Living with chronic illness: the power of acceptance

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The vast majority of the articles I’ve written are about how to heal and prevent disease. Of course that’s important, and what most of us are after. However, the reality of life is that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can’t avoid illness or disease. And as I pointed out in a recent article, The Biggest Obstacle to Perfect Health is Your Mind, if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that we’re all dying from the moment we’re born. Morbid, perhaps. But it’s the truth.

When I first became ill back in 1998, all of my efforts were directed towards getting well. That was appropriate and natural. I spent tons of energy researching possible causes of my symptoms, I tried special diets, I took supplements, herbs and drugs, I saw numerous doctors and alternative practitioners of every possible persuasion, I read every book on health I could get my hands on. I even enrolled in Chinese medicine school in 1999 to learn how to heal myself with natural medicine. And yet mid-way through 2000 I was still sick.

When nutrition and medicine aren’t enough

At that point it began to dawn on me that there was more to living with and healing from chronic illness than endlessly tweaking my diet or exercise program. So I made the decision to drop out of school and move to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. Esalen is a retreat center with classes and workshops on everything from meditation practice to music and fine art to personal development. My goal was to deeply explore the psychological, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the illness I was experiencing and uncover any hidden obstacles that may have been preventing me from healing.

I ended up getting a job there and staying for a little over two years. It was a profoundly supportive and nourishing place to live, and I gained valuable insight into the “immaterial” realms of my physical condition. But after two years of deep inquiry and exploration, my health was still not optimal.

I was alternating between periods of hope, where I would try some new diet, supplement, or plan, or despair, where I would give up the search and sometimes engage in self-destructive behavior (i.e. “Why not eat 6 cookies? Doesn’t seem to make a difference if I don’t.”) When I was hopeful, the future looked bright and I had faith I was going to beat the illness. When I felt despair, the future was bleak and there was hardly any point in going on.

I’d done enough Zen practice by this time to know that both hope and despair are simply states of mind based in an idea I had about the future. There was nothing inherently real about either of them. They were like the weather. Sometimes it’s sunny and warm, sometimes it’s rainy and cold.

The power of acceptance

This was when acceptance became the primary focus of my spiritual practice. I was tired of vacillating back and forth between hope and despair, of being tossed back and forth by the turbulence of my thoughts or “mental secretions”, as Kosho Uchiyama Roshi calls them in his book Opening the Hand of Thought.

I knew that despite all of my best efforts, I still hadn’t fully recovered my health. But I also knew that it was possible to be at peace regardless of the circumstances of my life. The truth is that not all problems are solvable. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t have full control over the conditions of our lives. But the one thing we do have control over is how we relate to ourselves and the the world around us; specifically, whether we accept what is or struggle against it.

When most people (including myself at one point) hear the word “acceptance”, they think of giving up or caving in. But giving up is not acceptance – it’s submission. And there’s a crucial difference between the two.

Acceptance simply means the recognition that the moment is as it is. That’s it. It is not a value judgment. Accepting something is true in this moment doesn’t mean that we endorse it or approve of it. It just means we recognize it is in this particular moment.

Nor does acceptance mean anything about the future. If we accept something is true in this moment, that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards changing it in the future – in the very next moment. Acceptance transcends hope or despair, future or past. It’s simply seeing reality as it is.

Acceptance = freedom

Using my own experience as an example, accepting that I was ill did not make the illness go away. Nor did it stop me from continuing to pursue treatment in the hopes of improving my health. What it did do is remove an entirely unnecessary layer of suffering that came from continuously struggling against what was true in each moment.

I believe that it’s not possible to take truly effective action until we fully accept what is. But that’s not easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things we can do. Because to accept something means to let in all of the feelings and sensations that go along with that something. In the case of illness, it means feeling the grief associated with the lost dreams, the fear that we may never get well or that we won’t survive, and the isolation that comes from living with chronic illness.

Ironically, it is avoiding these feelings (i.e. not accepting them) that prevents us from taking appropriate action. Not accepting something doesn’t make it go away. It just distances us from ourselves and from reality in general, which ultimately leads to more suffering.

When we accept what is, we are free. Free to act in accordance with reality. Free to be at peace with the circumstances of our lives, no matter how undesirable or difficult they are. And free to continue to do everything in our power to improve the conditions of our lives (or of life in general) in the next moment.

