Here is a thought about how you can live better, despite chronic illness or pain. It starts with the well-known fact that your inner reality has a huge impact on your outer reality. The question is, “how do you see yourself in relation to your illness?” Your self-image falls on a spectrum between sick and well, between broken and whole. Your self-image is part of what determines your success in coping, living, healing despite your diagnosis.
Lets unpack this because its really important.
Living in The World of Brokenness
For many people, the experience of illness is an experience of brokenness. It can triggered by the pain, the fearful diagnosis, difficulty functioning, or uncertainty about the future. The constant feeling of “there’s something wrong with me” can create a tremendous sense of distress. And if you are unable to function as you used to, then there’s another source of distress and suffering. It’s not a good feeling. It can automatically create a sense of vulnerability. A sense of “I need someone to fix me”.
A sense of vulnerability and need could be realistic and a good thing. So if you have a fever and are coughing up green junk and feel exhausted, you get evaluated and a diagnosis of pneumonia and an antibiotic and hopefully you’ll be feeling better soon. And it would be unwise and perhaps dangerous to tell yourself you’re not sick, that you should tough it out and not get professional help.
But there’s a way that “the diagnosis” or focus on the symptom can be a problem. Because sometimes the search for the diagnosis, or the diagnosis itself, takes away your power, and you don’t get anything in return.
Yeah, sometimes the diagnosis hurts you more than it helps you.
Chronic widespread pain (like fibromyalgia) is often an example of that. The problem is a hypersensitivity of the pain pathways. And if you keep trying to find “the diagnosis” or go to another doctor for every symptom of pain, it doesn’t necessarily bring you healing or a cure. Sometimes it is very disempowering. You’re looking for someone to fix you, rather than learning if there is something you can do to help yourself. I can’t count the number of patients who have unsuccessfully gone to specialist after specialist looking to be cured. Each time they get their hopes up, and then they are disappointed.
It can stimulate a spiral of negative thinking.
One big problem with “negative thinking” is that your thoughts can make you sick. Research is now showing how a persons state of mind can have a huge impact on the outcome of chronic illness. Research supports the common sense that there are often better outcomes when the patient is able to connect with their purpose, goals, relationships, and inner resources for healing.
I always share this caveat when I share that idea: If this article is triggering a sense of blaming yourself because you’re stuck in the “sickness cycle”, please stop right now. Beating yourself up about it feeds the problem. It’s not your fault. Most people don’t learn about this until their backs are to the wall. So start to learn. You can do it.
Here’s why its not your fault.
Our medical system is focussed on sickness and finding the expert to fix the sickness.
In medical school we learned to identify people by their problems. We worked hard to efficiently deliver the “problem list” in the context of a case presentation. We’ve got dozens and dozens of 3-4 letter abbreviations for diseases. Sometimes we identify a person by many of them at once. “This is a 63 year old man with COPD, CAD s/p MI, DMII, DVT, Afib with complaints of fatigue.”. When I was in training they didn’t encourage us to refer to people as their illness. We weren’t rewarded for saying things like, “the leukemia in room 214 is complaining of chest pain”, but sadly it was known to happen anyhow.
Maybe you’ve seen more than one medical provider who mainly focussed on your illness. Maybe you got a diagnosis and now you ‘have a herniated disc’ or ‘have fibromyalgia’ or ‘have psoriatic arthritis’. The medical provider probably did very little to connect you with your own resources for healing. It doesn’t surprise me how many of my patients think of themselves as sick. It’s not your fault. You trusted the expert.
Mainstream media and society often support the same unproductive mindset.
The power and miracles of modern medicine have led us to believe that technology will cure everything. And the media love to make us worry, so we tune in and spend money.
Without great wisdom and support, it’s very easy to stay stuck in a sense frustration and grief about what has been lost. And to live in fear about the uncertain future. Life can feel very broken. And that’s a toxic way to live that often feeds into processes that brought us to the illness and pain. And so the cycle continues.
Despite all this, there is another way. We can cultivate and learn to find wholeness despite pain, illness, and suffering. And then we shift the process from a vicious cycle of suffering and sickness, to a process of transformation and healing.
Living in the World of Wholeness.
Even if you have significant illness, you also have abundant health.
You might not be paying attention to it. But it’s there.
Your ability to read and understand this means that you have significant health. Do you have any idea how much neurological complexity and health goes into reading this article?
Its awe-inspiring if you think about the three trillion cells that make up your body, and the innumerable chemical reactions and physiologic processes that are constantly working so you can think, speak, move, eat, digest, breathe, etc. The very fact that you’re alive means that you have abundant health moving through you. And every bit of the health is worth paying attention to.
