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How to be Sick

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I've been reading How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard. It's one of those books that is a bit difficult to read, especially if one isn’t acquainted with Buddhist practices to begin with. I will read a passage, think about it, re-read it, and later come back to it. Sometimes I think I “get it,” at other times I know I don’t.

The one principle that is becoming more powerful by the hour for me is the Universal Law of Impermanence. It’s powerful for me because it’s especially relevant to me. I’ll do my best to paraphrase the idea here, but my suggestion is that you read this book yourself especially if you or someone you know is chronically ill.

Yes, anything can happen at anytime. We can become ill. We can lose our job. We can lose our partner. We can lose our fortunes.

But how do we find any solace in this universal law, the author asks, and then goes on to quote a great Zen master who offers a clue:

Without the bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone, how can plum
blossoms send forth their fragrance all over the universe?

When we begin to see this truth, we have a tendency to focus on the “bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone.” Just like the author, having had to give up my profession, it still feels bitter cold all too often. The challenge is to find a fragrance to enjoy now—like Beethoven wafting though the house or the beauty of an orchid sitting on the windowsill.

One idea that is helping me, based on Bernhard’s Buddhist practice, is the idea of the "Broken Glass." You might say, “don’t break my glass!” Can you prevent something that’s breakable from breaking? It will break sooner or later. If you don’t break it, someone else will. Penetrating the truth of these things, we see that this glass is already broken. Whenever its time is up, it will break. And when it does, all it’s done is return to its original state.

Our bodies will break ... it's a matter of time. I guess the Old Testament 's "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," etc, also sums up the idea of impermanence. As humans, we will return to our original states.

How has this helped me deal with chronic pain? One way is to recognize that it won't be permanent. In my case, sometimes I have pain for weeks, and then get relief for weeks (or days). It comes and it goes like the weather.

When I have a bout of breakout pain, I am trying to remember the principle of impermanence. I think or say out loud ... This is not permanent. This too will pass or change. And, it invariably does.

I am not a practicing Buddhist, but this one principle alone has the potential to change my life and the lives those who love me. It helps me get out of catastrophic thinking, the negative cycle, the "Oh My God, I'll be like this forever" syndrome.

It's a mind/body connection, I guess—or whatever you prefer to call it. It is now my mantra.

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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Hi Judy,
    Bobbi (FLORIDASUN) sent be a link to your blog. "How to be Sick" is one of my most important books right now. I'm dealing with a breast cancer right now, and it's helped me a lot dealing with it.

    You have done a beautiful job describing one of the main thoughts about the book. The concept of impermanence. Oddly enough, I was thinking a lot this morning about the concept of impermanence too this morning as I was on a two hour drive. I was thinking about it on a very long-range level in that before we were born, the atoms that make up our bodies originally came from exploded stars and that most of the atoms are literally billions of years old. After we are gone, our atoms will all disperse and become parts of many other things over time and will probably go on in various forms for billions of years more....talk about impermanence! Our lifespans are hardly blips in the lifespans of our atoms!

    That's a little bit different than the way of thinking about impermanence described in "How to Be Sick", but it's all part of the same idea. Things are always changing, but it kind of fits in with the idea of the broken glass that you describe. When it's time is up, and it's time for it to break...it will break whether we want it to or not.

    Bobbi also mentioned that you have a serious illness brought on by a flu shot. I haven't read your other blogs or your SparkPage yet so I don't know anything more than that....but I plan on SparkFriending you after I finish this comment and hope that you friend me back. We each share the experience of having to deal with serious health issues.

    My cancer is an aggressive form of breast cancer and I have about a 50% chance of surviving the next 5 years. It's really forced me to step back and look at my life in an entirely different perspective. I take nothing for granted these days.

    Thanks for writing such a beautiful blog and sharing your thoughts about one of my favorite books.

    2779 days ago
    This is a beautiful blog Judy and it's so true. I'm referring it to a few friends of mine that I know will enjoy it.

    You are a beautiful and strong lady...perhaps if what happened didn't happen you'd never have gone back to Texas to be with your family.

    It's the strangest things that push us in the directions we need to be in...just another thought I had on something that we didn't necessarily want to happen that guided us back to a place or with people that had always brought us great comfort and joy.

    We'd most likely never have realized that or gone back if something big and significant didn't push us back in that direction.

    You get what I'm trying to say don't you? emoticon
    2779 days ago

    Comment edited on: 11/7/2013 8:04:29 AM
  • JEN169
    Very interesting blog. I was glad to have read it, and also to know about the book.

    My grandmother used to say "This too shall pass", and I find myself saying it.

    As for the broken glasses, I learned a lot about that from having children and studying feng shui. Now, I never mourn broken things, I let them go and find that just what I need replaces them.

    The title of your blog caught my eye on the Are You Game? team feed. Please stop in and play with us. I am trying to build up the team again because there are some fun games, and it could be lots of fun to have the team active again.

    Peace and prayers for your healing! emoticon
    2794 days ago
    Hmmm, sounds like a book I would be interested in. Thank you for posting about it.

    I learned many years ago from my late husband that it doesn't matter what is going on, each moment we get to choose whether we are living or dying - and whether we want to focus on the pain of that moment, or the joy. Even in times of deepest pain, there is still joy if we choose to see it.

    That lesson got me through his illness and death, my father's illness and death, and my subsequent illness (which appears to have become chronic). It lets me focus on the joys of the moment, let me find my new partner, and lets me fall asleep each night with a smile on my face even on the days of the worst pain.

    Right now - this moment - will pass, but I choose to spend it living and focusing on the joy...

    Strong thoughts and best wishes to you!
    2794 days ago
  • no profile photo CD5575543
    It is a good mantra. emoticon
    2794 days ago
  • no profile photo CD13904771
    I dont know i pray and it works for me
    2794 days ago
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