As a physician, I’ve been exposed to a variety of wellness models, most of them pie charts and pyramids detailing what it takes to be optimally healthy: a nutritious diet, an exercise regimen, enough sleep…you catch my drift.

But something about these wellness models always left me feeling like something was missing.

First, it was the format. A pie chart implies that you can take out a piece of the pie and still keep the rest of the uneaten pie intact. The same is true for a pyramid: If you take a strip out of a pyramid, you wind up with a shorter, but still stable, pyramid.

Some wellness models are more holistic than others, accounting not only for conventionally “healthy” behaviors, but also for other facets of what makes a good life: social network, professional life, etc. Even still, I never found one that spoke to my soul. None of them ever felt expansive enough, comprehensive enough, or acknowledging of the interdependency of all the facets of what makes us whole and how these life factors affect the body.

From the day I launched on April 26, 2009, my intention was to create a blog that explored all the facets of what I believed led to a healthy life: relationships, work/life purpose, creativity, spirituality, sexuality, your environment, finances, mental health, and physical health. My hypothesis was that each of these facets had to be in balance, not only with each other, but with the truth of who you are—the part of you I call your “Inner Pilot Light.” In other words, it’s not enough to be in a relationship if your relationship is out of alignment with your truth. It’s not enough to be having sex if you’re selling out your authentic sexual desires. It’s not enough to go to church if you really find communion with Source in nature instead. For years, my blog focused on helping people understand health in this kind of expanded way, but it didn’t fit neatly into an elevator speech or any wellness model I’d ever stumbled across.

The Vision

Then one day, while I was hiking in coastal West Marin County on the North Coast trail up toward Mount Tamalpais, I had a vision that appeared in front of me like a slide projected over the coastal landscape. The image that appeared before me was so vivid; I raced home and drew it on a large piece of watercolor paper. It looked like this, and I called it the “Whole Health Cairn.” (You can watch me talk about it in my TEDx talk here.)



The Strength and Fragility of the Cairn

The new wellness model that downloaded into my consciousness was based on the image of a “cairn”—those stacks of balanced stones that tend to grace beaches and mark sacred landmarks (featured in the photo at the top of this blog). I’m an artist, so I’ve always been drawn to cairns for their sculptural beauty, but I also love them because of their simultaneous strength and fragility.

A well-built cairn subjected to ocean surf can survive a winter storm, but displace one stone out of balance, and the whole thing topples.

The Body on Top

Most wellness models suggest that the body is the foundation upon which everything else is built; that, in order to have close relationships or a successful career, the body must be healthy. But I’ve come to believe that the opposite is true: that the body is a barometer of the health of other areas of our lives, and that when our lives become unhealthy or unbalanced, the body is first to decompensate.

The body starts communicating via whispers—subtle physical symptoms like nausea or a headache or a tightness in your chest or a pain in your back. But if we ignore the messages the body is trying to communicate when it whispers, the body begins to yell, and, suddenly—THWACK —you’re facing a serious illness.

This is why the Physical Health “stone” is on the top of the Whole Health Cairn, as a reminder that if you’re in a toxic relationship or you’re not singing that song your soul longs to sing or you’re stuck in a miserable job, your Whole Health Cairn is likely to become unstable, and, as the most precarious stone is on top, the body is likely to get sick.

Your Inner Pilot Light Is the Foundation of a Healthy Life

So if the body isn’t the foundation of your health, what is? The foundation stone of the Whole Health Cairn, the one upon which everything else is balanced, is that part of you I call your “Inner Pilot Light:” that essential, unapologetically authentic, always radiant, never extinguished essence of your core—call it your “highest self” or your “Christ consciousness” or your “Buddha nature” or your soul.

When we lose touch with this part of ourselves, we wind up out of alignment, and as an extension of that core imbalance, we might find ourselves in jobs we hate, in relationships that poison us, with spiritual lives that fail to feed us, with sex lives that leave us feeling drained rather than fulfilled, or with living in environments that deplete us. It’s no wonder our bodies respond with illness.

The Science of the Whole Health Cairn

When I first saw the vision of the Whole Health Cairn, I had no idea whether what I saw was scientifically verifiable. Was there scientific proof that your relationships affect your health? Can your job really make you sick? Does expressing yourself creatively or enjoying an aligned sex life or tapping in spiritually really optimize your health?

What ensued was a deep dive into the Bible of modern medicine, the peer-reviewed medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The copious data I collected became my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, May 2013). But until then, suffice it to say that the data I uncovered blew my mind.

Is there proof that each stone in the Whole Health Cairn is critical to living an optimally healthy life? You betcha. In fact, what I found suggests not only that it’s critical, but that the health of your relationships, your professional life, your creative life, your spiritual life, your sex life, your environment, your finances—in essence, the health of your mind—impacts your health far more than your diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, sleep habits, or how many vitamins you take.

In fact, the data I uncovered led me to make this radical statement in my TEDx talk:

What if caring for your body is the least important part of your health?

I now believe—and the scientific data supports this—that caring for your mind is the single most important preventative health measure you can take, even more so than quitting smoking, daily exercise, eating your veggies, or enough sleep.

Which Stones Bring You Peace? Which Stress You Out?

Each stone in the Whole Health Cairn has the potential both to heal you or make you sick. A healthy romance can cure you, whereas a toxic one can poison you. Making your art or writing your novel or singing your song or creating your dream business can be medicine, but if you know what you long to do and aren’t doing it, it can toxify you. Living in nature and surrounding yourself with what you love can be your body’s medicine, while living where your Inner Pilot Light feels squashed, can make you sick.

The key to preventing disease—or curing it if you’re sick—is determining what is out of alignment with your Inner Pilot Light and then being brave enough to take actions meant to bring your life back into alignment with your truth. When you do, you make the body ripe for miracles.

What Is out of Balance in Your Whole Health Cairn?

I challenge you to assess your Whole Health Cairn and ask yourself which stones stress you out and which ones bring you peace. Which are forces of healing for you? Which might be making you sick?

If you are sick, what does your body need in order to heal?

Share your answers with us here.

Always seeking balance,


Lissa Rankin, MD is the creator of the health and wellness communities and, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.

*Photo by gomattolson.