Because your attention is a key to connecting to your health.
If you take it a step further, and find ways to reconnect to purpose, goals, meaningful relationships, and inner sources of strength, then you’re doing something quite heroic.
You’re beginning to live in wholeness despite your illness or pain.
When you are connected to your health, your sense of wellbeing, you have a sense of wholeness, even if you have an illness or pain. You know there is a part of your being that is unaffected by the illness. Maybe you can even tap into a state of mind where you feel good, confident, clear. You are bigger than the illness. You have purpose and meaning in life. you have tools and inner resources for dealing with the pain, the disability, the infirmity. You have a sense of power, a sense of coherence. You’re resilient. You are whole, despite the parts that are not yet back to 100% function.
It’s a process. And no matter where you are right now, you can start moving toward healing and wholeness.
When you contact your inner resources for healing, the pain and illness becomes a catalyst for growth. Loss, grief, and fear become focal points for transformation. When we crack the shell of darkness, then we find the light that hides inside of it.
And living with a sense of wholeness is not a contradiction to having a diagnosis and getting medical care. This isn’t “either/or”. You can keep going to your doctor and doing the sensible effective biomedical things that support you. This is about addressing the whole picture.
It starts with awareness. You can choose to give your attention to your vitality, to your connection with life.
You can intentionally reconnect with purposeful activities, even if they aren’t the same as the things that used to be meaningful to you.
You can learn to let go of the past. To forgive the people who hurt you. To forgive yourself. To forgive the Source of your life.
You can find opportunities to be in meaningful relationships. Sometimes that means letting go of toxic relationships, and finding healthy ones.
You can learn to bring your awareness to your sensory experience in each moment. To see the flow of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensation. You can activate your sense of wonder, creativity, and spirituality. Your own inner sense will begin to unravel the knots of suffering and reveal your new connection to life.
You’re developing the power of your mind to access a healing state of mind and body. The research is beginning to show that has a positive impact on the illness itself.
The Timeless Need for Wholeness
The Patriarch Abraham is sitting at the opening of his tent. G-d appears to him. The oral tradition tells us that it is the third day after Abraham circumcised himself in his old age. He is suffering very much. And G-d comes to visit him. We learn about visiting the sick from this episode. But it’s a different kind of visiting the sick that many of us are used to. Usually when we go to the hospital to visit someone who is sick, we ask about their pain, about their diagnosis, about when they can go home. But there is something striking here. The commentator Rashi notes that when G-d went to visit Abraham, he went to “inquire about Avraham’s Shalom”.
Shalom is an interesting word.
Most people know it means “peace” and “hello”. But at its root, it means “wholeness”.
Shalom is a coherent state of being where everything makes sense.
Shalom is the kind of peace that can contain conflict. It’s the wholeness that can contain brokenness. It’s the comfort that can contain the pain of a 80 year old man who just gave himself a painful operation without anesthesia. Shalom comes from being connected to truth, to purpose, to love. It is a sense of coherence.
The Torah is giving us a hint. When we are visiting the sick it’s vitally important to bring their attention to their wholeness. If you are sick yourself, it’s vitally important to pay attention to your wholeness. To find a place of ease and stillness in your spirit, mind, heart, body. To connect to your inner sense of what matters. To remember that you are more than just your illness.
How do You Cultivate Wholeness?
There are many ways to cultivate a sense of wholeness. Perhaps you are already familiar with one or more.
Are you practicing it?
Life is so complex and distracting. Living without a chronic illness or pain is challenging enough in these days. If you have chronic illness or pain, even more-so.
I invite you to recommit to your practice. It could be meditation, time in nature, playing music, prayer, song, journaling, or a combination of these.
Do it regularly. Consistency in key.
If you don’t have a practice, I encourage you to find one.
Even 5 minutes a day is a good start.
A growing body of research shows extraordinary benefits to regular meditation and other mindbody practices. When you regularly access a state of calm, peaceful clarity, it has beneficial effects on inflammation, pain, emotional distress, and even expression of genes that help you cope with and heal from stress, pain, and illness.
An even deeper process happens that may be beyond measurement. When we gently and lovingly turn our own consciousness back in on itself, we naturally heal the roots of our unproductive habits of thinking, feeling, and acting. We gain energy and access to our deeper capacity for beauty, order, generosity, forgiveness, calm, love.
Life becomes a process of living and our external circumstances become less hard and difficult. It can take work, especially if you are suffering. But the rewards are invaluable.
Believe in yourself. Believe in your life. The possibilities are always greater than we imagine.
You might find beautiful red flowers blooming where you once only saw thorns.
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Wishing you Shalom