Everyone seeks to be happy. But when we physically feel lousy, our external sources for happiness are not so easily accessible. Sometimes the suffering of illness lies not so much in its accompanying physical sensations, but in the personal sense of diminishment and the social isolation and separation it brings. As the body contracts, life contracts as well. Nothing is left unchanged—our relationship to ourselves, our families, and our social world. Because of this, illness causes us to reprioritize our lives, separating the nonessential from the essential. Basic questions of life’s purpose and meaning take on new poignancy as we question the very value of our time here.

Illness can be a gentle nudge or a jolting wake-up call that motivates us to reexamine our lives and lifestyles. Because illness exposes our imbalances and weaknesses, it acts as a psychological magnifier that may uncover unacknowledged but deep-rooted feelings that our previously busy lives may have effectively masked. Some of these feelings may appear to be caused by the illness, but really they were there all along. Because they can no longer be denied, they can finally be attended to and healed.

Whether we accept the challenge to heal willingly or go down the path kicking and screaming, illness takes us on a descent to our depths. The path to the underworld is opened. It may not be a path we have consciously chosen, but it is the one on which we find ourselves. Here we have the opportunity to mine the gems that can only be found in the deep and dark places.

So many spiritual paths have certain austerities or sacrifices that are prescribed. Why do they do this? Maybe to cause us to wrestle with the will of the ego—to develop a spiritual muscle that will be a worthy adversary for the ego’s tenacity. A chronic illness can serve this same function. It motivates us to explore the edge between personal responsibility and divine will. It demands sacrifice. The ego’s wishes are impersonally ignored by the dysfunctions of the body. Illness insists that we let go of innumerable desires and gives us the opportunity to develop the generosity of heart that can become our salvation.

Just as we in the West have developed material technology, for centuries meditation masters have applied themselves to a technology of the mind, exploring the full range of the human experience, and learning to tune in to capabilities that bring not only extraordinary perceptual abilities, but access to a joyful and natural state that transcends suffering. We know by the example of many saints and spiritual masters that they are not immune to the afflictions of the body. But they also show us that there can be joy and divine realization despite the body.

The open, enlightened mind is cultivated by withdrawing from the distractions of worldly life and retreating. In some ways, an illness provides the perfect opportunity for such spiritual training: removal from ordinary society, solitude, quiet, turning inward, self-examination. If we’re lucky enough to be able to take time off from the demands of the outer world, we can use this time to learn to free ourselves from the personal patterns that contribute to much of our suffering. As our perceptions shift and our worldview opens, how we relate to our bodies and their illnesses also shifts. As we discover that our essential wholeness exists independent of the body and mind, we see that eventually all paths converge.

The road to spiritual mastery is similar to the road to healing—both present switchbacks and alternating stretches of difficulty and ease, both require us to question our conditioned limitations, both ask us to stretch and grow. How we struggle with illness often reflects our spiritual struggle. When we ask, Why can’t I permanently sustain those precious moments of clarity, bliss, or health? we must remember that just as illness requires infinite patience, so does spiritual progress. As one of my teachers said, “The true spiritual path is arduous and demanding, involving one insult after another.”

Illness does not necessarily teach us anything. It can be viewed as a mere annoyance or a great tragedy. But it can also be a great teacher and provider of endless opportunities to understand the nature of reality and to develop compassion for ourselves and all others. Through unexpected discoveries I have found that the path of illness, though arduous, can be a rich and honorable one.



I used to think that I could enlighten myself out of feeling depressed. If depression is the result of a negative belief system, then it is alterable. But if depression is the by-product of the imbalanced brain chemistry of a disease process, then all my letting go and great perspective and egolessness may not change the tendency toward sadness and negative thinking. Since the enlightened transcendence of depression doesn’t seem to be my present fate, I’ve decided to practice “enlightened depression”— depression coexisting with everything else that is here; depression free from self-blame; depression free from shame; depression that does not separate me from others but rather reminds me of my common humanity. I am not depressed because I hate life—I am depressed because I love life and long for a more energetic involvement with it. This perception takes me to a more fundamental identification—myself as a life-loving creature— connected, involved, part of the unfathomable drama.   


