What does it mean to be healthy? Looking fit? Feeling fine? Being free from ailments that disturb our normal functions? These are certainly very prominent signs of health. Our culture attaches great importance to physical well-being. Attention is continually drawn to the way we look and how we feel. Our customs and institutions seem to reinforce the need to improve our appearance and our fitness. The media entice us to look youthful, get rid of pain, and get over illness as fast as possible. As the value of this mentality goes unquestioned, it is not surprising that our health is largely defined by our physical condition.
What is surprising is that this attitude prevails in spite of countless contradictions. We may have both the appearance and the sensation of being well, when we're suddenly struck down by a serious illness. We may undergo sophisticated examinations which show that we are fit, while we still feel there is something very wrong with us. We could avoid all contact with everyone carrying disease and end up being infected after all, yet many who choose to care for the sick remain in good health. The very motivation for avoiding "germ-carriers" is the belief that germs cause disease, yet at certain times we can resist contagion when surrounded by it. It often seems as if the way we think predisposes us to becoming physically ill.
These contradictions indicate that health is determined by our inner nature. We must have a certain inner integrity that enables us to resist disease. When we disturb this integrity, we set in motion a long-acting chain of causation that gradually works its way through our being. If we are sensitive to these forces working deep within us, we may feel that something is wrong before it manifests as a physical illness. On the other hand, we might be completely unaware of a disorder that has been taking shape for decades, ready to awaken us to the painful fact that we are not as healthy as we seem.
This kind of "awakening" could well be the essential purpose of disease. The unavoidable pain or discomfort of an illness forces us to be more aware of what we're doing, if only to avoid whatever aggravates our condition. It may even dawn upon us that our frame of mind can make us suffer more: negative thoughts and emotions can make our symptoms worse; tension and anxiety can weaken our immune system. Any form of inner conflict can disturb the essential balance of our integrity, the inner source of wholeness that has the power to keep us well. As illness teaches us to see the connection between our physical ailments and our divisive thinking, we begin to seek the healing power of a more holistic attitude.
Of course we can deny this connection. If we look upon disease as something foreign that invades the body, we may welcome the use of drugs that kill germs, suppress our symptoms, and make us insensitive to pain. Most of us have used this conventional treatment all our lives, and it is understandable that we rely on it, especially in cases of debilitating illness. But in treating every ailment in this way, could we be weakening the body's own power to heal itself? When we suppress the natural unfolding of a certain karmic disposition, will it find other ways to express itself? Relying on dependable external remedies may give us a degree of security, yet to what extent does this attitude confine our thoughts and rob us of the freedom to explore life, to consider questions about deeper levels of our being, and to find the answers for ourselves? This is precisely what we have the chance to do when sickness incapacitates us outwardly -- to focus our attention inwardly and reflect on the value of our thoughts.
Suppose we take the view that we are incapacitated all the time disabled by our own divisive thinking. Assuming such a chronic illness in our nature could prove to be a very healthy point of view, prompting us to reconcile our conflicting thoughts and emotions. Perhaps this reconciliation is really why we're here. As we learn to restore the essential harmony of our being, we come to discover who we truly are.
Learning to think in terms of wholeness is by no means easy. Usually our mentality is governed by the notion that we are separate from the things we experience. With this characteristic attitude we go out of our way to reject or even eliminate what does not agree with us. Here begins our major source of conflict, for we end up trying to deny part of our own existence. As most of our thought-life tries to support the idea of separateness, we generally think in terms of opposites, contrasting qualities, and exclusive differences. Space is fragmented into disconnected places. Time is divided into present, past, and future. Inorganic or "dead" matter is set apart from animated life. Human sensations are far removed from those of plants and animals. Distinctions are made for everything conceivable, while we decide what is good for us and what is bad. How are we to transform such disunity into a vision of the whole?
One way is to start caring about the health of all existence as if it were one conscious being: one cosmic entity that includes all time and space on every level of causation. On the unmanifested levels of this Being our future is taking shape -- at this present moment. What is manifesting now on the physical plane instantly becomes our past, while at the same time it affects the integrity of the whole -- which works to shape our future. Every moment contains the spores of what has been and the seeds of what is yet to come. Within the consciousness of nature, time is one.
