Eczema as Koan Part 1

Standing at the Gates of HellThis is part one of a three part article; part two is here and the final part is here.


 

An excerpt from a recent article on my blog:

“About four years ago I spilt up with my girlfriend and subsequently became rather ill – I was eventually hospitalised and on admission the first nurse who saw me in a hospital gown assumed I had been burnt in a house fire, so badly destroyed was the weeping, bleeding skin all over my body. I took the drugs they gave me and the skin got better quickly. The drugs eventually weakened my teeth to the point that I broke three in just a couple of weeks so I stopped taking them. Within about a week the skin was really bad again. I tried every therapy, alternative or otherwise I could find, changed my diet completely. Nothing really worked.”

In the article I didn’t want to distract from the main point by going too deeply into the nature of the illness, but I will do here. The illness was eczema, and if you have ever suffered from it or related diseases like psoriasis, you will know what a hell on Earth it can be. Firstly, it is in itself very painful and uncomfortable – you want to scratch but you know you shouldn’t… eventually you can’t help it and you do, which helps for a few minutes, but it starts bleeding, eventually maybe the wound gets infected and your immune system has to work overtime fighting the infection (even as it is already working hard to create the eczema in the first place, more of which later). Also it looks very ugly, especially if it appears on the face, as it does in many instances (and did in my case); you feel that you are a disgusting monster and it destroys self-confidence like a bulldozer knocking down a run-down old shack. People generally don’t know how much you are suffering and tend not to take it seriously; they assume it is a minor irritation and expect you to get on with your life as normal.

For me, one of the worst factors of having eczema was that it was too painful for me to be able to sleep properly, and that brings with it a whole world of trouble – you have no concentration, you are just like a zombie during the day having barely slept at night, your energy is super-low, you don’t want to see other people, you are less able to take care of yourself, and eventually you become seriously depressed.

Modern medicine, in my experience anyway, views eczema as incurable – I was told this several times by doctors both in the UK and in Spain, where I now live. They offer creams and tablets which relieve the symptoms, but you are given no hope that it could ever get better.

I won’t go too deeply into all the alternative therapies I tried in addition to allopathic medicine; some were completely ineffective, and some, like acupuncture, had been very effective in the past, but now, during the serious attack I am talking about here, even this would have only a temporary effect; within a day or so I was just as bad as ever.

My cousin had been a dietician and had recommended that I stop eating wheat and other foods containing gluten, plus also stop drinking alcohol (I didn’t drink much alcohol as it was, so actually giving up this and caffeine was easier than giving up wheat). However in my desperation to not make the eczema worse, I ended up eating mostly rice, vegetables and fish, and not really enough of any of that, so I lost a lot of weight and this added to the depletion of my overall health. I realised later that diet was an important factor in the attempt to cure the disease, and I will expand more on that in the second part of this article.

Despite all this, I had the inner conviction that eczema was not incurable, and that what I was going through was a ‘healing crisis’, rather than merely a particularly bad bout of an illness that was going to plague me until the day I died. Had I known it was going to last for over three years I might have chosen to end it all right then, as even the next five minutes looked a daunting proposition to get through at times.

I was having some strange ‘side effects’ to the illness though (and if you are not particularly interested in what we might call the psychological or spiritual aspect to this story, you can safely skip this part) – often, lying in bed unable to sleep, I would have odd ‘visions’ – images coming from who knows where, which seemed to be carrying some sort of oblique message for me. I intensified this by sometimes doing one of Stuart Wilde’s guided meditations, listening on headphones, where he would lead you in your imagination into a secret garden, and from there, once in a kind of shamanic trance state, a ‘journey’ could take place into realms unknown.

