The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Monday Mindful Morsel: How to Be Sick

by Lydia Anderson
June 9, 2014
Mon, 06/09/2014 - 10:58 -- landerson

This month, our morsels will be focusing on healing, in honor of Bhante Gunaratana's new book, Meditation on Perception. Today's morsel comes from Toni Bernhard's How to Be Sick. Toni became chronically ill while a university law professor in the prime of her career. She had been a longtime meditator, going on long meditation retreats and spending many hours rigorously practicing, but soon discovered that she simply could no longer engage in those difficult and taxing forms. She had to learn ways to make “being sick” the heart of her spiritual practice—and through truly learning how to be sick, she learned how, even with many physical and energetic limitations, to live a life of equanimity, compassion, and joy. In this selection, she lays out how to practice loving-kindness when your body isn't being kind to you.

Soothing the Body, Mind, and Heart

“May the gentle breeze and the calm sea protect your loved ones and friends on their journey.”
—“Whisper of Angels” from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte
Metta, loving-kindness, is the act of well-wishing toward yourself and others. You settle on a set of phrases and then recite them silently, over and over. The phrases can be directed to yourself, to others as a whole, or to particular people.

These are the phrases I settled on in the early 1990s for my metta practice:
May I be peaceful.
May I have ease of well-being
May I reach the end of suffering . . .
And be free.

There’s no magic to these four phrases. The cadence and meaning just work for me. “Ease of well-being” is a phrase I first heard from “mettamaster” Sharon Salzberg, whose book Lovingkindness presents one of the best descriptions of metta and the other brahma viharas. I like the phrase because it seems to direct metta at our moment-to-moment experience of everyday life. It’s as if I’m saying: “May I have ease of well-being as I shower . . . as I eat this meal . . . as I lie down to nap . . . and even as I am experiencing sickness, fatigue, and pain.”

After trying out different phrases for yourself, it’s best to settle on one set. The specific content of your chosen phrases doesn’t matter so long as their theme is well-wishing. It’s the act of listening to and contemplating themeaning of the phrases as you repeat them that, over time, softens and soothes the body, mind, and heart. In fact, now I need only silently say, “May I be peaceful” and it sets off a relaxation response in my mind and body. They know what’s coming next! Sometimes I remove myself as the subject altogether and just lie in bed, repeating, “Peaceful, ease of well-being, end of suffering, free.”

The phrase “end of suffering” should be familiar from the first noble truth. Recall that the Buddha said he taught two things: dukkha and the end of dukkha. When my health didn’t return, I lay in bed, directing metta to myself.When I reached the phrase “May I reach the end of suffering,” one day I became aware that I was wishing I’d stop feeling sick—that the physical discomfort would go away, that I would stop being sick. Of course, wishing for something over which I had no control only brought more suffering. It was then that I realized that most of my suffering came, not from the physical discomfort of the illness, but from my mind reacting to it with thoughts like: “I don’t want to be sick”; “I hate this physical discomfort”; “What if I can never return to work?” A shift occurred, and the end of suffering I wished for became the end of suffering in the mind. In fact, I could add “in the mind” to the end of each of my four chosen phrases, whether I’m directing them at myself or at others. This focus on the mind is consistent with what the Buddha meant when he talked about the “end of dukkha.”

Although I’ve settled on the above set of phrases for my basic metta practice, I do use other words at times. For example, while on the July 2001 retreat I wrote about earlier, I dragged myself to a talk given by Kamala Masters because, sick though I was, I loved being in her calmand serene presence.That evening, she closed her talk by directing this metta phrase to us: “Whether sick or well, may your body be a vehicle for liberation.” That got my attention! I didn’t replace one of my four phrases with this one, but while lying in bed, I still sometimes silently repeat: “Sick though it is, may this body be a vehicle for liberation.”

Using metta phrases can also become a powerful forgiveness practice. I might repeat to myself,“Be peaceful, sweet body, working so hard to support me.”When I repeat a phrase with that sentiment, I’m also forgiving myself for getting sick. It’s no tmy body’s fault that I’m sick. It’s doing the best job it can to support my life.

Traditionally, metta phrases are directed at different groups of people.You start with yourself and then move progressively from those for whom it is easiest for you to evoke feelings of lovingkindness to those who are the hardest.

First, you direct the phrases at yourself. This opens your heart to the practice. It’s difficult to cultivate loving-kindness for others if you’re not feeling friendly toward yourself. After a time, you direct the phrases to someone for whom you feel great gratitude, who has been very generous to you. Then, you move to a person for whom you have some conflicting feelings (such as a good friend or loved one). Then, to a person you don’t have an opinion about one way or another (such as your mail carrier perhaps or a checker at the supermarket). Finally, to a person whose name alone can give rise to anger, judgment, and other mind states that are a source of suffering for you.

The goal of metta practice is to cultivate loving-kindness in this fashion until it’s a mental state that arises effortlessly. At that point, you’ll find it increasingly natural to greet all living beings with kindness and friendliness. One of the most potent aspects of this practice is directing loving-kindness toward a person causing difficulty for you. He or she could be a family member, a doctor who doesn’t take your illness seriously, or even a public figure with whom you disagree.Wishing for a person who is a thorn in your side to be peaceful and to be free from suffering may be a challenge, but it turns metta practice into a liberation practice.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin became a good example of a person who bothered me who could also become an object of my loving-kindness. Some readers may react with aversion just by seeing her name on this page. (If that’s not the case for you, pick another person who “lights you up” as Tony likes to say.) I’ve been politically active all my life and so I was involved (from my bed) in the 2008 presidential election. I didn’t like Palin’s political positions. I didn’t like her lack of humility when asked about her reaction to being picked as a vice presidential nominee. I didn’t like her personal attacks on the opposition. I soon realized that the anger I was directing at her had become such a source of stress that I was feeling it physically in my already sick body. So I did what I’ve done many times in the past with people to whom I’m feeling strong aversion: I went straight to my metta phrases.

First, recognizing that my reaction to her—“I don’t like this about her”; “I don’t like that about her”—was a great source of suffering for me, I began by directing metta at myself: “May I be free from the suffering that my aversion to Sarah Palin gives rise to.” Then I turned to her.

“Sarah Palin: May you be peaceful. May you have ease of wellbeing. May you reach the end of suffering . . . and be free.” As is often the case when I direct metta to difficult people in my life, just as with sympathetic joy, at first the phrases felt artificial and fake. Then I realized I’d shifted to “Sarah Palin: May you be peaceful. May you have ease of well-being. May you reach the end of suffering . . . and be free by seeing the error of your ways and becoming a completely different human being.” This is, of course, not exactly what the Buddha had in mind as metta practice. But as I’ve trained myself to do, I persisted. Soon, not only did the phrases become genuine, but I began to see in her qualities that we share. She loves her children. She wishes the best for them and hopes they’ll be happy. She clings to her political views as tenaciously as I cling to mine—a shared source of suffering for us! Soon it felt like a poison had been extracted from my body, mind, and heart. Metta had been the antidote. Sarah Palin didn’t get my vote, but she no longer got my rage—and I was freed from the painful negative mental state that was exacerbating my own physical symptoms.

To a sick body, a troubled mind, or a hardened heart, nothing is more soothing than metta practice. May you come to greet all of life’s experiences with friendliness and loving-kindness.


How to cite this document:
© Toni Bernhard, How to Be Sick (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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