Shared Transformation

Pain and Illness

I have had a lifelong avid interest in healing, and have been particularly drawn to learn all I could about the mind/body connection. One of the things that seemed apparent from all this study was that physical illnesses, specific symptoms, and pain itself were messengers -- sharp or nagging, urgent or insistent voices from unknown parts of ourselves (or from other selves), demanding our attention.

With this awareness, I have tried to "listen" to my physical sensations and discomforts with a receptive and curious inner ear, trying to learn more about myself. Sometimes the message is absurdly obvious. Years ago, when my boyfriend had done some very mean things to me, I woke up one morning with a raging bladder infection and urinated blood. I realized instantly that this was my body's way of declaring that I was "bloody pissed off." Please understand that I am not saying that my anger caused my bladder infection, and that it was therefore my own fault that I was sick. I have seen people pass terrible judgments on themselves (and on others) when they take this kind of punitive self-created-reality stance. I believe that the soul (or Higher Self) uses our symptoms and illnesses to try to communicate something of importance to us. I do not think we are to blame for, or wrongly causing or creating these conditions. In the case of my bladder infection, I had been minimizing how deeply my boyfriend's actions were harming me until my body "spoke" and made me realize how unhealthy our relationship had become. Many of the Kundalini symptoms, particularly the mudras and kriyas, speak to me as voices of the Spirit proclaiming "I am with you," or sometimes, "I'm still here working on you." I understand the cathartic digestive symptoms -- particularly frequent elimination -- as blunt pronouncements that I have taken too much "shit" in my life and now I'm throwing tons of it out. (Of course, simply throwing it out is not enough; I also need to learn to refuse to let anybody give it to me in the first place.) Other messages are frustratingly impossible to decipher, no matter how fervently I play mental charades trying to figure them out. "The sacred transmutations that occur in the nether regions of illness, in the mute matter of our bodies, are often too primordial and otherworldly to articulate, communicate, or even to remember," says Kate Duff, "but they still hold effect."(from The Alchemy of Illness) Some symptoms, like the arthritis in my knees that has plagued me off and on for nearly twenty years, eventually yield up their message. In this case, the message was that it is damaging for me to kneel down to others -- i.e., to agree to regard myself as inferior to anyone else. When my daughter was pressuring me to admit that Kundalini does not exist and that all the symptoms I've experienced are due to what she regards as my character defects, huge bruises suddenly appeared as if I had fallen (or been slammed down) on my knees.

Like many women, I have been a devoted caretaker all my life, expending tremendous energy taking care of everyone and everything in sight. My spine injury put an absolute stop to that. I did not like this "vacation" at all, and went through a period of seriously questioning if my life had any value in my non- caretaking role. Through the help of my husband's unwavering love, I discovered that it did. In retrospect, I realize that being knocked down and near-paralyzed would not have been enough to stop me from going right on with my caretaking -- if only by listening and talking to people about their problems. Only the added factor of excruciating pain was enough to make me give up any attempt to offer myself to others. He at first was worried that the message of my "broken" back might have been that I had worked myself into the ground, but I knew that it was more than that. (It has turned out to be much, much more.) Any life threatening or severe chronic illness or injury generally is a whole encyclopedia of messages to the self. The degree of intensity and duration of any physical condition is usually in direct proportion to the importance and quantity of the messages involved. My spine pain told me volumes about myself, about my life. But it took me quite awhile to understand, believe, assimilate, and act upon what I was being shown. For over a year, I was simply drowning in physical pain. Bodyworkers, chiropractors and doctors were not able to help me. I felt at times as if I were being senselessly punished. I prayed, I pleaded, and at times, I gave angry ultimatums to the Universe, demanding healing. At precious intervals, I was given signs and dreams that fueled my faith that somehow, I was being given this ordeal for a purpose. I realized that some of the messages encoded in my "broken" back were that I needed backup from myself as well as support from others; and I needed to get people "off my back." I became aware that I had been both physically and psychologically carrying far too much weight (not in terms of what I weigh -- I have always been slender -- but in the literal sense of hauling heavy things around with my body and in the emotional sense of taking on more than I could safely carry of other people's psychological demands on me). I also became more aware of an internalized ogre that was on my back much of the time. This was the self-critical part of myself that was always on own my case for not doing things well enough or not being sufficient. It rode me relentlessly, always dissatisfied with me, always pushing me too hard and forcing me to sacrifice myself in ways it decreed "right," no matter what the cost. I was a workaholic who expected perfection of myself in everything, and held myself up to impossible to achieve self-expectations. This was my inner equivalent of all the brute and arrogant outer authorities I'd been shoved around by throughout my life. Actually, the ogre was worse than any of them, because it was so entrenched in my psyche that I could not escape from it.

