bindu

Gateway to the Himalayan Yoga Tradition

Attitudes Towards Illness

Swami Veda Bharati holds the prestigious title of Mahamandaleshwara in the Swami order of monks. He is also the Chancellor of HIHT University, Dehradun, which was established by Master Swami Rama. He has authored approximately 18 books on Indian spirituality including a 1500 page comprehensive commentary on two of the four chapters of Patanjali's Yoga-sutras. Before taking the vows of Swamihood in 1992, Swami Veda Bharati was known as Dr. Usharbudh Arya.

The subject of yoga attitude towards illness is of interest to both the ill and the well. How to maintain a right attitude at times and seasons that affect us adversely also forms an essential part of the topic of, let us say, the yoga attitude to the body. Quite often when we speak of the immortality of the spirit, and the cycles of incarnations, freedom from the bondage of karma, final liberation from the cycles, and the ultimate goal in human life being spiritual, a false impression is created as though in the tradition of meditation we consider the physical body to be somewhat unimportant. That is certainly not the case. Because if the physical body was unimportant, why would we talk so much about posture, breathing, health, diet, nutrition, and psychosomatic factors, which actually is the association most people have of Yoga in U.S.A. So the body is certainly very important; though it is not the end, it is the means to the higher realization. And if you do not have a positive attitude to the body, you develop all kinds of complexes.

I must admit that for a long period of my life, I personally considered the body to be unimportant and paid no attention to its needs or its health. But that is a personal confession of failure rather than a statement of the yoga attitude. I said to myself, as many others might also do: well, if I practice my meditation I'll keep generating my prana; the body will stay healthy. In my travels I paid no attention to my mealtimes and other requirements like a necessary rest period and so on. Then came a time when it hit me, and I learned my lesson and have considered the body to be somewhat more important than I thought at first.

 

I like to share my own personal explorations of life. The mistakes I have made and how I have learned from them. I continued my work here, nobody suspected that I had become very ill because I managed to overcome some of the handicap caused by that illness. I travelled to another country as I do and found that many people who came to see me there, were suffering from the same particular illness, which without their knowledge, I had gone through. Now, what struck me was, that all of these people were so very depressed about their illness. That was a revelation to me. I found out for the first time in my life, only some years ago, that people actually get depressed about the fact of being ill. It had never occured to me before.

I see this being here sitting before you as a composite of, say arbitrarily, three factors. I who am the pure spirit, who am unborn and therefore immortal, and in past, present, future continuing from infinity into infinity, and that is the one I truly identify myself with. In my philosophy that is what I am. That is the being that you are. We keep saying that and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that in our meditation when we forget. We forget because we think, well, there is some kind of a high falutin philosophy up there. It has nothing to do with us, here, now, in reality, in practical life. So people don't build their attitude of life around that principle, around that goal of true spiritual realization. That is from where all the problems arise.

There is a part of my composite being called the mind, the psyche. That is the link between the pure spirit and this physical body. Then there is this physical body which is controlled by the mind. This physical body is the instrument, a tool. If I am ill and have a certain handicap caused by that illness and I carry on with my daily life... Well you know what happens, it is like typing on a typewriter in which a certain letter sticks. Have you ever done that? You keep typing and typing and suddenly it sticks and it reminds you, well, you have to take care of it, have it repaired; till then it keeps getting stuck there.

Now some people get angry at the typewriter. Smash it, hit it, pick it up and dash it on the ground. Right? Or some such thing. See the relationship of the mind and the body in two ways. On one hand almost all physical illnesses are a long term product of your mental attitude. It is like having to sit down finally and write a check to pay off a debt. You know that writing a check is never a very pleasant experience. You don't welcome the moment when you have to pay that much money. Is there anybody who welcomes that moment? Unless I am writing a donation; the only welcome moment when writing checks is when we write out a donation or a loving gift.

