How To Be Sick: Discussion 4

“There is heat here, but I am not hot. There is hunger here, but I am not hungry. There is irritation here, but I am not irritated.” —Munindra-ji

“There is sickness here, but I am not sick.” —Toni Bernhard

As we finish reading the section of the book titled Accepting Pain, we are introduced to three different practices: weather practice, broken-glass practice, and sky-gazing practice.

Weather Practice: “Recognize that these physical symptoms are as unpredictable as the weather and could change at any moment. The wind blew the discomfort in and it may blow out at any moment. If a new medical problem develops (like an injury), recall that no forecast of the future could have been certain no matter how many precautions you took.”

Broken-glass Practice: “Penetrating the truth of these things, [we see] that this glass is already broken…He saw the broken glass within the unbroken one. Whenever you use this glass, you should reflect that it’s already broken. Whenever its time is up, it will break. Use the glass, look after it, until the day it slips out of your hand and shatters. No problem. Why not? Because you saw its brokenness before it broke!”

Sky-Gazing Practice: “Try sky-gazing. If you’re in bed, try virtual sky-gazing by closing your eyes and shifting your focus from the unpleasant physical symptoms to a more spacious and open experience of body and mind as part of the energy flow of the universe.”

We close with a discussion of no-fixed-self, or anatta, and talk about the fact that what happens in life arises out of conditions; what happens in life is often not within the control of the self-identity that we refer to as “me.”

Discussion Questions

  • Grab bag: Which of the three practices–weather practice, broken-glass practice, and sky-gazing practice–resonate most with you? Have any of these practices allowed you to discover something new about yourself?
  • Who are you? Shedding fixed identities, such as “I am sick,” opens possibilities for seeing the world with new eyes. Do you carry around any such fixed identities, such as ‘chronic patient,’ ‘sick mother,’ etc.?

This post is part of RA Guy’s Book Club for “How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers,” by Toni Bernhard. For a complete list of discussions, please click here.

25 Comments
25 comments
  1. beth purdy says:

    i definitely like the star gazing technique. i UNDERSTAND broken glass but…that just isnt gonna work esp when i FEEL like broken glass! :) and accepting that random, painful flares will always come and go with no rhyme or reason makes it a lil easier.

    this article was so needed…your website, her book ~ i’m so grateful you both were able to get your heads right enough to accomplish this cuz lets face it, when the army men are attacking, sustainable efforts and consistant smiles just arent realistic all the time.
    :) so thank u to both of you and peacefulness and LOVE to all my fellow sufferers (family “of” too!)

  2. Jocelyn says:

    The Sky-Gazing Practice really hit home for me. Years ago, I got a little book of quotes and poems from cowgirl poet Gladiola Montana. One says “From time to time, find yourself a place so peaceful that you can enter the quiet.” When I read about the Sky-Gazing Practice, that quote popped right into my head. And I realized that that was exactly what I needed to do when the stress of life, arthritis, etc started crowding in on me. I needed to walk away from it all, lay back, look at the sky and just be.

    The part about fixed identities was quite an eye opener. I have always bristled when people tried to slap labels on me but now I see that I’ve been doing that to myself every time I think of myself as “just a sick person” or “just a ______.” I’m making a big effort to correct myself every time those labeling thoughts pop into my head.

    This book is wonderful!!!!! It is changing my life!

  3. RA Guy says:

    I can really relate to weather practice. The first half of the equation, the fact that a “storm” can arrive in the form of a flare at any time, is the part that was initially hard to accept. The second half of the equation is the real prize, though: the knowledge that is can just as quickly pass and leave.

    Along the topic of weather, since I was in grad school I have always been fascinated with the need that many people have to “control the weather,” and by this I mean the alerts that pop up on television anytime it starts to rain, or the entire farmer’s almanac/wedding planning aspect. When I graduated and moved to San Francisco, I was fascinated with all of the micro-climates. Now that I live two miles up in the sky, on top of the Andes mountains, my fascination with weather in general continues…

    I’ve never carried labels of “sick person”…or even “patient,” and while I know that I live with chronic illness, I certainly have never considered myself as being “sick.” For me, being sick is when I have the cold or the flu. On other days, I’m just an average person. In fact, every moment I get, I always try to remind myself of what is healthy in my body.

