On Being Ill

Many years ago, I went out for a Chinese food lunch with my then meditation teacher and mentor, Russel Delman. I was carrying a journal with me that I wrote in religiously. Russel kindly asked me, “Why do you do that?” “What?” I said. “Write in a journal.” “Just to work out my thoughts,” I said. “Plus, I just like the act of writing.” “Ok,” Russel said, “But just be mindful that thoughts are like cobwebs, the more we engage with them, the more we get stuck.”

This sentiment has stayed with me, and I am now cautious with regards to indulging my thoughts. But I am a writer and the writer is always trying to make sense of their experiences through the act of writing. If it helps another person, great. If not, that is ok as well. Ultimately, the writer writes because they need to make sense of things.

With this in mind, I would like to try and make some sense of the experience that I have been going through over the past month. I presume that the fact that I have the energy to do this is a sign that my health is improving. But last Monday, I could not move from bed.

For the past month, I have been very ill. It is strange for me to write that sentence since I have always been very mindful of my health. I guess you could say that I am currently experiencing my first real “adult” illness. Didn’t think it would occur at the age of 46, but I have known people who have come down with even more serious illnesses at younger ages. This illness really did sneak up on me, from nowhere.

I was around people who had come down with the flu and then I caught it as well. It was an ominous flu, it lingered and seemed like it was settling in deep inside. It did not move through its stages in the way a flu normally does, and it seemed that I experienced more serious and painful symptoms than any other flu I had had in the past. I knew deep down that this was not going to be good, but I rested, took lots of supplements and did what I could to improve.

Just when I thought the flu had finally moved on I came down with an illness I had never considered. “Shingles? What the hell is that?” I said as my father told me over the phone that that was what it sounded like I had and that I need to get to a doctor right away.

Shingles. It is one of the most painful illnesses a person can get. Basically, what shingles is is a re-activation of the chickenpox virus that never leaves a person’s body after it goes away. Later in life, when a person gets too run down, the chickenpox virus gets reactivated in person’s body and manifests as shingles- a burning, blistering, inflammation of a person’s nerve endings. Of course, leave it to me to come down with a serious case of shingles. My entire chest and back where on fire for weeks. I never take Advil or anything like that. But over the past few weeks I have consumed large amounts of Advil- that is how bad the pain was.

I believe that it is the things that we worry about that never really happen to us. I had never even thought about shingles and now here I am, my world practically brought to a screeching halt by it. It’s kind of funny in a dark humor kind of way. I now feel like my health is returning, the pain is greatly lessening, and the massive rash is disappearing. But it is a slow moving illness that leaves a body in a weakened state sometimes for months.

I have been spending a lot of time in bed. Just resting and giving my body what it needs to heal from this illness. I never realized that a person could spend so much time in bed but I have been too weak to do much else. Pain tends to deplete the body of all its energy, like nothing else. But I have been reading, meditating, watering my garden when I can, sleeping and working when I can. Last week I was continually thinking about how the outside world is a world for the healthy and how that world was a world I was no longer a member of anymore. I felt sad a lot. Health really is a possession just like your car. It is the most important possession you have. When it is gone, there is nothing you will ever want back so badly that the wanting hurts.

There is a quote by Eckhart Tolle that has brought me a lot of relief throughout this process. I came upon the quote as I was re-reading one of his books one afternoon while confined to bed and feeling sorry for myself. I was frightened about what could happen. I was worried that I may have to go into the hospital. I was worried that I may not live through this. I did not know if I could survive the pain. Sometimes I presume the body just cannot tolerate a continual high level of never ending pain. I was very nervous about where this all would lead and looked to various philosophers, meditation and spiritual teachers for consolation.

