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Finding the Message of Illness
by Ira Progoff, Ph.D.


The development of resources and techniques for use in physical healing has been one of the major achievements of science in Western civilization. Nonetheless, there are substantial concerns about the impact and implications that its continued successes will have on other aspects and directions of human existence. It may be that we require an approach to human experience that makes possible a step beyond the present conception of healing.

It is important for us to bear in mind that the healing arts are fundamentally creative arts, and that the human beings who practice them are artists. To begin, we note a fundamental principle in the study of creativity: every human activity, to the degree that it is creative, is an art. It creates something that was not there before. In certain circumstances the "something" that is created may be altogether new; in other circumstances the something new that is created may be an addition to what is already in existence. In either case, the creativity that takes place is an act of art in two main senses: firstly, because it expresses the special capacity and knowledge of the artist with respect to that particular subject matter; and secondly, because the artist proceeds in a self-directed way toward achieving the purpose of the work as fully and as well as is possible. These are the two primary functional aspects of art: that it draws upon a special, personally developed, often intuitive knowledge of its subject; and that it applies this knowledge to meet the person's individual criteria of quality.

In the continuity of history some areas of art accumulate combinations of specialized technical knowledge that are drawn from several segments of society. This gives them a multiple resource for the information and concepts which they can use as well as for the diverse contexts in which their work can be conducted. Since these areas of knowledge contain several orientations and types of subject matter, they are generally referred to in a plural form as the "arts." In this way we have among others in modern society the architectural arts, the literary arts, the industrial arts, and the broad area of the healing arts.

The healing arts draw upon several areas of expertise, sometimes of special talent, as they approach the two main areas of human illness: the physical and the emotional. Whatever the differences among the various healing arts may be, there is unity in the fact that they are always directed toward improving the condition of a human being where that condition is perceived as having fallen into a state requiring repair. In the case of the medical arts, a particular form of the healing arts, the specialized knowledge that is drawn upon as a primary source is that of the sciences of biology and chemistry.

There is considerable social significance in the fact that in recent years, despite the impressive successes of the medical arts, there has been a growing number of attempts to develop healing approaches that begin at a non-Western starting point and proceed with a non-medical orientation. It would be a mistake to view the medical and non-medical approaches as alternatives to each other. They need not be seen as being in a competitive relationship. Rather, the fact that the modern medical approach to healing is not universally accepted despite its many achievements should be a sign to us that, beyond the needs for which the medical arts have developed forms of treatment, there are additional human needs that reach out for help in a healing context. It may be that it is because these needs remain unsolved, despite, and perhaps beyond the great contributions that the medical arts have made, that non-medical approaches to healing continue to attract large numbers of appreciative participants. There is apparently something in the modern human being that is reaching out for help and asking to be healed.

In general, it is correct to say that when we experience an illness, whether we feel it to be primarily physical or emotional, our main desire is to rid ourselves of its effects as quickly as we can. Healing in this context is primarily a means of eliminating something.

In earlier centuries and in simpler societies than ours, the task of healing was undertaken by means of special incantations, by rituals and prayers, and by focusing the energy and power of the individual who was felt to have healing qualities on the person who was ill. This was the vitalistic form of healing. Historically there were two main reasons why the vitalistic approach was eventually replaced. One was that its rate of success in healing was not great enough for survival in the long run. The second reason was that during the early centuries of the rationalist era in Europe the increasing successes of the inductive methods of science in understanding the material world led to many insights in the areas of biology and chemistry.

There are substantial differences between the vitalistic and the materialist medical approaches to healing. We must take note, however, not only of an underlying sameness in the goals of their work but also in the view of causality on which they rely to achieve their healing effects. Whatever treatment or ritual they apply, they consider it a "cause" that will have a healing "effect." We observe then that when healing is successfully achieved by forces external to the integral process of the person's life whether by modern medicine or by non-medical procedures—the net effect is to release the individual from the task of finding the personal significance of the illness. It may be, as is often the case, that the fact that the illness occurred in the first place is a message to the person with respect to the conduct of life, seeking to call attention to particular aspects of the life or to the conduct of the life as a whole.