Acceptance is a fundamental tenet of every major spiritual and religious tradition. In Christianity, acceptance is expressed as putting your faith in God or Jesus. In Islam, the phrase “insha’Allah” means “as God wills”. But whether you’re religious, agnostic or atheist, I believe that cultivating acceptance is absolutely essential for anyone living with chronic illness or pain.

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. says

    I agree. My body was practically ruined by undiagnosed gluten/casein intolerance, a poor diet and dental problems. Although I’ve made huge changes in diet and lifestyle, I am still in pain and probably will be for life. But I have accepted that and life is good!

    • says

      Hi Suzan,
      After reading the article, your sentence “I am still in pain and probably will be for life” doesn’t sound like acceptance to me anymore. I confess I’ve also had this thought often. Let me share this short video, which I found very helpful, in which the teacher discusses the mental stories we all fabricate, which prevent us from living the present with awareness and have “breakthroughs” http://vimeo.com/21397986
      I wish you all the best in your recovery!

  2. says

    Very nice post. I think that applies to a lot of struggles in life. I know some people that just can’t face even their own slightest challenges, looking in the mirror is out of the question, and it somehow manages to sabbotage their lives. It’s kinda like the Lord’s prayer or Harry Browne’s “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World”, but it’s so true and something we really need to be reminded of from time to time.

  3. says

    Wonderfuly piece Chris. Very well written.

    The lost dreams are the hardest to let go. My original MD class is graduating this year and I can’t bare to attend any of the celebrations, because I’m stuck in the middle on a different track….learning to accept.

  4. says

    Beautifully said and so true. Resistance and denial are powerful defenses; it is very difficult and painful to face the truth. This is a great quote from Shakti Gawain: “Evil (ignorance) is like a shadow. It has no real substance of its own, it is simply a lack of light. You cannot cause a shadow to disappear by trying to fight it, stamp on it, by railing against it, or any other form of emotional or physical resistance. In order to cause a shadow to disappear, you must shine light on it.”

  5. says

    Beautifully said and so true. Resistance and denial are powerful defenses and are not easily overcome.

    Here is a great quote by Shakti Gawain: “Evil (ignorance) is like a shadow. It has no real substance of its own, it is simply a lack of light. You cannot cause a shadow to disappear by trying to fight it, stamp on it, by railing against it, or any other form of emotional or physical resistance. In order to cause a shadow to disappear, you must shine light on it.”

  6. says

    A powerful piece of writing. I agree with hojasdetejido, whilst reading this one can apply the priniciples of acceptance to any significant struggle in life – very timely for me and a lot of people in many ways.

    Particularly resonating was the phrase “…hope and despair are simply states of mind based in an idea I had about the future”. Although it can take many years to achieve the point at which detachment and compassion (towards oneself and the struggle, I guess) become second nature, this idea in itself is soothing.

    Thank you for providing a reminder to step back and find some peace in the midst difficult times – although we have problems we don’t always have to be fighting them.

  7. Anonymous says

    Excellent definition of acceptance. I bookmarked this post for future reference.

    I asked this question a week ago in your myth of chemical imbalance post:

    What is your take on Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) (winter depression)? Is there a chemical imbalance, a hormonal imbalance, nutritional deficit or something else going on?

    I’m guessing you haven’t looked at it, since its and older post. I didn’t want to ask off-topic, so I posted there first.

  8. Anonymous says

    A very Taoist approach to release all expectations and accept what has been provided. I know this personally from my own experiences. After battling skin conditions for many years, I found that accepting my reality and letting it go was the trick to eliminating the problem. Prior to this realization, I would constantly and consistently focus on the problem and try my hardest to eradicate the cause (which I admit was unknown to me). The ONLY thing that worked, and is still working, is my acceptance of the wonderful body I have been given and the personal release of any negative images I may hold about myself.

    Thanks for the great and timeless article!
    -Adam

    • Adri says

      Hello! I find your post very inspiring!! I have suffered with Rosacea the last 8 years (I´am 31) and only yesterday 15th sept that I began to notice that I need to accept my health condition in order to have peace in my life. What advices could you give me? Any particular exercises you think might help me? Thank you very much!! This is a great site to find support!!!!

      • Corina says

        Adri, I had rosacea for 20 yrs. I tried the metrojel that the dermatologist gave me and the cetaphil face wash but I felt they were not working. Because of IBS I started to watch what I was eating and eliminated ALL processed foods, sugar/artificial sweeteners , starch, wheat and gluten products, soy, corn, dairy, legumes, yeast, alcohol, artificial colouring or flavouring and focussed on eating whole foods and meat/fish and it has cleared on its own. The dermatologist was impressed at the follow-up and I told her I didn’t use the samples and returned them to her. Try this and see if it helps.

