I've been reading How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard. It's one of those books that is a bit difficult to read, especially if one isn’t acquainted with Buddhist practices to begin with. I will read a passage, think about it, re-read it, and later come back to it. Sometimes I think I “get it,” at other times I know I don’t.
The one principle that is becoming more powerful by the hour for me is the Universal Law of Impermanence. It’s powerful for me because it’s especially relevant to me. I’ll do my best to paraphrase the idea here, but my suggestion is that you read this book yourself especially if you or someone you know is chronically ill.
Yes, anything can happen at anytime. We can become ill. We can lose our job. We can lose our partner. We can lose our fortunes.
But how do we find any solace in this universal law, the author asks, and then goes on to quote a great Zen master who offers a clue:
Without the bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone, how can plum
blossoms send forth their fragrance all over the universe?
When we begin to see this truth, we have a tendency to focus on the “bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone.” Just like the author, having had to give up my profession, it still feels bitter cold all too often. The challenge is to find a fragrance to enjoy now—like Beethoven wafting though the house or the beauty of an orchid sitting on the windowsill.
One idea that is helping me, based on Bernhard’s Buddhist practice, is the idea of the "Broken Glass." You might say, “don’t break my glass!” Can you prevent something that’s breakable from breaking? It will break sooner or later. If you don’t break it, someone else will. Penetrating the truth of these things, we see that this glass is already broken. Whenever its time is up, it will break. And when it does, all it’s done is return to its original state.
Our bodies will break ... it's a matter of time. I guess the Old Testament 's "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," etc, also sums up the idea of impermanence. As humans, we will return to our original states.
How has this helped me deal with chronic pain? One way is to recognize that it won't be permanent. In my case, sometimes I have pain for weeks, and then get relief for weeks (or days). It comes and it goes like the weather.
When I have a bout of breakout pain, I am trying to remember the principle of impermanence. I think or say out loud ... This is not permanent. This too will pass or change. And, it invariably does.
I am not a practicing Buddhist, but this one principle alone has the potential to change my life and the lives those who love me. It helps me get out of catastrophic thinking, the negative cycle, the "Oh My God, I'll be like this forever" syndrome.
It's a mind/body connection, I guess—or whatever you prefer to call it. It is now my mantra.