Spiritual Networks

Illness is Opportunity

Allan Schnarr, M.Div., PhD.
Submitted for publication to Spirituality & Health Magazine 5/11

The worst thing that can happen to you can be the best thing for you,
if you don’t let it get the best of you.
                                                                                                            Will Rogers

Who is Responsible?

There is a scene in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, that shook me to my cells – and still does, whenever I hear it. Jesus is heading out into the desert for a little private time and space. He’s being hounded on the way by all the sick and needy, crying out to him for healing. At one point he abruptly turns to them and fiercely shouts, “Heal yourselves!” My resonance has always been with the weariness I carry to the extent that I make myself responsible for the wellness of others. It’s not healthy for me nor for those who might see me as some kind of savior.

Jesus never took credit for healing others. Instead he told them, “Your faith has made you well.” These words are a profound challenge to anyone who is ill. It is not the doctors, nor the medical system, nor any guru healer who is responsible for my wellness. How much would it relieve the current crisis in our medical care if people learned to recognize illness as opportunity? How much healthier might we all be?

Along the road of my healing journey, the lesson became ever more clear. When all is not well, I need to listen deeply to my experience. There is something for me to learn. Like it or not, I have another opportunity to grow. If I stay attentive and responsive, I deepen my resilience. I build my faith that all is well – even when it does not seem to be so.

To grow in faith that all is well is to learn to flow with the cycle of life. It is to recognize suffering and illness as an invitation to transformation.

The Cycle of Life

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.
                                                                                                            Kahlil Gibran

There is an ebb and flow to life. A time of emptiness gives way to a time of fullness. The joy in yesterday’s blessing slips away as today’s loss comes into focus. This morning I was feeling vibrant. Tonight the cold virus I’d hoped was gone has returned with ferocity. There is a heaviness pushing toward an ache right between my eyes. It’s a challenge right now to hold faith that I will feel well again.

How do I continue to believe that the Cycle of Life is still turning when I feel gravely burdened with my own distress? This too shall pass! At the moment I have my doubts.

In the theory of object relations psychologists speak of constancy. It begins in infancy with the ability to remember what is no longer present. My caregiver, the one who brings pleasure and relieves pain, is out of sight but not out of mind. I learn to count on his or her return to know that all is well. My faith in my caregiver is tested when I am in distress. As I am soothed soon enough often enough I learn to believe that all is well – even when I don’t feel that way.

To the degree that my caregiver has been dependable enough,
I develop faith in the Cycle of Life.
Every source of suffering passes. The enjoyment of life always returns.

Throughout my life, as the Cycle of Life continues to turn, my faith is alternately tested and proven true. The longer my distress lasts, and the more intense it is, the more my faith is challenged. And, every time I come through this dark passage, my faith is fed. My belief in the Cycle of Life grows stronger. I learn to trust my own resilience.

In my early thirties I went through a whole year with crushing headaches. Unless I took painkillers and decongestants every day, I was in profound distress. I had lost faith in my body’s resilience. The Cycle of Life was bottom heavy. Experiences of pleasure, times of feeling well, seemed fleeting. Recurrently I was mired in what seemed the real truth: there was something wrong with me! My suffering was lasting. I was afraid I was trapped in it. My fear had overtaken my faith.

When I hold faith that all is well,
the Cycle of Life turns naturally.
Like the seasons, it has its own timing, not under my control.
My challenge is to trust its rhythm,
to go with the flow.

When a time of enjoyable wellness is passing, I need to let go of my hold on it. I am no longer feeling well. It is disappointing! I allow my awareness to tune into the experience of the distress. I listen carefully to it, open to discovering what it is that I need to let go. Once the letting go is complete, the illness passes. The Cycle turns. Wellness returns.

The Cycle of Life is my participation in the ancient mystery of death and rebirth. All growth is engagement with this dynamic. An old way of being dies as a new one emerges. An old self gives way to a new one. I am suggesting that healing is at the heart of this mystery. My experience of pain or illness offers information about a way of being that is dying or needs to die. True healing is never simply about getting the body well again. It is about the whole person learning what needs to change.

