Not long ago there was a dust-up on a friend’s blog about (among other things) the existence of chronic illness in the life of someone with an intense spiritual practice and about how such an illness ought to be managed. Though a compassionate stance brings me to the conclusion that the person making management suggestions was sincere in their desire to help, the impact of the suggestions reveals their actual validity. (You can read Beth’s post here though keep in mind that this is simply one part of a larger conversation regarding the intersection of medicine, psychology, and spiritual practice. Following the various links will fill you in on other parts of the dialogue.)
I didn’t get to address this situation as it was taking place because, ironically enough, I was sick myself. Not being able to actively participate in the conversation gave me some time to think about this topic. I’ll leave aside the problematic assumptions that a person with chronic illness is not already doing everything they can to manage the complex and unpredictable nature of their particular condition(s) and instead look at the incidence of illness in the lives of people with a dedicated spiritual practice and dedicated spiritual calling.
I’ve been privileged to know a large number of spirit workers and people with a similarly dedicated practice and calling. I’ve also been privileged to know many of them well enough to have some information on their physical well-being. Each and every such person has some type of chronic health condition. To a one. Yes – every single one.
Sit with that. Let that sink in for a moment.
Though there are several spirit workers of my acquaintance that I am not as familiar with, the strength of this pattern leads me to conclude that if they do not currently have a chronic illness or other complex health condition currently, they someday will.
Now, if one is of the opinion that a healthy practice is reflected in a healthy body and mind then the natural conclusion is that each and every spirit worker of my acquaintance is doing something fundamentally wrong. While acknowledging that we are all learning, growing, and continually refining our practice, I simply can’t believe that this is the case. The Work is self-correcting. It is powerful enough that it changes our human-level circumstances in surprising and profound ways if it is not manifesting in its desired way. I trust the power of the Work. If I and each and every spirit worker of my acquaintance were doing something fundamentally wrong, we would simply be spit out and put on a different path. Since this hasn’t happened, I have to conclude that the opinion stated at the beginning of this paragraph is wrong, or at least based on observations added up to the wrong conclusion.
I came to this work with more than one health condition that required on-going medical care and constant personal maintenance. I have experienced the unfolding of this path along with the unfolding of additional such conditions. Some, such as a degenerative bone condition, I brought to the work with me. Others, like a bad knee injury, were sustained at some point after beginning the work. Still others have shifted and morphed into new and surprising manifestations. Still others – and this is the part that frightens me – are no doubt yet to develop.
So what does it all mean?
I haven’t the faintest.
It bears saying that just because I can observe a strong pattern doesn’t necessarily indicate a meaning that relates to me. That is, I can observe a pattern that has nothing to do with me. This pattern may have something to do with the Work, with the Powers, or with some other thing that isn’t centered on me. (This is an important lesson on the path: Just because you can see something, hear something, know something, doesn’t mean that it has anything do to with you. One must become comfortable with not being the center of cosmic attention and with the commensurate ignorance.)
I’m disinclined to say that illness makes workers better suited to their various tasks. That seems like tokenizing the sick person, forcing them into an emblematic role that has to do with a lot more than just being sick. In fact, though illness shapes the way that many spirit workers live and move through the world, it may or may not have any value-oriented bearing on the work they do (though, as Beth pointed out in her PaganSquare blog, it can). That is, the fact of, for instance, a degenerative bone disorder doesn’t necessarily contribute to or improve or make more efficacious the work I do. If anything, it complicates the work to a degree that I find quite frustrating. But it’s not all about me, remember?
I don’t have answers. I don’t know why sickness is so very prevalent on this path. I don’t know the meaning of this pattern. I do know that the pattern exists and that it continues to be strongly evident. I suspect that the answer has something to do with the unfolding of the Work Itself and not with our human-level interactions with it. Since I trust the Work, I must accept its manifestation in this world, no matter how confusing or frustrating or painful it might be.
(And no, this doesn’t necessarily make me feel much better. Ah, well. Good thing it’s not all about me.)