A Short Course for Physicians and Patients

10 Things Medical School Does Not Teach …
But Everyone Should Know

Seventh Lesson

Illness Can Be A Gift

“Within the symbolic experience of disease lies
a path of change and self-healing and a healthy body-mind.”

Bernie Siegel

The wonderful way in which the universe has been made allows for all sorts of opportunities and possibilities which many of us imagine little or not at all. Maybe this essay will spark some of those imaginings among readers.

You see, nothing – absolutely nothing – happens by chance in our world. Chaos does not reign, as some would have us believe. Cause and effect rule constantly and continuously in our midst. The fact that we don’t recognize the causes of so many things is unfortunate. But we have, at our stage of development, smallish minds.

Maybe we can expand them by considering that illnesses and injuries do not occur by accident but by cause and with meaning. It is unfortunate that physicians and patients alike try to bypass such possibilities when faced with health problems. We just want to return things to Normal, whatever that may be. We want to place blame and find fault beyond ourselves. If necessary, we will lay the blame on our bodies rather than our own persons.

How often do we try to “cheat Nature” rather than listen to the messages that she tries to reveal to us through the course of illness and injury? Believe it or not, our problems are really opportunities. Our aches and pains can be great teachers.

What appear as signs to physicians are really markers to be studied and grasped. What appear as symptoms to patients are symbols for us to use in trailing problems to their source and recovering the riches of life and health, truth and beauty.

Cover of Healing Path

Our problems and illnesses give us experiences and opportunities to find our next steps along the way. I can think of no better way to begin explaining this concept than to share a wonderful story told in the book called The Healing Path, written by Marc Ian Barasch. With his permission given long ago, I quote from his book the following:

A story of healing from the Korean Zen tradition

One morning as he is getting dressed, the hard-working prince of a powerful kingdom notices two red, painful spots on his thigh. Assuming them to be the bites of a poisonous insect that had burrowed into the royal bedclothes, he scolds his chamberlain, orders the silk sheets burned, and without a second thought begins his routine of palace duties.

But later that night, readying himself for bed, the prince beholds a chilling sight: The two bumps on his leg have turned into a pair of curiously darting eyes! Only with great difficulty he goes into a fitful sleep. The minute dawn breaks, he flings aside his coverlets to inspect his leg. To his horror, not only are the eyes still there, but now, beneath them, a pair of rhythmically flaring nostrils! Terrified lest anyone discover his affliction, he binds his leg with a silken bandage; ignoring the faint sound of labored breathing (the nose seems to inhale each time he does), he attends to the affairs of state.

That evening, at a ceremonial banquet for his vassal-warlords from the outlying districts, he makes a pretense of merriment. But the assembled guests are startled by a muffled shout from beneath the table. The prince clamps his hand over his leg, nearly losing two of his fingers in the process: His symptom has grown a mouth!

Hastily excusing himself in the ensuing hubbub, he runs at full tilt to his private quarters, summons the court surgeon and, swearing him to silence, forces him to operate and cut away the face. A miracle cure!

For several months, life returns to normal. But one day, as the prince leads his elite horse cavalry in a wheeling close-order drill, a furious scream erupts from nowhere: His symptom has returned with a vengeance. The prince’s mount shies and rears, landing him in the mud. His men, hearing the secret face’s strange cries, break ranks. Rumors begin to fly through the capital that the ruler is possessed by demons.

A second clandestine operation is performed, and a third, but to no avail. The face relentlessly reappears. Now unable to leave his room, the prince spends his days receiving magi and astrologers, muttering old frauds all, while the kingdom falls into disarray. Finally a grizzled monk in frayed saffron robes barges unannounced into the prince’s chambers. Brushing aside the hand-wringing courtiers, he informs the prince of a stream that lies off in a corner of a distant province, protected by Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Its miraculous waters heal all wounds. Equipped with the monk’s scrawled map, the prince sets out with a small company of imperial horsemen. After an arduous journey – during which the face, despite being swaddled in layers of muslin, continues its loud, inarticulate bawling – the party arrives at the sacred stream. Eagerly the prince leaps from his horse and removes a silver chalice from his gold-embroidered saddlebag.

He unwraps his leg and is about to pour the holy water on the hated face to silence it forever, when its mouth stops shouting. “Wait!” it cries out. “All this time, you have never even looked closely at me nor tried to understand a single word I have said. Do you not recognize me?”

The prince, gazing closely, suddenly recognizes a distorted likeness of his own face, its eyes filled with a pain long unacknowledged. At the sight of it, the prince begins to weep, and as he does so the face begins to soften, the eyes growing limpid, melting into those of Kwan Yin herself. “You had no heart of compassion,” she says. “No sword of self-insight. How else could I summon you to your true nature?”

Now the courtiers, decamped at a curious distance, heard the sound of two voices talking, long into the night, about the secret suffering that had been disturbing the prince’s sleep long before the face had appeared. When the sun came up, the prince had been healed –– though a single eye would occasionally reappear and look around, just as a reminder.


We all have our own secret – and not so-secret – sufferings and wounds which can teach us lessons far greater and more valuable than any which books and classroom work can produce. The possibilities are endless because humans are made in the image and likeness of the Creator.

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