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I Think Therefore I Am…Sick? Understanding Ego and Disease

Human. Being. Some say our peculiar bipedal situation is merely a state where matter and spirit coexist together, temporarily. It's often an awkward collision that can be all consuming—from the stressful, difficult moments to those where excitement and joy completely overwhelm us. Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle ("The Power of Now", "New Earth") says that when we're caught up in the details, we may be confusing our life situation with our life. And that can have a profound impact on our health and how we deal with disease.

Many factors contribute to our health. Some of it we certainly control with our diet, physical activity, limiting alcohol and drug use, etc. But many illnesses are beyond our power—whether it's catching a cold at work, issues we're born with, or conditions that develop over time, such as cancer. There may be more to our state of health too, like how much stress is in our lives, whether or not we're in a healthy romantic partnership, and our relationship with our egos. Huh?

The ego, according to Tolle, is the unobserved mind—a protective shell that separates us from the "outside world." It creates the illusion of separateness in order to help us navigate and protect our bodies, but it can also disillusion us from the bigger picture—that true human being experience that Tolle says exists right here, right now. And here. And…now. Get the picture? If we are capable of observing our ego in action, there must be a part of us that is beyond it…a part of us that is always…present.

To strengthen itself, the ego often resorts to judgment and complaining—further cementing the divide between us and them. It clings to things that happened in the past, projects fear and excitement about things possible in the future too. So tethered to our identities, Tolle says the ego can take such control of our lives that we no longer have thoughts, they instead have us.

And here is where the disease can slip in. Illnesses, especially chronic ones can quickly become part of our identity—which Tolle says is not our true nature, but more often the situation happening to our lives. Tolle extols the benefits of observing, as often as we can, the present moment. He says that illnesses exist in the past and the future but not in the now, "underneath the various conditions that make up your life situation, which exists in time, there is something deeper, more essential: your Life, your very Being in the timeless Now."

It is our surrender to the ego that allows illness and other parts of our "life situation" to become our identities. And studies, like one conducted by a Carnegie Mellon University psychologist, have connected human mental and emotional issues—particularly stress—with a number of serious health problems including depression, cardiovascular disease, and even HIV/AIDS.

Again, that's not to say that diseases only originate from our minds or egos, but the suffering we allow to exist inside our heads can contribute to the development of illnesses and most certainly propel them. Tolle says, "If you have a major illness, use it for enlightenment. Anything ‘bad’ that happens in your life—use it for enlightenment. Withdraw time from the illness. Do not give it any past or future. Let it force you into intense present-moment awareness—and see what happens."

Beyond the bustle of our busy modern lives, our medical system focuses on treating symptoms, not disease. Doctors placate our egos via putting so much emphasis on "treating" our broken bodies with drugs. But in most tribal cultures, diseases were often viewed as a systemic problem—one that included treatment of both spirit and body. Shamans helped the ill heal themselves by keeping them in the present moment. Tolle describes a similar approach, "Become an alchemist. Transmute base metal into gold, suffering into consciousness, disaster into enlightenment."

For those who are seriously ill and find the discussion about ego and illness frustrating, Tolle says that is a clear sign that the illness "has become part of your sense of self and that you are now protecting your identity—as well as protecting the illness." By observing each moment as it comes as best we can without letting past or future enter into the situation, we become aware of our egos—and how to see past their limitations. We're capable of seeing our situations as less important to our true nature, says Tolle, "The condition that is labeled "illness" has nothing to do with who you truly are.

Resources: more about Jill Ettinger

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