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 towards 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 & 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 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, relationships that poison us, with spiritual lives that fail to feed us or sex lives that leave us feeling drained, rather than fulfilled or living in environments that deplete us. It’s no wonder our bodies respond with illness.

(If you feel like you’ve lost touch with your Inner Pilot Light, sign up here for free daily messages from your Inner Pilot Light).

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 to both 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,

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  1. Hello Lisa! I want to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying your Inner Pilot Light. Our thoughts are the basis for how we live our lives. Negative thoughts, worries, and fears can turn into physical issues over time. As our thoughts go, we go.
    Thanks for the great drawing 🙂

  2. Lissa,

    I am in 100% agreement with this. When I became seriously ill with Lupus in 2004, it was at a time when my career was extremely stressful and my relationship could only be described as unsupportive and toxic. Although I hadn’t always had the best eating and exercise habits up to that point, it wasn’t until that mental and emotional overload hit, that I got knocked off my square. It is so true that what we bring into our personal energy fields can either make or break us.

    Also, I love the idea of the Cairn and there are also similar representations of what supports health in a number of alternative health teachings. For example, the holistic nutrition school I am certified through has a model called “Primary Foods” and “Secondary Foods”. The premise is that the actual physical food that we cook and eat is actually secondary to maintaining health. The real “Primay Food” that keeps things in order are things like what you mentioned- spirituality, work/life balance, career satisfaction, relationships, etc. I find it very interesting and gratifying that those enlightened in the more holistic ways of healing all seem to come to the same conclusions, just expressed differently. Thank you for your expression.


  3. Lissa, thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to reading your new book!

    When I get sick, what my body needs most to heal is sleep. When I take some days off from work, even if I’m feeling OK I usually end up sleeping for almost all of the first 2 days.

  4. Lissa – I’d heard you talk about the cairn before, but now I really get it. You’re right, it’s the only model that illustrates the interconnectedness of everything in our lives. And I’m so relieved eating veggies isn’t the only thing that counts! (Although I’ve had my green juice today.)

    I’d be curious how you differentiate between the Inner Pilot Light and spirituality. The pilot light is the inner voice and spirituality is the expression of it?

    • GREAT question Ellen. When I first sketched out the Whole Health Cairn, I didn’t include a spirituality stone. Instead, I drew a little wisp of smoke floating between all the stones- and that represented the spiritual component. And yes, the Inner Pilot Light is definitively spiritual as well, although for those who resist all things spiritual, I describe this as “your authentic self, your intuition- the part that knows what’s true for you,” which some folks can swallow more easily.

      As far as the data, the Inner Pilot Light represents the personal spiritual journey- your connection to the divinity within you. The Spirituality stone refers more to practices and spiritual community that might in some way lie outside of you- going to church, meditating, being out in nature, prayer.

      Clear as mud?

      In essence, the whole dang thing is spiritual in my experience, because illness- and optimal health- are both opportunities for spiritual awakening. But I’ve tried to present it in a way that ties together health and spirituality with cold hard science- so skeptics will listen 🙂

      Thanks for asking!

      Much love

  5. Hi Lisa. I’m blown away by this article. It so speaks to my own inner beliefs regarding health care. Love it. Thanks so much

  6. I think what you’re saying is dead on. I also think food can be an enormously powerful entry point, causing a domino effect of changes in all areas of life. For the average joe, taking on their inner pilot light can be too abstract. But they can eat more kale and quit caffeine. Gotta start somewhere, right?

  7. Hi Lissa,

    I’ve just recently discovered your website, and this article is particularly interesting to me, because it mirrors my own philosophy about how important it is to keep all aspects of the energetic profile in balance.

    I have to say that I consider all elements equally important, though, including (and perhaps especially) the physical. The reason that I say this is because my own body is extremely sensitive, more than anyone else I’ve ever met – particularly where food is concerned.

    If I don’t eat exactly the right things most of the time, then my physical health immediately suffers, and so does my mood, thinking, and spiritual progress. They are definitely directly and closely linked, and I think it’s just more obvious in my case because I’m so extremely sensitive. So I’m always experimenting to see which elements I can adjust to bring my aura into the best health I can possibly achieve, both physically and spiritually. I call these little experiments the Auraboratory. 🙂

    I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog for information that might help in that regard too! Thanks for an insightful and useful post!

  8. Lissa, Love the analogy of the cairn! I have often used the analogy of a wheel and how its rolling with patient’s and clients, yet I feel the cairn explains the connect between facets of our lives and our physical health. I’ve experienced the body’s loud objections when not going in the direction of my inner pilot and the rapid healing response when areas in my life are more aligned. I continue to work on this diligently.

    Its articles like these from Drs and healthcare providers that are changing the way the population looks at healthcare. So glad you are listening to your inner pilot!

  9. Thanks again for all the gifts that you bring! I couldn’t agree MORE! Wellness models that don’t include those pieces you’ve indicated leave us feeling less than whole.

