Every pair of apparent opposite or contradictory symptoms shares a common ground and tends to revolve around a common theme. For example, “letting go” is the central point in the case of both constipation and diarrhea. Underlying both low and high blood pressure is an avoidance of conflict. Just as joy can express itself in tears or laughter, or as fear can lead to either paralysis or flight, every theme is capable of expressing itself in apparently contradictory symptomatic forms.
Since the shy and the show-off both lack self-confidence, and the coward and the daredevil are both afraid, it is this very flexibility of expression that is responsible for the simultaneous success and failure of our efforts to combat symptoms. Any given symptom may be overcome or even prevented, but the problem in question will simply choose another way of embodying itself—a process known as a symptom shift.
For example, the problem of being under stress can show up just as easily in the form of high blood pressure as in the form of raised pressure within the eye (glaucoma) or abscesses. It is not in the extremes where the problem will be solved—those are just the symptoms. It is in discovering the theme that these symptoms share that will reveal the real problem to be resolved. It can be difficult for an individual to see their medical history from this viewpoint, and it will escape the notice of most medical professionals, but it’s necessary for complete healing.
Symptoms make us whole by embodying what is absent from our consciousness. Our consciousness remains unwhole until we succeed in integrating our shadow. The physical symptom is a necessary stage along the way, but it is never the final answer. Learning, maturing, perceiving, and experiencing are things that can happen only at the level of consciousness. Even though the body is a necessary precondition for this to occur, the psyche ultimately has to do the perceiving and make sense of what it perceives.
The Escalation of Illness
Each stage of illness represents an increase in the intensity with which our destiny challenges us to question our accustomed outlook and integrate into our consciousness what has been pushed underground. The greater our resistance to this process, the more pressure from the symptoms.
The process breaks down into seven degrees of escalation:
- Psychological phenomena (thoughts, wishes, fantasies)
- Functional disturbances
- Acute physical disturbances (inflammations, wounds, minor accidents)
- Chronic conditions
- Incurable processes, physical changes, cancer
- Death (through illness or accident)
- Congenital deformities and conditions (karma)
Before a problem shows up in the body as a symptom, it makes its presence known in the psyche as a theme, idea, wish, or fantasy. The more open and receptive we are toward our unconscious impulses, and the more prepared we are to give them free rein, the more lively (and unorthodox) our way of life will be.
If, on the other hand, we have very clear ideas and standards, then we cannot afford to admit to such impulses, for they stand all our priorities on their heads. This attempt to make ourselves unreceptive to our psychological side leads directly to the first degree of escalation: we get a symptom—slight, innocent, yet totally faithful.
After the functional disturbances (with which, after initial resistance, we generally learn to live), the acute inflammatory symptoms make themselves felt—symptoms that can take up residence in almost any part of the body. Every inflammatory condition challenges us to grasp something quite specific and has as its object to make visible some unconscious conflict. If they fail in this purpose, acute inflammations develop into chronic conditions.
Slowly, such chronic processes lead to irreversible physical changes, which are then referred to as “incurable illnesses,” and if they remain unaddressed, these can lead not only to death but also to congenital conditions and handicaps, if we believe in reincarnation.
How to See What's Behind Our Symptoms
Our greatest challenge lies in our blindness to what is going on in our own backyard. The theory underlying this blindness is straightforward—a symptom is the embodiment of a principle that is not present in consciousness. Our interpretation identifies this principle and points out that it really is still there within us, but only as part of the shadow, where it cannot be seen. We tend to compare this assertion with what we ourselves are consciously aware of, and so come to the conclusion that it really isn’t there after all. Without knowing it, we were looking in the wrong place.
We then go on to regard this as proof that in our case the interpretation “doesn’t fit.” This, however, completely overlooks the fact that not seeing it is precisely our problem, and that it is the symptom’s job to help us see. But then this demands conscious work and self-examination.
For example, if one of our symptoms embodies aggression, the reason for our having this particular symptom is that we are failing to notice the aggression within ourselves, or we are failing to live it out. If we identify aggression as the problem, then check it against what we’re conscious of, we will vigorously defend against the very idea of it, just as we have always done since this problem was consigned to the shadow in the first place.
It is hardly surprising that we can discover no aggression within ourselves—for if we were able to see it, we should not be suffering from the symptom at all. On the basis of this reciprocal relationship, in fact, it can be stated as a general rule that we can tell from the sheer strength of reaction to it just how accurate any particular interpretation is.
Whenever an interpretation strikes home, it tends to produce a kind of unease, a feeling of anxiety and consequently of defensiveness. It may be useful in such cases to have an honest partner or friend whom one can ask about it. It is more revealing still to listen to what our enemies and critics have to say—for they are nearly always right.
© 2016 by Ruediger Dahlke. Adapted from “Radical Healing: How to Use Illness to Find Wholeness,” which originally ran in The Intelligent Optimist.