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Lions Roar : September 2018
Your Life Is Always All Right Even though her illness has no cure, TONI BERNHARD finds that the sorrow of being sick lessens when she brings compassion and equanimity to bear. Practice Is the Right Medicine This, says JAN CHOZEN BAYS, is the healing power of practice: we release our fear, transform our unskillfulness, and discover our kindest selves. FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS I worked as a doctor in the field of child abuse—examining and/or interviewing chil- dren who’d been raped, burned, beaten, and killed, most often by their caretakers. Every time I thought I’d seen the worst cru- elty adults could perpetrate on a child, something worse would come in. People often asked me, how do you stay so calm and nonjudgmental? Simple. Practice. Meditating at night enabled me to clear the scenes of sorrow out of my heart. In the mornings, I practiced on the way to work. I chanted the Zen liturgy; I did the twenty-one Tara practice. I found that if I did loving-kindness practice for myself, my ➢ page 78 SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO, what appeared to be a simple viral infection turned into a chronic illness that left me housebound, often bedbound. In the wake of this upheaval in my life, I abandoned years of devoted Buddhist practice. I became disheartened, even despondent. I blamed myself for having to give up my profession as a teacher, as if not recovering my health were proof of some kind of mental weakness. For several years, I lay in bed asking, “Why me?” One day, I picked up what had been one of my favorite Buddhist books, Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck, and came across this quo- tation: “Our life is always all right. There’s nothing wrong with it. Even if we have horrendous problems. It’s just our life.” My first reaction was “My life is not all right. In fact, everything’s wrong with it!” Yet, I couldn’t shake Joko Beck’s words. So I returned to the Buddha’s basic teachings to try to find out: Is my life all right? Is there nothing wrong with it? When explaining the first noble truth—there is suffering—the Buddha gave a list of experiences he said we all encounter in life. One item on that list was illness. When I saw that, I under- stood that health struggles come with the human condition. There was nothing wrong with my life. I was just chronically ill. Despite this, I continued to feel unsettled and dissatisfied. Reading the second noble truth—we suffer because of our cling- ing to desires—I recognized my obsessive desire to get rid of my illness. This “desire to get rid of,” also called aversion, had given rise to anger, frustration, and resentment. No wonder I was mis- erable; I was adding mental suffering to my physical suffering. I knew I had to find a different way to relate to my illness. Thankfully, I found it in the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and equanimity. Compassion is the aspiration to alleviate suffering in our- selves and others by being kind and helpful. Besides illness, the Buddha’s list of universal unpleasant experiences includes getting what we don’t want (I didn’t want this illness), not get- ting what we want (I wanted my health restored), and losing what we cherish (my profession, retreat practice, traveling, etc.). When I truly understood that reacting with aversion to these inevitable life experiences only intensified mental suf- fering, compassion naturally arose. It has become my antidote to the harsh realities of life and to the painful desire that it be otherwise. Equanimity refers to mental calmness and evenness of tem- per, especially in difficult circumstances. Life is a mixed bag. Sometimes we’re joyful; sometimes we’re dispirited. Sometimes we’re happy; sometimes we’re sad. Sometimes, as Joko Beck said, we have horrendous problems. When my heart softens so that I can meet the sorrow and sadness of illness without aversion, my life is all right, just as it is. That’s probably as close to liberation as I’ll get, and I’ll take it. TONI BERNHARD is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 65