Illness is a call to more complete well being.

During my year of headaches from hell I came across the notion that many headaches were caused by muscle tension. This was an aha moment, filled with dismay! I realized that my tension was causing my pain. It was a humbling discovery – and a call to change. I’d lost my ability to relax my muscles. I did not even know when I was tense. It was time to take my body seriously.

I began weekly massage therapy. I was determined to relearn my natural ability to release tension, and the pain that came with it. Steadily my awareness of the difference between softening and tensing deepened. Surprisingly quickly I was able to recognize the tension when it was starting to build. Every moment of noticing the tension became an opportunity to let go. I dedicated myself to learning this lesson well.

Once I began massage therapy, I stopped the painkillers. I realized I needed to accept responsibility for my own wellness. I’d already said my fearful no to my doctor’s invitation to have sinus surgery – especially given that it may or may not help. I had to let go of the hope that someone or something outside myself could cure me. The answer was not doctors nor medication. It was time for me to more fully internalize my caregiver, time to deepen my faith in my own ability to care for myself.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
                                                                                                            Reinhold Niebuhr

Accepting responsibility does not mean being in control. It means testing the limits of what I can change, and accepting what I can’t. When I come up against something I can’t change, my responsibility is to seek help. Perhaps there is someone who can supply the needed change. If I’ve been diligent about testing the limits of available help, then, when I am faced with something that apparently can’t be changed, I have some grieving to do. Grieving is the emotional work that brings me to acceptance.

Well into my forties I began to get feedback from doctors about my cholesterol. As I was nearing fifty a cardiologist ordered me to start taking medication. Well, I’ve never liked being told what to do. Also, I was not ready to accept being on medication for the rest of my life. I had done years of body oriented healing work. I had established a healthy lifestyle. I decided I would experiment with carefully selected nutrition. I went on a whole grain, very low fat diet for about six months. My cholesterol came down only a little. Unconvinced I was really in any danger, I continued to forego medication and have faith in my own self-care.

Three years later I had a heart attack. My faith in my body’s resilience was humbled. I have been on medication ever since.

After the heart attack I had my grieving to do! Like a blazing sunset, mortality had claimed my horizon. I needed to release my youthful illusion of immortality. I could have died! I would one day. I had no control over how soon. Waves of fear, anger, and sadness flowed through me. I did my best to hold myself with compassion.

It’s now seven years later and my grieving is apparently not finished yet. Last night, after writing the above words yesterday, I had a vivid dream. At my current age, I was sitting at a desk taking a test. I could not figure out how to do the first thing that was required. So much was at stake, I grew increasingly upset. Suddenly I was sobbing uncontrollably. I sobbed on and on, wracked by the waves of grieving over my own powerlessness. I woke up exhausted and empty. For quite a while I could not connect the dream to anything in my current life. Then it hit me. My next thallium stress test with my cardiologist was coming up in three days.

As I continue to age, accepting the various limits that point toward my mortality is a recurrent challenge. The Serenity Prayer has become my anchor. It guides me through learning from all the little losses, preparing me for letting go when major losses occur. The better I get at letting go, the more I liberate energy and attention to engage in what is not lost. Available pleasure always awaits. The Serenity Prayer helps me to flow with the Cycle of Life.

Addiction and Depression

Limitations that hint at mortality are not easily accepted. Two common paths that run away from the humbling truth are Addiction and Depression. With Addiction I create the illusion that I am in control. Whatever is wrong, I have a fix. With Depression, I give up hope of being well again. Whatever is wrong, I’m at the mercy of it. With Addiction I pretend I have control over the upside of the Cycle of Life. I make the pleasure. I make it stay. With Depression, I lock myself into the downside. I control the pain. I make it go away. Addiction and Depression are attempts to stop the Cycle of Life from turning. They are doomed to failure.

