The benefits of getting sick

I used to hate and dread getting sick. At the first sign of a cold I’d panic and try everything I could think of to fight and resist it.

According to Esther Hicks, being sick is better described as pinching oneself off from well-being. The solution is not to overcome a sickness but to allow well-being to flow.

So this past week when I woke up with a faintly sore throat I did my best to adopt this point of view. I stopped looking at my coughing, congested wife with apprehension and dread in case I catch her sickness. She wasn’t afflicted by an external malady, merely resisting the wellness already available to her.

Likewise, I wasn’t under the threat of contracting some external contagion; my mild symptoms weren’t the beginning of something more severe. They were simply the earliest manifestations of pinching off well-being in myself.

Instead of a week spent fighting against the onslaught of a virus, I took my discomfort as a reminder to allow well-being. It worked.

The first thing I noticed was that allowing well-being broadened my focus. Instead of a narrow focus on fighting the specific discomfort, allowing showed me tension and resistance I was unaware of.

All the times I’ve noticed the onset of symptoms but been unable to counteract them… I’ve even felt the physical tension that precedes a cold, lending support to the idea that a cold is just an acute bout of resistance. But by the time the symptoms emerge it’s extremely difficult to ignore them. I tended to focus on the symptoms, fearing their increase.

This time my symptoms did not progress, and yesterday I realised that I’d been free of symptoms for a few days. I was so focused on allowing well-being that I wasn’t even keeping track of them.

Practising well-being for everything

It’s not just about physical manifestations of resistance. The same rationale applies to everything in life.

Any unwanted circumstance is like the first sign of a runny nose: it means I am pinching off the well-being and ease available to me.

The solution is not to fight to overcome the perceived negatives in our experience, but to allow the well-being to flow more broadly and more deeply.

External circumstances are just a reflection or manifestation of how much we are allowing well-being in the first place. Try to fix them and we’ll end up focusing only on resistance and missing the parts of us that need to let go and expand.

Ironically, once my symptoms disappeared I stopped focusing so much on allowing well-being, and my overall happiness began to decline as other, more subtle forms of resistance crept back in.

But any negative feeling should be treated the same way. It’s not an indication that things “out there” are bad and about to get worse if we don’t do something; it’s a sign that we’re inwardly resisting well-being, happiness, ease, excitement, joy, and love that are already in us.

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Give me the spurious ephedrine

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When it comes to sickness I am a coward. I find the suffering associated with illness intolerable, not because of the discomfort and pain alone, but because the discomfort and pain have no meaning.

How do you find meaning in suffering? By alleviating it. Suffering is the bad guy. That’s why, when I caught the flu a few months back and discovered, Ye Gods, I must have never had the flu before, I turned in my hour of need to that angel of blissful sleep and sinus relief: pseudoephedrine.

So when I found myself succumbing this week to the familiar feeling of a dry, itchy nose and a tiny point of increasing pressure behind my eyes I knew exactly what I needed and went straight to the nearest pharmacy, where it turned out they won’t sell pseudoephedrine without a doctor’s script.

I wanted to say “well this will really set production back” but the pharmacist seemed a little on edge already, so I gave them my most understanding, flu-addled smile and left.

At the next nearest pharmacy I waited for 10 minutes while they checked my ID against the registry of pseudoephedrine offenders, and tried not to look suspicious. Pretty sure I failed, but they gave me the precious, precious medicine, and here I am today: conscious, competent, and relatively coherent having escaped the worst of whatever that bout of illness was.

I’ve got no problem with the pharmacies doing what they have to in order to control the flow of key ingredients to illegal drug manufacturers. I just slightly resent having to ask for this awesome, wonderful drug under the veil of suspicion. There’s no way to reassure a complete stranger that you aren’t sourcing ingredients for a meth lab. It probably helps if you’re clean-shaven, well dressed, and not completely over-thinking the whole situation.

Anyway, the beauty of pseudoephedrine is that it almost totally removes the pain and discomfort of flu-like symptoms – symptoms that otherwise might drive a person to try to scrub the insides of his upper sinuses with a bottle-brush, or stab himself in the Canthus with a chopstick.

But with a couple of pills the pain is gone and I just lie in bed waiting the rest of the illness out. So what’s the point? If I can avoid the pain and misery what’s the point of being sick in the first place? Avoiding the pain means ignoring the problem, but there’s still a problem there, and it’s one that people have faced in the past: trying to make sense of illnesses, both the deadly and the merely unpleasant.

I used to put some stock in the idea that illnesses had their origin in psychological states; that the long-term damage wrought by physically manifested negative mental states made us susceptible to various diseases and dysfunctions. But I never found a convincing systematic approach to it, and demonstrating it scientifically would be almost impossible. Nonetheless, there are studies showing, for example, that people who endure adverse events in childhood are significantly more likely to suffer chronic illness as adults.

I have no doubt that a great number of human beings are wracked with deeply-buried psychological distress and emotional turmoil, nor do I have trouble believing that there are clear biological mechanisms linking these subconscious psychosomatic states with increased risk of various illnesses. We are, after all, embodied beings with a rich and delicate interplay between psyche and soma.

In moments of clarity I can see the connection between my own chronic ailments and key stress events or problematic psychological states. It’s a link that many sufferers find meaningful even though the orthodox medical line is drawn at absence of evidence.

Hypervigilance and habitual physical tension go together hand in overly-tight-and-uncomfortably-stiff glove. And while I can’t afford a barrage of salivary cortisol tests, I’m willing to bet that the levels of stress hormone would be highly responsive to a tendency to catastrophise, within an overbearing sense of culpability for any and all future difficulties and challenges.

A serious illness has meaning – whether it be real or merely suspected, we can take it as symptomatic of a deeper need for change, a cue to examine our life more broadly. But a humble cold or flu? The ubiquitous runny nose and sore throat I get every winter when the room gets too cold and dry overnight? The miserable experience so easily moderated by controlled medications; what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?

Pretty much every traditional religious or spiritual discipline says we are living incorrectly in some way; that our original nature or harmony or grace or whatever has been thrown severely out of order, with both spiritual and physical sickness and misery ensuing. The common cold may not be a profound sickness, but it is still a reminder that things are not as they ought to be – or more to the point, that we are not as we ought to be.

As the Dao De Jing states: “The holy man is not sick. Because he is sick of sickness, therefore he is not sick.”