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May 04
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The Wisdom of Illness

photo by Greg Lubkinguest article by Gregory Lubkin, Los Angeles, CA

When we feel basically healthy, many of us tend to take it for granted and experience the arrogance of well-being, as though we will always be healthy and essentially indestructible. Even if we have been ill or injured at some earlier point, we often revert to our habitual sense of immunity as the memory of our vulnerability fades.

Serious illness or injury is a gift that brings us back to the moment, if we are brave enough to embrace it. It helps us to develop and maintain humility, to the extent we can acknowledge and respect the limitations that it imposes. Those limitations may be physical, emotional, and/or mental. We might feel disheartened by pain. We might be unable to do things that we used to do routinely. We might feel envious of others who do not suffer our limitations. But we could also honor our own experience and appreciate what we do have, what does work for us, even the basic experience of being alive in the moment.

The Elixir of Life (the “Birthday Sadhana”) says, “Sickness is my companion; it follows me everywhere.” Illness, particularly chronic illness, is a true and reliable companion throughout this human life. It does not have to define who we are, but it helps us get a truer perspective on what is real and what is possible. My own long-time friend is leukemia. I have experienced periods of time when it was inactive and faded in my consciousness to a minor buzz somewhere in the background. At those times, I could forget that I carry a life-threatening illness and could take on great responsibilities, feeling strong and capable. At other times, leukemia has dominated my life, setting narrow limits to how I could operate physically and coloring the way in which the phenomenal world would treat me.

When we have a serious illness or injury, it provides an opening for others to be generous and kind. Those of us who are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as essentially self-reliant and helpful to others may not be very good at receiving what others can offer to us. That has certainly been my experience in the past, as though somehow I did not need (or deserve?) to be on the receiving end of others’ goodness. But it is important for us to have the confidence and humility to receive what others can offer, if what they offer is appropriately aimed at our needs. We need to be able to trust that others may actually have our well-being at heart and understand how to contribute to it – or how to ask us what we need. Our willingness and ability to receive can be a valuable gift to others who genuinely seek to be of benefit; there is a quality of generosity and kindness in receiving what others have to give.

photo by Greg LubkinSerious illness can also help us puncture some of our concepts about how things should be done. For those of us who are inclined to accept the instructions of professional experts (such as our doctors) at face value, we might discover that their understanding and perspective is not completely aligned with our needs. For example, when I contracted septicemia in addition to leukemia, I found that the doctors who were directing the treatment for the two life-threatening illnesses were narrowly focused on their own respective areas and not necessarily coordinating their efforts. I had to be mindful of my own condition and make sure that what was being done for one illness did not undermine what was being done for the other (unless it was unavoidable). When the septicemia put me in one of the best hospitals in the United States, I saw that the staff were not always performing their tasks properly. They might be trying too hard, such as seeking to administer unnecessary tests, or not trying hard enough, such as carelessly setting up and carrying out the delivery of medication. If I had not let them or their colleagues know that there was an issue to resolve, my medical care would have been less effective. This issue does not just apply to Western medical practitioners, though; when I was receiving Chinese medical treatments (acupuncture and herbs) just before first being diagnosed with an advanced case of leukemia, my Chinese medicine provider never noticed that I had leukemia at all.

Some of us are so skeptical of medical care – especially from Western sources – that we resist the opportunity to receive treatment that might prove effective. In treating my leukemia this time, I wanted to avoid chemotherapy, so I returned to an immune therapy that had been unusually effective for me in the 1990s. I also continued to rely on Tibetan medicine, which was very helpful in my recovery 20 years ago. In addition, I tried other natural anti-cancer remedies that friends and family recommended (including practices prescribed by His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rinpoche and others). Unfortunately, neither the immune therapy nor any of the natural anti-cancer remedies has been effective, leaving me in a very dangerous state. I finally have to give in and accept that the mild form of chemotherapy that is now the standard (and highly effective treatment) for my type of leukemia is something I should be trying.

As it happens, auspicious coincidence has given me the opportunity to participate in an experimental study that seeks to cure this type of leukemia by adding an immune therapy to the standard treatment. Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to be “cured” and never have to experience the fragility and vulnerability of this particular illness again. If so, I expect that something else will manifest to keep me humble and mindful about my own well-being. Like birth and death, illness is inseparable from the rest of the human package. Let’s embrace the wisdom it brings.

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16 responses to “ The Wisdom of Illness ”
  1. Lisa Donnelly
    Apr 14, 2014

    Thank you for sharing the wisdom that your illness has brought. I was diagnosed with MS three years ago and am still learning about this journey. Acceptance, humility, compassion for self and others – and the focus on each moment seem to be constant teachers. May this experimental treatment give you a cure!

  2. Tracy Therrien
    May 21, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your story. I have lived with chronic illness for several years now and somedays I have to look really hard to see the Sun. I think learning how to accept help has been one of the hardest things to learn, most of us are always looking for ways to help others. After reading your article I may need learn to see that letting others help me sometimes may be kinder than refusing someones offer to help out.

    Wishing you good health!

  3. Liz Richardson
    May 15, 2013

    Thank you for this article Greg- such a good reminder for us all.
    Wishing you success with your treatment and continuing maitri
    and strength on your journey!

  4. Caryl Davis
    May 7, 2013

    Beautifully said, Greg. Good luck on this next journey – and thank you!

  5. Janet Carter
    May 6, 2013

    Thank you, Greg, for sharing the ups and downs, the lessons and inspiration of your long journey. Wishing you all the best in the new/old treatment. Much love.

  6. Ella Reznikova
    May 6, 2013

    Dearest Greg,

    Thank you so much for your wisdom and generosity.
    I wish to recover with all my heart!

  7. Laura Burnham
    May 6, 2013

    Wow, Greg. What you are sharing here is exactly what we work with in the Healing Circle in LA. May your words reach many, and may your treatment bring renewed energy and well-being!

    Love to you, Laura B

  8. Dan Hessey
    May 6, 2013

    A wonderful first-hand account of what it means to be human, seen through the powerful lens of illness. Thank you!

  9. Candlin Dobbs
    May 6, 2013

    Thank you — this is very helpful as a reminder for me. May we all gain the wisdom to work with illness skilfully.

  10. Jayne Sutton
    May 6, 2013

    Many thanks for sharing this, Greg. And sending much love and strength to you. xo

  11. Tom Semmes
    May 6, 2013

    Thank for sharing your situation and for your insight. It is good to hear from you since we last were in touch many years ago in DC

  12. Myra Woodruff
    May 6, 2013

    Thank you, Greg, for sharing this eloquent and humble article.
    I have been attending a friend who is dying. When we went out for a short inhaling of fresh air, she reached down from her wheelchair to stroke the grass. A simple gesture, and so utterly real. Your article rings true in the same way.
    May this new treatment be successful!

  13. susan allen
    May 5, 2013

    Thanks for this, Greg. We can all relate to it personally, in one form or another. Thinking of you and praying for your health and long life. love, sue

  14. Anne Saitzyk
    May 4, 2013

    Thank you, Greg. This is timely wisdom.

  15. This is beautiful, thank you.

  16. Manuel Medeiros
    May 4, 2013

    Thank you very much for sharing your journey, Greg. Best wishes on the success of your treatments!
    — Manny

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