An excerpt from The Miracles Course by Lynn Woodland
Illness results when we’ve grown out of alignment with our highest good and highest purpose. Whether it’s on the small scale of several days in bed with the flu or the large scale of years of struggle with a debilitating illness, getting sick has a wonderful way of stopping us in our tracks, forcing us into new priorities, and redirecting our lives. From the big-picture paradigm of our Higher Self, illness helps satisfy unmet needs and gets us back on track in ways our conscious choices don’t. Sometimes this is as simple as a few days of enforced rest when we’re feeling overwhelmed and need a little assimilation time. A more serious illness may push us to change a lifetime’s worth of old habits.
Consequently, even though we may address any number of symptoms, the root of an illness won’t go away until we willingly choose the new priorities ill health forces upon us, and when we ignore our minor symptoms, we tend to invite “louder” ones. True healing requires coming into alignment with our highest good, and if we address symptoms without supporting this realignment, we probably won’t sustain a state of health and well-being for long. We’ll need to manifest some new event to help us continue the deeper process of change we’re ready for spiritually.
There are many proponents of mind-body healing who hold that we’re responsible for the health or illness of our physical body only to a point and then heredity, circumstance, and environmental factors kick in. However, when we take a longer, spiritual view, and let go of the notion that illness is bad or that we must have done something wrong to bring it upon us, all illness can be seen as purposeful, both to the personality and to the soul. The ego, (that is, the part of us that believes we’re defined by the limits of our physical body and, thus, highly vulnerable) can’t help but find illness threatening and regard it as the enemy. The ego, which tries to “control” its way to safety, turns the idea of self-responsibility into an exercise in fearful personal control, with illness being a sign of failure. However, as we address more deeply in another lesson, “responsibility” is not the same as “control.” We can only control what’s within the range of our conscious awareness. Illness is often a way we bring hidden, nonintegrated aspects of self to the surface and open to new options. This is, perhaps, one of its most important functions. So, rather than seeing illness as our failure to be responsible for our health, it’s more useful to view it as a sign that we’re ready to grow. The part of us that chooses illness is the “Self” with a capital “S”, the Spiritual Self that sees our highest good in a way the limited perceptions of our ego can’t.
From the perspective of spiritual reality, illness is a step toward wholeness. No one consciously chooses pain or illness, yet the experience of dealing with these challenges can lead us on a journey that ultimately delivers great rewards. I’ve heard many people with cancer and other life-threatening diseases describe their illness as one of the greatest blessings of their lives because it forced them to completely reshuffle priorities and pursue new paths that brought profound fulfillment. The illness gave them permission to make choices they wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
Illness and Change
While illness may signal our spiritual readiness for change, our personality may not feel the least bit ready or willing. Typically, the more we resist exploring new priorities, lifestyles, and self-awareness, the more illness forces us, against our personal will, to submit to a life circumscribed by painful symptoms. We may feel victimized by these changes or empowered, depending upon whether we let the experience of illness lead us somewhere or force it to push us, kicking and screaming, into our next step. The more we surrender willingly to the changes illness brings, the less we experience pain and struggle, even when the final result of an illness is death. Ultimately, death, too, is a realignment with our highest good when “life” becomes a state we’ve outgrown.
Illness as a Metaphor
Even at times we don’t consider ourselves ill, we may still have a symptom or two: chronic allergies, a tendency toward headaches, a pain or weakness in a particular body part, or a susceptibility to certain kinds of illness. Whether we’re dealing with the experience of serious illness or simply the occasional minor symptom, listening to these physical manifestations of dis-ease can uncover levels of meaning and purpose to them that we may never have realized were there.
Our physical symptoms communicate to us in a language filled with obvious metaphors. If we’re willing to pay attention, they tell us a great deal about our needs, our imbalances, and our path of healing. The very metaphors we use in speaking often mirror the physical symptoms our body manifests. I first became aware of this when I was director of a Center for Attitudinal Healing in Baltimore and worked extensively with people dealing with physical illnesses. I noticed how people’s pet expressions had a way of literally describing their illness. A woman with cancerous tumors in her leg frequently used the expression, “I can’t stand it!” Someone with food allergies continually said, “I can’t stomach it!” A woman with skin cancer spoke of things “getting under her skin.” (As I shared these examples in a workshop once, a woman spoke up and said, “I have difficulty receiving from people, and I just realized that my favorite expression is,
‘I can’t take it!'”)
To start understanding the language of your own physical symptoms, consider the metaphorical meanings of the affected body parts and functions. For example, hands are for handling things. If you have pain in your hands ask yourself: are you are holding on too tightly in some way? Are you trying to “handle” everything yourself? Do you have difficulty “reaching out” for love and support? Are you having difficulty “grasping” something? If your neck and shoulders hurt, are you “shouldering” more than your share of responsibility? Are you being “stiff-necked,” or overly rigid in how you’re seeing things? If you are a woman with tumors or pain in your breasts, have you been suckling the world until there’s nothing left for you? Do you feel in need of nurturing yourself? Do you feel in some way inadequate about yourself as a woman? If you have heart problems, have you felt “heartbroken?” Have you closed your heart to warmth and love? Have you lost your joy and passion for life? See which metaphors best fit the way you feel.
