We often feel sick and exhausted. That’s the nature of chronic illness. So how can we live with well-being even in the midst of ill-health? We must challenge the notion that being healthy is expected and being ill makes us somehow at fault or unworthy of love and belonging. Rather, health challenges can be invitations to practice the skills of well-being.
Physical symptoms claim our attention. We become experts at noticing the sensations in our bodies. Use that focus and awareness to notice what’s right:
Right now, as you sit reading, be aware of your breath moving in and out. Your belly is expanding and contracting. Your chest is rising and falling. “As long as you are breathing,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, “there is more right with you than wrong with you.” Feel your heart beating in your chest and imagine your arteries, veins and capillaries carrying the blood through your body. You are alive!
Chronic illness brings with it a raft of strong emotion: fear, anger, grief. I used to feel like I needed to get rid of those emotions. Only once they were eliminated, I reckoned, could I get back to “normal.” It turns out that, if I let them be, emotions arise and dissolve by themselves. Nothing to do but be aware of them and be a tender witness. Working with emotional turbulence, we develop resilience, returning to calm, regaining our balance.
Do you need more help than you used to? Living with illness, we can no longer be as independent as we once were. This brings you into closer relationship with the people around you. Your life is better when people spend time with you and surround you with kindness. Noticing that increases your empathy and encourages you to be kind to others. Your connections may not be broad, but they are deep.
What gives your life meaning? What brings you joy? Gently exploring the answers to those questions can fill you with a sense of aliveness and well-being whether you live with health challenges or not. Meaning usually arises from connections outside yourself: other people, other creatures, and/or a higher power. Where there is love, there is meaning. Living with illness encourages you to ask the Big Questions and watch your answers change.
Chronic illness invites you to strengthen your skills for well-being. You develop keen awareness, a sense of aliveness and increased kindness and compassion. You become more able to handle emotional ups and downs and redefine what gives life meaning. You are stronger and wiser through your experience.