Saturday, 26 January 2013

illness as opportunity

One of the key tenets of Buddhism is that there is no self-existent, inherent ‘self’.  There is no inherent something—call it ego, self or soul—that continues from one moment … one hour … one  day … one year … or even one lifetime … to the next.  Through Buddhist meditational analysis it can be recognised that this something cannot be found.  Consciousness continues, but as a constantly changing continuum.  This could be compared to a river.  A river flows.  Sometimes it is full and fast-flowing, sometimes it is merely a stream and sluggish – but it continues.  Yet despite the apparent permanence of the existence of the river, it would never be possible to take a cupful of water out of that flow which would contain the same droplets of water as the next cupful.  So it is with our mindstream.

An understanding of this tenet can be gained intellectually, but it is difficult to attain experientially.  We say things like: ‘I’ve always felt the same inside’ – even though we only have to look at this with a little penetration to see that it is not really true.  Our values, concerns, ambitions, etcetera, change dramatically over the course of our lives.  And yet … we still have this feeling that there is a something that does not change and travels with us, complete and inherent.

It may be advanced practice to work on that deep sense of a continuing self, but we do have opportunities in our lives to work on our gross experience of an ‘unchanging me’, and one of those opportunities is acute illness.  Before Christmas I had the ’flu, which lasted about three weeks altogether.  This was a period of time when I experienced myself as quite different from my usual me.  My body felt very strange and unfamiliar, my perception was altered, and the things that were important to me, at the most uncomfortable and acute phase of the illness in particular, were also quite different to usual.

Practising when we are in pain and suffering the effects of something like the ’flu is not easy, but if we are sure that it is an acute illness—that it is going to last for a short period of time and then we will be better—it is worth trying to practise with it to some extent.  The sensations of illness are uncomfortable, but how much of that discomfort is due to the contrast with ‘normality’?  How much of that discomfort is due to the psychological label we have pinned on it:
illness =  bad, therefore sensations of illness = bad.  

I was extremely weak, for example, while I was ill.  This was not in itself painful or particularly uncomfortable, so most of my aversion to it arose from wanting to do what I usually do and disliking the enforced break in my life.  Pain itself is sensation and can be directly experienced as sensation without the label ‘pain’.  I could attempt that for a little bit but it did become too difficult quite quickly.  I am not advocating endurance – if medicine is required to relieve the symptoms of acute illness, it should be taken. 

Being acutely ill is not fun, but it is a rare opportunity to experience ourselves as different for a vaguely finite period of time.  Chronic illness is a different scenario and I think it would be necessary to seek guidance from one’s Lama as to how to work with that.  I am fortunate to have never really suffered chronic illness.  A period of acute illness however, is a bardo – a period of time that can be defined as beginning, abiding, and ending.  It is a time when we can perhaps experience that we are not ‘always the same inside’.  Seeing this bardo as an opportunity for practice may help us retain our sense of humour and of proportion.   It can also help us continue the flow of being a practitioner whatever is happening in our lives, even if our usual daily practice commitment experiences a hiccough.

The photograph of me and Richard was taken by ’ö-Dzin on December 27th – the first day that I felt well enough to go a short cycle ride.  We went down to look at the River Taff, swollen with all the heavy rain that had fallen in that month.

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