Illness as Opportunity: Transform Sickness into a Self-Healing Journey
Jul 29, 2020 01:28PM
By Paul Epstein
When we are sick and in pain, we try to get well quickly. This is the natural response. We seek treatments to “fix” or get rid of our pain and symptoms so we can get back to our normal lives. When the treatment doesn’t make the symptoms go away, and we begin to suffer more, both physically and emotionally, our search for answers intensifies. Often, we then begin to feel hopeless, helpless and worthless. One becomes worn out, not just from experiencing the disease itself, but also from the battle to get well.
At this point, illness provides the opportunity to embark on a journey of self-discovery, healing and spiritual awakening. Instead of supporting continued efforts to get rid of their disease/symptoms, a new approach and fresh perspective is needed and possible. This approach asks new questions, allows a shift in attitudes, and enables a new relationship with the disease as the patient looks inside to engage their self in the process of healing. This is the next paradigm shift in medicine: making new choices and using new resources that weren’t previously available to heal from within.
“You cannot solve a problem from the same perspective that created it.”
Where’s the Healing?
Disease may tell the story of ourselves, not just our cells. By taking the risk of listening, we may be led to the emotions that lie at the core of our authentic being. Looking at symptoms as separate from the rest of our lives splits the body from the mind and spirit. When we try to get rid of our pain and symptoms, we deepen the split. Even if we do remove the symptoms, the underlying systemic cause (and real message) of the disease may not have been addressed, but bypassed momentarily. Therefore, only temporary relief is attained, and deeper healing isn’t happening.
“The journey of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes—it is in seeing with new eyes.”
~ Marcel Proust
Seeing with New Eyes
Despair can turn into hope, impatience can turn into patience, fear can turn into courage and resistance can turn into acceptance. In the willingness to look inside and see with new eyes, healing and awakening our consciousness becomes possible. We begin to see and hear the messages of illness and symptoms; our bodies are telling us something. Learning to understand these messages can be the key that unlocks the door to recovery. In this fashion, the crisis of illness thus becomes the vehicle for transformation and healing from within.
Creating a Healing Environment
A shift in one’s perspective, attitude and consciousness allows a person to create a context for healing as much as any conventional therapy or treatment. This emotional, psychological and spiritual context—the healing environment—may be more important to the healing process than any particular medicine or therapy. There is no one therapy, treatment protocol or sure-fire method for any particular chronic disease. Healing is not painting by the numbers.
Every patient has a unique history, the background for their disease, and healing is an individual, personal and solitary journey. A holistic approach seeks to integrate how biography can become biology and synergizes the more clinical aspects of a treatment plan with the mind’s emotions, attitudes and beliefs. As people work to create this healing environment in their lives, they need guidance and support.
Shifting Roles for Doctor and Patient
Offering guidance and support during the journey of healing means the roles of the doctor and patient must shift. In addition to providing appropriate therapies, the doctor must also become a guide, teacher, coach and advocate in helping patients learn from their dis-ease and illness.
The patient, in turn, takes responsibility for their illness and works to create the proper environment for their healing journey to proceed. By opening to the symptoms, listening to the illness’s message, and believing healing and change are possible, the process is stimulated. Together the doctor and patient form a healing relationship, an important component of the healing environment.
“Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something that feels helpless and needs our love.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Healing Our Whole Lives
Are you willing to listen with your heart to the other voices of yourself speaking?
Often, childhood and/or adult wounds from physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, abandonment and neglect are carried as burdens, expressing themselves in self-defeating patterns and addictions that eventually can become illness and disease. Recovery begins when we face our truth and learn to be with it in a new way. As Jung said, “All neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering”. There are two kinds of suffering; the kind that leads to more suffering and the kind that leads to awakening. It’s our choice, and having choices is liberating. But it hurts, it’s painful, it’s tough stuff and it requires courage, compassion and commitment. We come to realize directly what Alice Miller referred to as “the liberating experience of facing painful truth”. Facing the pain of our dis-ease engages us in a healing journey and spiritual path and becomes the vehicle that awakens our consciousness.
Thus, by embracing and remembering, we experience that in the heart of the pain is the awakening and the healing. We come to understand that all sickness is home-sickness, and all healing is self-healing—the journey home to our true self.
There is a difference between curing and healing. In curing, we are trying to get somewhere, we are looking for answers. Our efforts are specifically designed to make something happen. In healing, we live questions instead of answers. We hang out in the unknown. We trust the emergence of whatever will be. We trust the insight will come. The challenge in medicine is not the choice between one and the other. We need both.
Paul Epstein is a naturopathic physician, mind-body therapist, mindfulness meditation teacher, and public speaker. He travels the world leading mindful healing workshops and retreats and maintains a private practice in Westport.