Friday, September 01, 2006

Grace and Grit

I'm reading Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber by Ken Wilber and I am thoroughly enjoying it. Treya died of breast cancer in the early 90's and her husband was (is) a respected transcendental psychologist in the U.S. with several major publications on the subject. It is very interesting to read how they wrestled with modern medicine as well as eastern medicine and philosophies of illness during Treya's battle.
It is something that I have been wrestling with too, as there are so many mixed messages about illness in our society. On the one hand, we want to believe that if you are good and kind and "Positive", you can effectively beat any kind of illness or that, in fact, you will never become seriously ill in the first place. But the reality is that people get sick and there is no rhyme or reason to it and often nothing that can be done about the outcome. Healing is a word that is often misunderstood to mean "cure". Really, healing is about achieving a sort of inner grace and wisdom, a place of acceptance, of understanding of ones role within the world, and of the impermanence of everything.

I want to quote this book and share, because it really articulates well all the different messages we are given towards illness. No wonder I've felt so confused and have had such a hard time searching and finding meaning to my cancer.

From Grace & Grit:

"... we had to face...dealing with the sickness of cancer, dealing with all the various meanings and judgments that our different cultures and subcultures attached to this illness, that cloud of voices, images, ideas, fears, stories, photographs, advertisements, articles, movies, television shows...vague, shapeless, but dense, ominous... full of fear and helplessness...

And it wasn't just the general society at large that supplies various stories. Treya and I were exposed to several different cultures and sub-cultures, each of which had something very definite to say. Here are just a few:

1. Christian -- The fundamentalist message: Illness is basically a punishment from God for some sort of sin. The worse the illness, the more unspeakable the sin.

2. New Age -- Illness is a lesson. You are giving yourself this disease because there is something important you have to learn from it in order to continue your spiritual growth and evolution. Mind alone causes illness and mind alone can cure it. A yuppified post-modern version of Christian Science.

3. Medical -- Illness is fundamentally a biophysical disorder, caused by biophysical factors (from viruses to trauma to genetic predisposition to triggering agent). You needn't worry about psychological or spiritual treatment for most illnesses because such alternative treatments are usually ineffectual and may actually prevent you from getting the proper medical attention.

4. Karma -- Illness is the result of negative karma; that is, some non-virtuous past actions are now coming to fruition in the form of a disease. The disease is "bad" in the sense that it represents past nonvirtue; but "good" in the sense that the disease process itself represents the burning up and the purifying of the past misdeed; it's a purgation, a cleansing.

5. Psychological -- As Woody Allen put it, "I don't get angry, I grow tumors instead." The idea is that, at least in pop psychology, repressed emotions cause illness. The extreme form: illness is a death wish.

6. Gnostic -- Illness is an illusion. The entire manifest universe is a dream, a shadow, and one is free of illness only when one is free from illusory manifestation altogether, only when one awakens from the dream and discovers instead the one reality beyond the manifest universe. Spirit is the only reality, and in Spirit there is no illness. An extreme and somewhat off centered version of mysticism.

7. Existential -- Illness itself is without meaning. Accordingly, it can take any meaning I choose to give it, and I am solely responsible for these choices. Men and women are finite and mortal, and the authentic response is to accept illness as part of one's finitude even while imbuing it with personal meaning.

8. Holistic -- Illness is a product of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual factors, none of which can be isolated from the others, none of which can be ignored. Treatment must involve all of these dimensions (although in practice this often translates into an eschewal of orthodox treatments, even when they might help).

9. Magical -- Illness is retribution. "I deserve this because I wished So-and-so would die" Or, "I better not excel too much, something bad will happen to me." And so on.

10. Buddhist -- Illness is an inescapable part of the manifest world; asking why there illness is like asking why there is air. Birth, old age, sickness, and death-- these are the marks of this world, all of whose phenomena are characterized by impermanence, suffering, and selflessness. Only enlightenment, in the pure awareness of nirvana, is illness finally transcended, because then the entire phenomenal world is transcended as well.

11. Scientific -- Whatever the illness is, it has a specific cause or cluster of causes. Some of these causes are determined, others are simply random or due to pure chance. Either way, there is no "meaning " to illness, there is only chance or necessity.

