20 March 2011

Reading "How to Be Sick" - Pianos and the Open Heart

This is the fourth 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.

Here is a lovely definition of compassion from Thubten Chodron's book, Open Heart, Clear Mind:

"Compassion is a realistic attitude wishing everyone to be free from all unsatisfactory and miserable conditions."

Add to that Toni Berhard's words in How to Be Sick (also quoted in the previous post):

"... [A] new compassion practice ... [O]pening my heart to the full range of emotions that life has in store for me."

If I have considered myself to be a compassionate person, it is usually in relation to how my compassion has been manifested in action: words, deeds, life-choices.  Now that I live with chronic pain and spend most of my day alone and unable to act much at all, these definitions - along with the practices Toni describes in her wonderful book - are guiding me gently to a new understanding of what it is to be a compassionate person.

As I have posted previously, among the difficulties presented to the chronically ill is the problem of learning to treat ourselves with understanding and love even as we are losing much of what comprises our self-identity: career and relations with friends and family, for example.  So much is lost in the life that becomes isolated and radically changed by chronic pain.  It is important and necessary to allow, name and acknowledge the roiling emotions that accompany these changes because anger, impatience, grief and feelings of low self-worth do not obligingly go away one day when we grow tired of them.  Working through these emotions is long and hard work, as is most of life's work that is basic to spiritual growth.

Yet the depths of our work can be so much greater if we approach it employing the sounding board of compassion: with our hearts open to all the emotions of life and wishing that everyone (mainly ourselves, in this instance) could be free of misery.  It is a vastly different thing to allow our anger to arise and take over than it is to allow anger to arise over compassion's sounding board.

A sounding board is the part of a piano that neither moves nor acts, yet serves, in its seeming passivity, as a reflector, resonator and amplifier for the strings attached to each key.  The resonance of the strings depends on the presence of this thin board; the strings would still sound as the keys are struck, but the sound itself would be thinly one-dimensional, would not carry far, and would lack the beauty and power we associate with this instrument.

I like the sounding board analogy as it relates to compassion.  With compassion as my sounding board, the keys - such as anger and sorrow - that I strike are made to resonate deeply within and through me.  They carve out a space in me from which I am enabled to not only name and acknowledge them, but process them thoroughly.  My compassion sounding board, situated in one place yet resonating throughout my being, brings great depth to spiritual growth and change.

Well, it does so if I make a practice of nurturing it.  And this is where Toni's sharing about her own efforts to develop compassion are so instructive.  I have been sharing about coming to a new level of acceptance (and the emotions that inevitably come with it) of the long-term effects these migraines have upon my life.  Each new stage of acceptance brings its own quality to the spiritual journey: struggles I may have thought I'd dispensed with long ago return to be processed at a deeper level.  I am finding, as I struggle through this dark time, that Toni has a message about compassion that is transformative.

I love the practice of re-framing negative and self-abusing thoughts, detailed in a previous post.  Only just learned a week ago, this has already become habit.  Another Toni-inspired habit has to do with how she names and sits with her emotions.   As she describes it on pages 69-70 of her book, she gently labels the emotion arising in her ("Fear, fear") instead of striking out at it in impatience or anger ("It's time to go away, fear.  Get out of here now!").  This allows for a shift in her consciousness as she opens to the fear.  The resulting expansiveness makes room for a new thought to arise, ("My heart is big enough to hold this fear.")  From there flows the next moment - a gentle smile on her lips that seems to welcome this old friend, fear:

"And so the seed was sown for a new compassion practice: opening my heart to the full range of emotions that life has in store for me."

"Patient endurance" is the third practice that is helping me so much these days.  Toni describes it well (pages 64-69).  As it is a difficult concept to which I could not possibly do justice writing in this limited space, I refer the reader to the book with just one quote that helps to clarify: 

"Patient endurance suggests that, in addition to being patient (that is, serene and uncomplaining), we actively 'endure' ... 'to experience hardship without giving up'."

I am not actually sure that I have understood and internalized what patient endurance means for me, but know that for now it is simply enough to repeat the phrase quietly when I feel the angry impatience bubbling up through the pain.  At any rate, it is not my mind that will make use of this concept, but my spirit (as in spirituality), and since the mind is of restricted usefulness in such matters anyway, the simple repetition is probably best at this time.

So, three practices learned from Toni for developing compassion toward our painfully ill bodies and minds:

1. Re-framing our self-abusive thoughts: "How idiotic it is to be so tired and inactive!" to "How difficult for me that I am so tired that even taking a shower fatigues me!"
2. Allowing, naming and befriending the emotions that threaten to overwhelm us with negativity and self-pity.
3. Patient endurance, or experiencing our difficulties with serenity even while refusing to give up.

Practicing these methods for developing compassion opens the door for newness and transformation at other places within me.  One that particularly attracts me in the way it addresses our tendency to stay in victim-mode (as I have posted before), is what Toni calls "getting off the wheel of suffering."  That will be the subject of my next post.

May this writing strike a chord in each reader and resonate to the power of love in each one's spirit.

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

1 comment:

  1. Carol,
    I found you through your comments on Phylor's Blog. I find your posts thought provoking and inspiring. I will link to you from my blog -- I assume that is ok with you! If not let me know.