How To Be Sick: Discussion 8

“I cannot be genuinely mindful–open to my moment-to-momet experience without hesitation or hiding–unless my mind is benevolent…” —Sylvia Boorstein, Happiness is an Inside Job

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

  • Mindfulness-of-the-Present Moment Practices, or “drop it.” “Take your mind back in time to a stressful memory, and drop it. Take your mind forward in a time to a stressful thought, and drop it. You’re left in the present moment. Even if that moment is accompanied by bodily pain or discomfort, it will be easier to relax into the discomfort, riding it like a wave, because you won’t be making it worse by adding to is the mental suffering that comes with thoughts about the past and the future…”
  • How to stay mindful of the present moment, such as half-smiling while listening to music or mindfulness while making tea (Thich Nhat Hanh), or any mindfulness based stress reduction  materials by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
  • Wise action: “actions that lead to the cessation of suffering are to be cultivated and actions that enhance or amplify suffering are to be avoided. Wise inaction can thus be thought of as simply not engaging in those actions that make our condition worse.” Along these lines, we read about a few practices: “The Middle Way,” “One Thing at a Time,” and “Help!”
  • Zen teachings: “Shocking the Mind,” “Don’t-Know Mind,” and “The Poetry of Zen.”

Discussion Questions

  • Have you incorporated and mindfulness meditations into your life? If so, how has this helped you cope with chronic illness, pain, and disability?
  • Wise action and wise inaction, like many aspects of life, are easier said than done. Can you give an example of how you recently engaged in either wise action/inaction, and any of the associated practices.
  • Do any of the Zen teachings described in the last chapter resonate with you?

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.

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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.

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How To Be Sick: Discussion 6

“If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.” —Ajahn Chah, A Still Forest Pool

As we finish reading the section of the book titled Finding Joy and Love, we read about self-blame, compassion, and equanimity.

“I blamed myself for not recovering form the initial viral infection–as if not regaining my health was my fault, a failure of will, somehow, or a deficit of character. This is the common reaction for people to have toward their illness. It’s not surprising, given that our culture tends to treat chronic illness as some kind of personal failure on the part of the afflicted–the bias is often implicit or unconscious.”

We are introduced to the following three practices, which can be used to cultivate compassion within ourselves:

  • Immediately Make Contact
  • Patient Endurance
  • Opening Your Heart to Suffering
This section closes with a discussion about equanimity, or “mental calmness and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” This chapter focuses on three categories of challenges associated with maintaining a state of equanimity while living with chronic illness: responding to unhelpful or inaccurate comments from others, living with the unpredictability and uncertainty, and feeling overwhelmed with different losses.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you blame yourself, or have you ever blamed yourself, for having a chronic illness?
  • Grab bag: Which of the three compassion practices–Immediately Make Contact, Patient Endurance, and Opening Your Heart to Suffering
    –resonate most with you?
  • How have you used thoughts of equanimity to respond to unhelpful comments, uncertainty, and loss?

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.

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How To Be Sick: Discussion 5

“…Buddhism defines an emotion as a thought plus a physical reaction to that thought.” —Toni Bernhard

As we start reading the section of the book titled Finding Joy and Love, we are introduced to the four brahma viharas, or sublime states.

  • Metta—loving-kindness; wishing well to others and to ourselves.”
  • Karuna—compassion; reaching out to those who are suffering, including ourselves”
  • Mudita—sympathetic joy; joy in the joy of others”
  • Upekkha—equanimity; a mind that is at peace in all circumstances”

The first chapter in the section focuses on cultivating joy in the joy of others (mudita). For people who are facing new physical limitations due to their chronic illnesses, this can be a way of turning painful responses (envy) into wholesome responses (joy).

The second chapter in this section talks about the act of well-wishing toward yourself and others (metta). The essence if metta practice is settling on a set of phrases, and silently repeating them over and over. “The specific content of your chosen phrases doesn’t matter so long as their theme is well-wishing. It’s the act of listening to and contemplating the meaning of the phrases as you repeat them that, over time, softens and soothes the body, mind, and heart.”

Discussion Questions

  • Talk about a time when you really wanted to, but were unable to, participate in a certain activity or social event. When you knew that you were not going to be able to attend in the way that you had hoped, what feelings did you experience?
  • Describe a personal example of cultivating joy in the joy of others.
  • We are introduced to various metta phrases, including the following by Kamala Masters: “Whether sick or well, may your body be a vehicle for liberation.” Please share a metta phrase that you have found to be particularly helpful.

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.

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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.

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