Each month, I try to look at the intersection of illness with my current blog subject. Lately, I’ve been writing about the Buddhist paramita of wisdom. At its core, wisdom is about seeing and understanding the truth. When I was diagnosed (at age 20) with an incurable, progressive illness, I turned to doctors and pamphlets to help me navigate the new terrain of chronic illness. As I’ve traveled the road, illness itself has given me insights – scraps of wisdom to help me stay the course.
1. Illness can be a teacher, bearing gifts.
The medical-industrial complex is organized around seeing illness as the enemy. Instead, I have learned from the experience of illness. Being ill has increased my empathy and decreased the strength of my ego. I know suffering from the inside out, which leaves me better able to understand how other people feel when their lives take unexpected turns. Living with illness has released me from the grip of perfectionism. Rather than pretending to have it all together, my character defects and cracks are on display. They provide me with many opportunities to work with my troublesome thoughts, feelings, and habits. I’m faced with an ambitious syllabus with daily lessons presented in bite -sized pieces.
2. The body has its own wisdom.
In my family of origin, we didn’t respect our bodies. “We” were our minds. Bodies were valued only because they carried our minds around and did the practical work demanded of our intellects and spirits.
Now, I have great respect for my body. It’s ability to heal from injury is amazing. As I recover from surgeries or increased symptoms, “listening to my body” tells me when to rest and when to move. Paying attention to physical sensations gives me clues about my emotional weather. My body also brings me sense perceptions that interpret the world’s richness and give me joy.
3. Illness is a dance.
I’ve learned that illness is changeable. Each moment, my physical symptoms, thoughts and emotions are different. Watching the movements of my being, I am learning to relax into what is.
When I was first diagnosed, I was very afraid of what might come next. I imagined “progression” would be cruel diminishment. While I can physically do less and less each year, there are movements within for dance: times of expansion and contraction, strength and weakness, giving and receiving. Illness is a process, not a static state.
4. There is a merciful witness beyond my fear, beyond my pain.
In the early days, I was consumed by anxiety, and I’ve lived through times of desperation. Gradually, I’ve realized that there is a calm, gentle witness beyond the ups and downs of why moods, beyond even unpleasant physical sensations. If I identify with this witnessing mind, I realize that all is well. Fear and suffering become a small part of what’s going on, instead of all there is. Yes, I am tired and achy, and I am also the gentle rain I hear falling outside that shows the world awakening to Spring.
5. No need to compare or compete – suffering is suffering.
Often, people are embarrassed to tell me about their illness or discomfort. “Of course, it’s nothing like what you must go through,” they say, thinking they couldn’t live with quadriplegia. If the fates were different, they would manage – fumbling and stumbling as I have or perhaps with marvelous grace. We each have our own road, with its joys and sorrow. Comparing yours with mine gets us nowhere. Accompanying each other, holding hands, and pointing out where the road is smooth or rough makes all our journeys easier.
6. I am not my illness; I am whole.
There are times when it’s hard to see beyond illness. My entire life seems to be organized around doctor’s appointments, symptoms, disability, and disappointments. When those times arise, it’s important for me to realize that I am not my illness, though illness is a part of life. There is nothing missing or damaged about me. I am radiantly whole.