DISEASE AS TEACHER
hen its time to heal, the first step is to look in the mirror.
Because healing is really about you. The things we do ourselves every day strengthen or undermine our own health at least as much as anything anyone else can do for us … maybe more.
Years ago I had an native american teacher. He invited me to take a walk with him in the hills one day. Once we were away from civilization he began to warn me about how crucial it was to refrain from stealing the teachings of my patients’ diseases.
In the old days, he explained, making sure that anyone asking for healing learned whatever lesson it was the disease was there to impart was thought to be an essential element of any healing process. This meant being careful not to replace a patient’s process of coming to terms with the connections between their daily choices and their health challenges with technical expertise that would only relieve symptoms.
The Old Ways
Healers didn’t advertise. There was no need, because of course in tribal communities everyone knew everyone else already. The first sign that someone in need was ready to learn the teaching of their disease was that they’d seek out the healer.
The elders would then call a circle. Anyone in that person’s tribe … their entire extended family, people they’d known all their lives … was invited to come and sit in the circle. The person requesting the healing would sit in the center of the circle.
Then, one by one, everyone who’d known that person would have a chance to offer their views about what the teaching of the disease might be.
Not that any one of them would necessarily be correct, but when surrounded by folks who’d known them all their life, the expectation was that somebody would have something relevant to offer.
The healer and elders would then watch to see if the person requesting healing would show any sign of putting any of these suggestions into action. If they did, it demonstrated at least a willingness to attempt change. Only the person requesting healing could really discover the teaching. But they could be helped. The community could support them.
So then healer would chant, bring in herbs, do sweatlodges and bring all the legacy medicines that generations of healers had developed. The purpose: to help the person requesting healing move through their crisis and re-establish their personal health and the health of all their relations (which was thought to be the same thing.)
It was thought that this approach was important for two reasons:
First … everyone knew the healer could relieve suffering. But it was also recognized that if the healer substituted their own intervention for the patient’s journey of discovery, it would rob the patient of their ability and motivation to discover connections between their daily choices and their disease. That meant the disease would recur in a more serious and difficult to treat form later. This was bad for the patient, bad for the tribe, and bad for the healer’s reputation.
Even more importantly, stealing the teaching would guarantee that the karma of the disease would enter into the healer’s karma. This was also bad for the patient, the tribe and the healer.
Self-healing is no panacea, any more than pharmaceutical medicine. Self-healing takes more commitment and work than relying on pills and professionals. It’s sometimes necessary to do things that may seem unpleasant at first. But since so much chronic disease is set in motion by pleasure- and comfort-seeking choices, this goes with the territory.
At the same time, healing isn’t generally about becoming a saint. It’s more about being informed.
Now … very important … looking at disease in this way should not make anyone feel guilty. Guilt is not what’s called for here.
It’s not our fault that the information and tools we need have been hidden from us. The 20th century’s professionalism of medicine brought us not only an unprecedented and miraculous ability to survive things that in earlier generations would certainly have killed us, it also serves powerful economic interests. Research, marketing and reimbursement schemes all tilt in favor of reliance on professional attention.
It’s less demanding of us personally to hand our health over to the professionals (at least in the short run) … and certainly there are times when doing anything else is madness. Learning what we need to know to heal ourselves takes time, motivation, effort.
I’m also not suggesting that if we only return to the healing practices of the past all will be well. The last six decades have seen an explosion of important medical knowledge.
But our health may be better served when research-based advances in approaches like acupuncture and functional medicine are also a part of the medical toolkit.
Just as antibiotics kill off all but the strongest bugs, leaving populations of drug-resistant bacteria that stop responding to antibiotics, so too the very success of conventional medicine has meant the conditions that don’t respond … the “chronic” ones … are resistant to its interventions.
And that’s precisely where informed self-help can make a difference.
Self-care takes time and commitment. It means becoming a detective, reading between the lines, looking oneself squarely in the face. It takes trying new things and abandoning old habits. Nothing’s gospel. And while nothing should be off the table, it can help to have an experienced coach.
Change can be intimidating. Change is frequently challenging. But not nearly as frightening or challenging as the long descent into disability so many of us assume is the inevitable fate we all face.
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