I think this is the worst part of being ill. The uncertainty. Not knowing what is going to happen. Feeling very vulnerable, like you are no longer in charge, no longer able to function without help. Knowing there is very little you can do as new and upsetting symptoms keep arising. You can fight against it, but this just creates a continual feeling of impending doom and worry. Or you can just accept what is happening to you. I was at this crossroads when I read this quote from Eckhart Tolle:

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it….this will miraculously transform your whole life.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have repeated this to myself over the past few weeks. It has been so helpful. In each moment, accepting what I have been going through as if I had chosen it, has allowed me to make peace with the situation I am in. Rather than getting lost in self-pity, worrying about what could happen or being angry at myself for being in this situation (which happens when we get ill) I accepted what I was going through as If I had chosen it. And then there was nothing else for me to do but rest, go easy and just be with what I was experiencing. Such is life. I think it is at this point that I started to get better. If not physically, certainly psychologically. And mental health is so important when the body is battling illness, I have found.

 

I try to live my life mindfully. As a mindfulness teacher, I want to practice what I preach. But I am human. Prior to getting this illness, I got busy. I opened a new mindfulness meditation center, I was maintaining a full-time private practice as a psychotherapist, I was trying to write a novel and a graphic novel. I was also working hard at maintaining a marriage, other relationships, a home and taking care of four dogs. Like everyone else, I got caught up. I knew I was overwhelmed but I thought I was handling it. However, stress is a strange thing, we think we have it under control but we really don’t. Sometimes we realize this the hard way.

One thing I have continually been thinking about during this illness is that I do not want to go back to the person I was before this illness. “If I make it out of this, I will not go back to being that guy. I have had enough of him. Who I will be instead I do not know, but I don’t want to be that guy anymore.” This is what I have been telling myself. So, I have been reading a lot about Zen. I have been meditating regularly. I have been moving a lot slower and I have basically renounced the future and chosen to live my life as fully as possible in this moment. It feels as if I have been gradually training the past twenty years for this moment. As of now, this is the main activity or practice that means the most to me- just being present, calm and aware in this moment of life. Not writing novels. Not making money. Not what other people need or think. Not what I do not like about my life. Not all the things I have to get done. Not the person I want to be. Just being present and free in this moment is what is most important to me now.

In Zen Buddhism, there is this idea of transience. Basically, the belief is that everything is transient because everything is always changing. Nothing remains the same from moment to moment. As a result, when a person experiences pleasure, there is also pain inherent in the pleasure since soon it will change into that. When we experience illness, there is health in the illness since soon it will change into that. “When the sun sets it is also rising. When the sun rises, it is also setting.” Within every experience there is also the opposite experience since everything is transient (always changing). From a Zen perspective, the idea is to just be concentrated on what is in this moment. Don’t attach to any of it because it will be the opposite experience soon enough.

This is basically how I have been living my life right now. I was not living my life like this before. As mindful as I thought I was being, I was caught up in a lot of my emotions and thoughts. I was getting upset. I was very attached to my negative emotions, not really realizing the transient nature of all things. I am not going to punish myself for this since I realize that the things we teach and help others with are often the very thing that we ourselves need the most. If this wasn’t true, we would not be able to really help others because we would not be able to relate.

I still feel very weak and have unpleasant shooting and burning pains every now and then but it is nothing like before. I don’t know how much this illness has weakened my body and I don’t know what will happen to me as a result of this illness in the future. This uncertainty creates some feelings of apprehension but it creates more of a commitment to being concentrated on the activity of being fully present in this moment. I am grateful to this illness for this.

I often heard people talk about how illness was a great teacher. I have even known people who have said that they would never want to go back to their lives before cancer. I confess to not really understanding when people would say this. But now I get it. Like I said, I don’t want to go back to that guy I was before the illness. He was a good guy but he was not really doing what he needed to do to exist in a state of calm and well-being. What was I thinking? I thought I was a meditator and mindfulness teacher? How did this happen? Some bad habits die hard and we often require a serious illness to make us more aware of what really matters.

Before I got ill, I read this passage in a book of essays by Henry Miller. It said something like if we refuse to become aware on our own, life will open the flood gates on us and shock us into awareness. Makes me shiver as I write this because it was a kind of ominous prognostication of things to come. When I read that passage I remember thinking that I really needed to get my shit together. I needed to get things under control because I was taking on too much responsibility and stressing out about so many different things. But I always put it off for another day and then the flood gates opened on me.

