Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Disease of Spiritual Despair?

by Karuna of Living, Learning and Letting Go


Reading Kripa Gressel’s contribution to The Seeker’s Dungeon’s On Living and Dying event yesterday reminded me of events in my life that occurred more than twenty years ago.

August of 1994 brought with it something I dreaded: the symptoms heralding a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) relapse. Several days into the ordeal, I had an experience that facilitated my recovery and gave me new information about the disease, at least as it relates to me.

I first contracted CFS in 1984 when I was coordinating a satellite Bachelor of Science in Nursing program for a Seattle hospital. My staff and I had recently moved into an office that had been vacated by a laboratory, one that I learned later had used the Epstein Barr virus in their petri dishes. Within weeks, my secretary, my program assistant, and I were very ill. Over a period of months, each of us was diagnosed as suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease associated with the Epstein Barr virus.

The following years were a nightmare- exhaustion more profound than I ever thought possible. My body sometimes felt so heavy and immobile that even getting up and going to the kitchen seemed to take more effort than it was worth.

At some point during those years, a friend asked me to tell her about my experience of the disease. I was startled when I heard myself reply that it was similar to what I imagined a spirit would feel like when it left the freedom of its heavenly home and found itself trapped in a human body; a body that, relative to the spirit world, was heavy and dark; a body which the spirit could not control.

The disease seemed to miraculously end when I met my spiritual teacher, Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) in 1989. From that time on I was relieved of the constant oppressive fatigue. Instead, I would undergo minor flare-ups on sporadic occasions, usually shortly before I was to be with Amma. These flare-ups were once described to me as being “healing crises,” times when a disease emerges so that a spiritual teacher/guru can remove it. I still vividly remember two experiences like that.

The first occurred shortly after I was introduced to Amma, on the day before I was to attend a Unitarian summer camp. That day, a man stopped by my office and handed me a photograph. When I glanced at the picture, intense fear surged through my body. Later, I was told the photo was a picture of a male saint. He sure didn’t look like a saint to me! I didn’t know who the saint was, but his image led to me to an experience of unparalleled terror. On my first day of the camp, symptoms of chronic fatigue descended upon me at a rate that felt like being hit by a bulldozer.

Earlier in the day, one of the campers had handed me a cassette tape that he thought I would enjoy. Placing the tape in the cassette recorder and setting it on constant replay, I lay down, still immersed in my despair at re-experiencing the disease. The tape turned out to be Om Namah Shivaya by Robert Gass and the Wings of Song. Om Namah Shivaya is a mantra that has many translations. My favorite translation actually combines three of them: “I bow to the universal God, I bow to the God within me, I bow to the God Shiva.” (Shiva is an aspect of God that destroys negativities such as disease.) I slept while the tape played and awoke two hours later with some mild tiredness, but no remaining symptoms of CFS.

The second healing crisis occurred in 1993 when I  was at Amma’s ashram in India. Again, I experienced an instantaneous onset of the full-blown disease. I was unable to make it to one meal but hobbled down to the kitchen for the next. That night, I was determined to be with Amma regardless of my condition. As I sat near her, my insides screamed, “Amma, please look at me!” and she did. In that moment, I felt seen and known to the depths of my being. The next morning all symptoms of the disease were gone.

Before I continue with my August 1994 story, let me say that a variety of new processes began within me in the summer of 1993. When in an altered state of consciousness, I often experienced spontaneous body movements such as mudras, yoga postures, and/or stretching exercises. When music was playing, my feet would begin to spontaneously dance or if I held my hands over tabla or conga drums, my hands started playing the drums. When I was in my “normal” mind, I could neither dance nor play the drums.

Also, word fragments (syllables) started spontaneously arising within me, first in my mind and then outloud. I called those syllables “tongues.” The Charismatic Christians see “speaking in tongues” as speaking in an unknown language. I recall reading a Hindu mystic refer to the sounds as being the seed syllables of mantras.

Sometimes it seemed as if a part of me had so much to say that there was only time for syllables to be expressed. Sometimes I felt that my soul was crying for God. Sometimes the syllables were musical. These incidents were almost always accompanied by deep grief.

