One of the essential commonalities we have as human beings is that at some point or another we all experience some form of suffering. This isn’t meant to be a downer, it’s simply a fact of being human. Today, you’re going to hear from an incredible woman named Toni Bernhard. She is the author of the award-winning book, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She also writes a great blog called “Turning Straw Into Gold.”
Today Toni talks to us about why the path to peace begins with facing difficult realities, how mindfulness can help with chronic pain and illness, and some of the key lessons she’s learned.
Elisha: How is this book different from your other book on chronic pain and illness, How to Be Sick?
Toni: The new book is broader in scope than How to Be Sick, and it’s organized differently. How to Be Sick is organized around concepts and practices to help people learn to live with grace and purpose despite the limitations imposed by their health.
By contrast, the new book is organized around specific difficulties and challenges that people face, such as dealing with others who don’t (or refuse to) understand; making the best use of your short time with the doctor; coping with isolation and loneliness; handling mood swings and painful emotions; the difficult challenge of being young and chronically ill. The new book goes beyond my personal experience because I draw on the thousands of people who’ve written to me about their health struggles.
What the books have in common is a liberal use of personal anecdotes, easy-to-learn practices (such as mindfulness and self-compassion), and my conversational style of writing. People tell me they feel as if we’re sitting in the kitchen together chatting over coffee or tea.
Elisha: In the introduction, you say the path to peace begins with facing life’s stark realities. What do you mean by that?
Toni: I’m referring to some of the inescapable realities of the human condition. First of all, we’re in bodies and they get sick and injured and old. Coming to terms with this opens the door to finding a measure of peace in life. Second, life is uncertain and unpredictable because everything is in constant flux. We often have no control over what happens to us. Learning to “ride the waves” of uncertainty with a steady mind instead of being helplessly tossed about brings with it equanimity—that balanced state of mind that compassionately accepts life as it is. It’s a tall order to make peace with life’s stark realities, but it’s worth the effort.
“What makes us miserable is not awareness of our present moment experience, but aversion to it. Practicing mindfulness (which I define as caring attention to our present moment experience) can help ease both physical and mental suffering.”
Elisha: You write a lot about mindfulness in the book. How can mindfulness help people with chronic pain and illness? I know many people with these conditions feel that it might just make them more aware of their misery.
Toni: What makes us miserable is not awareness of our present moment experience, but aversion to it. Practicing mindfulness (which I define as caring attention to our present moment experience) can help ease both physical and mental suffering. In chapter 10, I write about the three components of physical discomfort: the unpleasant physical sensation itself; our emotional reaction to it (aversion in its many forms, such as anger or frustration); and the stressful thoughts we spin that have no basis in fact (“I’ll be in terrible pain for the rest of my life”). Note that two of the three components of that comprise our experience of bodily discomfort are mental in origin!
Mindfulness can help us learn to catch stressful emotions when they first arise, so we can mindfully note their presence and turn our awareness to self-compassion instead of launching ourselves into those stressful stories. As many Buddhist teachers have said: the suffering is in the stories.
“It’s not our fault when life takes an unexpected turn that poses challenges we didn’t ask for.”
Chapter 10 also contains several “mindfulness of the body” practices, such as sensory splitting and the body scan. These can directly help ease physical discomfort.
Elisha: What’s the most important lesson in the book?
Toni: Self-compassion. It’s not our fault when life takes an unexpected turn that poses challenges we didn’t ask for. The healthiest thing we can do when this happens is to treat ourselves as kindly as we’d treat a loved-one in need. This opens the door to finding peace—and even joy—because we’re committing to being present for our life as it is with caring attention.