We are scared of disease. We run from it. We hide from it. We avoid it at all costs. Disease and suffering have many causes. Hiding in the shadows. Waiting to grab us and reduce us to a prison of lifeless, painful, suffering. Or worse: death!
OK, that’s quite an extreme view. But how many people do you know who in the face of pain, discomfort, or emotional suffering give it the “bad thing” label, pop a pill, and wish it would just fuck off and go away?
I’ll admit that at times, I’ve taken this view. So let’s take a closer look at disease and see if we can’t warm up to it somehow. How about we start with this little quote that appeared in my own awareness not that long ago:
If it exists, it has a function!
Disease, suffering and ultimately death are natural therefore must serve a positive function. After all, the evolutionary interpretation states that if something appears as a common feature of biological life, it must be there for a good reason, it must actually serve life rather than act against it. So let’s try and forge a “good thing” view of pain and suffering by considering disease through the four-dimensions of the AQAL framework (proposed by philosopher and Integralist, Ken Wilber)
DISEASE AS A POSITIVE LIFE FUNCTION
Viewed from the individual subjective, suffering inspires me to be curious, to search within for the answers to the story of my subjective existence. Where do I come from? What is beyond or beneath this sense of subjective experience. Inner suffering leads me through my self-awareness towards the source, towards the essence of my inner self, towards pure or selfless awareness. The greater the suffering, the greater the need to discover a way out, an escape. In this sense, suffering is a natural process of life designed to increase and go beyond self-awareness into unity-awareness and pure-awareness. So I should be grateful for it, not hateful towards it.
Viewed from the individual objective, my diseased, painful or “dysfunctional” body invites me explore it’s objective nature. What is my body made of? How does it work? What can be done to make it work more pleasurably or functionally? Again, objective disease of my body inspires me wake up and attend to the needs of my body. To seek the causes of this pain and to remove them when reasonably possible. Or perhaps, I might seek to go beyond the limits of my body, by exploring ways of enhancing it or improving it through pursuits such as organ replacements, stem cell therapies, bionics and beyond. What a fantastic mechanism that life has produced for us to make the most of things, to make life stride onwards.
Viewed from the collective subjective or inter-subjective perspective, suffering brings us together, to empathise, to bond, to belong and to live in awareness and love. Because suffering can potentially reduce us to taking our own lives, and because certain types of disease can swiftly kill us, one could argue that the “need to heal” is on a par with the other primary life-sustaining urges like the need to eat, drink, find shelter and procreate. So desire for healing is a natural voice of love, and suffering and disease are natural aspects of nature that serve to bring these needs into focus, from the unconscious to the conscious.
Viewed from the collective objective, disease draws our attention to the greater sense of connectivity between the individual’s diseased body and their environment. Through this outlook, I will explore beyond the local or individual objective aspect of my diseased body towards my potentially “disease causing environment”. An expansion outwards from the body through the vast inter-connected web of the multiple complex systems that my body is contained in and constantly communicating with: the climate and weather systems, the home and work environments, the food production chains… endless structures and systems to explore and investigate for their causal contribution to the dis-ease of the body in question. And in doing so, this investigation invites us to not only seek the greater material cause for my suffering, it also invites an interesting count-question. If my diseased body is suffering because of the outside world, then maybe the outside world – albeit in a small way – suffering because of my diseased body?
Extending this postulate back through the other dimensions, the question quickly becomes of greater consequence:
Does my suffering have an influence on your suffering? And by “your” I mean everyone and everything! And if it does, surely this means that we all have a mutual responsibility to look after our own needs (appearing selfishly) as well as look towards the needs of others (appearing selflessly). To tend to the needs of my own body as well as the needs of your bodies and the planet (and universe) as a whole. Because when it boils down to it, there is no ultimate difference between the two, they are inseparable. And have you ever tried to change or fix another? Is it easier to fix or change oneself or another? Does it matter where we start? Perhaps what matters most is that we open to this holistic vision and let its wholeness guide us?
Now what if we took a more equanimous view of disease and suffering? What if we proposed that:
Pain and suffering force us to become increasingly aware. In each instant of regained awareness, we are being given a gift. The gift is opportunity. Opportunity to choose. And as opportunity to choose, I am freedom. Not freedom from pain or so called dysfunction. Freedom from whatever limited life view I have been habitually semi-automatically living out. And for this gift, for this regained opportunity, the appropriate feeling or response is gratefulness. Waking up in this way leads to gratefulness which produces aliveness, bliss, happiness.