A woman in one of my workshops once couldn’t see how there could be any link between the back injury she sustained in a car accident (that wasn’t her fault) and her emotional needs until I asked how easy or difficult it was for her to feel supported in life and to allow others to support her. (Our spine is what provides “support.”) She admitted that receiving support had always been extremely difficult for her. As a result of the injury, however, her life changed to include a regular routine of various therapies with caring professionals whose sole agenda was to “support” her.
Addressing the situation indicated by the metaphor can powerfully assist healing and sometimes even alleviate the need for other treatment. For example, during a time when I felt sorely burdened by the pressures of life (“shouldering” more than I could carry, so to speak) I developed a painful “frozen shoulder” condition for which a medical professional prescribed several months of physical therapy. I “treated” my emotional condition of feeling burdened by clearing many projects from my plate and giving myself a highly uncharacteristic several-month break. I played more, worked less, and made relaxing a priority. As I felt less stressed, my shoulder improved so quickly that I wound up not needing the physical therapy.
While there are some amazingly literal connections that can be made between symptoms and illnesses, it’s also important to recognize that there’s no simple mind-body cookbook explanation that can be applied to every illness. There may be profound spiritual purposes to a condition that aren’t readily visible. For example, a my dear friend Cheryl, who was born with a crippling degenerative disease that took her life when she was thirty-one, was occasionally accosted by over-eager healers who told her that if she only had enough faith, she could heal. She took offense at this, primarily because these individuals assumed that just because she lived life in a wheelchair and in an obviously different body that she was not “healed.” Cheryl strongly believed in a spiritual purpose to her physical disability. A believer in reincarnation, she felt certain that she had committed suicide in a previous life and had “chosen” her current situation to help her learn to love life no matter what. She felt her life lesson was not to change her physical body but to appreciate life in spite of any pain and limitation her body created. By the end of her life, she unquestionably did.
Many people are familiar with Louise Hay’s classic book, You Can Heal Your Life, which has a listing of physical symptoms and their corresponding emotional dynamics. While I highly recommend this as a useful reference to have on hand, I don’t suggest you start by reading someone else’s interpretation of your symptoms. Symptoms and their messages are complex and very personal. Sometimes reading what the “expert” has to say closes our minds to our own insights and even if a correspondence is right on the money for us, if we don’t feel the truth of it for ourselves, the information won’t change anything.
In coming to an understanding of why we have a particular symptom, instead of rushing quickly to a neat and tidy theory about what it means, it’s perhaps enough, at first, to simply trust that there is meaning, maybe many layers of meaning. While the following exercise offer some insight into the “language” of physical symptoms, keep in mind that a dis-ease often speaks to us on many levels at once. Be mindful not to latch on to one explanation to the exclusion of all others. Keep listening and opening, letting the messages of your body take you deeper into “Self” understanding.
Exercise: The Language of Symptoms
The following exercise can help you understand the messages your body is sending through your physical symptoms. You’ll probably find that more information and insight come to you if you do this exercise in writing. Even more effective is to do it with one or several other people, sharing each question out loud and giving each other feedback and added input. Often the messages in our physical symptoms remain stubbornly invisible to us while they are glaringly obvious to an objective observer. Another viewpoint can be invaluable in bringing some of these dynamics to light.
Where in your body do you manifest physical symptoms? What chronic or recurring physical conditions do you have?
What are all the physical functions of this part of the body and what metaphors come to mind related to these functions? Also look at some of your pet expressions and see if they have physical body references. These expressions may tell you something about real symptoms you manifest. For example, I’ve had a tendency to manifest headaches since I was a child. I also inherited my mother’s and grandfather’s condition of growing large, benign cysts on my head. An expression I used to say frequently was, “I feel like my head’s going to explode!” I didn’t say this when I had a headache, when I literally did feel like my head would explode. Instead, this was my spontaneous expression of exasperation when I had too many things going on in my life, too many things on my mind, and felt overwhelmed. (I’ve taken this expression out of my speech. I seldom have headaches any more.) Play and free associate with your own metaphors and expressions until they reveal insights into the emotional dynamics underlying your symptoms.
Next, ask yourself how this physical condition is serving you. As we’ve touched upon in other lessons, any life condition that we struggle with but can’t seem to change has some unconscious payoff keeping it in place. Physical illness is no exception. For example, I discovered over the years that headaches have a number of payoffs for me. Among other things, it slows my mind down when I “feel like my head’s going to explode.” When my head’s full of pain, it’s not full of thoughts. So, ask yourself what your physical symptom may be helping you, allowing you, or forcing you to do, be, or have that you wouldn’t otherwise experience. Write down everything that comes to mind, even things you wouldn’t normally define as positive. Specifically:
1) Is it forcing you to let others help you?
2) Is it causing you to spend your time differently? If so, what might be the gain in this?