One day I was inwardly asking for guidance about what was needed for my healing and I heard a wise voice saying, “Rest.” Gently, but imperatively. Well, that’s usually the first and most obvious advice that’s given to a sick person, but not exactly what I wanted to hear. I hate restingit feels like a waste of time. I should be engaging in acts of charity and kindness, be fighting for justice and world peace or be alleviating the suffering of others. Where’s the rest in all that? Then I realized that “rest” didn’t necessarily refer to my worldly activities. What needed rest was my mind. A good, long rest. Rest from the demands of an ego that wants to do and be good. The mind that thinks it has to be doing something is not at rest. And yet the rested mind is effortlessly inspired to right action. It may turn out that resting could be my greatest contribution.    


I’ve added a second Golden Rule: Thou shalt not compare thyself. Doing so is always deadly. Even if I come out on top of the comparison, the top dog position needs to be maintained and defended. No one is always on top. In addition, the sense of separation that results is inherently painful. Not only is it disastrous to compare myself to others, but also to compare myself to a memory of my former healthy self or to an image of my idealized future self. When I catch myself comparing, I know it’s because I’m having a hard time accepting things as they are. When I remember that comparison is only a matter of relative perspective that depends on your vantage point, it becomes easier to embrace all the seeming inequities of life.


It is in the moment of the full accepting of my brokenness that my essential wholeness becomes apparent, and then it is clear that nothing needs fixing. The wholeness includes the brokenness. Not the thought that “I will be whole someday when I have improved myself or become more loving or gotten healthy.” I am whole now. As I am. Like this. And so are you. Just like you are now. When we can love our own broken or even rotten places, we can love one another as ourselves.


How illness affects our relationships is very individual, but the fact that it does is indisputable. Interpersonal dynamics are always complicated, but when an illness is added to the picture it introduces new dynamics, changes old ones, and acts as a magnifier for all our relational imbalances and stressors.

Just as the person with the illness has to deal with a myriad of emotional reactions and judgments toward their illness, so does everyone else in their life.  Many people may not even be aware of the discomforts evoked by being with an ill person—fear, judgment, suspicion, loss, embarrassment, helplessness, superiority, pity, etc.

Friends may decide to ignore the whole thing for fear of invading privacy or in an attempt to “keep it light,” either for their own sake or for yours. When illness doesn’t go away, the “fix-it” type of people in your life may get frustrated and withdraw.

Illness can be like the elephant in the room that no one talks about, and this silence can ultimately hurt everyone. When communication is limited, people end up feeling more alone and disconnected. The person who is sick can feel more isolated or invisible. As resentments build, communication breaks down further. Incorrect assumptions often fill in the blanks and create greater misunderstanding. The needs of the illness can eclipse the needs of the relationship, and partners and friends may be reticent to ask to have their own needs met.

Frequent exacerbations and remissions require constant relational adjustments. No one, including yourself, knows who you will be today. It becomes hard to make plans and keep commitments that involve others. Sometimes others cannot easily adjust to the fact that roles have changed, and sometimes we try to keep up the pretense of roles that we are no longer able to comfortably serve.

But illness does not have to be something that erodes our relationships. As it motivates us to examine our self-image, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs, we become more intimate with ourselves and because of this, our relationships can gain authenticity and honesty. We may be given opportunities for having intimacy with others in ways we’d never have imagined.

Whether it’s sobbing in the office of your physical therapist, sharing difficult feelings with your spouse, opening to receiving the tender loving care of others, or holding the hand of a fellow sufferer—the heart made naked through vulnerability is more readily available for love.


The unspoken thought in the back of every ill person’s mind is: Will you still love me if I’m sick? It is an extraordinary friend who can acknowledge and respond to this question without it having to be asked.


Pain usually involves contraction. Therefore, visualize expansion and limitless space. Illness involves stagnation. Therefore, visualize movement and flow. Anxiety chokes the breath, therefore, breathe deeply. Notice when and with whom you are most relaxed and choose that circumstance as often as possible.


Let the wounded animal in you have its instincts. Retreat. Hide. Howl. Whimper. Lay on the earth. Lick yourself.


Healing Circle Visualization

Think of four to six people who you’d like to imagine loving you. You can include family, friends, pets, famous people, saints, enlightened beings, angels, and so on. It is not necessary that you know them, but it is necessary that they possess the ability to send loving energy to you. Imagine yourself in the center of a circle and feel yourself surrounded by these loved ones. Tell them exactly what you’re needing and ask each one if they are willing to help you. Imagine what it would be like if you were completely receptive to the understanding, compassion, and acceptance that these beings are offering. Imagine what it would be like to be completely surrounded with love. Feel it penetrating your heart, and as it does, feel your fear, discouragement, and sorrow melting away. Continue receiving as long as you need to. To finish, let the images of your helpers dissolve, while the quality of love that you received from them remains.



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