This consciousness is also aware of all the space throughout its body. The longest distance is traversed in a single thought. There is no separation. To the mind of nature here is everywhere. What affects any part affects the whole. All forms of life are as closely connected as the cells within a solitary organism. We are self-conscious cells in the body of the cosmos. We can choose to work with nature for our common well-being, or we can isolate our awareness from our larger self. It is our choice that brings us closer to the unifying essence of life: the one self that permeates every point in space.
How can matter be lifeless if it is part of a living universal Being? If the universe is alive, its physical vehicle must also be alive. Just as our body can sense and respond to its environment in ways beyond our normal awareness, a body of matter can respond in such a subtle manner that we cannot perceive it on the physical plane. But much deeper levels of perception would reveal an animated consciousness, and we sense this when we commune with nature. The earth shares its life with us in a most intimate relationship, and the deeper our communion, the closer our kinship with every form of existence.
This kinship extends to all the different forms of our experience. On the surface we are tossed about by conflicting emotions such as love and hate, compassion and anger, trust and fear. We are continually seeking what attracts us while trying to avoid what repels us. From this superficial point of view, we see no connection between our pleasures and our aversions. It is only when we let go of this outlook that we can fathom the vision that unites whatever we experience. Such a vision looks beyond what we view with pleasure, disapproval, or indifference: it sees everything that happens as an indication of our own health, the health of our larger self.
Each of us is an expression of our parent being, our all-inclusive self. Our total health is determined by the balance of the whole, and this is disturbed when we act against our wholeness to satisfy a partial interest. To counterbalance our partiality, forces are set in motion which gradually work their way through our larger being and affect us on many levels. We are confronted with the consequences mentally, emotionally, and physically -- both within ourselves and with others. Our opinions may be contradicted, our passions frustrated, and our actions disrupted. However we are affected, it is meant to restore our equilibrium. Its ultimate purpose is to teach us to be so flexible in what we think, feel, and do that our self-interest gives way to a concern for the well-being of the whole.
This is healing in its broadest sense. We can choose to help the process along or to work against it, and our choices will determine how we experience the lessons of life. Sooner or later we must learn to care for the health of our all-embracing parent being. Think how concerned we are for our human parents when they show signs of being ill, and how we usually respond to their need. The negative emotions all of us have are signs that our cosmic parent is not well. They express the need for wholeness: hate is actually a call for love; anger appeals to us for compassion; fear cries out for trust. Through every disturbing emotion we are called upon to give some kind of healing -- to our larger self.
Giving with such understanding takes great flexibility of mind, for all of us suffer from the rigid ways in which we think. Yet there is one very human impulse that is strong enough to soften the most tenacious attitude: the urge to answer a call for help. No matter how stubbornly we cling to individual modes of thought, the desire to help moves us to set differences aside. This desire naturally impels us to identify with the interests of others, and it is here that we gain insight into what they really want: it is the wholeness all of us are seeking.
Once we relate our need to be whole with everyone else's need, we can begin to recognize our common quest for unity however it finds expression. In this search for oneness we appeal for help in angry and fearful ways. These are often seen as personal attacks which should always be repulsed. But as we learn to accept them as expressions of a common need, we ourselves become healers. The recognition that there is something vital that we share induces us to care. It is in caring for others that we can cure the "illness of human nature." It is how we heal the integrity of our fellow being, and in this we heal ourselves.
Such a vision allows us to treat the true cause of human suffering: our own divisiveness. In this treatment there is no such thing as someone being healthy. We as a collective humanity are in the process of becoming healthy. Instead of attaching so much importance to whether we look fit or feel fine, our attention is drawn to looking within to find the value of our finer feelings. These are most prominent when we relate to one another, for establishing a sympathetic relationship with others is our fundamental function. It strengthens our integrity and improves every level of our constitution. It helps us bear the pains of age and illness, and it keep us young at heart.
With all the ills that plague our human condition, there is no better therapy than to feel for those whose mentality clashes with ours. To ease the tension between what we feel and what we think, we are moved to bridge our differences on higher planes of reality. Rising above the endless history of opposing personalities, we meet as fellow pilgrims, and the spell of time stands still. Beyond the attitudes that confine us to incompatible frames of mind, we enter the space where intuition frees us to come together with no boundaries. Past the distinctions that set us apart from most of our surroundings, we recognize the bond of life that unites the entire family of the earth. As we let go of rigid views that define what does us good and what we have no use for, we begin to embrace a concept of health that gives our lives a noble purpose: healing our humanity.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)