The Buddha described illness and pain as natural parts of the human condition. And yet, most of us try to push that reality aside. We hope that we will be one of the lucky ones who do not face a major illness or life-changing diagnosis. We tend to ask, “Why me?” And as we ask that question, many of us develop a new suffering caused by worry and rumination about our futures.
But, if we can open up to the situation, we can discover that this new reality presents us with a perfect environment for Buddhist practice. As Buddhists, we “know” the truth of impermanence. As Phakchok Rinpoche often points out, when things are going well for us, we often don’t apply the thought to ourselves. When we are presented with a troubling medical diagnosis we can no longer ignore the inevitable.
And, unpleasant as that may seem at first, this can be a true gift for our practice. We “wake up” to a new perspective that includes our own pain and eventual demise as natural. None of us likes to receive bad news. But if we approach the situation with awareness and curiosity, we may find surprising benefits. We may finally begin to take our practice more seriously, with a new sense of urgency. And we may choose how to spend our time in more meaningful pursuits.
Additionally, people who approach their pain or diagnosis in this way also can open their hearts more fully and naturally to the suffering of others. As we learn about our condition, we realize that just like us, there are many others who are in this same situation. This often happens automatically, and people report becoming more kind, more considerate, and more compassionate to others’ suffering. Many people find it helpful to participate in support groups with others who share their condition. This may begin as a search for help, but over time, we may find great meaning in helping others we encounter.
Chronic pain is a growing global phenomenon. Almost 2 billion people are said to experience pain that impacts their lives in significant ways. In the past several decades, scientists have studied and evaluated the impact of practices such as mindfulness meditation on people living with chronic pain, or with a debilitating disease. Published work from the Mayo Clinic, for example, notes that:
“Mindfulness exercises help people to focus their mind and body in the moment without judgment. Daily mindfulness practice can be helpful for people living with chronic pain because sometimes there are negative or worrisome thoughts about the pain. These thoughts are normal, and can affect mood and increase pain. Being able to focus on relaxing the body, noticing the breath and body sensations as being there just as they are, can help manage pain, as well as reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.”
Mindfulness exercises, self-reflection and meditation have been recommended by organizations such as the American Cancer Society. Such practices help us to overcome negative thought patterns and give us a way to process difficult emotions. Simple breathing exercises such as those we feature in the Holisitic Living program and body scan meditations can allow us to slow down and open our hearts. We can pause the conceptual worried mind and create some space. We may not change the diagnosis, but we can learn how to be something more than that diagnosis.
Andrea Sherman, our NLNCND team coordinator, is experiencing a direct relationship with this issue. Her recent article, “Practices for Shattered Nights” (co-authored with Marsha Weiner) is a poignant and helpful description of her approach to a current, challenging diagnosis. The opening lines are below.
“March 11th was a normal day, filled with typical responsibilities and joys, concerns and endeavors, practices and distractions. March 12th, I awoke to a new normal…”
Find Andrea’s article, Practices for Shattered Nights, in the May/June 2023 issue of Spirituality and Health.