Ultimately, pain is a mechanism that serves to increase our awareness and appreciation of awareness. As such, pain points towards the realisation that we are not just made up of energy and form, we are also made up of awareness. And as we recognise this, we realise that in any given instant, we are have a choice to make: (a) identify as limited energy-matter-form or (b) identify as unlimited awareness.
As pain brings us into the present moment, relentlessly, again and again, we are invited to explore the odd notion of awareness of awareness! As pain brings us back from automatic selfing to the awareness of this present moment, we are being invited to review the situation at hand. Invited to ask questions, to become curious. Is there some practical action to take, a change in direction? A change in behaviour or “habbiting” that would relieve the suffering?
As suffering snaps us out of autopilot, we realise that we have a choice to make. We can either close to what is, or it can open to what is.
When disease and discomfort come knocking at the door, we can either stay present in this experience (neither rejecting nor obsessing over them), or we can try and escape into some other experience where they can’t be seen or heard, move our attention into some form of distraction (this could be a semi-conscious activity such as sport, cleaning etc, or an unconscious activity such as sleep.
From the fullness of the present moment, if unawareness carries us off on a semi-automatic wave of thinking-emoting-sensing-moving, then discomfort serves to wake us up from that less conscious state, it bring us back into the fullness of the present moment.
WHAT ABOUT UN-RELENTING BODY PAIN OR DISCOMFORT?
Pain reboots our attention. We are brought back into the aliveness and the hidden freedom of the immediate present. Sure, we have lost the freedom of being semi-automatic. Our attention has been brought back to the part of us that is in pain. For example my low back pain. And this might not be what I want. I might want to be fully present to only thoughts or perhaps the sensory pleasure of eating a yummy food or appreciating a nice walk in the countryside. So I might argue that pain is bullying me away from an aspect of life that like a selfish narcissist. If I take this attitude, I will suffer even more. But what if I change my attitude. Consider this somewhat controversial notion:
Body pain is inviting me to be fully present in my body. Full present to the pain. It wants me to go deeply into the pain. Deeper and deeper. So close to the pain. Right up close to the most intense agonising pain. Staying wide open. Fully open, accepting and welcoming the full intensity of that excruciating pain.
This pain so badly wants me to manage this super-hero task. Because this pain knows that now more than ever, I must realise that I am in a very real sense a super-hero. A super-hero is a super-human. And a super-human must be the most incredible thing. Beyond human! Beyond human as in beyond body-energy-emotion-thought. Beyond the sense of a separate mind-body-soul. Intense body pain is a way to realise that we are BOTH pure formless awareness AND pure formless love AND all that could possibly be held in their infinite boundless reach INCLUDING any number of limited or smaller selfs INCLUDING the separate selfing of the individual along with all their aches and pains, pleasures and thrills, ups and downs. As such:
Pain is the most wonderful opportunity. If we accept its invitation, it leads us towards self-realisation. Realisation that we are more than a limited self. We are also Big Life. Big Spirit. Big Love.
AN UPDATED THERAPEUTIC MODEL
With this new view of pain and opportunity it offers, the therapist would be wise to change their approach from “I wish to remove your pain and suffering” to
(1) I aim to help you reduce unrelenting pain and suffering to a manageable degree, then:
(2) I aim to help you open to the pain, to approach the pain as unrelenting presence and love.
And if this doesn’t work for you. If you get it now. You can stop hear and go practice being a new fuller you. If you are not convinced, or curious, here is some more . . .
A RECIPE FOR STRESS AND UNWELLBEING (AKA SUFFERING)
From the local perspective, we can say that disease and suffering (irrespective of their original causes) are accentuated when we strongly avoid or strongly cling to any one aspect of reality (which is futile because reality is in constant motion), including the actual experiences of suffering or non-suffering or happiness themselves. This state of clinging / avoiding (avoiding is just the another side of clinging) produces a state of stuck-ness. We say “I am suffering, I feel stuck, trapped. I don’t want what I’ve got. I really want this and that. It sucks. It’s such a struggle.”
This state is enormously tiring, it takes incredible effort. We can also see that in a state of suffering, we often feel unable to exit from the suffering, the pain. This gives rise to a sense of blocked freedom or blocked free-will or blocked choice-fullness. We choose non-pain, but pain remains, so the process of freewill seems stuck, blocked.