    I’m also careful not to refer to myself as a sufferer. Along the lines of what we read in the book, there are times when I do suffer, but I am not a sufferer. I’ve never liked the label “rheumatoid arthritis sufferer.” Instead, I’ve always preferred “LIVING with rheumatoid arthritis.”

    There is one label that I carried around for all too long, though: perfectionist. I used to display it with pride. Not any more. I’m happy with what I can do, and don’t push myself to try to do everything perfectly…so much so, that I’ve recently come to recognize the beauty in imperfection, disorder, irregularity. For me, this is a much more “human” aesthetic.

  4. Banana says:

    The weather practice resonated with me immediately. But I interpreted it more in terms of my emotional response to a flare or symptom of the disease. So I may feel despondent or fearful, but like a storm, these feelings will pass. This helps me allow my feelings to exist (rather than trying to make myself think positively) but I don’t allow myself to compound the physical pain with fear and worries, I just experience them. My therapist used to say ‘honor the emotion’, so allow it to be, and once it has been honored, it can pass. It’s a lesson I need to relearn regularly!

    Both the weather practice and the discussion of anatta remind me that flexibility is so important. I must allow myself to change and not be too tied to a singular identity. I have this very strong sense of self that sometimes gets in the way when life presents change. I have to remind myself to be open and allow the universe to provide these opportunities to grow. It’s always such a struggle, though!

    I do wonder, and perhaps one of you can speak to this, how these lessons from Buddhism relate to similar concepts in Taoism. I’ve been slowly learning more about Taoism because some of the central teachings have spoken to me. There seems to be so much in common. But that’s probably a much larger conversation!

  5. Mombeenthere says:

    I think you are an “eternal optimist”. I like how you refer to not being a sufferer of a disease but rather someone who is living with the disease. To me this means you have developed a relationship with this disease, you know it well…this takes a lot of work as does any relationship.

    I too was a perfectionist. I relaxed my standards when I realized how much stress this put on my body and causing the RA to flare. I now know that not everything has to be perfect sometimes imperfections can bring variety and pleasant surprises to our life…and allows others to learn from their own doings instead of me always taking responsibility for things being perfect…life is more relaxing now.

  6. Nancy Aurand-Humpf says:

    Broken glass practice resonates so strongly with me. It helps me to have a deep appreciation and reverence for everyone in my life.

    Star gazing- I have to admit I don’t lay on the grass in my backyard and gaze at the stars ( the chigger bites would add to my misery here in Indiana), but since the first time I read Toni’s book last year I noticed how much I don’t notice the sky. I now make a point of looking up when I’m getting out of my car and going into a building, or sitting on my deck and it feels so good.
    Years ago I lived in Colorado. I loved being up in the mountains. I always liked how they made me feel insignificant and I took comfort in that. That’s the closest I’ve got to non-self.

    I can relate to you Jocelyn when you talk about labels. I have never liked to be labeled. They seem so confining. Yet, I have to be careful as well of the labels I do choose. The labels are not me.

  7. Janis says:

    The weather practice resonated with me. I like the idea of it blowing in and out. This discussion was very timely for me. Just yesterday I told my therapist, after talking more about the degree of the fatigue, I said I don’t see myself as a sick person. She said “that’s the first time you’ve ever said it that way.” My iden tity used to be that of a sickie. But over time that has changed, and I’m so glad. Now I acknowledge all the parts (or at least most) of me. Being sick is part of who I am but doesn’t define me.

    Broken glass practice was a revelation to me and helpful. I can’t do Sky-gazing – at least not in bed. But maybe I’ll try again.

    Thanks RA Guy for this book group. I too am LIVING with CFS and Fibromyalgia.

