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.


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