Combining these two subjectives in a mathematical way reveals the following equation:
Suffering is produced by Clinging + Avoiding + Choice-lessness
Now, using the fundamental law of nature (like increases like, opposites balance) we can do some mathematical fun-play to explore what a solution to this dilemma might look like…
A RECIPE FOR STRESSLESSNESS AND WELBEING (AKA HAPPINESS)
What do I need to do to the equation to cause a reduction in the Degree of Suffering?
Well, in mathematics, the only way to remove a variable is to add its mirror opposite, or subtract an identical copy of it. I.e. :
Equanimity = Zero = Balance = Harmony =
(Clinging + Giving) + (Avoiding + Welcoming) + (Choice-lessness + Choice-fullness)
In order to suffer less, and assuming I don’t give up clinging and avoiding altogether (as these are natural life functions and almost impossible to stop) I need to devote attention to finding ways of reducing or anti-doting the Clinging or Avoiding as well as reducing the sense of Choice-lessness. And at the same time, in parallel, I need to invest awareness towards Anti-clinging (i.e. letting go, releasing, giving) and Anti-avoiding (i.e. welcoming, receiving) as well as devote attention towards Choice-fullness.
Now notice how, from a physical standpoint, giving and welcoming, though opposite in direction, both require the same starting point: opening. And by contrast, clinging and avoiding, while opposed in direction, are in fact both dependent on closing or contracting. From this standpoint we can elaborate other mathematical definitions or equations relating to suffering and wellbeing:
Suffering depends on Closing
Anti-suffering (or Happiness) depends on Opening
So, using this insight or mathematical form, I can say that relative to my current degree of sadness, disease, suffering, I can bring about a movement towards happiness, ease and joy by practicing opening followed by welcoming and giving.
Happiness = Joy = Ease = Wellbeing is produced by Opening + Welcoming + Giving
And let us not forget about the third variable of our original equation: Choice-lessness. Well. This will be interesting. How can we explore or qualify the conditions or causes of a sense of Choice-lessness? What does the sense of Choice-lessness depend on? I’m thinking that Choice-lessness might look like this to the mathematician:
Suffering is directly proportional to Non-accepted Choice-lessness
Happiness is directly proportional to Accepted Choice-lessness
Non-accepted Choice-lessness is really just the obstinate Little Self of Alex or Little Alex wanting to get his way and not getting it!
Accepted Choice-lessness is really the choice to relinquish control, to open and let go, to go with the flow, to surrender to a greater force or flow. Little Alex Selfing has to open and relax its grip around things. Be willing to let Big Life live through him a little more often.
At this point it might be useful to consider a fundamental observation about the nature of things from the local standpoint (from the standpoint of a you or me looking in towards the looker and looking out towards the looked upon).
According to Vedic wisdom (and no doubt countless other Wisdom Traditions) and according to my own experience, the totality of EXPERIENCE depends on a SUBJECT (the one doing the looking) and an OBJECT (the one being looked at):
SUBJECT EXPERIENCING OBJECT
AWARENESS EXPERIENCING SUBSTANCE
And why not flip that around:
OBJECT EXPERIENCING SUBJECT
SUBSTANCE EXPERIENCING AWARENESS
It seems reasonable to say the manifest universe has something to do with a danse, an experiencing between these to APPARENT OPPOSITES.
If we put these two close enough together in their innate states they will look like this:
PURE AWARENESS BEING PURE AWARENESS
LATENT SUBSTANCE BEING LATENT SUBSTANCE
This naturally leads to:
PURE AWARENESS experiencing LATENT SUBSTANCE
as well as
LATENT SUBSTANCE experiencing PURE AWARENESS
PURE AWARENESS experiencing SUBSTANCE produces PURE PRESENCE
LATENT SUBSTANCE experiencing PURE AWARENESS produces PURE LOVE
So the relative appearance of energy, light, love, matter, form, bliss, aliveness is produced by PURE LATENT SUBSTANCE (Prakriti) being experienced by, or penetrated by, or discovered by PURE LATENT CONSCIOUSNESS (Purusha).
And the appearance of presence, self-awareness, agency, self, is produced by PURE LATENT CONSCIOUSNESS being experienced by or loved by or filled up by PURE LATENT SUBSTANCE.
The very co-existence of PURE LATENT AWARENESS alongside PURE LATENT SUBSTANCE gives rise to an inevitable natural flow or experiencing between them.