  8. Janis says:

    I agree Mombeenthere. I’m still working on letting go of being a perfectionist. It’s just too much stress.

  9. Christina says:

    Am trying weather practice right now! Ow! It’s going to blow away, right?
    : )
    Actually, it was really good to get reminded of that. I’m really practicing this week just being more mindful of the temporary aspect of pain. Even though I have pain all the time (neuropathy as well as RA), it does fluctuate, and that’s a blessing and a curse. The really bad pain I was having in multiple joints subsided just now, as I was thinking about weather practice and writing this. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

    I’m just starting to wrap my mind around Broken Glass. Not sure about that one.

    No-fixed-self is just mind jarring to me. In fact, I stopped reading the book when I got to that, as I have with other Buddhist books. It just stops me in my tracks.

    Thanks for the thought provoking discussion. I like your questions, you’re an excellent discussion leader, but that’s no surprise.

  10. Toni Bernhard says:

    Hi Beth,

    I just wanted to say that I like that you’re using the practices that work best for you. Some people just love Broken Glass Practice. Others have said it’s just not the right time in their lives to try it. Trust your instincts and use what helps you the most!

  11. Toni Bernhard says:

    Hi Janis,

    I’m so glad that Broken Glass Practice is working for you. As I just wrote to Beth, use the practices that help and let the ones go (for now at least) that don’t. I love that you’re able to not see yourself as “sick person.” I don’t feel that way all the time, but when I do, it’s so freeing!

  12. Toni Bernhard says:

    Jocelyn,

    I’m so glad that you liked the chapter Who Is Sick and the practices in it. What a wonderful insight you’ve had — to see that you don’t like identities to be attached to you by others, yet you’d been doing it yourself. Me too! I see my whole discussion of “shedding fixed identities” as an ongoing practice for all of us.

  13. Toni Bernhard says:

    RA Guy – I love what you wrote and just wanted to share that one of the positives of having been chronically ill for ten plus years is that I’ve shed the label: perfectionist!

  14. Toni Bernhard says:

    Banana – I love that you’re using Weather Practice to help with the arising and passing of emotions.

    I don’t know a lot about Taoism except that I believe Zen is related. Buddhism came from India to China where it was called Chan Buddhism (Zen in Japanese). As Buddhism enters each culture, it appears to take on some of the local flavor of that culture and so I think that Chan/Zen Buddhism have been heavily influenced by Taoism. Keep in mind: this is from a non-expert on the subject!

  15. Toni Bernhard says:

    Nancy – I’m so glad that Broken Glass Practice is resonating so strongly with you. I must remember to use it more myself! And I love that you’ve become more aware of the sky. Looking up at the sky always causes my body and mind to relax and to appreciate the mysteries of the universe. I try to remember to look up at it every time I go outside.

  16. Toni Bernhard says:

    Christina – I’m so glad that some of the practices in the book are working for you. If one doesn’t resonate for you, don’t use it. I mention in the No-Fixed-Self chapter that some people mind balk at the idea, so you’re reaction isn’t an unusual one. I used to do that too, but now I find it so liberating. So, maybe come back to that chapter later and give it another try. It’s no surprise it affects people so strongly since it was considered, as a say, a truly revolutionary teaching.

  17. Linda P. says:

    While all the practices proved helpful, the weather and star-gazing practices held the most resonance. On days when I must be in bed, I open the drapes in the bedroom. I live in a shallow valley surrounded by low, wooded hills, with a wide open view of the big Texas sky. Looking out that window proves so beneficial on bedridden days. The most beneficial practice, however, has to be the weather practice. Often, when a flare arrives, it announces itself first by free-floating anxiety, and my mood darkens into sadness and grief. I like to be upbeat and optimistic, so I would end up chastising myself for feeling down and trying to talk myself out of that emotion: you do not flare as badly as some people, I’d tell myself. You have a supportive husband and daughters, you’re a writer who has never felt she has enough time to read the books or watch the foreign films she loves and now you have that time. With the weather practice, I was able to stop chastising myself. That mood wasn’t me, wasn’t a failure of mine, but was something that blew in with the flare or the rainy, dark skies or through whatever cause. It would blow out again. I had always worked hard to preserve my health, and I was able to stop blaming myself for being sick. It blows in, it blows out. I observe. It’s not me. Thank you so much, Toni, for this, and RA Guy for these discussions.

