I have long been interested in the experience of physical illness beyond that which is offered within the traditional medical paradigm. How does illness relate to our inner experience of emotions or spiritual nature? To what extent do we participate in our own wellness and states of illness? What is the potential for growth through challenging health crises; how do experiences of serious or chronic illness transform us? For me, these questions and more, throw up exciting perspectives on how we view health and ill-health and how psychology and spirituality powerfully intersect with medicine.
I recently finished reading Close to the Bone: Life-threatening Illness as a Soul Journey by Jean Shinoda Bolen –a fantastic book for anyone has an interest in deepening their understanding of the experience of serious illness from a wider perspective. Dr Bolen explores illness not only as a physical crisis, but as a crisis of the soul. She skilfully uses Greek mythology to describe the descent into the underworld when one is faced with life threatening illness. She describes the experience of the soul in this shadowy place using many real-world examples from her extensive clinical and life experiences. The myths of Persephone and Inanna both provide an excellent metaphor of the descent into a dark place (illness) and importantly, the following resurrection and restoration in the world (healing) –be that physically, emotionally and/or spiritually. Of course, for some people, healing takes the form of preparing emotionally and spiritually for their soul’s departure. Central to this book is the idea of illness as a turning point which I find not only fascinating but also inspiring and reassuring, that maybe random and terrible illness may behold experiences of personal transformation.
What exactly is meant by soul journey? From my background in transpersonal psychology, I think of soul as the part of self which seeks to know the meaning of our lives and experiences, life’s purpose, and spiritual connection. It is the sense of ourselves beyond our physical bodies –a higher or inner self, the essence of who we are. Some say in fact that we are spiritual beings on a human journey, suggesting consciousness and experience beyond the physical realities and limitations of our lives. In this way, it is the soul which attends to the questions of love, purpose, meaning, integrity and faith in the face of critical illness –often with an urgency and clarity as never before experienced. As explained by Dr Bolen, this journey takes the form of descent, discovery, ascent, and transformation.
Over the years, I have worked with many clients facing life threatening illness and chronic ill health such as cancer, Chrone’s disease, musculoskeletal pain disorders, and chronic skin disorders. I have also worked with clients facing survival issues (fear and anxiety, spiritual crisis, and depression) following a remission or recovery from serious illnesses such as cancer. I consider therapy a critical element in the soul’s healing through serious illness, an aspect of care which is generally unattended by the medical profession.
Illness experiences often bring clients into therapy to:
- explore the meaning of the illness in the context of their lives
- work through the attendant trauma
- integrate the experience into their lives moving forward.
If you are facing issues relating to illness and think therapy may help you, please call to arrange an appointment at my Wimbledon counselling practise 0796 9501 888.
Bolen, J. S. (2007). Close to the Bone. Canada: Red Wheel/Weiser.