The Power of Illness, Introspection, and Living in the Here and Now


time of quiet introspection

Although I have practiced Chinese acupuncture for many years, I am, like most of us, a child of 20th century Western culture and have in the past been treated with allopathic, chemical medicine. Western medicine looks for the instant cure and works well with acute illnesses -- polio at the infective stage is treated with what often amounts to life saving methods such as the iron lung; bacterial infections are treated successfully with antibiotics.

Many times since developing Post Polio Syndrome (PPS), I have longed for this quick fix, but sadly this approach is useless when it comes to long term chronic illness. Western medicine is at a loss when faced with problems such as PPS. Although there are treatments to help ease the symptoms -- painkillers for the muscle aches and bromoscriptine to stimulate brain neurones -- there is no instant cure, and there are often side effects from the drugs used.

The goal of Western medicine seems to be to blast disease out of existence, and I think medics feel thwarted and embarrassed at their apparent 'failure' when it comes to chronic illness. This repressive attitude towards sickness comes, I believe, from our modern culture; there is no place for the weak or slow in the 20/21st century scheme of things. Life in the present day is lived at a hectic pace and productivity is the great god to be worshipped. We have to be seen to be achieving at home, at school, at work, in all aspects of our lives until we reach the (often early!) grave.

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can bomb and blitz cancer in the battlefield of the sick body. The term 'heroic' applied to surgery invokes the idea that we are valiantly striving against suffering and disease. Illness is seen as the enemy -- a thief in the night come to steal away our busy productive lives. We put the chain on the door to protect ourselves by doubling our doses of vitamin C, exercising frantically and eating fiber, morning, noon, and night. We suppress the first sign of a cold with aspirin, and carry on with a purposeful air.

The Threat of Illness and Disability

Illness is seen as a threat to productivity, and a sick person as one who is not able to contribute. The vulnerable pack of cards we call 'society' is threatened by illness and disability, amid fears it may tumble down. How many times have we experienced the GP (MD) hastily scrawling out a prescription so that we may return, post-haste, to work.

The Cartesian view of the universe -- the mechanistic, scientific view widely held by medicine today -- looks at the body as a machine that can be repaired. And who would not want to be 'fixed' if it meant feeling fit and well again? The instant cure is very seductive. To be healthy is something no one would spurn, and yet, chronic diseases are here and they are not always fixable. Furthermore, there is a price to be paid for this quick fix approach.

When we see the body as a machine that is broken and needs mending, we ignore the possibility that sickness is a cryptic message, sifting up through the symptoms of blood sweat and tears, to tell us that we are out of balance in our lives. We ignore this at our peril. When symptoms are superficially alleviated the message is crushed beneath the surface, only to rise again at some further time and place of illness.

The Goal of Healing is Peace of Mind

Illness can be seen as an opportunity to take stock. In ancient Greece, there were temples with rooms to which sick people could retreat to be healed by the gods and goddesses. This was a time of quiet introspection, based on the understanding that illness is a sacred space where inner work can be done, so that healing may come from the core of our being. This means that the goal of healing is peace of mind, and whether the body is ''fixed '' or not is irrelevant. It is then a bonus to find the body rejuvenated, but it is not the primary focus.

The late effects of polio have made me review my life, and this has been a painful process. Having had polio as a child, I needed to overcome my disability in order to be on a par with the able-bodied world. I viewed the world as challenging, and felt I needed to prove myself as good as the next (able bodied person) person. An addiction to challenge followed as well as a pursuit of overcoming obstacles. I strove for myself and also to contribute to the world as a mother and therapist. My attitude was to pack in as much as I could -- working, socializing, exercising -- it was all grist to my mill. It was of no surprise to others when I developed the symptoms of post polio syndrome.

Frustration, fear, and despair descended on me at that time and I felt I would never be able to enjoy my life again. How could I, if I was not the capable productive woman I had always been? In my mind there was no room for change -- I wanted to get back to that busy life style that felt so rewarding. Slowly, I had to face and accept the fact that my catalogue of symptoms was not going to vanish away and my old life and identity needed to change.

To see that there is a purpose to suffering is not to romanticize it, but it does make it more bearable and, hopefully, understandable. It seems to me possible that Life chooses for some of us to be active, healthy achievers in order for work to be done out in the world. It could also be possible that life chooses for some others of us to be sick or disabled, in order that deeper work of growth is done on behalf of the collective.

