Can Sickness Be Healing?
June 10, 2013
One striking aspect about visiting terminally ill old people in hospital is their casual attitude about their imminent end. When I first began volunteering I had expected them to be depressed about death. Perhaps a rare few might offer a philosophical gem about death and dying, I thought. But none of that has happened. Instead, time after time, I come across people totally at peace with leaving the world.
For me there was a disconnect here. After all, aren’t we mortals supposed to be dogged by fear of death? Our every action is curtailed, informed in some sub-conscious way by the fact that some day we will perish. And here are people face to face with that fact and not the least bit concerned.
Having just recovered from a bout of illness myself, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the feeling of being sick and how it changes awareness. Naturally there is much attention upon the body and its aches and pains, but look a bit deeper and you notice something is missing. Gone is the mundane chatter of daily concerns: the worry about this and that, the concern with what is happening on the street, etc. When I am sick I do not care to log into my e mail, the news does not interest me, I don’t care who has phoned, in fact, nothing much of the world seems as important as it did before. Not money, not pleasures, not even eating. The attention is solely upon the basics, the breathing and heart beat.
I found this interesting because this is exactly the technique of meditation. Most styles of meditation teach suspending the outside world in some way. Find a quiet spot to practice meditation, they say. Close your eyes to shut out distractions, they advice. Now turn your attention to your breathing, simply watch the in flow and out flow.
During my illness, all this happened effortlessly. Because the breathing was laboured, my attention naturally fell upon its ebb and flow. I found it curious how it affected my sense of “me.” When the breathing was near-normal, this feeling of “I” was at its strongest. When the breathing was faltering, the “I” lost significance, and along with it, all the things “I” considers important. The fact of being alive, the life within my body was the one and only constant.
It made me wonder if illness can be perhaps be a natural form of meditation?
The other odd thing about fever is the vivid and surreal dreams. In fact, even normal thinking has that phantasy characteristic when in the grips of fever. It is no coincidence then that many great artists and writers had bouts of prolong illness, particularly in their youth. Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, James Joyce, the Bronte sisters, among others, all retreated into their imagination during their illnesses, as did artist Frieda Kahlo. While none of them were saints, all of them did plunge deep into their psyches and explored the underbelly of daily living with insight. Isn’t that a kind of meditation?
Once the fever broke and normal thinking resumed, it struck me that the images of daily thinking are just as unreal and surreal, only we take them oh so seriously. I was reminded of the classic descriptions of near-death experiences, you know, the beings of light that appear before you. They do. Except they appear before you even when you are not dying. They appear before you nightly in dreams as well as in routine thinking. Imagine anyone you love. Isn’t that presence of him or her in your mind made up of a kind of light? The light of you own awareness?
I believe this explains why prolonged illness is so profound, so life transforming for people who survive it. In effect, we are in a prolonged state of meditation. It not only affords a person the time to reflect and contemplate upon his life, it affords attention. Normally we are too burdened, too distracted, too entertained by the ideas and plans of our own mind. Illness enforces a lovely letting go, a temporary freedom from the cares of the world.
It may explain why seniors in hospitals, who usually experience multiple illnesses in the final years, are so at peace with dying.
A painful body is no picnic but it does compel a person to find a centre within where there is no pain. If this is done with awareness, then you quickly realize the body is a shell which houses your essence. Even done without awareness, this knowledge grips hold at some level, without being verbalized.
Finally, I had an idea about that other classic NDE, the tunnel with the light at the opening. In my opinion, the light people see is one’s own essence, only the mind objectifies it as out there. The darkness of the tunnel is the stillness of an unfettered mind. The light you see in NDE is your true self.
None of us are immune to sickness of the body. While I do all I can to remain healthy — eat right, moderate exercise and take reasonable safety precautions, I no longer fear being overwhelmed by a virus or worse. As age advances, and with it the decline of the body, I take comfort in what someone said to a friend on his seventy-fifth birthday: When you get over the hill, the view is so much more spectacular.