But, you see, you have had a lingering debt and you finally write out the last installment. How do you feel about that? That is the way I feel about any physical discomfort in my life. Every discomfort is paying off some old debt, some karma. If I don't pay it off now, and postpone it, I'll have to pay it off some other place. Maybe by then the interest rate will rise; what a horrible thought! And that is a fact of life. Well better pay it off now, than to have to wait.

So I feel a sense of relief; this is done and over with. All right; then I wonder what is the next debt that I have to pay. I prepare myself for that time, that moment, whenever it is called for I have to pay it. But you see, I do not identify myself merely with this physical body. Human beings are an enormously rich phenomenon; a human being is a bag of treasures, the diamonds and the rubies of light which have not yet been counted by anyone. It is this bag of flesh and bones which outwardly is sometimes such a nuisance as every hole in the body oozes. There is so much to take care of it. One night you don't brush your teeth and you know the fruits of laziness. O.K.? But you see, you won't be able to put up with this body, this occasional or regular nuisance unless you keep a good sense of humour about it. So I now don't identify myself with just the physical body. I mean, look inside your body. It's a beautiful machine, so finely calibrated...from the brain down to all systems, so finely calibrated, so well balanced. How well it serves us. But its disadvantages can be pretty overbearing if we did not have, one, a good sense of humour about it and two, if we did not know, as many of us do not seem to know or have forgotten, that I am not only this body. But if I did not have any of this philosophy, but my body was 100 lbs. bigger, would you think I would be a greater man than what I am now? Would that make me any greater? Or if I only weighed 72 lbs., would my teaching be less effective? What do you think? Or if my ears were shaped like that of an elephant? What I'm saying is: please do remember that your personality is not just your eyes and ears, which is not the shape of your nose or of your lips, which is not your male or female sex. But your mental personality is an enormously rich phenomenon composed of treasures, the diamonds and rubies of light, which you have not yet counted.

Now, what do you feel when your one account is overdrawn $10 but on another account you have $10,000 surplus? You don't declare bankruptcy, do you? You don't say you are penniless. You transfer from your rich account into your poor account. Knowing the disadvantages of this body, knowing the problems that it creates when one fails to take care of this body, then finally a day of reckoning comes and you begin to feel ill. I feel ill. I remember that I am not this body alone. So I live in a world which is immensely rich, a world of the happy mind, a loving mind. Knowing that a part of my being is even richer than all the experiences that this body is capable of giving, I have not found myself ever becoming depressed about physical illness. Physical illness you can control only somewhat if you lead a good life, maintain a good diet, maintain a good balance and don't do as I do, stay up nights to work and so on. But remember that apart from this body you have some other areas of your being which at the same time are immensely rich.

We often wallow in self-pity, without reason. We go out in the evening to laugh and enjoy ourselves in a party but as soon as we get into the car and get home, we feel sorry for ourselves on one account or another. Gradually those attitudes of the mind, when repeated, become our mental habits. When the mind develops a certain habit, the brain responds. The physical brain then releases these little commands, little bursts of neuronic energy. Little commands for the flow of hormones which then try to balance up and compensate for all kinds of other imbalances that we have created. For instance, a person keeps getting angry every day. So every day his brain has to release a certain hormone to balance it. Slowly one tiny cell quits, one little organ begins to complain. It takes 10 years, 15 years, 20 years of maintaining a wrong attitude and then suddenly the body shows its response, its result. Now at that point, some body situations are reversible by changing the attitude of the mind. Some body situations are not so easily reversible. Now there are two things that you can do about it. Situations that are reversible by changing your diet, by changing your breathing pattern, by changing your emotional pattern, all right, you reverse the situation and you regain your health. If the situation is not reversible, you can do three things about it. The first of which I know is difficult to do that is to really really remember, that this is another debt paid off, and feel a sense of relief about it. Even if you cannot feel that sense of relief, there are two things that you need to do. One is that you reduce its effects on your body. Swami Rama Tirtha, who was a great Swami, came to USA in the beginning of this century. In his early youth he was a very sickly fellow. Brilliant man, but sickly. He took to yoga and conquered all the handicaps and defeated the best runners in a race. But you see you will not rise above your physical handicaps unless you start learning, unless you learn that the mind is the master of this body.

