During a workshop some years ago a woman in her mid forties seemed distracted until I said, in answer to a question posed by another participant, that today we are faced with the belief that we ‘cause’ all our illnesses, that dis-ease is something we ‘do’ to ourselves.
“As far as I’m concerned” I said, quoting Byron Katie, “my body is not my business.”
“What do you mean ‘not your business’” she queried; “surely if you do things that harm your body and as a result you get sick, it is your business, no?”
There was a look on her face that expressed both doubt and hope. Upon questioning her I learned that she had been a dancer and such was her passion for dancing that she –according to her- had pushed her body to its limits. The doctor who had treated her for crippling back pain said that if she had not danced so much she would not have suffered from back problems. Considering that she had spent the next twenty some odd years unable to live a normal life because of her back, what this woman lived with was –pun intended- crippling guilt. She had believed her doctor and had thus begun carrying both the guilt for her disability and the guilt for not finding a cure.
“So” I said gently, “if you had not danced with all your heart you would not have had a back problem, is that true; can you absolutely know that that thought is true?”
She sat for a moment, very quietly and then she looked at me with something like surprise stretching across her brow: “No, I can’t absolutely know that if I hadn’t danced with all my heart I wouldn’t have had a back problem.” It was an honest answer.
“Isn’t that amazing? You just yourself said that you have believed that painful thought for almost 25 years and now you can’t be sure it’s true.” She shook her head slowly. We continued questioning.
“How do you react, how do you live when you believe the thought that you are responsible for your back problems?”
What followed was an outpouring of suffering, frustration, impotence, guilt and ultimately a desire to die. She was mad, she was sad; she hated herself and her doctor; she had problems in all her relationships, she was profoundly unhappy. When I asked her to locate all these uncomfortable feelings in her body she put her hand both on her heart and on the lumbar region of her back.
Queried about who she would be without that thought, she sat quietly looking into my eyes, took a deep breath and as she let it out again said: “Free.” And then she began to cry: they were tears of relief. All during that workshop, she kept coming to me asking if I really meant what I said when I told her she was not responsible for her body, and every time I invited her to question her thought once more; to go more deeply and ask if she had thrown herself into dancing with the intention of harming herself. And she would say: “Of course not!” Little by little she began to understand. She questioned her every belief and set herself free. Did she still have back problems? She probably did, but she also had her life back, and the possibility of getting better without all the stress from her guilt was obviously greater.
On another occasion, a woman suffering from cancer told a similar story. She honestly believed that there was something she was doing ‘wrong’ and that that was what was causing her cancer. She had been through three operations and chemotherapy treatments, but the cancer kept coming back.
“I don’t know what I am doing wrong, why I can’t rid myself of this cancer,” she whimpered through her tears. I helped her to question her belief that she was responsible for curing her own cancer and once again, when she felt the thought lifted from her, there was such relief she actually began laughing. I probably will never know whether she died soon afterwards or if a cure was found, but I am certain that whatever length of life she had to live, it was ultimately much happier and lighter without the thought that she was responsible for her cancer and its cure.
My body is NOT my responsibility: my thoughts are. I did not make my body, and I have very little idea of how it performs this miracle of life[i]. Even science now doubts everything it once thought it knew about the functioning of the body as new proof of its ultimate intelligence and complexity arises each day. Please: do not get me wrong. I take every care I know how to of my body, but I am not responsible if it gets ill nor is it my job to cure it, and I will do the best I can in as far as choosing a doctor or a treatment and supporting whatever is necessary.
Today I can –fortunately- look back at the time when I was a smoker, and I was a smoker. At the height of my addiction I could consume up to two packs a day, that is 40 cigarettes in 16 waking hours or 2 ½ cigarettes per hour, and that was only when I didn’t go out at night when I would throw in an extra pack. ¿Did I know about the dangers of smoking? Yes, and even if I hadn’t my mother took care to send me articles from newspapers and magazines at least once a month on the negative aspects of smoking. As if that weren’t enough, my 13-year-old daughter hugged me one day and pulled away saying: “Mom, you stink.” I, myself, hated the sight of full ashtrays and ashes strewn over everything, of burn holes in clothes from the sparks, of the nicotine stain on my fingers. I hated my slavery which would have me digging in waste baskets for cigarette butts when I ran out late at night. I hated the morning cough and the feeling of discrimination when smoking on planes was prohibited. But I didn’t stop smoking. I didn’t know how. I was afraid I couldn’t do it. And –I know now- there was a deeper, more important issue that wouldn’t let me: smoking kept me from lashing out with all the rage I had trapped inside, rage –I would find out later- that came from believing the negative stories I had attached to life and to myself since very early childhood.
