Transforming Illness Into The Path
Life can be stormy; full of emotional ups and downs. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be bad. Even rainfall can bring new growth, freshness in the air, and a feeling of relaxation when we listen to the rain from the comfort of inside. Just because life can be turbulent outside, with its trials and tribulations, with its suffering of sickness and disappointments in relationships – it doesn’t mean we need to bring the hail and rain into the abode of our mind – the weather could be very pleasant inside instead.
When I was on my meditation retreat, I had all sorts of strange bodily ailments arise. In the beginning, I was very unwilling to accept the pain and sickness, because in my mind I didn’t deserve to be sick. I was in retreat, meditating, sending love out to all beings; I was doing all the good things, so surely I should be rewarded with pleasurable experiences and not suffering. As the days passed, I started to notice how resistant my mind was to experiencing bad health. The more I resisted, the greater my anxiety and suffering increased. Some days I was almost at the point of hysteria because my mind didn’t want to accept what was happening to me.
Then one morning, it finally came to a crux and I woke up with some lyrics of a song in my head. To this day I still don’t know why those lyrics popped into my mind. I hadn’t heard the song since I was a teenager. The song was Never Be The Same Again, by Melanie C, and the lyrics were, “Things will never be the same again. It’s just the beginning, it’s not the end. Things will never be the same again.” All morning these lyrics kept replaying in my mind like a broken record, until their message started sinking into my mind. Slowly, I started to recognize the impermanence of my illness. With mindfulness I was able to see that although the bodily symptoms were always present, their intensity differed throughout the day; some hours were worse than others. The only thing that was reliable about them was that they were impermanent.
With this new understanding I felt my suffering start to fall away. My resistance and aversion to my physical condition was the biggest cause of my suffering. It became apparent to me that most of my resistance was because I was afraid that what I was experiencing was permanent. Once my mind was peaceful and happy, I was able to sit quite well in a body that was experiencing so much unpleasantness. I had to sit for many months like this, which gave me an opportunity to try and see the ailments in many different ways. Illness can teach us compassion and gratitude, as well as the true reality of suffering in life; illness can teach us a lot. Actually it can help us to make a much needed mindshift so that we don’t take our good health for granted when we have it. When we don’t, we can still find some ways to use our illness to our advantage. I don’t recommend this method for everyone, but when I transformed my thinking to see my sickness as a form of purification (of purifying the harms I had done to others), I actually found a new inner courage that said, ‘Awesome! Let’s see how sick I can really be!’ The interesting thing was, the more I welcomed more illness, the happier I became and the less the symptoms bothered me, until the day (months later) they significantly declined.
If we let go of our resistance to the difficulties in our life, we will stop feeding our dissatisfaction. We cannot prevent bad situations from arising, but we can transform our experience of them. We don’t need to create an even bigger story on top of the events already taking place. The storms will come and go like the weather, and it’s up to us not to let the rain seep inside our mind and ruin what could be quite a sunny and vibrant experience inside.
Next time you feel yourself responding with the desire to run away from your troubles, try going outside for a walk or just looking at the sky. There is so much space and beauty out there. If you can tap into that spaciousness and let go of your resistance for even a short while, you will experience that outer spaciousness within your mind, which can bring a peace that tastes as divine as freshly falling rain.
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