By Nandini Murali
Nandini Murali presents an overview of some of the most profound and empowering books on health and healing available today which have helped shift perspectives and spread hope among millions
English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or headache…the merest school girl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry,” wrote the inimitable novelist and essayist, Virginia Woolf.
I realised the profundity and truth of Woolf’s statement when my long tryst with illness – the triple burdens of infertility, multiple spine surgeries, and recently, thyroid cancer – began in the late 1990s. Until then rarely did I even get a common cold. Sickness was something that happened to others. All of a sudden, however, my myth of invulnerability was shattered. Bereft of all that was known and familiar, the new terrain was unnavigable with my old paradigms.
As they say, life never sends difficult situations our way, without also embedding the seeds of solutions in them. My seeds of promise and hope came from reading books on pain, illness and healing that I began to stumble upon, by serendipity. Today, in retrospect, I am amazed at the synchronicity or convergence that helped me deal with and heal from pain and through pain – the most maligned and misunderstood concept in health and healing.
Amidst such a rudderless situation, The Gift of Pain, by Paul Brand helped me glean new insights about the nature and purpose of pain. Dr Brand was a pioneering American reconstructive surgeon, well known for his work in using reconstructive surgery to address the crippling deformities in people with Hansen’s disease. The son of medical missionary parents who lived and worked near Vellore, in South India, Brand grew up in India. He completed his medical education in the US and worked in the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, for more than two decades.
“We cannot live well without pain, but how best do we live with it? Pain is a priceless essential gift – of that I have no doubt. And yet only by mastering pain can we keep it from mastering us,” writes Paul Brand in his brilliant masterpiece.
Brand talks about the concept of “pain insurance” – paying premium before pain strikes. He quotes a doctor featured in Bill Moyers’ TV series, Healing and the Mind, “You don’t want to start weaving a parachute when you are about to jump off the plane. You want to have been weaving the parachute morning, noon and night, day in and day out. And then when you need it, it might actually hold you.”
Interestingly, several centuries earlier, the versatile genius Leonardo Da Vinci, regarded pleasure and pain as complementary. Describing and depicting them as Siamese twins, he wrote, “They have the same foundation – the foundation of pleasure is labour with pain, and the foundation of pain is vain and luscious pleasure.”
According to Dr Brand, the worst time to reflect about pain is when you are in the throes of pain, for it demolishes objectivity. “I have made most of my insights about pain when healthy, and the insights I gained have prepared me for later ambushes.” Indeed, his insights stemmed from his long years of experience with people with Hansen’s disease – who do not feel any pain because of the extensive and complete damage of the nerves. Having had a close-up view of how injury-prone these patients were because of the absence of pain, Dr Brand termed pain as a “gift; perhaps the greatest gift.”
According to him, pain, when viewed as an “enemy,” with its associated bitterness and “Why me?” thinking exacerbates the suffering.
“Think of pain as a speech your body is delivering to you about a subject of vital importance to you. From the very first twinge – pause and listen to pain, and yes, be grateful. The body is using the language of pain because it thinks that’s the most effective way to get your attention.” Befriending pain – as opposed to viewing it as ‘enemy’; is the key. Disarm and then welcome it,” writes Brand.
A theologian, Dr Brand infused theological reflections on what he viewed as “the most problematic aspect of creation: the existence of pain.” Pain, Brand believed, was not antithetical to life, but a requisite for it. “God designed the human body so that it is able to survive because of pain,” he later wrote.
Of loss and grief
Another classic that gave me much needed support and strength was When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner. A rabbi, Kushner wrote this book when his three-year-old son was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disorder and told he would not live beyond his early teens. The loss of his son devastated Kushner.
Elegant, contemplative and deeply moving, Kushner writes from the perspectives of a theologian, parent and writer. Even the title of the book struck a chord with me as I too felt at that point in time that life was unfair. I too did not deserve this. However, Kushner helped me realise the randomness of pain and suffering. More important, is our ability to plumb the depths of ourselves for strength to address any kind of crisis and emerge resilient and more humane – for isn’t it true that only the test of fire makes steel?
Harold Kushner’s lived experience of pain made his memoir poignant. As a reader I could empathise with the pain, loss and grief. Similarly, authors Norman Cousins, Susan Sontag, Louise Hay, Brandon Bays and Lata Mani also write about their lived experiences of illness and pain. However, these are not merely triumph over adversity stories, but give us a nuanced psycho spiritual perspective on illness.
The Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins is an autobiographical memoir. Written after Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, and told that his chances of survival were grim, Cousins decided to assume responsibility for his life and health. He developed a recovery programme incorporating mega doses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. Cousins believed that stress was an important part of his illness and so decided that he would counter it with positive emotions. “Belief becomes biology,” Cousins once famously said. Throughout his life, Cousins was a passionate advocate for the natural recuperative processes in the human body and an integrated approach to healing.
“The mind is more powerful than medication. Panic, not pathology, is the biggest killer,” Cousins said. “Medical treatment is a 20-point partnership. The physician has 10 points and the patient too has 10 points. If patients were given the idea that they can do something, they take the treatment better,” said Cousins.
An illness crisis in the form of a closed head injury was an epochal event in writer and historian Lata Mani’s life. Her evocative memoir, Interleaves, that is a tapestry of poetry and prose, chronicles the transformative potential of illness, explores social constructs of disability, and the notion of the illness journey as a spiritual path.
“Every incident in life has the potential to open one’s eyes to the nature of life itself. I am grateful to the brain injury for having placed the centre of my consciousness, questions that I might not have otherwise asked myself and solutions I might not previously have sought out,” writes Lata Mani. She, however, reiterates that Interleaves is not as much about personal triumph as it is about “the tale of being rescued by grace and dusted off each time when forgetting meant I took a nosedive into the mine of social conditioning.”
The metaphysical angle
Modern medicine tends to view illness as purely a physical or psychological problem. Of course, in recent years, psychosomatic medicine had bridged this gap. However, an inclusive approach to illness has been advocated by pioneering author Louise L Hay. Based on healing herself of a traumatic child sexual abuse and vaginal cancer, You can Heal Your Life by Louise L Hay and her other books advocate a psychological and metaphysical approach to any illness. Hay’s central premise is that underlying thought patterns cause health problems. As a corollary, changing our thought patterns to positive affirmations holds the keys to healing and recovery.
“If you want change in your life, then you are the one who must do the changing. When you change, then all the other people in your world will change in relation to you. All you have to do is to change some thoughts and release some beliefs,” writes Louise L Hay in You Can Heal Your Life.
Several practitioners of modern medicine are passionate advocates of integrated healing. Notable among them are Deepak Chopra and Christiane Northrup, both of whom advocate a body-mind-spirit approach to health and healing. Jungian therapist Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s remarkable book, Women who Run with the Wolves is a multi-layered exploration of feminine consciousness and reclaiming the Feminine. And so are Embracing Our Selves and The Shadow King by Hal and Sidra Stone. Both books are an exploration of the path towards autonomy. The former talks about achieving inner balance and harmony through reconciling different aspects of our selves. The latter talks about the need to reclaim and own the ‘shadow’ aspects of ourselves in order to become fully integrated.
“Each of us “contains multitudes”. We are made up of many selves, identifying with some and rejecting others. This over-identification with some selves and the loss of wholeness that comes from the rejection of others, can create imbalances and blind spots. This work is about embracing all the selves. This dance of the selves is an amazing process and we see the dynamics of the world around us shift as our internal world changes,” say Drs Hal and Sidra Stone.
Dr Deepak Chopra, endocrinologist and New Age holistic health guru, needs no introduction. Integrating modern medicine with the ancient Indian healing tradition of ayurveda, Dr Chopra’s insistence that one needs to address the root cause of an illness or disease and not merely treat the symptoms resonated with me. He articulated his convictions rather persuasively in his best-sellers, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind and Quantum Healing.
“Quantum healing is healing the body-mind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, the mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, the body,” said Dr Deepak Chopra in an interview.
Dr Christiane Northrup’s empowering approach to women’s health and wellness, evident in her eminently readable books, Women’s Bodies, Women’s’ Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause, were especially meaningful for me.
“Health isn’t just the absence of disease. It’s being physically and emotionally able to live joyfully and in alignment with your deepest self. You have the ability to build health every day. Just be open to new ideas and to adopting new habits,” says Dr Northrup.
The last word, however, for me, is the Bhagavad Gita. With its unsurpassed psychologically and metaphysically profound insights into the nature of the body, mind and soul, the sacred text has offered me a panoramic perspective of Consciousness. One of Sri Krishna’s central tenets is to be able to transcend the polar opposites of pleasure and pain. And for some, an illness may well be the start of that momentous journey across lifetimes.