In our society, people often perceive illness as something to “get rid of” as soon as possible, whether it is within themselves or in others. Illness can often seem unbearable. Indeed, it can rattle us to the core. The gifts of illness may be difficult to see or appreciate.
I share the following reflections that are based on my past experiences with inflammatory bowel disease and chronic pain. My spiritual practice is Zen Buddhism and the reflections below echo some of the Buddhist teachings that I have been exposed to over the last decade. I believe that illness gives us opportunities to see who we really are and to develop our patience, mindfulness and wisdom.
The gift of tolerance
The physical pain, discomfort, and limitations that we endure can build great patience and tolerance. We develop patience and discipline by having to exercise restraint in not fulfilling every desire of the mind. Illness can also help us to develop patience and tolerance for difficult circumstances, such as a tolerance for being near others’ suffering.
The gift of mindfulness
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “A serious illness can be a kind of mindfulness bell that starts our true practice and gives birth to our spiritual life. So our sickness may contain a positive element which helps us to grow. It’s a bell of mindfulness for us and everyone around us.”
The symptoms of illness are often quite physically painful and uncomfortable. In some cases the symptoms can be immobilizing, restraining us to long hours in bed. Under the circumstances of intense pain, we can no longer continue the hectic, busy habit patterns that keep us from being present to the feelings, thoughts, sensations, and consciousness of our minds. Illness makes us pause and become more aware of what is happening within us, even if it is something we perceive as unwanted.
The gift of moving toward embodiment
Dr. Reginald Ray, the spiritual director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, wrote in his book “Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body:”
To be awake, to be enlightened, is to be fully and completely embodied. To be fully embodied means to be at one with who we are, in every respect, including our physical being, our emotions, and the totality of our karmic situation. It is to be entirely present to who we are and to the journey of our own becoming.
In modern day society, it is acceptable for us to use our bodies simply to accomplish the will of our minds. This attitude prohibits us from truly acknowledging that we inhabit bodies that are very much a part of who we are in totality. Illness and pain bring us right back to the body and help us gain direct experiences in living as a whole person, even if we may also feel at times like we are falling apart.
The gift of contemplation
Illness often forces us to slow down. Without the harried circumstances of “the grind” of daily life, we have the time to understand the nature of our afflictions in ways that we would have not been able to understand otherwise. Illness provides us with ample opportunities for investigation of our minds. We can then begin to unravel the entwined threads of suffering that our minds have been clinging to out of habit throughout our lives.
We can also appreciate all that we took for granted before we developed the illness, the simple wonders in life such as walking, eating, sleeping through the night, and experiencing a day without pain. The gift of contemplation helps us to see our lives in a different light.
The gift of transcendence
In speaking of her realizations as a person with rheumatoid arthritis, the author and Zen teacher, Darlene Cohen, wrote, “Your body is the only way you can experience the transparency of all things and their interrelationships.”
Illness can give us experiences–moments of clarity–in which we shed notions of ourselves as entities separate from the rest of the world. We may then experience the tender vulnerability of our human forms as being integrated within and integral to the vulnerability of all life forms.
The gift of letting go
Stephen Butterfield, a Buddhist writer living with sarcoidosis, wrote that we continuously meander through life “in a sleepy, anxious cloud of habit and conditioned response.” Medicine cannot assure healing or the avoidance of more pain and discomfort. So there is never certainty about what will happen next in life; illness heightens awareness of this ongoing uncertainty and forces surrender, even among those of us who vehemently try to control the fates of our lives.
The Buddhist author, Pema Chodron, suggests that “holding on to anything blocks wisdom” and thus prevents us from resting in bodhichitta, the awakened heart. As people with illness, our experiences of letting go of our delusions, our desires to control circumstances, and our addictions to comfort, can actually help us to cultivate bodhichitta.
The gift of developing compassion
Joan Iten Sutherland, a Buddhist writer with neurological and immunological medical conditions, wrote: “Having known pain, it’s pretty hard to be indifferent to the suffering of others.” Illness is a training ground for developing compassion. We know what it is like to experience deep suffering and that experience softens our hearts toward ourselves and others.
I have a friend with a health challenge who co-founded a non-profit organization, EmbodiWorks, focused on integrative cancer care education and advocacy. Another friend with a health condition started CureTogether, which helps patients track their medical conditions and share information. Other friends with illness have blogged about their experiences with illness and started online support groups. My experiences with illness prompted me to start a non-profit website, Patient Corps, for people with illness who want to reduce suffering in the world.
We can choose to make meanings of illness that are destructive to our mental well-being or we can choose to make meanings that help us to experience less suffering. By seeing the gifts of illness, we begin to open our minds to the possibilities of transforming the suffering that illness triggers into great compassion and love.