Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Like An Egg

Artwork by Milé Murtanovski

A few years ago I made a long and tiring journey across Australia to be with a close friend who comes from Africa. At the time, he was a refugee in a detention centre on the other side of Australia and couldn't come to visit me. 

After I’d arrived he told me, ‘Your sister rang to say you’d be really tired when you got here. I think she wanted to make sure I would look after you, so I told her not to worry, that I would treat you like an egg.’

‘An egg?’ I said, surprised. 

‘Yes, of course. I will treat you carefully, as though I was holding an egg.’

My friend was born in the Congo, and the idea of treating someone ‘like an egg’ was one that came from his culture. It’s a beautiful image. Imagine cradling a vulnerable egg in your hands, neither squeezing too tightly nor holding too loosely.

The image came to mind today as I was watching feelings rise and dissipate during meditation.  I found that it helped to imagine my hands holding my feelings with the careful attention I would bring to holding an egg. I saw the ‘egg’ being placed into my hands – anger, sadness, peacefulness – and felt my hands around them, not strangling them with a desire to change or cling to them, but not letting them go in aversion or disgust either.  

When the feelings started fading, I would carefully place the egg down, letting it go. Then, the next egg would be placed into my hands, with every egg wanting the same thing – attentive, gentle, care.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Giveaway! 'How to be Sick' by Toni Bernhard

I've got an extra copy of Toni Bernhard's new book 'How to Be Sick - a Buddhist-inspired guide for the chronically ill and their caregivers', to giveaway to one of this blog's lovely readers.

I wrote a review of the book yesterday, and there's more information about it on Toni's website.  It's a beautiful book - wise, warm, and full of encouragement and hope.

I'll send the book anywhere in the world.  So, if you'd like a copy please click here to e-mail me your name and address.  (The e-mail will be private; no-one else will see your details). 

The first person to e-mail gets the book.  And please, don't be shy - if you'd like the book, just e-mail! 

Update: 18 September.  The book has gone to Canada!  Thanks all! 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review - How to Be Sick, by Toni Bernhard

Over the years I've collected a small library of books on relating to illness from a spiritual perspective.  There are some gems out there. My favorites are Steven Levine's poetic and profound accounts of his conversations with people living with terminal illness in Meetings At the Edge and from a more secular perspective,  Jon Kabat-Zinn's book The Mindful Way through Depression.

Now I have a new book to add to my favorites.  Toni Bernhard, a former law professor, fell sick in 2001 with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) after a trip to Paris and has never recovered. Despite being mostly bed-bound, she's just published a book with the wonderful title How to Be Sick - a Buddhist-inspired guide for the chronically ill and their caregivers.

Toni writes poignantly of the first months and years of her illness in the first chapters of her book. Her illness blind-sided her, and was only diagnosed as CFS after a battery of tests failed to show anything was wrong with her. She writes, 'I had so much blood drawn that we joked with my primary care doctor that at least we'd proven that blood-letting didn't appear to be a cure'.
The opening chapters were especially resonant for me, because I also fell sick when I was overseas.  Toni writes movingly of the incomprehension and the utter disbelief that can accompany the initial stages of the chronic illness. She writes, 'It's just so hard to, first, truly accept that you're chronically ill and, second, to accept that this illness is going to require you to change your plans for life in ways you never imagined.'

Toni's first task seemed to be one that is deceptively simple - to accept that what was happening, was happening. 'I began to bow down to these facts, to accept them, to be them. And then from there, I looked around to see what life had to offer. And I found a lot.' As she developed a relationship with the suffering and loss in her life, Toni was able to use the Buddha's teachings on compassion and joy to cultivate within her a sense of peace.

 Toni became a Buddhist in the early 1990's and had many years of meditation practice under her belt before getting CFS. Given that the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths is that 'suffering (or unsatisfactoriness) exists', it was natural that Toni would turn to Buddhism as a way of navigating the rocky waters of chronic illness. As she explains, 'The feeling that Buddha understood the pain of my life allowed me to start the day-to-day work of accepting that dukkha [unsatisfactoriness] is present for all beings.'
I think the quote above encapsulates the essence of How to Be Sick - Toni isn't offering a magic, cure-all, pill in this book.  She isn't saying, 'Do this and you'll be well' or 'Don't do that or you'll be sick forever.' Instead, she's inviting readers to explore with her the Buddha's teachings as they relate to living with pain, fatigue, loss, and sadness - never forgetting that the basis of the Buddha's teachings is 'how to be happy'. 
Toni's background is as a teacher, and it shows.  Her book is beautifully written, with a wise, warm tone.  It's never overly instructive, but leads the reader around and through different teachings in a way that encourages us to experiment with our own relationship to them. I think it's a book that encourages creativity and exploration in our own journeys with illness. 
Throughout the book, Toni teases out and mulls over a variety of Buddhist and non-Buddhist teachings, relating them to her daily life in an intimate, practical, and positive way.  Practices discussed in the book include developing  loving kindness  towards ourselves and others, using the work of secular teacher Byron Katie to question the validity of our thoughts, and reading naughty Zen koans to have a good-belly laugh. 
Toni's book is a also a guide for care-givers, and recognises the upheaval and loss that caregivers face when the person they love is affected by illness. The book includes many practical and spiritual reflections that can be used by care-givers as well as the person suffering from the illness. 
You certainly don't need to be a Buddhist to benefit from this book, nor do you need to have a chronic illness.  I think many of life's difficulties - a divorce, loss of a loved one, an addiction - could be substituted for the word 'chronic illness'. This is a beautiful and unique book.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in cultivating a sense of freedom and joy whilst struggling with life-difficulties. 