The Web of Life

I believe that we are all part of a web of life -- each a part of the whole. I therefore believe that I, as part of you, experience PPS in order to contribute to our wholeness. What I have to contribute now is perhaps not as tangible as the work I was able to do when I was fit and well, but I feel that the work of growth is as valid as my previous contribution. I am now able to look at my life with more of an overview and hopefully my insights might help others.

It seems to me that the part the late effects of polio have played in my life to help bring about transformation is to have me learn to let go of old outmoded ways of thinking and feeling and behaving. Attachment to achieving, pushing on through life without regard for mind or body, has placed much stress on my central nervous system. I have perceived the world as a challenge, and myself as a warrior woman, ready to take on the battle it presents. I have seen life as a struggle in which I need to prove myself, an exam in which I need to come out top. Slowly I have come to realize that I need to change my perception of life, and start to live as Buddhists might say, with an attitude of "Mindfulness".

Mindfulness and Letting Go of Attachment

Mindfulness involves letting go of old conditioned attitudes and perceptions in order to appreciate what is, and so allow the flow of life's energy. How to let go? It seems to me that letting go is not truly possible unless it is a movement towards, or into, another state of being. We cannot let go of the familiar ways of reacting and behaving, however undermining they may be to health, unless we have the promise of a different and better way of being.

Buddha, over two thousand years ago, talked of attachment as the root of all suffering. When we hang onto old emotional states such as anger, grief, anxiety, or fear, we suffer. Buddhism suggests that freedom from attachment to these states arises when we let go of them and move towards an acceptance of what is. This means the calming of the fearful and frenzied mind, so that it may value, appreciate, and enjoy whatever life brings.

When we start to trust that there is enjoyment to be found in the small details of life -- a conversation with a friend, the warm smell of the dinner cooking, the play of sunlight on leaves -- then we are letting go to live in a calm appreciation of this moment. When we do this, we are giving the body and mind the chance to deeply relax, and in this space healing can take place. At this point we are flowing with the energy of life, rather than against it. This is the opportunity of illness -- the chance to be mindful of the moment so that mind and body can heal. Physical symptoms may not vanish away -- tissue damage may have taken place and may not fully heal -- but a process has started of letting go and relaxing, to focus on absorbing the every day pleasures that are accessible in the here and now.

Choosing to Take The Opportunities Presented

We are more than our symptoms -- we have the awareness to choose to take the opportunities life presents, and appreciate and value the gifts the senses bring. The simple pleasures of enjoying the summer rain or sitting by a roaring fire in the depth of winter can be lost in a busy world whose prime concern often seems to be the cultivation of the material rather than the spiritual. For me these pleasures allow me to feel fully alive, even when sick and tired.

I am by no means out of the woods of post polio syndrome and I do not wish to sound like Pollyanna and give the impression that illness is a wonderful thing. Most days I am frustrated, saddened, and scared by the symptoms I experience, but the antidote that helps me out of the dark tunnel is there, should I choose to access it. Firstly, I become aware and tune into the thoughts and feelings that I am identifying with, then I let go of them by turning my attention to appreciate something in my environment in this moment. This is a choice still available to me in spite of everything, and through the choosing comes a healing.

Post polio syndrome has given me the time and space to try to understand a little more about the purpose and the meaning of my life. Let me be clear -- if I could choose to be sick or well I would wave the magic wand for wellness any day! I have however been dealt this particular hand of cards, and I am grateful that it has allowed me to understand the importance and the need to learn to smell those roses along the way. Instead I am able, more and more, to aspire towards an attitude of acceptance and appreciation of my life as it is. The gifts are there -- the comfort of a friend, listening to music, appreciating silence, reading a good book -- they all bring pleasure in this moment. And in that moment, healing grows.

Recommended Book:

Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? Inspiring Stories for Welcoming Life's Difficulties
by Ajahn Brahm.

Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? Inspiring Stories for Welcoming Life's Difficulties by Ajahn Brahm.The 108 stories in this book offer thoughtful commentary on everything from love and commitment to fear and pain. Author Ajahn Brahm uses over 30 years of spiritual growth as a monk to spin delightful tales that can be enjoyed in silence or read aloud to friends and family. Suitable for children, adults, and anyone in between.

For more info or to order this book:

About The Author

Vicki McKenna Vicki McKenna was born in 1951 and contracted polio the following year. She practices acupuncture and uses this therapy as a tool to enable her clients to work more easily on the issues they bring with them. She is the author of "A Balanced Way of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome".

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