The Insights that May Come with illness

We all want to feel well and have good health. And there are wonderful strategies and insights to support us.

But – and here is a provocative question – is spirituality really about well-being, happiness and good health, or is all that just the business of medicine and social care? When I was ill and had surgery last year, what was more important – that I recovered my health or that I used the situation as an opportunity to expand and deepen my consciousness and my compassion? Health or spiritual development?

A good friend of mine, the co-founder and co-editor of Cygnus Magazine, Ann Napier, recently passed through a horrific cancer scare and I, for one, rejoice in the fact that she is now well again. Recently, by chance, I met her and it was wonderful to see her walking and looking good, wheelchair and sickness in the past. But even more inspiring was her sparkle and her obviously stronger connection with the energy and wonder of life. The illness had been transformational.

Now I want to be absolutely clear here. I do not want to be misunderstood. I do not wish distress, pain, anxiety or suffering on to anyone, not even as opportunities for spiritual growth. I want everyone to be healthy, happy and well. But, and it is a big but, the reality for all of us is that physical illness and psychological distress are facts of life. They are unavoidable. We cannot magic them away. So it is naive for anyone to pretend that they can create a life that is free of sickness and sorrow. Aging is inevitable, as is death.

So what is the right spiritual approach to health and illness?

From one perspective, the right spiritual approach is obvious. We need to give healing, relieve suffering and support well-being. At the same time, however, we need to acknowledge that sickness and sorrow are also circumstances that can enable great spiritual growth, increasing our connection with spirit, opening our hearts and waking us up. During one period of my life, after a back injury, I was for several years wracked with a pain that I would not wish on anyone, but once I had stopped complaining and feeling sorry for myself, it transformed my awareness. This kind of personal development inside pain and illness is not unusual. Many of us grow spiritually during our crises, like pearls stimulated by the grit in an oyster, like phoenixes rising from the ashes, like alchemical lead transforming into gold.

In stories of how people manage their terminal illnesses, we often hear about these startling personal transformations. ‘My body may be dying, but I feel healed and changed.’

True spiritual therapy, therefore, works at two levels at the same time. It relieves suffering and it also supports spiritual growth, the development of heart and consciousness. In fact, Margaret Newman, a professor of nursing in the United States, suggests to her nurses that real nursing is not about supporting physical health, but is about nursing and midwifing the birth and development of spiritual consciousness.

Her perspective is realistic. There is no avoiding the stark reality that a normal human life includes being sick and being healthy. That is just what we all do, in the same way that we are all born, eat, sleep and eventually demise. The real issue therefore, for those of us who take a spiritual approach, is not our health but our consciousness. Our real challenge is to wake up and be conscious inside our crises, illness and distress.

This, of course, is a central tenet of Buddhist practice. It is not what we do that matters, but our state of consciousness that is all important. If we are ill, what matters is our attitude towards to it. Are we compassionate, philosophical and aware?

Two different energy fields and vibrations are meeting, that of the soul and that of our bodies. Where soul and body meet there is a friction and a fire, a marriage, and through this hot meeting of polarities is born the flame of human consciousness, compassion and wisdom. This is the inner story of the fallen angels and slain deities of the sun, who rise again, born anew.

How fantastic, then, to be a nurse, healer, midwife, enabler and therapist to this process – to be a loving presence, relieving pain and simultaneously encouraging the growth of heart and mind.

When I went into the operating theatre last year, my trolley was pushed by a male nurse who radiated a balm that soothed me. He did not relieve my physical pain, but he supported my spiritual growth through creating an atmosphere of healing safety. This is a gift that we can all give each other.

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