As I grow in awareness, I recognize this internal slave-driver more often, which makes me less blindly obedient to its commands. Still, it is tricky. Since this particular part of me likes nothing better than to tear me down, it will try to set me up to judge myself for noticing it exists! The only tactic that breaks this vicious cycle is humor. The ogre can withstand anything but my laughing at myself. As soon as I refuse to take it/myself seriously, it melts away like the Wicked Witch of the West. But this was by no means the whole of the messages being broadcast by my tormented spine. I had to listen more deeply. When I consulted a psychic healer over the phone, without telling her anything about my condition, she immediately said, "I see great pain in your back." Then she spoke of other physical problems I had, all of them accurate. But I was puzzled when she said, "And there is so much, so very much pain in your heart." It took me a long time to understand why that was so relevant. Ironically enough, this injury, which has caused me more physical agony than I have ever had to bear in my life, has also brought me closer to the Spirit and endowed me with more compassion for myself than anything else I have ever experienced!

Compassion is more than empathy or caring; it is also unconditional love. I learned how much I had developed this for others when, during my training for my acupressurist certificate, I did free bodywork sessions for friends. One of these was a post-polio quadriplegic. Near the end of the session, I noticed he was crying. Horrified that I might have hurt him, I asked what was wrong. In stammering words he told me that he'd had treatments with every conceivable kind of physical therapist and bodyworker throughout his life. But I was the only one who had ever massaged his atrophied and contorted limbs without trying to straighten or bend or push or otherwise manipulate them. While I had gently worked on him, he felt, for the first time in his life, that his body was not wrong; that it did not need to be changed. He was weeping not from pain or grief, but from joy. Yet being compassionate to others may not mean we have learned self-compassion. Like most people, I had learned to hide my vulnerability from myself. I discovered that I had been carrying a devastating load of emotional pain that had been steadily accumulating throughout my life. The injury to my spine was "the straw that broke the camel's back" -- the one-more-unbearable-thing that completely took me down. No longer could I use my bravery or my commitments and responsibilities or my sheer will power to simply keep on plugging under all this weight. I couldn't, as I had for so long, push this pain into the background and continue on in the same old patterns of mercilessness toward myself.

The pain in my back was screaming all the silenced screams of a lifetime. And once it started screaming, it screamed long and hard. Twenty-four hours a day, for weeks and months on end, it screamed and screamed. And as I lay tortured, it made me hear. I heard the unimaginable magnitude of my own suffering, and melded to all of that, I heard the suffering of broken people all across the earth and all across time, and still there was no end to it. I heard the screaming of Mother Earth, whose holy back is also nearly shattered. And I wept and wept and wept. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, my back began to heal. It is not finished with me yet; it still has things to say, but it speaks more softly now. Someone with good intentions tried to convince me, when I had not yet learned these many things from my injured spine, that I needed to eliminate the word "pain" from my vocabulary. (She suggested using the word "discomfort" instead.) Banning the word "pain" from my thinking, she told me, would result in physical relief. I think that sometimes these cognitive techniques are helpful, and can be effective in altering self-destructive mental tapes that perpetuate our suffering. I was in so much torment that I would have used any trick if it could have given me some respite. But as I was eventually to discover, it was just my success at dimming my emotional pain from consciousness that had resulted in the monumental inner buildup that needed to be addressed. What I learned was not that I needed to somehow anesthetize myself to my pain, but that I needed to fully acknowledge it, so that I could learn to be more tender to myself. Had the eliminate-the-word-pain technique worked for me, I might have learned a bit about power, but I would have missed the lessons of self-respect, levity and love.

It seems to me that some of the militant "positive thinking" teachings completely miss the boat. I spent years immersing myself in self-created-reality systems, and some were much better than others. I once nearly drove myself crazy trying to monitor all my negative thoughts, until it dawned on me that this was in itself a negative practice! It kept me riveted to trying to ward off the slightest negative encroachment by flooding my mind with affirmations, like throwing up my fingers in the sign of the cross to ward off vampires. I finally realized there was not so much difference between this New Age obsession and the fanatic Christians who see the mark of Satan everywhere they look. To me, genuine positive thinking consists of being willing to see the potential for good in all things, including pain. My idea of such a positive thinker is Holger Kalweit, when he says: "Transpersonal experience cleanses. Spiritual dismemberment, life-threatening sickness, or pervasive pain make it possible for our consciousness to arrive at important psychic insights which culminate in an expanded view of the world. Thus humankind, with every pore of its being cleansed, is hallowed and resurrected." (from Dreamtime & Inner Space) But even such lofty sentiments can sound like hollow mockery when, engulfed in illness, we seem to be arriving at nothing but misery. I have learned to avoid teachings which are brimming with shaming judgment, which push me to close my heart to myself and which insist that my pain is a scarlet letter -- a sign that I have failed myself through some wrong doing or wrong thinking. When one approaches these concepts from the intellect alone, it can be difficult to distinguish between "You are sick because you are making mistakes" and "Your illness has the potential to bring you great insight and wisdom." But the heart can hear and feel the profound difference.

