The Theosophical Society in America

Illness As Spiritual Experience

By Robert W. Bonnell

Originally printed in the Summer 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bonnell, Robert W.. “Illness As Spiritual Experience.” Quest  97. 3 (Summer 2009): 108-109, 112.

Robert BonnellAll kingdoms of life ascend by virtue of the divine principle within them. This motivation, spiritual in essence, strives to elevate all life to higher planes of expression. As part of our being is universal, we share in the trials and tribulations of the working out of this cosmic plan. Such a relationship demands continual changes in our concepts. Change is necessary both for progress and for inner unification.

In the human kingdom, the spiritual or higher mind is the recipient of the divine pulsation, and it in turn transmits the impulse to the lower or outer spheres. As the creative impulse manifests in the physical mind and body, reactions of various magnitudes occur, arousing a variety of emotions depending upon the receptivity of the lower mind. The inability of the physical mind to grasp this impulse for what it truly is causes disharmony, resulting in physical and mental illness. (The terms physical mind or brain-mind do not imply that the mind is contained within the physical brain. After-death periods of torment, reflection, and bliss are conscious experiences that indicate the existence of some degree of analytical awareness apart from the brain. The function of the brain, which in itself is nothing but a mass of nerve tissue, is to instigate and maintain physiological nerve impulses.)

To understand human problems, including illness, we must employ a broad, intuitive view. As a book cannot be read through a pinhole, the Book of Life cannot be fully read through the pinhole view of the brain-mind or under the shadow of the personality. The larger openings of the philosophic or impersonal must be sought. Any investigation of life must include the abstract, spiritual view and will reveal that the physical plane is merely one of effects and reactions. Original cause or action is not conceived here. In the drama of life, the spiritual mind is the dramatist, the physical mind is the actor, and the body or physical plane is the stage whose settings must continually change to meet the moods of the play.

All evolutionary processes first contact the individuality through the spiritual mind, so that all physical reaction is due, in some respect, to a spiritual impulse. At our present degree of awareness, we harbor the emotions of both sides of the mental plane, sharing the bliss of spiritual nature and the passions of earthly desires at the same time. The lower, conscious mind is where disharmony arises. Sickness is perhaps the most common reaction. The body is not the cause of sickness; what is commonly known as disease is actually the body's effort to protect itself against this vibratory intrusion. Reactions such as pain, fever, congestion, inflammation, chills, tumors, mucus, coughing, and diarrhea, are not destructive but constructive. They can be compared with the coiling of a snake when it senses danger: the coiling is not the danger but a reaction to danger. Coiling is not the snake's normal position, but under certain conditions it is quite normal. Likewise, fever, chills, tumors, heart enlargements, and so forth, are not normal states, but under certain conditions they are not only normal but necessary to the life of the body.

Scientific research is looking intently for the cause of man's physical woes, but the search is for the most part confined to the physical realm, which can at best reveal nothing but effects. That new discoveries differ from the old does not necessarily indicate that anything truly causative has been found. Much research is like a merry-go-round, moving but going nowhere. The original cause of anything, including disease, cannot be found in the material sphere of life, which by itself cannot create; it simply does not have the mechanism for it. It is not the plane of the manifester but of the manifested. Illness and the cause of illness inhabit different planes, one being the reaction to the other. Future research must recognize man as a product of divinity, containing the properties of both spirit and matter, and must acknowledge that disharmony merely results from the working out of the conflict of spirit versus matter. Christian symbology hints at this truth in the martyrdom of the Crucifixion and subsequent triumph of the Resurrection: the inner Christ versus the outer flesh, the higher versus the lower.

Today, then, the greatest dilemma comes from mistaking effect for cause. There may be effects causing effects within the physical plane, but the initial cause can be never found within the physical realm. Therefore all physical process, including illness, is reaction to nonphysical stimuli. These ideas lead to two conclusions:

1. Physical illness rarely has a physical cause.
2. Any outside physical influence affecting the body cannot be a primary cause.

