About this series:
The tradition of Buddhist Yoga is vast and wonderful. It is profound in its insights that we can discover for our own and others’ benefit, and rich in its variety of skillful methods that we can use to put it into practice. This seven-part serialization aims to present the key points of Buddhist Yoga in a way that Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike will find helpful and applicable to their own practices of yoga and meditation.
We will begin by looking at what the phrase “Buddhist Yoga” means, so that as we proceed to explore the practice of Buddhist Yoga, we will be well-equipped with a clear understanding of what Buddhist Yoga is all about. In the subsequent three pieces, we will examine the three qualities of mental outlook that form Buddhist Yoga’s foundation: renunciation, compassionate bodhichitta, and the profound view of the true nature of reality.
In the fifth piece, we will be ready to learn how to apply the principles of Buddhist Yoga in physical exercise and dance. Then, we will see how we can practice Buddhist Yoga when our bodies are afflicted by illness, and learn why the great masters have taught that being sick is actually a more conducive condition for practice than being healthy. In the last piece, we will explore how to practice Buddhist Yoga in the activities of daily life, so that no matter where we are or what we are doing, we can live fully and joyously as yogis and yoginis.
~ Ari and Rose
PART VI: Buddhist Yoga: Joining with Naturalness
How to Use Sickness to Enhance the Practice of Buddhist Yoga
In this sixth of seven pieces on Buddhist Yoga, we will focus on how to skillfully work with sickness on the path of practice. The view of Buddhist Yoga is that sickness is our friend. It can benefit our practice even more than being healthy does.
How is that the case? In general, when things are going well for us—when we are healthy, materially well-off, surrounded by loving friends and family—it is easy to let all of these alluring appearances distract us from our practice. In contrast, when we suffer we naturally have a strong incentive to free ourselves from clinging to our suffering as being truly existent, and to find its true nature—non-dual awareness, spacious, luminous, and blissful. This is why Milarepa sang, “Adversity has been very kind to me.” His life’s difficulties spurred him to realize that “the suffering being bliss feels so good that feeling bad feels good.”
The renowned Tibetan yogi Gyalwa Gotsangpa endured severe and lengthy illnesses, among them an imbalance of wind-energy that produces symptoms similar to what modern medicine calls anxiety disorder. But Gotsangpa persevered with meditating on the true nature of his illness, and he achieved profound realization as a result. He sang many songs about how to take illness to the yogic path. One verse from such a song is:
The illness and its painfulness have neither base nor root
Relax into it, fresh and uncontrived
Revealing Dharmakaya way beyond all speech and thought
Don’t shun them, pain and illness are basically good
We can learn how to practice Gotsangpa’s method by studying the meaning of this verse. The first line describes how illness and the suffering it causes us do not truly exist. How can we know that sickness is not real? Because as Gotsangpa sings, it has no basis where it exists; no root or origin where it comes from. If we look in the body, we do not find sickness; we find cells that are made of atoms, atoms that are made of smaller particles, which are in turn made of even smaller particles—we cannot find even the tiniest particle of matter in the body. There is no root or basis for sickness in a body that is not actually made of any particles of matter.
And if we look in the mind, we do not find sickness there either. We may find a thought “I am sick,” or “I am in pain,” but if we ask ourselves, “What is that experience of sickness and pain actually like?”, we quickly run out of words to describe it. So we find no sickness in the mind, only the inexpressible and luminous awareness that is the true nature of all thoughts and emotions.
Therefore, suffering from illness occurs only from the mistaken belief that we truly exist and our sickness truly exists. It is like being sick in a dream. The sick body that appears in the dream is not made of any particles of matter, so it is not really sick; and the dream thoughts of being sick do not truly exist either. If we do not know we are dreaming, however, we think the sickness is real and we suffer from it. But if we know we are dreaming, we know that the sickness is a mere appearance that is not real, and it does not cause us any suffering at all.
Once we know that the sickness does not truly exist, what should we do? Simply relax into its basic nature. We do not need to try to make it go away, make it improve, struggle with it in any way, or change anything at all. When we relax uncontrived like this, our experience of sickness’s basic nature is always fresh, new, and luminous. In fact, it is nothing other than the enlightened essence of mind, Dharmakaya beyond thought and expression. Therefore, there is no reason to shun pain or illness, because they are basically good.
When we are sick, it is helpful to sing Gotsangpa’s verse, to meditate on its meaning, and to think: “This is like being sick in a dream when I know I am dreaming.” Think of your body, particularly the part that is sick, as being appearance-emptiness, free of particles of matter, perfectly pure, like a dream body or a rainbow. Let your mind relax in its own basic nature, inexpressible awareness.
While sustaining this view and meditation, do some easy exercise with the sick part of your body if you are able to. Just to move that part of your body even in a subtle way is beneficial. If you cannot physically move, focusing your mind on the sick part of your body and feeling its natural movement is sufficient. The Tibetan masters teach a special skillful method here: When you exercise, think of the sick part of your body as being pure space. So if you have stomach problems, you visualize that where your stomach normally appears, there is just empty space. This is a powerful method that is very good at reversing the strong clinging we have to the sick part of our body as being truly existent.
When we use these methods, sickness enhances our practice of joining with naturalness, and we learn how sickness is not our enemy, but rather, one of our kindest friends. We can sing, as Gotsangpa did on another occasion:
My sickness is not a problem—
It clears away what obscures my mind,
Gives birth to the greatest qualities,
And enhances my realization.
So being sick fills me with joy!
 From the Tibetan of Milarepa’s Hundred Thousand Songs, rus pa’i rgyan can, rnal ‘byor gyi dbang phyug chen po mi la ras pa’i rnam mgur, mtsho sngon mi rigs par khang (China, 1981), 267.
 From Milarepa’s song, The Eighteen Kinds of Yogic Joy, translated and arranged by Jim Scott. Translation © 1994.
 A master of the Drukpa Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism who lived from 1189-1258.
 From The Eight Cases of Basic Goodness Not to Be Shunned, translated and arranged by Jim Scott. Translation © 1997.
 Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje, Ocean of Definitive Meaning, Tibetan folio 121b. Verse translated by Ari Goldfield.
Ari Goldfield’s Harvard Law School training led him to a six-month unillustrious career in corporate law before he set off for Asia to study Tibetan and find his Buddhist teacher. He went on to travel the world for thirteen years with his teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, acting as Rinpoche’s translator and secretary. Rose Taylor Goldfield grew up in a Dharma household, where she learned meditation at a very young age, and progressed through the practice and study lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She received her masters from Naropa University in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies with Tibetan language. Ari and Rose translate and teach Buddhist philosophy, meditation, yogic exercise, and dance in their local San Francisco Bay Area and internationally. They are spiritual directors of the Wisdom Sun community. You can explore more about them and their offerings on their website.