Apr 22 2008

Health, Suffering, and Spirit

Published by at 6:46 pm under Ivan's Story

Since sending out my message about my health over the weekend, several people have written me to tell me their own stories of dealing with chronic illness, — some with significantly more debilitating symptoms than my own – and the often problematic journey to health or freedom from pain. The will and heart people show in the unseen struggles of daily life continually nudge me to view every person’s experiences with the deepest respect.

Those stories, along with my own situation, have naturally inspired some contemplation on questions of disease, suffering, healing, and spirituality…

Holistic and Allopathic Healthcare

I have received dozens of recommendations for various approaches holistic healthcare. Acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, herbs, special diets, different schools of energetic healing. I am so touched by the thought and care people have put into their suggestions.

Living in Boulder, Colorado places me in one of the world centers for many of these methodologies. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I live here. I don’t regard these as “alternative” health practices. To me, they are primary, and allopathic Western medicine is my secondary healthcare.

Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of allopathic medicine as it applies to 90% of people’s health challenges. As a technology and philosophy, Western medicine doesn’t really lead to health, it tends to just fix problems. Actually, I wouldn’t always go that far even. Often it just aggressively suppresses symptoms.

The person trained in that approach is not who I want to see for common illnesses.


One thing allopathic medicine does very well is dealing with traumas. A person with a broken bone doesn’t want to just talk with an herbalist. If surgery is truly necessary, that modern hospital is the best place to be.

The other thing Western medicine generally does well (much of the time) is to establish unambiguous diagnoses. If you’re dealing with a serious health problem that may have a profound impact on your life and well-being, that’s the time to get as exact of a definition of your situation as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow the doctor’s treatment plan, but at least you know precisely what you’re dealing with so you can make fully informed decisions.

With serious health situations, often a balanced combination of healing techniques are the best, for the body as well as the spirit.

Now, I’ve witnessed profound healing through holistic medical approaches, so I have no doubt about their validity in the right circumstances. But, just as with allopathic medicine, the results are not always what we hope for. With holistic healing, though, that can feel almost like a betrayal. Because the methods of holistic healing often require so much more personal engagement, when they don’t work, it feels like a personal failure.

When that happens, the temptation is to tell yourself you need to do more, push harder, eat more purely, visualize more perfectly. This is the shadow side of holistic medicines: There is a tendency to turn illness or suffering into self-condemnation.

In my own life, I incorporate certain holistic health approaches into my life because they allow me to feel engaged with my body and my energies. It’s an extension of my spiritual practice that has physical benefits. Freedom from health problems is not my only goal.

We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
We are tasting the taste this minute
of eternity. We are pain
and what cures pain, both. We are
the sweet, cold water and the jar that pours.

Jelaluddin Rumi

Persistent Illness

Here’s the thing: Not every disease or discomfort is meant to be overcome.

That’s a hard thing to say, and even harder to accept. But it’s true. If disease dares to show up in our lives, we want it fixed, removed. We want to get on with life and refuse to see disease as being part of life. Even in the holistic health community that views illness as a teacher, we often want to learn the “lesson” so we can quickly dismiss the teacher.

Sometimes, though, disease is an annoyingly persistent teacher. It teaches us interior awareness. Not something learned quickly. It teaches sheer endurance. And, maybe the most difficult lesson, surrender. Many of us get into the world of “alternative” health as a way to take control. But surrender, that’s much more difficult to achieve with grace. It requires real subtlety to even distinguish between surrender and defeat. I don’t think we should give in or give up. I personally keep trying new things, new approaches, new… strategies. Maybe it’s my Aries nature, but I sometimes think of it as a sparring match. I don’t necessarily get into to it to win. I just like the sparring. Like a martial artist. The back and forth teaches me more about myself.

Don’t speak of your suffering — He is speaking.
Don’t look for Him everywhere — He’s looking for you.



One other thing that has come to me over the years — one of the mental reflexes for suffering is… jealousy. That’s not the first emotion one normally associates with illness, but it’s often lurking in the background. I’ve certainly noticed it.

Why should I have so much of my life and attention diverted by this, when everyone else has it so easy?

Says Farid,
I thought I was alone who suffered.
I went on top of the house,
And found every house on fire.

Baba Sheikh Farid

I’m always being reminded that no one has it easy. Sure, some people have less struggle, while others have heartbreaking levels of suffering. But, when the weariness clears, I glimpse of a surprising truth: None of that is the point. The purpose of the human spirit isn’t to be free from difficulty.

That may sound like a cold statement, but it is not. When deeply embraced, this understanding opens us to greater levels of empathy and compassion, and it begins to create a profound resilience within ourselves allowing us to encounter suffering without shutting down. In other words, if you hold in you mind the idea that suffering is inherently and always wrong, then when you encounter it, you will instinctively shut down. If, however, you accept the existence of suffering – in yourself, in others – your eyes and heart remain open and your hands become willing in the midst of struggles. Accepting suffering gives you greater ability to genuinely alleviate it.

Spirituality and Health

There is a related unconscious thought we often carry that suffering and illness are the sign that something is imperfect about ourselves spiritually. Saints get cancer and have heart attacks. Sages suffer epilepsy. Medicine women get migraines. The body, being a limited vehicle designed to operate in a sometimes disharmonious environment, will sometimes ail. The mark of attainment is not a lack of struggle, but how we respond to that struggle.

