Monday, January 25, 2010

The Church of Hard Knocks

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

13 December

I’ve been reading a book by Petrea King called ‘Sometimes Hearts Have to Break.’ Petrea is a well known Australian healer and counsellor who’s worked for years with people who have life-threatening conditions. In her book, Petrea tells her own story of recovery from leukemia, and the stories of some of her clients.

One of the stories was of a young, newly married couple who were members of a type of Christian Church where illness was believed to be caused by lack of faith.  Getting any treatment or using pain-relief to deal with an illness was seen as mere pandering to the devil; the person had to heal through faith alone.  If they didn’t heal, it was because their faith wasn’t strong enough.

Tough stuff – but could see how I run a particular branch of this church in my mind.  I have a strong belief that my illness was caused by something I did wrong.  This is how the thought pattern runs in my head: I’ve been kicked out into the wilderness of pain and illness by some spiritual or ethical flaw, and my task is to work as hard as I can to fix myself and be allowed back into the land of the well. These beliefs run very deep and are hard to see – and when I do see them they’re difficult to deal with.

In Petrea King’s story about her clients, the husband had been diagnosed with bowel cancer 6 months previously.  He’d had no treatment, and no pain relief.  Now, he was dying, and as well as having to deal with an early and difficult death, he felt an enormous sense of failure because his faith obviously wasn’t strong enough to save him. Petrea counselled the young couple and talked to them about the idea of a loving, compassionate, caring God – not just the judgemental God of the Old Testament. The man died the day after he saw Petrea – with less physical pain (because he accepted morphine), but also, with some freedom from the terrible burden of self-blame that he’d carried.

Here’s what Petrea wrote after telling his story:
‘Many people fall into the trap of trying to earn their recovery, believing if they only find the right combination of therapies they will be able to undo the cause of their disease.  This thinking is quite popular in our society at present and the worst misunderstanding of this philosophy is that we create our illnesses in order to learn some spiritual lesson from them....
This is a complex area and is often grossly simplified by proponents of this philosophy.  It can serve as a terrible judgement and certainly doesn’t facilitate the experience of deeply joining together in our humanity. There is often a hidden agenda which says, ‘If you eat the right foods, forgive the past, meditate for hours a day, drink your vegetable juices, take your vitamins, and only focus on the ‘positive’ , then you might not die of your disease.’
 It seems natural that we all search for certainties when the only constant in our world is change. Impermanence is scary. I can see that my mind struggles constantly to find reasons for things I can’t explain – why am I sick? Why are some babies born with AIDS? How can thousands of lives be snuffed out in a tsunami?

Sometimes this immense and incomprehensible suffering leads us to develop systems of judgement and blame – just so we can feel some small sense of control.  We can use these systems to assure ourselves that we can find a way out of our own pain (if we just meditate long enough/eat raw foods/buy enough crystals/fix our flaws). We can also use these systems to reassure ourselves that the terrible pain that’s happening to someone else won’t happen to us (she got cancer because she repressed her anger – but that won’t happen to me!)

 I can see the system of blame I’m running in my own mind, but I can’t change it. A constant thought stream buzzes through my head- if I just work harder at meditation, if I could just relax more, if I could just be more peaceful/less angry/more open-hearted – then I’d get well. Those demanding and critical thoughts run deep, and fighting them just seems to leave me more exhausted and entrenched in blame. I’m trying to close down the church branch in my mind – but it just doesn’t want to go! I try to remind myself that just witnessing it, just being aware of its existance, is an important first step.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. It's really interesting - I do think there are links between illnesses and psychological thought processes, but it's more complicated than a one to one correspondence.

    You're so right that this kind of thinking is easy to fall for, and subtle enough to miss most of the time. It's similar to the way many people view karma. The idea that your actions and the events of your life are going to match up all the time is silly, but that's how it's viewed so often. "Oh, I hurt my foot, it must be because I got angry at the dog this morning."

    A zen teacher I've studied with a tiny bit, Reb Anderson, told us to take care of "our stories" like a grandmother does her grandchildren. I try to remember that when I get suckered by the "church branch."

  2. Hi Nathan,

    Glad you found it interesting. Sometimes I toss up whether I should write in such detail about my own personal processes and thoughts. I don't want this blog to turn into some kind of confessional! But, I also think it's good to be 'real'. If I had read something like this post five years ago I think it might have helped to snap me out of all the self-judgement. I like what you've written about your zen teacher - I will remember that!

  3. Emma said... if I just work harder at meditation, if I could just relax more, if I could just be more peaceful/less angry/more open-hearted – then I’d get well.

    Emma, I relate to this so deeply and thank you for expressing the thoughts/my thoughts that have laid hidden from me. I'm always feeling less-than because all my efforts don't improve the disability in my body or improve my daily living.


  4. Thankyou for that lovely comment Ama. The reason I started this blog was to try to reach out to other people who were experiencing similar challenges to me, and to start to break down the wall of blame and shame that can sometimes surround the experience of illness. So, your comments made my day :)

  5. Thank you. Thank you. I have been dealing with a mysterious and undiagnosed 24/7 headache/balance problem since I woke up one morning in 2006. The chorus in my mind: Was it my lousy diet? The headstands I did as part of my yoga routine? The anti-depressants I took for so long because it was so difficult to wean off them? If only I can keep perfect track of everything I do/eat/take, and find the right doctor, we should be able to figure out what started this mess and therefore reverse it. Right?

    But if there's one thing I've learned in the last 4 years, it's that the human body is incredibly complex and multi-dimensional in its needs and its reactions. Enzymes, Hormones. Vitamins. Allergies. Immune System. Microbes. Nerves. Nervous System. Etc. And that mysterious thing called Consciousness, not to mention Subconsciousness. There are so many billions of changes/processes occurring in the mind/body at every moment, it's crazy to think that I'm actually in charge of it all, that by simple analysis and experiment I can discover What Went Wrong That Night AND... reverse it.

    After all, if human life really did work that way, SOMEONE would have, by now, figured out how to be perfectly healthy and live forever...

    Even Jack Lalanne will die someday.

  6. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply - boy, can I relate to your story (and I don't even know who Jack Lalanne is...)!!


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