Illness: A Spiritual, Mental, and Physical Experience

By Robert W. Bonnell

All Kingdoms of life ascend, some more obviously than others, but all are moving by virtue of the divine principle within them. This ascending motivation, spiritual in essence, strives to elevate all life to higher planes of expression. As a part of our being is universal, we share in the trials and tribulations of the "working out" of the cosmic plan. Such a relationship demands continual changes and alterations in our concepts. As these expansions sometimes cannot be graciously coped with, physical and cellular dissension results. Changes are necessary, as change is the foundation of progress and a necessity for the unification of the human constitution toward spiritual oneness.

In the human kingdom, the spiritual or higher mind is the recipient of the divine pulsation and it in turn transmits the impulse to the lower or outer spheres. As the creative impulse manifests into the planes of the physical mind and body, reactions of various magnitudes occur, resulting in a variety of emotions depending upon the receptivity of the lower mind. These reactions can take the mask either of coherency (harmony) or of incoherency (disharmony). The inability of the physical mind to grasp this impulse for what it truly is causes disharmony, resulting in physical and mental illness.

To acquire understanding of human problems, including illness, a broad, intuitive view must be employed. As a book cannot be read through a pinhole, the Book of Life cannot be fully read through the pinhole view of the brain-mind or under the shadow of the personality. The larger openings of the philosophic or impersonal must be sought. Illness as a spiritual experience embraces the abstract, but there is nothing illogical about the abstract, only its comprehension requires intuition rather than intellect. In any investigation of life, the abstract, spiritual view must be included and will result in realizing that of the three planes of expression, the physical is the plane of effects and reactions. Original cause or action is not conceived here.

In the drama of life, the spiritual mind is the dramatist, the physical mind is the actor, and the body or physical plane is the stage whose settings must continually change to meet the moods of the play. Illness is a reaction to meet the prevailing mood. We should remember that the terms physical mind or brain-mind do not mean that the mind is contained within the physical brain, as both higher and lower aspects of the mind find their abode largely on the perceptive plane. The function of the brain, which alone is nothing but a mass of nerve tissue, is to instigate and maintain physiological nerve impulses. The after-death periods of personal torment, reflection, and bliss are conscious experiences which indicate the existence of some degree of analytical awareness apart from the brain.

All orderly evolutionary processes contact first the individuality through the spiritual mind, so that all physical reaction is due, in some respect, to a spiritual impulse. Sickness is perhaps the most commonly experienced of all these reactions. As a spiritual experience, it is generally not consciously realized as such by those affected, since its activity is on a higher plane of consciousness, beyond the perception of the physical senses. At our present degree of awareness, we find ourselves harboring the emotions of both sides of the mental plane, sharing the bliss of spiritual nature and the passions of earthly desires at the same time. The lower, conscious mind is the sphere where disharmony arises. It is this aspect which deals with physical relations and disorders and, as such, receives the reactions of the distraught body. As the physical plane is the stage on which the drama of life is enacted, so the physical body is the stage on which the drama of illness is portrayed. The body, or anything in it, is not the cause of sickness; as the field of operation or recipient of higher antagonisms, it reacts defensively to this vibratory or emotional intrusion.

What is commonly known as disease is actually the body's effort to protect itself against the invasion. All reactions, such as pain, fever, congestion, inflammation, chills, tumors, mucus, edema, coughing, emesis, and diarrhea, are not destructive efforts, but rather constructive ones. These abnormalities can be compared with the coiling of a snake when danger is sensed. The coiling is not the danger or abnormality, but a reaction to danger or abnormality. Coiling is not the snake's normal position, but under certain conditions it is quite normal. Likewise, fever, chills, tumors, heart enlargements, and so forth, are not normal states, but under certain conditions they are not only normal but necessary to the life of the body.

Scientific research today is looking intensively for the cause of man's physical woes, but the search for the most part is confined to the physical realm which can, at best, reveal nothing but effects. That new discoveries differ from the old, discarded ones does not necessarily indicate that anything causative has been found. Much research is like a merry-go-round, moving but going nowhere. The original cause of anything, including disease, cannot be found in the material sphere of life, which by itself cannot create -- it simply does not have the mechanism for it. It is not the plane of the manifestor but the plane of the manifested. Illness and the cause of illness inhabit different planes, one being the reaction to the other. Future research must recognize man as a product of divinity, containing within himself the properties of both spirit and matter and that disharmony can only be the result of the working out of the conflict of spirit versus matter. Christian symbology hints at this in the martyrdom of the Crucifixion and subsequent triumph of the Resurrection: the inner Christ versus the outer flesh, the higher versus the lower.

Today, then, the greatest dilemma comes from mistaking effect for cause. There may be effects causing effects within the physical plane, but never can the initial cause be found within the physical realm. Therefore, all physical process, including illness, is reaction to nonphysical stimuli. With the trend of these ideas go two deductions:

(1) Physical illness of the body rarely has a physical cause;

(2) Any outside physical influence affecting the body cannot be a primary cause, no matter how far removed from the body.

