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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What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.

 

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.”

Sickness and Eternity

According to the Rev. Conrad Hock, the Melancholic idealist:

is permeated with a strong longing for an ultimate good (God) and eternity, and feels continually hampered by earthly and temporal affairs and impeded in his cravings. The melancholic is a stranger here below and feels homesick for God and eternity.

This is perhaps never more true than when the melancholic is sick, laid low by some trivial yet debilitating illness. Sickness is obviously far from anyone’s ideal, yet for the melancholic it provides moment-by-moment evidence that something is terribly wrong with reality. Noses aren’t meant to run, throats shouldn’t scratch, and heads are not supposed to feel like they’re being gently squeezed in a vise. Sickness is prima facie evidence that the world is broken.

But sickness is still just a symptom, and while the melancholic would much prefer to not be sick, it’s not as though life would be perfect if only he never again fell ill. Health is more than the absence of sickness, and for the melancholic it seems obvious that there exists a positive state, a more perfect state, which is to our ordinary life as ordinary life is to a bad case of the flu.

Religious traditions tend to fuel this impression, with sickness, aging, death, and tragedy typically conflated with the challenge of moral wrongdoing to create an all-encompassing ‘problem of evil’. The underlying logic of our predilection for wickedness and our susceptibility to physical harm translates into a ‘fall from grace’, a fundamental delusion, or an abandonment of our original nature.

For the melancholic, this ideal state can seem as though it is just within reach, or always just beyond our grasp. It is, as the third Century BC Daoist text, the Nei Ye, states:

So silent!
None hears its sound.
So compact!
It resides in the heart.
So dark!
Invisible of form.
So overflowing!
It is born along with me.
Its form unseen,
Its sound unheard,
Yet its doings perfectly ordered.
Such we call: the Dao.

The answer to our imperfect state of existence is, as the Daoist tradition teaches, to embody the Dao, the mysterious creative principle, in our own lives:

There is a spirit that spontaneously resides within the person:
it comes and goes, none can anticipate it.
Lose it and one is certain to become disrupted;
grasp it and one is certain to become regulated.
Reverently sweep its abode and the essence will spontaneously come.
Ponder it with tranquil thinking,
calm your recollections to regulate it.
Maintain a dignified appearance and a manner of awe,
and the essence will spontaneously become stable.
Grasp it and never release it,
and your ears and eyes will not go astray,
your mind will have no other plans.
When a balanced heart lies at the center,
the things of the world obtain their proper measures.

Thus the Nei Ye sets forth an ideal of human life in the world that borders on the supernatural; a concept of virtue that encompasses even the physical consitution, as though health and virtue are intimately connected:

When a man is able to attain balanced tranquility,
his skin is sleek, his flesh full, his eyes sharp, his ears keen,
his muscles taut, his bones sturdy.
And so he is able to carry the great circle of heaven on his head
and tread upon the great square of earth.
He finds his reflection in the great purity and sees by the great light.
Attentive and cautious, he never errs,
and every day renews the force of his virtue.
Knowing everything in the world and exhausting the four poles of the earth,
he attentively nurtures his plenitude:
this is called: grasping within.
To be so and never to revert is life without error.

Sickness can be a reminder that we are not living up to the virtue we desire. It can be a humbling, even humiliating reminder of the more insidious, ignoble, and overlooked ways we fall short of the ideal in our ordinary lives. Sickness reminds us in physical terms of the terrible frailty in our spiritual lives. Sickness reminds us how weak we are, how far from the goal, how totally dependent on something far greater than ourselves.