The Buddha’s references to illness cover the whole range, from a mosquito bite to a death rattle. The body is vulnerable to assaults from within and from outside; headaches, stomachaches, earaches, sore joints, stuffy noses, allergies, infections, stubbed toes, scraped knees, broken bones, problems with various internal organs, cancers, heart disease, and a long list of less common diseases.
Even the healthiest person we know is subject to the full range of physical problems. Chance, genetics, and (to some extent) lifestyle determine whether we get some illnesses or not, but no one, no one at all, is exempt. This is only bad news if we take it personally. All life forms suffer from parasites and disease; birds have fleas, plants have pests.
We can use our mildly inconvenient illnesses to train for larger ones to come. We can notice, when we have a cold, whether we consider ourselves unfairly singled out for punishment, or whether we can remember that everyone gets colds. Everyone has, at some time, suffered as we are now suffering; it’s just our turn. The choice before us is how we’ll respond; how will we adjust our activities and attitudes to accommodate this new, (usually) temporary reality? If we can develop openness and patience with passing conditions, we strengthen our ability to maintain mindfulness in more distressing situations, benefiting both ourselves and others.
People with chronic pain or a chronic illness have a special burden and a unique opportunity. By seeing illness as a teacher, we can go deeply into our own hearts. I refer you to Toni Bernhard’s excellent book, How to Be Sick. This path is not easy, but it can be fruitful.
And then there’s sickness that we know we’ll never recover from. This is an excerpt from a sermon called Love and Death, delivered in 2008 by UU minister Forrest Church:
How easily this tendency can kick in when we are dying. The once clear [window] pane of our health, which we rarely bothered admiring the view through when all was well with our bodies, goes dark, and we can see nothing beyond our sickness. With our nose pressed up against the
one frame we can see nothing through, all our other lights go out. We then invest our life’s remaining meaning in what may be impossible, namely beating our sickness. Nothing else matters…. What concerns me is this: Even as we do everything in our power to get healthy again, we may obsess so on our sickness that we lose appreciation for all those things in our life that we would dearly pray be returned to us if someone suddenly snatched them away. The lovingkindness of a spouse or partner. The care and concern of a parent or child. The joy of lifelong friends, whose friendship seems to blossom into full flower with the recognition that we may have precious little time to enjoy each other’s company.
We start where we are. What do we know about our ailments, past and present, and how we view them?