3. Chronic Conditions Create an Opportunity for Deep Pilgrimage

I felt in need of a great pilgrimage/ So I sat still for three days/ And God came to me. ~Kabir

Folks with chronic/physically limiting conditions might consider Kabir’s quote as a necessary suggestion.  Pain or hardship can become a shepherd, urging us to set priorities so that our vital resources are not wasted.  In occupational therapy, this is called conservation of resources, the conscious choosing of how to spend our energy so that motion is not wasted. I’ve learned that if I’m going to do something that will be painful, I want it to count for something.  Pain becomes the worthy opponent, urging you to spend your time and energy mindfully.  While I would have preferred to have been cured, that did not appear to be an option.  When pain began to limit me physically, I made the conscious choice to live deliberately — to see into the edges of the world and to quest the depths of spiritual experience.  I was motivated to become deeply engaged with shamanism.  Perhaps I could not make pilgrimage to Nepal or Peru, but I could certainly explore the universe from a fixed point.

The natural consequence of paying more attention to the spirit of my life — than to social “obligations” and recreational distraction — is that it reinforces my natural desire not to become part of the group mind.  In circular turn, I’m given more time to engage with the mind of Spirit.  In short, my illnesses created a boundary with the norm. (I would have argued – with Spirit – that I could have done that without the painful motivation.  But I don’t know.)  While I have not traveled around the world, I am well traveled within the Dream of my existence, having had the opportunity to make careful observations into the details of a life that occasionally has not had boundaries.

I’m reminded of a kindred spirit.

Henry David Thoreau was once asked if he was well traveled.  “Yes,” He answered.  “Well traveled in Concord.”  He was not being entirelythoreau1a facetious.  He had taken the time and attention to explore his neck of the woods in great detail.  One may ask why Thoreau seldom traveled. The two main reasons may seem obvious.  First, he loved his neighborhood, and took pleasure is observing and recording the details of nature.  Second, he understood the money and time equation: spend less money and you have more time.

It seems plausible that his physical health may have also been a deterrent to superficial endeavor. Thoreau contracted tuberculosis at age 18. He suffered symptoms, off and on, for the rest of his life. Tuberculosis has been described as prevalent in Thoreau’s time. Both Emerson and Thoreau came from what were recognized as “consumptive” families – those with many cases.  Impermanence becomes obvious to the wakeful.  It puts you on notice that you are mortal, that you’d best prioritize your effort and get on with the goals of your life.  If you have a natural predilection for spiritual and philosophic viewpoints, a transcendent view of the world becomes more essential than an accepted or common view.  When he was 41, things got serious. Thoreau knew he might be near the end, and spent the last three years of his life working on his manuscripts.  He was eventually bedridden, and died at age 44.

Which leads to his famous quote.  Shortly before his death, Thoreau was asked if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau responded: “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

While I can honestly say I’ve never quarreled with God, in my late 20s I wasn’t above bargaining: “If I get better, I really will dedicate my life to ‘the purpose’ with more vigor.” At that point in my life I was speaking more to an Oversoul or gestalt of connected spirits, and not to a personal almighty God.  And I knew I was bargaining more out of desperation than outcome-based expectation.  What I probably didn’t know was that it was a form of prayer, humbling myself before Spirit to remain open to the choices of my life.

And when I say I haven’t quarreled, that doesn’t mean I haven’t complained — though I prefer to call it ventilation.  There’s general ventilation: “Really, there seems to be a surplus of suffering going on.  Surely a better world could be designed and created.”  I can’t design and create a better world, so I may move on to personal ventilation: “Surely I’ve learned enough lessons by now.  Is there really any point to continued pain?”  I’m hoping my words travel farther than a dog’s ears.

Ventilation is saved for the worse days, and is better served as a warm-up to spirit prayer.  Spirit prayer is not the same as prayers of petition.  I’m not just petitioning for an ego-desired outcome.  I’m labeling and experiencing the pain and grief as both self-expression and emotional focus that propels a yearning for pilgrimage into the Sacred.  In vision quests, there is a tradition of calling out your pain or crying for a vision.   Spirit prayer has a similar intent.  This type of prayer is not complaint, but addressing oneself to a sacred source, labeling your grief, and shifting deeper into connection and integration. How long ventilation of grief lasts is variable, but it is important to move forward into an exploration of the path of healing — the path you will engage with the aid of your Soul and helping spirits.  This exploration may be ongoing and will seek to integrate appropriate practice.

Unlike the biblical Job, who is ranting at God for the injustices of the world, I’ve not felt disconnected. It’s possible for my body to function like a meditation bell, reminding me to be mindful.  We, the Soul and spirits of my life, are corralling my consciousness.  Stalking wellness has become another layer of spirit-venture.  There is motion in the stillness.  So, despite pain I could definitely do without, I’ve felt cushioned from harsh reality. It doesn’t seem to me that my life has been difficult. I’ve been allowed the circumstances to persevere, to thrive in my own way.  There is an ongoing sense of connection with a larger consciousness that provides perspective to my everyday ego consciousness. Sometimes mindfulness informs me that I hurt.  Soul invites me to enter the zone of pilgrimage.

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3 Responses to 3. Chronic Conditions Create an Opportunity for Deep Pilgrimage

  1. Irina says:

    Another beautiful and compelling essay, Jim, and especially relevant to me now that I am growing old. Well, that process started some time ago ( 🙂 ), but seems to be accelerating now. Many friends who are in the same age group are experiencing chronic pain in varying degrees, and your words will be helpful to them as well as to me, I am sure.
    I LOVE Thoreau’s sayings about not falling ‘out of peace’ with God and about being a seasoned traveler–in his home town. Although I traveled extensively in our physical world when I was younger–and loved it–now I have very little desire for that lifestyle. My loss of enthusiasm for external travel gradually diminished over the years as I immersed myself in shamanic practice. Journeying in Non-Ordinary Reality seemed immeasurably more gratifying! I don’t mean to disparage physical travels; they can be educational, spiritually enriching, and lots of fun. Still, the shamanic journey is now my travel method of choice 🙂
    Thank you again,

  2. Irina says:

    A small technical correction in my previous message:
    The sentence “My loss of enthusiasm for external travel gradually diminished over the years as I immersed myself in shamanic practice” should read:
    “My enthusiasm for external travel gradually diminished over the years as I immersed myself in shamanic practice.”
    In other words, my enthusiasm for external travel diminished thanks to shamanic journeying.

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