The healing power of illness -How seeing illness as a messenger, can enhance healing
“Sometimes the function of illness is deeper than having something wrong and getting rid of it. To catch a glimpse of the forces of the psyche and the unconscious motivation behind the illness can be astounding”. -Brugh Joy, M.D
Nobody wants to get sick. We are fortunate to live in a culture and age where modern medicine can treat, if not cure, many illnesses. We have interventions for repairing damaged bones and organs, correcting biochemical imbalances and relieving pain. We owe our lives to the miraculous advances of medical science and alternative therapies. But in the search for the eradication of pain and illness, we tend to see illness as an enemy to be fought and defeated.
Many ancient healing cultures once embraced a different outlook. They approached dis-eases of body or mind not as enemies, but as valuable messengers, symbols of imbalances at all levels of life: body, mind and soul. Medical practitioners of ancient times were guides helping their patients listen to their dis-ease and heed its message. In ancient healing temples of Asclepius (named for the Greek God of healing), anyone in need of healing was led to a chamber and allowed to sleep, to dream, and receive symbolic visions from their unconscious. Patients in Shamanic cultures, even today, are led on spiritual journeys to receive communications from the higher parts of themselves for their physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
Modern science is now demonstrating that the body and mind affect each other in every moment. We know that emotional states like stress, grief, and chronic anger cause biochemical changes in the body that can lead to illness. But there may be more to the body-mind connection than chemistry. CG Jung, the father of Jungian Psychoanalysis described the body as an expression the psyche. As an integrative Nurse Practitioner I’ve found that encouraging people to ask “How does what’s going on in my body reflect what’s going on in my life?” opens possibilities for healing the root cause of illness.
Here’s an example. In my integrative therapy practice I worked with a woman who suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and had tried countless treatments, conventional and alternative, to get rid of the debilitating fatigue robbing her of her life. Some treatments helped but nothing cured her. In our work together, she stopped fighting the fatigue and began to listen to it.
When she asked herself, “What am I tired of?” the answers appeared in her awareness: “I’m tired of trying to be someone I’m not for other people. I’m exhausted from taking care of everyone else but myself.” She never would have discovered these insights had she stayed so busy fighting the fatigue. As she began to listen to her illness as a metaphor for the underlying imbalances in her “bodymind,” she was able to address the critical root causes of her stress and depletion.
It is most useful to begin this work with a guide. Body-centered therapies like Bioenergetics, Hakomi, art and dance therapy, and many energy healing and integrative bodywork modalities will explore physical and emotional issues from a body-mind-soul perspective.
But beginning to listen to symptoms as metaphors can be as simple as this. The next time a symptom appears
o Take a quiet moment to relax and allow the physical sensations and emotional experiences to be there.
o Be curious about their presence. Notice any images, words or moods that arise.
o Hold these questions softly: What is this symptom saying? What is its purpose? What is it here to do for me? What does it need from me?
o Do some writing or drawing or some form of art to allow these symbolic messages to come through.
They may not be clear at first, but over time the answers may be astounding!