I had been looking forward to celebrating the end of the year and the start of 2017 at a party with my partner and some friends. Instead, I spent the day in bed, swamped with fever and chills, tormented by an incessantly dripping nose and a vicious hacking cough. I was sick for about 6 days overall (and in fact am still recovering). While that is not that long of an illness it did provide me with plenty of time to contemplate the nature of healing, and the relationship between physical and mental wellness.
Although I have been somewhat miserable over the last week much of the time, I’ve also been interested in the physical experiences involved in falling and being ill and in slowly recovering and healing. I watched my body go from being tired one day, to being tired plus sneezing and having a scratchy throat the next, to being so profoundly drained of energy that I could barely stand the day after. Then, for the first time since I was a young man or child, I think, I experienced multiple days of continuous fever. Fever does interesting things to your perceptions. It carries the strange clarity of a waking dream – you know you’re awake, but what you see, and how you see it, is not quite real. Later, when the fever abates, and your sense of reality emerges as if from the ocean floor, you realize how skewed things were when you had the fever. I was still making rational decisions when I had the fever (like making sure I drank gallons of water and juice, or staying in bed for more rest, etc) but I experienced the world through the smokey lens of a contracted mind. A mind that did not have the same clarity that I am used to. My fever went up and down for a number of days, and I became obsessive about taking my temperature. When the fever was gone, I suddenly realized that I was seeing the world with that old familiar clarity again.
I am in awe of how the human body can heal. How the simple act of sleeping can contribute to that healing. But maybe the most useful thing about my illness is that it forced me to stop everything and just be. When I was able to walk a city block again, after days of being in a bed, I moved very slowly, at a pace that I could handle. I had to be in my body to do this. Getting sick forces you to be in your body. In fact, when we are sick, the mental intention of taking steps down a city street is not separated from the physical act of taking those steps — the way it often is when we are taking our health for granted. Actions that we take when we are sick are by nature very intentional – we can’t waste time doing other things. The body and mind become unified by the body’s physical inability to do more than it’s able to do. It’s the mind, in fact, which has to let go of its habits and goals and slow down to take care of the body. This process of the mind coming home to the body to take care of it is a beautiful thing, and watching it happen within the hothouse container of being ill is very illuminating.
The body slows down out of necessity to get itself well, and the mind is forced to meet it at its own pace. But when illness is no longer present in the body, the mind’s woes start all over again. It begins to plan and worry, contrive and judge, rehearse and rehash. In a sense our habitual busy minds are in a state of illness all the time. Or at least in a state of dis-ease. But when the mind is ill in this way it can get itself well again by remembering the body – by devoting itself to maintaining a close connection to the body. Before making a decision, or at that distinct moment in time when you are about to respond to someone in a way that might prove fateful, staying close to the body will help you stay close to the truth of what is needed. And staying close to the body and all its myriad signals – of pleasure, pain, fever ache and snot – will also help you stay close to feeling alive. And to the aliveness of this precious mortal life that we have. One of my resolutions for 2017 is to not abandon my body, to stay close to it in everything I do, so that I can be more alive and wise when I’m doing it.
As the great Ajahn Mun observed:
In your investigation of the world, never allow the mind to leave the body. Examine its nature, see the elements that comprise it, see the impermanence, the suffering, the selflessness of the body while sitting, walking, standing, lying down. When its true nature is seen fully and lucidly by the heart, the wonders of the world will become clear. In this way, the purity of the mind can shine forth, timeless and delivered.