An illness is the external expression of an inner disharmony. The disharmony comes about because something in us does not move apace with the other parts, or something in us rings a discordant note with the universal rhythms, or else something in us simply clings to old habits and we refuse to let go its hold upon our being and even if we wish to we may feel powerless before it. The disharmony may also arise because of a constitutional inability or weakness in some part of our nature whether as a factor of heredity or as a backlog burden of our past lives. We may, in addition, be open to forces of disorder that throng this universe. The part that has fallen ill, the nature of the symptoms, sometimes even our dreams and experiences just preceding the illness give us a clue to the inner malady. At other times no such clue is offered to our surface inquiry or experience and only a deeper sight or a flexible intuition, if developed, can provide the needed clue. Besides, at any point of time there may be a number of internal and external factors at play. Thus, for example, there may be a bad heredity, a constitutional weakness, a hostile environment along with a resistance in some part of the vital refusing to change. Each has its own contribution to the illness which simply records on the surface the sum and net result of a complex play of forces. We can, for the sake of understanding, classify this play of forces into those that arise due to internal factors and those that arise due to external factors.
Let us first examine how each part can contribute to an illness and a programme to work upon it with a view to bolster the natural defences.
The physical is the first line of defence against invasion by cosmic forces. Besides providing stability to the form, it also creates a sharp line of demarcation between one form to another, a fixity that does not exist so sharply in other planes. Its role in health and illness is primarily through heredity and constitution. There may be an organ predisposition or else the nerves may be weak in transmitting the current, thus obstructing the smooth flow of prana through the human system. Or else they may be hypersensitive and easily open to outside influences and attacks. The nerves are also feeders to many organ systems and are a crucial interface between the gross body and the subtle pranic current in its more material parts. Another problem of the physical body may be an abundance of tamas or the principle of inertia to which the body is so easily prone. Fatigue, lack of adequate work, boredom, absence of exercise may all predispose to an increase of tamas in the system. This in turn may make the physical instrument passive to outer attacks, bring up habitual movements of our vital parts closely linked to the physical such as greed for food, excess and mechanical movements of sex, sleep disturbances (which may also arise due to hypersensitive nerves), all of which may further predispose one to illnesses and attacks of various kinds. The body’s resistance goes down when is sinks into tamas as happens often during heavy sleep and is the natural occasion or excuse for many illnesses to arise in us.
The body works best through habits since fixity is its very nature. But the flip side of habits is that they can create a rigidity that is not conducive to progress. Nevertheless, we must start with the laws that govern the body and then try to overpass them. What the body needs is a certain amount of exercise and rest, food and energy. Of course work itself can be a good exercise if it is done consciously and one can also derive benefit from everyday activities such as walking, climbing the stairs, reaching out to objects physically away, cycling to the workplace, cleaning and washing. Our ancestors enjoyed a robust health despite the lack of modern medicine and its new principles of healthy living precisely because of their naturally healthy lifestyle. Science and technology has disturbed this balance in two ways. First by providing comfort at our doorstep, an increasing mechanization of life, the ease of travel, etc., and this has taken away whatever natural exercise we could get including the exposure to sun and rain and earth which are so nourishing in their own way. Life has now become like a jack-in-the-box, who is tightly and neatly shut in its little comfortable corner yet desperately seeks to release itself from this prison house. Each technological advance becomes a kind of biological amputation by eliminating the need of exercising an organ. The result is a robotic life driven by robotic means where one needs chemicals to escape from drudgery and boredom. Fortunately there is an increasing recognition of this fallacy, for instance, in the recent trend for fitness routines, etc. If only we could use all the organs of the body for what they are meant for, but consciously, without overuse or underuse or misuse, we may not perhaps need an extra dose of exercises.