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Mindfully Confronting The Beast Within

Individuals who suffer from depression are some of the more self-judging people you will ever meet. Sure they judge others and the world (we all do this right?), but the sharp point of a depressed person’s judgement is always directed straight at themselves. It is important to understand that along with being an actual illness of the brain, depression is a mood disorder. People with depression experience a fluctuation in mood states, which just like the direction of the wind are as susceptible to quick change without a moments notice. Few things can put a person in a bad mood as quickly as self-judgement can. For a person with depression, good can turn to bad at the drop of a coin. It’s a chicken and the egg predicament: what comes first the judgement or the depression?

Depression was found by the World Health Organization to be the single most disabling disease. More than heart disease, cancer and diabetes, depression can totally knock a person out of the game. Dr Peter Kramer, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and wrote a groundbreaking book on depression called “Against Depression”, sees depression for what it is. ”It is fragility, brittleness, lack of resilience, a failure to heal,” he writes. “It is sadness, hopelessness, chronic exhaustion allied with corrosive anxiety, a loss of any emotion but guilt, of any desire but to stop, please stop, and to stay stopped, forever.” ”Depression is a disease of extraordinary magnitude,” he says, and ”the major scourge of humankind.” This scourge is what I call the beast within.

Buddhist psychology talks about “mind consciousness,” which is the main area where we focus our attention. In Western psychology “mind consciousness,” is referred to as the conscious mind. Feelings and thoughts are in our conscious mind from moment to moment whether we are aware of it or not. In Buddhist psychology the belief is that if we are not aware of the thoughts and feelings that are present in our “mind consciousness,” we are being run by them. Our most deeply ingrained and chronic issues are the result of having no ability to control or regulate our feelings and thoughts. Our chronic and habitual patterns (which are the result of our past conditioning) are in charge. When judgement towards one’s self, one’s life situation and others takes hold, depression is often an outcome that becomes inescapable (unless the person has an ability to become aware of the feelings and thoughts that are present in their “mind consciousness”). By becoming aware of thoughts and feelings, depression is not eradicated, but the individual is able to get control over the beast so it does not ravage everything and everyone in their life.

Daniel J. Siegel, Director of the Mindsight Institute, Co-Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and the author of several books, writes:

Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way. Mindful awareness, as we will see, actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.

Through mindfulness practice, it is not that the individual becomes less judgmental, but they become more aware of when judgement is present in their consciousness. Mindfulness is a practice of being aware of what we are feeling and thinking, when we are feeling and thinking it. As a result we can avoid the messy outcomes that judgement often creates. In Zen, this process is referred to as being aware of the thought-feelings and allowing the thought-feelings to melt away slowly in the light of conscious awareness. If we are able to not get swept away into mindlessness by our thought-feelings and instead are able to slowly allow the thought-feelings to melt away in the light of our conscious awareness, we can then discover the great power of simply being present (non-reactive) with what we are feeling and thinking.

Normally, individuals who are in the throes of depression are colonized by their feelings and thoughts. The moment we are able to create some space around the thoughts and feeling, by paying attention to our breathing, feeling sensations in our bodies, being aware of the anger or judgement that is present, we are then able to become aware of more than just our thoughts and feelings. We are able to create a space or an opening within which the negative thoughts and feelings can simply rise up and then melt away, over and over again. This is what it means to be mindful.

Judgment, anger, shame, guilt, sadness or despair is one form of energy. Mindfulness is another form of energy. When the energy of mindfulness is able to make contact with the energy of thought-feeling states we are then able to rescue ourselves (and others in our lives) from the beast within. Like Zen Master Bu Mun often says, “Don’t give back the pain more than it gives you.” When we are able to be fully present with out judgement, shame, despair or anger along with the energy of mindfulness- the beast loses its grip over us because we have developed the ability to just let the pain (judgement) be there until it melts away.