Our lives are simply stories. Sometimes the drama and the heat are high, sometimes they are quiet. What is important is the meaning we discover and reveal through that drama. It’s a supremely difficult paradox: We have to engage intensely in the body and the challenges of life, yet, at the same time, it’s not personal… it’s a fascinating story being told through us.

The hallowing of Pain
Like hallowing of Heaven,
Obtains at corporeal cost –
The Summit is not given

To Him who strives severe
At middle of the Hill –
But He who has achieved the Top –
All – is the price of All –

Emily Dickinson

Meaning and Suffering

The ultimate question is one of meaning. When we discover meaning in suffering, the suffering becomes endurable. Even comfort and ease, without meaning, eventually become unbearable.

Illness may be devastating, but discovering meaning feeds a hunger even more fundamental than the desire to be free from pain. It feeds the hunger of the soul know itself.

That hunger, when unfed, is the real source of suffering in the world.

I hope these thoughts bring some comfort and inspire your own deeper contemplation on the subject. Please share your own thoughts. Feel free to completely disagree with me, if you like. What are your thoughts and experiences?

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Health, Suffering, and Spirit”

  1. salamon 28 Apr 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Is it, or its just that love is creeping in to us.And asks us, to halt,take a little while, before we embarke on to the voyage, from where who knows, when we come back.
    Child again,animal,or who knows what.Do we go to the other planets, star, or, again we come back, on the same bed. Among the same people & relations.
    What ever,but sure ,we ought to give,what ever we have.
    Parting brings nothing but tears, & tears are the waters of heavens, on earth. As those come through the windows of soul.
    My Dear Ivon,
    I am going through the same kind of experiences.I already have had two stroks of heart.Have been hopitalised for some times.Still can not afford the medications.Am out of the hospital.I just take long walks, eat simple.I belive its the spirit,when it decides to go back,no one can stop.SO WHY SUFFER or WORRY.
    Relax & enjoy the looks of that face,which is every where.Present, in me & you.With me gone, only, UUUUUU. & would i like to leave, my beloved to suffer?

  2. Ivan M. Grangeron 28 Apr 2008 at 6:06 pm

    Words of hard-won wisdom. Thank you for sharing that.
    Struggling or at ease,
    suffering or at peace,
    we are all at rest
    in the arms of the Beloved…
    I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

  3. […] Health, Suffering, and Spirit […]

  4. salamon 30 Apr 2008 at 6:01 am

    Thats what i need,like Him

    To live in, some thoughts,

    Some prayers,cause I am.

    Though part,but am.

    on my knees,to thank you!



  5. Athenaon 07 May 2008 at 4:27 am

    Greetings, Ivan,

    What is there to add, truly? You have said it all.

    Thanks for reminding me of what I already knew — I sorely needed that, especially at this particular point in time and space. 🙂

    Blessed Be,


  6. Elizabethon 07 May 2008 at 8:21 am

    Ivan, Thumbs up to you my friend on such an inspirational way of words! I'm a little late, and do not know of your illness you have been struggling with, but all i can say my Aries friend keep on searching, reading, and learning, that is what is so wonderful about the internet. Me myself a Gemini, and having MS, i have learned so much and being a vegan and totally doing everythin possible to stay as healthy as poosible, would not be possible if it were not for the net. I totally agree with you when you said Holistic practices are the primary practices, and so few realize this, like you it is a sparring match day in and day out, with good days and bad ones, but that is what keeps me strong and positive. Thank you for your wisdom, God Speed! E.

  7. Kitabelon 09 May 2008 at 5:54 pm


    Whatever your body is doing, you are so incredibly healthy! You have found a spiritual teacher in the ebb and flow of your bodily illness.

    I hope it helps to know that your experience is teaching others, too: among other things you help me realize that this houseful of noisy kids is the voice of a silent guru!

    Even so, I wish you good health all around.

  8. salamon 12 May 2008 at 6:49 am

    Dear Ivan,

    Blessed are the ones,who live in this world,but a little.

    More, in beloved or in their thoughts.

    Please go,

    go away & live in Guru

    or in a broken heart.



  9. elizabeth enfieldon 01 Apr 2011 at 3:23 am

    dear ivan>


    hippocrates institute, west palm beach, florida
    read> ‘why suffer’ foud at a book shed at my local dup years ago…about Ann Wigmore….wheat grass..
    told to totally eat this if she was starving, then she came to u.s. from lithuania and started teaching about this in boston then… history….hippocrates institute.. google it.
    … lead to investigation of the institute Dr.gabriel cousens, medical doctor, studied ayruvedic medicine in india., has retreat in patagonia arizona…
    wrote” spiritual nutrition, aka: the rainbow diet”…, and talks of what is healthy to keep body healthy, he’s vegan maybe you are allergic to meats? gluten? they do testing of these things started at dartmouth college, with Mark vonnegut …Eden Express. book of his recovery from schizophrenia, without drugs..megavitamin therapy ….based on Dr. linus pauling studies…
    hope this helps, and prayer…..love elizabeth namaste shalom blessings to you

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