  9. says

    This was a truly inspiring post Chris. Some of the stories I hear from people in my area of research (back pain) are quite disturbing. The depression that can acompany it sometimes leads to such extremes as suicidal thoughts. I myself have had suffered from pain and have found that an approach of acceptance is key in combatting the psychological trauma that can occur as a result. Accepting that A is A. You have pain and something is causing it. You may not know what, but understanding that simple fact that it is there and you do not want it there is the key to moving forward on your road to finding out

  10. says

    Hi Chris,

    Well said.

    This might sound really weird, but after living for 12 + years with an unnamed illness I was actually relieved when I finally got my diagnosis of chronic, degenerative, autoimmune disease. At least now I knew the name of my companion: ankylosing spondylitis. Nothing worse than fighting for years against an enemy that everyone insisted was not there.

    I had such a sense of instant relief, as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders and finally, finally I could get to work on this thing. Acceptance was instantaneous. Yes, I was scared out of my mind, but the sense of relief came from feeling like my doctor had finally put a pin in a map- I now knew where I was.

    Acceptance. Agree so much with your statement, “Acceptance simply means the recognition that the moment is as it is”. I remember that “moment” as clearly as any in my life. One of those times where I felt fully present- ok, this is where I am right now. Now what?

    I honestly view my diagnosis and subsequent feeling of acceptance as a net positive on my life. What else can come from truly embracing yourself as you are in this moment? I think that’s what acceptance really is. A feeling of, “this is me”, now what do I want my life to look like?

  11. Monica says

    After four to five years of resentment and frustration over my chronic illness and countless episodes of binge eating and destructive behavior because of it, I finally let my perfectionism to heal myself go and lo and behold, I’ve stopped bingeing, dropped weight, stopped beating myself up, and truly enjoyed and appreciated the paleo lifestyle.

    You touch upon a critical step to truly overcoming chronic illness. Great post, Chris!

  12. says

    You write some great stuff Chris. Can’t say I have agreed with you on all your stuff but you certainly bring a lot to the table! Just today had to talk with a patient about self-sabotage and that mental battle.

  13. Patty says

    I am grateful for having come across this today, and for the reminder. Acceptance is not a one time thing, it’s ongoing, and I realize that I had stepped away from it. Thank you. I will be re-reading it more than once.

  14. Janine says

    Each time I get near to facing the loss and going through the grief I get scared and can’t do it, so after 20 years I still can’t accept. Thanks for your words and understanding.

  15. Jessica says

    Thank you so very much for writing this. I often struggle with the acceptance of my illness and the dreams that I have had to let go. I believe acceptance is the key to overcoming these circumstances and look forward to what will be…

  16. Donna says

    Thank you so much for this article. I have been struggling with the difference between fighting to get better and accepting where IM. This is exactly what I needed to hear and will read every single day!!!

  17. says

    This is a timeless article. So beautifully and clearly written. I needed to hear this today and I need to be reminded again!

    I accepted my chronic condition in 2008 after being diagnosed in 2007. Only to later realize, I didn’t submit myself to being sick for the rest of my life.

    After many years of research and treatment, I am healing one layer at a time. But I am seeing the layer of emotional healing is the one that is taking the longest. As even in the midst of healing, I am still living in the past rather than fully accepting this is my new norm. Each time I take a deep look at my denial and plow through it, I really do see and feel a sense of healing. I am fighting with myself!

    Let God’s will be done. And each time I surrender I also am able to take another level of healing as God points me to what to do next and where to find the answers to Thea y questions I have about my illness.

    Thank you! I will be reading this again to remind me.

  18. Bonnie says

    Superb article and most inspiring.

    It is only once we accept our situation and submit to God that the true healing begins.

  19. says

    This is definitely true! Acceptance is so important in dealing with a chronic illness. I know people in a similar position to me who harbour a lot of hate for their illness and their bodies and really struggle with dealing with their illness because of this. It’s not easy. But acceptance has to be found!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    thegirlwithheartdisease.blogspot.co.uk

  20. Louise says

    My daughter has a chronic illness and she scared your article on face book ,,really great article ,,,,,
    Thanks Chris

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