How To Be Sick: Discussion 7

“When we learn to observe sensation without reacting in craving and aversion, the cause of suffering does not arise and suffering ceases.” —S.N. Goenka

In the first half of the section of the book titled Turnarounds and Transformations, we read about the following topics:

  • Paticca-samuppada, or the wheel of suffering. “We experience [mental and physical] contacts as pleasant, unpleasant, or (less frequently) as neutral sensations. If the experience of the contact is pleasant, we want more of it, which is desire. If the experience of the contact is unpleasant, we want it to go away, which is simply another form of desire–the desire for it to go away–usually referred to in Buddhism as aversion.” The chapter closes with “Practicing with the Wheel of Suffering and the Four Sublime States.”
  • Tonglen practice: breathing in the suffering of the world and breathing out whatever kindness, serenity, and compassion we have to give. Toni provides examples of how she applied tonglen practice to working while sick, medical test results, family gatherings over the holidays, and missed birthday parties.
  • “With our thoughts, we make the world.” —Dhammapada. Chapter 12 focuses on Katie Byron’s “Inquiry Practice.”

Discussion Questions

  • Recognizing our reactions to certain events before we apply a judgment of desire or aversion is not always easy, but as we have read, being able to do so is an essential aspect of getting off the wheel of suffering. This is applicable to all aspects of life, and not just to living with chronic illness. How does “Practicing with the Wheel of Suffering and the Four Sublime States” resonate with you?
  • For me, one of the most powerful practices that has been described in this book is Katie Byron’s Inquiry Practice. Through the use of four questions and a turnaround, we are shown that by changing our thoughts, we can remake our world. Please share a common suffering thought that you have experienced on a regular basis, and describe how–through inquiry practice–you have been able to turn this thought around.

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.

9 Comments
9 comments
  1. Janine says:

    Recognizing our reactions to certain events before we apply a judgment of desire or aversion is not always easy, but as we have read, being able to do so is an essential aspect of getting off the wheel of suffering. This is applicable to all aspects of life, and not just to living with chronic illness. How does “Practicing with the Wheel of Suffering and the Four Sublime States” resonate with you?
    *******
    Definitely, being mindful helps me in slowing down my reaction time. Not always! That little space of time and breath that lets me consciously decide how I will respond, rather than just BAM! react– wow, it is so helpful. It is useful in how I interact with others who are precious to me, including my beloved dog, and also strangers, such as the example in Toni’s book about being cut off by another driver. I am eager to think about applying this increasingly to my own thoughts about my chronic illness. I can see how it would check the spiral of freaking out that can arise when I’m feeling a flare up of symptoms coming on. I can also see how it would be useful in not only the moment to moment living with chronic illness, but for the times when my mind fast forwards, and I worry about the future in relation to it.
    ***********

    For me, one of the most powerful practices that has been described in this book is Katie Byron’s Inquiry Practice. Through the use of four questions and a turnaround, we are shown that by changing our thoughts, we can remake our world. Please share a common suffering thought that you have experienced on a regular basis, and describe how–through inquiry practice–you have been able to turn this thought around.
    *********
    Several years ago, I looked at Byron Katie’s website and was interested in it, but did not pursue learning more about her teachings. After reading this chapter in Toni’s book, I am going to read more by Katie. Since it feels so new, I feel I can’t directly answer this question. However, I feel encouraged that there is this skillful way of thinking about thoughts, and look forward to trying it out!

    However, if I can just mention the description of Tonglen: I found it so moving. I loved how Toni wrote about connecting with others who must work even if they are too ill do do so. I do that, too. I don’t know when I started. I also think about animals who must work, even if they are ill or tired. Many years ago, I had the great fortune to see a talk in San Francisco by Pema Chodron and Alice Walker, which focussed a great deal on Tonglen. I hadn’t made it an intention to practice this, but after reading about Tonglen in How to be Sick, I realized that in some small way I had been, and that I can expand that.