Even though it was a spontaneous process that came from inside of me, without any conscious understanding of the content, there were times when it felt like I was being cleansed and other times when I believed I had dipped into a huge well of universal grief. There was one incident when I sensed I was feeling a tiny portion of the immense grief the women in Bosnia were feeling.

Later, I read a quote from Pir Vilayat Khan that was meaningful to me; one that I thought was related to all of the grief that was pouring out of me:

Overcome any bitterness that may have come because you were not up to the magnitude of pain that was entrusted to you. Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart, each one of us is part of her heart, and therefore endowed with a certain measure of cosmic pain. You are sharing in the totality of that pain. You are called upon to meet it in joy instead of self-pity.

More recently, I read this:

Thich Nat Hahn was asked: “What do we need to do to save our world?” The questioners expected him to identify the best strategies to pursue in social and environmental action, but Thich Nhat Hanh’s answer was this: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

Both of the above quotes seemed to relate to the cosmic portion of the grief I was experiencing.

So back to my August of 1994 experience. That month, I attended a national convocation of the Church of God in Christ, an African-American Pentecostal denomination, which was held in Memphis, Tennessee. This convocation had been one of the highlights of my year  for several years as it bought together 20,000 to 30,000 people primarily for the purpose of praising and worshiping God. During the gospel music that was integrated into all of the programs, my soul soared into ecstatic bliss. When the convocation ended that year, I experienced grief about not being able to stay in immersed in the Divine energy.

Within a day, I experienced the onset of chronic fatigue symptoms. This was the first time in five and a half years I had had those sensations for more than a day. My dread and despair was profound. In the “old” days, the disease would last between six weeks and three months. Was this what I had to look forward to once again?

Three days later, after I had returned to Seattle, I woke up immensely exhausted. The prospect of co-leading the three-day therapy intensive that was starting that evening seemed unimaginable; I could barely even get up. I decided to try listening to the Om Namah Shivaya tape. I was dismayed to not immediately drift into a peaceful sleep. I was too exhausted to turn the tape off, so I simply allowed it to continue playing.

Soon, I experienced the sensation of “tongues” beginning within me. I decided to allow them to emerge. This time the sounds were not short syllables but rather English words which were exceedingly clear. What “came” was a young voice that said, “I want to go home!” “I want to go home!” “I want to go home!”  My sense was that my spirit was saying that it wanted to go back to my true Home, to be able to live with God once again. The words were accompanied by immense grief. In addition to the grief of wanting to go Home, I felt despair that I was experiencing this alone, that no one knew about or understood what was happening to me.

I allowed this process to continue for about 20 minutes before I stopped it. I felt immensely better afterwards even though I was still exhausted. In fact, I felt well enough to get up, meet friends for lunch, and prepare for the therapy intensive.

Early the next morning, as I was still laying in bed, I once again experienced the sensation of “tongues.” This time they consisted of a series of short syllables that were pitched in a variety of tones. Observing the spontaneous sounds and the accompanying hand movements that were occurring above my body as I lay there, I sensed I was “cleansing” both my chakras and my aura.

Afterwards, I felt tremendously better. Each subsequent day, the exhaustion decreased. Aside from the two earlier healings that had seemed miraculous, this was the shortest bout I had ever had with CFS.

As I reviewed the events of the week in the context of all my years of living with CFS it occurred to me that the origins of this disease might lie in the despair that a soul experiences when it finds itself trapped in a body it doesn’t want and as part of a family where it does not feel seen and known. If any of this is indeed the case, then it seems important for those living with CFS to: 1) release the despair of having left the spirit world; 2) create or be open to situations where one experiences being seen and known; and 3) connect with the Divine energy available in our daily lives.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a disease that impacts everyone it touches. I am hoping that sharing my experience will be of help to those who live with the syndrome and to the friends and family that love them.


For several years in the mid to late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I wrote articles about my spiritual journey, particularly about my experiences with Amma, for “The New Times,” a free newspaper that was, at that time, available in Washington and Oregon. I have started sharing some of those articles on my blog. I am choosing the articles to post based on their topic, therefore they are not being shared chronologically. The article above was adapted from one I published in February of 1995.

