I was recently involved, together with Erica Hamilton of Determined to Heal, in a two part podcast on living well with chronic illness.

If you would like to listen, the podcasts can be found here and here, or through the excellent Open Questions podcast on iTunes.


Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” – Buddhist aphorism

In a recent podcast, Vidyamala Burch, an ordained Buddhist with chronic back problems, talks about the nature of pain. She identifies two components to her experience of pain, the first being the actual sensation of pain, the second arising because of her resistance to it and thoughts which arise because of the pain. After we have had physical treatment and taken the appropriate medication, there is little else that we can do for the first part. The second component, however, is completely within our power to change through our attitude to the sensations we are experiencing.

The Buddha gave an analogy for this kind of resistance to unpleasant sensations as being like a man who after being shot with an arrow, deliberately shoots himself with a second arrow. Put in this way it seems like madness to increase our own level of suffering but, in purely human terms, we can understand why we do it, and also know that our mind is prone to extrapolate pain into catastrophic scenarios. Who has not woken in the middle of the night with a headache and feared they had a brain tumour, or reasoned that an unsightly mole might be the first signs of melanoma? Continue Reading »

Many of you will have heard of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which has been popularised in the west by Buddhist writers such as Sogyal Rinpoche (author of ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’) and Pema Chödrön.  It was also mentioned in the recent book on chronic illness ’How To Be Sick’ by Toni Bernhard.

So, what is tonglen?  Well, the purpose of Buddhist practice is to open to life and is based on the notion that suffering is caused by clinging to pleasant experience and pushing away uncomfortable sensations.  I imagine that most people reading this are pretty familiar with some of the less joyful aspects of life but have you ever found that by relaxing into unpleasant sensations, even pain, some of the suffering is removed?  This is the approach adopted in mindfulness meditation and tonglen is another technique which works in a similar way, by softening the heart to tough experience and allowing us to open to whatever is present in our life right now, at this very moment. Continue Reading »

Rest is an important part of recovery from most chronic illness. The body needs sleep and good quality rest to heal and build up reserves of energy which have been eroded through dealing with pain and disease. When you are well, resting is often a very pleasurable activity and a respite from periods of work and over activity. Enforced resting can, however, not be so welcome. Although necessary, resting is when a chronically ill person comes face-to-face with how they feel and resting in pain is rarely an enjoyable pastime. Continue Reading »

The Effects of Illness

This was written by my good friend Cristina.  She has come a long way since this piece but her insights are still very valuable.

I’ve experienced chronic illness for most of my life. There’ve been a variety of symptoms and diagnoses over the years. It’s been a challenge to be in this body with these feelings. Being in and out of physical and psychic pain for so many years is an education. I’ve sought advice from Eastern, Western and alternative practitioners, and been assisted by many modalities. They were all useful and revelatory. Though what has been the most useful and revelatory have been the effects of illness itself.

I saw early on that my environment was affecting my health. Not just the physical environment of stressors, pollutants and irritants, but my internal environment as well: the many layers of personal history, conditioned beliefs and fears, the unexpressed, the internal conflict with what is false and what is true.

When you are sick a lot, most of the feedback you will get is that there is something wrong with you. You are labeled as being less of just about everything that is valued: less healthy, less attractive, less positive, less functional, less sane, less able. Not only do others see you as less, you see yourself as less. The things you have a lot of — pain, uncontrollable feelings, uncontrollable body — no one wants and everyone fears. You can become more and more afraid and self-trust can become a distant memory (if you ever had it at all). Continue Reading »

A friend just shared this and it is so beautiful and close to my own story I wanted to pass it on.

REFLECTION I: Dancing in the Dark Fields: The Teachings of Illness

I have a chronic, painful illness. Actually, to call the illness an “it” is a bit off the mark. It’s an event in the body. It’s my dancing partner, my teacher, my enemy, my friend, my curse, my blessing. It constantly surprises me, sometimes shocks me, and continues to shape my life like a river shapes the land.

Until I was thirty-five, I was strong and capable. I walked the sagebrush hills of eastern Washington as a field botanist, I kayaked in the green waters of Puget Sound, I sat in meditation all night listening to the frogs. I loved Dharma practice and long silent retreats. I was a hard worker and proud of my contributions to the natural world and my community. I was also, I see now, strikingly oblivious to my body – I didn’t need to pay attention, it was always reliable!

Then I contracted mononucleosis, a debilitating viral disease with a long recovery period. Illness, pain and weakness were suddenly the stuff of my life. As the months passed, there were days or weeks when I thought I was recovering, but then the symptoms would return, fierce as ever. I never knew when the illness would hit or how long it would last. I say “knew” but really it’s “know”. Gradually it began to dawn on me that this thing had moved in and taken up residence in the household. Every time I had a period of weeks without symptoms I would think, “All right, it’s gone. Hallelujah!” Then, when it struck again, I would be devastated. Continue Reading »

Looking for Winter

December.  The snow came, the snow went.  Shovels now rest back in their sheds.  We rarely get snow in this part of the world, closer as we are to France than London.  At least not the heavy kind that blocks up roads and closes schools.  It is good to feel the cold, though, and watch the world turn from green to white and back to green again.  Under ice the land becomes a place of wind and shadows and, despite the predominance of black and white, nothing seems quite so certain as it was.

Some days the wind still cuts through clothing.  Others it is warm enough to sit on my balcony wrapped in wool, and watch incense rise from a stone bowl.  The birds come to rest here seeking the sunflower seeds which I leave for them.  No one should go hungry at this time of year.

Inside there is much that needs doing and I wield my broom like a street sweeper, between boxes filled with the unwanted and no longer used.  These things can find a better home and I could use the extra space.  For a long time they have been a part of me, and perhaps me a part of them, but not now.  I am done with accumulation.  Winter is here and she has left her mark.