Today I realize that smoking was the only way I knew at that moment to protect myself and the people I loved from the fallout of that rage: it was, strange as it may seem, an act of love born out of innocence. Today I understand that I was doing the best I could at that moment which is all I have ever done, or anyone has ever done, for that matter. However, the thought that I should stop smoking or that I was going to get lung cancer, or that I was ruining my health was a constant producer of stress that -guess what- led me to smoke all the more.
So what if smoking is just a “symptom” and it is not smoking but what smoking is trying to hide (anger, insecurity, guilt, resentment, frustration, depression) that is the cause of the cancer or the emphysema or the heart ailment. And if all those stressful emotions come from believing negative thoughts about reality is actually what we believe and not what we do. And if the majority of those beliefs are carefully tucked away with their respective memories in the subconscious, how could I be responsible for my cancer or my bad back or my emphysema? And even supposing they were conscious beliefs: I believe what I believe, until I don’t. I have no choice unless I have learned to question my beliefs.
I have a good friend who spent about three years talking about quitting the habit of smoking without actually being able to do it. She suffered because no one else in her family smoked, no one among her friends smoked: she felt like the last dinosaur. I often tried to help her work with her anguishing thoughts about smoking, not so she could stop but rather so she could smoke happily and enjoy it as long as she was going to do it anyway. Finally she took a course and stopped smoking. She said it was easy and seemed to have very little if any withdrawal symptoms. However, two months after she stopped smoking her health started to go downhill, she lost all her energy, she stopped seeing friends. Six months later she was in the hospital with acute anemia and she has been in and out of hospitals ever since, sometimes close to death from different and seemingly mysterious ailments. Was her smoking covering up something so important, yet so unconscious that now is capable of killing her? We don’t know, because we don’t know enough about how the body reacts to the mind, we just know it does. However, upon asking my friend as to when she had begun smoking, I learned that it was an act of rebellion against the Mother Superior of the convent she had just abandoned when they refused her a year’s leave of absence before taking her perpetual vows. Was it that and subsequent anger, frustration and humiliation vented through cigarette smoke, that has since been making her ill? I can’t even begin to imagine the answer to that question.
So how can I believe that I am responsible for my body? I know nothing about its workings. I do not know if smoking will kill me, or stopping smoking will cause the heart attack I am trying to avoid because of the stress released into my bloodstream that previously was being released through smoke. It is not my business what my body does: my business is to care for it, feed it, put it to bed, take it to the doctor when necessary and work with my thoughts so that my mind stops taking my poor body on this emotional roller coaster ride that has been the story of my life. If my body gets cancer, or the bones wear out, or the blood pressure builds up that is my body’s business; my business is to work with the thoughts that my body shouldn’t have cancer, or that I am doing something wrong, or that I should know how to cure whatever is happening. My business is to get the ‘mind-that-knows’ out of the way so the body can do what it has to do, and then listen to the doctor, the homeopath, the naturalist, the guru or whomever my mindset believes is best at that moment. After all, there are only two ways to live with whatever I have be it cancer or something else: one is screaming and kicking and the other is in peace. Today I don’t smoke and I don’t drink, but much, much more important than that, I question my stressful thoughts and find peace, again and again and again. I’m doing the best I can in every moment.
 This quote and all references to questioning one’s thoughts come from The Work of Byron Katie. See www.thework.com
[i] If you have any doubts about the complexity beyond imagination that is our cellular makeup, read Spontaneous Evolution by Bruce H. Lipton and Steve Bhaerman for a very clear explanation.