For more information: Toni Bernhard has a website, and you can buy her book here. (I will be doing a giveaway of the book in a few days - so stay tuned!)

Toni with her gorgeous grandchildren.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The two-sentence rule

Regular readers of this blog would know that I am quite the Cheri Huber fan.  Cheri is a Zen teacher and writer who has some very direct and creative teaching techniques. 

Much of the focus in Cheri's teachings is on becoming aware of the voices in our head.  She calls these, 'egocentric karmic conditioning'.  These voices are the 24 hour non-stop news network we run in our minds. Our own private Fox News channels are full of most of the stuff that the actual 'news' broadcasts; gossip, high drama, tragedy upon tragedy (real or imagined), all broken up with infomercials for miracle weight-loss pills.

Whilst I'd like to think my own version of Fox News is more like the News Hour with Jim Lehrer (or if you're in Australia - more SBS World News than Mornings with Mel and Kochie), I have to admit that Rupert Murdoch has complete control over the content of my mind.  The channel in my head isn't erudite, and Paris Hilton gets a lot of airplay. 

Mel and Kochie with some dude in an embroidered shirt.
Cheri Huber's life-work is to encourage us to notice these voices that broadcast continually in our minds and to become aware of the strategies they use to pull us out of the present moment. These strategies often include an element of high-drama and possible tragedy. They encourage us to think that life is divided into two extremes;  it's win or fail, gain or lose, triumph or tragedy, life or death.

My current extreme story is about a new chronic condition that I've developed.  Over the last year, some very mild tinnitus (ringing in the ear) has become worse. Every few weeks it gets louder, and is now at the point where I can't wear earplugs anymore to sleep and it interferes with my resting during the day. 

I have always feared getting any other illness that would impact negatively on my sleep and ability to rest, and now it seems like my worst fears have come true.  Not only do I have tinnitus, but it seems to be getting worse, and in my mind I am not only resisting it in the moment but engaging in fearful and vivid stories about how it will be so bad in a few years that I will not be able to sleep and will commit suicide. 

Now, I try to tell myself that engaging in these thoughts can actually make the tinnitus worse.  But, that doesn't really help, becuase I still feel fearful and  the thought that I 'shouldn't' be fearful just lumps more anxiety and blame on top of the fear. 

This morning I read Cheri Huber's blog, and came across an instruction that I think might be helpful as I go back an forth between fearful projections into the future, and trying to just be present with what I'm feeling in the moment.

"Don’t participate in any internal conversation more than two sentences long."

She goes onto explain this technique: 
Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate keeps the illusion of duality alive in a conversation about what’s wrong, loss, lack, deprivation, fear, urgency, the past, the future, using judgment and comparison as its tools. Its method is conversation, a conversation in the head of a human who is vulnerable to being caught in a dualistic belief system. Without that conversation the illusion of a dualistic reality cannot be maintained.
I feel like this very simple and clear instruction - 'you don't have to listen to anything that goes for more than two sentences' is something that I might be able to follow over the next few days. My internal conversation about this tinnitus and how it is going to destroy me currently runs at a length that would rival War and Peace, so I can see how just adhering to the instruction to drop any discussion that goes for more than 20 words might be helpful. 

I'd be interested to hear of strategies you use to bring yourself back into the here and now. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

A new look

Yay!  My blog has a new look and I love it!  (It's had this look for a few weeks, but I've just been fixing up a few things and now the 'look' is finalised). 

I wanted to write a post to celebrate, but I'm a bit tired.  So, instead, some photos.  On the weekend I went to my first craft market.  It was the Buninyong Makers Market, held in the small town I grew up in. The hall was packed and I hadn't left the house in the 10 days prevously because I'd been so tired, so I was quite overwhelmed by the crowds and the people. I think I met more people in 4 hours than I've met in the past 8 months!

Overall, it was a lot of fun, and it was great to feel some sense of connection with people as they looked at my portraits and asked about my techniques. I shared the table with my sister who makes gorgeous personalised placemats with quirky designs. 

Here's us  at our table - I love how colorful it is.  You can see my sister's placemat designs on the LH side of the photo.

And here's me - swallowed up in a sea of portraits and stencils!

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