A Soul Approach to Illness
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam: New York, 1993.
431 pp., $22.95 (cloth).
Seven years ago, death sent a greeting card to Mark Ian Barasch—a card in the form of a 3.5-centimeter malignant tumor on his thyroid gland. Fortunately for Barasch, as well as for readers of this moving and revelatory book, the message was taken to heart: change your life, heal your life, or suffer death—not just death that marks the end of a life, but the slow living death of a life lived without attention, without full heart and soul.
At the time, Barasch was the editor in chief of New Age Journal and a student of Buddhism to boot—a man whose work reflected his beliefs, a man presumably harmony with himself and the world: an apparently unlikely candidate for an illness whose roots—according to the thinking of many—seem to lie as much in mind as in matter. But, as with many of us, Barasch's spiritual search and idealism existed side by side with an inner turmoil: as his
one-hundred-hour workweeks scretched into months...I was...like the proverbial man holding a live electrical cable, his muscles rigid with shock, simply incapable of loosening his grip....I was wired, effusive, light-emitting, a seventy-eight rpm version of myself.
Months earlier, nightmares had begun to plague Barasch's sleep ("The top of my head has been drilled with three neat, bloody holes....'We're going to boil your brains out,' one of my invisible torturers announces"); then the tumor was discovered. After a few flailing attempts at holistic cures—a vegetarian diet; a visit to a Tibetan physician who gave him pills "wrapped in pink silk"; a night spent in a sweat lodge with an Indian medicine man—Barasch, under relentless pressure from family and friends, opted for the knife and had his tumor, and thyroid, surgically removed. To mimic the action of the thyroid, which regulates the body's metabolism, he was prescribed synthetic hormone pills, which he takes to this day.
Barasch's medical crisis was over, but his spiritual crisis had just begun: "I and others have learned that sickness may thrust upon us an unexpected requirement: to attend to what is generally called the soul." By "soul" he means "not some diaphanous eternal Essence" but "an approach to life that embraces the often partitioned elements of our being: emotion and reason, thought and sensation, our social and private selves."
In this elegant if loosely woven memoir, which mixes his own reflections with those of forty others stricken by serious disease (including poet Deena Metzger, psychiatrist Oliver Sacks, Buddhist anthropologist Joan Halifax, and Zen Buddhist priest Ji-on), as well as with the wisdom of mythology, theology, psychology, anthropology, and medicine, Barasch retraces the steps of his "soul-retrieval." Avoiding sectarianism, he takes as his templates for the potentially transformative journey of illness and healing several familiar works of literature and film: the Book of Job, A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and most prominently, the original version of The Wizard of Oz (we learn that L. Frank Baum's original story, deeply influenced by Buddhism and Theosophy, is a far more deliberate and profound parable than the later film version).
Illness and healing, Barasch found, follow a near-universal pattern: from the "tangled roots" of disease (roots nourished by a genetic predisposition to colon cancer or heart disease, or by repressed childhood trauma or environmental factors like air pollution) through the manifestation of symptoms; the tug-of-war—with the patient's life as the prize—between Western medical technology and "alternative" modes of treatment; the discovery of "the healer within"; and, hopefully and finally, the attainment of a new level of self-integration. The pattern holds whether the illness proves terminal or not. At each stage, crucial questions arise (amplified here by discussions of such matters as the role of the doctor and the healing potential of visualization techniques), questions that Barasch himself groped with: To what extent am I responsible for my disease? What is my disease trying to tell me? How can I participate, other than as a passive observer, in the healing process?
Throughout, case histories ground the questions and possible answers. There's the extraordinary story of Brian Schultz of Somerville, Massachusetts, for example, who, while at Stanford Law School in the seventies, developed "an obscure, excruciatingly painful degenerative joint disease called ankylosing spondylitis"—a disease that, at its worst, can cause complete immobility. "I had never known how exhausting, agonizing, and final pain could be," Schultz tells Barasch. "It was like being strapped down on a table and tortured with icepicks...." Tellingly, Schultz's slow recovery began when he realized that accepting his pain, rather than trying to avoid it, was the only viable way for him to live. "Where before my desire had been to rid myself of my illness as if it were a foreign object, an invader," he says, "I now began to treat it as part of me that was calling out to be touched."
Schultz's "tiny, tiny decision" to "stop resisting and try to learn how to feel" holds the key to Barasch's book. No matter the ravages wrought by disease, the author makes clear, it's only by opening to and accepting them—as well as the psychic darkness that may have contributed to their genesis—that healing can begin.
It's this message that makes The Healing Path relevant not only to its obvious readership of those suffering from a grave or chronic illness, but to all of us experiencing the dukkha (suffering) inherent to human life. For the way of healing discerned by Barasch—the way marked by acceptance, even joyous affirmation, of all that exists, be it good, evil, ill, or healthy—is, as it must be, akin to the way discerned by the Buddha and all great teachers before and since.
As for Barasch, today "my outward velocity has slowed." Living in Colorado, short on money but apparently longer than ever on tolerance and understanding, he reads, writes, nourishes relationships, and tries "to practice the higher form of fidelity: obedience to awareness"—an obedience that will be inspired in all who read this brave, insightful, and powerful book.
Jeffrey Zaleski is a Consulting Editor to Tricycle and a Contributing Editor to Parabola magazine.