Notes on a Buddhist path

The Joy of Sick

March 17, 2013 By | 14 Comments

“A sacred illness is one that educates us and alters us from the inside out…” ~ Deena Metzger

Late last Wednesday evening, I rolled my wee suitcase and my tired body up and down the glistening wet sidewalks of my city’s streets, making my way home. I had just finished a 10-hour van-bus-ferry-bus ride from Birken Forest Monastery, nestled in the snowy interior of British Columbia. Watching each mindful step, avoiding the glistening armies of earthworms attempting to cross the concrete walkway, I sniffled and coughed the final steps of my long journey.

Life rarely turns out as we plan or think or hope it will unfold. Two weeks ago as I was preparing to head off for a well needed break from my hectic life, I was just about over the moon with exhilaration and anticipation for the week long meditation retreat set out before me. Seven days of just breathing, mindfulness and inner exploration, along with some mighty fine cooking. Life was looking oh so good.

(Note the mention of sniffling and coughing a few sentences back. That will give you a clue as to how my week away truly came to fruition.)

I woke up at my friend’s home in Vancouver with the slightest hint of a sore throat the morning I was to head up to Birken. “Noooo!” I commanded. “I am not sick, I am not sick. That’s not a sore throat. No, it’s not. It was something I ate last night. Maybe it’s the change of environment. No, my throat is just fine, thank you very much!”

A few swallows later…”No sore throat. It’s gone. See, I knew it. I’m fine. Just fine.”

A few hours later on the bus to Kamloops…”Oh, that is definitely a sore throat. If I don’t say I’m sick, I won’t be sick. Yeah, that’s what I’m going with. If I don’t speak its name, I’ll be just fine.”

Five hours later at Starbuck’s in Kamloops…”I think I’m getting sick,” I said to John, my traveling companion. That cinched it. I was officially sick.

The retreat I expected didn’t show up when I did, yet the retreat I experienced was more profound than any I could have possibly imagined. The last time I had a cold, I suffered through the phlegm, the sweats, the fountain of snot that never seemed to diminish. I didn’t do well with the discomfort and intrinsic suffering that so often accompany our pains in this life. The Buddha describes this unsatisfactoriness, dukkha, as the pervasive condition we beings endure in this life. From the time we are born until we die there is the endless onslaught of cravings, either wanting things to come to us and wanting them to go away. A cold usually fits in the latter category.

Unlike my last foray into illness, this bout was a turning point for me. Instead of acquiescing to suffering, I was able to sit with my symptoms and just be with them. I still blew my nose incessantly, had a fever and chills, coughed through a few dark, sleepless nights, but through it all I felt joy and contentment. My meditations were still and focused, and I found my nose actually cleared most of the time I was in seated meditation (ah, the power of the mind.) Everyone at Birken, including my fellow meditators, looked after me. I was fed glorious meals, plied me with Vitamin C, Cold FX, echinacea, Fisherman’s Friend (that would be throat lozenges) and loaned one of the monastic’s thermos for hot water, day or night. Dilani, one of the metta-filled stewards, even made me a personal batch of egg flower soup. As Ajahn Sona, the abbott at Birken, said to me, “There’s no better place to be sick than at Birken.”

I couldn’t agree more. Meditating in my room away from the other yogis, I delved deeply into the suffering that illness, aging and death can reap in our lives. I sat on a small stool with my cup of hot water, gazing out my private window, and bathed in the beauty surrounding me in that rare and holy place. I walked in solitude along the basement walking paths, observing the skin, flesh, sinews and bones of my feet, lifting, moving and placing them in the next moments of my life. When I rejoined my fellow meditators in the sala, meditation hall, in the last days of the retreat, I brought with me the gratitude and practice of my lone, sequestered time of healing.

Would I have preferred a retreat where I was healthy over one where I was sick? Two weeks ago I would have landed firmly on the side of hale and hearty. Now I trust I will show up for the retreat meant to move my practice and move me. What more could anyone ask for?

 Saddhā tarati oghaṃ,
appamādena aṇṇavaṃ.
Vīriyena dukkhamacceti.
Paññāya parisujjhati.

Through conviction one crosses over the flood.
Through heedfulness, the sea.
Through persistence one overcomes suffering & stress.
Through discernment a person is purified.

Sutta Nipāta 1.186
http://tipitaka.org/romn/cscd/s0505m.mul0.xml#para186
Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Listen to this Sutta in Pali, the language of the Buddha: http://host.pariyatti.org/dwob/sutta_nipata_1_186.mp3 (Courtesy of pariyatti.org).

Image Credit:

Woman holding cup of water and lemon via Microsoft Images Clipart

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your insight with us, Tess. As always, there is much to be learned here at DhammaScribe. I am grateful for that…and you.

  2. “The retreat I expected didn’t show up when I did, yet the retreat I experienced was more profound than any I could have possibly imagined.”

    If only we could all be so accepting of the lessons offered to us. Tess:1 Dukkha:0

    Thank you for sharing the mundane details of enlightenment.

  3. always grateful for your writings and thoughts, Tess, and this one! well, the flu has grounded me! I, too am opening to the gift of this and the negativity of aversion to it. Your offerring of companionship and experience is a nurturing on this journey…and so it goes
    Be well

    • Thank you as always, Lois, for your kind words and insight. There are so many gifts along the path to remind us of the trappings of cravings in all their lovely and repulsive forms. Including the flu. May you be well soon.

  4. The Housebuilder deconstructs! Beautiful.

  5. Anumodana for these beautiful reflections Tess! What a joy it was to share the convalescents corner with you during your week here! 🙂 May your wisdom continue to unfold in wondrous ways and may your journey bring you back here again soon! Much metta from Birken!

    • Thank you, dear Dilani. It was so delicious to share our wee healing corner. 🙂 Much abiding joy to you and I look forward to seeing you very soon. Anumodana for all you do.

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