Perpetually bedridden by illness and fatigue, I winch open my eyes to meet the gaze of Lama Yeshe. Lama Yeshe dwells opposite my bed and is a comforting presence in difficult times. The photograph was taken just months before he died, his body having already embarked on its slow process into death. It is an image of openness, wonder and completeness that asks what wellness and illness have to do with being whole.
Lama Yeshe’s face radiates wholeness, to say that he is ill at all feels like an ignominy. He is completely whole and so is his illness, which he wears as a decoration, an emblem of his humanity. His face reveals that there is no one who is suffering his illness. There is only wholeness, wholeness in illness and in wellness, there is no difference. Looking at this photograph, concepts of illness and wellness and their desirability or undesirability flutter away like litter in a breeze.
Illness seen merely as a state of body and mind may bring us to some very negative assumptions about its host. Rarely do we recognise illness as an equally valuable manifestation as wellness. Lama Yeshe’s innocent and unguarded expression destroys the arbitrary line drawn between wellness and illness, which are now just a flux of states, limited and misinterpreted by demarcation.
I have been bedridden for many years. Prolonged and severe physical illness shakes the roots and sense of self. On occasion, it has been an easy path into despondency. One of the hardest lessons is not being able to dictate how and when distressing circumstances resolve themselves, so I have to call upon a faith that is beyond need of proof or answered prayers, or even the satisfaction that comes from study, meditation practices or techniques all of which are barred by the severity of the symptoms.
Strength and inspiration have been provided by the words of the author of ‘Women of Wisdom’, who remarks on a story of the long-term ill-health of two nuns ‘Here we see the Dakini principle in seemingly destructive, aggressive aspect, which actually leads to the greater good. It is not so much destructive, as actively transformative. It is an impersonal force which strikes the recipient invasively, against his or her will, forcing a transformation which might seem negative from the point of view of rational consciousness, but here we see it bring forth a greater vision and bliss, which makes it possible to receive the strong Dakini energy.’
Over recent years, I have spent many months feeling almost lifeless from the weight of disease. What has been encountered can be frightening and disheartening for a very ordinary practitioner like myself, but if illness instead of wellness has arisen, it makes life easier if it is embraced as a friend, rather than splitting myself and pitting one aspect of myself against another in some kind of inner civil war. This friend after all offers an opportunity to live beyond the conceptual confines of opposites good and bad, desirable and undesirable.
The majority of people I come across tend to put illness within the framework of a transition to becoming well again, offering us the ultimate prize of renewed physical well-being, coupled with some kind of spiritual promotion. This vision helps to keep the psyche strong during harrowing experiences and often brings about a sense of achievement and spiritual re-definement (and sometimes a bit of ego aggrandisement too) upon recovery of so-called good health. These are prizes which, I am told, makes the arduous journey more than worthwhile, but also assumes the value and meaning of the journey can only be known by its outcome something outside the present moment. I too have fed on this vision, but as the years pass, I’m starting to feel malnourished and it all looks suspiciously like mental escapism from a painful present into a glorious, but illusionary future. As soon as we skip out of the here and now, our intimacy with our true nature is also by-passed and that doesn’t sound like a good deal. Our true nature can’t be something that diminishes or becomes unavailable when we are ill, nor can it be something that can only be intuited in a process of our being blessed back into health. Our true nature is our true nature completely and unconditionally and no so-called state of mind or body can diminish or enhance it.
There must be a more subtle approach that can only take shape after disguised fears and repulsion and ‘supposing things should be different’ are put aside, along with all the pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo solutions these cloistered states of mind latch onto.
Vimalakirti gave us a big clue when he said
‘Liberative technique lies not in seeking cessation of body, mind or sicknesses one who seeks equality makes no difference between sickness and voidness, his sickness itself is voidness.’
Vimalakirti is depicted as being unwell when he said this, so we can include physically manifesting sicknesses in this profound statement (of course, not seeking cessation of sicknesses does not equate to colluding to perpetuate them.) My mind is not subtle enough to really understand what Vimalakirti is expounding, but it’s certainly something more contemplative than waging war within ourselves in a kind of pyscho-spiritual massacre of undesirable traits that runs contrary to (what I personally understand by) wisdom and compassion. Earlier on, I used the words ‘whole’ and ‘wholeness’ to describe a mind that does not fragment like this when life unfolds seemingly unfavourably.
Personal obsessing and being hypnotised by our own storyline is an easy trap when things apparently ‘go wrong’ and our body throws us some of its nastier routines, but personal obsessing and over-ardent problem-solving often complicates a complication even further and we spin off into piling complication upon complication. As a wise being once said
‘The complication is you. The only complication in the entire universe is taking oneself to be a self-existing entity.’
And when things do get complicated, Lama Yeshe’s photo is always there to ask ‘Who is suffering the illness?’ and if any fragmented aspects raise their hands, I’ve learnt to treat them firstly with compassion and then as imposters.
A friend once announced that my spiritual life clearly doesn’t serve me, the loopy logic being I wouldn’t be ill if it did! It’s uncomfortable to have someone define me by my illness, and I have had to duck and dive a lot of disowned fear projections and shallow interpretations of spirituality. There seems to be a commonly believed myth that intractable ill-health is somehow a sign of spiritual impoverishment. Thank goodness there are plenty of examples that overturn this assumption about another’s quality of being, such as one little boy with severe mental and physical disabilities who was unable to walk, talk or do the simplest things for himself - he was naturally thought to be having a miserable existence. His mother bought an alphabet card, hoping to teach her son simple words by pointing at the letters. Before long, he was spelling out his on-going experience of spiritual bliss, describing his life as ‘divine embrace’ and composing exquisite poetry. There was also an autistic nine-year old girl, who spontaneously started writing spiritual poetry, even though she’d never been taught to read or write and was considered to be emotionally disconnected.
The most astonishing example of all is the story of Audrey-Marie Santo, a young Italian-American who fell into a swimming pool when she was three years old and has been in a perpetual coma ever since. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, miraculous events have happened around her, people are healed in her presence and her home has become a shrine and place of pilgrimage. The last I heard, the Vatican were making investigations to see if she can be declared a living saint. Audrey Marie’s photo has also been by my bed, so that I can contemplate her steroid-swollen face and wonder at the huge scale of her personal tragedy, juxtaposed with its awe-inspiring, mysterious, mystical grace. In her silence, she rips down concepts and issues an invitation into the spiritual depths of illness.
First photo courtesy of Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, © Dennis Heslop; second photo © Emily Roberts.