Acknowledging Illness, But Not Being Defined by It: How Do We Participate in Our Own Healing?

By Adam Blanning, MD

Fall 2016, Sacred Nature - Issue #85, Vol. 21

slr-connie-painting-022-copyAs we once again approach the question, “How can I participate in my own healing?” we come to a very personal place. This fourth and final contribution borders on a delicate kind of research. Although it seems to have important practical implications for therapy, it also resonates with spiritual truthfulness in the midst of working with serious illness. It considers the questions of whether a person can be healed from an illness, yet still die of it; and whether a therapy that does not eliminate every symptom could ever be preferable to one that makes everything bad or painful instantly disappear. These questions do, admittedly, challenge our usual thinking: that illness symptoms are always bad, and removal of a symptom is always good. Isn’t that the primary goal of medicine, to relieve symptoms? But our thinking may shift if we focus on the ways we make sustainable change.

We have previously looked at three other pathways into a more engaged and deeper relationship with our own healing process. The first path focuses on the need for each of us to be seen not just as bits and pieces, lab tests and diagnoses, but as a whole person. We are beings of body and spirit on an individual path of experience and perspective. We need to be seen holistically, and individually, in order to be healed beyond just a symptomatic level. Being seen as a whole person certainly invites us to enter into the healing process in a different way than medical compartmentalization.

A second aspect deals with the understanding that there is particular potency when a therapist, nurse, or physician develops an enlivened relationship to the healing process he or she is using. This is important to recognize, even though it cannot be incorporated into a clinical guideline or be part of standardization for best practices. Someone cannot tell you from the outside what you know and love best. You must seek it and find it yourself! This means that an inner path of learning and self-knowledge for the practitioner is an important part of the healing process.

Then, as a third aspect, we saw how healing can come from many different sides (through a massage stroke, a tone, a eurythmy gesture, a remedy, or a nursing application), all of which work together to create a harmonious circle of support. Some of these healing modalities act on a conscious level (easily sensed and intentionally met); some are so subtle as to be almost sleeping (gentle and supportive without demand). But all are interwoven with a common view of the human being in health and illness.

And now, finally, we come to the fourth statement: that consciously leaving space for a treatment not to work can help to effect greater long-term change.

Some time has elapsed since that last statement first appeared, and it has been both amusing, and confirming, to hear people’s reactions to it. Several friends and colleagues have inquired (always gently and politely) to see if there was not in fact a typo [error] in the original article. And, after some brief initial panic, it was possible to confirm that yes, that is the correct statement. It is important for there to be space in the healing process for a treatment not to work. Why? Because there needs to be a meeting space within the therapeutic process. A true meeting space means that there is an invitation, an invitation to participate in something that we may or may not be ready to engage with. The invitation brings freedom, and freedom allows us to unfold with the process, not just react to it. That freedom also means that the process may not work.

Now, there are of course times when such freedom is not an important ingredient. If you are in a bad car accident and rushed to the emergency room, then you need all available support to put your body back together and protect your physiology until it stabilizes. But at a certain point in recovery, many people realize that they want to engage more actively with their therapies, to understand how they are feeling and then make decisions accordingly. For the reclamation of self is an integral part of the healing process. From that point on, it no longer feels right to simply have all decisions made for you from the outside.

One part of this self-knowledge comes from recognizing that an illness or imbalance is truly part of us. That our illness process is not simply a random outside force, misdirected bad luck, or a pattern we inherited from someone else. We learn to say, “Yes, this is part of me.” This step is often hard and painful, but it creates a foothold for our participation. To know an illness and to name it brings power. It is the first step toward learning what is self, and not-self. Or perhaps better said: what is present self and what is true self.

There are dark sides to our existence. So learning to say, I am: an alcoholic, diabetic, depressed, too open to the world, disconnected from my inner needs, defensive to the point of isolation, angry, bone-tired, in pain, no longer trusting of my body, has therapeutic value. That is the starting place. We have to be able to feel where we are in order to start to change it.

Of course, we may not yet know how to change it, and that is where we need other people to help us. A really good therapy or remedy stimulates us, or reminds us how to return to a more balanced way of being. It opens a door. Whether one is able to step through that door is a matter of timing, interest, imagination, love, and destiny. It is a bit of a mystery, as sometimes it happens almost effortlessly, while at other times, the outer markers of an illness worsen and do not change, in spite of the greatest striving and intention.

Now here is the very tender aspect of this “meeting space.” I have known people with very severe, life-threatening illnesses, who seem to have come to a place of really knowing and transforming an illness, yet ultimately succumb to it. I feel strongly that I have known people who have healed a cancer process, yet still died of the physical process of the cancer. No, that is not a typo either. It is very possible, on the level of spiritual learning, to have reclaimed a part of ourselves, to have found a thoroughly new gesture toward life, yet still be physically stricken by the process. The ignorance, or trauma, or rigidity, or fear that led us toward a certain disease process does change; there is just not enough time for the downstream effects of that change to reverse physical expression of the disease.
In working with anthroposophic medicines, it seems that one of the most potent therapeutic spaces comes when we still feel a process, yet simultaneously experience a different relation to it. We are no longer strictly defined by it. This means that the inclination is not entirely gone (we can feel that it has been a familiar part of us) but a new self can emerge that is different.

We ourselves take the steps to make that change. It is a sculpting process.
It is a place where illness is not just a loss, but a gateway for transformation.
It is a meeting space, where we risk the freedom to grow and become more than we have previously been. Opening a space for new growth always carries some risk.


Adam Blanning, MD, practices anthroposophic family medicine in Denver, Colorado. He teaches widely on supporting healthy growth and development for children. Dr. Blanning is currently serving as president of the Association for Anthroposophic Medicine and Therapies in America. You can subscribe to his monthly newsletters at

The Association for Anthroposophic Medicine and Therapies in America (AAMTA) is a non-profit umbrella organization working to foster communication and collaboration within the medical work, made up of professional organizations representing therapeutic eurythmists; art, music, singing, and rhythmical massage therapists; nurses; naturopathic doctors; and medical and osteopathic doctors. You can find more information, including a provider directory at