The Grit and Grace of Physical Illness
Life contains the full spectrum of experiences ranging from the most exquisite to the most difficult. Yet every experience has the potential to birth deeper wisdom, if we include it as part of the path of awakening.
Three years after a powerful awakening that changed the course of my life, I was brought to my knees with a serious spinal injury, that seems stubbounrly un-responsive to allopathic or alternative treatment. I sensed that somehow, this was an important leg of the integration process, yet it took all my strength and resolve to harness this as part of my prayer to live the embodiment of Grace.
Surrendering into the invitations life brings us sounds so easy, but physical pain, the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night, drains your energy day after day, goes on for years and seems to be un-responsive to any treatment, can be a very tall order no matter how spiritually mature you might be. I had to learn how to open into pain and practice ego relaxation more substantially with the fears and resistance coming form my mind when the pain was more than I could stand. It took about a year for the tide to turn, but I remember the day my posture start to open, I was standing straighter without trying to do so, and there was new vigor, a quivering aliveness inside. All of a sudden I wanted movement, fuller breath, and the feline satisfaction of a deep stretch.
In all of this, I came to recognize what it means to let Grace become embodied, actualized, lived in the fleshiness of our human vehicle that I came to recognize is much more than it appears. Feeling my pelvis stable but no longer fused, my mid back breathing as though there was an extra foot of space within my heart, and a fluidity of presence flowing from my feet, through my torso up to the top of my head, I began reflecting on what had allowed for this transformation that enabled me to come down from the mountain into deeper embodiment.
Surrendering into what is:
In my healing journey, I was clearly being invited surrender into the pain, stay present with the helplessness surrounding the pain, truly be with the uncertainty as to whether this would ever improve. Somehow I had to give up my attachment to any particular outcome, yet without giving in, accepting wherever I would end up and trusting that somehow it was all unfolding in a beneficent direction……even if that meant my condition did not change. I had to listen to my own inner compass, taking in the often-contradictory advice of doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, healers, while not following thoughts of fear.
In silence, I could hear whispers from within, a voice of wisdom reminding me to trust the process. This echoed the guidance I heard at the beginning of that big change in my life, in the months following the awakening that came in Ramana Maharshi’s cave that required a total surrender of everything I knew, including my very sense of self. I began to see that this physical journey through a spinal injury as part of that continuum – a visceral integration so the understandings of this profound shift in identity could land more fully in this human life.
Opening with our whole being:
Like a snake needing to shed an old skin, my very physical structure needed to liberate itself from outdated shackles, open and be rebuilt to allow the wisdom to pour all the way through into the world. What did I learn? Mostly, the importance of a deep and humble listening with our whole being, and a new appreciation for how our body holds the mind’s unconscious. Searing back pain invited me to explore the dimension of our ego that is not just perception of separation, not just thoughts of fear, lack, guilt, but also patterns of stress and contraction in the physical and the subtle bodies. I learned more about the physical and energetic grip of our ego, and the kindness it truly needs to let go. Learning to ride acute pain and open into its mysteries, brought me into deeper contact with the most vulnerable moments of my life, inviting me to practice ego relaxation right down into my bones. Just softening, opening, allowing, listening, trusting….not leaving myself no matter how intense the pain.
‘What wants to be met?’
Along the way I met subtle layers of my own ego structure that contracted at a very early age. Experiences I had forgiven and understood spiritually and psychologically, but somehow my body had not quite de-compressed fully from. I had to dive into my own flesh and meet the cellular impact of younger memories where I had felt so alone, with not much of a cushion to rest upon here in this physical realm. Breathe into the tendencies of contracting to hold myself – something I learned to do as an infant that had become an automatic response.
It is not enough to just see through our ego patterns, I had to let grace penetrate through it. Just in the same way that you cannot logically convince a frightened animal that they are safe with you, I re-discovered the importance of sensing into and staying with. Sensing into the patterns of pain required a deeper patience, opening into that seeming gap between the refinement of boundless realms of consciousness while learning to include and inhabit this imperfect human body.
Sensing into the consciousness of my back pain showed me the importance of not abandoning myself in the vertical realm, but to truly embrace my own animal humanity and cherish it.
Waking down in the most vulnerable places:
A turning point came when I saw the subtlety of my own self-abandoning.
I had taken such a good attitude to this whole process, diligently inquiring through the layers of closure that pain brought to my attention, while physically undergoing various treatments, none of which seemed to make any dent in my situation. Yet on some level I was still presuming I had to heal myself. Reflecting upon the treatment options still untried, I found a wave of anger arising from within me. It was not projected onto anything or anyone. Not a victim story or a rejection of present experience. Some threshold had been crossed and my consciousness was screaming ‘arrggggggghhhhhhhh – enough!’
I practiced all that I share with others in this – meeting the phenomena of anger with curiosity, with the breath, with trust in the deeper process, love of the truth and a willingness to see the deeper reality of this. The anger broke 48 hours later, giving way to a very vulnerable admission of my own need for human holding from someone with sufficient breadth of knowledge to guide my treatment process. I eventually spoke this to my osteopath. While lying on her table, tears streaming and my body shaking, I spoke ‘Will you hold my healing process? I cannot navigate this by myself’. She did not speak a reply, and I did not need a yes or no. I needed to contact my own need for human support and speak that need to someone I trusted had sufficient understanding. Allow space for it.
Embodying Grace within the ordinary:
Since that moment, I began to heal. Now, there seems literally to be more space in my spine. Astonishingly, I have grown half an inch taller. I am no longer in pain. I am more fully here, dropped deeper down into my bones, with appreciation of the inherent spirituality of going about daily business. I am learning to answer emails as though grace itself is reading and responding, balancing my check-book in appreciation for the act of love it truly is to gather support at the level of basic survival. How each ordinary action is an invitation to a more full-bodied realization, and we can learn to relate to it as such. I have learned to truly befriend this body. Love it as it is. Accept it. Treat it with kindness as we treat a treasured pet with tender care, even though I know myself as so much more than just this vehicle.
No longer do I care whether this body fits into my old jeans, I am just so happy that the dial on this pain has been turned down and I can relish the gift of ordinary life. My body feels clear and open, and I am crisply aware that it is not my ego’s effort that brought about the healing. Some deeper intelligence living in this vessel just knows what to do, and I am grateful.
Now, as I watch an old woman struggling to cross the street in her walking frame, there is such compassion, empathy for things I previously did not directly understand. Appreciation for how tender we are when recovering from illness or simply ageing. What incredible teachers our own bodies can be. How we can be so beautifully seasoned from our suffering. How even the most difficult material of our lives is really the hand of grace – ushering us into a deeper humility, a deeper humanity, so our lives can birth wisdom from which we all thrive.