This second point may seem difficult to understand if the illness is, for instance, the result of an automobile accident, but the law applies here also. What, after all, is the true nature of an accident? Is it coincidence or bad luck? Such an interpretation can never provide true understanding, because it discounts the metaphysical. All life follows a plan; hence nothing of any significance happens without cause or reason. Either the accident was necessary for the experience or the lower mind was not receptive to higher direction. In either case, the accident would have constructive compensations. This attitude may appear fatalistic, but it is merely saying that spiritual forces are acting in the unpleasant as well as in the pleasant moments of life. We cannot deny that both are beneficial any more than we can praise the right hand and criticize the left merely because we are right-handed. Both are equally necessary, and both serve a need.

The body exhibits reactions or effects (called symptoms, disease, or illness) because that is all it is capable of expressing. It cannot perpetuate the cause of anything, being a part of the physical world. All it can do is receive and react in accordance with its quality of reception. Illness, then, is the precipitation of the emotional level into the physical due to temporary antagonism between the higher mind (what we should be doing) and the lower mind (what we are doing). We will outgrow such struggles in times to come, when a complete unification of the lower and higher aspects of the mind takes place.

Illness does not, however, indicate a false or misguided life or a total failure in our efforts toward a well-balanced life. It does indicate an imperfection, which is natural at this stage of spiritual growth. Illness can also lead to a more profound view of life. The lower mind becomes tempered and searching as a result of bodily disturbance. Its confidence and security are so shaken that it turns elsewhere for consolation. This is most often true with chronic afflictions, but all types of ill health can lead to a more serious and contemplative thought pattern.

Are illness and other forms of suffering necessary for spiritual growth? Certainly some impetus is necessary for moving man forward by breaking up crystallized ways of living and thinking. In most instances, this impetus takes the form of disease or other difficulties. Furthermore, it is not the true Self that suffers. In fact, the true Self is spiritually strengthened by the synthesis resulting from the antagonism of the conflict that takes place within the lower mind.

For eons, the lower mind has concerned itself consciously with the plane of the physical. Now, because of our evolutionary position, we are slowly rising into greater vistas of spiritual comprehension. The lower mind, through experience of life, is continually expanding and absorbing the characteristics of its higher counterpart, but, from its point of view, the great power arising from its higher contacts is foreign and repellent at first. The blending of the two aspects of our nature is not always cordial. The lower mind and body must continually reorient themselves in order to complement this higher expansion. It is much like retooling an automobile factory when a new car model is going into production. Readjustment means problems, and in some cases problems result in illness.

To the body, or more specifically, the cell, the reactions resulting from illness are creative as well as protective. What is a cell? It is more than protoplasm; it is an individual life, compounded of divinity, soul, and form. Though its limited soul-perception can express itself only in a cellular form, it is basically the same in cause and purpose as all other forms of life. All lives are but diverse aspects of the One, yet are united through common origin and purpose.

Through the process of illness and the protective effort it produces, the cell undergoes transition. Transition through experience leads to progress, and progress is spiritual advancement. Our body is an aggregate of lives (cells), which gives it a bipolarity—a blending of opposites both as an extension of divinity into matter and as a vehicle by which the cell's lower degrees of consciousness may share in the higher organization of the human structure. Therefore, even on the physical plane, illness serves a useful purpose.

All life moves toward fulfillment of a spiritual idea. The sooner we realize this, the sooner will our lives have inner purpose and direction. We must understand that all human problems have spiritual colorings despite their physical expressions. This awareness will not necessarily make one immune to disease but will give it some degree of virtue and purpose over and above its unpleasant side.

Philosophically, we cannot separate blissful and painful experiences, for both in varying degrees serve the same cause; they will last their duration and then disintegrate as naturally as they appeared. This does not mean we should seek illness as a spiritual stimulant, but when we are confronted with it, we should not lose sight of its essential nature. To seek aid for such discomforts is understandable and sometimes necessary, but with the seeking should go an awareness of the deeper vision: that the very energies that manifest disharmony are those which also give and sustain life.

Robert W. Bonnell, a Life Member of the Theosophical Society, has been a lecturer and writer on esoteric themes for over fifty years. His book, Reflections Along the Path, was published in 2006. A health practitioner for over forty years, Robert now competes in the Senior Olympics, where he has earned numerous gold medals for weight lifting. A version of this article appeared in Sunrise magazine, August-September 1990 (copyright © 1990 Theosophical University Press).