The Good Fortune of Illness

We do not think of illness or disease as an opportunity. Maybe we should.

We label our disease, know all of its characteristics, and sometimes we identify so closely we define ourselves as disease. The result is we suffer.

I know. For decades, I identified as autoimmune disease. Five years ago, I decided I was not my disease no matter what changes that might mean for me.

Immediately, my perspective on chronic disease broadened; ultimately, I came to understand that only I can change my relationship with pain. Pain is a part of life but suffering is entirely up to me.

That Buddhist teaching served me well in my recent diagnosis of cervical myelopathy, particularly in the two weeks that I had to wait for the surgery. Every minute of every day, I lived with the risk of becoming a quadriplegic.

I was not to drive or even ride in a car–in a vehicle, my chances increased to one in 100. I stayed home in bed.

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People lying in bed ill are lucky because they have the opportunity

to do nothing but contemplate stress and pain.

Their minds don’t take up anything else, don’t go anywhere else.

They can contemplate pain at all times — and let go of pain at all times, too.

“A Good Dose of Dhamma: For Meditators When They are Ill”

Upasika Kee Nanayon

During my two weeks of mostly lying in bed, I read Nanayon’s essay more than a few times. I focused on the word “lucky” for this new illness did feel like an opportunity. Yes, I mean that, and no, there were no strong drugs involved.

It was as if I was given another chance to experience a major illness without becoming it. This time, it would be different.  I would not focus on the pain and stress—the suffering–but the experience of it as part of being alive, breathing in and breathing out.

Here was an opportunity to meditate 24 hours a day. There really was not any medication for a pinched spinal cord that was decreasing the mobility and use of my limbs while my joints continued to ache.

I had to stop any over-the-counter medication in preparation for the surgery.

I had plenty of time to contemplate the sensations of my body, including my fear of becoming quadriplegic. In order to let all of it go, I had to empty my mind.

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When the mind is empty, in line with its nature,

there’s no sense of ownership in it;

there are no labels for itself.

No matter what thoughts occur to it, it sees them as insubstantial,

as empty of self.

There’s simply a sensation that then passes away.

A sensation that passes away, and that’s all.

Upasika Kee Nanayon

This is the opportunity of illness, stripping away the fear and anxiety that make pain so deceptively powerful. Without an identity, without a label, pain is just another sensation that comes and goes. No label, no way for suffering to take root.

I had to get away from labeling both the “what ifs” and the actual pain sensations. Mine was to experience but not to hold onto what was happening. That would label the sensation–a way to stick—suffering would have a way to grow.

Focusing on the breath allows label after label to drop into the mind without sticking. The mind stays “in line with its nature” as labels float in and out, each experience occurring and then leaving. Not attaching to the sensation is to experience it with the wonder of being alive.

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With the exception of death, there is not one sensation we experience that carries one and only one guarantee.  Rather, if we can let go of the label—guarantee–each experience of our life will guarantee us unimaginable wonder.

As humans, we communicate with labels—they are a necessity–but we do not have to become them or hold onto them. Labels inform and pave the way for what comes next. That is their only purpose.

For me, autoimmune disease and now recovery from surgery are labels that sometimes stick. Then, I suffer. Eventually, they float away on my breath.

After all, I am no longer “lucky” to be lying in bed only having to contemplate stress and pain. Now, there is more to experience than the opportunity of illness. And that is my good fortune.

28 thoughts on “The Good Fortune of Illness

  1. I was glad to know that you made it to surgery and that the surgery turned out so well as I read about your two weeks of risky uncertainty. And thanks to my recent attempts at meditation, I understand a bit better about the possibilities in stillness and in breath. Sending healing wishes your way.

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    1. Thanks, Cynthia. Meditation has done more for me than traditional or alternative medicine. It connects me to myself. My relationship with my mind-body has completely changed. In so many ways so much seems possible. 🙂
      Karen

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  2. It’s easy to be mindful and present when things are going well. In illness is another story altogether. You are a rare human being and a guide for us all. I aspire to the equanimity and grace you bring to your life.

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    1. I continue to be amazed at how much this illness has offered me, Audrey. Not all days are easy, and I am learning that in order to experience this “new life,” I need to stay as open as I did in those days preceding the surgery. When I am, I find my way. It really is quite an opportunity. Thank you for your warm wishes and kind words.
      Karen

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is the one that hit me: “Labels inform and pave the way for what comes next. That is their only purpose.” So often we identify with the label, cling to them… suffering caused by attachment.

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    1. We are so quick to identify with the label, and it is so easy to do! We communicate in labels, often not quite able to let go of the label we offer. That said, we are just as quick to grasp a label when it is offered. It is part of this human experience-as you know–but that experience is so much more when we let go. Thanks, Tiramit.

      Karen

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  4. Another fantastic post, and what a wonderful philosophy of life, Karen – thank you for sharing! I’d not thought of things in this way but you are quite right! I think, as a species, we are conditioned – too often – to look on illness or even the turns of fortune as something bad – ‘poor me’, or ‘why me?’ In reality, when confronted with that which we cannot control and which is not of our making, I think we are all better to follow your example – look on it as a way of learning, a way of moving forward. Not, perhaps, the way intended; and the path may well be difficult or challenging. But we cannot know what opportunities might emerge along the way.