Ace of Cups tarot card by Salvador DalíI can’t remember if it was during one of these ‘journeys’ or just spontaneously, but one time a very powerful vision arose of the Holy Grail, but in a kind of classic optical illusion where the cup is made by the profiles of two faces. This was accompanied by a vision of the beach at Cadaqués, near where I live, where my ex-girlfriend and I had shared a particularly emotional moment in our relationship. I realised the meaning of the Holy Grail – it is a state of perfect equilibrium between the opposites; the polarities which make up existence – male and female, black and white, hard and soft etc. – and out of this polarity flows a ‘third’ force, which one might call the energy of perfection or possibly the divine. This image took me by surprise because I have never been a Christian by any stretch of the imagination, other than a cultural one by virtue of being born in a nominally Christian country, the UK.

Shortly after that I saw (I think on Facebook), the Salvador Dalí design for the tarot card, the Ace of Cups, which is that same optical illusion, and whose background is the beach at Port Lligat, just around the headland from the beach at Cadaqués. I am not claiming that I had never seen this before; I almost certainly had seen it sometime, but it was not something I had ever more than glanced at, maybe in a library book about Dalí years before. What was new was the understanding of the meaning of the card and how it related to me personally: the clear message was that my life was seriously out of balance and that in order to be healed I needed to connect with the part of myself which was already healed, already in equilibrium. This also awakened in me an interest in the Tarot; I had been occasionally using the I-Ching but had never really looked into the ancient Western magickal tradition, of which the Tarot forms a part. I’m sure Dalí intended to make the correlation between the Holy Grail and the Ace of Cups as he was what might be referred to as a ‘Cosmic Christian’ late in his life when these cards were designed.

So, despite my utter desolation at being in pain nearly all of the time and unable to sleep, I carried within me a kind of conviction that all this was happening for a reason and that I would eventually come out of it, although I have to say I knew that there was a chance of the doctors being right about me having to live with it in some form for the rest of my life.

However, after this initial series of visions, and the insight that I needed to look into the issue of the Shadow as it is described by Jungian psychology, things went very dark. You might be asking why I was not receiving enough medical assistance to alleviate my suffering – unfortunately in Spain the healthcare system is mired in both bureaucracy and austerity, and as a foreigner, unless it was classed as an emergency I was unable to receive the free State healthcare at that time. I was not working much due to the lack of sleep so private health insurance was also out of the question. I kept the worst of my suffering hidden from my parents (who would otherwise have helped me) as I didn’t want them to worry unduly, and I always felt that a cure was just around the corner.

The cure remained elusive though and things worsened to the point where my acupuncturist (who is also a qualified doctor at a nearby hospital), on seeing my bleeding skin and the worsening eczema which covered almost my whole body, insisted that I come in to the hospital emergency department the next day, and this is where I encountered the nurse who assumed I had been burnt in a fire. I felt too low in energy to explain that actually it was an inner fire which had burnt me rather than an outer one…

At the hospital they gave me the steroid Prednisone in pill form, and I have to say this worked a treat – I had several months completely eczema free and was starting to enjoy life again, until the moment that I was eating some cereal for breakfast and one of my teeth just broke in half. I had heard that steroids could cause osteoporosis or other nasty side effects, but I had seemingly avoided these. I realised the full extent of the damage when I broke two more teeth within the next two or three weeks, and resolved to stop taking the steroids again. I had known that steroids could be harmful from personal experience as I had seen how the steroid creams I had been given when I only had small patches of eczema would thin the skin quite dramatically.

So… back to the eczema, back to the pain and back to the sleepless nights… for months… I can hardly remember much of what happened back then as I was really only surviving, not actually living. Everything felt wrong, I was angry, frustrated, depressed, massively tired, in constant pain which ranged from uncomfortable to agonizing, and totally desperate. I could not see any way out. I had no idea I could feel as bad as this, and I had been an eczema sufferer for years, on and off, had had my heart broken several times, struggled with depression and low self-esteem… but this really took the cake. I felt like the epitome of a victim.