But there is another reason for the disturbance of balance. That relates to the aim and pace of life. The modern entrepreneur is a man driven by extreme vital ambition. He is the modern titan striving to swallow the world if he could. This vital overdrive puts an extra burden upon the body and constantly driven by this impure stream of some lower vital energies, the body engines soon begins to clog. The impure vital is a mixed fuel and throws up a lot of smoke which sooner or later blocks our arteries. Added to this is the unhealthy food and eating habits to which we may turn later. In addition, the mere development of the mind increases the demand of vital energy and disturbs the neat balance of the animal life and the life of early humanity which had to cope only with a limited balance of supply and demand. Whatever it may be, there is one good result that all this has done. This pace, this exposure to extremes, had in a way thrown new challenges upon the body which has to perforce cope with so far unknown and unexpected stresses including travel through rapidly changing time zones, inhaling industrial and other pollutants (not to speak of the many medicines/chemicals and forms of radiation/waves that we swallow), wide flexibility of food and environment, necessitating quick adaptation. Perhaps this extreme difficulty and challenge will bring out an extreme possibility and strength from within the body cells.
A balance between rest and exercise/work is one side of the story. An equally important side is the attitude behind our work, the consciousness behind the exercises we do and the state in which we rest. As long as the body runs in the ego-mode and is at the service of the vital desires it will be prone to diseases and damages of various kinds. Desires, when moderate and regulated by reason, act as stimulants, but when the demand is in excess to the supply or disproportionate in one organ with regard to the rest of the body, then it becomes an irritant and the organ can easily fall sick. The particular organ involved is determined by the constitutional weakness/vulnerability as well as its symbolic function. Each organ is a certain condensation of energy of a particular type. It represents a certain level of consciousness and is affected by an imbalance in that domain.
In other words, to work upon the body does not mean only doing a certain set of exercises, controlling our diet and sleep, measuring our calorie input and output, etc. There are people who play vigorous sports, do the strictest diet control and yet do not escape illnesses. Equally there are examples of those who followed some simple basic rules of healthy living, led a quiet and simple life free from diseases and left their bodies peacefully when the hour arrived. There is evidently more to the body than the physical alone. In fact in the ancient image of the sages, the body was compared to a chariot carrying the soul. It was yoked to the mind through the senses and was driven by the vital force. If the vital energy driving it is gross or crude, unregenerate and barbaric, if the mind that is yoked to the body is a slave to the senses, the senses themselves driven blindly by every passing touch, then it is unlikely that the person would enjoy a long and healthy life just because he does vigorous exercises every day. What helps however is that those who choose to follow a methodical physical culture are fairly disciplined in themselves. They have taught the body to obey the orders of the mind, they have perchance learnt not to be an utter slave to the senses and it is that which helps from behind and not merely the fact of doing a daily workout. The physical plane is not to be treated as if it existed in isolation, no part or plane of the being can be treated or dealt like that since all is linked to all, including the individual physical organism to the mass of collective vibrations around it. So while there is an undeniable importance of teaching the body to shake off its tamas and inertia through a rational and methodical physical education (for which there are many books and one can pick and choose, or even combine according to one’s taste, opportunity and possibilities), yet the physical education itself is incomplete if it is not followed or combined with an education of the nervous vital parts, the mind and most importantly of the soul in us. For without that divine element, man is little more than an animal, or perhaps even worse, since if to his physical prowess he adds an abundance of vital energy, which some of these methods of pranayama provide and intellectual powers of an inferior outgoing mind, then he adds cunning and evil to his acts and if not adequately supported by the soul from behind, he can easily become the rakshasa or the asura. Such a man is a menace and a sickness to humanity as a whole even if he enjoys a long and disease-free life!
One may say, but how is it possible for him to enjoy good health? We must here understand that health, as a disease-free state and not in its true and integral sense, is a question of balance of energies. A man who is closer to the animal existence may well enjoy a better apparent health than his intellectual counterpart because he has less elements to harmonise within himself and is more at harmony with the outer world as it is today with its animal appetites. Obviously if a survival fitness test was conducted on a swan straying in a colony of look-alike kingfishers and forced to live like them, then it would perhaps fail miserably. In other words, a truly integral working on the physical plane is possible only when we work on the other planes simultaneously and we do whatever we do with the body — whether singing or dancing, bathing or climbing, working or resting, eating or sleeping, isotonic or isometric exercises — ’consciously’ with a consecration to the Divine Presence within us and as an offering with an aspiration to make of our physical body a means and an instrument for the fulfilment of a higher diviner living, for the fulfilment of dharma. Sariram khalu dharma sadhanam, goes a famous Sanskrit phrase by the mystic poet Kalidasa.
In an illness or affliction of the body we can facilitate the healing process in the following ways:
- By giving rest to the part that is diseased.
