(You know I love provocative titles :))
Chronic illnesses are no fun but the way life’s set up somebody is going to have them- hopefully somebody else, for sure – but that’s not anything we can dictate. I recently came across an essay called ‘Life is Tough: Six Ways to Deal With It” by Zen teacher Norman Fischer about dealing with the adversity in life (March, 2013 ed. of Shambhala Sun).
Our culture doesn’t really prepare us for difficult times; we don’t get a roadmap, for instance, of how to deal successfully with chronic illnesses. Nobody expects them to happen and when they do we’re basically on our own, struggling to adapt and make our way in a much changed world. We probably weren’t all that effective in dealing with major problems when we were healthy (we got upset, frustrated, ate mounds of ice cream, etc. ) but this is really different. Now we have an illness which can affects virtually every area of our lives (health, work, social life, finances), and is exacerbated by stress.
That’s a nasty combination, for sure, something that calls call for some good tools and Zen might be one of those tools. There are many ways – many tools really – to deal with adversity. Christians have their tools, psychologists have theirs, Taoists have theirs. I’d love to open up a dialogue (bloggers welcome) about tools people use to manage adversity and find peace and wellness in the midst of chronic illnesses. For now let’s see what Zen has to offer.
The World’s Upside Down
Fischer starts off the essay referencing an old Zen saying “The World’s Upside Down’ which, as is customary for Zen, could have several meanings. With reference to having chronic fatigue syndrome – simply having ME/CFS – means the world is a bit upside down is it not? Nobody, after all, planned out a future with ME/CFS in it – so life is ‘upside down’ in a major way.
The more Zen-like meaning of the phrase, though, is that the world is actually structured very, very differently from the way we think it is that we’re doing the wrong things to be happy, that basically we’re missing the point. We’re living an upside down existence and if we were to turn ourselves right side up not only would we see things more clearly but life would be alot easier. That’s the promise of Zen….not that Zen is easy; if it was everybody would be doing it, but it does provide a path that Zen enthusiasts says make life more enjoyable and more meaningful (or perhaps more meaningless :)).
Let’s see how Fischer uses Zen to deal with difficult times.
Lesson # 1: Turn All Mishaps Into the Path
This is not a matter of grimly focusing on life’s difficulties. It is simply the smoothest possible approach to happiness.
Fischer points out that our attempts to avoid difficulties don’t work because a) they happen – all the time, and sometimes really big difficulties happen, and trying to push them away actually makes them worse. In Landmark Education, which I’m participating in right now and will reference from time to time, they propose that we go into an ‘upset’ when confronted with difficulties. Our frustration and anger derive not from the difficulty itself but from the ‘expectation’ we had that life would turn differently. When it didn’t we were left in an upset about what should have been. If they’re correct people with chronic fatigue syndrome/fibromyalgia (ME/CFS/FM) or other chronic illnesses could be in for one very long, possibly life-long, upset.
Fischer notes that we very naturally gravitate towards positive experiences and shirk from negative ones. Even if a negative experience (such as chronic fatigue syndrome) hangs on around long enough so that we have to confront it, the best most of us do is hang on and cope. The idea of transforming something negative so that it actually ends up being enriching is kind of mind-boggling. For one thing, we really have no idea how to do that plus we probably have the sneaking suspicion that trying to transform it might just enable it to hang around longer. Far better, we think to just get rid of it and move on…But what if it’s not ready to move on?
That means we have to deal with it and an effective way to do that, Fischer says, is to hold the intention to turn “All Mishaps Into the Path’. When a mishap occurs Fischer suggests we take a break from our normal reaction to to – to push it away and get upset about it – to embrace it as being part of our path. In essence he’s going from declaring something is not part of his path to declaring that it is actually part of his path. Since it has just become part of his path that sounds like a pretty smart thing to do.
