Since COVID, it’s clearer than ever that illness is a lot stranger than we might think. Illness isn’t just a matter of catching a bug or being a victim of a pandemic or exposure to environmental pests or pollution, or of aging⎼ although pandemics, bugs, aging, and the environment are certainly involved. So much seems to be involved.
When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa, I caught a bug, or a few bugs of different kinds. And when I became ill and had to leave the village and country where I lived, I found out the people I left behind felt responsible for my illness. Not that they thought they should have taken better care of me. They believed someone in the village had caused me to get sick. For them, the germ of all illness was bad thoughts and intentions spread from one villager to another.
And in the U. S. many feel illness is a sign of weakness; that we or the sick person is somehow deficient, not strong enough to fight it. At work, we might denigrate someone who stays home to treat an illness ⎼ or we used to before COVID. Now, we hopefully just wish them to get well.
Ill can have several meanings and connotations, most are relative or comparative. To be ill is to be in an abnormal, unfavorable, undesirable state, and that we’re hurting, threatened, suffering, or have some defined condition called a disease.
In Buddhism, the word for suffering is Dukkha, although the translation is debated. Zen teacher Steve Hagen, in his wonderful book Buddhism Plain and Simple: The Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every Day, says Dukkha is in opposition to Sukkha, or satisfaction, so instead of suffering we get unsatisfactory. But more accurately, he says, imagine a bicycle wheel out of kilter. Every time the wheel spins around to the “off” spot, there’s a bounce or wobble that’s bothersome, produces pain, and makes us unhappy. Suffering is being out of kilter. Another Zen teacher, David Loy, analyzes suffering as the sense of something missing, lacking, in ourselves, in life.
We can see suffering all around us. In Buddhism, the first of the four noble truths Buddha realized in his enlightenment was Dukkha, recognizing suffering, being out of kilter is just part of life. The other three are that there’s a cause of suffering, a way to let go of or cease suffering, and a path to that cessation. So, is all life tied to illness? Is suffering the same as illness? Or a response to it?
Part of me says, “you know what it is to be ill.” But do I? I know when I hurt and something in my body is off. But when I try to define illness, I can get lost in the complexity. And sometimes I am ill or in pain, but I’m not suffering. The pain sort of reassures me I’m alive.
There are conspiracy theories, exaggerations, lies about illness, especially the pandemic⎼ but there’s also science. The mind and body, despite having separate labels are never separate; they are two words for ways to view one reality. When we feel powerless, or depressed emotionally, for example, we’re depressed physically. Likewise, when we do things like mindfulness meditation, we improve immune response, digestion, heart rate, etc. and the breadth of our awareness. We don’t suffer as much, depending not on what’s happening but on our response to it….
*To read the whole piece, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.