On being ill

Mindsprings On being ill with a chronic complaint

I have a chronic complaint – nothing too serious – that comes back time and time again through my life.

When I feel it coming on, I have in the past descended into a depressed state because it feels so unfair.

The symptoms are mild. Irritating more than anything else. But they linger and they seem to be rather treatment-averse. Often, I have to just sit it out.

But what I have noticed of late, is how the feelings around the symptoms are far more depressing that the symptoms themselves.

For whatever knot of karmic reasons, I treat illness as failure, as punishment and as something to be ashamed of.

I had an exchange with one of the Mindsprings community yesterday about how connecting to a Bigger Sense of Self is handy when it comes to a chronic complaint.

Not only is one able to have some space around the physical symptoms  – perhaps an awareness of another part of the body that is not ill or ailing  – but you can also spot the shimmer of thoughts and thinking that has covered the physical symptom like malign mould.

So this morning, listening to my own teaching, I lay noticing how hard and mean I am to myself when I feel ill.

For whatever knot of karmic reasons, I treat illness as failure, as punishment and as something to be ashamed of.  And so when the first warning twinges start up, my mood plummets and I pile on shame and blame on top of the smouldering twigs of pain.

What a goon!

Naturally, this makes everything worse. And yet, – and yet, – this is what I have unconsciously done for decades.

One of the truths of meditative practice is – quoting Krishnamurti – that the ‘seeing is the doing’.

I rather like it. It feels – surprise, surprise, – rather compassionate.

Sometimes, all that needs to happen is to bring the unconscious pattern into the light. And then it shrivels up into nothingness, like those Egyptian mummies whose bodies dissolve into dust when, after millenia, fresh air enters the tomb.

So lying in bed  this morning, I spot 1) the twinge of the body  2) the plunge in my mood  3) the harsh, brutal voices that kick in.

Usually, I might only unconsciously dwell on number and feel sorry for myself about number 2. I haven’t often spotted number 3 at all.

But all this work on the Higher Self we’ve been doing in the MSPS sessions of late has had a benefit. There’s a little more space in my experience to spot these pain-generating patterns.

I saw the yawning abyss of mean-spirited self-criticism that was curling round my physical symptoms and I decided to let them go.

So I got up and did a little yoga, sat for a while in the warm darkness of the shrine room, then came back to bed and slept for another hour or so and then, when Daniel got up, I stayed in bed even longer (unheard of, really) and read a novel.

And then, I ran a bath full of epsom salts, took some vitamin C, lit the fire and tended myself. And you know what? I rather like it. It feels – surprise, surprise, – rather compassionate.

And not in a Red Cross, got-to-make-things-better sort-of-way but in a isn’t-this-nice-and-cosy sort-of-way.


And of course, as I blithely pointed out in my talk yesterday, having this more spacious awareness around illness also allows for wider compassion.

So what starts as a self-suffocating spiral of gloom becomes a pathway into something rather glorious.

When I can sit with my aching body and its inexplicable ailments without reacting like a bad-tempered Nurse Ratchett then I might be a little more interested in their formation and passing qualities. And – most important – I can empathise with all the millions of people who are experiencing exactly this pain right now alongside me.

If I’m feeling particularly Buddhist, I might make the next step which is to take on all the pain those millions of people are feeling and experience it so that they don’t have to. Weirdly, this dignifies and gives my chronic complaint a purpose and a vividness that it didn’t have before.

So what starts as a self-suffocating spiral of gloom becomes a pathway into something rather glorious. Warm, well-fed, nurtured and also meaningful.

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  • Ian Easter says:

    Thank you so much for this. I am a psychotherapist dealing with my own injury and noticing a similar pattern of shame and self-blame. I appreciated what you have written and am implementing a self-care plan for myself in response.

  • Corey Holloway says:

    I too am guilty of the self attack of illness as punishment from God or past failures. Recently in hospital with diverticulitis for a week and down 30+ lbs I fell into despair. Self care is necessary right now but where do I start is always my dilemma. Thank you for the post. I’ll read over it several times.

  • Tricia Davidson says:

    Such an interesting blog, Alistair! I also live with a chronic pain in the somewhere and have been so angry and embarrassed over the years. Having to give up my horses and mountain hiking have been so emotionally wilting, making me even less willing to face the pain. So much so, that when I had a small stroke several years ago, I ignored what was happening, how dumb to myself is that. A little kinder now, trying to throw off the limitations gracefully. As always, your words offer up a smile of self recognition. Much love!

  • Jane Davis says:

    I thought of this blog as Lama Rod Owens was just talking about self-care: he said that (metaphorically speaking) sometimes one “just has to put up a sign that says ‘Closed for Business'” in order to “rest, recharge and return.” He also wrote that “Self-care in not self-indulgence.” Self-care and vulnerability were just not encouraged when I was growing up: Illness was looked on as failure or lame excuse-making; I think it was part of the impossible perfectionism that was reinforced ad nauseum (by my mother and some of my grammar school teachers, in particular). The alternative: Just being human–what a concept! Very liberating…

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