Illness and Dis-Ease

Fake palm trees, golden age of rock throbbing, people with plastic leis and name tags surging through a room crowded with tables and working stiffs like me getting an early workday break. It’s an annual breakfast for community professionals, and the local DJ handles the mike suavely, moving through the welcome to the awards and then energetically introducing the featured speaker.

He’s a coach! He’s a teacher! He’s a survivor! (Ahhh—now we get the desert island theme!)

A skinny, bespectacled man with reddish-sandy hair fading to gray bounds on to the stage. He grabs the mike and thanks the DJ with a grin and a joke, and then he turns to incite the audience.

He’s there, he tells us, to let us know we can do ANYTHING!

He gives us these examples:

When he was a young man, he was in a catastrophic accident. The doctors told him he’d never walk again. But—because of a tough nurse who taught him the knack of visualization—he pictured himself walking every day.

Within two years he was walking. He was back in school getting his college degree and preparing to coach athletics.

He taught visualization to his athletes, and they were very successful.

Then, three years ago, the doctors slapped another burden down. Cancer, they said. Get your affairs in order.

But guess what?

Visualization. Here he is, full of energy. Selling his can-do book.

I admire his energy and his perseverance, but I think his message is a little dangerous, a little guilt-inducing. It seems to me the opposite of mindfulness: ignore all those messages the body is giving you, and just picture yourself healthy and free!

This week, in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses, I’m reading about dhukka, dharma, and dis-ease.

I believe Kabat-Zinn when he says that our ignorance of ourselves, of our basic bodily needs as well as our emotional needs and intellectual and spiritual desires, takes away our ‘ease,’ puts us in a state of ‘dis-ease,’ and can literally make us sick. I believe it is hard to slow down in today’s world and look deeply within ourselves—there are no prizes or award for deep reflection.

And yet we need to do it…to take the time to know ourselves, to scan our bodies, to listen when our stomach gripes, our head throbs, or our bowels twist. I believe that the balance mindfulness brings is a healthy state we should all aspire to.

But I don’t believe a person with cancer or AIDs or pulmonary heart disease or something caused genetically or environmentally has a guarantee of complete remission if he or she just visualizes heartily enough. I am glad it worked for the coach, but I don’t think those who die from terminal illnesses are guilty of faulty visualization.

I think of my friend Kim, content in her cancer’s ‘reprieve.’ Kim lives a mindful life. I love to eat with her; every muffin is a banquet. Where I tend to gobble and get done, she savors and celebrates. She slows me down and makes me appreciate.

Kim appreciates the ability to walk from place to place—she has so many offers of rides, I think it makes her feel a little guilty saying no so often, but she is mindful of the gift of today’s health. Today, the sun is out and she can walk to the Greek restaurant downtown and get a hunk of their flat bread. She will savor.

Kim goes regularly to qi gong practice, using that ancient process to slow down and listen to her body. She enjoys the practice itself and she enjoys the energy of all the people doing these forms together.

Kim appreciates the fact that she has eyelashes and eyebrows—things chemo stole from her.

She walks to the church every week and helps serve a hot meal on Tuesday nights to those who can’t provide a meal for themselves, and she gives hope and compassion to people who are tired and stressed.

I think of the almost manic quality of the coach bouncing around on stage, telling us he can’t HEAR us, inciting us to roar “YESSSSSSS!!!” back at him.

I think of Kim’s quiet progress through her days, of her delight and gratitude.

I don’t think Kim is ‘guilty’ of a lack of visualization—or of any other step that might, if she only took it, cure her cancer. Sometimes, bodies break down.

Kim doesn’t suffer from a major case of dis-ease, though—she is very much aware of where and who and HOW she is. She has struggled through to peace-filled.

Coach—of course, I don’t know Coach, and he’s paid to bounce around a stage, getting folks excited, getting folks optimistic (and what’s wrong with that?), and getting folks to buy books. But there’s a danger, I think, in urging people to ignore the causes and focus on a blue horizon. We will all have to end someday; that’s not a person’s failure.

I think that disease and dis-ease can be related; I think that disease and mindfulness often do co-exist in one frail human body. All of us should work toward that wonderful goal of balance.

No one should feel guilty, though, for being sick.

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