I’ve been chronically ill since I contracted a viral infection in 2001. Were I to recover, I’d take these six hard-earned lessons with me into the land of the healthy.
1. Less is more. I used to be an accumulator. My life was filled with stuff: books and magazines that sat unread; CDs; jewelry; knickknacks and trinkets; clothing and all its accompaniments (shoes, belts, scarves). Since becoming sick, I’ve learned that less is more. I don’t need most of the stuff that’s in my house. As a result, if someone admires something, unless it’s a special item that I’m saving for my kids or grandkids, I give it away.
So, be careful if you come to my house because, if you say you like something, odds are, it’s about to be yours.
I love shedding my stuff in this way. I have less but I feel as if I have more, because I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve made someone happy and that something that was once mine will now be put to better use.
If I recovered my health tomorrow, I wouldn’t change this behavior because it carries with it a newfound sense of freedom.
2. Ruminating about the past and worrying about the future to make me unhappy. I’m not suggesting that we can’t learn from the past or that skillful planning for the future isn’t worthwhile. But it’s wise to pay attention to when that type of thinking has become unproductive and is just adding stress to our lives. When I first got sick, I spent most of my days ruminating over a life I could no longer lead and worrying about a life I couldn’t predict with any degree of certainty. It made me miserable.
Then I remembered a book I’d read in the early 1990s: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment by the Vietnamese Zen monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. In it, he said:
When we settle into the present moment, we can see beauties and wonders right before our eyes — a newborn baby, the sun rising in the sky.
Encouraged by his words, I began to practice staying in the present moment. I devised an exercise I call “drop it” (described in detail in my book How to Be Sick). When my mind is stuck in regret about what I can no longer do or when I’m caught up in worry about what the future holds, I gently but firmly say: “drop it.” Then I immediately direct my attention to some current sensory input. It could be something I see or smell. It could be the physical sensation of my feet on the ground or of my breath coming in and out of my body. Dropping a stressful train of thought about the past or the future and relaxing into the present moment is like shedding a heavy burden — and that feels good.
Those who are healthy can benefit from this practice. None of us is likely to have made it this far in our day without our minds hosting a stressful thought or two about the past:
“I should have been more chatty at lunch yesterday instead of sitting there like a dunce.”
“I shouldn’t have stayed so long at my friend’s house last week; I’m sure I wore out my welcome.”
(Note how thoughts about the past often contain self-critical “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” These always make us feel bad because they make us feel inadequate.)
And, none of us is likely to have made it this far in our day without our minds hosting a stressful thought or two about the future:
“I’m worried that at the teacher-student conference tomorrow, the teacher is going to say that my son is a problem in the classroom.”
(I remember when my son was in third grade and had become quite contrary at home, challenging almost everything we said to him. In the days leading up to the teacher-student conference, I spent a lot of time worrying about what the teacher was going to say. At the conference, she described this terrific kid for whom she clearly had a lot of affection. My husband and I looked at each other with a “she thinks we’re someone else’s parents” look. When we half-jokingly said to her that it sounded like she was describing a different kid from the one we lived with, to my unexpected delight, she responded by praising our parenting skills, saying that because we allowed him to let off steam at home, he was better equipped to handle the world outside! All that worrying was for nothing.)
Everyone could benefit from becoming mindful of when it’s time to put ruminating about the past and worrying about the future aside. This simple “drop it” practice can help. With it, you can experience the relief that comes from living in the present moment, and see, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, beauties and wonders right before your eyes.
3. Rushing to judgment about others can lead to painful misunderstandings. Korean Zen master Seung Sahn liked to tell his students to keep a “Don’t-Know Mind,” by which he meant not clinging to views and opinions about the world and other people. In a magazine article, he said:
If you keep a don’t-know mind, then your mind is clear like space and clear like a mirror.
When I got sick, I rushed to judgment about friends who didn’t keep in touch. I assumed they no longer cared about me. As it turned out, one friend wasn’t in touch because she had developed health problems of her own, and another was terribly uncomfortable around illness because of a traumatic experience she’d had as a child when her own mother became ill.
Whether in good health or not, we’re all experts at spinning stressful stories about other people — stories in which we impute motives and intentions to them that more often than not have no basis in fact. In truth, we don’t know what’s happening in another person’s life unless we inquire about it. Yes, it may be time to let a relationship go and move on, but before doing so, consider asking yourself whether you’ve rushed to judgment without checking out what might really be going on.
4. Paying attention to my body’s needs is of utmost importance. Before I got sick, I lived mostly in my mind. I thought of my body and mind as separate and disconnected. Most of us have been taught to believe in “mind over matter,” as if the body is a slave to the mind, carrying out its directives. I believed that and, as a result, ignored my body’s signals when it needed attending to, whether it be getting more sleep or eating well. Being sick has made me more conscious of the inseparability of mind and body. For example, now I can feel how emotions are experienced in the body and how mental stress can exacerbate my physical symptoms.
Should I regain my health, I plan to stay embodied, meaning “in body.” In addition to listening to what it’s saying to me, I love to think about what a extraordinary organism it is. Even when I’m struggling mightily with this illness, my heart keeps beating, my blood keeps circulating, my lungs keep taking in oxygen. This is so impressive to me that I’ve decided to write a piece, tentatively titled “The Wondrousness of the Human Body.”
5. Expanding my thinking beyond my own personal problems helps me accept the life I have. I used to think that I’d been singled out because of this illness, as if the world was being unfair to me personally. This gave rise to anger and resentment. Over the years, I’ve learned the value of going beyond this self-focused thinking and taking a bigger perspective. I haven’t been singled out: in every household on the planet; in every generation; in every era throughout history — people have experienced unexpected upheavals in their lives. Expanding my thinking in this way enables me to accept the life I have as it is. In the words of Joseph Campbell:
We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
Should I recover my health, I’ll keep his words with me, knowing that, as is true for everyone, my life will be a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, successes and disappointments, joys and sorrows.
6. Being nice to myself is the best medicine. When became sick, I definitely was not nice to myself! I thought my body had betrayed me. I thought my mind was weak because I couldn’t “will” myself back to health. My inner critic was in full voice. It took several years, but I finally learned to treat myself kindly.
Once I began being speaking to myself with care and compassion, I realized how much I could have benefitted from this supportive self-talk before I got sick. In my early years of teaching, I felt inadequate in the classroom. I judged myself harshly even though I worked as hard as I could to be a good professor. I wish I’d known to say to myself something like: “Such a dedicated teacher, working so hard to do the best for my students.”
Healthy or not, no one’s life is without bumps in the road. When the going gets rough, instead of blaming yourself for your difficulties, try to see them as an inevitable part of the human experience. Then take that best of medicines: self-compassion. It will give rise to the healing sense of peace and well-being that accompany treating yourself as kindly as you’d treat a loved one in need.
I hope to regain my health. Should that day come, the lessons I’ve learned from years of illness will be my companions in the land of the healthy.
Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.