27 March 2011

Reading "How to Be Sick" - There is Pain Here, But I am Not in Pain

This is sixth in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.

In my previous post, I discussed a practice Toni developed connected to the Buddhist concept of what she calls "the wheel of suffering."  In this post, I want to explore this concept some more through a story that Toni tells in the beginning of Chapter Five.  It's a story about a teacher, Munindra-ji, who, when quite old, went on a trip throughout India to view and experience the sacred sites.

One day they were waiting in a train station.  The train was five hours late.  It was blazing hot.  They had no food.  There were no restrooms.  The track where they were to catch the train kept changing, so they had to keep getting up and moving.  Munindra-ji would sit down in each new location and rest his head on his arm.  He looks so frail that [his traveling companion] began to worry about how he was holding up, especially since she and her friends were barely coping with the conditions.  She finally asked him if he was all right. 

He replied, "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." 

What the teacher was referring to is what Buddhists call "anatta," which means "no fixed or unchanging self."  The Buddhists also speak of the Witness, or that eternal and immediate Presence that is ineffable, always calm.  As a person raised in the Christian tradition, I think that Christians might think of this as the "soul," or, as Quakers say, the piece of God that is in everyone.  American Indians have a beautiful way of talking about the oneness of the universe, at the Center of which is the Great Spirit - which is also the Center in all of us.  Hindus speak of Atman - the non-material self that never changes and is distinct from body and mind.  Muslims talk about three souls: the commanding soul and the blaming soul (which seem to me to be comparable to Western psychology's ego); and the soul at peace, which becomes a place of silence in which Allah's signs can be manifested.

I love it that so many of the world religions (and the above is just a smattering of the major religions) have a way to express the Infinite and the Divine that resides in all of us.  Of course, the details are not precisely the same, and Toni does a wonderful job of explaining (pages 38-42) how the Buddhists broke from Hinduism with the revolutionary concept of "anatta."  Yet still, when I read the above quote from Toni's book, I don't have to be Buddhist to understand it.  This is one of the reasons that I deeply regret the divisiveness that so easily arises between sects and religions.  To me, we are all saying things that probably are not so different, or wouldn't be if we could release our need to be right and to have The Answer.  It breaks my heart that we allow ego, pride and fear to cause such schism, violence and hatred.

For me, Buddhism does the best job of both explaining and helping one connect to the Witness, but my Christian background helps me to deepen that understanding.  As I have explained in previous posts, practices like Buddhist meditation and Christian centering prayer have been of major importance on my spiritual journey: they both lead to that place within me of deepest peace, acceptance and stillness in which my best Being resides.  

So, however we understand what Munindra-ji is saying, it remains wonderfully resonant for many of us, especially at a level below understanding where we simply Be with it.  And it allows for a practice that Toni talks about in her book:

I recalled [this] story one day as I lay in bed after becoming sick, so I silently said, "There is sickness here, but I am not sick."  The statement made no sense to me ... After a few minutes, I realized, "Of course!  There is sickness in the body, but I am not sick!"

As Munindra-ji said, "There is hunger here, but I am not hungry."  As a practice for the moodily swinging emotions that accompany living with chronic pain, it encourages me toward equanimity - a sense of calm stillness no matter what is going on around me or in my body.

This is reminding me of what St. Therese of Lisiuex once wrote:

"Nothing, not even my joy, can disturb my peace."

So I have been practicing with Toni, and finding that there are many, many situations and emotions that can be helped by this practice.  It points to the peaceful calm that is our heritage yet is so difficult to approach, let alone remain in.

"There is irritation here, but I am not irritated."
"There is anger here, but I am not angry."
"There is shyness here, but I am at peace."
"There is pain here, but I am not in pain."
"There is joy here, but I am at peace."

I want to spend some time linking these six posts to pain management, about which I have written before and which I want to review in light of the learnings from Toni's book.  And that will be the subject of my next post.

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


  1. i like this! thanks for sharing your insights. i am a spiritual person. i was Christian for a long time, and i still hold to some of the beliefs. still, i feel that we need to break down the barriers. i don't believe that the divine would want us to have these divisions. in order for the whole world to heal,we need this.
    i must remember this: there is pain here, but i am not in pain. also, i am not pain.
    i've lived with a chronic illness most of my adult life. i think we tend to become pain. your article helps me to remember that i am not pain. thank you.

  2. Dear Carol, I have shared your post on my Facebook feed, for friends & family to read. I just received Toni's book after coming to a low point & finding a reference to it in my Facebook feed, so the circle continues. Thank you for writing & sharing your reflections on spirituality & chronic pain. I know how challenging that can be. I also have chronic intractable migraines... along with CFS, FMS, Lyme, etc. Your post today especially speaks to me as I am recovering ever so slowly from the disintegration of my shoulder. So there is pain here... but I am not in pain. :-)


  3. @Anonymous: Yes, I tend to identify pain in a very personal way, which is one of the reasons I like the story so much. There is pain here, but I am not pain.

    @Ash: Thank you for sharing the post. I do believe that Toni's book will give you much hope and help for quite a while. I have read parts of it over and over. May your shoulder quickly heal as your heart remains in peace.


  4. I like the statement: "There is pain here, but I am not in pain." For me, it is a very personal way to understand the story and teachings. It means acceptance, not defeat.
    I am learning alot from your reading of Toni's book, and I hope to post my own review in the future.

  5. Hello, again, Phylor -- I look forward to reading your review. Thanks for taking the time to share your comment.