The Blessing of Illness
None of us want to be sick, and yet we all experience the occasional cold, flu, or something more serious. Some persons, like my wife, who have a weak immune system, deal with a body that is prone to catch whatever bug is going around. Having such a delicate bodily instrument, if they don’t eat and sleep properly they become more susceptible to illness. Thus my wife is a much greater expert than me in understanding the benefits of sickness to her spiritual life and how the body can be a great teacher. Never the less, I have a few experiences that have helped me appreciate the value of illness. Having a background in Krishna consciousness and a trained philosophical eye and heart helps us see everything—even great reverses—in relationship to Krishna and bhakti. Illness can bring us to our knees in surrender and teach us the smallness of our existence (even Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakur glorified ill health for this very reason, and he underwent many bouts of sickness in his life). I was reminded of this after I ate something at Radhastami that didn’t agree with me, and have had the runs for the last 3 days. While not a pleasant experience on one level, I also practically experienced how sickness can be a helpful part of our spiritual journey.
We have the saying that, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” While there is relative truth in this, I would say that “If you don’t have Krishna consciousness or a spiritual perspective on life, you don’t have anything.” Certainly we should all endeavor to be healthy, and not fall sick, yet regardless of the condition of our body it’s important to understand our soul beyond the temporary body. If we have no spiritual standing or a philosophical outlook, when illness comes we’ll tend to identify with our condition. We may also be perplexed to understand why we are suffering, especially if our illness is severe or frequent, and we consider ourselves a “good” or religious person. I know there are stoic atheists who deal with reverses well, yet few of them can see physical difficulties as anything extremely beneficial, or meaningful, to their lives. During my mom’s finally few days, she seemed to deal with her pending death by not really facing it. Though living was miserable during her last years, she still didn’t want to die. And she had no ultimate shelter, though she was happy to have her son with her—and I made sure she had a good spiritual send off when she left her body behind at death.
The most dramatic demonstration of the blessings of illness occurred during my first visit to Mayapur, the birthplace of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, in West Bengal. It was February 1974, the first really international celebration of this festival, and I was a young person of a tender 23 ½, and a devotee for only 4 years. I knew next to nothing about India or West Bengal, as did most of the other devotees. We had our faith in Shrila Prabhupada, the holy name, and in Shri Chaitanya. Other than that essential spiritual ingredient, we were green in every sense of the word, and weren’t prepared for what was to come. To me, everything was new and exotic, yet strangely familiar. The plane to India was filled with devotees who had kindly brought great quantities of Prasad, or spiritual food. While thoughtful, I became sick eating it on the plane (my first overseas flight), and continued to be sick for most of the month I stayed in India. I am sure other devotees know more specific details than me, but I do remember my agony and ecstasy. I couldn’t seem to get better for long from dysentery, and I wasn’t the only one. I remember being on the roof of the only building there—the 3 story one with Prabhupada’ s quarters on the first floor, and seeing lots of other sick devotees laid out.
I wore a hood and scarf, sometimes had a fever, and as we walked to the holy places in Mayapur and then Vrindavana, I remember feeling so uncomfortable, and having to frequently answer the call of nature at inconvenient times. In fields, or sometimes beside roads, around holy places we were visiting, I would have to squat and pass my running stuff. It was such an embarrassing condition to be in. I couldn’t find relief and was both miserable and very blissful by being in the holy dhams. I found that my ill body, also weakened my false ego, and for probably for the first time in my life, I felt some real humility. To not be burdened by the false ego, or to try to defend it, or my so-called honor, or to try to enjoy the body—I couldn’t do anything well, and I had a sense of relief that I didn’t have to cut a profile or be anything. I was just a fallen jiva, trying to be a devotee. This was a very profound experience for which I was, and am grateful. I lost about 40 pounds on the trip and when I returned to the Hawaii, hardly anyone recognized me.
Although the last few days haven’t been as profound as that India trip, I was still reminded of how dependent we are on material conditions, and how, in a second, all our material facilities and supports can be withdrawn. Then we really have no choice but to surrender to Krishna. In between my japa in front of our Deities, the toilet became my place of intense prayer. Actually, it usually is for me. The naked truth of the body is always on display, though more so in my illness. Being aware of my material tendencies, I lament, and pray to come to the spiritual platform. I tend to continue my regular prayers that Krishna allows me to be a real, or pure devotee, to have true spiritual humility and standing, and to be able to share whatever I have been blessed with. There is nothing else in life to aspire for, even though there may be specific details which extend from this, like for me, writing or promoting my book. The essence of spiritual life is being a surrender servant of the servant of the Lord and His devotees. At least this is how I see it.