For many of us on the spiritual path, the experience of physical illness or chronic pain presents one of the greatest challenges to our equanimity and presence. When we’re feeling healthy and vital, we may find that our meditation practice enables us to stay centered, present and awake. But when our bodies are suffering or our energy is low, we can find it extremely challenging to sustain our spiritual momentum. So how do we tap into the aliveness of our awakened selves in the midst of physical illness or discomfort? In this 6-minute video, Craig outlines an experiment anyone can use to stay centered and grounded when our bodies break down.
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I’m a committed meditator, but when episodes of my chronic illness take over, I feel like it knocks my entire system offline, and I lose touch with my spiritual center as well. How can I stay awake and present even when I’m physically ill?
There are certain elements of any physical malady that are just the way they are. You just can’t help it. Whatever’s happening in your body, like you said, can bring all kinds of capacities offline. For instance, when we experience fatigue or exhaustion, it limits the energetic resources we have available to us. Sometimes this can affect our cognition, which drops a few levels. We can also find that our creativity disappears or that our problem solving capacities are hindered. These are just physical reactions and they’re going to be the way they are.
But there’s another dimension to this. It has to do with our relationship to what’s happening in our body. This is something we can work with more directly. It’s the meaning we make about what is happening to us. For example, when you have an episode of fatigue or illness and experience all of the physical and cognitive limitations, you might conclude, “Oh, no. I’m losing touch with all of my spiritual capacities! The progress I’ve made is evaporating.” This is usually just a story we’re making up in response to all of these changes that are happening physiologically.
This story is something we can challenge with our practice. We can say, “Well, the truth is that I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe I’m not losing touch with anything. Maybe my body is shutting down, and I just need to rest.”
We can make room for what’s happening physically and not make a problem out of it beyond the actual practical problems that it’s bringing to our lives. In other words, there’s no need to judge it. We don’t need to conclude that our physical experience means there’s something fundamentally wrong.
This orientation can be in relation to a physical condition. It can also be in relation to any difficult life circumstance, such as when something bad happens in our life, we have a financial loss or someone we love becomes terminally ill. We all have to deal with difficult circumstances in our life at some point.
So when we face these challenges—physical or otherwise—how do we stay rooted in the essential wholeness and goodness of reality? Can we stay connected to the truth that the essence of things doesn’t change, regardless of what’s happening on the surface? The surface changes all the time. Can we get to a place where we’re grounded in something that doesn’t change? Can we get to a place where we’re anchored in the changeless?
If we can stay connected to this deeply positive essence, then whatever happens on the surface—to our body, our friends and family, our life—won’t affect that essential rootedness. If we know that life is fundamentally good, then nothing that happens to us physically can affect that. If you’re experiencing illness or a loss of energy or a cognitive decline, it doesn’t mean that life is fundamentally worse. The essence of life didn’t change. Your circumstances changed.
So the next time this happens to you and your physical system starts to crash, see if you can be completely okay with it. Take the inner position of: “I’m okay with all of this. I’m not going to make any negative meaning about it, and I’m not going to struggle against it. I’m okay with it all.”
We’re each our own laboratory. So try experimenting with this perspective and see what it does. See if it helps. You might discover, for example, that when everything goes offline, there are some reactions that are beyond your control and others that you have control over. You might see that you are making meaning about certain elements and indulging in misery. Within that, you might discover that you actually made a choice at a certain moment to give in to these negative conclusions and that you don’t actually have to go there. There might be a completely different way to see the whole thing.
You might start to discover that a big part of it was the choice you made to relate to it as a problem. Then you might see how different it is to go through all the same physiological experiences, but without the psychological component. Or maybe not. You might find that in some circumstances, your physical experience really is taking everything offline and there’s not much of a psychological component. But you only see this distinction when you take this radical stand in the practice. Then it reveals the territory more clearly.