Another extract from my blog:

“One night, unable to sleep for the pain, I was reading Caroline Myss’ book ‘Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can’. She said something like ‘surrender completely and stop trying to fix things’ (this is what I understood her to have said, although you might not find that exact phrase in the book). Having tried everything and nothing had worked, I just gave up. This was the equivalent of the alcoholic hitting ‘rock bottom’, I think. I completely gave up, not in a defeatist or nihilistic way, not in a way that has any kind of identity attached to it, not in a way which hopes that if I give up things will be better in the future… I gave up the idea of ‘me’ as someone who could do something about this, I gave up the idea of a future where I might get better, I gave up any belief or faith I might have had in anything. It was a big relief, actually.”

The thing I really took away from that book, which is related to the notion of a complete surrender, is the idea of giving up one’s ‘victim mentality’, one’s identity as ‘someone who suffers’, who complains to friends about it, eliciting sympathy, and ultimately garnering a feeling of being ‘special’ – this is a ‘consolation prize’ for being unwell, and it may be that it keeps people stuck in their illness, as this victimhood as ‘the one who is ill’ becomes who they are, and they are unable to imagine who they would be without it. It is almost like the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ of people who start to sympathise with their kidnappers, or the institutionalisation which takes place when one has been incarcerated in a prison or psychiatric hospital for a long period of time.

Here is an extract from an email I wrote (but don’t believe I ever sent) to a friend who is a fellow eczema sufferer… possibly I believed it was a bit presumptuous to be sending her my philosophical rants while she was suffering so much physically; however if you have got this far in the article I assume you know where I am coming from by now:

“Just wanted to share with you some thoughts I’ve had about eczema and why it seems such an ‘insoluble’ problem; that is a problem with no solution.

Before going to sleep the other night I was reading the excellent book ‘Owning Your Own Shadow’ by Robert A. Johnson, and he mentions that spiritual breakthroughs always come when there are two opposites opposing each other with great force – when no further movement is possible, a paradox is created and the solution comes out of that.

Then later that night I woke up because I was itching with the eczema and I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep so I listened to some Eckhart Tolle on my mp3 player. He was saying that in extreme suffering, often the gateway to the divine opens, and that this is the meaning of the Christian symbol of Christ on the cross – it is simultaneously a symbol of suffering but also of transcendence, and this was exactly what Johnson is saying in the book as well.

All of this made me realise that in a way there is no solution to severe eczema because it is a ‘spiritual’ dis-ease – it is meant to bring you to a point of complete despair where your mind has no more solutions and basically surrenders to what is. So I was trying to surrender but I realised that I was still imagining an ‘I’ who has to surrender and it wasn’t working. So then I just gave up pretending that I knew anything about anything, admitted I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to surrender, didn’t know who I was etc etc. And in this way I really surrendered and there was a breakthrough – and I realised that the eczema had been leading me to this point of surrender all along.

There is the desire to be cured of the eczema, and there is the fact that one has it, and these are two opposites fighting each other. This produces great despair, but in fact rather than being a negative thing, this is actually the only thing which allows one to transcend the mind and its solutions (‘if I try this, maybe I’ll be cured…’). Also this is a paradox because I believe that the only way to be cured is to surrender totally to the fact that one wants to be cured but cannot be.

The next day I felt like a weight had been lifted from me, there was no more despair at a deep level, I felt like I had understood that life is always pushing us into these ‘no exit’ situations and this is the only thing which allows true breakthroughs to happen. Also we can see this in the situation in the world today; we are being pushed as a species towards a crisis point of utter despair, and from there the new solutions will arise.

The Zen masters understood this when they set ‘koans’ for students: questions with no answer, like the famous ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ – they knew the students would be pushed into a breakthrough by the tension created by this unsolvable problem.

So I guess that in a way, eczema is a koan…”.

So if eczema is a koan, it is a brutal one, and possibly one which comes to pass when the individual has been out of balance for a long time. It is said that we can choose the ‘path of Wisdom or the path of Woe’ – eczema is definitely the path of Woe, but the point is, they both lead to the same place – where we only know that we actually don’t know, and our precious self-importance has been dampened or even extinguished.

