by Bob Trowbridge

It is hard for most people to find anything good to say about being sick. Most illnesses create great discomfort at best and can be deadly at worst. Edgar Cayce built his reputation with physical readings, and left a rich legacy of information covering many of the ills we humans experience. Although these physical readings were always very specific to the individual, common remedies and general principles have kept the readings alive and relevant to this day.

But it may be Cayce's mental-spiritual readings that give us a clue to the role that illnesses can play in our spiritual growth. "€œMind is the builder," suggests that our illnesses are not haphazard and meaningless. Our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes "€œbuild" our illnesses as surely as they create any of our other experiences. Taking responsibility for our own ills can be quite liberating (unfortunately it can also make us feel guilty, stupid, powerless, and ineffective).

Do serious illnesses come to help us? Yes. God--the Higher Self, Creative Forces, All-That-Is--communicates with us in basically two kinds of messages, and we receive these messages 24 hours a day, even as we sleep and dream.

Because our own thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes create our daily experiences, daily life is also like a dream. Since I believe that dreams come to us with a healing intent, I would say that daily experiences also come to us with a healing intent. When daily life includes serious illness, accidents, or other crises, those problems usually come to us to help us become whole.

One kind of message is the message of hope, expansion, and spiritual growth. These positive messages strive to draw us forward into our greatest possibilities, revealing to us our power, beauty, creativity, and divinity, for us to expand into or avoid as we choose.

The second kind of message tells us about our fears, doubts, imbalances, and daily dis-eases. A nightmare or other kind of negative emotional dream is this kind of message. A nightmare does not come to frighten us, but to make us aware of fears we already have. A nightmare comes to give us an opportunity to heal an imbalance or dis-ease. So even nightmares come with a healing intent.

A serious illness, accident, or death of a loved one is a kind of waking nightmare and, like a sleeping nightmare, it too comes as a helpful message. The illness itself is not the problem, but points to a pre-existing problem. The illness is the culmination of days, months, or years of dis-ease and imbalance, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or any combination (my belief is that all dis-eases are at their basis spiritual, however they may manifest).

Therefore, illness, even serious illness, presents an opportunity for important spiritual growth and positive changes in many different areas of life. Following are some of the ways in which illnesses can serve our growth, positively as well as negatively.

Stopping Business-As-Usual

The first thing that a serious illness does for us is stop business-as-usual. Life is disrupted. Our personality or self-concept itself may be disrupted or de-structured. To the extent that we value ourselves for our role in society, whatever that role may be, we lose that value. One of the positive potentials of an illness, then, is to learn to value ourselves for who we are and not for what we do.

The questions to ask about our current role in life and current self-definition are: Where did they come from? (Of course much of our self-definition comes from our childhood and our roles will naturally grow from that.) How does that self-concept and role now serve us? (We a€™re getting something out of being our current self, even if it'€™s not positive.) What is the risk in letting our current self change?

Such an illness also disrupts structures around us, structures such as family, friends, and work. It is possible for some of these structures to be strengthened by the illness. A whole family can be healed by the illness of one member. A sometimes painful refining process can occur in which you lose some of your current friends and associates. But if you emerge from the illness with a new self you will also attract different friends who support your new self.

An illness sometimes results in a complete change in career or life-style. One woman who contracted cancer recalled frequently saying, "This job is killing me." Such statements or thoughts are clues to dis-ease. This same woman found that her cancer helped her cut the apron strings from her two youngest (but grown) children, something the "healthy" self was unable to do.

Take a Break

One of the obvious reasons for a serious illness is to rest. Some people only allow themselves to rest if they are sick. Those who become sick and try to "€œtough it out" may be interfering with one of the main purposes of the illness. If we do not use our illness to heal our dis-ease, we may have to contract another one. Healing of symptoms does not necessarily heal the precipitating dis-ease. If we do not heed our nightmares we may need to have more nightmares.

Besides the enforced rest to the body that an illness can bring, it also allows us the time to turn our attention away from external things and search our inner self. One form of imbalance is being too active in the world and neglecting the inner self and its equally important needs.

An illness can act as an initiatory experience, a rite of passage into a new self, a new life. Our culture is lacking in such rites and yet each of us must go through a number of significant passages in our lives, passages made more difficult because of that lack. An illness can bring our community of family and friends into participation with our transition. When the old structures, both internal and external, fall apart, our support community can help us in restructuring the new self.

While an illness can bring about enforced rest for one individual, it can serve to energize another. Some individuals' lives seem to be going along fine. There are no obvious problems or challenges. But these individuals may not be growing, may not be utilizing their energy and gifts. They may need a small kick in the pants. A less serious illness or minor operation sometimes serves that purpose very nicely, adding a dash of excitement and danger to a life that is not moving. Even an illness that is not life threatening or a minor operation can awaken our sense of mortality and cause us to re-examine our life priorities and goals.

Negative Uses for Illness

Finally, there aresome negative uses for illness, uses that do not serve the higher goal of healing the whole. Some individuals use illness as a form of sacrifice, a way of suffering in the belief that their real or imagined sins will thus be forgiven. An operation sometimes serves nicely as a blood sacrifice, the removal of an organ or other body part serving to wash away guilt and sin. Unfortunately, such sacrifices seldom have any lasting effect and a new disease or operation then has to be created.

