By Ty H Phillips
When I was asked to review a book for Wisdom Publications, I jumped at the chance.
A large portion of my collection of Buddhist texts are published by them. When I heard that it dealt with chronic illness, I was ecstatic.
In How To Live Well With Chronic Pain and Illness, Toni Bernhard summed up the last five years of my life. As both a practicing Buddhist and someone who is living with a serious health condition, I found great comfort between these covers.
Before I became sick, I was considered to be one of the strongest men alive. My life was spent coaching athletes and pushing myself to be greater. Before I even had a sense that I was ill, the doctor told me I was dying. The change and the shock were overpowering. I felt alone, scared and frustrated wanting to live as I once had; to do what I wanted and not what I was limited to.
Trying to live as a normal person, let alone a dharma practitioner with pervasive illness, was frustrating. A sick body often means a sick mind. To walk a small mile in Toni’s life gave me a sense of comradeship that I had not known.
How she described her initial discomfort in asking for help, her feelings of guilt and sense of letting people down because she was sick, felt like my feelings laid out in text right before me. I felt both a sense of connection and relief in this shared reality.
Much like Toni, I initially became withdrawn, confused, and lived in a self imposed exile from my life.
She draws out, step by step, how to learn to be comfortable in accepting help, in being open about not being able to be involved in functions and events like we used to, and in being honest about how we are feeling when we need to get away and rest.
Toni offers us a wonderfully simple and heartfelt message. How to make it simple(er) for both us and for those in our lives who may also be uncomfortable in wanting to help but not knowing just what to do.
Her experience on the path and her friendly guidance of sharing the Buddha’s wisdom on how to not over-identify with our illness as an identity, allows for a huge sigh of relief. We can make steps forward in this life—albeit one that is different now—much like we did before. Our practice of mindfulness and the Buddhadharma can be not only life changing, but life affirming.
This was something that was crucial for me to understand as I began to deal with my changing life situation as I gave up identities that I was clinging to, and began to understand that letting go was going to offer me a sense of freedom much more profound than the self image I had created to shelter under.
As we wade through the chapters, we find advice that has been tested and tried over and over again.
There are steps that help us engage the life we have before us, instead of losing time wishing for a life we had. Her gentle touch is both reassuring and yet firm. Lessons are offered with the confident tact and timing of a teacher well versed in both her craft and her experience.
Toni’s words and the open honesty in which she shares them were healing and exciting to read. It will be a text that I go through more than once and will remain on my bedside for the struggling times to come.
I can’t thank her enough for sharing this wonderful message with us.
Editor: Dana Gornall