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."
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Carol D. Marsh
- With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90 days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.