Experiencing is the flow of awareness into substance, or substance into awareness. This mingling is Big Life of Great Vayu at the most fundamental level. In Vedic terms, this is movement or manifestation is known as the dance of Shiva and Shakti or Mahat (Great Mind, Great Life, Great Love).
In Vedic terminology:
1) VAYU is ALIVENESS i.e. the FLOW or MOVEMENT between AGNI and SOMA
2) AGNI is LIGHT/AWARENESS
3) SOMA is LOVE/SUBSTANCE
These three permeate the entire known universe at all levels.
So the manifestation begins. A Grand Movement or Aliveness is set in motion. Awareness Penetrates Substance as Substance Loves Awareness, which in turn gives Love its Presence, which in turn gives Presence its Radiance, which in turn gives Radiance its Direction, which in turn gives Direction its Energy, which in turn gives Energy its Purpose, which in turn gives Purpose its Objective, which in turn gives Objective an Observer, which in turn gives the Observer a Home, which in turn gives Home an Inhabitant, which in turn gives the Inhabitant Belonging, which in turn gives Belonging a Belonged. And at last, they have both come home to rest. (or something like that !)
From this somewhat cosmic diversion, coming back to the relative or local view of our human condition, we can state that the natural happening of reality is an unstoppable simultaneous process of awareness penetrating matter and matter enveloping awareness.
If we allow this definition of reality to exist without resistance or effort, then we will observe it as a free-flow yin-yang synergy. Life in action. Love appearing as Presence. Presence appearing as Love. Add infinitum. In an infinite variety of shapes and forms. And if we think of this universal aliveness as a danse or the movement of a cosmic wheel, then it would be fair to say that the notion of suffering might look something like a “separate self sense” that is in some way “resisting” the great flow of life as a whole.
But if the the awareness appearing as separate self (Little Alex) was able to open and identify as something bigger, as Big Life, Unity Awareness, One Love, as “Big Alex”, then it would no longer be stuck. Because Big Life is moving in exactly the way it is supposed to be, no exceptions, and nothing can be done about that.
So back to the local example of suffering that we began to explore above. We saw that suffering looked like a state where the individual self is contacting or closing around some part of the ever changing universal dance of life. Clinging to something that it wants to keep the same (such as the pleasure of being in love) or avoiding something that is not changing or moving-on (such as the discomfort of physical pain). The limited selfing, the closure around this polarity causes suffering. Wanting some aspect of life to stay and not go. And wanting some aspect of life to disappear or go away. This kind of contraction, closure, can become a habit. And if it does, the feeling of having a choice about matters becomes a distance memory. So we feel powerless, choice-less, unable to choose to open, to let go, to surrender limited choice, because we have been programmed by our repeated clutching and cringing. So Little Closed Alex might feel stuck in choice-lessness : “I have no choice. This is how it is. My body is fucked, so I am in near-constant pain. I have no choice. I can’t choose. I want non-pain and I don’t want pain. I am choice-less. Stuck in constant suffering”
And yet the flip side or irony of all this is that at the same time as feeling stuck in choice-lessness, Little Alex can also feel stuck or paralysed by having to make “the right choice” when presented with multiple viable or potentially right choices. Again, tainted by the doctrine of “good and bad” Little Alex thinks that some choices are better while others are worse. All this fed by the selfing habit that gets so used to the yoyo between experiencing pleasure and pain, ease and effort, fun and boredom. Right from the word go, our parents, teachers, fiends all teach us by example that dis-ease should be avoided if at all possible, and that ease or pleasure should be sought after at all costs.
But if we look again at this concept:
If it exists, it has a function!
We must adjust the way we go about the search for happiness, we are invited to find a balanced way. A way of accepting, honouring and allowing the natural and worthy needs of both subject and object. The needs of Little Alex alongside the needs of Big Live. Big Universe. Big Mind. Big Heart. Big Love. The practice of this balanced way leads to Self Realisation. Because we realise that we are both little Self and universal Self. And we realise that we are the free flow of live between these Dualistic and Non-Dualistic Selfs. We realise that these are both appearing in the Absolute or Nothingness. This realisation is True Self.
As a starting point, we aim to move towards OPENING / GIVING / WELCOMING. If not, if I am only closing, then I am Little Selfing! I am creating a contraction around Little Alex. His limited Self-Sense becomes inflated and his suffering state worsens. He is sticking to a very narrow version of a True Alex. Clinging to what Little Alex wants, clinging to a certain unchanging or familiar state of body, energy, heart, mind, whilst simultaneously avoiding or anticipating the replacement of this good state for a lesser or worse state, Little Alex becomes increasingly separate and suffers increasingly accordingly.