3) Are you receiving attention (positive or negative) that you wouldn’t otherwise get? If so, how is that attention giving you something you need or expect? (Sometimes negative attention preserves a familiar identity we’re not ready to let go of, or keeps people from expecting too much from us, to name just a couple of possible gains.) Was illness the way you received love and attention when you were young?
4) Is your illness resulting in your developing new strengths and resources?
5) Is it preserving a familiar identity? If so, what is that identity and what might you lose that you don’t want to lose if you acted outside your own box?
6) It is allowing you to put off doing something burdensome or frightening?
7) Is it protecting you from failing by preventing you from beginning something?
8) Does it distract you and keep your attention away from things that are too painful to look at? Does physical pain take the place of emotional pain?
9) Does it allow you to avoid painful or frightening emotions, such anger, sadness, guilt, or shame? Is illness a way you implode instead of explode?
10) Does it give you permission to say “No,” set boundaries, get angry, be selfish, or grieve?
11) How are your relationships with others affected by your symptom? Have they deepened as a result? Does it provide an acceptable way to be vulnerable and more open emotionally? Does it create “space” interpersonally: fewer relationships, more privacy, or more time alone? Does this condition offer protection from intimacy and possible hurts that could result from getting close?
Review the information you’ve gathered so far and explore what secondary gains this physical condition is offering you.
What would you need to do to receive the secondary gains without needing the physical condition? The true answer to this question invariably involves some degree of risk and stretching beyond your comfort zone. Keep exploring this question until you find where the risk is for you. This is where the greatest healing lies. It might mean taking a day off without being sick or finding ways to ask for the love, attention and support you crave without having to “need” it first.
If we look deeply enough into the payoffs of our illnesses we’re likely to uncover ways our lifestyle has gotten significantly off track. While this may push us toward difficult choices, the end results are far richer than simply being symptom-free.
Create and act on a plan of things you’re willing to do to give yourself the secondary gains you identified without illness forcing you to it. See if you can find at least three things you’re willing to do without having to have your symptom as a motivator.
I don’t mean to encourage anyone to forgo sensible medical supervision or suffer unnecessarily without medication. I’ve certainly downed my share of Excedrin when in the throes of a migraine. I am suggesting, however, that we not rely solely on medicine to effect healing. Listening to our symptoms and letting them guide us somewhere instead of seeking the most passive release from discomfort isn’t the easiest path in the short term, but it invariably holds the richest rewards in the long term.
Preventive Health Care
I sometimes ask people what they would do if a chronic health condition became life-threatening. Without giving it much thought, many people immediately come up with a whole list of major life changes, such as leaving a relationship that isn’t working or a job they don’t like, taking time for projects or self-care that always gets back-burnered, or spending more time with family and loved ones. These folks describe all kinds of things they’ve wanted to do for a long time but feel unable to.
What would you do if you were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness? If there are important things you’d do if you were direly ill that you feel you can’t or shouldn’t as long as you’re healthy, you may be unconsciously setting the stage for a health crisis to enter your life to give you permission to change. The wider the gap between the life we’re currently living and the life we’d create if we knew we were seriously ill, the more we “need” illness to help us grow. You can practice preventive health care by finding ways to implement your illness plan now instead of waiting for a crisis to give you permission. If this plan necessitates difficult choices, ask yourself, would you do it if your life depended upon it? Act as if it truly does.
Questions for Thought
- Are there significant changes you’d make in your life if you were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness?
- If so, is there at least one of these you’re willing to do now?
If You Are Currently Living with a Life-Threatening Illness:
- Replace the question, “How can I get well?” with the questions “Why do I want to get well? What do I have to live for? Do I feel complete with my life as it stands? If not, what is there left for me to do?”
True healing occurs when we embrace our passion and purpose for living rather than our battle with illness and fear of death, and when we live as though each day is our last, completing whatever is unfinished and making the most of each moment. When we pursue healing in this way, the outcome of the disease becomes less important. We may find that our physical healing process speeds up miraculously, or that our symptoms remain the same but no longer inhibit our joy in living. We may find that our disease progresses, yet we experience a profound sense of peace around the transition of death. Ultimately we call forth whatever outcome best serves our highest good, and we feel at peace with it.
My previously-mentioned friend Cheryl, was an excellent model for pursuing her passions and living life to the fullest right up to her very last minute of life. Just months before her death, when she was completely bedridden and heavily medicated for pain, Cheryl was busy planning a trip to Disney World! Of course she never made the trip but she did have many better-than-Disney experiences of leaving her body and being with her angels. Her very last day included a two-hour phone conversation with me in the middle of the night describing, excitedly, a feeling she had that she was on the verge of being born. The next afternoon, hours before her death, her friends, visiting her in the hospital, sneaked her down the hall for a forbidden but much desired shower and afterward shared a last supper of her favorite chocolate doughnuts. Shortly after everyone left, Cheryl easily left her body. While we all wanted to be there, we suspected that she waited until she was alone because she knew we’d be upset watching her go and forget the truth of how delighted she was to take the leap.
- What are you willing to do this week, this month, and this year to pursue what you love the most? If you knew tomorrow was your last day, what do you need to do today to feel complete? How can you make today the richest time of your life?