1.7 What Causes Illness?

Illness is primarily an inner disequilibrium, that is, the normally smooth functioning of the body is disturbed. At first one organ system is affected but later due to the interconnectedness of the organs, the other physiological systems may get affected—first those intimately linked to the primary organ, later those that are more distant. Normally this smooth functioning of the body is maintained through an extremely complex process, or rather processes, where both internal and external inputs are taken into consideration. The body adjusts rapidly to these changes and challenges from within and without by shifting its processes fast enough through elaborate feedback loops that link up each and every process ultimately to the brain tissues. Normally this shifting is automatic and does not require any conscious intervention.

Quite naturally there are limits to these adjustments. These limits are two-fold. First, there are limits of each species within which it adjusts naturally, spontaneously, automatically. But in addition, there are limits of individual human beings. These individual limits are determined by a complex interaction of genetics, heredity and environmental learning. To take a very simple example, those who have lived and grown up in extreme climatic conditions can adjust to climatic conditions much better than those who have been brought up in moderate climates. It is known for instance that those with a fairer skin versus those with a darker skin (Negroid races) have a higher probability of developing skin cancers, especially when they are exposed to the tropical sun. There may be many more such adaptive strategies of Nature than we are presently aware of. Certain natural foods and also food habits of natives residing in a certain place for generations are perfectly safe for them while the same foods or food habits may be found harmful to others and in other environments. In our over-enthusiasm for genes and heredity we often undermine Nature’s deep wisdom that underlies all adaptive learning. But equally one can train oneself to adapt better and better. All conscious learning and training and education are about this bringing out of the latent possibilities of the body and mind. A maneuver that would normally break the bone or dislocate the joint of an ordinary untrained human being can be not only endured but done with an expression of pleasure by the gymnast. Effort that would be impossible for an average human heart is merely a warm up for an athlete before the final run! At another level, one where the body is not trained consciously but adapts naturally, we have the example of village folk who have lived in less than hygienic conditions but have a remarkable immunity whereas those who have had a sheltered life lose that natural immunity and fall sick at the slightest sip of the same water or food! Such examples are many and in every field of human activity and in every organ system, not only those which we call as voluntary but also involuntary and autonomic. That is why it is not quite correct to compare the body with a machine. Or let us say, it is a remarkably conscious machine that has enormous capacity to adapt and survive even under extreme conditions. It is just that we hardly reflect upon this, rather, we neglect it. Besides, thanks to our mind-centered education and our general conditioning by prevalent ideas and physical comforts, we have lost this capacity and now refuse to believe in it. Medical consumerism and the fast pace of life has only made it worse. We prefer by-pass surgery over the natural by-pass that can take place through a change of lifestyle. We prefer a stressful life plus the pill rather than a life of ease and peace, since this stress is translated in our consciousness with money and later it becomes a habitual attitude and a way of life.

In other words, an illness is essentially a failure of this adaptive process and naturally it varies from individual to individual. By practice we can increase our adaptability to an enormous degree, may be become resistant if not immune to many an illnesses. This adaptation requires a threefold effort, a certain training to the body, a certain healthy lifestyle and a certain set of mental attitudes. Nevertheless an absolute immunity and a perfect resistance to all illnesses would be impossible and not even desirable for Nature’s work which is essentially to maintain a certain balance between the different types of life-forms it has evolved and sustains. Man may be the highest of her creations so far but it is not certain that he is also her favourite. Therefore whatever we may do, one day the body will fall, if not through disease then through aging or ‘accidents’. Death somehow finds a door to enter through, even if it be the smallest one. At least that has been the story of life upon earth so far.

Whatever the cause or the source of an illness, once it enters and settles within the body or affects any organ system then it becomes more difficult to stop it. The groove of Nature (i.e. the fixed habit of response that has been learnt and around which Nature seems to move rigidly), responds mechanically and the door to illness opens again and again. The age-old wisdom is so very true that prevention is better than cure. Of course the body tries to expel the illness and here again some have a better chance than others. Naturally those who have a good heredity and training, who have worked upon their bodies or have a naturally robust life-force and a healthy life style or a positive mental attitude fare better than others. Still, an imprint once made has a tendency to invite the problem again except in certain instances. If nothing else, there is the memory that the body holds which can throw up a relapse, especially in chronic illnesses. However with age, there is a general decline in the body’s natural immunity and the capacity to fight an illness. The life-force is no longer strong and if it is difficult to change our lifestyle after a certain age it is even more difficult to change our mental attitudes. Because of sheer force of habit (a method Nature provides to ensure stability of its creations), we become increasingly rigid and fixed in our responses. This rigidity is seen not only in the body but also in the mind, till death comes as a release and liberates us from the fixed mould now grown too constricted for its evolutionary purposes. For, all evolution implies plasticity and that decreases markedly and often exponentially with advancing age. Then once disequilibrium sets in, it begins to involve the other organs until it is no longer possible to reverse the process.

Illness therefore is information and a pointer that something is not quite right in the individual unit of life in this complex chain of creation where each is linked to the other and to every other object in this universe, from the bacteria around the nose to the cosmic radiations that visit this earth from time to time. In this long and complex chain, the human being finds himself at one end, an extremely complex creation carrying within his cells all the imprints of the earlier forms that have preceded him – their experiences, their struggles and hopes, their fears and desires are all inherited by him. But over and above, within him is also the impulse to consciously evolve and complete Nature’s half-finished task of a perfect type. All this struggle and pull from both the ends, this inheritance of the past and this pressure from the future to evolve, this invasion of forces that struggle and compete for survival, this precariously held balance of an extremely complex functioning, this habit and conditioning of responses leading to a progressive lack of plasticity, this maladaptive lifestyle, this growing restlessness and dissatisfaction with almost everything, this imbalance of life that encourages extremes and not a holistic integral development, this bombardment of forces from near and afar, all this translates itself into one single language – the language of illness.

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