Apr 22 2008
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.
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?
I thought I was alone who suffered.
I went on top of the house,
And found every house on fire.
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 –
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?