I don't mean to discourage anyone from trying thought-control methods. Sometimes they are helpful; sometimes not. I think their success or failure depends not on the sincerity or efforts of the individual who employs them, but on the underlying issue of the illness. It may not be to our spiritual advantage to simply rid ourselves of our distressing symptoms. As Kate Duff observes, "We have developed so many tools... for suppressing symptoms and their accompanying question marks that we have lost the ability to come to terms with pain and suffering, to be changed, informed, and even illumined by their presence in our lives."

I tried visualization and hypnosis and other things to get some relief, but my soul would not let me get away with anything but plunging right into the abyss of agony. I now see that my tendency to be ruthless to myself was so strong that I had to be nearly destroyed by pain before I could break this pattern. It took this kind of relentless siege to make me realize that I truly deserved -- and desperately needed -- my own loving kindness. Before this breakthrough, my childhood and social conditioning, plus my own defense system, made me downplay the extent of the trauma and sorrow in my life. In a strange and appalling shift, as my spine pain forced me to acknowledge on no uncertain terms the immensity of my physical and emotional suffering, my adult daughter -- who never once came to see me or called me during this time -- was "possessed" by my old dysfunctional pattern and told people who inquired about me that I was "doing fine" or that I was lying about my injury. I have heard of this kind of reversal happening to others -- that as they break free of destructive patterns, people close to them try to reinstall the old damaging modes. This is not a conscious or deliberately malicious behavior. And although her callousness toward me poured yet more grief into my life, with my daughter doing to me what I had long done to myself, I was able to see more clearly how irrational and cruel this pattern truly was. This increased my resolve to overcome it, and to honor myself by telling the truth to myself and to others about my real vulnerability and limitations. I also suspect that just as I seem to be experiencing nearly every Kundalini symptom possible, I was also given this tremendously difficult health crisis to enrich my experience and expand the wisdom I could pass along to others.

I had long believed that all physical manifestations had psychological and spiritual counterparts, but before my spine injury, I had never been seriously challenged (thankfully) to put this belief to a personal test. Coming through this fire has affirmed for me what I had only dared to hope before: even our most difficult and terrible experiences are purposeful, and if we let them take us far enough, they reveal themselves as blessings in disguise. This is what I think the saints mean when they say "Suffering is grace."

Although I believe we can, if we are willing to open deeply enough to our pain, find meaning in what is happening to us, I do not share the popular belief that we should hold ourselves responsible for all our suffering. This alleged self-empowerment attitude too often backfires into a lack of self-compassion.

An ideology that attributes disease and death to personal (or spiritual) failure is unconscionable and cruel. Everybody hurts sometimes and everybody dies. Even the most illumined among us may suffer from incurable, painful illness. Buddha died of food poisoning. India's revered saints Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi died of cancer, as did the renowned Zen master Suzuki Roshi, Krishnamurti, and St. Bernadette (whose vision of the Holy Virgin at Lourdes opened the way for thousands of miraculous healings at those waters). If a painless existence is the hallmark of a pure and responsible life, to this list of failures we could also add Jesus Christ, who suffered terribly at the end of his time on this earth. I agree that much of our pain will yield to investigation and constructive life changes. But I know from personal experience that this is not always the case, and I am wary of simplistic formulas. Some pains are not exclusively our own. Many times I have felt synchronistic physical pain when, unbeknownst to me at the time, a loved one was injured or sick. And some of us have been broken open to experience universal pain -- what the Buddhists describe as "the ocean of human tears larger than the four great oceans." My spine pain was a gate to this ferocious collective suffering. In my journal, I wrote: "Through my urgent struggle to come to terms with this most intimate and lonely catastrophe, I am increasingly aware that my suffering -- and all the pain I have ever endured -- is sacred. It has split me open to create a vastness that does not exist in those who have been spared these shatterings of body and soul. I am an infant being hard-squeezed from the womb and a dying ninety year old woman. I am Christ crucified and all the souls in hell. I am every voice howling in anguish in a nightmare world. I am all the prayers of everything that ever lived, crying incessantly for peace and mercy and love." Not all pain is a summons for intervention or correction. Whether it is part of a tremendous cleansing, or it heralds an intense period of passage, sometimes pain is unavoidable. In closing, I want to challenge the persistent myth that those who greet Kundalini (or life in general) with open arms and a glad heart do not suffer serious pain or difficulties. This simply is not so. When I first understood my Kundalini had risen, I could not have been more awed if I had opened my door to find the streets filled with angels announcing the Second Coming. I cannot express how honored, privileged, blessed and overwhelmed with joy I have felt (and still feel) about this spiritual awakening. Bhai Sahib, Irina Tweedie's Sufi guru, told her, "It is because of the vibrations: they become so strong that the body cannot bear it; at a certain stage of development the body is ill continuously. This is the secret people usually don't know. They think the more perfect one is, the healthier one becomes. It is so at the beginning, but not at the later stages." (from Daughter of Fire) Sometimes pain and illness are a baptism.

-- El Collie