Waking Up to Being Human
EL: How much of a writer were you before life changed for you?
TB: Before I got sick, I wrote like an academic because I was a university teacher. It never occurred to me that I could use my personal experience to try and help others. So, the style of my writing has changed 100 percent!
EL: I see… tell me a little about your background… you were a lawyer, then taken ill…
TB: I was never a practicing lawyer. When I got close to graduating from law school, I realized that I didn’t want to take on a full-time profession because I had young kids at home. The Dean at the law school where I was a student was kind enough to let me teach there part-time for a couple of years, and that led to a faculty position.
TB: It was while I was a faculty member that I got sick.
EL: I see…. and if you can take me through the transition from academic to personal writing
TB: In 2001, I got what we thought was an acute viral infection. But I never recovered. After a semester off, I forced myself back into the classroom part-time because I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t regaining my health. After struggling for two years of teaching part-time, in which I went from my bed to the classroom and immediately back to my bed, I realized I had to stop working. The first few years after that, I was in a very low place emotionally (in addition to being physically sick). I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, confined as I was, mostly to my bed. I’d been a practicing Buddhist for about twelve years by then. When I turned my attention to the Buddha’s teachings again, I realized I could use them to help me “learn” how to be sick. Initially, I began writing about it to help myself. But then I showed some of what I’d written to other chronically ill people whom I’d met online. They encouraged me to turn it into a book. And that’s how my first book, “How to Be Sick,” came about. The only way I could write it was in a very personal manner (the book is not academic at all) and, as it turned out, people seem to love this “new” writing style of mine!
EL: And you have a new book out, “How To Wake Up.” What inspired that?
TB: After “How to Be Sick” was published, I had no plans to write another book! But I began getting emails from people all over the world asking me about all of life’s difficulties—stress on the job and in relationships, anxiety over children or parents…and sometimes just the challenge of getting through the day. So that I could respond skillfully to them, I began asking myself why we’re unhappy and dissatisfied so much of the time and what we might be able to do about it. This led me back to the Buddha’s core teachings to try and find some answers. So those emails were the original inspiration for “How to Wake Up.”
EL: What do you mean by waking up?
TB: By “waking up,” I’m referring to my understanding of the Buddha’s awakening. I don’t believe there was anything supernatural about it. As the story goes, he sat down under a bodhi tree and began to carefully observe his experience. After seven days and nights, he “woke up” to what it means to be human—both its stark realities (such as uncertainty and the inevitability of some tough times) and the potential it holds for us to find peace and well-being in the midst of it all. The book explores both of these aspects of “waking up.”
EL: What do you give readers, as far as how-to? It sounds simple and is, but the act of doing it is not.
TB: In addition to describing my understanding of the Buddha’s path to peace, I provide many exercises and practices. The other day, I counted them and, to my surprise, it came to 58! All of them are illustrated with stories from my life or with anecdotes from other people’s lives, so that the reader will understand how to use them effectively. I don’t think “theories” alone are very helpful. The exercises and practices are simple, but I hope, life-changing.
EL: Do you have a favorite exercise or practice?
TB: My favorite practices are those that help us learn to be self-compassionate. Based on the emails I receive from people, this seems to be the biggest challenge—treating ourselves as kindly and compassionately as we’d treat a loved one in need. One practice involves working with the inner critic. I suggest that people make a list of the critical ways in which they speak to themselves: “I can’t do anything right,” for example. Then I have them think about how they’d respond to a loved one who said that about him or herself. Then they practice by speaking to themselves in that same way, such as “It’s hard to do everything right, but I’m doing the best I can.”
EL: And does one have to be a Buddhist or have that in their life to enjoy the book?
TB: No. In fact, I purposefully write my books so that people don’t have to have any background in Buddhism to benefit from them.
EL: What drew you to Buddhism?
TB: Like many other people, I was exploring a lot of different spiritual traditions. One day I was reading the “Tao Te Ching” and found a footnote in the back that quoted a Korean Zen Master named Seung Sahn. He said something like this: “Water is clear. If you put mud in it, it becomes muddy water, but originally, it is clear.” He was talking about the mind…and it spoke deeply to me. I thought, “Does this mean that my confused and muddy mind can be clear?” So I went to the library and found one of his books. That started me reading all the Buddhist books I could find!
EL: Is he your first teacher so to speak and who else influenced you—other teachers, in books or in person?
TB: His teachings have always been helpful to me (one of his practices, “Don’t-Know Mind,” is in both of my books), but I think of my first teachers as those in the Theravadin tradition: Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein. This is because that’s the first place I went to practice—to Spirit Rock in Marin County. But I’ve been influenced by teachers from all traditions, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön, and I draw on all of them in my books.
EL: I see….I listen to Tara Brach all the time…And love all those you named but yet to read Sharon…
TB: Tara is wonderful. I’ve read both of her books and, just recently, we started a lovely back-and-forth email correspondence. I feel so fortunate.
EL: So do you have another book planned and I have to ask, do you write poetry?
TB: At this point I don’t have another book planned. I’ve tried my hand at haiku, but I’ve never written poetry. Maybe that’s next for me!
Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers. Her new book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Until forced to retire due to illness, Toni was on the faculty of the University of California—Davis School of Law, serving six years as the dean of students. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by the website of Psychology Today. She can be found online at www.tonibernhard.com.
Ed: Sara Crolick