What are seasonal illness (flu, coughs, colds) like in your part of the world? Here in Calgary and the province of Alberta, winter illness has been epic. Whole families sick 4-6 weeks…sometimes longer.
Being sick is awful. Being sick with sick kids adds a whole other dimension! Having a postpartum depression with sick kids can add yet another layer. Being sick and being single or living alone has dimensions of complete separation from any love or support that we might crave. And when we are sick we crave and need love, care and support…a mutual exchange between the caregiver and the one receiving care. When we are exhausted though, we face our human limitations.
In addition to the desire for the symptoms to ‘go away’, we have the opportunity (when we have a little extra energy) to observe how we are and who we are when we are unwell.
We are quite uncompensated when sick! Which can be the time when we can most learn how to love ourselves and what an irony that is. And a challenge…learning to love ourselves when we are at our most uncomfortable.
There are many scenarios for the plight of the one who is sick. Today’s note is about acute illnesses, which have a beginning, a middle and an end. Although if you are someone in the midst of acute illness, it can feel like it will last forever! Chronic disease, chronic pain and chronic suffering are yet one more place where many are living in their day-to-day lives. That topic is for another newsletter.
Sickness: What is It Good For?
Suffering and sickness…what is the purpose? On some levels, suffering and sickness seems like a cruel side effect of living as humans on this planet. How do we reconcile illness and disease? All we really want is to be symptom-free and get on with our daily lives.
Sickness strips away any and all illusions about who we think we are as people, as parents, as friends, care givers and receivers of care; any and all of our roles and conceptions about who we are in those roles can diminish with the intensity of our symptoms.
In acute illnesses, even the ones with the most intense symptoms, you will get better. Hard to trust and believe that when you fever is high, the chills are bone-wracking, the sweat profuse and the pain unbearable. It’s additionally hard to trust that your body or vital force really does know what it is doing and that every symptom you have is the immune system elegantly, efficiently and exquisitely returning you to a state of health.
Such a contrast! That a system so elegant could create so much discomfort in our bodies while we heal! Which is what makes it even more difficult to trust that what is happening in an acute illness is actually beneficial to our continued well-being, long past the infection.
Evolutionary Function of Fever
Consider this…if we could not mount a fever, we would move toward chronic illness and/or disease. That we can mount a fever means our immune system is doing its job. The increase in temperature means that your internal environment, as much as it makes you uncomfortable, is always making it extremely uncomfortable (deadly actually) for the virus or bacteria to grow and reproduce and dump its toxins into your bloodstream. The increase in body temperature also means that your immune system has set up a cascade of events – hormones, cellular messaging and other delicate operations – that enhance your ability to eventually heal.
Consider that up until the late 1970’s still, fever was considered a “harmful by-product of infection” within the scientific community. The research paper “The Evolution and Adaptive Value of Fever” done by Matthew Kluger in 1977-1978 concluded that ‘fever may be instead an ancient ally against disease, enhancing resistance and increasing chances of survival.’
Guess science and conventional research are catching up to the ancient physicians like Hippocrates!
“Give me the power to produce a fever and I will cure any illness”
“Fever is half the striving of the organism against disease. It purifies the body like fire.”
Because fever was perceived to be a ‘harmful by-product’ for so long, pharmaceutical companies spent a great deal of time, energy and money to develop medications to stop fever. How much harm has been done do you think in suppressing fevers for so many generations?
Beyond the Physical Illness
Every illness we have, acute or chronic, is an opportunity to consider life at a level that is more than material, more than our physical bodies. This is where, when we slow down, we can begin to consider “What is the spiritual significance of an illness or of suffering?”
How can we begin that kind of reflection on illness?
Here is a thought from Eckhart Tolle on illness:
“Illness is not the problem. You are the problem – as long as the egoic mind is in control. When you are ill or disabled, do not feel that you have failed in some way; do not feel guilty. Do not blame life for treating you unfairly, but do not blame yourself either. All that is resistance. If you have a major illness, use it for enlightenment. Anything “bad” that happens in your life, use it for enlightenment. Withdraw time from the illness. Do not give it any past or future. Let it force you into intense present-moment awareness and see what happens.
Become an alchemist. Transmute base metal into gold, suffering into consciousness, disaster into enlightenment. Are you seriously ill and feeling angry now about what I have just said? Then that is a clear sign that the illness has become part of your sense of self and that you are now protecting your identity, as well as protecting the illness. The condition that is labelled “illness” has nothing to do with who you truly are.”
Here is one more quote to ponder. This quote helps me to go one step further from Tolle’s words. In this quote from Barbara Marx Hubbard’s book Emergence: The Shift from Ego to Essence, I begin to see that the ego (or the illness/suffering/pain and my ego response) is essential to understanding my essence and leading me to Essence. Ego has an important role to play in that it gives voice to that which I have been longing for whether in sickness or in health. Healing then becomes possible at a very deep level.
“Almaas (Essence, 1986) suggests we directly experience the deficiencies of the ego or local self and recognize that what the ego is attempting to get is already present in Essence. The process here is to feel deeply ego’s lack, or ‘hole’ as Almaas calls it, and not defend against this feeling of lack, nor come up with any strategies for solving the problem from the egoic point of view.
It is a two-step process: First, the Beloved invites the local selves to come forward to describe as deeply as possible any pain or deficiency being experienced – the needs, wants, pain. We don’t defend against the feeling, don’t try to fix or solve it from the egoic point of view, but rather completely allow it to be present and fully feel it – its location in the body, its density, vibration. Second, we stay with that pain and follow it all the way to the root, the source where we first felt such pain.
According to Almaas, when we follow the deficiency as deeply as possible, it leads us to that part of essence or Beloved that the local self has been seeking by trying to have some strategy in the outer world. In other words, we let our local selves discover that the fulfillment they’ve been seeking is already present in the Beloved. Ego becomes the guide to essence.”
The Miracle and Gift in Suffering/Pain/Illness
When we can learn to love ourselves (with the guidance of ego leading us to our Essence) in and out of an experience of our own suffering, we can then have compassion for others. Perhaps this is the purpose of human suffering and pain?
“At this step in our Emergence Process, genuine compassion for others occurs. Those who are suffering from hunger, poverty, war, and illness cannot, unless they are heroic, practice their own emergence. It is up to us who have the freedom to practice to do so and then to reach out to others less fortunate than ourselves, both to heal and eventually to serve as guides upon the path of self-evolution, each in our own way. For ultimately, the root cause of hunger poverty, violence, and greed is the separation of our egos from the one Essential Self that each of us is.” – Barbara Marx Hubbard, Emergence: The Shift from Ego to Essence
Plenty to reflect on…please leave a comment below – What is the meaning of illness for you?