Illness preys upon the would be omnipotent. Reality waits at the end of every path of escape. My anxious belief that all is not well, that something is very wrong, ultimately proves itself true. My headstrong flight from death rushes me into its arms. Consider the stubborn smoker lighting up outside the oncologist’s office, or the grim alcoholic heading to the bar after a dialysis treatment, or the sex addict cruising after being diagnosed HIV positive. While these examples are extreme, they may represent a harsh truth, that every addictive behavior courts death.

I remember in college and through my twenties how irresistibly I returned to smoking cigarettes, even though it was painfully evident I was inviting headaches. Then there were other times throughout early adulthood when, though aware my body was fending off some kind of illness, I went ahead and drank too much alcohol anyway. Invariably my immune system crashed, and I got really sick. The cause and effect seems obvious. However, this is only the most evident connection between addiction, illness, and ultimately death. There are also the myriad more subtle ways that I use addictive behavior to avoid emotional distress. Studies have shown that the psychosomatic component of most illnesses lies in the blocking of emotional flow through the body. If I recurrently turn to reading, TV watching, surfing the internet, or whatever diversion, to avoid uncomfortable feelings, I am courting illness, and ultimately death. Reality waits at the end of every path of escape.

Depression openly invites illness, and sometimes directly flirts with death. When I’m depressed, the activities that would help me stay well are let go. Eating well is too much trouble. Exercise takes so much energy. Convinced I’m at the mercy of what happens to me, my immune system joins in the depression. I don’t really have what it takes to fight off any bugs that are going around. They find me. They take me down. At its most severe, depression can turn into idealizing death. Nothing can help me feel better. The pain is crushing me. The ultimate escape can look increasingly attractive.

At the core of Addiction and Depression is shame, the belief that there is something deeply wrong with me. It makes me unlovable. It can never be fixed. This belief looks for, and may even generate, experiences that prove it true. Illness plays right along. Deep down I grow the conviction that I really don’t deserve to live. I recurrently engage in self-destructive behavior. A force pushing toward death builds inside me. Freud called it thanatos. The term is taken from Greek mythology. Thanatos was the personification of death. So it is for Addiction and Depression. They run from life along a dead end path.

It is never too late to step off this path. I do so by accepting responsibility for my health. I do so by honoring my body with awareness and choice. I choose what makes all well.

Conscious Space

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth,
but by washing away from it all that is not gold.
Leo Tolstoy

When I was twenty three, in the athletic prime of my life, I was stunned by three days glued to the floor by lower back pain. Something was very wrong. I had no idea what it was. I went to the doctor and was told I had scoliosis, a badly curved spine. At some point I would need spinal surgery to fuse some of the bones. This was the first of many wake up calls from my body. I had no intention of submitting to spinal surgery. I took up yoga and have been practicing it ever since. From the moment I began the yoga, the lower back pain was never again more than moderate discomfort.

My work with yoga began my awakening to the tension in my body. The year of headaches deepened the recognition. After my year of massage therapy, I realized how deep the tension went, how chronic it was. I began deep tissue massage. Eventually that led me to body oriented psychotherapy, where I stayed and worked with Michele for fifteen years. When I began I thought a few crying jags and a primal scream or two and I’d have flushed the backlog. I had so much to learn.

Central to my whole healing journey was the ownership of my body as conscious space. I discovered that within every thimbleful of space occupied by my body was a wealth of meaningful experience. Eventually well being came to mean feeling and responding to whatever was happening anywhere within my own body. I stopped escaping my body with my gifted mind, and settled myself into my home. I learned how to bring awareness to the energy moving within me, to stay with it. I discovered how simply letting it be opened me to understand what it meant, and thereby to be ready for how to respond to it.

Conscious space means responsibility for my inner world.

Whatever the feeling, I learned to let it flow through my embodied awareness. The pleasure always told me about what was going well and how to let it last. The pain taught me about what needed to be let go, what needed to die so new and better life could come to be. During the course of those years I learned how to be with pain and illness in a way that helps them to pass.

