The Meaning of Disease

Disease is not necessarily to be avoided, blocked, or suppressed. Rather, it should be understood to be a process of transformation

– Dr. Kim Jobst

What if our aches, pains, imbalances, & dis-eases were not our body’s way of attacking us or self-destructing? What if, instead, they were part of a grander scheme at play?

Can dis-ease (in all its forms) be viewed as part of our body’s innate intelligent system that in each and every moment is trying to get us to become more whole, more authentically ourselves, more aligned with our true purpose of self-realization and fulfillment?

That’s a radical claim. It turns the entire modern Western notion of illness as we know it on its head.

Award-winning, London-based physician Dr. Kim Jobst, believes it to be true. He’s dedicated his life to delving into this paradigm shifting view on illnesses and the human body.

His work on the Meaning of Disease and his studies on health and wellness led to an invitation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself to discuss Global Health & Mental Wellbeing for Mankind in 1991. In 2013, Dr. Jobst was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his services to Integrative Medicine by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

He first caught my attention when I discovered his article, “Diseases of Meaning, Manifestations of Health, and Metaphor” published in the Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine in 1999.

With his permission, I’m now sharing an edited extract of it here with you, so you can form your own opinions about such a radical claim as it pertains to your own life and your own body. It’s a bit of a heavy read, but well worth it, as I am sure it will make you think differently, or at least leave you questioning what you currently believe about your body:

“Disease and health… both may be seen to be facets of healthy functioning, each necessary for the other; each giving rise to the other. Disease may be thought of as a manifestation of health. It is the healthy response of an organism striving to maintain physical, psychologic, and spiritual equilibrium. Disease is not necessarily to be avoided, blocked, or suppressed. Rather, it should be understood to be a process of transformation.

The process should therefore be facilitated because it is an integral part of the dynamic equilibrium that we ordinarily think of as health (wellness). Disease is a meaningful state that can inform health workers how to help patients to heal themselves. People’s problems become “diseases of meaning.,” enabling people to see that things are not necessarily “going wrong” but are, in fact, helping them become stronger, to live more fully and with more understanding. It does not address the reasons why these diseases arise, attending mainly to their molecular consequences. The concept that diseases are a manifestation of health-a call to a different relationship with ourselves and our environment, both animate and inanimate- is in itself a different approach.

This term “diseases of meaning” reflects a functional shift in perception whereby disease can be seen and acknowledged to be a manifestation of health rather than some alien entity afflicting, or seeking to destroy, the individual or community. Its meaning is neither arbitrary nor random. It draws attention to our restricted understanding of disequilibrium, be it physical, perceptual, or spiritual. Disease is seen to be the healthy expression of a restricted sense of meaning or understanding in life, often with roots in a person’s distant past, or that of their family, their genetic heritage.

The term “diseases of meaning” is proffered to describe these globally prevalent diseases. They include depression, cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative and autoimmune disease, and dementia, but also encompass such conditions as community violence, genocide, and the problem of environmental devastation.

We are conditioned to see disease as something bad, to be gotten rid of, eradicated, fought against, blocked, and beaten. Disease can, instead, be viewed as the healthy response by which the organism builds immunity and sequesters toxicity, be that environmental, chemical (nutritional and genetic), or psychologic and spiritual. Seen thus, not only is the process of disease someone’s way, physiologically, to restore balance and to heal, but this process also reflects a person’s sense of meaning, positive or negative.

What is perceived to be disease reflects the internalization of the metaphors adopted by individuals and communities. High blood pressure is a good example. The stress that has given rise to manifestation of disease in one person may be the source of well-being in someone else. In the one, the metaphor is one of threat whereas, in the other, it is one of creative challenge and hope.

Most often, this process is unconscious. However, if it can be brought to awareness, it can enable people to progress beyond their current physical states. More importantly, it can help to further their mental and/or spiritual understanding. This would give people more insight, knowledge, and wisdom. Disease is to be seen as a manifestation of health. This can lead to profound changes in psychosomatic, and therefore physiologic, processes and applies equally at individual, community, and global levels. It reflects a drive inherent in the disease process itself to generate positive individual and social attitudes. This process we suggest should be called “aspirational or inspirational health.” The proposition that disease is a manifestation of health links diseases of meaning and aspirational health creatively: aspirational health being the means of transformation of diseases of meaning through changes in understanding and perception and consequently changes in behavior, relationships, and physiology.

This idea offers insights for the prevention and treatment of all diseases. Critical to the negative spiral that gives rise to the diseases of meaning listed above, is the perception that the “disease” (the origins of which may be social, industrial or ecologic, as well as being medical/physiologic) is unavoidable and can only to be remedied by being excised, eradicated, pharmacologically blocked, or genetically modified.