Click here for part two.

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12 Responses to “Eczema as Koan Part 1”

  1. Tracey August 13, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    Thanks for this Guy brought back a lot of memories for me. I remember a trusted friend and homeopath, being the person who led me to the light, when he told me (after three years of severe suffering) that I was on a very healing journey and that the pain had finally reached my extremities and so that meant it was clearing out and coming to an end. I walked home with so much relief and lightness in my heart, and the next day I woke up and all my skin was clear. Totally clear after me having been almost disfigured facially and having hands which were unrecognizable. I felt like a miracle had happened. A miracle had happened. Saw this article on the More Beautiful World page 🙂 Take care, Tracey

    • Guy August 13, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Amazing Tracey! Yes, a miracle had happened. May you remain 100% free of this horrible disease.

      And stay tuned for part two… 😉

  2. Lisa August 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    I read this tale of eczema which made me think of my cousin Judy who suffered from both eczema and multiple sclerosis. She decided to do a very experimental treatment with chemotherapy which ultimately ended her life, which, as of our last conversation, she was aware very well would be the outcome. I am an acupuncturist who sees victimization often and have realized that some of my patients need their “pain” to define them. For those patients I know I can never help. But I also know that I have seen amazing changes in people once they get unstuck in their pain. I, also, know that our food source has caused many problems, especially ones that are expelling toxins through the skin, and work very closely with a nutritionist when I see the need presents itself.

    • Guy August 13, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

      That is terrible about your cousin Lisa – I can certainly empathize though, with the eczema part at least. At times one would do almost anything to be free of the pain, and having multiple sclerosis at the same time must have been awful. The problem is, when one is in terrible pain, and probably also not sleeping at night, it’s not really conducive to making good decisions.

      I think the identification with pain is a serious obstacle to healing because it can be so seductive when we apparently have nothing else in our lives, that all our plans look like they will come to nothing. To get sympathy for the ‘poor me’ identity is often the last resort and it can be hard to let go of.

      The food issue is also an important one of course – it can be seductive to eat and drink the wrong things for our condition because we feel so sorry for ourselves. I went the other way and was super-strict, which can also be a form of self-rejection if taken too far of course.

      Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  3. Tracey Oliver August 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    I feel like my eczema is a reflection of all that is broken in society. I view myself as a canary in a cole mine, my immune system is more sensitive to chemicals and reacts badly to insensitivity that eventually everyone will also react negatively too (as eczema and allergies are on the increase). I feel that it is our responsibility to help educate the masses about the things we are negatively responding to in diet and lifestyle in the hope that we can learn and have empathy for those members within it. So I agree with your article that the journey of eczema is a spiritual one that must first deal with acceptance but then moves to education and positive action… exactly as you are doing with this article

    • Guy August 14, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      Yes I agree, it is like a symptom of society as a whole. In the second part of the article I will go a bit deeper into that – I’ve had several synchronicities lately around the phrase ‘canary in a coal mine’ actually, and I agree this sort of negative reaction is going to be more widespread if we don’t start waking up a bit.

  4. Abby August 17, 2014 at 8:05 am #

    Wow, great blog post.

    Can’t believe you went through so much! Especially when the medication affected your teeth.

    I can totally relate to the pain that eczema causes! I remember being in so much extreme excruciating pain as well. Thanks for being so open to sharing your story 🙂

    Looking fwd to reading part 2!

    Abby
    http://www.primephysiquenutrition.com

    • Guy August 17, 2014 at 10:27 am #

      Thanks a lot Abby, I appreciate it. Part 2 is out now and there will also be a part 3… 🙂

  5. Sue August 25, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    Oh, boy. So much in here that mirrors my own journey with CFS that I really can’t begin to say what has welled up in me to say.

