Real People, Real Practice: Toni Bernhard
“When I breathe out compassion, I feel a powerful connection to the millions of people suffering from chronic conditions.” - Toni Berhard, former law professor, Davis, California
To celebrate her twentieth year as a law professor, Toni Bernhard and her husband took a vacation in Paris. But from the beginning of that trip in 2001, Bernhard was so sick that she was stuck in bed and barely got to have a glimpse of the Eiffel tower. According to several doctors, it was probably during the flight on the way over that she contracted the virus from which she has never recovered.
At the point when Bernhard got sick, she’d been attending Buddhist meditation retreats for ten years and had an established sitting practice. She sat for forty-five minutes every day, never skipping, not even on her children’s wedding days. But after becoming ill, her physical discomfort made meditation too difficult to do. “As a result,” she says, “I felt like a failure as a Buddhist, and it took several years for me to return to the dharma. Slowly, though, I came to realize the Buddha’s path is not a one-fold path. It’s eightfold. There are many other practices besides formal meditation.”
In fact, Bernhard has discovered that many non-formal meditation practices have a more profound effect on her now than they did when she was well. Before her illness, for instance, she’d learned an altruism-cultivating meditation called tonglen, which involves visualizing taking in others’ pain on the in-breath and sending out relief on the out-breathe. As a healthy person, Bernhard had rarely practiced this, but now she does so regularly. She says, “When I breathe in the suffering of everyone unable to socialize with family and friends because of health problems and I breathe out compassion, I feel a powerful connection to the millions of people suffering from chronic conditions.”
That connection has not only eased her own suffering; it has also inspired her to help others by sharing with them the practices that have helped her. Lying in bed, her laptop pressing into her stomach, she wrote the practices down, both the traditional Buddhist ones and those of her own inspiration. Sometimes, months went by and she was too ill to write, but finally she completed a manuscript. Now it’s a book, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, which was released in September by Wisdom Publications.
Bernhard can’t pinpoint which practice has been most useful to her; in the course of a week, she uses them all. But one that many people gravitate to is cultivating compassion for their body by repeating a particular phrase. She says, “I often use these words: My sweet body, working so hard to feel better. This phrase resonates strongly with people because it allows them to see that the aversion they’ve had toward their innocent body has been a great source of mental suffering.”
“Mindfulness practice helps loosen the tight-fisted grip of stressful emotions and thoughts,” Bernhard continues. “By bringing these painful mental states into mindful awareness, we can then see them for what they are—impermanent and not a fixed part of our identity. We are not just this illness. We are not just this bodily pain.”
This story is one of four inspiring stories, written by Andrea Miller, of how real people are integrating mindfulness into their lives. For more, read about Mindy Winter, Alex Tower Ewers & Patrick Ewers, and Dr. Martin Ehrlich.