The question arises as to what to do with the mind? Does one keep giving orders to the ulcer: go away, go away? What to do with one's laryngitis? Some years back one day I was sick, with burning fever and laryngitis; I really could not speak. But that evening I had to be interviewed by Henry Wolf my old friend, who used to call me every year to his TV program in Minneapolis. On the scheduled evening I was suffering with laryngitis and could not speak. I got up from the bed, I dressed, went out, still with the burning fever. I was interviewed and nobody could suspect I had laryngitis. When I came down from the stage I had laryngitis, again, and I couldn't speak.

What I'm saying is that there are mental mechanisms in your body that can help you bypass some of your handicaps and disadvantages. But you have to learn that mind is the master of the body and if you cannot bypass them now, over a long term, over a long period of time you can create those balanced states of mind which do not make you unhappy, which remove unhappiness from you.
The greatest sickness in the world is unhappiness of the mind. You can literally laugh some of your diseases off, as has been proved by others.

When I'm feeling ill and troubled with the body somehow, sometimes, I make sure I put on cheerful clothes and read cheerful books and create cheer around me. You say, well do you have the energy to do so? The energy comes from the mind.

So learn to reduce the effects of your physical illness by changing your life pattern, and that is what yoga is all about, and learn to reduce the mental effects. Observe this body as a neutral person. This body is yours to keep. This body is yours to preserve and to strengthen. But this body is not the whole of you. You have another account in which you still have $10,000. In this immensely rich personality, you have gems of light and illumination and that is the cheer your mind can create for you. Good mindedness, pleasant mindedness, happy mindedness, create that and for your relatives also who are ill create the same good mindedness and it reduces the strength and the intensity of the handicap that is created by an illness.

For the attitude to this body I would like to quote a passage I wrote in 1964:
 
I live in a cave, a spacious grotto
with many exits of diverse contours,
many coloured beams of lights
pouring in, radiating out -
a thread of life to and fro.

My cave in a mountain, volcanic, shaking,
quiet restful for long moments,
and again suddenly quaking.
This my cave looks out
to roads, to paths and valleys, to other mountains,
to sailing clouds that lightning rows.
 
I sit and watch many a procession,
shouting hilariously, mourning silently,
curious, halting to peep in at me
or indifferent passing
while evenings diminish
or mornings grow.
 
Warm is the fire I have kindled
and fed with life-fuel;
ashen sleep I blow away.
Stirred awake
the embers glow
Flickering footwork, dancing shadows,
grotesque paintings, darkness mixed
with outer lights and alien rainbows.
 
Afeared so, I quit this fire,
rushing to my river of depths,
silent waters flowing to quench
bursting flaming thirst-volcanoes.
Safely tucked in mountain's womb,
cool, collected, smiling, poised,
I take a dip of withdrawal
to my subterranean river -
 
While abroad, the world's procession
lost, wearied, whither-so-ever goes!
 
There are subterranean rivers within you at a certain place in this cave, in this residence of yours. At the outer halls of the cave, the psychic levels, you have inner darkness conflicting with outer lights and outer darkness mingling with inner lights, as well as all kinds of shades and shadows and fantasies and fears. But you go deeper, you get to the subtler place in you. You go to the subterranean river of energy and life. There you learn to be neutral to those parts of your body about which you can do nothing, for there are other sources of happiness for the mind. Find those sources of happiness, create that happiness and you will find that there is more energy in you, there is more life in you, there is more creativity in you, there are greater sources of fulfillment in you than you have thought possible. The Yogis will keep saying this again and again and again. But people listen and they go out of the lecture hall and forget. Do not forget. That's all.

While giving this lecture the author asked the audience: Now you tell me, if you have to come here for getting cheered up and being inspired, where should I go? Someone from the audience replied: within. The speaker continued: Well, why don't you go to the same place, go to the center within you, there is so much fulfillment there that one little key getting stuck in the typewriter of your body will not make you smash the typewriter in anger.