Illness As Teacher

People tend to think of illness as a problem, as something to be avoided.  The sort of thing that gets in the way of all that you want to do, or even something that can mess up your life.  And it can be painful and cause all sorts of suffering.  Something very much to be avoided.

 We have all had times of illness and I dare say we have all had these sorts of feelings about it.  Yet it is a part of life for pretty much all of us.  You could say that it is the human condition.   

So rather than trying to avoid illness and struggling desperately against it when we are sick, maybe we can find some good in the experience.

Indeed this is a message taught by many spiritual masters over time.

I have recently watched the wonderful video by the contemporary Western guru Ram Dass.  Called “Fierce Grace” it is all about his struggle to come to terms with old age and a paralysing stroke which changed his life permanently.  It is a beautiful and poignant film that touches on the human condition with great compassion and love.  In it you can see Ram Dass’s attempts to return to a functional life while at the same time surrendering into the experience of the sickness, with all its pain and disappointment.  You can see him going through the journey of finding meaning and purpose in the whole thing.  So that the stroke becomes a life-changing event – for the better!  Because it teaches wisdom, acceptance, true surrender, and deepens his compassion for himself and for his fellow humanity.

A most poignant lesson.

And a lesson I have experienced with a number of my fellow human beings over the years of working with people with terminal illness.  I have on a number of occasions helped to guide people with cancer or with AIDS through the last stages of life.  Some have struggled valiantly yet in the end succumbed, while others have lapsed into despair and crumbled.  Some have had an agonising end.   Some too have been taken suddenly, even shockingly so in an unprepared way.  Yet the ones who stay in my memory over the years are the ones who accepted the process and found meaning in it.  These were the ones who faced their fears of death, of suffering, and dealt with the actuality of what was happening in the moment.  And these were the ones who changed their lives so as to become genuinely more loving, who spent precious time with those who they loved, who lived every moment as if it was a precious gift – which it is.  And these people were the ones who went out of their way to make peace with those they had quarrelled with or whom they had hated.  So many of them said something like “While I wish I didn’t have to get cancer to find out, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  It’s helped me to heal my life.  It’s pushed me to find myself.  It makes sense to me now.  And I am at peace with it all”.

Such an incredible message.  Such deep wisdom.  In facing death, all the rubbish falls away and these people see to the core of what it means to be alive.  And in this they become more fully alive than they ever had been before.  Death can teach about life.

And these people typically had incredibly beautiful deaths.  I had the honour to be present when some of them passed over, and it was a most radiant experience for all present – the dying person included.  It was a time of incredible peace and joy in the exquisite beauty of each moment.  And an acceptance that death is just another step in the great journey of life.

These experiences have stayed with me over time and have helped to mould my own appreciation of life.  Personally I have been on the spiritual journey for as long as I can remember, and have spent time with a number of masters and in various types of deep meditation and “communion”, yet these experiences of what I would call a “good death” have been some of the most impactful peak experiences I have ever encountered.

Such experiences have also stimulated me to look deeply into the meaning and significance of illness, pain and suffering in my own life and in those around me.

Dr. John Harrison some years ago wrote a thought-provoking book called “Love Your Illness – It’s Keeping You Healthy”.  It had many sensible things to say about a different and more helpful way to approach illness.

Most people these days have a material view of life – it’s all about how much wealth, power, admiration and “stuff” that you can acquire during your lifetime.  This is a measure of your worth.  This is what society expects of you and teaches as good.  Yet at the same time life tends to feel very hollow and meaningless.  This has of course prompted many to look to the deeper non-material side of life to find meaning, purpose and fulfilment – and this quest is often successful.  It is basically a return to spirituality in daily life.

In this way many people are seeing that life is an ongoing process of growth as a person, of evolution as a spiritual being.  Indeed this is the lesson of so many great teachers over the centuries – including Jesus and the Buddha.  Paul Ferrini in his series of books “Reflections Of The Christ Mind” puts forward a view that the significance of your life is not what wonderful things you do, or don’t do.  It’s not about achievements and results.  Rather what matters most is how you approach life.  It’s all about how we tackle all the life events we are confronted with.  Each day so many things cross our paths and impact on us – some we have control over yet there are so many others that just happen to us.  And some of these “happenings” can be pretty big-time.  What matters is how we rise to the occasion.  It’s not about having an easy life.  Rather it’s about what do we do with these events which cross our paths.  A lovely analogy is given in the book.  A master potter is not one who insists on only the very best clay, and complains bitterly or even downs tools if the clay he is given is not perfect.  Rather the master potter is one who makes something beautiful, something precious and meaningful, out of whatever clay he is given.  This is what matters in life.  What we each do with what we are given.  And a precious key in this process of acceptance and rising to the challenge is to find stillness within your heart and to reside here.

The test in life is to make the best of whatever occurs for each of us, and to find something of value in each and every experience.  The message is very much to let go of the memory and details of the experience, and instead to find and retain the lesson.  It’s along the lines of the old adage that every cloud has a silver lining.  To find the pearl in every life event, no matter how mucky the outer events might seem.

When we tackle life as a series of lessons which can teach us to become more fully ourselves, to become more fully self-actualised, to become more awake as a conscious human being, then we are on the road to enlightenment.

A precious teaching.

In my own life I have seen this time and again.  In the midst of distress, pain and suffering, we can still evolve as a human being.  Indeed life can be seen as an ongoing lesson in developing as a conscious person.  In discovering the truth in the New Age maxim of learning that you are spiritual being having an earthly adventure.

A current spiritual teacher John de Ruiter has much to say about this.  His book “Unveiling Reality” is a wonderful exposition of the value in surrendering to the truth of what is.  Letting go of all trying, pushing and doing.  Just letting yourself surrender fully to the moment, sinking deep into yourself, and in this way starting to discover who you really are.  Eckhart Tolle teaches his own excellent version of this message.

Bearing in mind that pain is an excellent teacher and motivator for change, we can see that life on this planet is full of rich lessons.  You could call this place the school of hard knocks.  A great place to learn, and to learn plenty very fast.  But not necessarily to have a nice time.

The exceptional American psychiatrist Dr. Richard Hawkins, along with Dr. Barry Long and other wise teachers, point out that we are a pain-avoiding society, and that this avoidance is the root of so much of our dis-ease and illness.  The only way through this is to face the pain – fully.  To wear it and bear it – until it finally dissolves into nothingness.  This finally sets us free so we can become more fully the integrated wise person deep within us all.

In this way we can see that illness as a big dose of pain, suffering, distress or disability, is actually an exquisite opportunity for going deep into the experience and embracing it as a great opportunity to learn.  Even if it’s just to learn how to persist and to accept the inevitable.  There are of course so many other wonderful lessons available in the experience of illness.  Such things as the beauty of surrender.  How to find peace and contentment in the face of any experience.  How to live in a state of grace.  Finding meaning, purpose and fulfilment in all experiences.

These are the attributes of one who is becoming a spiritual master

And isn’t this an ages-old view of one of life’s key purposes?  How to transcend the restrictions of earthly life by fully embracing it.

I hope this little discussion gives you much food for thought.  May it enrich your life.


Reprinted with permission from The Art Of Healing magazine


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