The ultimate challenge to my conscious space came during my heart attack. I’d been sleeping for an hour or so, and woke up with what I thought was indigestion. I took some antacid and laid back down. I couldn’t fall asleep. The pain kept increasing. I was scared. I asked my body what to do. “Wake Leila”, came the response. I woke my wife and felt steadily weaker as I tried to get dressed. We decided not to drive, and called the ambulance. They were there quickly and I got the aspirin and nitroglycerin early enough to keep the heart attack from being too severe. It happened this way because I had learned to listen to my body.

Once I got to the ER, another level of the challenge appeared. The pain became excruciating! I felt like my chest was being crushed from the outside and exploding from the inside at the same time. It was scary. I did what I’d learned with Michele about how to be with pain. I began to breathe slowly and deeply, to allow my awareness inside the pain, to stay soft, and let it go. As I did this, I felt like a kind of slow motion supernova. The energy radiating continually outward from my heart in all directions was astounding. I stayed with it, breathing out with each wave flowing outward. The doctors were not sure I was having a heart attack because my blood pressure, though elevated somewhat, did not spike.

Tests the next day showed that it was a mild heart attack, that I’d gotten through it without damage. I believe this happened, not only because I’d realized quickly that I needed help, but also because I managed to stay soft throughout the fierce pain. I did not tense up against the energy being released. My muscle fibers were not a dam to be burst. They stretched and did not tear. Their softness let the blood continue to flow so that they were not oxygen deprived. This is what I believe happened.

Over the years I had responded in similar fashion to experiences of illness, however moderate or severe. When I am not feeling well, I challenge myself to enter my own conscious space, to breathe into awareness to what is happening there, to welcome a healing image, and to feel the meaning.

Feeling the Healing

Healing is the intuitive art of wooing nature.
                                                                                                W. H. Auden

Later in the day after my dream of sobbing over my powerlessness regarding my own mortality, I sat down to relax. I turned on the TV and spent five minutes hunting for something that would draw me in. What I noticed was how restless my body was – nothing seemed good enough to satisfy me. So I decided to do a healing meditation.

I put on my headphones, chose one of my favorite pieces of soothing music, got into my easy chair, stretched out and began to breathe deeply. What I soon noticed was a sense of pressure and quivering between my eyes. It was bordering on pain. I breathed gently into the space around it, letting my awareness inside the trembling discomfort. Soon the feelings became clear: fear and sadness were calling for attention. As I listened to them, feeling for their meaning, I sensed their roots deep into my history. Eventually I realized that the wounded little boy in me was activated. I imagined myself holding him as he was laying on my belly and chest. My eyes water even now, remembering the depth of the feelings, and the healing power of that moment.

I realized little by little, as the soothing deepened, that the childhood part of me who had been traumatized by abuse, was reverberating with the trauma of my heart attack. This was an awakening for me. I had not yet come close to feeling the full impact of that near death experience. I was grieving the loss of trust and safety, working toward accepting the raw impermanence of reality. I felt such deep sadness about the loss of my illusion that I had everything under control, that it was in my power to make sure that all was well. I felt an unsettling fear that everything could fall apart at any moment. I held my wounded self with all the compassion I have learned to feel.

I breathed in all the love I have known,
and breathed out, surrendering to this love as it washed through me.

I have been in this healing space many times before. The depth of the comfort is always such a relief. And, I seem unable to help myself from claiming the hope that it’s all over now. The pain, the illness, the sadness, the fear – they’re all gone for good. It’s not that I consciously think these things. I know better than that. It’s that the next time that suffering comes along, and the old wounds are once again awakened, I am surprised that they’re still there. I keep longing for the permanence of well being, for the joy that never ends. The longer I flow along with all being well, the more I get seduced by this hope. And then, there I am, surprised and dismayed when the Cycle of Life makes its inevitable turn once again.

Faith in Love

Love is always ready to trust, to hope, to endure whatever comes.
Love does not come to an end.
                                                                                                            1Cor. 13:7,8.