In this regard we must note as a fundamental fact of human existence that each of the events of our life carries a message for some other aspect of our life. The human life span becomes an opportunity for continuing education, an opportunity that grows larger as the possibilities of longevity increase with the advances of medical technology. Each event in a life carries with it an additional truth which, when it is recognized and understood, can be applied in the next phase of our life-experience.

The reason for this lies in the nature of the depth processes that move in a human life beneath the surface of consciousness. These processes are multiple in a human existence, for they carry the continuity of a person's inner relationships, to other persons, to work activities, body conditions, cultural loyalties and religious experiences. Separate parts come together in varied interconnections to form the integrated unity of a human life. These many mini-processes, which comprise the unitary process of an individual life, are separate from each other; but what happens in one often has a message for another. The messages that are carried by the mini-processes within a person often contain the kind of truths that can be called "life wisdom." Sometimes they are brought to us by studies and meditations that deepen our individual consciousness with inner experiences. Some of these events are markedly unpleasant, especially when they take the form of physical illness, emotional illness, or combinations of the two. Whether they are pleasant or not, they carry the seed of an additional understanding, a "life wisdom" that enlarges the inner education and development of a person.

We observe, however, as a fact of experience that if the healing takes place too quickly or is too effectively achieved by an external intervention, nothing new will be learned. By either approach, whether the healing arts are carried out from a materialist or from a vitalist point of view, when their interventions are successful the person is set free to forget about the illness and to ignore the issues and whatever guidance for the life, whatever reconsiderations for living the illness may have been carrying. The principle seems to he that if a healing is brought about primarily by factors that are external to the inner process of the person's life, the conduct of life that preceded the illness can be resumed without change and with impunity. But then no message, no new wisdom of life, has been learned. The pain of the illness has been experienced, but we can truly say that the pain was in vain since it led to no new awareness.

While rapid healings are very much to be desired, we must bear in mind the counter-effects that occur when healings are achieved too quickly or easily by the intervention of methods or physical factors that are external to the inner process of a person's life. We come thus to the question of whether we have to avoid the rapid healing of illnesses in order to have time to learn the messages they are carrying for us. Not at all. We may allow ourselves to he healed as quickly as possible, provided that we understand the difference between an illness being healed by the intervention of factors that are external to our personal inner process, and an illness that has been healed because its message has been absorbed into the consciousness of our life as a whole, where its message can be incorporated into our future conduct. When it leaves as though of its own volition, the illness nonetheless leaves behind itself further responsibilities which the person must fulfill. If these are not carried out, the illness will need to return. The next time it will likely be in another, stronger form. The most important responsibility that is left behind for the person is the task of finding and comprehending the message for the future conduct of the life that the illness was carrying.

There are a number of circumstances in which a physical condition can have a more-than-transient role in a person's life. It may be that the illness has a particular relation to the way the person's life has been lived. In working to overcome the illness, issues may be raised that reach beyond the physical condition affecting the direction and the conduct of the life. Sometimes in seeking to overcome a weakness, unexpected strengths and new possibilities are developed. These unexpected developments may turn out to be a major aspect of the message that the illness was carrying. Sometimes a person's illness becomes a permanent part of the life simply because no means of healing it is found. Not being able to eliminate the physical condition, the person may be forced to draw on the native ingenuity of life to find a means of living with it. Then, unexpectedly, the illness becomes a constructive element in the life, in large part because it was not healed. Something of a larger significance is involved here, however, for it shows us where to look when we are seeking the meaning of an illness.

