When ill or in pain for days or months, you may experience a sense of powerlessness over your body that can leave you feeling like a shell of a person, as though your spirit has abandoned your life and refused to live in it any longer.
This is the first salt in the morning and the last at night. You may wish to be someone else, to experience anything other than what you’re experiencing in your body and your life, which don’t feel like yours anymore. Your body is equal parts culprit and victim.
Some days, you may wish to comfort it like a sick friend. Other days, you may wish to kick it out the door like an intruder.
But just as the mystic medieval Christian poet, Mechthild of Magdeburg, said:
“A bird does not fall from the sky. A fish does not drown in water.”
We are all meant for something, our entire being. Even during difficult times, life will claim you—your essence—like drawing blood from a screaming child. Every day is finding a spot you can live with or letting it find you.
In past years, problems with my health consumed my daily life. After raging at my shortcomings and reaching out for help from one place to another, I went on with the realization that my priorities had changed. The things I thought I could do or be in my life, things that would never change, disappeared and presented me with a new set of challenges. I began to re-question what really mattered and found myself returning to the essentials like a ballerina returning time and again to the barre.
Knowing myself in a whole new way
Staying even-keeled while ill for a short time is easy. Over months, it can be a slippery slope. With family a couple of time zones away, I wanted to avoid unloading my burdens on them too much about an illness that at the time was hard to understand. The most unlikely people brought a tiny “help” into the day and kept me going when pain and discomfort distracted me.
Adjusting my attitude from one of resistance to one of acceptance with the moment took constant effort. Take your trouble with you into your day, my mother said. Tell yourself what you must endure. I knew what she was saying—give up your fear and expectations and the wish to know why things happen as they do.
Some days, I could not see where expectations ended and hope began. They were intertwined like threads of a rope, and to pull out one was to pull out both. Sometimes you need the slightest hope to carry on.
I pushed myself to incorporate yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, prayer, self-talk, music, and spending time with others into my schedule. But I was missing the point—the path from illness to wellness is not a to-do list. It is not about fixing myself (or anyone else) so that my body and life are perfect, but, oh, I struggled with that one, because of course I wanted to feel better after feeling bad for so long. “If only my [health, life] were better, I’d be happy,” or “If I’d only left my [husband, boyfriend, job] sooner, I wouldn’t be suffering so much now.” I had to let go of that thinking pattern.
At the end of the day, all the what-ifs faded, while the present spoke up for action or rest. I was left with a pool of sensations and a job (or cooking or shopping or people) waiting for me to do something. Even with doing all the “right” things, my body went its own way with reasons beyond my understanding. Yet it was always active, reaching for wellness in its own way and asking for what it wanted. Throughout I became a better interpreter of its needs and connections—though not a perfect one. Developing compassion for myself also deepened my compassion for others—and pushed me to let go of some relationships that were toxic.
As adults, we bear scars. We have been nibbled at. We are frayed around the edges. Yet it amazes me how we carry on despite our trials and inadequacies. Herein lies the fundamental challenge: how to wake with right mind despite pain or illness or despair and experience the joy and awesomeness of a moment for that is where it is found, in glimpses and, if we’re lucky, in sustained minutes.
I learned that despite suffering, we can find ways to go on with life and yearning, not because we don’t want to stop, but because nothing else in the world will stop for us, and no one is going to come along and rescue us. I also learned and re-learned a valuable lesson about myself: to trust my body and to trust life. This has been the toughest part with each new thing that arises.
Someone once said to me that all we need to do is let our bodies heal themselves. With a lot of help and a full dose of compassion, we do heal—but as slowly as a tree grows and with a hidden wisdom that I have only begun to understand.