Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy continues to learn how to live with his rheumatoid arthritis, and not suffer from it. Since I started writing this blog, I have taken a lot of care to always refer to myself as “a person living with RA”, and not “a person suffering from RA”. The distinction might be a subtle one, but to me it is a very important one.
As hard as it might be, I continue to try to accept my disease into my life and into myself, as fully as I can. A few years ago I was quite unable to even consider this level of acceptance when it came to my rheumatoid arthritis…at that time, accepting the progressive and chronic nature of my rheumatoid arthritis meant throwing in the towel and giving up hope. During this time, I felt like I only had two choices: accept my illness and lose hope, or fight against my illness and retain hope.
It’s funny what time alone can teach us at times. At the moment, I find myself at a point that I previously thought was impossible. I am working to accept my illness, and retain hope. It is not always easy, but by doing so I am moving to a place that feels good for me.
At the end of last week, I started reading a book that summed up quite well the thoughts and emotions that I am feeling at the moment. (Okay, I am still on the first Chapter…but the Introduction is one that you will definitely not want to skip!). The book is Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering by Phillip Moffitt.
This is just a sampling of what this book has to offer:
You Can Find Freedom From Your Suffering
Why do you suffer? Is there a purpose to your pain? What about the amount of suffering you experience – is it fair, based on some understandable system of cause and effect, or is it simply arbitrary? Can you effect how much you suffer? If so, how?
For thousands of years, questions such as these have confounded human beings trying to make sense of the seemingly random and unfair distribution of gain and loss, joy and unhappiness in every person’s life. All people are united in their common desire for happiness and their common experience of suffering. As you grow from childhood to adulthood, you inevitably experience life’s difficulties, whether it is through physical limitations of illness, emotional anguish, fear or disappointment, loss or separation from a loved one, or the anxiety and stress surrounding all your wants and needs. No one is spared.
In a sense, then, you are already an expert on suffering. You remember it from your past, and you easily recognize it in yourself and others. You have an array of skills for averting it when possible and surviving it when it is unpreventable. But do you have a conscious relationship with your suffering? Do you use it to enrich your life? Or is it merely something you try to avoid? When you suffer, do you experience it as a failure, an embarrassment, something shameful? If so, how much of your life is unacceptable or alien to you because it contains suffering?
This past Friday I experienced one of my worst flares, during which time the pain I felt was absolutely everywhere. My mind was going wild as it tried to look for an escape from the pain and suffering – there was no place to go! As I wrote a few days ago, I decided to envision my pain as a warm blanket that was wrapped around me. As soon as I did so, the spell broke. The pain was still there, but my mind was finally at a certain level of peace…I was starting to accept this pain on a conscious level, as hard as that might be.
The author goes on to talk about some of the writing of Buddha.
The path to happiness and a sense of well-being in this very life lies not in avoiding suffering but in using the conscious, embodied, direct experience of it as a vehicle to gain deep insight into the true nature of life and your own existence. Instead of being a reactionary slave to the inevitable pain, frustration, stress, and sorrow in your life, which the Buddha called duhhka, you can free your mind such that you have a sense of well-being even when dukkha is present, and you create the possibility of finding complete freedom. Why not dance with the constant vicissitudes of life in a manner that is joyful and liberated, rather than feeling like a victim or being flooded with fear and stress?
The Buddha discovered a path for finding freedom from dukkha, or suffering, which he called the Four Noble Truths. This set of attitudes and practices he prescribes doesn’t require you to create some new and improved version of you – one that you can only hope will someday emerge. You can take these steps as the “you” who exists right now – the one who gets lost, afraid, angry, and caught up in desire, despite good intentions. All that’s required is that you let go of your preconceived notions about suffering and open yourself to exploring the role that is plays in your life.
In one of my early blog posts on May 2nd of this year, I wrote: “So in closing, I pledge to work on making my feelings of personal well-being less dependent on the presence/absence of pain and mobility limitations in my body.” (Redefining Victory) All of the ups and downs during the almost half year since I made that pledge are on view here in this blog for everyone to see. I am not saying that being able to separate my mental well-being from my physical well-being was something that was quickly or easily achieved…but it was definitely possible.
But if you give yourself a chance to investigate your suffering more deeply, you will discover that being “with” your pain can lead to wisdom and happiness. The event or circumstance itself does not lose its unpleasant or unfortunate quality, but by going through it consciously you arrive at a peaceful and luminous state of mind. In this “enlightened” state, your mind experiences difficulty in a very different manner.
This past Sunday and Monday I had a recurrence of the extreme pain that I experienced on Friday. For the first time ever, I welcomed the pain when it exhibited its first signals. I prepared myself for what I needed to do to get through the pain. I laid down in bed and turned on some nice music. I spent hours dancing with my pain. As it worsened in my feet and lightened in my hands, I held a book and read. As it worsened in my hands and lightened in my feet, I watched some television. The pain was as strong as ever…but my experience of it was more peaceful that is has ever previously been.
So even though me and my rheumatoid arthritis are still stepping on each others toes every now and then, we will definitely continue this dance. Things can only get better.
Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!