Dr. Frankl concluded that it was having a sense of meaning that determined survival. This led to his developing logotherapy (Frankl, 1988). Mr. Fritz developed the idea of “empowering” and “disempowering” systems operating to determine behavior and outcome in individuals and communities. Empowerment occurs when aspirations include a sense of meaning and the will to create a preferred future. This arises from, and is sustained by, “profound learning.” Profound learning occurs as a result of exchanges, often frictions (suffering), between circumstances and aspirations, which lead to changes in understanding about how the world works and about essential human values and feelings (Macleod and Macintosh, 1998). When aspirations embrace individual and global well-being, these goals generate aspirational health, one of the hallmarks of which is a positive view of the future. Disempowerment therefore, is a fundamental disease of meaning and the cause of many others. It occurs when inner and/or outer circumstances prevent aspiration and learning. Paradoxically, these diseases of meaning are nevertheless healthy responses. They are symptoms, alerting mechanisms to the restrictions, the consequences of more primitive meaning, and the need for its transformation, just as hunger drives someone to search for food. In other words they are the only way that the organism can manifest, given its existing level of understanding and consciousness. However, the miracle is that when disease is seen for what it is; the level of consciousness changes.

Such a perceptual shift, on its own, may sometimes cure the problem, by prompting radical changes to behavior. Thus, depression does not merely reflect disease in a negative sense. Instead, it reflects the healthy psycho-spiritual and physiologic responses within the individual to unconsciously held, destructive, and disempowering meanings from which there appear to be no escape. What was once destructive becomes a source of life, growth, and vigor. We believe that the widespread and largely unconscious adoption by individuals, communities, and societies of disempowering paradigms are the primary “pathogens” of diseases of meaning. Because of them, disease and death are perceived to be failures, rather than opportunities to learn, evolve, and grow not only physiologically but more importantly in being and understanding, as well (Kearney, 1997).

Not only is the current pharmacologic and biomolecular paradigm the cause of a huge disease burden (Lazarou et al., 1998), but the consciousness of such thinking inescapably gives rise to fresh diseases by paying no attention to meaning. We should be investigating why one person becomes infected when others around that individual are not, when, to all intents and purposes, they are similar? The proposition here is that perceived meaning and the way it affects how life is lived is at the root of all disease. This is only a matter of perception, however, for ultimately all interventions, whether through changes in perception and meaning or whether through pharmacologic or even surgical methods, are ultimately manifested in molecular and chemical changes. Diseases of meaning are manifestations of health, i.e., they are healthy protective or alerting responses, arising to protect individuals and communities ultimately by leading to the transformation of meaning.

Our current approaches in science, medicine, and policy do not address diseases of meaning adequately because proponents of these approaches are not asking questions that will create aspirational health and transform meaning. Rather than being empowering, the exponential growth of information and knowledge, but not wisdom, disempowers the majority.

For the most part, our institutions have no psychospiritual evolutionary perspective with which to create aspirational health and to understand and work towards treating diseases of meaning (Stevens and Price, 1996). The current “Western,” scientific, reductionistic approach is inevitably blind to the dimension of meaning in human experience. The “medicalization” of diseases of meaning ensues, an example being the search to “find the gene” or “design the drug” to disrupt the disturbance, ignoring the inherent power of a change in meaning to alter the individual’s biochemistry and physiology by itself. Thus, the perspectives of our institutions are integral to the problem (Macleod and Macintosh, 1998). They reinforce a system of values that cannot allow people to appreciate the significance or meaning of inspirational health. Instead our institutions train health professionals, industrialists, and policy makers to address all pathologies as if they were physically caused without recognition for the central importance of meaning to their causation.

“Warring against cancer.” This is but one example of a pervasive metaphor of fighting against diseases. The use of such parallels permits us to think of pathogens as enemies and doctors and scientists as valiant soldiers with battles to be won or lost. These metaphors foster alienation and polarization. Equally powerful and destructive, is the metaphor of medicine in the marketplace where consumers purchase their health care, promoting money as the ultimate arbiter and value.

Our culture, as evidenced in medicine, is out of touch with creative meaning about life and death because of the use of unhealthy (diseased) metaphors. Disease as a manifestation of health is a potentially radical transformation of metaphor, which could be the core component in turning destructive diseases of meaning into aspirational health.

Understanding the importance of meaning to the experience of illness and the manifestation and treatment of diseases.

This is an edited extract from an article written by Jobst K.A., Shostak D. & Whitehouse P.J. entitled “Diseases of Meaning, Manifestations of Health, and Metaphor” printed in The Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 5·(6),1999, pp. 495-502. It has been reproduced with permission.

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