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Illness as Initiation: 7 Stages of Transformation from Misery into Meaning

By Cyndera Quackenbush - Written on July 28, 2022

Photo by Matteo Vistocco, on Unsplash

When my father was just days away from death, from the metastasized cancer he’d suffered for over two years, something miraculous happened - he sat up.

He had been in a deep sleep for days and we thought it was the last we’d ever see of him awake. But suddenly, he was eyes wide, even smiling, his gentlest, sweetest self. He asked for a glass of juice.

Upon bringing him the glass, which happened to be a dark grape drink, my father looked deeply into the liquid and exclaimed, “I can see the whole universe in this glass!”

Even at the very end of his life, even out of the depths of that lethal illness, my father was evolving and initiating along his path, into a new phase. He had one foot in this world, and one foot into the beyond.

No matter what our illness - and we are all ill at some point or another - from the common cold, to COVID, to the illness that will end our life, there are seeds of personal evolution and the potential to initiate ourselves into a new way of being after our illness is over.

Initiations of all kinds have marked world cultures past and present, and there are similarities between the archetypal (universal) stages of these initiations and how we can embrace the undulations of illness.

Though these initiating factors may transpire beneath conscious awareness, it is not automatic or guaranteed. Here are 7 stages to transform your perspective from illness to initiation, misery into meaning:

  1. Initiating Symptoms

At the first sign of illness, symptoms arise. It may be the classic cough or an ache or pain that just won’t go away. We try and keep going - we ignore, neglect or cover it up. But the symptoms are undeniably there and may be getting worse.

Initiations take place because the initiate has been identified as needing or ready for transformation from one state of being to the next. When illness is the initation, it is the body that states the need for transformation. Everyday we work and play, often stressing the body. Now it is time for balance to be restored through the course of the illness.

2. Separation

In many initiation rites throughout the world, the initiate is separated from the group for at least a part of their initiation. This is an intense experience of solitude, especially for those who rarely spend time alone.

Away from the group, the initiate can have their own individualized “quest.” During the coronavirus pandemic, each of us has been asked to separate if testing positive. This can be a real bummer, but if you treat this time as your special covid quest, it can become an opportunity for great reflection and realization.

If isolating with others in your family, it can be a chance to connect more deeply with them as well. During covid, I had a rare week with my husband, simply connecting and spending down-time together. A colleague of mine got to actually see what her son was up to all the time on his computer, and was pleasantly surprised it was nothing to worry about.

Long harbored fears, suspicions and longings can all come to the surface and be worked out during the removal from one’s usual routines out in the world.

3. Surrender

You have acknowledged the reality of the illness and it is worsening. You thought maybe you could get some other things done while at home, but you are exhausted. The illness itself has its own litany of unpleasant interference on your body and mind. This leaves no other choice but to … surrender.

With surrender, the ego’s agendas fall completely by the wayside. You may even have to ask for help that you don’t usually ask for. All the other aspects of your whole self that are usually drowned out by the ego’s dominion can now bubble up. You may find new ideas, realizations or memories coming to the surface. If you can, write these ruminations down, or record them, as well as any vivid dreams (I had a LOT during COVID). These are your seeds of initiation within the illness.

4. Epiphanies in Nature

My best friend and I got COVID at the same time independently from each other, towns away, and both had inexplicable encounters with the wild that made its way to our doorsteps.

For her, a little frog took up residence in her window sill and would sing to her (and she to him) every night. For me, it was the arrival of a friendly wasp who taught me to face and work through inherited fears.

Ancient initiates have always been surrounded by the forces of nature, which teaches potent lessons and provides a powerful story for the initiate to return with. This is often considered a nature medicine that the whole community needs to hear about.

Wherever you are during the course of your illness, I hope you can get outside and be with the elements. Absorb in the sunshine, listen to the leaves in the trees and see what arrives. It is amazing how opening up to nature, even in small ways, can lead to large epiphanies.

5. The Belly of the Whale

Every illness has its rock bottom. You are at your sickest and you are miserable. Maybe there were events or plans you had to relinquish that you are still smarting over. Another woman I spoke to said she blamed herself for catching COVID, even though she had taken every possible precaution.

This difficult part of the illness is akin to the archetypal stage of the Dark Night of the Soul, or Belly of the Whale. In mythology, it is where the hero dies - or appears to die. This part of the initation allows for the total disintegration of the old self. In rites of passage, it is the end of childhood. In this disintegration, all pieces of “you” fall apart, becoming separate and distinct. It will be up to you how you put these pieces back together again, and if there are some things that are let go of forever.

6. Accessing your Inner Healer

In response to the illness, your inner healer is awakened. You may find that you stop doing some of the unhealthy habits you have been practicing. Your lungs are congested or struggling so you stop smoking, you feel sick to your stomach so you stop drinking alcohol, junk food - food in general - is tasteless. In addition, you may turn towards healing behaviors such as drinking more water, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, herbal medicinal teas, baths, massage and more sleep.

Despite being ill you feel your mind getting clear from the fog of business and usual indulgence that you often use to mask stress. You realize this may be a turning point, a break in old habits, to embrace new healthy habits. You may ask, why did I get sick in the first place? What is my body asking for?

This is your chance to re-evaluate, re-juvenate, re-initiate into a new life.

7. Return

Unless you are initiating into the afterlife, at some point you find yourself returning to wellness. Energy returns and you start planning re-entry into your life of family, friends, work and play. What self will they welcome back? As you plan your return, reflect on these seeds given to you by the initiation of illness. How might your insights be integrated into all your relationships? What does your community need to receive based off these insights?

The sun rises and it is a brand new day - how will you step into it, initiated anew by this illness?

Cyndera Quackenbush, MA is a healing storyteller in the San Francisco Bay Area. She offers card readings and consultations in order to identify patterns and glean meaning from life’s experiences for reflective change.

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