Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Holes...and Half-holes

In my last post  I wrote about my experiences seeing a holistic healer who turned out to be somewhat less than 'healing' for me.  The following is an excerpt from Stephen Levine's book Healing into Life and Death which I found enormously helpful and illuminating when I first read it.

In this excerpt Levine is writing about a friend of his, a doctor, who called himself a 'Holistic Practitioner' - until he got cancer.  After his experience with cancer, the doctor started calling many of his colleagues offering holistic healing 'half-holes,' because of the partial truths they offered about the reasons why illness occurs, and how it is healed.

This is the doctor's story...
"I used to call myself a holistic practitioner, but I was not particularly whole myself...I was sort of trying to force myself to be whole with diets and workshops and stuff like that.  But I was doing it all in my head...Then when I got cancer, this idea that I had created my illness, that I had stressed myself into it, which I had previously taught so many clients, made me feel so helpless it almost killed me...I was doing everything I knew to get rid of it, but nothing worked.
I was in both private and group therapy.  I did assertiveness and anger-release workshops.  I was on a special diet.  And all of these treatments seemed to help a little - I mean, I wasn't quite as underground as I had been, but I was still dying. Then I saw the war.  All these concepts were making me hate myself and my cancer more.  I felt like such a hypocrite and a failure. 
But I saw all these ideas about being responsible for my sickness were just making me sick with anger and self-hatred.  I felt so helples; I was my own worst enemy and couldn't trust myself to heal.  I felt I was wrong-minded and wrong-hearted because I had caused it but couldn't cure it. My life was filled with tension and "doing it right"; I was only half-alive.
But then I saw the awfulness of how I was treating me, and I began sending love and forgiveness into my tumours, and after a few months they just seemed to dissolve.  It was learning to pay attention, to love and forgive.  I shopped thinking me and started being me. The cancer taught me what ten years of practice had never touched.  
It is hard to believe I was so superficial, so righteous, as to tell patients they had a choice to live or die and it was solely up to them. ...  But that cancer turned things all around.  It made my holism so much more whole. It has been seven years now since they told me I was going to die, but I am more alive now than I ever was. In fact, I think if it weren't for my cancer I wouldn't be alive today."
 One of the things I think this story illustrates, is how, if we're attracted towards the idea of using an illness, or other life difficulty, as a way of reaching more wholeness in our lives, then the ideas other people offer us can be useful - but may also be damaging.

For example, if someone tells you, 'you created your illness,' how does this make you feel inside?  Does it make you cringe inwardly and feel guilt or shame?  Or, does it open up new ways of seeing your illness and its causes, and how you can best deal with it?

For me, it's guilt and shame all the way!  It doesn't help me to be told I caused my illness - I just feel helpless and judged.  (My feeling is that it's empowering for the person saying it...but not quite so empowering to be on the receiving end.)

After my experiences with a few 'half-holes' (!) I am now very careful about whose opinions I listen to.  I steer away from writers like Louise L Hay - whose teachings I find simplistic - and tend towards Buddhist writers/teachers such as Tara Brach and Stephen Levine.  (I've listed my favorite books on the home page of this blog).

Like the doctor in Stephen Levine's story, I've had to go beyond the ideas and opinions of other people and really tread this path for myself.  I've had to really investigate my thoughts and feelings about my illness - to sit with how I feel when someone tells me 'you chose your illness,' and just allow myself to feel the shame or blame and see what lies underneath. I'm starting to learn to sit with each and every feeling I have about my illness, and just see where this sitting gets me.

What is important though, is that I have both awareness of my feelings, and compassion for them. The compassion is the most important part of the 'mix' for me.  


  1. "You caused/want your illness" definitely triggers a mountain of guilt and shame for me. I've never tried sitting with it and seeing if there's stuff underneath though ... I'm not sure if I'm brave enough to try, honestly!

  2. Hi Ricky,

    Thanks for such an honest comments. The next time I feel myself looking up at a pile of guilt about to fall on my head I'll know I'm not the only one!

    I have only started looking and sitting with all my feelings out of utter desperation...I feel like it's what I've been avoiding for the last ten years. I also couldn't find anyone who could really help me - every spiritual practice I tried just seemed to increase the blame I felt, and the feeling that there was something very wrong with me that I had to fix in order to get well.

    Late last year I finally found what I'd been looking for - a Buddhist psychologist who has had CFS and understood my guilt/shame immediately, a Buddhist monastery where the abbott practiced Loving Kindness as a way of life, and podcast talks and books by Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist.

    After 10 years of searching, these three things fell into place within weeks of each other late last year. They've really given me the tools and supported me to start looking at my emotions - but it's still a long road, and I have to do the hard work.

    Best wishes to you...

  3. I found my way here googling Stephen Levine and Australia, trying to find out if I could buy his audio on pain here after a friend in an online sangha recommended his work. Then I see you mentioning Tara Brach (all-time favourite!) and touching on the very guilt I am feeling about not having 'worked it all out' and 'aolved' my pain by now...about to subscribe to your blog! Thanks so much for sharing your insights. Blessings...


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