    I also appreciate your insights regarding how the body expresses or is a ‘crystallization’ of these other aspects being out of balance – rather than the primary cause.

    I recommend your work to my (especially female) patients often. Know that your reach is far!

    I remain a big fan and look forward to your next distillations…

    Warmest Regards,


  10. I just can’t wait for your book to be published! No pressure 🙂

  11. Thanks, Lissa!

    Since you asked, here’s my list:

    What’s bringing me peace?

    Gratitude, Love, Service and Pleasure
    inner pilot light

    What’s stressing me out?

    Physical health
    work/life purpose

    I’ve been spending a year and a half on an intensive affirmations kick as well as devoting attention to the wellness and care of my body and THE ONE THING MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE IS THE AFFIRMATIONS!!! Hands down! I was on a Candida diet for 9 months, then on a hormone balancing diet/course after I lost my period, my energy and a lot of weight from my already slender body doing the Candida diet! I went through counselling, quit my job, wallowed in financial terror for a few months. After Inner Mean Girl Reform School, I’ve found that my Inner Wisdom is all I need for everything! Now that I’ve trained my mind to trust my heart, I feel everything balancing out into harmony. I know that I can choose to be at peace with my “stress list.” These days, most of the time, I am!

  12. Lissa,
    Ever since I first saw your whole health cairn a month or so ago, I’ve been thinking about that model and how well it works for looking at all the parts that make an integrated, happy, healthy life you love. Like Karla Jo mentioned, I’ve often used the wheel analogy, but this works so much better in many ways, including how our physical health (or lack of health) is manifested as a result of all these other aspects of our whole lives. Thanks for introducing it. I’m going to experiment with using it in place of the wheel and see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted. And I, too, am looking forward to your book!
    Blessings, Joy

  13. many people never seem to find their inner pilot in the first place and it’s true once you’ve found it you should use it as the foundation that guides you.

  14. what I meant by inner pilot and what you mean seem to be different things. my meaning is a deeper truer self. you love of life not your judgement or morality which for me is separate and based on rational thinking and may be dependent on my love of life and a greater rationalization of it based on experience not the constant that my love of life is.

    • I am however autistic so I do rationalize things that nerotypicals would do by ‘instinct’

  15. I just read the whole health cairn for thefirst time…I can’t wait to read your book. This information plus your entry from the end 0f 2012 when you told us that you had to set some boundaries so we didn’t destroy the very spirit you were trying to share is my aha moment. I realized that I really was waiting for your to do my work and for it to happen to me…It never hit me until you put it out there (Duh) I absolutely love the Innder Pilot Light…it always makes me feel wrm and alive. For me this light is the Holy spirit and my spark of divine perfection…With all of this in my back pack I am heading into 2013 ready to be healthy, fulfilled, spiritual, and truly alive Woo Hoo….Thanks for the input

  16. So refreshing and true!

  17. I just quit working for my husband’s company for all these reasons, and the Whole Health Cairn is so true and a terrific symbol. I feel lost, muddled, but at least somewhat alive. I am always gaining weight, so maybe this is a “weight” that is now lifted and I can get to my true life purpose in some way…I have every belief that living an authentic life is worth the risks and trouble…. thanks again.

  18. Thank you for putting down on paper what I have believed for some time. The doctors I have been to all want to slap me with labels and feed me pills and tell me to eat in ways that do not fit my lifestyle (I’m vegetarian so don’t tell me to increase protein via lean meat). However, once I got fed up and started doing things to bring me inner peace, I found that making healthy choices for my body was a natural side-affect. Don’t get me wrong, I have a long ways to go. I am still battling anxiety and depression. But listening to my “inner pilot light” is definitely helping.

  19. Hey! Have you ever watched Anita Moorjani’s near death experience? In her experience, she learns that fear was what was causing her cancer that almost killed her. Pretty interesting story, you can youtube it!

  20. What if every rock brings stress? How do you find that inner pilot light? I know it’s flickering but I don’t even know where to begin to look for it or how to make it stronger. In my heart all you talk about makes perfect sense, but in my reality I am a lost soul just existing day to day. I have two very young boys and this is not the mom I want them to know or remember. This is not what I want to teach them. So how can I teach them what I want them to learn when I don’t even know what it is that I want to learn.

    • Michele, a good place to begin is by starting a gratitude journal. Every morning when you get up spend just a few minutes writing down a few things you are grateful for. Gratitude changes everything. We spend so much time focusing on what we don’t have that we forget how much we really do have so write it down and whenever you feel down go back and reread your journal entries out loud. Start by being thankful that your inner pilot light is getting brighter and brighter every day.

  21. Good point Michele M! I think massage or reiki or any holistic practice can help trigger feeling that light within people once again or even for the first time. 🙂 From there, what this article is talking about is a good point. Having balance in your life is essential.

  22. I love the holistic approach. But one caveat: Please be cautious about simplifying cancer. It’s not a simple cause and effect between stress and cancer. You risk blaming people for their illness. It’s not loving to speak like this.


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