1.1 What is Illness

Of all creatures, it is human beings who perhaps suffer the state of illness most. This is only natural given the extreme complexity of the human organism. Besides, unlike animals, human beings live in a fast changing environment, much of course of their own making. Above all, human beings are not rigidly fixed to a type. They are, so to say, yet to find the right law or the law of their nature. All this makes health in human beings a precarious balance and disease an easy passage. Yet at the same time it also gives to a human being the possibility of a greater adaptive equilibrium, a chance of developing plasticity, to bring out a greater power from within than what animal nature can provide. Nevertheless the question remains: what is disease? Is it just a combination of certain symptoms that threatens the human organism and jeopardises its survival? Or is it just an abnormal figure, a statistical anomaly? These are simply outward results, often end results of a complex chain that links man-the microcosm to the universe-the macrocosm. Seen against this vaster landscape, we may even wonder if what we call disease is but a passage that the Universal Nature uses for its own incalculable purpose. Or to put it more directly, could a given disease be simply an evolutionary challenge that is meant to ultimately stimulate growth, at least to goad us? This is not to say that this is the best way to grow; but certainly it does influence our way of approaching the phenomenon of illness. If disease is an evolutionary challenge, then the ways and means to approach and overcome an illness would be different. For instance, we may like to learn how to augment our natural defenses rather than, as we now do, simply attack and violently suppress an illness.

There are many instances where a patient goes to a doctor for surgery or even a routine medical checkup and is found to havesome disorder which had so far gone undetected. If we carry this a little further, we shall find that even if our present apparatus does not detect an abnormality, we may still be harbouring an abnormality within. Modern studies in cancer, for instance do suggest that all of us, whether we have the disease or not, do have certain cells that may well resemble cancerous cells circulating in our body. This does not mean that we are bound to have a cancer. We may never outwardly suffer from cancer. But the possibility is there within. Equally, not every abnormal state will necessarily lead to disease. In other words, disease can be seen as a continuum of possibilities of which only a few will actually manifest as frank illness. And it is here that the catch lies. With modern tools of investigation the concept of illness has touched a new level. We no more speak of symptoms when we speak of illness. Many life threatening diseases such as high blood pressure (Hypertension) are silent and throw up no symptoms. This enlarged concept, while useful in one way, that is detecting and treating an illness early, creates problems in some other ways. We enter here a field of probability and statistics. A person having high blood pressure may never actually suffer anything as a result of this increase and it may even be that this high reading is his normal. All this raises dilemmas of ‘to treat or not to treat’ or how much to treat and how far to go. Preventive detection has pushed the boundaries of disease one step further but it has also brought us one step closer to fear!

This takes us to the other important issue: what is really meant by abnormal? Many patients are quite confused when they areasymptomatic and the physician declares with an air of prophesy that he has detected a disease in the patient’s system. Diseases, at least some of them, are fairly silent and we become aware of them only when they take a sudden toll upon us or create a detectable event. So how do we know that it is an abnormality? The fact of the matter is that our concept of disease is still largely statistical. If something has been observed to be threatening to our life, either in the short or the long run, then we call it an illness. Also if something is found deviating from what is generally observed in the majority, we again term it as an illness. Of course modern medicine has also found how these levels or altered chemistry affect our functions and eventually create the possibility of disease.

It is now a fact that many diseases, before they originate in the body, start in the way our minds react to things, in our habits and in the lifestyles that we adopt. Certain attitudes have almost a predictive value, so also certain lifestyles. Thus, it is known that a certain type of personality, rightly called the Type A personality is linked often to cardiac events (heart attacks). Persons of this type are over-ambitious, driven by a hyper-critical attitude towards themselves and towards others. They are a stickler for rules and often thereby put not only themselves but others in great stress. Sooner or later this takes a toll, surely on themselves but also on others. Of course there are no studies done to see if working with these persons increases the risk of heart attacks in others but it would be interesting!

All the same, if we could see, as surely we shall some day, we may find that some persons carry disease in their very atmosphere or the environing consciousness that surrounds human beings. Most people do feel this subtle atmosphere but in an age of science and rationality, we either do not acknowledge it or think it to be an illusion of our mind. But just as we have the gross physical senses that register certain things so also man has in him dormant, for the most part now, subtle senses corresponding to the gross ones through which he can have more data and even indications of things that are often latent. For instance, one can often detect, in the atmosphere of some (not all) sick persons some kind of a strong smell. Others feel something like a diminution of the ‘glow’. They often use terms like ‘pulled down’, pale etc. Still others can feel an atmosphere of gloom hanging around a person that presages a disease. In other words, the concept of disease itself will evolve and change as our human capacity to observe and understand evolves. Perhaps, to an evolved consciousness it may not be a disease at all but a complex play of forces through which an evolutionary process is being worked out. This thought too is slowly entering the mind of modern medicine. For instance, in the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology, the information content of the disease is valued more for its ability to help us in the evolutionary transformation than for labeling and cure. Labeling of course is only a question of semantics and often not very helpful for no two diseases are alike as no two persons are alike, even though certain generalisations exist. Besides labeling often fixes the disease in the mind and thereby blocks the mental processes that may be helpful in recovery, especially when grim and strict prognostications are given by ‘knowledgeable’ doctors. An instance comes to mind of a case of carcinoma stomach, where the surgeon could not excise the tumor and simply opened and closed the abdomen. The patient was told nothing. Her family was however explained that it is a matter of a few more months and yet, she continues to live even after ten years. Nowhere does one see the ill-effects of a scientific dogma as in the field of modern medicine where doctors have become almost cult figures whose word is taken as the scroll of destiny!

So we come back to where we started from. Disease is not just an absence of physical or even mental signs and symptoms but a state of disorder and disharmony, a state of imbalance if we like, that can manifest at any of the levels of our being—physical, psychological, social. The seeds circulate within our system and its possibility lies always embedded in our obscure depths, in certain subconscious habits and tendencies, in our hopes and fears, in our greed and desires, even in our atavistic responses to the environmental challenges. It is, to put it in another way, a state of disorganisation and disintegration that threatens the individual unit of life from the All-Life that is around it. If one successfully adapts, and so long as one does so, we say the person is healthy. When one does not and succumbs to the pressure or the challenge, then we say it is a frank illness. A dynamic and constant adjustment and adaptation is the big challenge of life where each unit claims its space and freedom to be, and towards this must necessarily face the equally valid challenge from other forces and units of life that also want their space and freedom to expand and to be. In short, disease is a state where the forces and conditions of harmony and order are threatened and the forces of disorder and disintegration have an upper hand in the organism. And this process takes place all the time and at several levels of our complex being, not all of which can be studied or seen, let alone understood.

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