Being With Being Sick (written 2016)

15/09/2016 10:21

In the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection one of the lines is “I have not gone beyond sickness, I too will sicken.” I recite the Recollections frequently, as the Buddha advised, but mostly when I say them and I come to this line, I am thinking about life threatening illnesses. The big ones. It's an abstract idea that relies on either my imagination, or memories of the several times, long ago now, that I've been that ill. But for the last couple of weeks, as a determined but pretty mundane bug took residence in my body, I've been thinking of it all a little differently.


This bug involves aches and pains, clogged sinuses and a persistent cough. And it's been a big reminder that “I have not gone beyond sickness”. It has also been an interesting companion during breath meditation. Breathing in, I notice my lungs feel like a cat clawed furnace filter, filaments wagging and waving, bits dislodging and tossing around. There isn't a calming smoothness there. The mind brings in an edge of anxiety waiting for the interruptive cough. The sinuses feel hot and thick. Uncomfortable. Unpleasant. A lot of that. Breathing out, the cough takes its cue, most every time.


Hmmm...time to explore my other meditation options. Metta seems appropriate. With appropriate care that this beautiful emotion not lapse into self pity, of course. One of my little images of Tara, a Tibetan visualization deity, shows her sitting on the lion of the self. Taking my cue from this image, the self not aggrandized though purring away, I imagine all the small forms of suffering that people are undergoing, just like me. Me, just like them. Suffering is a universal not a personal thing. My heart, tight and small in my congested chest, begins to warm. Not focusing on the breath so much as warmth and light now, I send love to myself in this mundane and ordinary human experience of physical suffering, and then to those others. How ordinary. How fleeting. Yet, how consuming the experience can be. Not allowing the lion of self to strut and roar allows a quiet that lets the truth through. It is not merely this illness that I am suffering from. It's my wish not to be ill, that it not be so, that hurts the most. The doctor can't give me an antibiotic for that. No bottle of syrup on the drugstore shelf will ease it. For this I need the advice of the great physician, the Buddha.


There is suffering. Yet it dissolves as I let go of me in the center. The all important self that wants to wave its banners and stake its claim. So I make effort in this direction of letting go. Notice worry about what I'm not getting done. Release that worry. Make phone calls, send e-mails, scratch things off the calendar and off the to-do list. Life goes on. Make space for this body to do what it needs to do, taking time to heal. Make space in this mind to just be awhile. In this way, illness might even be a gift.


I've listened to many Dhamma talks over these days. I've lain on the carpet in a sunbeam with my dog. I've read several wonderful novels. I've spent whole nights just feeling my heart beat under my folded hands, breathing with care, coming back to this moment and letting go of the thought “I have to sleep”. I've drifted through days with no alarm in the morning and no schedule. Sleep when sleep calls me. Eat when I feel the need. Do a little. Rest a little. Let go of being tied to my usual rhythms of formal practice. Meditate sitting in a kitchen chair, lying on the bed, leaning back on the couch, walking in the yard, head back under the rush of water in the shower. Be embodied and notice how this body feels. Send it love and compassion, but don't get caught, for the discomfort is not all there is.


It's no fun being sick. That is, if I describe it to myself as something that interrupts the way I want things to be. But it has been “fun” in another way. A set of new discoveries, taking paths less traveled by in my usual days. That doesn't mean I'll throw away the calendars and do-lists or stop sitting in the deep dark of the early mornings once I've healed. But I'm grateful for this intense exploration of the changing sensations that breathing with difficulty for awhile has offered. A visceral teaching.