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Monday, March 12, 2012

beginning (reviewing) How to be Sick (the book, not my self-pity)

Several months ago, I decided to read How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers after reading a clever and witty bit by its author, Toni Bernhard. I thought she would be my Buddhist Anne Lamott, using amusement and real life/real language to tell it how it is. For her. A chronically ill person living with chronic fatigue syndrome. Early in the novel, I was disappointed to see that the reality was far from that. I thought a better title would have been How to be Buddhist, but I stuck with it to see what I can learn from this serious, mostly non-humorous non-fiction work. I was still disappointed that the book was framed only from that of Buddhism. There is no "how I learned to deal with my illness," only "what Buddhist practices I use to survive this life". Sure, there is overlap between the two but.... This book is geared towards those interested in Buddhism, not so much those open to hearing what a Buddhist woman has to say (unless they're open to hearing her teach them specially about Buddhism).

Anyhow, over the next several weeks, I will share the information from the book here because reviewing it and organizing it as such will help me mentally categorize it, encourage the use of some techniques, and allow me to discard ones I don't want to invest energy into. It will also teach you my interpretation of her interpretation of Buddhism.

If you are interested in learning more about Buddism, this book would be an interesting beginner's choice. Obviously, she veils the intro behind the theme of helping one learn to deal with a life that sucks ("life is always all right") but it helped me understand major Buddhist themes, unlike talking to interested-in-Buddhism-people or reading that "Buddhism" book I have started reading every other year for the past decade.

Chapter 1: Her story of becoming sick. She remembers her beginning, whereas I only remember realizing I might be sick-- I wonder for how long. I still ponder where the illness really began.

Chapter 2 is called "Staying Sick: This Can't be Happening to Me." I'll let you guess what that chapter is about. I might be finally settling into this disbelief something like 3 years after I realized I was sick. Well, I'm not quite settling yet....

Chapter 3 makes me familiar with the term "dukkha". She says that people often translate that to "life is suffering" but that the simplicity of that statement takes away from the depth of the Buddhist word. Why so shallow? Because life is not only suffering; dukkha simply acknowledges that suffering will be part of our lives. In this chapter is a quote that I like:
"We all know each other. We've all had our hearts broken by the relentless search to avoid suffering."
~ John Travis at a Spirit Rock retreat
Toni notes that this search brings more suffering.
Dukkha is the first noble truth. (Bold like a vocabulary word, mind ya. I made "dukkha" bold after bolding "noble truth")
Throughout the book, Bernhard quotes Zen Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck: "Our life is always all right." Conceptually, I understand why that might encourage her. Intuitively, I find it saddening. The quote continues, "There's nothing wrong with it. Even if we have horrendous problems, it's just our life." I suppose that half might be a tiny bit better than the first, the idea of it truly being "all right". What an odd thing to trouble me, I know. It's also something that often comes to me while living.

In Chapter 3, Bernhard prepares you for what the rest of her book aims to teach one to do: end mental suffering. Well, she shares methods to temporarily relieve, rather than to end it in its entirely.

I love this: The second noble truth says that the reason for dukkha (mental suffering) is the truth of tanha: thirst
I love it because it's also here: James 4: 1-3:
1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
James is one of my favorite books in the Bible.
The third noble truth shares that the end of dukkha is possible (what?!). In the fourth noble truth, the Buddha teaches how to accomplish this (the Eightfold Path). Enlightenment comes once dukkha ends. That's deep, cause one would have to be pretty freakin' enlightened to end dukkha imo.


  1. I appreciate this teaching of the Buddha:
    "Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." When we bring our attention to this exact moment, everything is just fine. Even in pain, we can find moments of 0/10. It is in these moments that we are free from attachment. When I remember how bad I felt (in the past) or project what will come (the future) I am in dis-ease. Buddhism teaches us mindfulness - awareness of the present moment.

    "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own." Matthew 6:24 (I believe we can apply this to each moment as well.)

    I am interested in following your review of the Buddhist perspective. Have you considered the metaphysical interpretation?


  2. I know nothing of the metaphysical interpretation