This past year, I’ve had a few bouts of illness that made me think about the relationships between body and mind. The illnesses were thankfully not of the life-threatening kind. But they were certainly of the kind that dismantle your living until you return to what you used to call normal life but which will now, if you are lucky or wise, be a little different.
How thinking can make you ill: burn out
I already knew from previous illness, accident, and burnout how the mind, heart and soul are crucial in illness and healing. If we don’t listen to the whispers of heart and soul, but instead are guided by that very limited bit of our mental life I call the “control mind”, we can land ourselves in a great deal of trouble.
My whole study of burnout taught me that if your heart goes out of what you are doing, and you drive yourself to do it anyway, without stepping back and reconsidering in any way, you are likely to burn out. This story is elsewhere.
How thinking can stop the healing
I’ve also seen when I’ve suffered from a pretty serious illness, or even from breaking my arm, that when I observe myself on a subtle level, I can sense clearly that as long as I stay fully in the present moment, my body does its thing and heals. But as soon as I have what at that time could be called wrong thinking, i.e. moving to the past with regrets, analysis and the like, or the future with worries or plans, I can watch the healing process simply stop.
Recently when a client of mine was healing from illness, I told her to think of her life as a big screen with the future at the top, the past at the bottom, and the other scenarios of life on the two sides, and to expand the present here and now screen so much that on the top, bottom and sides, there is only a sliver of a screen to remind her of certain crucial information and trends. Everything else has to go, until the healing is complete.
How physical illness can mess up your thinking
But this year I’ve seen a whole different picture of the mind/body relationship, namely how physical illness affects the rest of the psyche. I can only speak for myself, but I began to notice that whenever I feel physically ill, my whole thinking moves into regressive patterns, and I don’t even know what’s hit me. In other words, when my body goes out of balance, so does everything else.
Last winter I had a rather terrible flu that took about a month until it passed through my system. It was also a month’s educational process.
Helpless, hopeless and abandoned–again?
My first reaction was to go into old thought patterns which took me into the distant past and into the future. On one level, I went into infant abandonment stuff, coupled with deep helplessness, taking the form of “Why am I lying here on my own? what will happen to me? who will bring me a bowl of soup?” On another level, I raced in the future, thinking that the older I get, the more and more ill I am likely to get, and what will become of me?
And besides this, came lots of classic depressive thinking about how hopeless, helpless and useless I was and what a mess I had made of my life and everyone else was better and better off than me. That sort of thing. Pretty unpleasant at the best of times. Anyone who knows depression intimately will know these thoughts.
And I simply couldn’t surrender to being ill. It was not okay to be ill and I couldn’t stand it.
Thinking Truthfully, Listening to Heart and Soul
There were three aspects to the learning.
The first was seeing that there was a connection, that the things I was thinking could not be assumed to be True. I was very struck when I went later to the gym that my physical balance was disturbed. I figured that along with that, the emotional and mental balance went awol too. So somehow these thoughts were part of the territory, my illness territory, (which would be different for someone else), and not an absolute truth.
The second aspect was seeing that in fact they were not true. I was not in fact abandoned. I was cared for, even brought that bowl of soup. There was just a time lapse between the moment I felt the need, the moment I then communicated the need, and the moment the need was met. In my infantile thinking, it all had to happen now.
Not only was I not abandoned, but I was also not powerless. Somehow, I made sure that I was taken care of. The network I had built around me by then, and whatever I did to solve the problems thrown up by the illness, were effective. I was an adult now, and adults could solve problems babies couldn’t solve.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise at my age, and after doing an enormous amount of inner child work, but it is remarkable how we keep different minds of different ages and under stress can forget that the child mind does not have up to date knowledge until we make sure she does.
And the third aspect was discipline. I watched all these thoughts of powerlessness, abandonment, and depression, and realised that they were an old tape and I had to press that Stop button. (See I’m back in the time of audio tape metaphors!) And so I did. I took charge of my thinking, banned certain thoughts, and refused to entertain the others, and simply did whatever I had to do to keep going. It worked.
Just keep walking
The postscript of all this is that this last week, when I became ill with high fevers, I did not engage in all that thinking at all. It just didn’t happen. Hooray!
It is possible that it was because I was so ill, I had no choice but to surrender. There’s something about having no choices at all that is incredibly peaceful.
When I started to get better,however, the depression cloud began to hang around hoping to get in for easy pickings. So I realised I had to get back to my discipline, refuse to engage in any of the thoughts that were tied up with this illness/ depression/ abandonment/ powerlessness territory, and just keep walking.
It’s hard, but it’s good. It’s a way of taking charge of my life and of refusing to waste the little energy being ill leaves me.
All this without discussing physical things like food, sun and all that. But when you are engaged with the fascinations of the inner life, who has time for the real world?
Don’t answer that!