    The last 9 months I’ve been consulting the I Ching and over and with that as the guiding and overarching sort of narrative of the year, over and over again it’s been about learning to rest, learning to surrender, learning to understand the action of no-action. It’s been hellish, really, but like so many people in this situation there has been that definite sense of purpose underneath, that this illness somehow isn’t just about you, that there is a wider and grander purpose that we can’t see … and then the shutters would come down and I’d forget all about that till next time. In-between there have been the times that I have been so despairing and seriously wanting to just give up … even noticing the lack of surrender in the desperation but not being able to surrender – that dark night gets really bloody dark, doesn’t it.

    Glad I have found your little space on the interwebs via the More Beautiful World FB page and am off to read parts 2 and 3 now 🙂

    • Guy August 25, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Sue. Yes I really think CFS would fit into the same category as eczema; it comes from a kind of ‘soul malaise’, probably from very deep in the unconscious – but in a way, we could see this very deep dissatisfaction with how things are as the ‘manure’ from which a new world is going to grow. Because unless we are seriously pissed off with the current story, to the point where it’s making us ill, we are not going to change, and I think the increasing prevalence of these kinds of illnesses is a symptom that a lot of us just can’t take it any more. It’s not just the structures of the world or society – how we have organised things – but the whole way of seeing and interacting with everything which has to change… ‘master’s tools’ and all that.

      So I would agree with you to trust the process, that there is a point to illness in many cases (maybe ultimately in all cases). And as for the surrender, you can surrender from even knowing how to surrender, surrender from the person who wants to surrender, surrender to the fact that you can’t surrender. And yes, the dark night is bloody dark, darker than those yet to pass through it can imagine, but in some ways I think it needs to be, because only then are we made humble enough to know that we don’t know a damn thing… and then we can maybe just give it all up. This is the beginning of the end of it, but paradoxically, while we are desperate for it to end, we are only perpetuating it – what you resist, persists, of course. But it will end, it has to – even if you persist in doing ‘the wrong thing’, it is bringing you closer to the point where you can give up. ‘The fool who persists in his folly will become wise’, as Blake put it.

      So I hope what I’ve written has given you some encouragement, and when the dark night is over you will see it has all been worth it, even though you could never imagine anything being worth so much suffering.

      • Sue August 26, 2014 at 4:57 am #

        Thanks so much, Guy. It’s nice being able to talk about this most personal sort of stuff with people. Could you imagine having this conversation with your local bank manager?

        Well, I guess I shouldn’t tar all bank managers but, you know 🙂

        Have you read The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff? Definitely recommended, along with a gorgeous little tome called The Sound Of a Snail Eating, which read like a meditation.

        I absolutely believe that those of us who have been through something like this are in a position to be able to walk easier into whatever changes come because we’ve already lost everything. We have nothing to lose. And we have had a lot of time to think and ponder about these things.

  6. Guy August 26, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    Yes it is amazing we can talk about this stuff, especially as we are so far away geographically (I looked at your blog – very interesting by the way – and see that you are in Australia). I must admit I had some doubts about putting this very personal material into the public domain but I thought it might have the effect of being able to help people who are in very difficult situations, as I was. The article is basically what I would have wanted to have read when I was deep in the dark night.

    I haven’t read those books, will check them out, thanks.

    I think one of the things I found really important (which I touched on in part 1) is not to allow ‘being ill’ to become part of one’s identity, which can be very tempting at times. In some way, everyone has already lost everything, because this moment is new and the past is over – it’s just that most people don’t realise it, whereas someone who has been through this sort of thing maybe does realise it.

    In the same way it might be good, once we are restored to health, to not create the identity of ‘the one who is cured’, because we never know what might happen tomorrow. The same thing with awakening, if we think it’s a finality we may be deluding ourselves because tomorrow something might happen which throws all that into question. It’s all ultimately empty and transient and that is the only way it can be filled with joy, because we get to treasure this moment as it is. 🙂

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