“What are your thoughts on living with a chronic illness or chronic pain? As a truth seeker, how do I reconcile my desire to be free of this pain and my desire for truth?”
This is a beautiful question because it highlights the dilemma of every spiritual seeker. Because almost everyone who embarks on a spiritual path is suffering in some seen or unseen way. And that suffering is chronic I.e. alleviated only temporarily before it returns again.
However, for those who suffer from chronic physical pain or disease, the dichotomy is all the more apparent. Because it is beyond just psychological, it is physical. It cannot be concealed. Psychological pain is easy to conceal from the rest of the world and at times even from ourselves. It is possible to live in denial of our own suffering until a certain watershed moment comes when it becomes no longer possible to deny. However, physical suffering and especially illness are nearly impossible to conceal. We have no choice but to face it. It relentlessly demands that we look at it.
In a strange and twisted way, this is a kind of gift. Because until there is acknowledgement that suffering is the case, no reconciliation can even begin. Having said that, to live with chronic illness and pain, especially when it completely debilitates you and lowers your capacity to live a functional life, is one of the most challenging experiences a human being can go through.
There are certain practical factors to consider and put into place which are designed to support your lifestyle and accommodate this experience of pain and lowered functioning ability. Finding the right kind of treatment and counseling, medical or otherwise, a support network of friends, caregivers and family who can assist you in the day to day practical challenges that you face that have to do with mobility, transport, finances, nutrition, access to resources and so on, are essential.
Assuming you have this infrastructure in place, we come to the existential aspect of your condition, which is primarily what your question is about. How to reconcile the desire to be free from pain and the desire to find truth.
What does that “truth” look like?
To me, truth takes the form of my immediate reality. No matter what form that may be. Whether that form looks like health or illness, clarity or confusion, joy or grief, peace or conflict. The forms are irrelevant. What is relevant is “what is”. Which means if “truth” is the deepest desire within me, then I have to learn to see it in the form that it appears, rather than the forms in which I would “like it to”.
In other words, I may want truth to look like joy, ease and serenity but it may just as likely manifest for me as anxiety, discomfort and exhaustion. In fact, there is no greater indicator of how deeply we desire to align with the truth than when it appears in its most painful forms. Its in those moments that we turn away from it. It’s always much easier to want it when it comforts and brightens.
I rarely quote stories from the Bible, but the story of Job is relevant here. In this parable, God boasts to Satan that Job is his most devout follower. And Satan claims that the only reason Job is devout is because God has blessed him with wealth, good health and many children. He dares God to test Job’s devoutness. So God kills all Job’s children. He then destroys Job’s livestock and livelihood. And finally, he covers Job’s body in horrible painful sores in order to test his devoutness. And Job wavers quite a bit but in the end is able to maintain his steadfastness of virtue.
Now, obviously this story is terribly loaded with a whole lot of superstition and innuendo. But if we trim away all the dross there is a nugget of wisdom in there. Eliminate God and Satan I.e. good and evil. Take away the blind devoutness. Look at the skeleton of the story and what you get is:
Reality is easy to align with when it takes on a welcome form. But when we are met with suffering in the forms of grief, poverty or illness among others, our desire to turn away from that truth, towards the form of another more desirable reality becomes an indicator for how grounded we are in that truth.
Now, this is not to say that one must passively accept everything that happens and take no corrective actions whatsoever. If an option to heal exists it must certainly be taken. If an option to seek justice exists it must certainly be taken. But the action we take is secondary to the space from which it is taken.
Are we taking the corrective action from a place of acceptance and alignment with that truth? Or from a place of non-acceptance – claiming that this “should not be”.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I often quote the serenity prayer because it is one of the wisest statements ever made. Because it neither advocates action nor non-action. It advocates wisdom first and foremost from which both action and non-action naturally stem. And wisdom is nothing other than the “perception of truth”.
When I was a child, I lived with chronic stomach pains. Medication rarely helped and I was hospitalized for it often. I would spend hours and sometimes days just doubled over in my bed moaning in agony while clutching my stomach. Yet, sometimes, quite without thinking, I’d enter deeply into my pain. I would immerse myself into it, as if it were a bath, to a point where it would take over every sense experience I had. It would become my whole world. Everything outside would completely cease to exist. There would just be me in a universe of pain.
And being there for a while, something curious would happen. The pain would begin to feel familiar. And it’s energy would feel warm, like a blanket enveloping me. And I would cocoon myself in this pain for hours imagining I were a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. I became so intimate with this pain at some point that whenever it left me and I returned to normal life and school and friends and so on, sometimes I would reflect on those intimate moments almost with a sense of nostalgia. It was hard to put my finger on it, but there was something sweet and haunting about the pain.
Only years later, did I come to understand what that sweetness was. It was not my intimacy with the pain that I missed. It was my intimacy with the truth. And pain was the PORTAL that introduced me to it. In my daily life, my mind wandered constantly away from the immediacy of the moment, from distraction to distraction, abstraction to abstraction. My pain, on the other hand, arrested my attention and drove its focus like a laser towards itself and thus towards the immediacy of the moment. In hindsight, pain was my most powerful introduction to the “present”- far more than any kind of pleasure I ever experienced. It was my meditation. And it kept me there until I developed a taste for the truth that would drive my search for the next couple of decades.
In your case, the desire to be free of pain and the desire for truth are not mutually exclusive. They may appear to contradict one another but they are both encompassed in the wider truth of “what is”. Every seeker, no matter the brand of suffering they experience, whether physical, existential or both, will feel the tug in these two planes. One is the horizontal movement away from pain towards pleasure. The other is the vertical movement deeper into the experience of what is present right now.
The truth encompasses all of it, the vertical and the horizontal. You will not find it exclusively on the horizontal plane nor exclusively on the vertical axis. It is evident in the totality of your experience right now: the pain, the desire to be free from pain, the desire to be with the pain, the forgetting of the pain, the escaping the pain, the confronting the pain, the questioning the pain, the feeling broken by the pain, the feeling hopeful of overcoming it.
All of that, taken together in their myriad conflicts and paradoxes, transforming from one form of experience into another, ceaselessly, all surrounding the common theme of your pain : is the form “truth” has taken.
Reconciliation lies in the simple act of sitting with that paradox.