- By discovering the symbolic nature of the movement that has gone wrong and correcting it. Say, for example, various forms of greed leading to an excess which causes tumours of various kinds; or unkind thoughts and repressed anger being responsible for hyperacidity and stomach ulcers.
- By adopting a healthy lifestyle where there is neither an excess of strenuous demand or an underuse of any faculty or part, neither an excess or an undue diminution of the normal requirements and functions such as food and sleep. The famous injunction of the Gita regarding observing moderation in everything, including food, rest and recreation is echoed in the texts of Ayurveda as well as modern medicine.
- By opening the part that is diseased to a deeper and higher Light and Peace. This can be done in several ways such as guided imagery, visualization techniques, or by simply opening the physical consciousness directly to the higher Light and Peace of the Divine Consciousness provided one is conscious in these domains.
- By rejecting the illness from the body through the help of mind or the vital will or even the will of the body.
- By inducing faith in the cells in their recovery. One can even talk to them to come out of their diseased state. One of the roles of the physician and the medicine is to induce this faith in the body. It may be interesting to note here that in each epoch there are certain formulations that help which strangely become defunct at a later date. The reason could be a collective faith of humanity in a certain prescription or a way of therapy. These things circulate as vibrations and affect us unknowingly.
The vital is the seat of vitality, the force of life in us whose currents set to motion the various physiological and psychological functioning and processes. It is the main feeder of energy for living beings. Of course due to our bodies still being built in the animal way, we depend largely upon physical means to draw the vital energy involved in the living world. But there are other ways to draw vital energy as well. Some people habitually do this in certain favourable circumstances. Some do it directly from the living world without actually taking in the life form physically. Some can do it by tapping into higher regions of our consciousness through prayer, meditation, aspiration, etc. Nevertheless, some form of physical intake of food is necessary for embodied life as it is today for the form to grow and replace itself and not just be nourished vitally. This is because evolution has proceeded from matter to life and is on the basis of matter therefore everything here has become so heavily dependent upon material means and processes except for short periods and occasional instances. Naturally when we draw vital energy from animal forms, we also partake along with energy some form of the animal consciousness and its propensity to fear and rage and all the rest. Plant products do not have this disadvantage since they embody mainly the sap of life or that aspect of the vital which is necessary just to nourish matter and provide it food for growth.
The role of the vital in health and illness is considerable and goes far beyond the food we eat for our vital and physical nourishment. It is the vital that often disturbs the healthy habits of the body and coerces it to obey an excess demand of passions and desires and greed, etc. The effect of these vital movements such as anger, lust, etc. is to open the doors of our nature to harmful forces that take advantage of our unconsciousness that often follows the exhaustion subsequent to these activities. Besides, an excess of desire irritates the concerned organ leading to an overuse and thus an imbalance. On the other hand, a non-fulfilment of desire and subsequent propensity to depression in some leads to a lowering of the vital force and a weakening of the body’s protective nervous envelope. The forces of illness can then easily enter and take hold of our body or create various forms of disturbances.
The vital is the energy feeder for the body as well as the mind. It is the vital with its urges and impulsions, desires and ambitions, feelings and emotions, sentiments and passions, its seekings for joy or strivings for mastery that provides the motive force for most human beings. That is why if the vital parts in us are on strike due to any disappointment or frustration, there is at once a depression of the vital energies of life in us. The result is, on the one side, fatigue and easy exhaustion, a general depression of the body’s natural defences or the will to live; and, on the other hand, a psychological state of depression, lack of interest or enthusiasm in anything. All kinds of illnesses, physical or psychological can steal into the system in this state which is most conducive to ill-health and predisposes us to attacks of various kinds.
