Your Illness as Wise Teacher

by Node Smith, ND

The foundation on which naturopathy is built, or the paradigm through which it functions is the assumption that the body is a self-healing organism. The body, your body, is an intelligent being who knows what she needs, and when given rest, nutrients, and love, she can repair any damage. It's a very simple, yet vastly powerful truth, with extremely deep implications.

Illness is a Friend, Not an Enemy

One of the deepest of these implications is that your illness is not the enemy, something to be scorned, hated, or gotten rid of. Your pain, disease, or suffering is not separate from you, from your body; an affliction that is the result of chance. It is yourself speaking, an attempt to communicate and bring your awareness to something very real. Illness is the body's way of guiding us back to health, not away from it. The only way to get there is to listen.

If body is innately self-healing, having the primary function of restoring balance and providing us with healthy physical, mental, and emotional bodies, then illness MUST serve this purpose. We know that this is the purpose of a fever - to bring the body back into balance from a bacterial infection, or a viral infection. We know that diarrhea is the body's way of getting rid of waste that has become too toxic in the bowels. We know that tears, laughter, pain and sorrow are the emotional body's natural way of processing through life's experiences. It's just a little more difficult to understand how an autoimmune condition, diabetes, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, or multiple sclerosis can be the body's innate wisdom trying to speak to us.

These chronic and life debilitating diseases are often the body's way of increasing the volume of her voice, because we've been distracted by too many other things over the years to pay attention to her needs. And because we are incredibly complex beings, the communications have become quite complex through the years of being ignored; there are messages upon messages. For instance, my intestines are no longer the only speaking to me - I told that pesky thing to "shut up," and took some antibiotics. It's also not just my cardiovascular system that's been trying to tell me that my electrolytes are a bit low, and I'm dehydrated, by giving me a headache - I've been taking aspirin for that and hypertension meds for years. It's also not just my leg pain that's been getting worse, or the sinus infection that's been lingering for 3 months. It's all of these things combined, in addition to all of the emotional strain and mental stress that I've been cultured to simply ignore.

So, Bam! My disease is in my face. I can't ignore him any longer. AND here's the key, he's not angry. He's been trying to tell me that things are going awry for so long, and he's still trying to tell me, because he cares about me. My body, and all my symptoms are trying to coax me into paying attention to myself so that I can heal - and often times this healing will INTENSE, and I won't want to pursue it, or will be scared to.

It's intense because your body, as an innately self-healing self, wants you to be living a life of complete freedom, with happiness and joy as your daily companions. She doesn't want you to settle for "alright," or "I'll manage." HECK NO! Your body loves you way more than that. But it can be hard work, which is the conundrum or conflict we find ourselves in. We often find ourselves looking for easier solutions to our discomfort, getting a little better, but never really finding the root of the problem, until we finally can't take it anymore.

When we are finally sick enough of our sickness to stop and listen, we become willing to participate with ourselves in this work, willing to face these fears. Change will be profound.

The healing journey is long, just as the journey of sickness and disease is long. We will enter it at different stages of life, with different experiences, and have different challenges. However, whenever my pain and suffering have become too much for me to bear, I have found three guiding principles helpful in connecting with my True yearning to be well, and to heal.

Three Guideposts to Self-Healing

There are three general principles I find useful in the self-healing journey.

  1. Eliminate "should" - The word "should" is a horrible word and I try to outlaw it as quickly as possible when working with myself, and when working with any of my clients or patients. I don't want to, and don't believe any of us desire, to live a life under the yoke of obligation. It is my true belief that we are here on this planet to pursue our own unique purpose. Most everyone will agree with this at a core level; that we all want to pursue a deeper meaning of life through our everyday activities. This means that it isn't a matter of what we "should" do, but rather a matter of what this higher purpose, or our True Self, wants to do. Our True Self is not interested in doing things that are going to hurt us, it only wants what's truly in our best interest. This is a powerful realization, especially when we begin asking questions like: "do I really want this, or that?" or "what is it that I really want?"

  2. Overcoming guilt and shame; cultivating self-love - Guilt and shame go hand in hand with "should." We "should" ourselves right into feeling guilty, which supports an identity that may already be consumed by shame. Even though guilt and shame interact with one another, there is a huge difference between these two feelings, and they are important to distinguish, and overcome. Guilt is the idea that "I have done something wrong." It is a little easier to come to terms with logically, and rationalize ourselves out of. We feel guilty for all kinds of reasons, some of them silly, and some of them really serious. The more serious ones more directly support our Shame. Shame is the idea that "I am bad, wrong, or unworthy," and is a deeper wounding than guilt, often the result of an unresolved and hidden trauma.

    Shame is an insidious spiritual wound that keeps us locked in suffering. The only way out of it is through self-love. Cultivating - often through some sort of spiritual practice - kindness and compassion for ourselves is the healing of this wound. This is not an intellectual exercise and will be incredibly difficult for some, though it is the route to freedom.

  3. "Lean into the pain/suffering" - Throughout the journey of self-healing there will be obstacles. It is not an easy endeavour to look into ourselves, to become aware of our guilt and shame. In fact, it is the most difficult journey, and all of the individuals on it I consider the most courageous warriors. We are not courageous because we are fearless. We are courageous because we are gripped by fear, experiencing pain and suffering on a daily basis, AND CHOOSE to continue on. We choose to look our pain and suffering directly in the face and question it, befriend it, and learn all that it has to teach us. You are a warrior not because you are able to defeat your disease, but rather because you are able to heal from (with help from) your disease.