Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nonfiction Review: How To Be Sick

Don’t be misled by the title of Toni Bernhard’s new book, How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. It’s really about how to be well, mentally and emotionally, when your body is sick, but even that seems like too narrow a description for this wonderfully inspirational book.

Toni has the same chronic illness that I do, a serious immune system disorder with the silly name of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Like me (and about 75% of the people with CFS), she was struck ill very suddenly, in the middle of an active and productive life. She begins her book by telling her story, but the majority of the slim volume focuses on explaining how some basic principles of Buddhism can be applied to the various challenges faced by someone who is chronically ill.

I found, however, that much of what Toni describes in her book could easily be applied to any person in any difficult circumstance. In fact, the very first thing she covers is the Buddhist concept of dukkha, which basically states that there are challenges to face in every life, that suffering is a normal part of life for everyone, and that acceptance of this fact can help to ease your suffering – not that the fact of your suffering will simply disappear (right now, there is no cure for CFS), but that you can do some things to ease the mental suffering that we all experience when things go wrong in our lives.

The concept of dukkha is just the beginning. Toni covers a wide range of topics including accepting pain, finding joy even in the midst of suffering, healing the mind by living in the present moment, learning to stop destructive thoughts, and much more. I like to include a quote when I review a book, but I’ve had a terrible time choosing one from Toni’s book because there is just so much here that I want to tell you about! There are dozens of dog-eared pages in my copy, and I want to share them all. Though an excerpt won’t do justice to Toni’s thorough explanations, here are a few phrases from one of my favorite chapters, Soothing the Body, Mind, and Heart:

Metta, loving kindness, is the act of well-wishing toward yourself and others. You settle on a set of phrases and then recite them silently, over and over. The phrases can be directed toward yourself, to others as a whole, or to particular people.

These are the phrases I settled on in the early 1990’s for my metta practice:

May I be peaceful.
May I have ease of well-being.
May I reach the end of suffering.
And be free.

There’s no magic in these four phrases. The cadence and meaning just work for me.

…The goal of metta practice is to cultivate loving-kindness in this fashion until it’s a mental state that arises effortlessly. At that point, you’ll find it increasingly natural to greet all living beings with kindness and friendliness.

With this chapter, as with many others, I found that Toni put into words concepts that I’ve discovered myself during my illness – recognizing that everyone has challenges in life, treating others with kindness, understanding that change is a part of life, and accepting what is out of my control. Her book provides concrete guidance on how to internalize concepts like these that can lead to more peace and happiness, even in a life clouded by chronic illness.

I devoured How To Be Sick, tagging pages, underlining key thoughts, and taking notes so that I could return to these fascinating teachings. At the end of the book, Toni includes a reference guide to help you pinpoint which concepts and practices will help for particular situations. I have already learned a lot, and I plan to refer back to this book often to try to bring more joy and tranquility to my own life.

How To Be Sick is a captivating book that will help to improve and enrich the life of anyone struggling with chronic illness, anyone who cares about someone who is chronically ill, or anyone at all who has experienced suffering in his or her life (hint: that would be all of us!).

195 pages, Wisdom Publications

For more information, visit Toni’s How To Be Sick website.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Sue, for such a thoughtful and thorough review. It's Tony's favorite one because of how you talk about all the dog-eared pages!

    I just wanted you to know that my daughter has already put it up on the book's website under "Book Reviews." It sits right next to the one from Publisher's Weekly!

    Thanks again.

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  2. This is an excellent resource book (it seems) for someone dealing with chronic illness). Thanks Sue

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