The following is an excerpt from my “book” that I never finished, that continues to probe the question “who am I?”.
Who Am I? Or Being vs Doing
Walking the path of chronic illness is much more about being than doing. We may have to rest, maybe more often than we might like and we often move through our day slowly, sometimes stiffly or painfully. Many of our days are spent just taking care of chores that have to be done, like taking out the garbage or doing the dishes and little else. Our entertainment may be simple, like watching TV, playing games on our gadgets or going to the park to people-watch. We have time on our hands, and, unlike able-bodied people, our time has little to do with being active. In this Western culture, there is much more emphasis on what we do than who we are. (In fact, a clear example of this is if you meet someone at a party, the standard question to start a conversation is, “What do you do?”. A friend of mine, who had Lyme disease for some time would answer, “I work hard at staying happy and healthy”. Someone else I know asks a different question that is much more interesting than the standard one: “What is it that you’d like me to know about you?”).
As we explored in the section on loss, for most people, we have been defined by what we do to earn money and what we have accomplished in the physical world, rather than anything going on in our inner world. Therefore, when we become chronically ill, we can often experience a feeling of low self-esteem or ineptitude, because we aren’t producing something or being very active. The path of chronic illness can force us to explore our inner world, whether we like it or not, and who we really are and get underneath the labels we have had up until then, like “teacher” or “jogger” or “social butterfly”. In fact, if we take this even further, one of the greatest teachings chronic illness has to offer is to show us that who we are at the core level, is of the most importance and value. A good example of this is that for a time, I regularly chanted with a small group that was led by a Tibetan Buddhist lama. The first time I met him, I was floored by his essence. I walked into the meditation room and instantly felt a calm, expansive, loving, gentle energy emanating from him. I was so drawn to this energy! I wanted it for myself! And all he was “doing” was sitting there – he hadn’t even opened his mouth to speak! I immediately felt some of that calm pervade my being, understanding later, that a certain transformation had taken place in me just by being in his presence. Who we are at our very core can heal.
Being chronically ill can bring most of us to our knees at some time or another. What does this really mean? It means we are forced to let down our defenses. It means that when things are at their most challenging, our life is pared down to the very basics to what has to get done and what doesn’t. We are forced to rest even when we don’t want to – our bodies give us no choice. So, what are we left with when all else falls away? Our own energy. Who are we without our doingness? When things begin to break down, when we can’t be active, once we break through our first response of anger or perhaps fear, we begin to see our essence, our beingness.
We have already had to peel back the layers of our former identities and what defined us – job titles, etc. We may have to also peel back the layers of symptoms and our mind’s reaction to them to probe further, because they don’t define us either. The natural next step then, is “who am I beyond this physical body?”.
When I rest in the answer, or perhaps I should say, the question, I find myself resting in the Great Mystery, or beingness, itself. And when I’m resting there, I feel a completeness and an understanding that I’ve tapped into something of great value, and in the moment, I let go of any self-pity or any low self-esteem I may have. It might not solve any problems on the physical level, but it can bring me great peace.
Meditation: Who am I?
Get in a comfortable meditative position and relax your body and mind as much as possible but remain alert. Notice how sensations in the body arise and how some dissipate, how they change. After some time of just noticing, ask yourself the question, “who am I?”. Let yourself sit with the question. Or, you may find more appropriate the question, “who am I beyond this body?” or even, “what am I?”. See what happens as a response. Rest in that.
I’d like to recommend a few books that have resonated deeply with me.
- Finding Freedom in Illness by Peter Fernando From the point of view of someone with chronic illness, Fernando uses meditation techniques and contemplation to explore the physical, emotional, and mental difficulties that often come hand-in-hand with chronic illness. Including personal stories, he emphasizes self-kindness as a way to relate to the negative self-talk that can arise with an on-going illness. He encourages us to be present with all that surfaces in the mind and body, including an entire chapter dedicated strictly on pain. You can trust what he is saying, because you know by his words he’s been there, unlike many health practitioners who haven’t. This is a book to come back to again and again, to remind you what your true worth is. It feels like a real friend.
- The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff – Review on the back cover of this book: “Illness is a universal experience. There is no privilege that can make us immune to its touch. We are taught to assume health, illnesses being just temporary breakdowns in the well-oiled machinery of the body. But illness has its own geography, its own laws and commandments. At a time when the attention of the whole nation is focused on health care, Kat Duff inquires into the nature and function of illness itself. Duff, a counselor in private practice in Taos, New Mexico, wrote this book out of her experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, but what she has to say is applicable to every illness and every one of us. For those who are sick, this book offers solace and recognition. For those who care for them either physically or emotionally, it offers inspiration and compassion. Finally, this fresh perspective on healing reveals how every illness is a crucible that tries our mettle, tests our limits, and provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to integrate its lesson into our lives. “Published by Bell Tower, an imprint of Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc.”, 1993]
- Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of TREYA KILLAM WILBER by Ken Wilber – Review on the back cover of this book: “Grace and Grit is the compelling story of the five-year journey of psychologist Ken Wilber and his wife, Treya Killam Wilber, through Treya’s illness, treatment, and, finally, death. Ken’s wide-ranging commentary-which questions both conventional and New Age approaches to illness-is combined with Treya’s journals to create a vivid portrait of health and healing, wholeness and harmony, suffering and surrender.” Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991
What does it mean to be spiritual? I meditate, do yoga, read books on Buddhism and spirituality. I also watch TV, dance to loud rock and roll and occasionally read People Magazine. When I engage in these latter activities, does this mean I am not being spiritual?
One day I watch a DVD documentary about Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Vietnamese Zen monk. I am deeply moved and inspired by this wise and gentle soul. I feel this burning desire to be like him. I vow then and there to be more “spiritual”; perhaps meditate longer and more often, pray daily and more fervently.
But then the next few nights my sleep is more disturbed than usual, which triggers my seizure threshold, and my anxiety is heightened. From there, feelings of dread and despair threaten to take over. Instead of meditating, which I feel I should do, but requires focus and concentration I do not have, I binge watch “The Kardashians”. Where did my resolve go? I feel bad about myself. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a truly spiritual person.
And yet upon reflection, those times when I give in and watch TV, I realize that I’m doing what my mind and body need to do. As someone who is chronically ill, I spend a lot of my time, like it or not, inwardly focused, probably more than the average person. I suspect this is true for most people with chronic illness.
For me, this can lead to depressive and anxious states and sometimes, despair.
I do use meditation practice to investigate these difficult emotional states, but sometimes, I need a break! I need distraction and I can get that quite easily with TV.
Many spiritual teachers warn of being distracted through all kinds of activity as a way of separating oneself from what’s going on internally, but for me there is a danger in getting too caught up in difficult emotional states. And this can lead towards hopelessness and despondency.
By watching reality shows like “The Kardashians”, I get a lot of breathing room by entering someone else’s “reality”. It gives me space. It lightens my mood. There is so much drama and antics packed into one show that it takes up most of my awareness: Will Scott Disick stop drinking? Will Kourtney and Scott get back together? Why does Kim act so superior? Will Khloe be successful with her new fashion line? Will Kris stop meddling?
By immersing myself in such trivial things, I lighten up. I take myself and my life less seriously. I get my needed break.
So, can we meditate and watch TV and still be spiritual? Can Thich Nhat Hanh and the Kardashians be part of my spiritual path? My answer is yes.