13 March 2011

Reading "How To Be Sick" - Developing Compassion for Ourselves

(Second in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.")

I recall hearing once that the Dalai Lama was appalled when he learned that low self-esteem is a pervasive problem among Americans.  As I heard it, he said something like, "How is this possible when each of us is so precious and important in the world?"

This little story is one of the things that started me on the path to exploring Buddhism.  Today, as I am again reminded of it in planning this post, it takes on another significance for me, living as I am with chronic pain.  If low self-esteem is a general issue among us Americans (and, I daresay, in other areas of the world), then how much more problematic must it be for those of us living with chronic pain and illness?

Just a few hours ago I said to my friend, Juliana, "This morning all I've done is walk the dog and shower, but now I am tired.  How pathetic!"  Compassionately quick to respond, Juliana disagreed about it being pathetic.  As she did so, I remembered that I was planning to write this post about Toni's chapter on compassion for ourselves.  I need to read the chapter again, I thought, and I need to be honest about my own disgust and impatience with my condition.  I have often said that I am writing this blog more for me than for anyone else.  Here is a case in point.

"In this chapter, I'm going to focus on cultivating compassion for ourselves - which for many of us is harder than cultivating compassion for others." page 57

Realistically, and not to be self-absorbed about my own lack of self-esteem, it is so very natural for those of us living with chronic pain to become upset by the restrictions it places on our lives, not to mention how it strips away our life goals and heart's desires.  From there it is an easy step to thinking of oneself as pathetic, or useless, or unworthy.  Yet who among us would really choose such negative, self-abusing thoughts and words given a real choice? 

What Toni says is that we do have a choice if we want to make it, and the first step is to be aware of these pernicious, ever-present thoughts and the way they affect our spirits.  When I begin the day talking aloud about how pathetic I am, how am I to grow spiritually, how am I to learn what I long to learn, which is to live each moment in peaceful acceptance without futile and frustrating desire for things to be different?  And if I don't catch those thoughts and words even as they are formed (thanks, Juliana), they live in my heart, mind and spirit like dark and heavy shadows.

Simply noticing the words themselves is what helped Toni to the realization that the irony of using derogatory language about herself was that she would never allow such words to be spoken of another.

"Would I ever call [my husband] "dumb" or "stupid" or an "idiot"?  No! And what's more, if I ever heard some stranger talking like this to someone I cared about -- or even a stranger! -- I would at least feel the impulse to intervene ... From then on, when I'd catch myself using that language, I'd stop and reflect on how I'd never talk to others that way.  After a few months, I had "re-conditioned" my mind to treat my own difficulties with compassion." page 59

After the first step of simply becoming aware of how poorly we speak about ourselves, the next step is "re-conditioning" the mind.  I have heard it said that it requires three to six months to change a habit, and Toni herself says it took her a few months.  Even so, Toni's wisdom about all this and her re-conditioned mind were challenged when she became sick and was forced to learn the lessons anew.  Becoming chronically ill assaults our feelings of self-love and -worth at entirely new levels.   Toni faces these new challenges with wonderfully intentional, conscious ways to cultivate compassion in the moment - I will write about them in another post.

For now I want to review how Toni, after becoming aware of the self-destructive words she used to think and talk about herself, turned the practice into self-compassion.

"... I turn to karuna and cultivate compassion for the suffering I'm experiencing ... I comfort myself with whatever words come to mind, something like, "It's so hard to be at home when I want so badly to be having fun with [family]." page 58

Following Toni's lead, I can re-phrase my complaint of the morning by saying quietly and softly to myself, "How hard it is to be so tired when the day has only just begun."  Just writing this sentence and then repeating it aloud to myself, I can feel a softening in my belly.  I take a deep breath, marveling at the loosening of muscle, mind and heart.

Try it: remember a critical phrase you recently used about yourself, and then reframe it in Toni's way.  Say it softly to yourself.  Then take a deep breath and allow it to permeate your body and spirit.  

It's might be a good idea to enlist the help of friends and family when making this change - they often hear what we are saying with more immediacy and clarity than we do.  I needed my friend to notice what I'd said and make me aware of it, and though I would not want to rely on others in this way for very long, it surely is helpful at the start.

My next post will be about the other compassion practices Toni teaches us.  But before I can begin them, I want to take a few days to focus on the most important practice of all: compassion for myself.

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


  1. This is a remarkable blog and very appropriate to be reading Toni's words and your commentary as we experience via the media the great suffering in Japan.
    I too find self-compassion to be a very tall order, and Toni's book has helped me so much with it.
    Alida Brill

  2. Great blog, great post, thank you :)