17 March 2011

Reading "How to be Sick" - Compassion Is Opening the Heart

This is the third in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's book, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.

In an email message to me about the previous post, Alida Brill, author and blogger, noted that compassion practice for oneself seemed particularly appropriate this week as we watch the terrible events in Japan.  Immediately, I understood what she meant on one level - that out of our own ability to hold ourselves in compassion arises our compassion for others - yet realized that on another level, I was way behind her.  She was practicing for the Japanese: I was practicing, still, for myself.

In the book that is the focus of these posts, Toni writes (page 70) that her practice of self-compassion guided her to "a new compassion practice: opening my  heart to the full range of emotions that life has in store for me."  Not the full range that sickness has in store, or that pain has in store, but that life has in store for her.

Toni and Alida point the way to redeeming our suffering as persons living with chronic pain.  The first part of this redemption must always be the development of gently loving and understanding thoughts of and perceptions about ourselves.  And the next step follows naturally, or at least it does if we listen to wise persons like Alida and Toni: the opening of the heart that comes from this self-practice blossoms to enfold all the world's (and the individuals in it) emotions as well.

Their wisdom comes at a perfect time for me.  When I left my well-loved job at Miriam's House in December 2009, I believed it would be for some months - surely not more than six or eight - of rest and healing that would allow me to return to the kind of work to which I felt so called.  Now it is fourteen months later and the migraines continue to force me several days a week into dark, quiet rooms with a blindfold over my eyes.  The question I am asking myself these days, as I have posted before, has to do with what I had thought was my life's calling to living and working in close, loving presence to persons who are poor and disenfranchised.

For so many of us, living with chronic pain means living without cherished, important work and life activities.  Toni had been a law professor for twenty years, I had founded and led Miriam's House for seventeen years: much-loved work that is now impossible for us.  I cannot pretend that what I am writing about in this post has reconciled me to losing my ability to live actively into my passion for social justice, but I do feel a loosening around my heart, a slight unraveling of the knot of pain.

I will explore in more detail these practices in my next post.  Frankly, I just don't feel ready to write about compassion for the world when in my own life I still need to practice compassion for myself.  I would feel hypocritical if I did that.  But I am finding it helpful to use the practice from the previous post as a small step toward compassion for the world.

When I think to myself, "How hard it is for me to wake up and realize this is now a 72-hour migraine," I can also think to myself, "How hard it is for mothers in Japan to wake up in a shelter knowing their children are hungry."

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.


  1. Today's quote on the Page-a-Day Zen Calendar is by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:

    "Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away."

    Does it help to know that it's out of our hands?

  2. I love this quote, thanks for posting it. And yes, these kinds of thoughts do help, yet at the same time, they do not make me want to deny the reality of my life. Being no candidate for saint- or Buddha-hood, I find that an important part of my healing process is to acknowledge and name my feelings. If I do not allow for that, then I risk being in denial, where no healing is possible.

  3. Carol, just an observation about myself and my suffering (with Fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression) I find compassion for others much easier; I like your exercise in a previous post about using the golden rule with self talk very useful! The observation about myself that I wanted to share is that I derive comfort and strength when faced with challenging situations when shared by others experiencing the same thing if they are in the immediate vicinity. If I experience something by myself that is very emotionally challenging, I tend to feel like it is magnified exponentially and insurmountable.