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    1. What you describe Matthew, of course, is quite Zen, a matter of remaining open to each experience. And as you say, is very easy to despair. Believe me, I have my moments, but more and more I return to the idea of “this is all an experience. What is this revealing to me?” As I was a bit blindsided by the idea of a pinched spinal cord, I wondered how I might respond, ultimately. There was the initial reaction of shock and fear but at the same time–truly–there was the Zen aspect of this is all an experience. And as I have said, there was the sense of opportunity, which I am still exploring, clearly. Thanks, Matthew.
      Karen

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this pointed and poignant reminder. It’s easy to take good health for granted, when really, everyone is one step away from disaster. Feel-good hormones encourage us forget that, and when things go wrong, it’s easy to feel outraged. Thank you for reminding us that “normal” is a broad plain. Sounds like your surgery went all right? Best wishes in your recovery.

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    1. Yes, J.B., the surgery went very well. It is a surgery not to recover sensation but to stop the damage. That does not sound hopeful yet 70% of people show improvement, and I am among those. To finally ascertain how much I do regain will take up to a year, which I am told is the standard length of time for recovery. So far, I am doing extremely well. And yes, “normal” is a very broad plain. Thanks, J.B.

      Karen

      Liked by 1 person

  6. There is also the opportunity to leave the whir of daily life and stop. Stop and observe the world in the slowest, most deliberate manner. I had this privilege thanks to a car wreck. I learned, to my relief, that the world did fine without me–that the progress of the enterprise called life did not depend on me. I learned the lesson of doing nothing attentively.Perhaps any circumstance viewed with an open mind has the power to teach and to be savored.

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    1. Yes, Adrian, there is opportunity in leaving the routine of one’s life temporarily. For as you know, illness can be all-encompassing and as you say, “I learned the lesson of doing nothing attentively.” For me, it was as if I were being prepared for a life very different from the one I had known as you and I have discussed at great length. It remains to be seen just what I do what I have been given. Thanks, Adrian.

      Karen

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  7. Wow Karen, you are remarkable! I had no idea that you had surgery. But I love your attitude. Yes we can look at illness as an opportunity. And how we choose to overcome our challenges can say a lot without us saying one word.

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    1. As you can tell, my choice was whether or not I wanted to be a quadriplegic. Surgery was the only option available. I recognized that after seeing the MRI film. Frankly, I have never been as shocked by any health matter as I was with the damage to my spinal cord. Truly, it is proving to be a new life. Thanks, Karen.

      Karen

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  8. We have so much power to tap into within ourselves. If only we believe and trust it to be so.
    I spoke with a friend and yogi who was rushed to ICU with a viral infection of the heart. He could barely breath and all the stats said that he was likely to take months to recover.
    I asked him how he spent his time. He laughed! And then said “meditating on my breath. I couldn’t breathe much but I could picture it in my mind. I have never meditated so much as in the 3 days I was there. Of course, there wasn’t much else to do!” After 3 days his stats showed normal. The nursing staff couldn’t believe it. The doctors thought there may have been a misdiagnosis … But still put him in the regimen of meds.
    … Keep believing Karen in the unknown and possibilities in life!
    xo

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    1. Wonderful story, Val! I agree with your friend–“there was not much else to do!” Yet, the body got the rest and time it needed, in your friend’s case and in mine. As I pointed out in the other post, I woke up feeling as if I had a new life, for I did and do. I, too, have meds but more than anything I have curiosity and a trust in the unknown. Thanks, Val.
      Karen

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Despite this, you must be relieved not to be paralyzed. BTW, research has shown that people with chronic pain do better when they ignore the pain and get on with their lives, so you have the right attitude!.

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    1. Hi, Ann!

      Thanks for dropping by. I realize how fortunate I am in not being paralyzed. There are as many ways to learn to live with chronic pain as there are individuals. I have to immerse myself in the sensation of it in order to release it. It no longer has an identity so it has no power for it is merely a sensation, and all sensations pass. Good to see you. Thanks, Ann.

      Karen

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  10. This is such a beautiful post, Karen. We can all learn so much from you! I LOVE the idea of illness as an opportunity. Certainly, we can gain tremendous amounts of growth and other rewards by embracing the shifts and challenges they bring – rather than fighting them. You are living, thriving proof. ❤

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    1. The longer I live, the more amazed I am to discover where opportunity lies. I find it in so many places I had never looked. Illness is one such place, full of challenges, rife with the unexpected. It is as you say–we need to embrace the shift, and maybe we need to rethink opportunity. Thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated. ❤
      Karen

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    1. There is a concreteness in your poetry that often takes away the breath, returning it just in time, as if not to miss a beat. The power in your work lies in its economy. That there is a poem for me is a gift like no other. Thank you seems woefully inadequate but those are the words I have. They are yours.
      Karen

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I have read for years about the power of mind over matter, or perhaps that should be the power of “no-mind.” But the idea was always nothing more than an untested hypothesis. You have proved that it is true. Your example is enormously empowering. Thank you !

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    1. I hope you have an opportunity to read that essay, Craig. I think you will enjoy it. It is on the website I mentioned to you the other evening.

      As you say, there really is a power in “no-mind.” To peel away labels–to let go of what will pass–is to stop suffering. With one breath, we can begin this release. It is a remarkably powerful tool that is ever with us.

      Thanks, Craig.
      Karen

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