Fear of the responsibilities that come with birth are only one side of the coin. At other times, I dread the prospect of loss and death. Things are slipping away. Health. Loved ones. Hopes. Abilities. Now my little log-rolling human figure is running backwards at a full tilt, trying to avoid loss, trying to pull things back towards myself.
Last January, I had planned to stay at sesshin for three weeks! But a mysterious illness forced me to return home after two days. As I stayed home, as antibiotics failed to help, and as the illness continued day after day, I had to give up the thought of returning promptly and resuming my plans. That was hard. And, because some of the symptoms were puzzling, I also had to deal with uncertainty and fear about the cause is of my illness. And how long—days, weeks, months, for the rest of my life—would I be sick? These are scary questions.
At home, besides reading the Linji Lu, I read How to Be Sick, by Toni Bernhard. I recommend it. Drawing somewhat from Zen, but also from Tibetan and Theravada traditions and contemporary mindfulness teachers, Bernhard looks right at what it’s like to be in a life that is really, really not the one you want to be in. While she wrote it primarily for people who are chronically ill and their caregivers, it has wisdom in it for anyone. She talks about what it’s like to deal with pain and uncertainty; with the loss of comfort, activities, companions. About how to find equanimity and sometimes even joy in the life you actually have.
One practice I found particularly helpful during this period was Tonglen, which comes from Tibetan Buddhism.Waking at 2 a.m. consumed by physical malaise, disturbed by uncertainty about its cause, and fearing that it would never end, I wanted with every ounce of my being to push away the illness, push away the anxiety, and push away the insomnia. I wanted to grab onto health, certainty, and peaceful sleep, but they evaded me. I felt so alone, so overwhelmed. Some anti-anxiety practices would tell you to “breathe out stress, breathe in peace.” That wasn’t going to work for me right then. Tonglen, counter-intuitively, instructs you to do the opposite: Whatever you are suffering, you breathe it in, and also breathe in the suffering of others having the same experience. Then you breathe out to them whatever comfort and calm you can offer. While practicing this didn’t rid me of the illness, anxiety, or fear, feeling how my experience of these was just one aspect of a much larger and broader pool of human experience made them just smaller enough to be bearable. It’s hard to feel alone, even at 2am in a quiet house, once you connect in that way.
In the talks recorded at the sesshin I was missing and posted online, I heard one of the Senior Dharma Teachers make a comment about how sitting with a particular hell realm may not give you release from it. But by turning towards it, one may instead become the bodhisattva of that realm, helping to relieve the suffering of others who are trapped in it. Toni Bernard has appeared as the Bodhisattva of Chronic Illness. The practice of Tonglen is also a bodhisattva action.
But just listening to talks online was frustrating. I dearly wanted to “wander around looking for something”—as the phrase in the Linji Lu says. I wanted to get back to the retreat, where, obviously, the really good stuff was going on! I wanted the silence, the discipline of long periods on the cushion, the chanting, the dharma dialogs after the talks, the interviews with the teachers. But the reading from Linji tells us that we should “stop the mind which is always wandering around, running to the neighbor’s house to study Zen.” I wanted to be with my sangha (group of Zen practioners), but Linji tells us that the three bodies of the Buddha are “right here in your home.” So the sesshin I received was the sesshin I received. It was not the one I expected at all, but yet in some ways—even as it gradually came to include Netflix and brownies and more interaction with my housemates—it was even more intense than I expected.
It’s now June, almost six months after the start of my illness. I was quite sick all through January and until about mid-February, when I started to have some better days. Since then, strings of better days (and even better weeks) have been gradually lengthening , alternating with strings of days in which the symptoms return. My doctors call it “post-viral syndrome.” I’ve been able to resume doing a lot of the activities I love (though not quite at full speed) on good days, have made some progress on the book I have been supposed to be writing, and have figured out ways to feel at least mildly productive on bad ones–such as resting back on some pillows and blogging.