Illness as Symbol
(Note: This article by David McMillin was originally published in True Health newsletter.)
Serious illness can thrust us onto the path of transformation. We may begin to wonder and ask deep questions: Is suffering good for the soul? Are symptoms messages from a deeper level of the psyche? Is physical disease symbolic of mental or spiritual transgression? Do we make ourselves sick?
The concept of illness as a growth opportunity has been around for ages. Yet in our modern materialistic culture, the idea that disease can be purposeful makes many uneasy. This is a controversial topic that will require some deep reflection. Simplistic answers to the mystery of health and illness can be misleading, so let’s take it one step at a time.
The Medical Model
Medical science teaches us that most illness is a result of chance or accident. We happen to catch a cold because we happen to come in contact with a rhinovirus. Or if we succumb to a genetically linked disorder, it’s a matter of chance. The random combination of sperm and egg is the hereditary equivalent of rolling dice.
Likewise, treatment contains a strong element of chance. A medication that is a miracle cure for one individual may be fatal for someone else with the same diagnosis. Scientific medicine seeks to load the dice and beat the odds at every turn.
The medical model does concede that illness may be produced by psychological factors. Then it is said to be psychosomatic or psychogenic. Diseases that have no discernible physical cause will sometimes be classified in this way, particularly if the patient is insistent and persistent that the physician cure the problem. In such instances, a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist may be made. The idea that illness is produced by nonphysical causes is usually a last resort for physicians using the medical model.
Illness as Symbol
At the other philosophical extreme is the view that illness, especially physical illness, is a purposeful process that can be a growth experience. There are no accidents. Life is on purpose. Chance is an illusion. We create our own reality and are totally responsible for everything that we experience – everything, even disease.
In this model, illness is regarded as a metaphor or symbol. As Louise Hay put it in her book You Can Heal Your Life, “… we create every so-called ‘illness’ in our body. The body, like everything else in life, is a mirror of our inner thoughts and beliefs.” The metaphysics of this model has been around for a long time. The book of Proverbs states that “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Edgar Cayce kept reminding us that “mind is the builder” and that “thoughts are real things.” Hay points out that dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs that cause illness are often unconscious. Getting in touch with core beliefs is the answer. Hay provides numerous exercises and affirmations to identify and transform unhealthy thoughts and beliefs. The cookbook style of identifying specific illnesses with specific mental patterns is perhaps a bit simplistic, but can be helpful as a starting point in grasping the concept of illness as symbol.
Illness as Sin
In at least three readings Edgar Cayce observed that “all illness is sin.” This is probably the most extreme example of illness as symbol. In one reading containing this expression, a man’s painful gallstones were said to result from “resentments [that] have choked up conditions within …” (3341-1) The use of the word “choked” as a symbol of resentment in the mental body is certainly appropriately descriptive of gallstones that choke the gallbladder.
In another fascinating reading Cayce commented, “No one can hate his neighbor and not have stomach or liver trouble. No one can be jealous and allow the anger of same and not have upset digestion or heart disorder.” (4021-1) That physical symptoms can be symbolic of mental or spiritual problems is definitely expressed in the Cayce readings. Yet, we should be cautious when interpreting the above excerpt. Cayce is not saying that everyone that has stomach or liver trouble hates his neighbor. Nor is he saying that everyone with indigestion or heart disease is possessed by jealously or anger. There are hundreds of physical readings given by Cayce on these disorders that do not hint of hate, jealously, or anger as a causative factor. Perhaps there is something more complex taking place when we become ill – something more than an oblique symbolic manifestation.
A reading given for a woman suffering from bowel problems illustrates this point. She asked Cayce, “Since all disease is caused by sin, exactly what sin causes the colon and elimination condition?” Cayce responded, “The sin of neglect. Neglect is just as much sin as grudge, as jealousy – neglect.” (3051-7) She then continued to pursue this line of questioning to identify a more symbolic sin for the various symptoms that she was experiencing. Cayce kept coming back to neglect as the basic cause of her physical symptoms. Apparently she was just not paying attention to the needs of her physical body.
Louise Hay states that bowel problems often relate to “fear of letting go of the old and no longer needed.” Perhaps this woman’s neglect was fear-based, but the connection is not obvious. In fact, in the numerous readings that Cayce gave for persons with bowel problems, the symbolic interpretation suggested by Hay is never mentioned. This is what I meant earlier when I said that simplistic answers can be misleading.
On a more general note, considering the amount of research data that has accumulated indicating that lifestyle choices contribute to or even cause a wide range of diseases, neglect as a sin could probably account for much of the disease that afflicts the human race. This interpretation is consistent with the idea that the basic meaning of sin is error or mistake.
Another, more theological explanation of “all illness is sin” may relate to Cayce’s view that an initial rebellion and separation from God is the basis for our descent into the material realm. In this sense, any suffering or malaise that befalls us in our earthly sojourn could be regarded as a result of that “original sin.”
Latent and Manifest Symbols
Sigmund Freud is probably the most famous and influential advocate of symbolic interpretation. Freud believed that all symbols could be interpreted at multiple levels. For example, the meaning of dream symbols can be interpreted as manifest or latent. Manifest means the obvious meaning. Latent is the hidden meaning.
With regard to illness as symbol, the question is whether the meaning of a specific condition is either latent or manifest, or both. If jealousy produces heart disease, the physical manifestation of the disease has a latent or hidden meaning as well as the obvious physical manifestation. If bowel disease (or any illness) results from neglect, the physical manifestation seems to me to be essentially manifest or direct with little if any latent meaning. Of course, the medical model of illness is more supportive of the manifest meaning of illness. Even Freud, who is probably best known for his almost obsessive tendency to interpret symbols as having sexual content (especially phallic symbols), had to concede that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The question of whether illness can have a purely physical cause will be discussed in next month’s newsletter. The short answer, according to Edgar Cayce, is yes.
Working with Symbols
Interpreting illness as a symbol of mental or spiritual distress is one of the ways that we can experience healing as a transformational process. In working with symbols, keep in mind that symbols can have both latent and manifest meaning.
Latent Meaning – In seeking to understand physical symptoms of illness, I like to begin with an open and flexible mind. Sometimes symbols can be interpreted in a cookbook fashion where a specific symbol is linked to a specific core issue. Louise Hay’s books can serve as a good starting point for this type of interpretation. Interpreting illness in a symbolic way may require a more personal approach where you will need to understand what the illness means to you. Meditation and dream incubation are two good ways to access the symbolic meaning of illness. The Hidden Meaning of Illness by Bob Trowbridge is an excellent resource for understanding the latent meaning of illness.
Manifest Meaning – Keep in mind that symbols may not necessarily have a latent or hidden meaning. To be on the safe side, I recommend that you always use a holistic approach to understanding and treating illness. This means honoring the physical as well as the mental and spiritual. Thus, in addition to seeking the mental and spiritual causes of illness, be aware that illnesses may have a physical cause. Or, if there is sin involved, it may be as simple and direct as neglect of the physical side of life.
By working with the manifest as well as latent meaning of illness, you will be less likely to experience unnecessary guilt or inappropriate treatment. These two potential negative side effects of the transformational process represent the shadow side of transformation. Next month we will explore the shadow of transformation within the context of “purely physical” illness.