people in the country saying the same kinds of things that we’re saying — that one more dollar, or a billion dollars spent on more complex surgical procedures is not going to improve the nation’s health the tiniest bit, whereas a few changes in life-style will. And the very changes which will help solve the health crisis are those changes which will cause the transformation of our culture.