The sacrificer is also sometimes the martyr, using illness to manipulate and control others. An illness can be blamed on parents, society, or God. The illness is proof of the wrong done and such an individual will not allow healing to occur and lose that evidence. Illnesses can also be used to elicit sympathy. It is important to understand the difference between pity and compassion. Sympathy in the right form can be very healing and in the wrong form can feed the illness.

Instead of allowing the old self to break down and creating a new self through an illness, one can make the mistake of allowing the ill self to become the new self. An individual can become so identified with an illness that he or she begins to perceive the world through the illness's dark lens. For example, instead of saying a person has diabetes, we say he is a diabetic. We say someone is a schizophrenic or an epileptic.

A woman I worked with had hypoglycemia and emotional problems. Even though she seemed to be doing everything possible to heal herself, I realized that deep down she had no intention of getting healthy. Her illnesses were actually serving her by helping her to avoid facing those things she said she wanted more than anything, a career and family. They also served as evidence of the wrong done to her by her parents and a former boyfriend. The illness gave meaning and focus to her life. Doing battle with the illness or restricting herself because of it became her life's work.

An illness can serve us an excuse not to do the things we claim we would like to do. Illnesses protect us from the unknown future. They protect us from taking risks that can lead to success or failure. Illnesses and other limitations are like monsters that we feed and care for because they are known monsters that protect us from possible unknown monsters in the future.

Daily awareness of our sleeping and waking dreams will always give us clues to any imbalances we may have. We are actually aware of most of our imbalances but just do not take the time to do the daily healing work that will prevent illnesses or other crises.

Daily healing begins with awareness, paying attention to the information that is supplied to us about how we are doing. It means listening to what we say about ourselves and our situations (such as "I am sick and tired of..." or I can't stand it.") and paying attention to those areas of our lives where we are frustrated or unhappy. It may be that most illnesses are actually the result of an unwillingness to change and grow.

Individuals will stay in an unsatisfying job or a bad relationship simply because it is "safer" than going through the unknown territory of change. Daily healing would include meditation, prayer, and other ways of communicating with God or the inner self. The inner self is growth- and change-oriented. If we listen to the messages of the inner self and act on them, we will never need to be shaken up by illness. When we allow ourselves to follow the direction of growth--often the direction of risk--we will be acting and living in a healthy way.

The body knows how to be healthy and how to heal itself. It takes a great deal of time and energy to build up to a serious illness, and ongoing attention and energy to keep an illness "healthy." Maintaining an illness requires that we overcome our own naturally healthy self as well as the healthy bias of the universe.

Healing Dis-ease Before it Becomes Disease

How can we uncover and heal the daily dis-eases or imbalances that can lead to illness, accident, or other crises? Cayce frequently said that we are always "meeting self." We meet our self in all of our dreams and we meet our self in all of our waking experiences. But we don't always meet the "true" self. Our dreams and waking experiences sometimes portray the fearful self, the one distorted by negative beliefs and attitudes, the guilty or judgmental self--the self we think we are.

Cayce said that thoughts are things. It is our thoughts, our ideas about ourselves, others, and the world, which create our perceptions of the world around us as well as the world of our dreams.

The true self is that self created in the image of God. The gap that we all experience between the self we are familiar with and that ideal self is essentially false. In other words, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are less than we are. We hide, not just from God's light, but from ourselves as reflectors of that light.

If the self we identify with is diseased or out of balance, we can change our thoughts and beliefs to create new beings. Illnesses give us a chance to do that. But the daily messages from the inner self, waking and sleeping, give us the opportunity to change our thoughts and create a new holier (whole, becoming) self on a daily basis, eliminating the need for illness, accident, or crisis.

The true self also presents itself to us daily and nightly. In our dreams we may encounter Christ or other religious figures, an angel, a wise woman, a teacher, a magician, a powerful animal, a power object, or even a powerful and beautiful setting. In our waking lives we see examples of individuals and situations where the highest ideals of the human spirit are acted out. We see examples of heroism and excellence in body, mind, and spirit. Even characters in fiction or myth demonstrate who we truly are and what we are capable of doing.

Our culture highly values competition and we project that idea onto nature and see competition and struggle as natural. That is another distortion. Cooperation is the only reality. When my body becomes ill I can say, "Thank you," because my body is cooperating with my higher self, giving me an opportunity for spiritual growth, a chance to move toward "super health." When I feel that someone is my enemy or that circumstances are in opposition to me, I can say "Thank you," because those persons or circumstances are cooperating with me to show me where my blocks and fears are.

This is not an easy philosophy to live, for it removes all possibility of blaming others, or even our past lives. Thus we risk feeling guilty or ineffectual. But when we succeed, it is empowering. If my thoughts create the things in my life, my thoughts can change the things that are not positive or growth-inducing, can replace them with something more fulfilling. And if I want to know what my underlying thoughts and beliefs are, all I have to do is look at my dreams and at my waking life experiences.

Originally published in Venture Inward, July/August/1989

About the author:

Bob Trowbridge is an editor for Southern Lights. He has been active in the A.R.E. since 1975 when he joined his first study group. In the Northern California /Northern Nevada Region of the A.R.E., Bob was a frequent and popular speaker and workshop leader. He has written a number of articles for Venture Inward and other publications. He has spoken at A.R.E. Headquarters a number of times as well as in numerous A.R.E. regions.

Bob and his wife Diane now reside in North Carolina where Bob is active with the Triangle Team and the Core Team. His book, The Hidden Meaning of Illness: Disease as a Symbol & Metaphor, was published by A.R.E. Press in 1996 and is now out of print.