“The New Times” articles that I’ve already shared:

Support in Times of Trouble

A Multitude of Lessons

Exposing the “Know-It-All”

Many Paths, Same Destination

Putting Pain in Perspective

Letting Go of Suffering



Karuna is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington.  She is author of Getting to Joy and Letting Go of Suffering.  You can find more information about her at or on her blog Living Learning and Letting Go

19 thoughts on “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Disease of Spiritual Despair?

  1. I didn’t realize the way that you got the disease in the first place. That’s horrible. Well it’s been a long interesting journey you’ve had with it. Thanks for sharing about it here.

  2. I had CFS in my twenties. I remember it most vividly the summer I finished graduate school. It eventually dissipated. I thought it was a delayed response to the stress of school. I am not certain though. I wonder if your explanation may also be applicable to other syndromes and some forms of mental illness? Being human is not for everybody..



    1. I, of course, have no idea if my theory has any truth to it but if there is I definitely think it could be applicable to other illnesses, both physical and emotional.

    1. So for you it doesn’t come from the Epstein’s Bar virus then? I haven’t followed the study of CFS so I don’t know much about it in today’s world. I’m sorry that you have to live with the fatigue but glad to hear that you’ve discovered that exercise helps some.

  3. Having lived with CFS for may years I greatly appreciate your insight. I have thought over the years that it is connected to a deep sadness of the soul. Mine, while not related to the Epstein Barr virus and diagnosed years ago as being of ‘unknown origin’ is an ongoing part of my life and pops up in different forms of fatigue and extreme exhaustion. It first manifested when my closest friend was diagnosed with AIDS. I got better and the symptoms pretty much went away when I got pregnant. Over the last few years they are a lot more present, and I feel tired pretty much all the time. I am guessing it is connected to the Neuropathy I’ve had since 2009. And I know that Amma’s got me 🙂

    1. I appreciate that you are sharing your experience here Arati. I see there is much I don’t know about how CFS is seen nowadays. Let’s talk about it offline sometime.

  4. I, too, have suffered with chronic fatigue syndrome and my notes about it compare to yours. My bout with cfs lasted 3 1/2 years and was physically, emotionally and mentally torturous to an extreme. It was agonizing. I, too, was cured through a stroke of grace that came in the form of a year long detoxification program called the Gerson Therapy.
    Interestingly enough, the element of sadness was also a part of my healing experience. From an early age I carried a deep sadness around my family dynamics that I felt powerless to change or release. During the first 4 months of the Gerson Therapy I went through many so-called “healing crises.” During these periods I would cry for days on end, often without really knowing why. One week long period of crying, however, seemed to be caused by a gut-level awareness of the history of the treatment of African American people in this country. It wasn’t any type of “white guilt.” It felt more like a witnessing, a witnessing of a spiritually superior group of people being mis-treated by a spiritually inferior group of people. I felt a sadness over the injustice but it was also a joyful recognition of the grandeur of the humility and forbearance expressed in response. I feel, paradoxically, that sorrow can only be fully expressed and released when it is supported from below by a spiritual joy. The joy of the physical healing process of the Gerson Therapy allowed me to feel and release a deep level of sorrow. It was only through the grace of God that I managed to get into direct contact with that sorrow, and much more so to have released it.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. It’s good to hear that you can relate with the things I said. I appreciate hearing about the Gerson Therapy. I will look it up and may share it with others.

  5. Truly wonderful that you had a lifting of the crippling fatigue that accompanies ME/CFS. I have experienced beautiful moments of Grace and understanding, of assurance that there will be ” peace in the valley” so to speak, that allows me to recommit to this physical experience. Flashes of insight, where I can experience this vessel as a beloved construct/creation
    and awareness of the unique experiences physical life offers. It keeps me going. ” part of a family where it feels it is not seen and known” the absolute worst aspect of this experience, is my family ” seeing ” me as a melodramatic hypochondriac who just can’t cope with reality. The notion that i am seeking attention, would be laughable, were it not so painful.
    I know that we are all connected, and that when you lifted yourself, or allowed yourself to be lifted out of the vibrational frequency associated with this disease, you created the possibility for others, including myself, to do the same, and for that I deeply and truly offer you my gratitude.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you found my post helpful. I also remember the pain of not being acknowledged in my despair. In my case, when I told my mother I had the disease she just changed the subject.

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