Men and women necessarily and intrinsically swim in the ocean of meaning; Treya and I were about to drown in it. On the way home in the car, on that first day [after diagnosis], the various meanings were already flooding through us, and nearly choking Treya."

Those two pages of this book just made everything so much clearer for me. It is like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. When you learn you are ill, or you learn that anyone is ill, you automatically start searching for meaning or reasons why. Why this happened to them as opposed to me. Why this happened to me, and not them.

Before I got sick myself, I am ashamed to say, I would often attribute others' misfortunes and illnesses to either #2 New-Age (Oprah Winfrey has managed to brain-wash half of North America into believing this crap), or #5, Psychological. Fair enough, in order to feel safe and secure in our own world and our own immortality, we desperately seek to believe in a reason why bad things happen to other people and how we can avoid bad things happening to us. It is human nature to seek out that comfort, it is the same reason why I believe people subscribe to various religions. Logic and reason are thrown to the wind because logic and reason don't often make life feel comfy and cozy and like everything will be a-ok or for the greater "good".

I have wrestled with the questions and the meaning. Am I be punished for something I did in this life? In a past life? Did I somehow wish this upon myself by not appreciating my life more? When I had a major depressive episode 6 years ago and I fleetingly thought that death could be a decent alternative to the mental torture I was going through, was this thought somehow coming true for me now? Are my emotions killing me? Did I bottle up emotions to the point where they became a physical illness? Have I not been positive enough? Did I not want to have a future badly enough? Did I judge others too harshly? Did I take the wrong path with my life and not realize that I was suppose to take a different path? Is there some message a la Oprah Winfrey I'm suppose to get out of this? If I figure out the message will I be cured?

The answer to all these questions is clearly and logically, NO. And I have to remember that. My life has been great, is great, I am a good person, I have lead a fairly healthy lifestyle, I have committed no (mortal) sins, and I don't believe I am being punished. Thinking that any being (such as God?) is punishing me or anyone specifically is highly ego-centric. I can't fathom that out of the billions of living creatures on earth and in this universe God would single me out to teach me some sort of lesson. Puh-leeze. Life is so much bigger than petty lessons in being a decent person or living an "authentic life" or finding one's "true calling". Fuck, I'm so mad at Oprah right now!

It is hard when society sends you so many mixed messages. But ultimately, I truly believe in a combination of the Medical, Scientific, Buddhist, and Existential models as outlined above. There is nothing I did to deserve this. And I accept that we are all mortal beings. Illness is not necessarily a "bad" thing. It is a part of life. And death is also a part of life, not the end of life. To live in constant fear of illness and death causes suffering. And I don't want to suffer as it ruins my experience of this moment, which as I've stated before, is all that we are guaranteed.


At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I read your blog through of the reasons people get sick is not outlined in your blog and that is the enivornment.

I have spoken with many older people in my community. When I say older I mean in their 90s. They grew up in rural communities, raised their own food etc.

One of my neighbors says she thinks is the "shit" they put in the food. (This is exactly what she said).

I also think the environment has alot to do with it. The thinning of the ozone layer exposes us to mega uv rays.

The pesticides and preservatives along with the mega doses of hormones that are put into the food affect us all!

Maybe we are pre-disposed to cancer because of heredity, maybe not. Maybe these hormones, pesticides and chemicals in our food causes it. Maybe the chemicals and strong uv rays cause it.

Whatever it is, I have it and I have to deal with it and not only do I have to deal with it so does my family!

I believe in God, but I'm not a fanatic. I think God is love and not vengence and this ridiculous idea that "we" as God's Children should suffer as Christ did on the cross is wrong.

Through some weird convoluted religious Judeo/Christian babble the majority of people believe this and I think it relates to the level of care we get in medicine today.

I see it when you have surgery, they don't want to give you the pain meds, when you complain about pain they let you suffer, like you are suppose to suffer. The only time they actually try to allievate pain is when you are on your death bed, and that's the time you want to feel it and be alive! (This was a quote from my father who suffered with multiple myeloma for 7 years.)

In any event...thank you for your Blog and I wish you the best in your fight for care and your fight against this diesase.



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