“It is not a sign of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”-J. Krishnamurti
Most people take up the spiritual path out of human need to find a context for our human experience. We are searching for a way to make peace with our self, our life. We may be looking for forgiveness or meaning or healing. Everyone on the path wants to end the sense of separateness, suffering, fragmentation and alienation we feel.
Sometimes we find a Guru, a faith to follow. But as often, our life provides the perfect path. I suspect this is the case for most of us. We don’t formalize a spiritual path but our unique life circumstances gives us a reason to reach outward, upward and inward. Illness can be a spiritual catalyst. It is the only consistent path I’ve known. My spiritual discipline is the way I continually attend to the needs of my body; my teachers are the Healers I work with, and the Healer in my self. It is a demanding, rigorous path. It’s essentialized my focus in life as I’ve experienced spiritual truths firsthand.
1. Be Here Now. My physical needs organize my days. Broken social obligations, delayed timelines give me reason to be compassionate toward and forgive myself, a spiritual lesson. I pace my career goals and social life with how I’m feeling, which conflicts with the SuperEgo’s desire to accomplish more, faster. We are programmed to work for some distant future reward (a sickness in its own right) but illness drops you into the present moment. When you’re sick it’s hard to think too far into the future. First, you can’t count on feeling well enough to follow through with your plans. Then you can’t stand to think life will always be like this. We focus on what we can do in the Now and leave the future alone.
2. Lose The Inessentials. Illness prioritizes, sharply. Illness reduces your energy and time, asking you to be frugal with what and whom you spend your energy on. Stripping you down to your core elements while asking you to keep rising to your better self (and not succumb to negativity), illness is a relentless taskmaster. Through your suffering you will lose any illusion, any falsity you hold about your self and your life. You have no energy for pretenses, no time to waste trying to be someone you are not. That’s how illness demands that you discover, and then live in harmony with, your Authentic Self. After so much is taken away (the livelihood, pastimes, foods and activities you used to enjoy but no longer can), and after so many encounters living through what you think you cannot possibly live through, there is no one else left to be.
With illness, you learn a different way of being. Your energy is precious so you learn to identify where you are leaking energy that you could be using to heal. The negative self-talk, false beliefs, misunderstandings you have been carrying and perpetuating, all the toxic relationships and unhealed wounds. You learn to forgive your self, and others, because the alternative creates more pain. You learn the difference between self-pity and expressing your valid pain and frustration.
3. You Are Not In Control. Asking “why is this happening to me?” is a recipe for staying stuck. After all, life often doesn’t make any sense. When you don’t know whether your latest malady was due to a change in the weather, mold on your home roasted cashews, that glass of wine you had for the first time in a month, PMS, tartar sauce, nightshade vegetables, getting too little (or too much) exercise, financial stress or Chemtrails… you learn that life is not in your control…there are simply too many variables at play. So you can keep educating your self, seeking healers and help, you can make better choices (and not beat yourself up when you do something you knew would have inevitable consequences later), but accepting that life is not in your control is crucial. It makes the difference between taking small doable actions or being victimized.
4. Live From Your Values. What’s really important in YOUR life, Illness asks? The answers are both universal and personal: Loving others well. Cultivating joy. Practicing care and kindness to self and others. Seeking truth and beauty. Nourishing. Forgiving. Making time to heal. Following your happiness… When your illness is your spiritual path, you quickly learn that big lofty ambitions aren’t as important as small humble ones. As you create a life without road rage, petty quarrels, people and work that drain you, you live from your values and discover equanimity, clarity, peace, purpose.
5. You Are Not Your Illness. On this path you learn that you have something enduring inside of you, a sort of faith, if you will. Chronic illness is not the same as a cancer diagnosis -a hot and urgent gamechanger with a list of marching orders to change one’s life now, and a foreseeable end date. But every illness is a relentless grind. Every time we backslide into pain, all the painful times before this one come along for the ride, too. It’s easy to identify with your condition, lose hope. The thought repeats, “this may never end”. Then comes a moment, an awakening. A day comes when you are alive and well, and you feel good and strong and happy. While you know it may only last for another hour or day, you also realize that this is the TRUTH of your existence. This is who YOU truly are. And while you know the feeling won’t last you also know this truth cannot be taken away. YOU are with YOU always. This awakening confers the grace to get you through the next hardship.
Illness can be an accelerated path to spiritual growth, or a choiceless, senseless experience of suffering. Paradoxically it is often both at the same time. But the most important thing to remember is that illness doesn’t define us. We are no more our illness than the sky is the color blue. We may be physically limited but we are always spiritually perfect, whole and free.