How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide For the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers
Foreword by Sylvia Boorstein
The problem for most Western approaches to dealing with a serious or chronic illness is that they are based, whether they know it or not, on the concepts of objective distance and physical and rational control of the situation. But when you are ill, there are can be no objective distance, and you do not have either physical or rational control. You cannot magically make yourself better, no matter how much you might want to, nor, most of the time, can you rationally understand and justify your illness. Sometimes people just get sick. And as for why you? As Toni Bernhard says in this book, why not you? All living beings suffer; this is just how this universal truth is manifesting for you right now.
The Buddhist-inspired approach that Bernhard espouses here has many things in common with the popular buzzwords of the current craze for wellbeing. There are things that are recognizably self-care, gratitude lists, and positive thinking. However, because they are based on millennia of a spiritual wisdom that espouses a non-rational, truth-centered approach to life, they strike me, at least, as much more helpful than their frivolous and shallow Western cousins, which are largely focused on instant self-gratification and selfish motives. The self-care techniques that Bernhard presents here are not about putting your needs above those of others, but about recognizing the interconnectedness between you and all other living beings.
Bernhard, who at the time of writing had been largely housebound for a number of years with chronic fatigue syndrome of unknown origin, also recognizes the reality of the suffering that the seriously ill and their caregivers experience. Most of the practices she describes start with an acknowledgement of this suffering, before moving on to techniques that can alleviate it, at least in part. By facing the reality of your suffering, it actually makes it easier to deal with, and allows you to achieve some of that objective distance that the Western scientific approach is supposed to give you but can’t when you yourself are the subject as well as the object of suffering.
Books on Buddhism tend to be either impenetrably abstruse, or deceptively simple. “How To Be Sick” falls into the latter category. It’s a very short, easy read, with concise chapters and a bullet-pointed list of practices for different situations–physical suffering, mistreatment by medical professionals, loneliness and isolation, and so on–at the end. This book will not give you an in-depth introduction to Buddhist history and theory (although Bernhard admits that when she first became drawn to Buddhism, she wrote exactly that, merely for her own pleasure and edification), but it will give you a number of hands-on, practical suggestions, and in a format that is suitable for busy caregivers or seriously ill people suffering from brain fog, head and eye pain, or debilitating fatigue. “How To Be Sick” is not a light read, but it is not weighed down by its subject matter either, providing a pithy but profound approach to dealing with one of life’s most unpleasant aspects.