25 March 2011

Reading "How to Be Sick" - The Wheel of Suffering

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

The purpose of this blog, which is stated in my 5 July 2010 post, is to explore the ways in which being in chronic pain affects my spiritual life and the ways in which my spiritual life affects being in chronic pain.  It's not about a particular religion or doctrine, nor do I make any theological arguments.  This blog is for any of us who live deeply in the spirit and also happen to have chronic pain - pain that we do not allow to pull us away from the life of the spirit.  We allow our chronic pain to draw us closer into the life of the spirit.

Toni's book, about which I have been writing lately, is a wonderful tool box for me because it helps me do just that - to learn how pain can enhance my spiritual life and deepen my life's journey.  One of the teachings that I believe will have a long-term effect on me is that of "the wheel of suffering" as Toni calls it.  This phrase is her interpretation of the Buddhist term paticca-samuppada, a detailed and somewhat difficult concept that yields a simple practice with profound implications.

Toni writes about paticca-samuppada in Chapter Ten.  This post will not spend much time on an explanation of the concept - you can read the book for that - but will focus on the practice that comes out of it: breaking the cycle of suffering.  Briefly, the idea is to stop the cycle of frustration or anger or [insert emotion here] arising in our minds before it takes hold and changes our mood or our perception of a person or situation.  Toni uses the example of traffic: someone cuts in front of us and, often enough, a pleasant drive suddenly becomes a combative, competitive activity that raises blood pressure and sends us into angry reaction.

In the realm of spirit and chronic pain, the practice of breaking the cycle of suffering is like a prayer or quick meditation in the moment.  Tapping into the deeps of our spirits instead of the shallows of our reactive minds, it uses the tool of awareness to break through reaction. 

"When someone merges in front of us in traffic even though we have the right-of-way, we can just observe that the sensation is unpleasant and leave the experience at that -- without reacting to it as anything more than one of the thousands of momentary contacts we encounter every day." page 92

For the person in chronic pain, the traffic analogy is apt.  Say I have been looking forward to an outing with friends all week, then the rude migraine cuts in front of my plans and forces me off the road.  I end up with a cup of tea and my old friend, the blindfold, miserably cursing the pain that is still speeding along while I am broken down on the shoulder.

To re-phrase Toni's above quote: When the pain cuts us off from our plans even though we were excited and happy to see our friends, we can just observe the unpleasantness of the frustration and self-pity and understand it as one more experience among the many of our day.  This is the first part of the practice - the awareness that catches the first spin of the wheel of suffering before it gains momentum.

The second part of the practice gets us off the roadside where we sit feeling sorry for ourselves.  For those of us who want our pain to lead us deeper into the spiritual life, Toni's suggestion is perfect: we choose a completely different route - one that leads us to compassion and prayer and avoids completely the heavily used road we were just on.  We turn the wheel in a different direction and move into life with peaceful presence.

How does she do this?  She turns to the Four Noble Truths, invoking them in order to cultivate compassion, loving-kindness and equanimity.  I am not so well versed in Buddhist philosophy, so I do not yet have the automatic understanding that enables their use in the moment.  But there are other ways to follow Toni's lead.

After our awareness catches and stops the wheel that, if it keeps turning, cycles us into suffering, we can:
1. Take one or two deep breaths
2. Conduct a body scan, notice tense muscles and relax them
3. Allow compassion for ourselves to arise in place of the unpleasant emotions
4. Pray, or meditate, or say a mantra.

This works especially well if deep breathing, body scans, relaxation and prayer/meditation are regular tools in our repertoire (I have posted about this before).  The more familiar they are, the more handy they are and can be used even in the space of a few moments in most situations, not just when we are quiet, alone and have time.

There is a story in Toni's book that works well with this practice, and that will be the subject of my next post.

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


  1. What you wrote in this post completely resonates for me.
    One of the "mantras" I say to myself 95 times is "Thy Name is my Healing". It is from a beautiful Baha'i prayer. (95 is a sacred number for Baha'is)

  2. I need to read backwards as I just discovered your blog today through your post on my blog!
    I have been taking notes on my 3rd read of Toni's book so I can review it on my blog. I like how you have divided the review up into meaningful "chunks" to insure that the message(s) come through. For someone like me, with cognitive deficits (from fibro fog), it helps me grasp the key concepts more easily.
    I would like to add your blog to my blogs of note/interest -- with your permission, of course! My blog roll is in need of an overhaul!

  3. Carol,

    I enjoyed reading your blog today. I have always struggled with my pain getting in the way of my life. I'm definately going to purchase this book and look forward to more of your thoughtful insights.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post. I truly believe you will benefit a lot from Toni's book - let me know!

  5. @Phylor - I am honored that you want to put my blog on your of-note list. Also, I suppose that fibro fog might be something like headache head (aka migraine mind), so I can relate to what you are saying.

    @Judith - thank you for sharing the mantra. I use mantras a lot, and am happy to have a new one.