Seeing Illness as an Imbalance

by Lewis Mehl-Madrona


Most Native People believe that all healing is ultimately spiritual healing, and that the integration of mind, body, and spirit is crucial to getting well. I grew up within an implicit understanding of this principle, and through the course of my life, have come to explicitly believe this as well. 

Implicit within indigenous culture’s concepts of illness is an appreciation that it is a territory in which we find ourselves, and not an inseparable trait of the person who is ill. Rather than describe someone as a cancer patient, we would say that this person finds herself in the territory of cancer. Implicit also is the understanding that illness is a marker of imbalance. When balance and harmony are restored, illness can be transformed. The limits of this healing transformation are set by the Divine and cannot be known by humans. 

For those who are uncomfortable with the God concept, we can speak this awareness in the language of systems science, as Douglas Hofstedter does in his book, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in which he shows that we cannot fully characterize or describe systems in which we are participants. An organ cannot fully describe its human. A human cannot fully characterize her family. A family cannot fully characterize its larger kinship group. So the rules for our existence cannot be fully known by us. 

Finally, indigenous cultures know that sickness and death are not necessarily related. Illness does not invariably lead to death, and one does not have to be ill to die. 

While I became more and more impressed with the effectiveness of Native American methods for long-term survival and for treating chronic disease, I also came to understand that all traditional cultures on every continent share this wisdom.

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