Mysticism and Chronic Illness

“what do you do when the answer to
too much is absolutely nothing?
honey sits on the table
fat and glowing
winter light gives you a pass
nine minutes of feeling nearly
completely alive”

From Spell for Reality by Rebecca Tamás

Last night I walked into my kitchen alone, and was struck with the realisation that everything was glistening. The mucky glasses on the shelves above the sink, the tins of Parisian tea, even the stains on the kitchen countertop. It’s not the waiting, but the action of being and burning with it. 

Here it goes: a memory of my mother. You must be able to meditate while frying an egg, she says. I had many lessons in this. My geography is non-existent, my maths awful, and she decided to teach me this. Learn to meditate while doing all these things, and then you might find yourself not only in the everyday of these actions but in the true moment. The space beyond, and here. Where the world stops and unfolds. 

On page 360 of Ariana Reines’ A Sand Book there’s a wet mark on the page where she recounted her own mystical experience and I burst into tears. 

“It was love, of such ravishing totality that I don’t know what to compare it to, and of such magnitude I could scarcely speak of it for two and a half years. I have never felt anything like it. That’s not true. I have felt love, and this was love, but of a magnitude so enormous there was no way to undermine or deny it. There was no way to see around it and no desire for anything but to be filled with it. It was a feeling I cannot compare to anything. It was like what some poets have written about. It was like nothing any poet has ever been able to put into words. I know I’m failing right now. But I’m a human being, and you are, too, and perhaps you have felt something like this.”

The first time I was fifteen. A year or so earlier I had had six months where I had been well enough to speak with strangers, leave the house, sleep without insomnia and eat what I pleased. These were the first months I’d had without being ill and they had now passed. 

One night in the summer of that year I was beyond myself, furious and listless and depressed. My mother, oddly serene, told me to go sit in the garden. There was a certainty to her that night. I’ve never asked her about it, but I think she knew. 

So, I sat by the pond, with a small lamp casting a golden light across the algae and water lilies. An hour passed, maybe. Then… everything. A deliberate and all-encompassing joy. Love, too, unquestionable and immovable. And the understanding that this exists always, it does not vary or have inconsistency- only we don’t always see it. I was crying, of course. Fifteen and suicidal and now with what felt like a murmuration of starlings laughing gently above my head. A fizzing and beautiful kind of delight filled me. I was laughing, of course. It was so much more than anything in my life had added up to. I can’t explain it because I can’t reach it. Every time I recount it I can see myself sitting in the garden with the stars around me and how can I explain holiness to you? I was fifteen and everything was different. Everything is different. 

It’s not clockwork, but like the slow changing of seasons, it’s happened again, and again. Every two years, give or take. Once, when I was studying Religious Experience during my A Levels (goodness knows we love a bit of irony), once at the end of the worst year of my life. 

There’s a connection between these experiences and health. I’m not alone in noticing it. It’s not new, either. Writing in 1559, St Teresa of Avila speaks of her mystical experiences. Her health was poor, and she potentially suffered with epilepsy throughout her life. 

“He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”

When I was reading it at sixteen, her experiences of love and pain and being utterly overwhelmed by the strength of feeling seemed familiar to me.

I found a few blogs discussing it. Usually from the kind of New Age thinker who believes love and light will save the day talking about how these experiences are meant to direct us towards health. As though there’s a tune we could all sing along to. I don’t agree with this, or the idea that chronically ill people through being frail in body are somehow more spiritually robust (if we are more spiritually robust I imagine it’s through our own work as people, as opposed to an act of benevolent cosmic balancing).

Ariana Reines talks about being particularly ill ahead of her experience. If I look back across my own experiences: these feelings of joy, love, certainty all arise from moments in my life when I was particularly fragile. And it’s not, I think, about the split between the body and the mind, the mind reaching out while the body wastes away. I have never felt more present and more away from myself than when engaged in the mystical. I think this is an acceptable contradiction. 

Having and not having arrive together
Difficult and easy complement each other
Long and short contrast each other
High and low rest upon each other”

Returning is the motion of the Tao
Yielding is the way of the Tao
The ten thousand things arrive from being
Being arises from not being”

– From Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s Translation of the Tao Te Jing

 We exist as we are, which isn’t profound or anything, but there’s certainly a type of transcendence which is sheer presence. These types of experiences don’t take us away from the body, but bring us back to it.

I don’t know if it’s “initiation” either – I don’t want to see my experiences as a reward for suffering sufficiently. Would I take a happy childhood over experience of divinity? Would I change if given the chance?  These are unpleasant questions. I don’t think it’s so cause-and-effect, a spiritual spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. It’s not my silver lining. But, yes, I do believe that the most difficult periods in our lives can be the most transformative. Maybe it’s because these changes are necessary to survive and it’s easiest to see then, maybe the sun rises and sets. 

We don’t have to be at our best (whatever that is) to be spiritually fulfilled. There is no good time, no perfect moment. As my mother would say, the best time to meditate is while frying an egg. 

The Tao of the Wise is to work without effort.”
From Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s Translation of the Tao Te Jing

Published by Kym Deyn

Kym Deyn is a poet, playwright and fortune teller. They are currently studying for a Creative Writing MA at Newcastle University. Their work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies including The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, Neon, and Butcher’s Dog. They are one of the winners of the 2020 Outspoken Prize for poetry. You can find them on Twitter @shortestwitch.

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