So disease and suffering are reduced when the relative individual accepts, awakens to, and flows freely as True Self, i.e. operates functionally as a dance between all aspects of reality, attending to all aspects of True Self including the Dualistic Selves (Body-Awareness, Bio-Energy-Awarness, Emotional-Awareness, Thought-Intellect-Awareness) and the Non-Dualistic Selves (Unity-Bliss-Awareness and Void-No-Self-Awareness). Flowing freely as Body, Mind, Soul and Void makes for a life of optimal (but not perfect) health.
Study of disease is therefore infinitely vast and nuanced. In most circles today, even in some circles of Ayurveda (a holistic health system), there is much emphasis placed on the negative aspects of disease and how to avoid it. And within Ayurveda’s twin, Yoga, emphasis is often put on developing dispassion towards the “lower” aspects of life in favour of the “supreme reality” which is referred to as The Absolute (or Void in Zen).
Many people who are suffering as Body-Mind pain discover this aspect of spirituality and think that freedom from suffering means elimination of suffering. As such, they strive to realise (and in some cases succeed) a permanent state of Non-Dual-Bliss-Love-Unity or Non-Dual-Absolute-Void-Awareness. Arguably, for their own subjective reality, should this state become permanent, i.e. a stage, then they may well remain their permanently in a suffering-free state. This is possible, though difficult (especially if the Body-Energy aspects of the Dualistic Selves are in great pain).
To be honest, I am not in a position to comment about this type of permanent Non-Dual-Selfing because it is outside my personal experience. However, I can say that I have observed many people who are in the way of seeking, of striving, who are fraught with desire to eradicate suffering by attempting to exit from the Dualistic Selves (often in this order : abstraction from Body-Awareness, Bio-Energy-Awarness, Emotional-Awareness, Thought-Intellect-Awareness). They are yearning to find immersion into the Non-Dualistic-Unity-Self or No-Self. This is especially true for the upper two aspects of the Dualistic Self, the mental-emotional or psychological forms of suffering.
There are so many things to say about this fervent lifestyle choice (which includes among other things the cultivation of dispassion). The striving leads to a new kind of suffering. A tension between what is present (and unwanted) and what is in the future (and wanted).
This posturing creates additional dysfunction on all dualistic levels. As awareness strongly rejects and attempts to abstract from body pains, difficult emotions, mental neurosis, finding new ground in occasional states of Oneness-Bliss or Pure-Witnessing, it can get into trouble, because these new states feel like paradise. And once found, who wants to leave paradise? No doubt this is an inevitable aspect or trapping of life. One that I was caught in for a few years in my early twenties, and to some extent continued to silently suffer from until my late thirties.
The way I feel now about this is that the attitude or philosophy of the seeker prior to seeking must be carefully prepared in order to avoid this pitfall. If the original attitude is one of transcend and disown i.e. “abandon this leaky ship, jump into that lifeboat and head off into the distance” then prepare for troubles down the road such as no food and water, no protection from violent physical storms, no company, isolation, etc.
On the other hand, if the initial attitude is one of transcend and include i.e. “I’m going to make the most of this leaky old ship by getting in the lifeboat, getting some distance to see things from a different perspective, where the leaks are coming from, etc… Chances are we will make it to dry land where we can step off and explore other pleasures, other adventures, together.”
The wisdom teachings invite us to follow a “middle path” between the “down to earth” (subject-object realm) and the “out of this world” (non-dualistic realm).
I realised about 3 years ago that neither of these solutions were working for me because neither solution was acceptance of reality. And at last, I am beginning to live more fully.
Excuse the ramble. That’s what we get by cultivating Ojas and allowing curiosity to explore, discover, experience.
Namaste, Alex 🙂
P.S. some closing formulas for life:
Living Fully, Living Freely = Realising And Living As True Self
True Self = Living As The Free Flow Of All Selfs
All Selfs = Absolute Self (Nothingness, Void) + Unity Self (Big Life, Big Mind, Big Love) + Limited Self (Your Little Self: Body, Mind, Soul)
You = True Self = 0
0 contains 1 (Big Life, Big Awareness, Big Love)
1 contains Little You + All others as Oneness
1 appears as ∞
Equanimity = Zero = Balance = Harmony = True Self = Being What Is = Opening & Allowing : Wanting/Giving + Avoiding/Welcoming + Efforting/Surrendering …