The second deduction may seem ambiguous if the illness is, for instance, the result of an automobile accident, but the law applies here also, although in a more abstract sense. What, after all, is the true nature of an accident? Is it coincidental or bad luck? Such a purely physical and superstitious interpretation can never reveal the understanding of anything because it discounts the metaphysical. All life follows a plan to satisfy a purpose; hence, nothing of any significance happens without cause or reason. Furthermore, if the accident occurred on a certain street, remembering that an aspect of the mind is spiritual (therefore visionary), why were we not elsewhere by virtue of its direction? Either the accident was necessary for the experience, or the lower mind, mechanically responsible, was not receptive to higher direction. Either way, the accident had mental direction and would have constructive compensations. This attitude may appear fatalistic, but it merely sees spiritual forces active in the unpleasant moments of life as well as in the pleasant. We cannot deny recognition of either as beneficial, any more than we can praise the right hand and criticize the left merely because we are right-handed. Both are equally necessary in certain efforts, and both serve an inner need for the time.

The body exhibits reactions or effects (called symptoms, disease, or illness) because that is all it is capable of expressing. It cannot perpetuate the cause of anything, being a member of the physical world. All it can do is receive and react in accordance with its quality of reception. Illness, then, is the emotional precipitation into the physical, due to temporary antagonism between the higher mind (what we should be doing) and the lower mind (what we are doing). Such a struggle will be outgrown in times to come when a complete unity of the lower and higher aspects of the mind takes place.

Illness, however, does not indicate a false or misguided life, nor a total failure in our efforts toward a well-balanced life. It does indicate an imperfection, which is natural at this stage of spiritual growth. Illness is productive also of something other than pain and misery -- a more profound view of life. The lower mind, curtailed by physical abnormalities, is more open and idealistic, the chief requirements for a broader vision and understanding. The lower mind becomes tempered and searchful as a result of bodily disturbance. Its confidence and security are so shaken that it turns elsewhere for consolation. This is truer in chronic afflictions, but all types of ill-health lead to a more serious and contemplative thought pattern.

One might ask whether illness and other forms of mental and physical suffering are necessary for spiritual growth. Firstly, some impetus is necessary to move man forward by breaking up crystallized ways of living and thinking. In most instances, but not always, this impetus takes the form of disease or other types of difficulty. Secondly, it is not our true self that suffers. The true self is strengthened spiritually by the synthesizing action resulting from the antagonism of the two minds. The sedimentation of the struggle lies only in the lower structures, in the physical body and lower mind.

For aeons of time the lower mind has concerned itself consciously with the plane of the physical and now, due to our evolutionary position, we are slowly passing into greater vistas of spiritual comprehension. The lower mind, through experience of life, is continually expanding and absorbing the characteristics of its higher counterpart but, to our lower elements, the great power arising from its higher contacts is foreign and repellent at first. The blending of the two aspects of our nature is not always cordial. A continual reorientation of the lower mind and body must occur to complement this higher expansion. It is much like the retooling of an automobile factory when a new car model is going into production. The mechanical elements must be altered, which calls for readjustment. Readjustment means problems, and in some cases problems result in illness. So, in man, the problems of realignment to meet a higher need may result in disease or malfunctioning of its various physical and mental manifestations.

To the body, or more specifically, the cell, the reactions resulting from illness are creative as well as protective. What is a cell? It is more than protoplasm; it is an individual life, compounded of divinity, soul, and form. It differs from the human -- as members of all other kingdoms do -- by virtue of the intermediate principle or soul. Though its limited soul-perception can express only a cellular form, it is basically the same in cause and purpose as all other forms of life. All lives are but diversities of the One, yet united through common origin and purpose.

Through the process of illness and the protective effort produced, the cell undergoes transition. Transition through experience leads to progress, and progress is spiritual advancement. Our body is an aggregate of lives (cells), which gives it a bipolarity -- a blending of opposites both as an extension of divinity into matter and as a vehicle by which the cell's lower degrees of consciousness may share in the higher organization represented by the human structure. Therefore, even on the physical plane, illness serves a productive and useful purpose.

All life moves toward fullfillment of a spiritual idea and the sooner we realize this, the sooner will our lives have inner purpose and direction. We must adhere to the belief, through effort and understanding, that all human problems have spiritual colorings despite their physical expressions. This awareness will not necessarily result in a spontaneous immunity to disease, but will give it some degree of virtue and purpose over and above its unpleasant side. Illness should be viewed as an experience in life just as worthy to the soul as is its opposite, for all experiences ultimately go to make up the individual synthesis of spirituality.

Philosophically we cannot separate blissful and painful experiences, for both serve in varying degree the same cause; they will last their duration and then disintegrate as naturally as they appeared. This does not mean we should seek illness as a spiritual stimulant but, when we are confronted with it, we should not lose sight of the essential nature of the condition. To seek aid for such discomforts is understandable and sometimes necessary, but with the seeking should go an awareness of the deeper vision: that the very energies which provide the means by which we manifest disharmony due to our failing to comply with the wisdom of the higher mind, are those which also give and sustain life.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1990; copyright © 1990 Theosophical University Press)

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