To prevent the possibilities of such vital strikes at a later age, it is best to train the consciousness from an early age. Much that is being written these days in the name of emotional quotient or EQ is actually about vital education. Essentially, it involves three things:
- Teaching ways and means to enhance the vital energy. This is done through various means which can augment the normal supply of vital energy through food, etc. One of the most commonly used means to enhance the vital energy in the system is through the type of breathing exercises called pranayama. Tested and retested down the ages by various sages and physicians alike, these exercises are meant to draw vital energy through the breath, which is essentially a physical vehicle for drawing in, along with the oxygen we need, the force of prana. The oxygen molecule carries this prana everywhere through the circulatory system, to each and every cell. A set of physiological processes are then activated, directed by the prana currents into the human body which provide the energy needed for the body and mind. This process can be augmented by consciously adding more prana to each breath that we take in. But apart from this there are other ways of drawing prana in the system. For instance, through the occult processes, through the sun, through flowers, through an opening to higher regions of the being, through the subtle breath as when a yogi is able to suspend his breathing for long hours without dying, etc. Perhaps a similar hitherto unknown process is responsible for the survivors of earthquakes and such catastrophes where the victim was left buried under a heap of rubble for days or was cut off from food and water, yet survived. Certain mentally sick people and so also some frequent fasters know this trick instinctively and draw prana without eating or drinking, facilitating survival for days and even weeks, a feat that would seem impossible to logic given the make-up of our human physiology.
Prana is a universal force and can be drawn practically from everywhere and everything, but the most unfortunate aspect of this is that some people draw the force of prana from other human beings. These are almost life-suckers who leave their companions weaker and exhausted, vulnerable to disease and death, just as there are others who are natural life-givers and spread life and hope and enthusiasm everywhere. However, it is not enough to simply learn how to draw prana and increase its influx into the system. It can even be dangerous if the source of prana is impure or the body and nerves weak to bear the excess load. The nerves especially are vulnerable to such an increase in the pranic load, which is why most pranayama practices are advised to be done under an expert’s guidance and usually after the initial nerve purifying pranayama (nadi suddhi) is done to facilitate the smooth flow of currents through a set of strong and healthy nerves. Whatever be the claims made, the exercises of pranayama presume a balanced and strong physical-nervous basis. If that is not the case, then it is best to achieve the same through asanas or some such exercises.
- What we also need is a purification of the nerve currents. This purification is achieved by first regulating the source of prana. The best source is of course the spiritual one. To draw the higher energies through aspiration, through a concentration and an opening to the Divine Consciousness is the best thing. We have already spoken of nadi suddhi. Then there are the various disciplines aimed at rectifying the vital movements such as adopting the right attitude towards events and circumstances, being cheerful and full of trust and confidence in the Divine, doing the appointed action without claim to the fruits or worrying about the results, calling peace into the system, turning one’s emotions and will towards the Divine, etc. Without these complimentary movements, it is dangerous to simply augment the prana force as some so-called new-age methods seem to advocate. Besides, there is nothing new about pranayama and to do these exercises as a means to satisfy one’s desire for enjoying a longer life, or fulfilling one’s ambition by increasing the energy output, is pointless and terribly egocentric. The purification of prana is even more important to health as its augmentation by mechanical and other means.
- Finally there is the necessity of regulating and refining the flow of pranic force through channelization in exercises and other creative activities. The best of course is a channelling of the prana into spiritual and higher pursuits on the one side, and on the other to provide a healthy and strong physical base by methodical exercises so that the body and mind do not break down when the higher consciousness awakens in our system.
In an illness, the vital can facilitate recovery by getting rid of the wrong movements that have been the cause of illness. One can also use the vital will to reject the illness, remain vigilant that the illness is not supported by something in the vital in the form of feelings, especially of depression. There is in the human vital a perverse love for tragedy. The vital loves drama, it even creates them; sometimes it holds an illness just as a grudge, at other times it fabricates it for oneself. The best antidote to this is the power of sincerity and of purity but that is seldom freely available to human beings. For, sincerity and purity are not loose terms. It means to remain exclusively open to the Divine, to rely fully with confidence and trust on the Divine for everything, to want nothing from anyone but seek all one’s joys and satisfaction only from the Divine, to want only the Divine and to be exclusively under the Divine Influence in each and every part of one’s consciousness. If one can use an illness to detect the wrong movement and next to develop and cultivate the right state and responses in the vital, then the illness itself would become a doorway for progress and the crisis a means to one’s liberation. Then we would have nothing else but gratitude for all our ordeals, for indeed they are the shortest route to the Divine. Short of this, if one can in some way remain cheerful and positive, optimistic and full of hope and trust, then automatically the subtle protective envelope is reinforced and the healing forces activated in the system, just as fear and depression cut holes in it and invite forces of illness and disintegration to enter into the bodily house.