It is one thing to identify the meaning of an illness by analyzing the "causes" and proximate sources from which it seems to have come. It is something other to enter into a relationship with the illness by which the illness is able to articulate its message for the life. The relationship of dialogue is one of the important possibilities that the Intensive Journal method makes available. In this conception, meaning is not to be found in the "causes" that lie in the past, nor in the determinants, the specified possibilities, that are contained in the seed of each organism. Rather, meaning emerges out of the movement of events as a human life unfolds. Meaning is an extra that emerges sometimes in the course of a human existence.

So it is with meaning in a human life. We cannot plan for it. But we know that it can never happen unless we do the groundwork and thus open the possibility that it can come to pass some time in the future unexpectedly. We never know in advance when meaning will take shape and be embodied in a life and become the emergent of that life as an artwork.

The essence of the Intensive Journal method is that it approaches a human life as an artwork from which meaning may potentially emerge at some point. Its principles are drawn from holistic depth psychology, especially the perception that each life is unique both in its content and in its potential for meaning. At a Journal Workshop it is apparent that this principle of individual uniqueness is not an abstraction for it is quickly made concrete as the Journal exercises are carried out.

One of the early exercises at a Journal Workshop is the listing of Steppingstones, a dozen brief statements marking off the events in an individual's life that are felt to be personally significant. These are spontaneously recalled and briefly recorded in the quiet atmosphere of a Journal Workshop. The first Steppingstone is common to everyone. We begin by completing the statement, "I was born..." The second Steppingstone completes the phrase, "And then..." And the same for each successive Steppingstone that follows in the life. The dozen or so Steppingstones that comprise the listrecapitulate the movement of the life from birth to the present moment when the listing of Steppingstones is being made. While the first Steppingstone is the same for everyone and there are similarities among some of the Steppingstones that follow, each list is different from every other list. No two are the same. This expresses the fact that each individual human existence is unique, as are the possibilities for meaning in its experiences.

A second principle that the Intensive Journal process derives from holistic depth psychology is that an individual human being is to be approached not as a case history possessing pathologies but as a life history that contains potential for meaning in the events of the life. Directing our attention to the life history of a person becomes particularly important when we seek to find the message that an illness is carrying.

The first step is to establish the context of the life as a whole. We do this with the Journal exercises that enable us to work with the Steppingstones. Having established the context of the life, and having made contact with some of its contents, we have access to the material in the life to which we can apply the Journal Feedback method. Working within the Journal structure in order to maintain the framework and continuity of our life as a whole, we use the active, non-analytic techniques to feed back to ourselves in order that we can add to the various perceptions and entries that we have made in the Journal sections. Thus we direct our attention to the aspects of our life that now seem particularly significant to us, and we amplify the contents of our earlier entries. The experiences in our life that relate to our illnesses and to the condition of our body in general come to the fore in the Journal section called Dialogue with the Body. Here we use the self-expanding procedures of Journal Feedback process as our means of drawing out for our personal perception the implications of the events and contents of our physical life.

As human beings our lives have a physical body at their base. These bodies do not contain meaning in themselves. Because of their intimate relation to us, however, our bodies are organs of experience by which meaning can enter our lives. When our bodies become ill or are injured, they need to he healed. To achieve this healing, or fixing, of the body there are many techniques that are available to the healing arts. Some of these techniques have a vitalistic source. Others, especially those that are more widely used in the modern era, are derived from materialist medical practice. The essence of healing however does not lie in the efficiency with which the body and its parts can be restored to strength. It lies in the meaning that is added to the life of the person who suffers the illness or the injury. This meaning is not something that can be given to the person from the outside, for example, as a belief can be stated and recommended, or as a treatment of the body can be given from the outside. This added meaning can come only by means of an experience that takes place within the person as an individual finds interiorly the message carried by an illness, absorbs it into consciousness and allows it in its own timing to disclose its meaning for the life.

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Originally published in Spiritual Aspects of the Healing Arts, by Dora Kanz (Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1985), pp. 197-209. This is an abbreviated version of the article "Find the Message of Illness" by Ira Progoff, Ph.D. "Intensive Journal" and "Journal Feedback" are the registered trademark and servicemark respectively of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House.