The Koan Riddle of Illness
It is often supposed that good health means never to be ill. But in fact no-one can be always in good condition. There are little accidents, if nothing worse. Good health is simply a vigorous response to an adverse condition.
Again, some people think health is manifested by ceaseless activity, like lambs frisking. But this sort of energy is not useful, because it is not available for any definite purpose as the occasion arises; to implement a purpose also requires that the body can be alert in relaxation at certain times. Good health means to be able to organise the available energy, not simply having plenty of it.
The Yogic view of illness and health differs considerably from the commonplace idea of individual health as an absolute good in itself. It looks much wider: the health of a tiger is bad news for sheep, as the return to health of tyrants is bad news for most of their subjects.
More Harm Than Good
We have to ask ourselves: does my health, indeed my existence, do more harm in the world than good.
From ancient times this question has been conceived as a Last Judgement after death. An Egyptian papyrus of about 1500 BC, reflecting beliefs from much earlier, depicts the judgement as the weighing of the deceased one’s heart against a feather, which symbolises righteousness and truth. If the heart is heavier than the feather, a monster devours the soul. If the heart is light, namely free from sins of passion then the soul goes to live among the gods.
But the koan-riddle of illness confronts us with the weighing in the balance here and now. There is a Buddhist saying that there are three kinds of people in the world: first those whose existence is necessary, and second those whose existence is not significant one way or the other, and third those whom the world would be better without.
A great teacher remarked on this point: when we fall ill and pray to God or to some Buddha to be well again, we should examine our lives. We should resolve that if we are in the third or even the second category, when we recover we will make ourselves one of the first category.
It is easy to feel that provided we are not actively dishonest or violent, we are not doing harm. It is true that I may not use a knife but I can wound without one. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that even a deep wound by a weapon will heal if it is looked after and protected, but only the grace of God can heal the wounds left by a venomous tongue. We may add that this is because such wounds are constantly being reopened by the victim. The tongue can be a poisoned sword.
The Two Diseases
Yoga goes not merely wider but deeper. Its diagnosis of man is that he suffers from two diseases: the physical, and the spiritual. The physical side is familiar: increasing overall deterioration up to death. The spiritual consists in identification with a limited individual self and its interests. The physical diseases can be treated by physical means and to some extent by psychological means. But however good the physical condition, while the spiritual disease remains, there will be no less suffering, a main part of which is underlying fear manifesting as anxiety, depression and sometimes anger. The patients may have been cured but they have not been healed.
What happens if the spiritual disease is healed but the physical disease is not cured? The experience of the mystics is that the cosmic life-stream may pour through even the most imperfect instrument. Saint Francis of Assisi was blind and crippled at forty. A seemingly pathetic prematurely aged figure, tottering around, but blazing inwardly with divine inspiration. Some months before he died in 1226 he composed The Canticle of Created Beings (popularly known as The Canticle of the Sun), which was the first poem in anything that could be called Italian. It is technically imperfect but a work of supreme genius that set going the stream of spiritual poetry, through the Franciscan da Todi up to Dante.
To heal the external disease without treating the inner disease is like giving better spectacles to someone with grit in the eyes.
Need and Want
The so-called advanced countries of today tend to confuse need and want. We need a certain amount of food in proper proportions but we want much more luxurious fare. We need a certain amount of transport but we want to have two or three cars per family. Supported by influential writings of, for instance, Bertrand Russell, it is supposed that children’s inclinations and whims in educational matters are their needs. In the same way it is clear that some health is necessary but it is wrong to suppose that highest achievements cannot be made through a very unhealthy instrument. When Beethoven composed his wonderful last quartets, his health was in ruins.
There are great reserves of energy available to those who enter deeply into Yoga practice. Before this we should struggle for health, but in the knowledge that it is not an end in itself. Independence of the state of health will increase as inner light and energy begins to show themselves.
Cures By Yoga?
If this is so then the question naturally arises: is it right to use yogic methods, such as breath control, as a means to regain and maintain health?
In the classical and traditional view, to use them for worldly ends can easily become a subtle materialism. This can happen when they are sold for money or exploited for long life or sexual virility or for fame or for political ends. Even the possession of substantial property to be defended may be a danger. Adverse consequences are not inevitable but there is a risk.
Some of the hatha-yoga texts claim to aim at physical perfection and mental control with a view to the spiritual goal of liberation from the restrictions of individuality. But as a matter of fact some of the incentives given represent an intensification of individuality. It is promised, for instance, that by certain techniques the skin of the yogin becomes lustrous and he or she is irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex. (Such attractiveness may become a serious obstacle, when the brahmachari or brahmacharini does not respond to the advances.) They claim that in the final stages all such attachments are dissolved but sometimes these practices may be pursued for purely worldly gains. A very advanced yogin who regards his body-mind complex as no more than an instrument, and himself no more than a servant with no claim to any personal advantages can undertake some of the special practises without becoming tainted by them.
Attempts to use meditation to actualise material or mental supposed benefits contain a deep contradiction. Let us give a definite instance from the yoga of Patanjali. In his system the first condition for true knowledge and power is samadhi which is the final stage in the quartet: Withdrawal (pratyahara), Concentration-on-a-point (dharana), Meditation (dhyana), Absorbtion (samadhi). But samadhi alone is not sufficient. There has to be skill in throwing off physical and then subtle associations from the samadhi on the same object. Samadhi is not complete until it loses its own character as a meditation practice. In other words the meditator no longer thinks “I am meditating”. Then the object blazes forth in its true nature. These points are given in sutras 1.43 and 1.48.
However as was said above to meditate for personal gain can be a subtle form of materialism and Patanjali himself says that to use Yoga methods for anything short of liberation leads to suffering. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Even when it is successful it lays down deep impressions (sanskara-s) at the base of the mind. In subsequent meditations it will be increasingly difficult to throw off these stronger associations, as sutra 1.43 requires. The excitement aroused by any success will be a little storm-centre, a vortex in the ocean of the mind.
Is there no scope then for mental and spiritual methods to remedy afflictions such as illness? As hinted above, prayers for material gains are liable to defeat themselves in the longer run by increasing the inner disease while curing the outer one. Nevertheless there are prayers sanctioned in all traditions for such things as health. The important point to notice is that the response is nearly always concealed. Why? An overt response usually leads to increasing dependence, a sort of paralysis. Why make any efforts at all when one’s desires and requests can be effortlessly fulfilled from the heights.
As an example the Indian saint familiarly called Sri Dada was a high-caste Brahmin who took it upon himself to give medical treatment to the local so-called Untouchables. He did this by opening a little clinic where he dispensed traditional Ayur Vedic remedies, which in fact effected some remarkable cures. He said once: “I make some study of the Ayur Veda texts but I cannot call myself an expert. However, I give these remedies with the blessings of my own teacher, the great yogi Krisnananda Saraswati. In this way the hidden potency of the blessing was concealed in the minor efficacy of the medicine.”
In a similar way his disciple Hari Prasad Shastri studied the elements of homeopathy and gave homeopathic prescriptions for some of his pupils’ ailments. He gave no blessings openly but concealed them in this sort of way. It cannot be said that his procedures were ineffective: a number of his pupils lived into 80s and 90s and one up to 105.
But he did not want disciples to become dependent; he said that dependence on anything other than the Supreme Self was the greatest error and the root of all other errors.
© 2000 Trevor Leggett