I’m not writing this post because I’m an expert on practicing with sickness and pain. I’m writing it because sickness and pain are the reality of my present moment, and writing is part of my practice.
I feel fortunate to have enough energy to sit upright in front of the computer. My head feels bleary and my intelligence greatly dulled, but I feel fortunate to have enough of a brain to get a few words out. There, that’s something.
I am always struck, on the rare occasions that I feel this awful, by how much energy and willpower it can take simply to endure the next moment. Ordinarily I feel like spiritual practice is about asking more of ourselves – about not taking things at face-value, not allowing ourselves to get lost in distractions, but instead seeking to realize and honor what is most important about a human life.
When I’m sick or in pain, all of that seems pretty extra. There’s just trying to take the next breath in the middle of the night – a deep enough breath to oxygenate my blood and encourage sleep, but not so deep that it sets off yet another spasm of coughing that racks my whole body. There’s just this breath, this snotty kleenex, this sigh of pain, this hour ticking by so slowly.
My Well Self might say, “Oh, see? Just this breath. Perfect practice!” Oh, what a snide little thing my Well Self is.
My Sick Self answers, “That breath in the middle of the night was pretty much pure misery. Enduring the next moment of life is not ‘practice.’ Practice is what you choose to do with energy you have left over from simply existing. Sometimes you just can’t practice.”
Now, my Wiser Self disagrees with both my Well and Sick selves, although they both have their points. I can see how, when we’re in the middle of sickness and pain, misery can pretty much blot out all other experiences and simple endurance can eat up all the energy we have. As depressing as it sounds, it may not be possible to “practice” anything at such a time.
However, there remains the intention to remain alive and awake. A little seedling of awareness and appreciation, curled in on itself in the darkness for now but ready to stretch upward and meet whatever light eventually appears. Keeping alive this intention, or vow, within sickness and pain is our practice. And it’s probably more like “recognizing” or “taking some solace in” such a vow, because at our worst moments we have little to offer in terms of keeping anything alive except our physical bodies.I’ve always been fascinated by how many people with serious chronic illnesses still manage not only to enjoy their lives but even to care about others or contribute creatively – to increase the total amount of joy in the world. Of course, they are not always enjoying their lives. Sometimes it boggles my mind to think of the difference in experience between someone who is energetic and healthy, and someone who struggles on a daily basis with severe illness and/or pain.
What kind of encouragement can I give as a spiritual teacher – someone who is usually energetic and healthy – to someone who endures entire days fogged over with pain, whose arena of activity is basically limited to their immediate environment and to basic self-care, whose internal seedling unfolds in short, isolated moments of filtered sunlight too brief or dim for most of us to even appreciate?
It may sound heartless but it’s not: ultimately, spiritual practice is not about finding and perfecting some method of transforming shitty situations into pleasurable or rewarding ones so we can always have the same amount of happiness even if we end up with cancer, or Multiple Sclerosis, or Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Practice is about unfolding in whatever sunlight we have access to, and not comparing it to how much joy other people have, or what we used to have, or what we have on our good days. There is completeness and perfection in every call-and-response between you and the universe, even if no one else sees it. I’ll leave you with some words from Dogen:
When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky. When the bird’s need or the fish’s need is great, the range is large. When the need is small, the range is small. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole of space and vigorously acts in every place. – Translation by Shohaku Okumura