  2. Nancy Aurand-Humpf says:

    I can relate to what Janine said about mindfulness helping her to slow down her reaction time. I’ve been working for a couple of years now on observing what arises within me in response to pleasant and unpleasant stimuli, and I think I’m getting pretty good at it. The harder part for me has been adjusting my response or reactions. It is often hard work for me. Also initially, the problem solving part of me that thinks everything needs to be fixed kicked in, and led to more desire/aversion. Part of me wants to just hurry up and master these Buddhist practices so I will suffer less. Sometimes I have tried too hard and caused myself needless frustration. The thing I am just beginning to grasp is that there is no place I need to be but here. There really is no “getting there” but there is a “being here”. I read somewhere that once you step on the path you’ve already arrived. Well, my mind boggles sometimes, I’m so accustomed to thinking things through in a very linear start to finish fashion.

    I’m not sure I want to try Tonglen. The mind-body connection is a mystery to me. If someone close to me is ill or in pain I often get sympathetic phantom pains in the same part of the body, similar to how some men experience morning sickness along with their pregnant spouses. In fact my elderly mother broke her right leg over the weekend and my right leg has been bothering me off and on ever since I found out. I can’t wrap my head around purposefully wanting to breathe in more suffering, but I’m all for the exhaling healing and compassion. It does help to be able to identify with the suffering of others and know I’m not alone and cultivate compassion.

    When I read Toni’s book the for the first time last year, I found Byron Katie’s steps helpful. I don’t know what happened though, because somewhere between then and now I completely forgot them. I was glad to be reminded of them when I read chapter 12 and I think I’ll start using them again. I should probably write them down on paper, I have been a little foggy lately:)

  3. Toni Bernhard says:

    Janine – I love how you’re working with all the practices in the book. I enjoyed reading your post so much! I’m so glad you saw Pema Chodron and Alice Walker. Wht a special day that must have been,

  4. Toni Bernhard says:

    Nancy – I too suffer from that “everything needs to be fixed” problem. I’ve been writing about it, in fact, calling myself a recovering “fixer”!

    I wanted to be sure you got my feedback on tonglen. If you don’t think it’s right for you, trust your judgment and don’t do it. In Buddhism, we call this upaya or skillful means. You know what’s best for you!

  5. Kat Radi says:

    Recently (since reading Tonis book) I had an experience where I was getting frustrated with someone who was asking me to do a job for them. Our conversation was via txt, which made it difficult to explain and to understand. The other person was changing the delivery date and I began to react and get upset, and feel as though I had to accommodate them and explain myself. All of a sudden I began to notice I was reacting. I asked myself what was wrong? why am I getting so upset? I was able to realise that I was over-reacting, and look again at the real situation and therefore let go of what was not my responsibility. This happened quite quickly – within minutes, rather than my usual practice of letting go in a few days or even weeks! It was quite exciting to see my progress.

    I reckon I spend 80-90% of my time alone, so I find it quite difficult to practice mindfulness when around other people. I find it is so in-congruent with how the majority of the society works that my mind has to be strong to remember. And also the more I practice it the better I get. I hope to get to a “default” setting eventually.

    At first the concept of breathing in pain and suffering was confronting and frightening and quite frankly ludicrous! But I have tried it, and have continued. I see it now as a gift I can give, rather than take. Byron Katy’s 4 questions made SO much sense to me. What a revelation. I looked her up immediately.

    Not sure I have addressed the questions posed. At the moment when searching my brain for info all I can see is cobwebs….but I reckon its the “gist” that counts!

  6. Toni Bernhard says:

    Kat – I loved your story about being able to let go sooner. Wonderful! I wanted to comment on your difficulty practicing mindfulness when you’re around a lot of people. I face the same challenge. Sometimes what I do is to just focus on one sense organ. So, I just become mindful of everything I’m hearing (that’s my favorite). Yes, my eyes are seeing things, but I just let that happen and focus my attention on the sounds. You could do it with any of your senses. It’s definitely a mindfulness practice! Here’s a piece I wrote that is in a different setting but may give you some ideas. It’s called Five Minutes of Mindfulness Magic: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold/201110/five-minutes-mindfulness-magic

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