Answer: Illness and the Work
“How do you handle the fallow periods? Not only the times when one might feel cut off from the Powers, but the times when one’s health and physical stamina keep one from doing the work.”
I don’t talk about it much, but I’ve been dealing with some chronic health issues for many years now. In fact, not coincidentally I think, they started really flaring up just about the time I accepted my vocation as a spirit-worker, almost seven years ago. It would be nice to think of this as a “shaman sickness” (at least, it would give it more meaning) but I feel that if anything qualifies as that for me, it’s been my struggle with depression; my physical illnesses are more complicated in origin.
While these illnesses are not serious in the sense of being life-threatening or potentially leading to future complications, they have at times significantly negatively impacted my quality of life, and my ability to do everything from work my day job to do my religious devotions. So of course from time to time, I have prayed and asked my gods and spirits, why? Why do I continue to suffer when I’m doing everything I can to heal myself? Why allow something so detrimental to my attempts to do my Work, if it’s Work that They want me to be doing?
The (sometimes frustrating) answer has been basically two-fold. I hear the refrain from Them again and again: the Work hurts and the Work heals. This kind of spirit-work I do, it breaks one open, and not just mentally. As my whole purpose is to do everything in both worlds, this makes sense. But it means that what I’m supposed to be doing does have the natural effect of breaking my body in certain ways. Sometimes this is obvious and physical, like certain entheogen use. Sometimes it is more subtle – I don’t think the human mind or body was meant, generally, to endure such regular forays into the otherworlds, such intense opening. It’s bound to have effects on the whole system. However, the remedy for these ill effects is often contained in the Work itself – whether directly, by using healing magic and communing with certain spirits, or indirectly, by learning to listen to the body more closely, to fully be present and aware of all actions that might contribute to the problems, etc.
In a related vein, I cannot really complain when I have learned so many invaluable lessons. Sure, I might have preferred a less unpleasant, isolating and sometimes embarrassing method of learning, but I can’t argue with results. Over these years I have been forced to pay greater attention to my physical self, and how I care for it. I have had to adopt restrictions that serve to further remove me from social situations, keep me in line with my ecological values, clear out my spiritual conduit from pollution by various food-related chemicals, etc. I have had to face a very intense phobia that I’ve had since childhood, and learn how to curb the anxiety it produces. I have had to learn how to transform highly unpleasant sensations into a spiritual experience. I have had to persevere and complete certain spiritual obligations regardless of my state of health. I have become closer to one of my spirits who has ties to illness and healing. I have learned about transmuting poison into something I can use.
That all being said, it has certainly not been an easy road, and I’ve had many, many times when I simply couldn’t manage to do what I wanted or needed to be doing. I have experienced weeks of being rather ill every single day, and my Work has suffered for it. So what gets me through?
For one thing, when I *am* able to do the Work, I do not brook any excuses from myself. I can’t afford to put things off until another day, because I might wake up very ill that day. So I tend to have periods of intense activity, when I’m in better health, to balance out the relative inactivity when I’m not doing as well. For another thing, it has forced me to be less rigid about my plans, to do what I can when I can, and shift around things as needed (provided those things are moveable) or slightly alter things so I don’t have to abandon them altogether. I also try as best I can to utilize the periods of illness, to see them in a spiritual context and (for instance) use that opportunity to draw closer to my spirit helper, or practice a new meditative or trance technique to help manage the symptoms.
I have worked hard to develop discernment regarding what approach I should use in any given instance of illness. Is this a way of getting my attention, does Someone or something need further examination? Is this a time for viewing it as an ordeal, the endurance and/or transcendence of which will bring me greater power and connection? Is it a time for slogging through it regardless, because the Work *needs* to happen right then and there’s no other choice? Should the focus be resting and down time, taking care of my physical needs so that I’ll be in better shape to do the Work later?
Sadly I have noticed that many people, if they hear about such illness, will automatically, in every instance, recommend that you rest and take it easy, and even go so far as to assert that your gods would want you to do so. Well, my gods and spirits certainly don’t always want me to rest, and while They may, generally speaking, have my best interests at heart, They also have other priorities (it’s not all about me), and tend to take a long view – what’s best for me overall might be to learn how to overcome this, not to be coddled for a night or two. Not to mention the fact that there have been plenty of times during this that if I’d taken the approach of laying off spirit-work whenever I was sick, I wouldn’t have done a single thing for months. That is unacceptable. However, I have to tread carefully, as breaking myself beyond repair wouldn’t serve anyone.
As I said, my illnesses are not a shaman sickness, nor do I think they were purposely inflicted on me in order that I should learn what I’ve learned. From what I can tell, they are due to a natural weakness in my system (that has clearly been there since I was a little kid), which has been exacerbated on several levels by this Work. It is my choice, every day, to get something out of this rather than just lamenting it (though lament it I do, believe me, I’m not perfect and it can be very frustrating). And besides, even if there is a clear physical origin, it doesn’t mean there isn’t something spiritual going on too, such as a spirit using what’s already there to communicate or engage with me, or a metaphysical injury being reflected in my physical body. As above so below, after all, especially for those of us who live in between the two.
I am happy to say that in the last six months or so, I have made some significant progress on my health issues and am now doing much better on a day to day basis, albeit still with some flare ups occasionally (and am only okay if I maintain all my behavioral restrictions and routines). But as much as it has been difficult and upsetting, I have to also be thankful for everything I’ve learned and how I’ve grown as a result of dealing with this. It certainly has taught me that I can still stay on my path and do my Work in the face of great challenge. Whether or not I have to deal with being sick all the time in the future, my Work and relationships are ultimately stronger for having gone through this.