  18. Kat Radi says:

    For me weather practice was a great explanation of the ebbs and flows I experience, and a useful way to understand the unpredictability of my illness. Sky gazing is something I practice daily, and is an ongoing part of my life. Broken glass practice makes me feel uneasy. I cannot explain why exactly, other than to say perhaps I value or hold on too tightly to physical objects, perhaps I want to keep my glasses whole and don’t want to have to organize a trip to go and buy more glasses, or clean up the broken glass….I don’t really understand how I can work it into my life. I know that’s ok.

    My identity is always a constant mystery to me. As I have explained earlier, I have had RA practically all my life. Through my teenage years I tried to highlight my difference buy dying my hair bright colours and getting piercings. It took me a long time to move into the workforce, so I struggled with my identity before that. I would meet people, and they would ask “what do you do” and I would struggle to give an answer. Later I moved into part time work in the disability field. This gave me an opportunity to embrace my abilities and feel passionate about a cause. Eventually however this has led me to be consumed by disability. It has became virtually my whole identity. I am still struggling with this. Who am I without the disease? The disease stops me from doing a lot of things I think I want to do, so I am left with compromises. Can I be me around this? I suppose so, but I think it’s a different kind of me. It is who I am supposed to be, I think, but who is it?

  19. Leslie says:

    The weather is something that has always fit into my way of thinking – nothing, nothing, nothing is permanent. The wind blows ill, the wind blows gentle, and we live through whatever comes our way. That does help when hard times and pain comes. It’s been harder when this pain that is chronic and illness that is chronic has stayed, but it does wax and wane, it is better and worse, we live with what it is. I would very much like to have a better handle on the concept of no self. I once practiced yoga and some (not so intense) meditation. I know that there is in that the ability to separate yourself from your pain and distress. It’s not a practice of forgetting or ignoring your pain but a focus of the mind on calm and serenity. It’s great to be reminded of this – I think I will set aside some time to refresh my knowledge of this practice from all those years ago. I recall the peace that meditation can bring. Can it bring pain relief? I think it can.

  20. Mombeenthere says:

    How exactly does one learn how to “meditate”? Is this just closing your eyes and thinking of your calming place (I usually fall asleep when I do this. Learning yoga would be nice or going swimming but my main problem is I can’t drive with all the meds on board. does anyone have any suggestions to help me out or get me started in the right direction?

  21. Nancy Aurand-Humpf says:

    Mombeenthere, there are many books and also guided audio meditations you could try. Two books I like are “Mind In The Balance: Meditation In Science, Buddhism, and Christianity.” by B. Allen Wallace and “Meditation” by Steve Hagen. There are books on an ancient form of Christian meditation called “Centering Prayer” also. I belong to a centering prayer group, because that is all that’s available in my immediate vicinity, but they don’t mind me doing the Buddhist meditation I’ve learned. It’s fun practicing with a group if you can find one.

  22. Toni Bernhard says:

    Linda – I’m so glad to hear that Weather Practice has helped you not to chastize yourself. I always think of the self-compassion practices when people tell me how self-critical they are, so I love how you use Weather Practice as a compassion practice!

  23. Toni Bernhard says:

    Kat – If Broken Glass Practice doesn’t resonate with you, you’re right to just not use it. It’s been amazing to me to read the responses here about it—some love it, some don’t. Follow your instincts.

    You say you don’t know who you are without the disease. I suggest just living with these questions as kind of Zen koans. Don’t push yourself to find answers. Just keeping the questions in your mind will help loosen your fixed identities and open possibilities for you! I’m so glad you have my book!

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