The acceptance of my illness begun only once I had accepted that suffering has a place in my life. When I first realized that I was chronically ill, I wondered what I had done to deserve this and simply denied what was happening, convinced it was not meant for me. I wonder if this had partly to do with the fact that I had lived a sheltered life so far, and had not really been exposed to any hardship.
Since I started attending a meditation group last year, the Buddhist teachings have really inspired me to be more philosophical about my illness. The first Buddhist truth is “Life is Suffering”. Although some people find this pessimistic, I think it is simply realistic. Once we become aware that mental and physical suffering is a part of human life, and may appear in different forms at any stage of our lifetime, we can stop resisting it. Instead of becoming embittered or resentful to the world and all it owes us, we can harness our suffering to make us better human beings. We can also free ourselves from blame and the constant search for the cause of our suffering, once we accept that it would have happened regardless.
The most underestimated aspect of human suffering is that it helps us to grow. We mature and develop amazing resources as a result of difficult circumstances. We can draw from this wisdom time and again during our lives, and may even find we become more resilient. What’s more, if we can learn to cultivate positive emotions such as pleasure, comfort, compassion for ourselves and others during the darkest times of our lives then we become emotionally self-sufficient. For instance, I try to talk to myself in a kinder tone than before, reassuring myself that “It’s ok to feel like this. It’s ok to need rest. It’s ok to be sick.”, which I find is slowly conditioning my mind to respond in a more helpful way.
Another Buddhist philosophy that helps me through the worst is the idea that “All conditioned things are impermanent”, which reminds me that the present moment is transient and my condition is therefore never static. When I am having a bad flare-up of ME/CFS symptoms, I can end up having very dark thoughts. (See my poem The Prisoner). Even if I have – God forbid – suicidal thoughts, I tell myself that that would be a permanent solution to a temporary – or impermanent – mental and/or physical state. Life will continue flowing and our experience of tomorrow will be different than today.
American spiritual teacher Adyashanti on Suffering:
As long as we are not willing to suffer we will always be trapped in suffering. That is what the Buddha found it, he perfected transcending suffering, but he realized what everyone else realized: those moments are temporary, they are not lasting. And there is no such thing as an infinitely extended transcendent experience. It doesn’t exist. And at some point he realized he needed a new paradigm. He needed to find a place in himself that not only wanted to transcend it all but was willing to be stuck in the middle of it.
One deals with the fear of death by transcending, the other is the fear of life. To descend back into life you have deal with the fear of life, the fear of suffering, the fear of sorrow. You have to say yes, not as a strategy but as an act of love. Just as a mother or father and their child was in a horrendous place and the only way to go to the aid of the child was to walk through hell to get there, every parent would not think twice, if that is where my child is that is where I am going. They transcended their desire not to suffer. They connected to the love rather than the fear. When you find that yes to the transcendence of death and yes to the immanence of suffering, there is not where for suffering to get a hold of you.
For those interested in learning more about Eastern wisdom and chronic illness, a very accessible book I can recommend is “How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide For the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers” by Toni Bernhard, a long-term ME/CFS sufferer. In her book she gives a simplified version of Buddhist philosophies and writes how they have helped her achieve fulfilment and contentment in her life despite her chronic condition.
I hope this post has been of some inspiration to those who are finding their hardship difficult to deal with on a mental and emotional level. Would love to hear your thoughts.