Fischer’s main way to do this is, in Landmark Educations terms, to grant each mishap being and he does that by practicing patience toward it. Instead of simply reacting to it with resignation or fear he allows uncomfortable emotions and feelings to be present, he notices how his body reacts and, since we love to beat ourselves up for, he forgives himself for having these difficulties.
In effect he encourages us to sit with the phrase “Turn All Mishaps into the Path” like a rock in our lap and see what happens. When I started reminding myself to turn ‘All mishaps into the path’ I found something negative would happen -say somebody said something I didn’t like – and that turning it into my path made that thing my own instead of it being an unwanted intrusion. Once I was able to incorporate it into my path it lost much of its juice; it became something simply to deal with and sometimes, once I got over my personal reaction to it, it opened my eyes to something I hadn’t seen before.
Someone recently told me an unwanted and prolonged situation had left her feeling like she’d been putting her life on hold for two years. She had the idea that her real life – the one she expected to have and should have had (those un-examined expectations again) – was being put on hold and that thought was causing her a considerable amount of pain. Just the thought of it was enough to drive her into tears at times. The whole situation was wrong, it was bad and that was very frustrating. She had clearly not granted the situation ‘being’, ie; she had not turned that mishap into her path and that left her a) at odds with the situation and b) unable to deal with it in a calm and powerful way. It was beginning to run her life.
I’ve found that using this intention – to “turn all mishaps into the path” really works well with little things. I was tired and was putting a pan loaded with food into the stove when I realized it wouldn’t fit. Instantly the vision of transferring all that food to another pan then cleaning up that pan, etc. was both upsetting and accompanied with some nice, strong body sensations. Remembering to turn that mishap into my path, however, enabled me to drop the upset (that expectation again that the pan should fit in the stove, it’s always fit in stoves before and how could this stove be so small, and now I’m going to have to expend more energy to clean up the dam thing..blah, blah, blah…), it dropped that conversation like a rock and I moved on an simply transferred the food to the new pan and moved on. Instead of being an affront doing that was simply part of my path….
Bigger things take more time. Losing Phoenix Rising was a big thing and I still haven’t turned that ‘mishap’ into my path; that is, when I think about it I’m still prone to get angry, indulge in blame, etc.. but using the tool “turning all mishaps into the path’ does gives me a calm place to stand with regards to that if I chose to do so. Ditto of course with ME/CFS. Looked at it from being part of my path, having ME/CFS is neither bad or good; it’s simply a part of my path and that’s a relief.
It Takes Practice
Fischer was clear that doing this kind of work is about training the mind and that takes practice but its’s a a practice that can dramatically change how we react to events. One thing I’ve come across in Buddhism again and again is that our reactions to anything, no matter how automatic they seem, are not fixed. Fischer states
The way you spontaneously react in times of trouble is not fixed. Your mind, your heart can be trained…When something difficult happens, you will train yourself to stop saying “Damn! Why did this have to happen”” and begin saying. “Yes, of course, this it is. Let me turn toward it, let me practice with it”
I find parallels in all ‘spiritual’ or mindfulness practices. My background is mostly in EST and Landmark Education, which I’ve taken up again after decades away. EST had a more abbreviated way of speaking but I think that one phrase, “Ride the horse in the direction its going’; ie..if you’ve got an illness, ride that horse as well as you can, fits here. Which reminds me of something someone just sent me which was very EST-like and a reminder to have patience…
The only way through it……is through it
It takes……as long as it takes.
ME/CFS is going to take as long as it takes and not a second sooner. We could have it for the rest of our lives. If that were to happen we might ask ourselves (in another shot from EST) how would we want our tombstones to read? “Had chronic fatigue syndrome for 50 years and was pissed off the entire time?” or what? ME/CFS is our shared mishap and turning it into our path, I would guess could only help.
Learn how a 67 year old retiree and his wife felt compelled to lace up his running shoes and get into action to support their son – and everyone else with this disease in A Run For His Son…and Everyone