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The blessings of illness

Kelly Johnston


It is quite natural that our first reaction to the news of illness or approaching death, either our own or someone else’s, is one of shock, sadness, mourning and pain. We immediately try to reject or combat the inevitable, because not only does it imply the loss or degeneration of the physical body, but perhaps even more terrifying, the very disintegration of our self – that which we believe to represent our being because it is formulated and situated by the psyche, thereby making us ‘real’ to ourselves. But what if instead of rejecting the stages of illness and death, we accept them as beneficial components of our personal evolution? Depending on the nature and severity of an illness, this can be an invaluable tool for emotional and psychological transformation, perhaps even bringing forth physical healing.

Our relationship with illness and death

Throughout our youth, and for some of us well into adulthood, many see illness as a circumstance completely bereft of shade, colour or hue. Although technically black is the combination of all colours and white is the absence of any, metaphorically we see the states of sickness and health as opposites: illness conjures up black, and health, white; death, of course, is the ultimate black. What possible good could come of either illness or death? Not only are they grievous outcomes for the afflicted, but families, friends, and even distant acquaintances are drawn into the mire. We achingly lament any news of cancer, heart disease, HIV or other acute conditions; we shake our heads sadly and offer hopeful words, but silently begin the internal process of mourning and letting go.

What do we have to lose?

What is it, though, that we really mourn when we, or someone we love, become ill or face the inevitability of death? Do we suffer for the body — the flesh and blood — that, when lost in youth seems an even crueler defeat than in that of one which withers, fades and depreciates with the years? Or is it the mind — our only means of proving our existence in this time and space — because it enables us to comprehend the concept of the unique self? Or is it the self itself? That world which we have created, of family, friends, possessions, memories, experiences, achievements and so much more. Faced with the prospect of this loss, we shiver and gather the cloak of that physical/mental/spiritual being around our shoulders, thinking we might somehow deflect the chilly spectre of what looms ahead.

Biotech vs. nature

As the pace of our biotechnology revs up to light-speed in our eternal quest to outfox nature, we increasingly turn our sights to the question of mortality. Though science now allows for the replication of DNA, cells, and organisms that can prolong and enhance our existence, it has yet to achieve the elusive goal of everlasting life. The possibilities and merits of transforming the circular to the linear remain a personal and philosophical matter for each of us. Most will agree, however, that at present, disease and death are an inextricable part of the cycle of life. Depending on the culture or era, the various stages of life are often heralded as auspicious passages — the joyous birth of a baby and the Christian baptism, the Hindu Sacred Thread or Jewish Bar Mitzvah ceremonies to herald adulthood, or the rite of marriage, to name a few. We celebrate and congratulate the new-found knowledge and opportunity that lie ahead, as well as the experience and wisdom gained from what we have left behind. Why, then, do we so endeavour to stave off two of the most profound stages of all? We reject and revile illness and death as if they have no value because we perceive them as end-stages — the ultimate, irrevocable loss of self. Yet if we instead are able to open ourselves without fear to the profundity of what they have to offer, we may lessen our resistance and in fact accept their advent with a sense of wonder, curiosity and quite possibly even welcome.

The role of karma

Faced with illness — which often leads to death — many find themselves explaining or justifying it to themselves as a matter of karma. Probably the most common perspective is that illness and/or death, especially of a ‘premature’ nature, represent the manifestation of bad karma. We believe we’ve brought the condition into our life in order to punish or as retribution for negative deeds of the past or what we perceive as our insufficient self in the present. This line of thinking often leads to the paradoxical questions, ‘Does illness happen to us (we have no control, it’s our obligatory recompense for transgressions) or do we generate our own illness (we create and control the course of our life)?’ Formidable questions, these, and no less so when we consider the fact that the related tributaries of loss, mourning, body, ego, mind, permanence, existence, and time are all quite illusory and ever-changing.

In The Alchemy of Illness, author Kat Duff tells the story of Nan Shin, who, during the unfolding of her experience with cancer, is visited by an old friend, a Buddhist companion. The friend jovially embraces her and exclaims, “Good Karma, huh? Brings you close to the Way.” Shin writes later, “The jolt I felt then showed me very clearly that I had been thinking, Bad Karma. Within a fraction of a second the molecules turned themselves around and reorganized. I am flatly grateful to him forever.” At that moment Shin realises that her illness is the cure, not the affliction. What if then, illness is in fact good karma, a means of righting something from the past or present — not as penance, but as a means of bringing balance, perspective and healing, be it emotional, spiritual or even physical? Perhaps it is something that comes in, or that we’ve brought into our lives in order to reveal further depths of knowledge, resolve debilitated relationships, and to empower us as teachers and healers ourselves, so that we may subsequently serve as examples or guides for others?

Does detachment help or hinder?

In pondering all this, we might do well to examine the idea of detachment a bit more closely. We advocate it and profess to strive for it, but in our solitary moments do we in fact quietly question its true worth? If we return to the idea of what we actually mourn when presented with the prospect of illness and death, we might enhance our understanding of detachment’s allure. We anguish over the loss of body, mind and the delusion and illusion of separate self, when it might serve us better to come to terms with what is really a matter of separation anxiety. We are anticipating the breaking apart of our solitary family of the self and the individual elements that we perceive to constitute it — body, mind, spirit, and our existence in the present. We’ve been together from the start, have never been apart, and are terrified to let go.

The case for acceptance

What seems as separation however, may actually be its very opposite — a virtual alchemical bonding of matter and spirit. If we could consider the acceptance of illness and death as an opportunity — as the cure and not the affliction — then we might see where detachment could prove a tempting ally. Through detachment from the self-family, much of the illusory entanglements fall away, enabling a clearer vision of our truest nature and an enhanced ability to evolve toward that nature, which is a gift to others as well. Without being bound to the confines of the perceived self, we are blessed with free reign to give, share, teach, support and love others unconditionally. We are able to focus on the very moment, not the future or the past; and finally, we are able to live in a more constant state of love, gratitude, acceptance, contentment, compassion and grace.


Duff, Kat. The Alchemy of Illness. New York: Bell Tower; 1993.

Kelly Johnston is an integrative health coach and consultant based in Mexico City. She hosts a website and blog at

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