Pleasure and pain come and go. My ability to change the way things are comes and goes. Only love lasts.

Love is that which makes all well. When I love someone, I join with them in whatever way helps their lifegiving pleasure to last. My love for another brings me to connect with them in a way that helps their suffering to pass. Love prolongs pleasure. Love relieves pain and fear. Love makes all well.

When I am not well, my faith in love is tested. I need to experience the power of love, active inside my being, making all well once again. Love heals shame. When I am caught in the fearful belief that there is something wrong with me, that I don’t deserve to love or to live, love holds me, accepting me just as I am, shame and all. When I’m alienated from my own body, feeling betrayed by its continued or recurrent distress, love holds my body with compassion. I have the opportunity to learn to love my body as myself. When my own powerlessness, the impermanence of what I love, the mortality of all that is, including my own body, confronts me – love holds me with compassion. Love is the lifegiving power that endures through every loss, every illness, every form of distress.

As soothing as my healing meditation was, I still felt the longing to be “held” by the love of another. I was not fully aware of this until the next day when I described my experience to a group of colleagues with whom I meet for support. The tender, loving looks that I saw, and the warm and wise words I heard in response, deepened the comfort I needed to feel. Their love nourished that reassurance that I had already given myself. I felt the relief in my body. It was not about getting back in control. It was simply about trusting in love.

Love makes all well. In my darkest hours love reassures me that all is well. In the valley of the shadow of death, my faith in love whispers to my soul. Love lasts. Love heals. All is well.

This practice is to provide a comforting way of being with the experience of pain or illness so that it may pass. It is the practice of compassion with oneself.


  • Spend a little time becoming conscious of the space within your body. Begin with a simple bodyscan, starting with your feet. Notice places that are tense, in pain (discomfort), or numb (lacking awareness). Connect the flow of your breath so that you are noticing ever more clearly where the tension, pain, or lack of feeling lies.
  • Choose one particular internal location upon which to focus awareness. Continue following your breath and noticing what the energy is like in the area of concern. Simply notice whatever you notice. Don't try to change anything.
  • While maintaining awareness around the area of concern, begin to slowly and steadily allow your breathing to deepen. Let the soft flow of your breath lovingly brush up against the edges of the tension or pain. Allow the tenderness of your breath to flow all around the area. Do not try to make anything happen. Simply allow breath to flow softly where it may.
  • As you breathe with awareness in the area of distress, allow yourself to feel the meaning of what is there. Notice any word thoughts that seem to connect with whatever feelings emerge. Stay with these feelings, breathing into them, and letting their meaning become clear. What does the illness/distress have to tell you about your life?


  • Stay with your breath, allowing the softening to continue, even as you let an image of a safe place come to you. Visualize yourself in a place that is entirely yours, that you can now make just as you need it to be, so that you can be perfectly safe there. Make it so the time of day, the season of the year, the quality of your surroundings, the sights and sounds are just right for you at this moment. You are giving yourself a wonderfully comforting place to be with your pain. Return now to allowing your breath to gradually soften the inner place where your distress is held.
  • Stay with whatever feelings continue to emerge, breathing with them, listening to the meaning they hold.


  • When you are ready, begin to imagine that a Healer is coming to join you, someone with whom you can continue to feel completely safe. This person is someone strong enough, wise enough, and loving enough to be able to be with you in just the way that you need. Allow the Healer to be present to you in the way that perfectly helps you to soften completely as you breathe through feeling the pain. Let your body mold into whatever is supporting you. Each time you breathe out, choose to soften and let go ever more completely. Your distress is steadily passing.
  • Allow your interaction with your Healer to bring to you an image that helps to deepen the healing. Whatever the image, let it be something that connects with your awareness in your body, so that you are actually experiencing the healing power of the image.


  • What might you add to, or notice in your experience of, each of the above steps, that would support your awareness of your relationship with the divine?
  • What is the meaning of this experience for you? What are you called to let go? What needs to change in your life for you to more full embrace being well?

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