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A Balanced Way; Daoist Tips For The 21st Century: Trust Your Disease

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 218 - November 2014

If you have a major illness, use it for enlightenment.

Ekhart Tolle.

Illness as Sin

Recently I came across a well-known ‘new age’ author explaining why she thinks she got cancer; according to her it was due to fear. She described how she was afraid of everything, including failing, being disliked, letting people down, and not being good enough. In her book she suggests she had ‘chosen’ the disease through cultivating negative mind sets. I felt deeply sad when I read this and thought of all the people I know facing the challenges of cancer or other illnesses who might read this author and conclude that they have brought their illnesses on themselves through cultivating negative states of mind. This way of thinking, to my mind, is the 21st century version of that ancient idea that illness is the result of wrong doing, of sinfulness.

For thousands of years religions have promoted the idea that we “reap what we sow”; via karma or divine retribution we will be punished for our sins and one way in which the gods can show their displeasure is by causing illness. A couple of hundred years ago we in the western world saw the development of allopathic medicine and the idea that illness is not a result of sin but rather is a result of the body's systems breaking down - the ailing patient is seen as a broken machine needing to be fixed. In the nineteenth century came the birth of psychiatric medicine and with it the suggestion that the symptoms of many physical illnesses have their conception in the mind. 

Vicki McKenna 218 Lotus

Image adapted from the Lotus Sutra
"All Diseases are rooted in the Spirit" expresses the view that the Shen (Spirit) residing in the Heart contains our Destiny (Ming) - the lessons our Soul needs to experience. Illness is thus seen as a valuable part of this destiny.”

Daoists also understand about the mind body connection but their holistic view differs radically from many of the mind body views promoted by therapists today. Many of these modern views seem to promote the idea that we are fully responsible for our bodily illnesses and that we can eradicate them through a change in mental attitude from negative to positive. This sounds very much like another take on the old belief that disease is a result of sinning - we are to blame for our illnesses and create them by cultivating negative (sinful) mind sets. This is a harsh burden to bear if you are experiencing illness.

Illness as Opportunity

To the Daoist way of thinking illness is not the fault or the choice of the person who is ill. Neither does Daoism hold the mechanistic view that compares sickness with broken machinery. Instead Daoists see disease as an opportunity and as an essential part of self-development . The canon of Acupuncture, the second part of the Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine) is a text dating back to the 5th Century BC and here we find a passage that sets us straight on the Daoist view of illness. This passage, "All Diseases are rooted in the Spirit" expresses the view that the Shen (Spirit) residing in the Heart contains our Destiny (Ming) - the lessons our Soul needs to experience. Illness is thus seen as a valuable part of this destiny. In the Daoist view diseases are to be trusted as sources of guidance - opportunities to help us in our development.

In common with the ‘new age’ view, Daoism proposes that body and mind are connected but instead of seeing illness as a negative process chosen by the sufferer, Daoists suggest that illness is pre-destined, out of our control and that it is an ideal opportunity for growth.

If you are unwell it is not going to help if you are told that you have created this experience because you have chosen to hold onto a negative emotional state. This is a perfectionist view that implies that it is expected of you to be constantly fit, well and in control of both your conscious and your unconscious emotional states at all times. Neither is the western medical model helpful when it encourages us to suppress symptoms through for example drug therapy rather than trying to understand what these symptoms are trying to tell us. It is far more helpful to trust that our illness is an opportunity for growth and this quote from Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, founder of San Francisco Zen Center leads us to conclude this :

The problems you are now experiencing…

“…will go away,” everyone expected him to say.

“…will continue for the rest of your life,”

Illness will come to us all on and off in our lives and it is not a result of any wrong doing or faulty thinking. Whilst we cannot magic it to go away, we can use it and relate to it as an opportunity for growth. In the Daoist view the challenge of illness brings with it an opportunity to enter into our Shen - the mind residing in the Heart. Entry here will give us the true peace and serenity to cope with all life's vicissitudes.

If you are unwell, neither berate yourself thinking you have created this experience nor see illness as a nuisance to be swiftly eradicated. Instead see that your disease indicates that there is deep work to be done. When you are faced with illness you can choose the Daoist approach - yield towards this experience, accept and trust it, say yes to it as an opportunity given to you so that you may deepen in your ability to understand yourself, to realize what helps you in your life and what does not. What is most helpful about illness is that it gives us the opportunity to align with that healing centre - the stillness deep in the Heart. In this way although we do not have control over all that life brings, we do have a choice as to how we handle our experiences. In this way we grow in compassion towards ourselves and others and find peace within - the sign of true healing regardless of whatever state of ease or disease our body may be experiencing.


  1. joanne frame said..

    I loved this article, very helpful way to look at illness and believe in the mind body connection ????

  2. Roger Stimson said..

    This is very good. I suppose it is our culture which might predispose us to such peremptory discipline. I always tell my violin students despite the traditional British attitude that hesitation is most un-British ("bordering on treason'!) I assure them instead that, given the opportunity 'hesitation is in fact intelligence. Knowing why one hesitated is super intelligence. Doing something about it successfully is genius'!

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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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