How To Be Sick. ~ Toni Bernhard

Via on Apr 28, 2011

Photo: Shapour Bahrami

Life is tough but freedom is possible. A guide to the first and second noble truths.

We’re all subject to suffering, stress, anguish, and dissatisfaction. This is the essence of the Buddha’s first noble truth. Given life’s uncertainty and unpredictability, how could it be otherwise?

When I first encountered this teaching (many years before I became chronically ill), I didn’t feel disheartened; I felt relieved. Finally, someone was describing this life in a way that fit a good portion of my experience. What a relief to know it wasn’t just me or just my life! Do you know a single person, healthy or sick, who has not experienced suffering, stress, anguish, and dissatisfaction in his or her life?

The first noble truth connects me to others in a profound way. The circumstances of our lives may result in slightly different experiences of this noble truth, but underneath the surface, we know what other’s suffering, stress, anguish, and dissatisfaction feel like because we experience them ourselves.

Take dissatisfaction. Aren’t you dissatisfied with some of the circumstances of your life? Your dissatisfaction may involve the “big questions” (Does my life have meaning? Can we survive global warming?). It may result from the stresses of everyday life (tension in a relationship, difficulty on the job). It may be due to mundane discomforts and irritations (the dog barking next door, the lost sock in the dryer). Think about your life. Notice how there is an ongoing effort (subtle or intense) to adjust its circumstances to be more to your liking.

With an “if only” mentality, we tend to deny the presence of this dissatisfaction. “If only I had an iPad, I’d never want another electronic device.” “If only the Giants would win the World Series, I won’t care if they win another baseball game.” Sometimes I think,

“If only I weren’t sick, I’d be happy.”

Who are we kidding? If all our “if only’s” came to pass, we’d soon find they didn’t bring lasting satisfaction. An iPad is no fun without all those cool apps. Can’t the Giants win it all two years in a row? As for me, I’d be glad not to be sick, but my life would still have its share of suffering and stress.

The Second Noble Truth. The good news from the Buddha is that we can work with our minds to alleviate this suffering and its sisters (stress, anguish, and dissatisfaction). Notice I said “work with our minds.” The Buddha’s focus was on the mind (that’s why he’s often called a great psychologist). We were born into bodies and they get injured, sick, and old. The Buddha endured great bodily pain at times, but he did so without suffering in the mind.

Photo: Jess Hamilton

In the second noble truth, the Buddha said that the origin of this suffering and its sisters is our self-focused desire or craving to get our way. He didn’t mince words when he told his monks: people suffer when they’re not getting what they want or when they’re getting what they don’t want.

But he also taught that we can alleviate this suffering by bringing it into conscious awareness (called “mindfulness” in Buddhist practice) where we have a choice. We can hold onto our fruitless desire to control those circumstances that we cannot change (the inability to afford all those iPad apps, the lack of control over the Giant’s win-loss record, the desire for an immediate return to full health). The result: suffering, stress, anguish. Or, we can let go of that desire and accept our life as it is.

Don’t confuse acceptance with resignation. I haven’t given up looking for treatments that might improve my health. But I have learned to open my heart and mind to how my life is right now, sickness included. When I do this, a calm acceptance arises and I feel at peace with my life. It’s a taste of freedom (a taste of the freedom some call awakening or enlightenment).

I work on bringing into awareness the self-focused desire or craving that underlies each feeling of dissatisfaction in my life. Then I try to make the conscious choice to let go of what I cannot change.

I still sometimes hold onto the thought, “If only I weren’t sick, I’d be happy.” After all, I’m a work in progress, not an enlightened being. But at least I know the drill.

* This article was previously published in Psychology Today.

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Toni Bernhard is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers. She can be found online at How to be Sick.


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3 Responses to “How To Be Sick. ~ Toni Bernhard”

  1. yogiclarebear says:

    I really really really struggle with this, regarding physical health. I get the acceptance of the iPad apps and the Giants, but it is so hard to just BE in pain. I try to keep faith that there is a purpose to it that I just don't get. Is that a part of the Buddhist path? That suffering has a "reason"? Or is it just unpredictability/chaos, and we have to keep finding the calm in it?

  2. Toni: I have friends with serious health challenges who raved about your book and I have to admit that I haven't read it yet, but I will read it soon. I think that you and I have gone through similar journeys, perhaps in part because we both are both Buddhists and have lived through severe illness. I had severe inflammatory bowel disease for about 7 years and it was a great teacher. Please see my article: "The Gifts of Illness" http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/12/the-gifts-… . I am so glad that your wisdom is helping so many people.

  3. yogiclarebear says:

    Thanks Toni. I appreciate your link as well. So what you are saying…kindof…is “shit happens.” ??

    I started practicing sitting meditation several months ago for pain and endorphin addiction management, and I've experienced some relief from longtime digestive pain that I believe was very connected to stress. I absolutely know that mental suffering directly causes me physical suffering. As far as physical suffering that just is…so hard to work through, but like you said, I think the mindfulness plays a big role to help one to not make it worse, but instead to offer a peaceful and forgiving environment for healing.

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